Monthly Archives

February 2018

Old Dog, New Tricks

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Old Dog, New Tricks”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 25, 2018

 

Genesis 17: 1-8, 15-19

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live in your sight!” God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Theme:  The promise of a new beginning can be a frightening thing.  It can come when we are content in our old existence.  It can arrive when we are mourning what we have lost.  New beginnings may seem impossible, improbable, beyond our level of energy to bring into being.  Yet God reminds us that all things are possible when one lives in faithful covenant with God.  God’s promise for our lives never ends.  There will always be new beginnings.

 

Opening Words:  Have you ever been promised something that you never received?  I’m still waiting for an autographed baseball from the 2006 Detroit Tigers that my banker in Salt Lake City was supposed to get for me.  I’ve given up hope that a certain contractor will return my phone call requesting an estimate. Through our lifetime experience of broken promises, we’ve learned to question the ability of some people to fulfill a promise.

 

Sometimes a promise can be a frightening thing.  We may not really want it to come to pass.  Promise implies a possibility which will require change, and we don’t want to change.  A promise is often beyond the level of energy we have to bring it into being.  We are more comfortable keeping things just as they are.

 

Our God is a God of promise, a promise that is sure and certain even when our belief in that promise is suspect and tenuous.  In the twists and turns of life, we may think the promise has disappeared, but God never leaves.  We may want to run away from the promise, but we can never hide from what God’s promise means for us.  We may wish to take the promise into our own hands and manipulate it to our liking, but we always learn that the promise is never fully realized until God makes it happen.  We might think God has forgotten, that God can’t be trusted, but God’s promise never ends.

 

The story of Abraham and Sarah is one of God’s promise.  It is a story of how God is faithful, how humanity is fickle, and how action based on trust in God’s promise leads to fulfillment.  This morning I want to tell you that story!

 

(The skit begins with the Narrator at lectern or pulpit.  Abraham later enters.)

 

NARRATOR:  When Abraham was seventy-five years old, the Lord God said to him…….

 

Abraham enters from rear

 

ABRAHAM:  Hold it right there sonny!  Wait just a minute!  Did I hear you say I was seventy-five years old?  I thought I was at least eighty, perhaps even eighty-five!  My back is killing me.  I can’t hear a thing out of my right ear.  My eyesight is failing.  My knees are so sore.  This arthritis in my elbow is out of control.  Even my stomach doesn’t work as well.  Why I used to be able to polish off a whole pepperoni pizza at one sitting.  Now when I eat pepperoni my stomach feels like a washing machine stuck in spin cycle.  Maybe I’m lactose intolerant…….(continues to talk while Narrator interrupts).

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham? Abraham?  Abraham?

 

ABRAHAM:  Yeah?  What is it sonny?

 

NARRATOR:  Are you about finished?  I don’t think the congregation really needs to hear more about your- digestive problems.

 

ABRAHAM:  Okay.  I suppose you’re right.  Go ahead, young man.  You can keep reading about me to all these good people.

 

NARRATOR:  Thank you.  As I was saying, Abraham was seventy-five years old when the Lord God said to him, “Leave your native land, your relatives, and your father in law’s home and go to a country that I am going to show you.”

 

ABRAHAM:  What’s that you say?  Leave my home and start all over again?  Are you wacky?  I have to tell you though, that part about leaving my crazy in-laws sounds awfully nice.  You should listen to my brother-in-law sing in the shower.  He scares the goats away.  And his wife’s cooking.  That would scare more than just the goats.  Have any of you tried living with your in-laws?

NARRATOR:  Abraham, you’ll be done with them soon.  God has called you to leave your home behind.

 

ABRAHAM:  Now that part is a little scary.  Look at me!  Don’t you think I am a little too old to be starting a new life in a strange land?  I paid off the mortgage on my tent years ago.  I’ve gotten too set in my ways.  Besides, despite my in-laws, I kind of like it here.  It’s, it’s- so comfortable.  I know the lay of the land.  I know my neighbors.  Why- I even know the songs that my brother-in-law sings in the shower!

