You’ve probably heard this one, but “How many church folk does it take to change a light bulb? “ (Gasp)…Change????
It’s true….most of us like church to stay the way it is familiar to us. The world is always changing…so fast. TOO fast. Especially this past half century…which for most of us is nearly all our lives…the world has shifted faster than any other time in history with our advances in technology and communication. For thousands and thousands of years….communication had to be done in person, or through hand delivered writings carried across the miles on horseback or by ship. It was just a hundred years ago we were pioneering telegrams and telephones. But in the last 50 years…we can now talk to anybody we want while we’re standing on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere…and see them as well! We have the latest happenings in the palm of our hand instantaneously from all around the planet….I take that back. From all around the cosmos…for all of you that have been enjoying the new images from the James Webb telescope. The world is changing at a breakneck speed…and sometimes we just want a place that stays the same. Like church.
Couldn’t things just stay the way they’ve always been here?
And the answer is No….as hard as it is to see things change…thank God, the answer is No. Because the gospel…the good news Jesus offers to save broken people … continues to speak in a new voice as our world changes…as we change. Things that made sense 50 years ago….100 years ago…1000 years ago…don’t make sense any more. So the way we are church together needs to change.
And that’s not a new phenomenon. Our church comes out of the tradition of Martin Luther…who rocked the church world with his challenges about the “way it’s always been” 500 years ago…tacking 95 theses…95 challenges to the way the church was doing things….and starting a reformation. But he also was convinced the church would always need to be reforming. The church always needs to be reflecting on how Jesus gives life to this world in our ever changing contexts. He understood that we would always need to be discerning what matters and what doesn’t in our contexts….because that’s what Jesus did. After all…that’s what he was doing in the lesson we read today. Did it matter who you touched…who you ate with ….who you spent time with? Did it matter if they weren’t like-minded and faithful…if they were “sinners”? Did it matter if you didn’t fast or if you did? Did it matter if you grabbed grain in the fields on the Sabbath? The Pharisees were sure it did…it was the way things were done according to the law. But Jesus came to give life. To save….to heal. And he believed that the way they were doing it stifled people unnecessarily. Hurt them. Sometimes even broke them. So it needed to change. We needed new wineskins to hold the new grace for a new day. In case you don’t know what that illustration means…when people made wine and put it in a bag..it fermented. And when things ferment, they make gas…so the wineskins stretch as the gasses expand until they are stretched as tight as they can go. Now what would happen if you tried to use that wineskin again? It would break! There’s no room to hold the new wine. Jesus knew that we couldn’t keep doing things the way we’d done them in the past…because God’s spirit was always making new wine…making new things in us and in the world.
The church is always changing…always creating new wineskins…as we strive to be faithful in bringing Jesus’ life and love to the world. Sometimes that means a new hymnal. Shortly after we arrived, the ELCA national church put out the new red hymnals we have. And in a lot of churches…people were upset. They say said “no”. They didn’t want to change. 10 liturgies! They wanted the two they knew…never mind that they were also in the new hymnal. But you know what? Here at ALC, folks never even hesitated. It was a 10 minute church meeting and they were all paid for within a month. I have been surprised at the openness to change here at ALC in Newport. When we arrived, we learned that the worship committee liked doing new liturgies…not always doing the same old thing. So we change it up throughout the year. I’ve got to tell you…I sang the same liturgy every Sunday for years in the church I grew up in. This isn’t necessarily normal.
When I grew up…you also couldn’t take communion until you were in 7th grade. For some of you it might have been when you were confirmed….or maybe you needed to meet with the pastor, or go to confession or join the church in order to have communion. When we came….kids had to wait until they were in 5th grade and had a class..and people had to be baptized. Over the past few decades, the ELCA has been discerning what that practice communicates…the practice of making conditions for receiving communion. And generally…what it communicates is that Jesus only accepts and gives his life for “some people”. For the “right” people. For people who are grown up enough or know enough or have the right background. And the truth is …that just doesn’t stack up to anything you read about Jesus in the Bible. He ate with all sorts of folks and was adamant about welcoming children when his disciples tried to shoo them off. Jesus offers grace freely….offers his presence to all. In hopes that we might know his love. In hopes that we might be changed by it. Needless to say…we now have different communion practices. All are welcome at Jesus’ table.
We change…we keep changing as we discern in an ever changing context how best to share Jesus’ love for his beloved children. These last two years we’ve seen a lot of changes…as COVID meant we had to find new and safe ways to be church together. Streaming worship online. Online giving. Zoom meetings for our church council and mutual ministry. But you know what? Even though much of the ‘way we always did it’ wasn’t doable….we found God was still good. God was still faithful…as we did what we could to love God’s people in the world. The church changed….but the love of Jesus did not. It continued to widen and broaden with each stretch…with each challenge.
Our wineskins keep changing….the way we do things, the rules…so they can be flexible enough to hold the grace Jesus brings to our world. Here’s the truth we need to remember. The old ways will always break eventually… because the grace of God keeps stretching them. The old ways will always break eventually… because the grace of God keeps stretching them….but it’s ok. Because God’s love is absolute. And God’s love is always recreating us… making us new each and every day. A new creation. A new church. And that’s all that matters. Things change….and, boy don’t we know it. But God’s love? That’s forever …and it is the heart of who we are as a church in this age, 2022…and in the age to come. Thanks be to God. Amen