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Old and New

When it comes to traditions, there are two kinds of people. There are some folks who love a tradition and would prefer to never have to make any changes. These are the folks who put their Christmas tree in the same spot every year without thinking. They can tell you right now exactly what they will be doing on Christmas day, what the schedule of the day will be, and what they will eat for their Christmas dinner. And then there are the folks who could care less about traditions. They want something new always, they’re bored by doing the same thing over and over. These folks might buy all new Christmas decorations every year so they can have a different color scheme, or they might even be wondering right now if they could convince their family to skip it altogether and go on a cruise instead. Some people cling to the value they find in what has always been done- the beauty and tradition. Others look out on the world with a big imagination and wonder how many things they might experience before they run out of time.

Neither way is right or wrong, of course, unless you become so rigid the tradition stops meaning anything. This week I heard two stories about churches that had some very peculiar traditions they lived by. In one case, the order of worship had the passing of the peace in the middle of the service. During that time in worship, everyone on the left side of the sanctuary would move to the right side and everyone the right side would move to the left. They’d done it forever, for so long in fact, most folks had no idea why they ever started doing it. When a guest preacher finally asked what they were doing and why, an old timer explained, “before our new furnace was installed, we only had heat on one side of the building. We switched sides so no one had to be too cold for too long. New furnace came along, but we never did stop switching seats.”

In another case, a new pastor observed a beautiful tradition. When it came time for the Affirmation of Faith, the entire congregation stood and turned towards the back wall towards the exit. The new pastor assumed this symbolic act represented the evangelical spirit of taking God’s message out into the world. But in time someone corrected him. “Oh no, it’s not that. The words to the Apostles Creed used to be painted on that wall. They aren’t anymore, but we still turn that way anyway.”

Years ago, I was serving at a church with a large youth group that had many traditions. One tradition was giving graduating seniors a sweatshirt with three Greek letters on it. The letters, I was told, stood for three Greek words. Early on in my tenure there, I got to thinking about those Greek letters, and the words folks told me they stood for. Now, I’m no Greek scholar, but I did learn it well enough that I realized pretty quickly one of the letters was wrong. Whoever designed the shirt 20+ years before me had put a rho (which looks like the letter ‘p’) where a phi should have been (the letter that actually began the word they meant). I knew it was wrong. I even told a couple of people it was wrong. But every year I kept ordering those sweatshirts with that same symbol. I didn’t want to break the bad news and I didn’t want to destroy the tradition.

The truth is, sometimes traditions are wonderful and beautiful. They keep us rooted to what matters most, to where we came from, and to the kinds of people we want to be. And other times, traditions don’t make a lick of sense and become foolish hills we die on for no reason at all. In our texts for today, Jesus reminds about what matters most when it comes to the ways we do church and our spiritual lives- and it isn’t tradition- it’s being led by the Holy Spirit. Both of these texts are about the new and old ways we practice what we say we believe, new and old ways of expressing our spirituality and religion.

In Mark 2, we find Jesus confronted by questions about his choices. The scribes want to know why Jesus spends time with people they find to be undesirable. And then John’s disciples and the Pharisees who have been fasting want to know why they fast, but Jesus’ disciples do not. They are asking specific questions, but these questions really move beyond just these examples. These people, these Jews who have committed their lives to being faithful followers of God’s law, are looking at Jesus who seems to be making very different choices, and they’re asking- do our traditions not matter to you? Of course, these kinds of controversies over Jewish law are really part of what it means to be a faithful Jew, but the question remains for them and for us- Jesus, why does the expression of your faith look different than our traditions?

And of course, Jesus answers with a metaphor, a parable. Jesus was not known for giving straight answers. Instead, he reminds them of what it is like to repair an old cloak. You wouldn’t just sew a brand-new piece of unshrunk cloth onto the cloak. The patch would shrink, and it would mess up the cloak even worse than before. And in the same way, you wouldn’t put new wine into old wineskins. A wineskin is a leather bottle used to contain wine. When new wine ferments, it creates air pressure within the wineskin. Old wineskins have lost their elasticity, so the pressure would cause the old wineskins to burst- ruining both the wine and the wineskin.

