Bursting wineskins

One time when Jesus was teaching his disciples (Matthew 9:15-17), he told them not to put new wine in old wineskins. Why? Just what did he mean by that?

In his day, wine was kept in containers made out of goat skin–leather. Wine bubbles as it ferments, and when new wine was put into new wineskins–goat leather–the leather was pliable and would stretch with the bubbling expansion. But when the bubbling–and the consequent expansion–stopped, the leather would also stop stretching and would become hard and rigid.

Putting new wine–bubbling, expanding wine–into a wineskin that was hard and rigid meant that you ran the very real risk of losing both the wine and the container…and no one wants that.

Today we have glass bottles for wine. We don’t have to worry about the container breaking–unless we drop it.

But the analogy is still meaningful.

We are in a time of ferment. Things are bubbling all around us. If we try to keep going the way we always have…to try to stuff our new understandings into the old containers, we will lose both.

This is true for us individually and it’s also true for those of us involved in religious organizations. I am not advocating that we discard everything we have known and experienced in our previous religious experiences.

But what I am suggesting is that in this time of ferment–when we are gaining new understandings…when we are dealing with numerous crises that impact our world, our ecosystems, and our governments…when the pandemic has thrown our lives into chaos–this is an opportunity for putting new wine into new wineskins.

It is an opportunity to–in many ways–start anew to work at creating a world that is good for all of creation. It is an opportunity to reconsider our sacred texts and look with new eyes.

It isn’t necessarily going to be easy. We will face questions of how we hold on to what is valuable from the past while also being open to what the future holds…and we will not always agree.

But if we continue trying to stuff what is new into our old containers, we will lose the best of both.

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Afraid of “the other”…

I’ve been trying to figure out how to say what’s been swirling around in my mind the last few days.

Why are we so afraid of anybody we consider “the other”?

Who is “the other”? Apparently anyone who doesn’t look like me…doesn’t speak the same language I do…doesn’t love the same way I do…has different religious beliefs than I do…belongs to a different political party than me…who is different in any way from me.

But what if I saw those differences as opportunities? Opportunities to learn about another culture? a broader understanding of the Divine? other possibilities of creating an environment / a world that would be good for all living things?

If I live in fear, then I lose those chances to learn, to experience something new.

There are situations to be cautious in – I don’t deny that. Yet living all of life as though everything and everyone around poses a potential danger robs me of the sense of curiosity and wonder that makes life a joy.

“The other” is not something or someone to be feared or destroyed. They may serve as a mirror to help me see myself more clearly. They may open new doors to walk through. They may help me see with new eyes.

And let us not forget…each of us is “the other” for someone else.

One job

Many of us have seen the memes that show persons who had one job–and royally flubbed it. We laugh at them and shake our heads, wondering how on earth anyone could mess up so completely.

But for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, there’s an uncomfortable truth in those memes.

Jesus gave us one job–and so far we’ve royally messed up.

He was an observant Jew. He knew all the religious rules that should be followed. And yet, when he was asked what the most important law was–the one job that was the foundation–he said it was simply love.

We should love God with all our being…and love our neighbor as though they they were us.

He didn’t stop here. He said that everything else–all the laws and religious regulations–depended on that job.

And who is our neighbor? He had an answer for that as well…anyone we come in contact with, whether it’s someone we know, someone we like, or someone we consider an enemy. In other words…everyone.

Oops!

He gave us one job, caught up in a simple 4-letter word…and we can’t do it. At least we haven’t yet. But there’s still time…if we truly want to.

Dis-united?

When I was younger, I hated it when people would talk about “the good old days.” I didn’t really understand what they meant. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that “the good old days” often refer to when we were children…when we really weren’t aware of the various issues the adults were dealing with.

The “good old days” weren’t really good–and I don’t want to go back to them. I don’t want to return to a time when I was unaware of the many challenges and issues (housing, education, interactions with the legal system) faced by people of color. I don’t want to go back to a whitewashed version of American history that ignores the treatment of indigenous peoples and those brought to this country in chains.

But there are a couple of things I would like to go back to: (1) a sense of community and caring, and (2) a willingness to support scientists and medical personnel. Granted, that did not always extend to everyone…not in the way it should have. But there was still a sense that when there was a problem, we were in it together. We were at least somewhat able to pull together.

I don’t know why that’s changed. But it has–and we are worse off because of it.

This pandemic has shown that we are no longer “united.” We are “dis-united” in ways that are destroying us.

We have lost that sense of community and caring…and that has become obvious in the fights over wearing masks and social distancing. We have somehow developed a sense of distrust over education and over science…and that has become obvious in the fight over vaccines.

We don’t have to go back to the way things were–and we shouldn’t. But somehow we need to understand that there are major issues that can’t be resolved unless we work together…unless we become united. United in our recognition that what affects one part of our world will eventually have an effect on the rest of the world…that my personal freedom is limited by my neighbor’s needs…that our world will not survive without us caring for each other.

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What did Esther do?

Queen Esther Print by Icons Of The Bible

Esther is kind of one of the forgotten books in the Christian Bible. She’s not very often used in preaching or sermon planning, and many of us are not really familiar with her.

Esther had an interesting–and challenging–life. She was orphaned as a child and raised by her uncle Mordechai. She was Jewish in a Persian environment, one that was not particularly welcoming to Jews. She was female in a patriarchal environment.

When Queen Vashti refused to show off for the king’s guests, she was banished–and King Ahasuerus started looking for someone to replace her. He demanded that all the beautiful girls / women in his kingdom present themselves before him to be placed in his harem so that he could select a new queen from among them.

Esther was one of those young women. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her to go from her uncle’s house to the palace–and to have to hide who she truly was…a Jewish girl. But she had no choice. It was eventually her turn to go before the king–and she was chosen as the new queen.

Life went well–for a while. But there were people in the government who did not like Jews–and did not like her uncle, in particular–and who plotted to get rid of him. Haman, the prime minister, was angry that Mordechai would not bow down to him, would not give him the honor that Haman thought he deserved. So he asked the king for permission to have all the Jews killed on a specific day.

When Mordechai found out, he placed a challenge before Esther–to go before the king without the king’s permission to intercede on behalf of her people. “Who knows? Perhaps you have been brought to the kingdom for this very purpose.”

She did…and was able to intercede. To read how she did that, you can read the rest of the story in the book of Esther.

The saving of her people is where we often end her story. And if that’s all that happened, she would definitely be the hero. But–as is often the case–there is more to the story.

Since Haman had written the order to kill the Jews in the king’s name, that order couldn’t be rescinded. However, Esther was able to get permission for her people to defend themselves on that day. But again, there’s more to the story.

She got further permission from the king. The next day, her people were given permission to be the aggressors and attack any of those who might have been considered enemies–and not just the men but also women and children. And they were allowed to take any plunder they wanted (even though they apparently did not).

I wonder what would have happened if Esther had used her position of advantage to try to bring healing and reconciliation rather than revenge. Her behavior is understandable in light of the time she lived in–and our very human desire to retaliate against those who have hurt us.

But what if she had chosen a different tack? What might have happened?

Most of us aren’t in Esther’s position. But all of us at some time find ourselves in a place where we can choose retaliation and revenge…or we can choose to try to find ways of bringing healing and reconciliation.

Which will we choose?