What New Wine Needs
March 2, 2003
One year when I was in the seminary, I was assigned to a parish in Akron. There was in the rectory of that parish a retired priest who was opposed to any new ideas that anyone would ever bring up. If members of the staff were to suggest a new way of preparing people for marriage, or a new program that they thought would be better for our youth ministry, this priest would object: “Why would you want to do that? We tried that in the ’50’s and it didn’t work. I hear they’re trying it at some parish in Lorain and it’s a disaster.” No matter what new idea was suggested, this priest would be against it. If he would have things his way, everything would stay exactly the way that it was. Over time, the staff developed a nickname for this priest. They called him “the old wineskin”. It was a name that came from today’s gospel. Because in today’s gospel, Jesus says that we should not put new wine into old wineskins. What does he have in mind?
In the ancient world, it was not easy to carry liquids from one place to another. There were no waxed paper cartons or plastic bottles. The most common solution was to use an animal skin. People would take a small animal, usually a goat, and after it was slaughtered, skin it by making as few cuts as possible. Then they would tan the skin into a soft and pliable leather that then could be sewed up and sealed, making an ideal container to carry water or wine from one place to another. This container was called a wineskin. It would, however, only work for a while. After it had been out in the hot sun for a number of years, the leather would begin to dry up. In time the old wineskin would crack and no longer be usable. It was particularly dangerous to carry new wine in such a skin. New wine was wine that was still fermenting, and the fermenting process would exert pressure from within the skin. So to put new wine in an old wineskin would be a disaster, because as the gospel says, the skin would burst and both the wine and the skin would be lost. That is why in the ancient world, people were always careful to put new wine into new wineskins. For only these flexible skins could allow room for expansion.
Jesus uses this commonly recognized truth to make a statement today about the gospel. He says that his message and God’s daily gifts to us are like new wine. They therefore need to be placed into new wineskins, in skins that are able to expand, skins that are flexible. An old wineskin which is brittle and ready to break is not be able to receive the good news of the Kingdom. Jesus is pointing to an important truth. Each day, God gives us some wine to carry. Sometimes it is old, mature wine. Old wine is compatible with our usual habits, our old friends, our common expectations. Those days on which we are asked to carry old wine are comfortable, easy days, days that we enjoy. But not infrequently we are asked to carry new wine, wine that presents unexpected occurrences, new demands, surprising ideas. There is plenty of new wine in our world and in our lives. We have been challenged facing the new realities that came into place after September 11th. We have been challenged by adjusting to a new understanding of our church, marked by scandal. We have been challenged because we are dealing with a failing economy. We have been challenged as our country prepares for war. There are personal examples: changes that happen in our family, poor decisions that our children make, new realities in our work, in our marriage.
All these things are examples of new wine which we are asked to carry. New wine places new demands upon us. How do we carry them? Only by being new wineskins. Only by being people who are both flexible and hopeful. We need to be flexible people, open to new ideas, open to new ways of understanding the world. We need to be hopeful, believing that the wine that God gives us, even if it is still fermenting and difficult to carry, is nevertheless a gift. If we continue to be flexible and hopeful, we will eventually recognize the good things that God is offering us.
Old wineskins can carry some things, but they are not able to carry that which is new, that which still has power to expand and to enlarge. That is why people who are closed to new ideas, like the priest that I knew in Akron many years ago, often end up saddened and embittered. So don’t be an old wineskin. The only way to accept the good news of the Kingdom and the daily gifts that God gives us is to be a new wineskin. We must be people who are flexible and hopeful. Let us today choose to be people who are open to life. Let us be wineskins that are capable of carrying the good news, the new wine of Christ’s kingdom.