 

NARRATOR:  But Abraham, there’s more.  God said, “I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing.”

 

ABRAHAM:  Pardon me.  I must have heard you with my right ear.   Let me try my left ear, my good ear.  Did you say blessing?

 

NARRATOR:  That’s right, blessing.

 

ABRAHAM:  Well, la-dee-da!  Now God is going to give me a blessing?  Now, when I’m eighty years old.  Now when the best part of my life is over?  What good will a blessing do me now?  I’m way too old to enjoy anything resembling a blessing.  I don’t even have any children to inherit a blessing.  (Pauses)  Is this God’s idea of a joke?  Blessings at eighty years of age?

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham?

 

ABRAHAM:  Yeah, what do you want?

 

NARRATOR:  I told you before.  You are only seventy-five years old.

 

ABRAHAM:  Seventy-five.  Eighty.  What’s the difference?  (mumbles)  Disrespectful little whipper-snapper!

 

NARRATOR:  I heard that!  Abraham, it says right here in the Bible that you are only seventy-five years old.

 

ABRAHAM:  Seventy-five, schementy-five.  You’re only as young as you feel.  Today, I feel as if I am eighty years old.  My knees.  My right ear.  My arthritis.  That pepperoni pizza.

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham?

 

ABRAHAM:  What?  What?

 

NARRATOR:  Can I continue reading the story?

 

ABRAHAM:  I guess so.  After all, you’re the one holding the darn book!

 

NARRATOR:  Very well.  Later in life, when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, God made this promise to him, “You will have a son.”

 

ABRAHAM:  Now stop right there!  Now I can’t even hear right out of my good ear.  What did you say?  A son?  A baby?  Are you kidding me?  At my age?  How am I going to explain that to my wife Sarah?  She never has thought too much of my talking to God.  She doesn’t like it when I come home with a vision.  She’ll think I’ve been sipping too much wine before my afternoon nap.  She’ll think I’ve eaten one too many pepperoni pizzas.  She’ll never take me seriously.  She’ll laugh at me!  She’ll…..

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham?

 

ABRAHAM:  Now what?  Grandchildren?

 

NARRATOR:  Well, not yet.  But there is more to God’s promise for you.  Do you want to hear it?

 

ABRAHAM:  (sarcastically) Oh, I can hardly wait.  What comes next?  A college scholarship when I’m one hundred and ten?  A sports car for one hundred and twenty?  A National Football League contract when I’ve one hundred and twenty-five?

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham, God is serious.  There is more to the promise.

 

ABRAHAM:  All right sonny.  Read on- I think I’m ready to hear it.

 

NARRATOR:  And God said to Abraham, “I will give you many descendants and some of them will be kings.  You will have so many descendants that they will become nations.”

 

ABRAHAM:  I knew it.  It is grandchildren.  I’m not the grandpa type!  I’m not babysitting them for the entire weekend.  I’m not picking up their toys.  They’re not leaving them with me (continues to mumble).

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham.  Not just grandchildren but descendants.  Lots of generations.  And some will be kings.

 

ABRAHAM:  Kings?  My family?  God has evidently never met my brother-in-law.  He couldn’t be king of my goats.

 

NARRATOR:  And God said, “I will keep my promise to you and to your descendants in future generations as an everlasting covenant.  I will be your God and the God of your descendants.”

 

ABRAHAM:  Now wait just a minute there Mr. Smarty Pants Narrator.  Just think about what you are saying!  A promise?  A new land?  A blessing?  A son?  Descendants?  An everlasting covenant?  How is that going to happen?  How can I do it?  I mean, change and promise are all right when you are young and have lots of dreams and tons of energy.  But just look at me.  I am old.  I am set in my ways.  My best days are long past. Change and promise can’t possibly come to me!

 

NARRATOR:  It says right here that it will and it does.

