I know a bit about leather. From years of coaching baseball, the difference between catching a ball in a new, stiff glove, or one that has been well broken-in and used for a few seasons, is like night and day. The new glove may look pretty but is prone to having easily-caught balls pop out, whereas the weathered veteran glove is soft, supple, fits your hand just right, allows for a secure catch and easy transfer to your throwing hand.
But I know very little, apparently, about the leather that gets used in wineskins. Opposite to what I know about baseball gloves, when a wineskin gets old it doesn’t get supple; it gets hard, and unless properly attended to and rehabilitated, the hardened leather is prone to cracking, developing leaks, and being unable to handle the ongoing fermentation of the wine it was intended to store.
Today’s gospel reading from the 2nd chapter of Mark ends with these words: “no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” Throughout this chapter, Jesus has been doing new things, and the people committed to the old, traditional ways are getting more and more upset. In response, Jesus speaks a couple of examples that anyone in the audience could relate to: a new, unshrunk piece of cloth being used to patch an older garment, and new wine being poured into an old wineskin. In both analogies, the new and the old do not harmonize easily and something is ruined. Neither analogy is particularly judgmental toward the old, but the implication is clear: the realm of God that Jesus is inaugurating is the new wine, the new weave, and adapting to that will require difficult changes.
In this reading we are extremely early in the Ministry of Jesus. While I’m one of those “size things up, see what’s working and what isn’t before changing much” kind of guys, Jesus is from the school of “start as you plan to continue.” Jesus brings change and embodies change, and that being the case, everything he says and does will have to answer some basic questions: Do these words and actions blame the victim, or do they bring additional freedom to them? Do these words and actions prop up the way things are – which nearly always favour those who are well-off and well-established – or do they bring new opportunity and affirmation and dignity for those who have never been favoured by the policies or customs of the land? And then there is the question-within-these-questions: depending on who is favoured by one’s words and actions, what does that say about God??
First, we hear of a paralyzed person being brought to Jesus in Capernaum. Now, I know that healing stories are problematic for many folks, especially in these days when scientific realities are getting unfounded pushback, but let’s step into the story and look at its social aspects. In that time and place, and to be honest, frequently in our time and place as well, illness was met not with compassion, but judgment: surely this person is at fault for their condition. Jesus, though, cuts through judgmentalism, re-sets the narrative from God’s desire for wholeness, and frees this person from their infirmity. While translated by most English translations as “your sins are forgiven”, Bible translator and Pastor Mark Davis suggests that the sense here is “this thing has now been cast away from you”, suggesting that whatever its origin, the affliction is gone now and can’t hurt you anymore.
Jesus is, of course, challenged by legal experts on whether he had the right to do such a thing, and says in reply: “Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?” While his questioners are figuring out their response, Jesus cleverly goes ahead and does BOTH. In the new realm proclaimed and enacted by Jesus, healing is not just an absence of disease, it is the restoration of human dignity. This man whose arrival was quite a spectacle – carried in by friends, lowered in through a roof – is cured of his illness, and in addition, gets to walk home on his own two feet. To this day, when solutions are framed in a holistic way – restoring dignity, autonomy, agency, along with solving the presenting problem – we embrace the spirit of Christ’s new realm, the Kingdom or Kin-dom of God.
The second scene, is the call of Levi the tax collector. Levi’s job was to go through people’s belongings when they passed a customs checkpoint, and extract duties from the travelers. Not a job that’s going to make you many friends but on top of that, would have been viewed as a collaborator with Herod and with Rome. This time it’s the Pharisees who speak the opposition to Jesus: it’s bad enough that he would associate with such a person, but to sit down at table with someone so rotten and ritually unclean, and to welcome him to a position of trust?!? Well, that seals the deal. Without defending Levi’s line of work, which was truly reprehensible, Jesus challenges this idea that religion is only for those who have been adjudged “good” or “pure.” Jesus has come to bring love, justice and new possibility for everyone, including those who have had to sell their dignity – there’s that word again – in order to make ends meet. Christ names the brokenness… and sets a new path where no life is disrespected or devalued.
