A friend of mine has embarked on a new vocational adventure after years as a CIO of large corporation. He took his observations and learning from his many years of leadership in the technology world and created a company with his wife called People Before Things. After all his years in corporate America, Chris observed that when you put people and their needs first in an organization, change was smoother. That didn’t mean catering to individual agenda’s or preferences, but acknowledging that collaboration, community, and relationships deeply mattered. It also doesn’t mean that you back down from change or trying something new, but understood that some would get it and some would not. You can’t make everyone happy and it’s very difficult to combine new technology into old technology. The two systems often couldn’t speak to one another. A new system meant, just that, a new system. You could maybe patch it together for a while, but that would never be a sustainable long term solution. New required full by-in. So the tension of leadership is inviting people into a vision of the new, affirming that change is hard and yet, uncompromisingly moving forward in a direction that is life-giving for all.
I’m often struck as a church leader how sometimes the supposed “secular” world has better paradigms and strategies for change than the Church, whose whole reason for being is to declare that God is doing a new thing and we’re an important part of it. We are people of resurrection, newness, life from death and yet we cling to “the way we’ve always done it” like it’s an oxygen mask on a decompressing plane. What are somethings we think we have to do? We have to do: Sunday morning worship, confirmation, Sunday school, youth group, kneel for confession, etc.
What if I told you that really none of those things might matter to the new generation? What if welcoming those who are not born and raised Swedish/Norwegian/German Lutheran meant that we don’t worry about some of the practices that are really ethnic or geographical in tradition and not actually theological or necessary? What if I told you that ten years from now Sunday morning expression of worship may not be the most central part of being Church? Crazy right?
Here in Luke 5, Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry but already he is catching flak from the institutional leaders. Jesus, pure Jewish people don’t eat with the poor, the diseased, the outsiders, the tax collectors, the unclean. We’ve never done that. Jesus, we always fast and are very pious with our prayers. This is what we do. Your disciples aren’t doing it right. Even John’s disciples are better versed in the traditions than yours. You had better take care of this!
The religious establishment and my guess even some of the everyday lay folk, were deeply confused and genuinely worried about this itinerate, street preacher and healer who didn’t seem to understand the way it has always been done. Someone had better set him straight before too many people began to think that not fasting, and hanging out with unclean people were ok activities!
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is one that pierces at our hearts today. God is doing a new thing. You can’t take a patch of the new kingdom and simply graft it onto the old one. The integrity of the new kingdom is lost. And you can’t take new wine and put it in old wineskins. The old wineskins simply can’t handle the growth of the new wine-they will burst and then all is lost. New wine needs new wineskins. God’s new kingdom needs new structures and new rules. Rules that don’t exclude certain people and require certain behavior to fit in, but rules that allows for all to be included and invited into because the only rule is love. Complete and whole love of God and neighbor.
But Jesus knows that it’s not as simple as telling the Pharisees or us, that preserving traditions that aren’t rooted in God’s love for all people in all times and in all places is not what God is all about. Jesus knew that we would have to witness first hand that this kingdom of God is not about being comfortable, status quo, resting on laurels and security. Jesus very presence was a new garment and new wineskins. Jesus came to show us that God’s primary concern is for the wholeness of all people and creation over the things of worldly structures that kept some people on the margins and not in full community. Jesus very presence heralded God’s proclamation that nothing can stay the way it is. It’s not that traditions are bad, but rituals and traditions unexamined and done just for the sake of doing them and not for the sake of love of God and neighbor, always need to be rethought. When we put our neighbor first, ahead of our own comforts and preferences, we proclaim the good news of the God’s structure of new life, unconditional love and unleashed hope for all people.
Jesus knows that as humans we will always revert to what is easiest, comfortable and what we know. But Jesus loves us too much to leave us in our comfortableness. Jesus calls us and invites us into this new kingdom where transformation brings wholeness, freedom from what binds us to sin and death and ushers in life, true life where all are valued and loved. Jesus calls and invites us to be the new garment for all the world to see and the new wine for all the world to taste. Jesus calls us to move beyond our culture, our preferences, our own hang-ups to be truly alive in the truth that the gospel, the good news of God’s active Holy Spirit in the world can’t and won’t be hindered by our human brokenness. God’s kingdom transcends those human structures and bursts them like old wineskins for a new thing to grow. It might at first taste bitter, like new wine, or not be as comfy as an old, worn garment, but God created us with the capacity for new, to grow, to participate in what God is up to around us. God promises to never leave us alone as we step out into this newness and is always on the road with us, even when we can’t recognize God’s presence.
Even while we have ancient traditions that announce the in-breaking of the kingdom of God-water, bread and wine, God is always doing a new thing through them to guide us and call us into this new economy where there is only abundance and room for all. Water, bread and wine are not exclusionary markers of God’s kingdom but radical inclusionary markers that no one is left out of the newness that God is pouring into the world. God is pouring that newness into each of us every single day. We are sent into the world as workers with God in this newness. God continues to work in us, through us, and with us for the sake of love. God’s promise is that you, all people and all creation will always come before the things of this world. No structure, tradition or rule will keep you or anyone else from the love of God. Thanks be to God for that!