 

ABRAHAM:  Are you sure?  (Pauses)  Oh brother.  How am I going to explain this to Sarah?  How am I going to live through it?

 

NARRATOR:  It says right here that you will do it by faith in God.  You will trust that God’s presence will be with you in every single change and promise.  You will do it by knowing that God has something in mind for you in each new day.  You will do it by seeing God’s hand in your future and by trusting that God will be holding your hand as you live each new day. Abraham, you will live today as if God’s promise were coming true to you tomorrow.  That is faith.

 

ABRAHAM:  Faith, huh?  It sounds so complicated.

 

NARRATOR:  And one day you’ll be known as a great man of faith!

You will be an example of faith for us all!

 

ABRAHAM:  Faith?  Trusting in God.  I suppose I can give it a try.  I guess I never thought faith was that important.

 

NARRATOR:  But faith is what your story is all about.

 

ABRAHAM:  Faith!  Wow.  What a concept!  I guess I believe that God is always with me.  I guess I believe that with God all things are possible.  Maybe, just maybe God can do all of those crazy things you read about.  Maybe I can do those things.  Better yet, maybe I can talk to my wife about those crazy things.

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham.  We all believe you can do it!

 

ABRAHAM:  Yeah.  Faith.  If God has anything to do with it, it will work out all right.  A new land.  A son.  Descendants.  A blessing.  An everlasting covenant.  You know sonny, this is starting to sound really exciting!

 

NARRATOR:  Abraham?

 

ABRAHAM:  Oh no, you’re going to tell me that this is all a joke.  I’m being punked, right?  Where’s the camera?

 

NARRATOR:  No Abraham.  I wanted to tell you that this is the end of the story.

 

ABRAHAM:  The end?

 

NARRATOR:  That’s all I have to read today anyway.

 

ABRAHAM:  Huh!  That’s not the end of the story Mr. Smarty Pants Narrator.  There’s a lot I’ve got to do.  We’ve got to get that U-Haul packed for the trip.  Sarah doesn’t travel lightly you know.  She’s got all of those Persian rugs.  Then there are those mushy goodbyes.  My brother-in-law will probably create quite a scene.  I just hope he doesn’t sing!  I better check AAA for the best route to my new homeland.

 

(Begins to walk to back)

 

And you know, in another twenty-five years or so, I am going to be a father.  I better stop on the way home and pick up some diapers.  It’s best to plan ahead you know.  Got to get moving!  God has plans for me!

 

 

 

 

 

Grief and Grace

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Grief and Grace”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 18, 2018

 

Genesis 9: 8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

            I will always remember one of my mother’s favorite sayings, although until this week, I had no idea where it came from.  I had to look it up but it seems that she was actually quoting the American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier from his poem Maud Muller.  Whenever one of her children would carry regret or reach a situation of wondering, “What might have been?” my mother would readily say this, “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

I thought about that Whittier quote this week reflecting on what might be the saddest words of tongue and pen.  Perhaps Whittier was wrong.  Perhaps the saddest words ever written or spoken were those from the book of Genesis at the very beginning of the story of Noah, words that came about three chapters before the reading we heard just a few minutes ago.  The story of Noah, that wonderful tale of animals and arks and rainbows begins with these words, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  That’s a painful sentence to hear, isn’t it?  The same God who brought all of creation into being and pronounced it good, and created human beings in the likeness of the divine, is now ready to destroy everything.  In just a few short chapters of the Bible, humans have gone from innocent, obedient creatures that share in the work of God to sinful, selfish creatures who think and act as if they are their own gods.

God’s heart is broken.  God is grieving at God’s failure.  Perhaps God felt the same sense of hopelessness we feel when we hear the tragic news of our world.  God decides that there is no way out of all of the pain except to wipe the slate clean.  God says, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”  Those words also just hit you in the pit of the stomach.  “I am sorry that you were created.”  Can we even imagine God saying such a thing?

With a purpose moved by anger and regret and grief, God caused the rain the fall and the waters to rise.  All was destroyed, except for Noah and his family and a sample of creation contained safely within the ark.  And then we move on to a new part of the story.