New Wineskins for Lent
February 27, 2006
If you’re fifteen years old and you are still thinking as you did when you were eight, there is a problem. But if you are thirty years old and you are still thinking as you did when you were fifteen, or sixty years old and still thinking as you did when you were thirty, there is still a problem. Over the course of our lifetime, our thinking should progress. As we mature we are called to appreciate the value and purpose of life more deeply. It is very important not to equate this growth in understanding with the mere accumulation of information. Real growth and understanding happens when we find new patterns in which we can use the information we already possess and reorganize it, reshape it into fresh thoughts and deeper ways of thinking.
Allow me to use an example from the computer world. Real growth in understanding is more than down loading more data. It is closer to installing a new program, a new program that allows us to use all the data we have in fresh and innovative ways. When applied to our lives, this new installation can be called a “break through moment,” because once it occurs, everything that follows after it will be influenced and changed.
YoYo Ma, the great classic cellist, described a “breakthrough moment” in his life in a recent interview. Ma said that when he was a student in Harvard’s Music School, he was honored to be invited to play a concert at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, which is one of the most preeminent venues for classical music in New York City. He said that he practiced a year to prepare for that concert. His goal was clear. He wanted to give a perfect, flawless performance. On the night of the concert his adrenalin was running, he was in perfect sync with his accompanist, and every thing was going very well. But about half way through the lengthy concert, he realized two things at the same moment. The first was that he was achieving his goal. He was playing a flawless concert. The second was that he was totally bored! He said, “I could have stood up from that chair and walked away without feeling that I was interrupting anything of any importance.” It was, for him, a “breakthrough moment,” because he saw in that moment that a great performance was not primarily about perfection. Of course, you needed to have an approach to the music and you needed to execute that music well. But a great performance was also about having something to say. To use Ma’s own words: “I saw in that moment that a performance was not about perfection, but about expression.” That moment changed his life forever and every thing that followed after it. To this day, Yo Yo Ma has the same technical ability that he had as a student at Harvard, but now he uses all of that ability towards a new goal. The goal is to communicate something he believes to his listeners. YoYo Ma points to that moment as the breakthrough that set him on the course to be one of the most influential musicians of his generation.
Jesus, in today’s gospel, is emphasizing the importance of such “breakthrough moments.” Jesus understands that there are times when we can no longer put wine into old wine skins. There are times when new ideas will only be destroyed if we put them back into old categories. What we need is a new container, a new system, a new vision. When we find it, we have found a “breakthrough moment.”
Now the challenge is that “break through moments” are mean to be an frequent part of our lives. We need to experience them on a regular basis because learning is a life-long process and learning is more than just accumulating new data. We need new wine skins by which we can see life in new ways. So the question from today’s gospel is: when was the last time you experienced a “breakthrough moment”? When was the last time that you found a new wine skin, a moment in which your understanding was deepened, your goals were shifted, your vision was sharpened? If you struggle to remember one such moment, there is reason for concern. But do not worry because this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and Lent is all about new wine skins. We associate Lent with penance and charity and sacrifice. Yes, all of these things are a part of the Lenten Season. But the purpose of all of those resolutions and all of those actions, is to open us to change. Lent is a time when we place ourselves in God’s hands and say, “Let me grow, renew me, re-create me.”
Now of course, if there is some serious sin in your life, if there is a tremendous personal or family problem with which you struggle, that sin or problem will be the focus of your Lent. You are called to turn away from such sin and to place that problem in the Lord’s hands. But for many of us, we have no great sin or problem. Yet we still need Lent. We are still called to change. We must change because it is likely that we are trapped in an old wine skin, stuck in a rut, or—like YoYo Ma—bored with our life. Lent calls us to place our lives in the Lord’s hands and cry out, “Change me! Give me a new wineskin! Update my program! Allow me deepen my understanding of life.”
What will the Lord do with us? How will the Lord change us? It is difficult to tell today. For it is often difficult to recognize what new wineskins we need. But it is the belief of the Christian Community that if we place ourselves in the Lord’s hands, God’s intention for us will become clear by Easter. So come this Wednesday, be marked with the ashes of Lent and hand your life over to the Lord. Walk the journey of Lent with trust and expectation, waiting for the “breakthrough” to occur.