So, in response to questions about how Jesus thinks faithful believers should put their faith into practice, he essentially tells them that they are going to have to expand the way they live their faith. Or, as Rev. Wayne Manning says, “We can’t put new ideas into old mindsets. We can’t get new results with old behaviors.”[1] As he continues on, Jesus teaches on the Sabbath, reminding his listeners that the Sabbath is meant to be a gift to us not a burden on us. Following Jesus, according to Jesus, is meant to be ever-changing, expansive, and open-ended. Faithfulness breathes with new life, not just old habits.

In Matthew, couched just at the end of several parables telling what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, Jesus offers another teaching about the old and new. This time, he’s referring to the scribes- those who have been taught and trained to teach others about the law, about faithfulness. As one commentary I read suggested, this tiny parable is about the task of the preacher. And Jesus says that the scribe should bring out of the treasure both what is new and what is old. One interesting bit about this tiny story though is the verb translated here as “bring out.” I have always understood that in a positive sense- like bring out the best things, both old and new, to share or to use. Upon further study this week I learned that it could, and quite possibly should, be read more like “throw out” or “cast out.” So rather than the householder going into the treasure to bring out the best things, both old and new, to share, we might should read it as the householder going into the treasure to bring out the worst things, both old and new, to dispose of. It’s the exact opposite meaning, and yet the implication is ultimately the same either way. Some things are worth keeping and some things need to be thrown away. We must discern which is which.

Earlier in this same passage full of parables, Jesus quotes from Psalm 78:2, saying “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” You see, Jesus knows, of course, that some things endure forever, and others are meant for just a season. Jesus knows, of course, that all of life is change and we are restored and renewed by the same God who causes trees to bud in the spring, the same God who planned that the decay of death would be the fertilizer of new life. The same God who spoke to Israel, “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Jesus knows who God is and what God is doing.

And so, taking our cues from Jesus, we must be committed to living into the best of our traditions, but never so wedded to the traditions that we don’t allow space for the Holy Spirit to move. Notice this: Jesus doesn’t say to throw the old cloak away, even though it has a hole. Nor does Jesus say old wineskins are useless. He simply wants to repair the old cloak, to preserve the old wineskin. These metaphors are not about destroying what is old; they’re about putting things in their right place, about making the right changes at the right time. So, what does this look like for us? For this faith community? How do we know what to hold onto and what to let go of? Which treasures to keep, and which do we decide to throw away?

I would suggest that we should be guided by a few principles as we discern a way forward. The new thing must pass a simple test- is this change made in love or in fear? When we think about the ways we “do church” and the ways we practice our faith, decisions made in love lead to life and decisions made in fear lead to death. John O’Donohue writes, “[Fear] makes the self feel vulnerable and it can take away all the loveliness from your experience and from your friendships, and even from your action and your work. The reason fear has so much power is that fear is the sister of death, and that death works through fear an awful lot.”[2] In reference to the controversies about Jewish law we see in Mark 2, Religion professor James Hanson writes, “the fearful striving for self-preservation that prevents people from crossing borders for others is a human problem.” It’s right here in our text- all of us are at least a little bit afraid of the unknown, afraid of change.

Decisions made from fear can sometimes be no decision at all. Inaction is a choice as well. When we say, “we’ve never done it like that before,” or “this is how we’ve always done it,” we may be revealing more than a preference for tradition. We may be indicating something more like “I am afraid that something I love is changing” or maybe “I am afraid of not being the person I am right now.” We know we prefer that which is comfortable and familiar. But there are very few times in scripture when God tells someone to just stay still, to keep doing what they’re doing. Instead, God invites Noah to build, Abraham to go, Deborah to lead, Ruth to follow, Isaiah to speak, Mary to say yes, the disciples to come, Philip to baptize, Paul to preach, and us to… what? Right now, to listen and watch. To pray. To welcome. To become.

A willingness to change is a step of faith, an act of hope. Willingness to change acknowledges that fear is at the table, but it isn’t the master. Willingness to change is to look death in the eye and say “I am not afraid of you. You will not control me.” Being willing to change is to say ‘yes’ to God. Yes, God, yes. To all that is spirit-breathed, both old and new- yes. Hallelujah, amen.

[1] How to Stop Putting New Wine Into Old Wineskins (unity.org) [2] John O’Donohue, Walking in Wonder, Convergent: New York, p. 15.

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