For some reason, God hangs on to a thin thread of hope.  Throughout the tale we read that “God remembered Noah and his family and the animals.”  It seems as if there is something about God that can’t let go of this attachment to creation, no matter how much God grieves.  The winds of grace begin to blow, creating a new beginning.  The waters subside.  Noah sends forth a dove who returns with an olive leaf.  Humans and creatures leave the ark and God renews God’s blessing on Noah and every living thing.  We read of rainbows and of a new promise.  This new beginning is such a happy ending.

As much as we enjoy this classic Biblical tale, we usually read it the wrong way.  This story really isn’t about us.  It is about God.  The last word in the story isn’t about how we are never going to sin and fail ever again; it is about God’s grace that reaches beyond God’s grief and disappointment.  Human beings don’t change in this story.  It is God who changes.  God changes from a God of retribution and reprisal to a God of relationship and forgiveness.  In this story we learn that God will never, ever let us go.  God will go with us, lovingly seeking us to move to a divine intention, even through more darkness and sorrow, even through a cross.  This story is about God’s grief and regret evolving into long suffering grace.

I always recall that in his PBS television series Genesis, journalist Bill Moyers asked several guests what kind of headline they would give to the story of Noah and the flood.  One newspaper editor summed it up as we might write it with this rather predictable headline, “God Destroys World.”  But one of the guests, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor, pastor of a church in Harlem, NY, suggested an alternative headline that he thought better conveyed the true meaning of the story.  His headline was, “God Give Humans Second Chance.”

As we begin this Lenten season, it is a good opportunity to be truth about who we are.  It is right and proper to be honest about our sin, to understand that we have habits and desires and inclinations that break God’s heart.  We are negligent enough about being true to God’s intention that we are part of the disobedient heritage that was strong enough to cause God to grieve.  But we begin this season of Lent understanding the goodness of God’s grace.  The God of the flood turned into the God of the rainbow.  We learn that God chooses to be with us faithfully, whatever the cost.  We understand that God deals with us in mercy.  We come to know in faith, that God is part of our story, each and every day, despite the darkness and disappointment.

 

 

 

Paying Attention

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Paying Attention”

Rev. Art Ritter

February 11, 2018

 

Mark 9:2-10

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

As most of you know, Laura and I returned from our Florida vacation this week.  We’ve been going to the Disney Vacation Club Vero Beach resort for the past six years now.  We don’t do a lot of traveling or tourist stuff.  We are content to walk the beach or to sit by the pool and read.  This year was probably the worst year that we have had weather-wise in Florida.  The temperatures topped 70 degrees only twice.  The famous Florida sun was usually hiding behind a layer of clouds.  We were wearing jeans and a sweatshirt as we sat in our lounge chairs beside the pool.  The winds were so strong that it made walking the beach more of a struggle than a pleasure.  I felt a little like Lawrence of Arabia with the sand in my eyes and in my teeth.  While I was in Vero Beach, I had a wonderful time.  It was very relaxing being away from the routine of life, if only for a few days.  Yet I have to admit that I felt a little sad, maybe even a little peeved by the misfortune of cool and windy weather.  And then I came back to Michigan!  I spent a few hours the first day back shoveling snow from my driveway and at the church.  On Wednesday morning it took me over 30 minutes to drive the four miles from my home to the church.  Suddenly 65 degrees and 30 mph winds didn’t seem so bad.  I was able to see the blessing of my Florida vacation with more grateful eyes.

In his journal Pulpit Resource, William Willimon tells of an experience a fellow minister had aboard an airplane.  The preacher, on his way to a denominational meeting, was dressed in a suit and tie and shiny shoes, carrying his laptop computer and briefcase.  He sat next to a rather casually dressed woman whose carry-on bag appeared to be a kitchen size trash bag.  It was quite obvious that the woman had never been on an airplane before.