And the third scene involves not only the usual opponents, but also the disciples of John the Baptist. They ask why it is that Jesus and his disciples don’t follow even the most basic rules around fasting. And with this challenge, I’m drawn by the nature of the questioner.
It’s easy for me to take a binary view of scripture: Israelites good, Egyptians bad. Jesus and disciples good, Pharisees bad. But here, we see the power of “the way things are” even for a group regarded favourably by scripture – the disciples of John the Baptist. These questioners aren’t motivated by gain; but neither can they let go of their old, hardened wineskins in order to be supple enough to be filled with the new wine. They are so used to what is, that the horizon line of what can be, is beyond them. While the gospel writer doesn’t regard these questioners with scorn, there is in them – and, if I am to be honest, within me – a resistance to change that needs to be addressed.
Five years ago, Rev. Molly Baskette came to Edmonton and led a bunch of United Church clergy in a process of revitalization. The language that she used in one exercise, borrowing from Richard Rohr (in his book Falling Upwards) and others, was “discharging our loyal soldiers” and it strikes me as the thing that was needed in these exchanges between Jesus and his challengers. While I’m not a big fan of militaristic images, this one really fits.
Many of us, early in life, develop defense mechanisms that keep us safe… or adopt ways of acting or speaking that help us fit in, if we are self-conscious of our “different-ness”… or find ways to smooth things out when the surroundings are scary or chaotic. For decades, these “loyal soldiers” accompany us on our journey. And, as Molly pointed out, many clergy, especially those fresh-from-seminary serving in communities that are closed to new ideas from beyond – develop survival strategies, “loyal soldiers” that keep them from imploding but draw them away from who they are, and from the change that Jesus calls them to be.
So we were given time to name our “loyal soldier” – and to discharge it, thank it and send it on its way. At the event, perhaps a third of those in attendance came forward, one at a time, told the story of their loyal soldier, where it had come from and why it no longer served them, and we, together, said “well done, good and loyal soldier. You are dismissed.” The stories were painful, raunchy, embarrassing, enraging, hilarious; and in each case we listened without judgment, and sent the loyal soldier on its way. Our task was not to judge what that person, or we, had needed to do to get by; but it did give us an opportunity to realize that in Christ, preserving the way things are by avoiding necessary change is rarely what we are called to do.
For months now, I have heard within my heart and all around me, a yearning for “the new normal” that will arise once we are finally able to move around more freely. I want to interject into those hopes and yearnings, the metaphor used by Jesus of not expecting that new wine can be housed by hardened, cracked, crumbling old wineskins. These years of 2020 and 2021 are a time of unique opportunity as communities, as Churches, as nations, to be reshaped. We do not have to be tied exclusively to fossil fuels. We must rebalance the old imbalances that gave one race or ethnicity or gender or sexual expression automatic advantages over another. We must embrace what we learned about caring for one another and generously adjusting for the common good, and remember who remained on the front lines throughout all of this as we re-jig our evaluations of how different kinds of work are valued. And amidst all of this, we cannot have a vaccine distribution system that values the health of wealthy nations over poor ones.
Whether our lives are governed by big, unjust old ways that need releasing…or “loyal soldiers” that have played their role and now need to be released from duty…we are shown in the story of Jesus, the necessity of change in his new realm of life and love, peace and justice. We are invited to open ourselves to change, realizing that some of it is going to be uncomfortable and not work in our favour at all. Yet that is what it is to be “in Christ” – to follow in the path of the one who lowered barriers and invited participation from the margins, the one who expressed God’s loving desire for health and wholeness for all living beings. In the loving, defiant, reconciling, creative love of God, may this be so. Amen.
Baskette, Molly. Access her writing at https://www.facebook.com/revmollybaskette/
Bernhardt-Lanier, Caroline. https://imagocenterdc.com/discharging-your-loyal-soldier/
Rhoads, David, Dwey, Joanna and Michie, Donald. Mark as Story. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.
Stoffregen, Brian. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark2x13.htm
Taize community. https://www.taize.fr/en_article167.html?date=2009-11-01
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.