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New Wineskins – Br. Curtis Almquist

Matthew 9:14-17

It seems that Jesus was forever teaching and preaching using stories from everyday life to make his point.  He would say, “consider the birds of the air, how they neither toil nor reap…” or “there was a merchant in search of fine pearls…” or “there was a father with two sons…”  Sometimes he uses similes, “the kingdom of heaven is like” …like many things.  Or he would use word pictures, as in today’s Gospel reading about mending clothes and making and preserving wine.

In Jesus’ own day the juice from newly crushed grapes was not bottled but rather encased in a satchel sewn from sheep, goat, or ox skins of all sizes, sometimes holding as much as 60 gallons.  As the wine fermented, the fresh skin would stretch, but without bursting.  You cannot recycle this stretched leather satchel.  A new batch of fermenting wine would surely burst old leather… and so, Jesus’ point: new wine requires a fresh, stretchable encasing.

One of the wonderful things about stories – including Jesus’ stories – is that they are timeless.  I’ll suggest here a timely way for us to interpret Jesus’ metaphor about the new wine given life together: the life that we live together be it as monks in a monastery, or as married spouses, as partners, as members of families or congregations, or guilds or other associations.

Jesus is keen on things new and on making all things new.  He tells stories about our becoming like children, even about our being born again.  He has come to bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and comfort to those who mourn.  He has come to set us free.  He has come to give us a new heart.  He’s come to seek us out and find us when we are lost.  He consistently speaks about good news – not the bad olds but the good news.

What’s most significant in what Jesus promises us is that we can change.  We can change, and we need to change to become fully and wholly the person God has created us to be.  In the vocabulary of the church, a word for this is “conversion.”  The Greek word in the New Testament which we translate as “conversion” is strepho, which literally means both a physical and an inner turning, a change in both perspective and deportment.  In our community’s Rule of Life, conversion is a word that appears many, many times.  Our Rule speaks of the invitation to lifelong conversion: both a change in perspective and a change in our practice of life.

We need to be agents of other people’s conversion.  I’m not saying that we presume or require that other people change, and that they change on our own terms.  Rather, I’m saying here our role is to allow, to enable other people to change.  We are not called to incarcerate people to their pasts, which Jesus calls “binding people on earth,” but rather to be agents of their liberation.  Some people do not change – especially to change for the better – because those who surround them could imagine or allow them being any different.  In my own brokenness I am so aware of how easy it is to look on someone being worse because I could not countenance them being better.

One of my favorite memories from childhood at this time of year was going off to summer camp for a week or two.  I loved it.  I loved the swimming, the horses, the crafts, all games and adventures, and all the friendships.  What for me was most significant in going off to camp – as I look back on it – was my chance to be a different person.  I could try on a new identity with my fellow campers and staff members who didn’t know me so well.  Sometimes I was a pretender; but most of the time I simply felt free to allow myself to really stretch into my soul, to really be who I was really becoming.  Camp allowed that.  And I want to say that life should allow that.  It’s a role we’ve all been given: to welcome that new thing which Christ is inviting in one another, especially in those who are closest to us.  It’s to be midwives to one another, to be cheerleaders, to be living reminders (not deadly reminders but living reminders) to one another of what is good, and what is new, and what is showing forth with such promise in one another: to pray that our own hearts be like new wineskins to stretch with the love of Christ for one another.

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7 Comments

  1. Ruth West on August 8, 2014 at 10:26

    This is food for thought, Br. Curtis. Thank you!
    I feel liberated from some things in my past. I want to give those I love that same opportunity. I am so thankful that it is possible to change for the better, to allow the new wineskins to stretch and embody who we are. This sermon encourages me.

  2. June on August 7, 2014 at 12:54

    Ahhhh, yes. Thank-you, Br. Curtis.

    Extended families are often a place where someone is not liberated to grow, in that each time a member returns home or attends a reunion people still treat them as the little brother or the 12 year old. This happens when people are seeking a nostalgiac reminder of days gone by, rather than a time of truly listening and catching up and encouraging one another. I am encouraged by your offering today to deliberately begin conversations at a reunion with “What is new in your life?” (which leans forward) rather than “Remember the time…” (which leans backward) or even “How are you?” (which asks only for a snapshot of today).

    This idea of being an agent of change for others challenges me to be open-hearted again with a relative of mine who has made a muck of her life, hoping that she is actually turning her life in a positive direction now, rather than assuming more muck. In this realisation, I am brought to tears…and hope.

  3. Christina on August 7, 2014 at 10:01

    Good morning, Curtis. Thank you for these wonderful words. I have experienced two times of going away from my everyday life: one to Iona, and more recently to Maine to the DownEast Spiritual Conference with John Phillip Newell. I think of it terms of The Ordinary becoming the Extraordinary and having to return to the Ordinary. (My version of going to camp! )It is hard to return to the Ordinary and try to hold on to the essence of the Extraordinary. I come home excited with new ideas about things I have freely talked about with people I met. I talked to Phillip about this and the fact that I sometimes feel as though I am up against a stone wall – he suggested that I try to do something about it. It’s time for a new wine skin. Christina

  4. mariam bejarano on July 7, 2013 at 22:05

    Br Curtis .. This is moving .. Your words are an inspiration , and consolation .. Gracias !
    maria

  5. Norman Hutchinson on July 7, 2013 at 10:55

    Br. Almquist said, “We can change, and we need to change to become fully and wholly the person God has created us to be. …a change in both perspective and deportment.” What he says is of course true. What we need to keep in mind is the likely reaction of the other person or persons to the person who has changed; especially if the change is dramatic. Those around the changed person will not know what to expect from her or him, and this can be an uncomfortable situation for they may not know how to relate, especially if that persons “deportment” is different. Indeed, the changed person may cause, unintentionally, the other(s) to change to accommodate a new understanding of the changed person.
    This reaction to change can also be true of organizations including local churches and entire detonations. Change is difficult, frightening / anxiety provoking. Those around the change can accommodate, change, or leave. The question is is the “new wine skin” appropriate and the one that the Holy Spirit would have us put our grape juice into to ferment. How do we know? It takes work that includes prayer, consulting scripture and the wise council of others.

  6. Selina from Maine on July 7, 2013 at 08:23

    Dear brothers, thank you,especially brother Curtis .This is the first time I have heard this full explanation of the meaning of the metaphor of new wine in old wineskins .It is “brilliant ” as my Irish friend would say.It seems to also to have profound meanings for the Church as well as for the individual.Something to keep pondering.

  7. DLa Rue on July 7, 2013 at 08:22

    Yes, I would say that through being allowed to go to camp as a child, I moved towards my better self untrammeled by the school year’s expectations and my family’s and schoolmates’ formed opinions of me.

    I recall–and am constantly reminded by my mother–of my first return home from camp. I hadn’t wanted to come home. I think I knew how good the camp had been for me and how much truer I was able to be, and I realized that in that week I had outgrown my chrysalis at home.

    I ran around the house, crying, not wanting to meet anyone, and ran to the woods behind our road. Thank goodness for those woods. They were a kind of decompression zone, a transitional space in which to try to integrate what I had learned of myself with what I was expected to be.

    The old wineskin had burst and I didn’t have a new one yet to hold the new wine that was my changing self. Silence and a time apart were needed. I started walking early in the mornings to the woods and praying.

    I was 9 years old.

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