After introducing herself, she told her reluctant seat partner that indeed this was her very first flight.  In a loud voice that the entire cabin could hear she said, “Boy, is this going to be fun!”  As the plane took off the woman volunteered a great deal of information to the preacher.  She was going to Dallas to see her son.  Her son had the flu.  He owned a black lab named Wilbur.  And she thought that from the air, the trees out the window looked just like peat moss.

Soon the other passengers turned and stared at the vocal woman.  The preacher just wanted to crawl under this seat.  When the beverages were served, the woman stated her amazement that such good apple juice could come from a can.  When she ordered a deli sandwich, she commented on the miracle of the tiny little condiment pouches.  During the entire flight, she didn’t miss a thing.  She had something to say about every landmark out the window, about every bit of turbulence, and even about every person who walked by to the bathroom.

The preacher looked around the cabin.  Except for the woman near him, all was uneventful and routine.  Two people seated directly in front of him were quietly pouring down beers.  The man behind him was talking to his seat partner about a dreaded business trip to Japan.  The lady across the aisle was sorting through a stack of important looking papers.  Even the preacher wanted to open his laptop and return to the normalcy of his work.  Yet it appeared the woman sitting next to him was the only one really enjoying the flight and her joy was unrestrained.

When the plane finally landed she turned to him and said, “Now, wasn’t that just a fun ride!”  He nodded silently.  Suddenly his annoyance turned almost to envy.  Why had she enjoyed the whole thing when he was so miserable?  What was it that she knew that he didn’t?  What was she seeing that he didn’t?

This morning we read the story of Jesus taking three of his disciples up to the top of a mountain.  It was a turning point in his ministry.  At the time, things were getting difficult for Jesus.  His teachings and miracles of healing had attracted the negative attention of the religious authorities.  His opponents were looking for ways to trap him and punish him.  His disciples didn’t seem to be catching on to his message, arguing instead about whom among them was the greatest.  Jesus has begun to think about the future- and the pain and suffering that would be there.  But his followers were instead caught up with the excitement of the crowds and the possibility of their own personal achievement in that future.

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain.  And something happened.  Moses and Elijah appeared.  Jesus’ clothes turned dazzling white.  The voice of God spoke just as it did at Jesus’ baptism.  Although the disciples didn’t understand it at all, they understood this event to be significant.  Their eyes were opened to the reality of Jesus.  There were eyewitnesses to majesty.  They suddenly saw the big picture.  The sights and sounds of that day lived in their hearts forever.  It was a day filled with meaning and inspiration.

The story of Transfiguration is supposed to teach us something as we prepare to enter the Lenten season.  I believe that lesson is one of perspective.  Too often, like those pre-mountaintop disciples, we get caught up in the importance of our everyday routine and the complications of our own situation.  Our lives get their meaning from the one day that leads to another, the one task completed before the next is ready to start.  We immerse ourselves in busyness.  We fail to take the time to reflect upon the larger yet simpler truths before us.  We get so used to the noise that we don’t hear the whispers.  We are so used to continually seeking answers that we don’t appreciate mystery.  The story of Jesus’ transfiguration teaches us that when we disengage, when we stop doing, we might find God’s intention.  When we open our eyes, focus on the moment, and look around us, we may see things that we never saw before.

A few years ago I attended an installation service for a colleague at a Seventh Day Adventist Church across the street from my church in Salt Lake City.  The service was very similar to the installation all of you held for me several years ago, until something quite strange happened.  We were invited to pray.  That in itself wasn’t so strange but we were invited to pray from upon our knees.  We were asked to get off our pew, leave our feet, and put our knees on the ground before God.  I wasn’t sure I liked this.  I wasn’t sure I could do this without pulling a muscle or my hamstring.  But I tried it.  I prayed from my knees.  And I prayed with a spirit and a comfort from God that I had seldom felt before.  I was pushed from my routine to a transfigured moment.  On my knees I felt closer to the divine and certainly more receptive to the mystery of the spirit.

