04 January 2006

New year, new wineskins

By popular request (no, really), I’m reposting here a revised, slimmed-down version of a homily I delivered on New Year’s Day. Yes, believe it or not, there actually exists a church that would allow me in the pulpit, on rare occasion.

The primary text for the day was this teaching of Jesus:

Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

Another text was the Ecclesiastes passage that everyone who can remember music from the 1960s knows, from the Byrds song Turn Turn Turn – to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven, etc.

So here’s what I had to say about all that:

This idea of new wine and new wineskins always confused me, so I did a bit of research. When Jesus was talking about new wine, he meant really new, as in freshly pressed grape juice that’s still fermenting and bubbling. This new wine would burst out of the old, less flexible, drier wineskins. In order to store the new wine, you needed new, supple, expandable wineskins to allow the new wine to ferment, age, and ripen.

To digress just a bit – the fermentation process of wine is necessary in order for it to ripen and taste better. If you’ve ever had Beaujolais Nouveau, you know what I’m talking about – this is the wine that’s released in November as the first wine of the vintage, so it’s only been aging a couple of months. It tends to taste young, fizzy, and not particularly complex or interesting. Generally speaking, the best wines have been allowed to ferment, bubble, age, grow, and change over time.

Likewise, each of us is (hopefully) on a spiritual journey toward enlightenment that is constantly evolving, growing, maturing. Our spiritual self, however you choose to define that, retains its basic nature – it’s still grape juice – but its essence changes. It’s no longer just simple juice, but now it’s a fine, exquisite, complex wine.

How are we like old wineskins? What can we do to transform ourselves into new, flexible, softened wineskins that allow the Spirit to work within us, allow for all that bubbling up and bursting forth?

In the Buddhist tradition known as Shambhala, there’s a book called The Sacred Path of the Warrior. It describes the essential part of the sacred warrior as being his or her heart. And what do you think is the essential characteristic of that heart? How must an ordinary heart be changed, transformed, to make it a warrior’s heart? You might expect that it needs to be strong, or solid, or steadfast, or perhaps full of courage (insert your best Cowardly Lion impression here).

But no. What this Shambhala teaching says is that the essence of a warrior’s heart is that it is broken. Broken, soft and vulnerable. Only with a heart that is already broken, open wide, vulnerable, flexible, pliable, moveable, is a warrior able to go out and do battle in the world.

Does this sound familiar? It sounds to me a lot like needing to have new wineskins - new, soft, flexible wineskins in order to accommodate the bubbling, bursting, new wine activity of the Spirit within each of us.

What about the church, or any other community of seekers, as a whole, as a body? How can such a body be like new wineskins? There are a couple of things I heard recently that come to mind.

As I often do, this year I listened to the live Christmas Eve broadcast of the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from the Chapel of King’s College at Cambridge University in England. This is a venerable tradition in an amazing setting – I’ve been to Cambridge University – this place looks like the Great Hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The choirmaster for this service explained the reason for adding brand new songs and changing certain things around each year this way – he said it was the way in which he “nurtured” the traditions. Not eliminating traditions, but “nurturing” them, keeping them alive by continually refreshing them, adding new life to them.

Now how can a faith community nurture tradition and transform itself into a vibrant community? Here’s one radical idea – what if it was committed to radical hospitality, radical inclusion, radical welcoming? Instead of being frightened of folks who are different, open your doors to them all, male or female, black, white, or brown, gay, straight, bi, or anyone anywhere on the rainbow we call human.

Here’s another “radical” idea – what if a community became a radically prophetic voice in society? Not “prophetic” as in predicting the future, but prophetic as in speaking truth to power, as in striving to bring about a “new heaven and new earth.” A full-throated prophetic voice like the prophets of old – Isaiah, Elijah, Jeremiah – and like the new prophets – King, Gandhi, Bono – who cry out for justice, peace, and love.

The other thing I heard recently was a description of what a religious/faith institution is, or actually what it’s not, supposed to be. It is not a museum. It doesn’t exist simply to house a bunch of dusty paintings and statues and artifacts – and rituals and practices and beliefs - for curious onlookers to come and browse and stare at. Rather, it should be, must be, a living, breathing, organic body, with a beating, soft, broken, open and vulnerable heart.

Because after all, the broken, open, vulnerable heart – is the heart of God.


Psych Pundit said...

Well put! I especially liked the reference to Bono as a 'new prophet' (the Book of Joshua Tree?).

When you have a chance some time, it might be nice to list for your readers (with links) a few exemplary 'new wineskin' communities.


R. Elena Tabachnick said...

Then there is psalm 51: "The sacrifices God wants are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." I always interpreted this to mean a vulnerable heart, broken open.

In fact, if you really read Benedict's Rule (the basis of most Western European monasticism) - including researching the scriptural references and patristic literature, this seems to be what "humility" means. (As opposed to the power up/ power down interpretation we've become stuck with.)

The universe provides a diversity of ways of saying the same thing 'cause different folks get there through different paths. One size doesn't need to fit all.