Preacher Carlyle Marney used to say that God doesn’t come to church every Sunday.  He added that when you are God, you don’t always have to be there.  But we need to be there.  Some Sunday when we least expect it, God is going to walk down that aisle and sit next to us.  On that day we will be turned inside out.  We’d better start paying attention.  We need to be there to recognize the moment.

Such moments may be rare.  Such moments are short-lived.  Like that day on the mountain-top long ago, we must leave them behind and return to the difficult valley.  The test of any vision is what happens when one gets back down the mountain and into real life.  Yet without the inspiration of a vision, real life becomes meaningless and shallow.

But the lesson teaches us that such moments are always possible.  A transforming moment may be here even now.  Or it may come when we least expect them- in the face of the next person we meet, in the words of the next song we sing, in the wonder of the next breath we take.  Life is usually what we experience when we come down from the mountain.  But the face that shines and the spirit that lifts us in the high places will light our way and support us even in the midst of darkness and confusion.   The God of the mountaintop is there all along.  To experience God, we must simply pay attention.

 

The All-New Old Story

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The All-New Old Story”

Steve Kellar

February 4, 2018

 

Isaiah 43: 15-19

I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Luke 5: 33-39

Then they said to him, “John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”

I’m sure a lot of you know of the banished words list published annually by Lake Superior State University in Sault Saint Marie.   Words and phrases, nominated by the public, are symbolically banished from the Queen’s English for “overuse, misuse, or just plain uselessness.” Around since the 1970’s, they ban trendy words that have become so omnipresent in the media that you want to scream – like back then “détente” – (remember? Who even understood that?) or more recently “cray-cray“. Other examples include pompous wordy phrases like “at this point in time” when the speaker could simply use “currently” or “now”.  Or, one of my favorite categories, unnecessary redundancies like “completely destroyed” or “totally unique” or “true facts” have made the list. Just recently, this year’s list was revealed and mercifully, the phrase “Fake News” was added. If only the Banished Words List actually had the weight of law!

For several years I’ve wanted to make a nomination for the expression “all-new” – though as it turns out someone beat me to it a few years back. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that the offending use of this compound word involves advertising on television and radio. One example is the use of “all-new” when advertising an episode of a television series – for example “tonight, on an all-new Blacklist”. Well, isn’t an episode of a series like this either new or a rerun?  I mean calling it “all-new” doesn’t really add anything to the description that using just plain “new” wouldn’t cover, does it? And, notwithstanding an occasional flashback scene, when is the last time you saw a partly new show?  “Tonight, tune in for a partially new episode of The Big Bang Theory. Laugh again at the previously aired parts, then you’ll be in stiches when you see the new scenes!” That probably wouldn’t work.

With a slightly different nuance, “all-new” is also used to advertise cars and trucks. “Hurry in to your Dodge dealer to see the All-New Dodge Durango.” Now when you go to buy a new car, it is newly manufactured, so I suppose all-new is accurate. But in these commercials the advertiser wants you to believe that the vehicle has been completely redesigned for the upcoming model year. It’s different than the Durango your neighbor bought last year. But “all-new”?  Do you mean to tell me that every nut, bolt, hose, clamp, fuse, wire and cotter pin has a different design than the prior year’s model? Hey, if it’s really “all-new”, how come they didn’t change the name?

Banished or not, I understand why marketers use “all-new”. Emphasizing newness works! We humans are excited by anything new. That shiny new gadget or electronic toy. We want to be among the first to see a new show, hear new music, try a new restaurant. New means progress, an upgrade, a fresh start, a change in direction, being part of a cool trend. No more same old same old. So “all-new” should be even better, yes? True, lots of new things are fads and don’t really change anyone’s lives or don’t turn out to deliver all the benefits touted, but that’s not the point. New generates excitement and marketers count on the fact that many of us, much of the time, are looking for that next “all-new” thing.

And yet … we all have times when we long for the old things, the way it used to be. When there is comfort in memories and traditions. The old ways were not so bad, maybe even better. Let’s not make changes for change’s sake, there could be unintended consequences. Sometimes when we’re weary, or have faced some troubles, or maybe we’re just tired of being bombarded with “All-New, All the Time” culture, retreat into the old ways, into a better past, perceived or real, is tempting.  And not just tempting. It is, at times, no doubt good for our personal and collective psyches.

I made two different trips to Iowa in December to see my parents. The more recent was our annual holiday visit, where the extended Kellar family gets together for both typical Christmas traditions, and family traditions – traditions maybe not especially exciting or unique, but special to us – like a legendary waffle and sausage breakfast, racing to get a huge jigsaw puzzle done in a couple of days, trying to out-joke each other on the to/from tags on the Christmas gifts, and lots of games in the evenings. We don’t put together the same puzzle or play the same games every year, but other than that, these things have changed little over the last 40+ years, and even the teenaged and twenty-something members of the clan have pleasant memories of these visits. We all feel good

But a couple of weeks earlier, I visited alone. My father had just been through abdominal surgery and wasn’t allowed to lift over 5 pounds. My mother has fought cancer for almost a year now, and while she’s been doing surprisingly well (thank you Meadowbrook prayer chain), she depends on my father for an awful lot. So I went for a week to help, and to give my sisters, who live closer and provide much more support than I do, a break so they could get ready for Christmas.

My mother doesn’t get around much. She fills time watching TV, mostly reruns of vintage shows – like Andy Griffith, or a before bedtime ritual of Johnny Carson reruns. I sat with her and enjoyed watching these as well – Andy Griffith was a favorite when I was in elementary school, and as I got older (and was allowed to stay up) I loved Johnny Carson. Seeing them brought back good memories, though maybe not as good as I might have idealized. Andy Griffith had wonderful messages about parenting, or dealing with problems in a non-violent, thoughtful, and firm but calm way, but, like most television in those days, it was too neat and tidy compared to real life; always ending well, with the bad guys put straight, Opie learning his lesson, and the errors of Andy’s bumbling sidekicks corrected. As for Johnny Carson, a lot of his routines are still funny, but the topical humor in the monologues is dated and seems pretty tame, and – I don’t remember this but, let’s be honest, Johnny was a real male chauvinist, especially when interviewing attractive women. Today, he wouldn’t get away with a lot of what he said. Oh, and I came of age in the 70s. When I see the fashions and hairdos from that era I have to ask those of you who also went through that, “What we were thinking?”

Despite her cancer and being 86 years old, I found that my Mother was at her best, most energetic and excited – alive, when she could direct her energies to something creative and productive and new. She wanted to be a part of planning the menus and preparing meals (including trying new recipes) even though she can’t stand long enough to cook much and can’t eat some of the things she used to.  Fortunately, a recent improvement in her eyesight has reinvigorated her, since she can work on sewing patchwork quilts which she does with a group of ladies from church, and which are donated to a worthy cause. The feeling of creating something new and useful is great therapy. As good as a score of memories I think, however pleasant and reassuring those memories might be.

We get hung up sometimes debating new vs. old, and chronological age is usually embedded in the debate.  It’s a fact that young people have less experiences, so less memories, less appreciation for historical traditions. Should we hold that against them? It’s a fact that as people age it’s tough to keep up with the great pace of change – retreating to some of those comfortable memories is so easy and as I said, even good for us. Should we hold that against older folks? Surely, most of us of whatever generation would answer those identical questions the same way – “no of course we shouldn’t”. But answering the question “no” may be a lot easier than overcoming the biases that lurk in our subconscious when we take action.

Fortunately, our view of age is within our control. As many have said in many ways – “Age is just a number”, or “age is a state of mind”. Or my favorite version – from Billie Burke, the actress who played Glinda the good witch in the Wizard of Oz – “Age is of no importance unless you are a cheese.” I found evidence of the truth of these sentiments in NY Times article about Dr. John Goodenough. In 1980, Dr. Goodenough was co-inventor of the Lithium-ion battery that revolutionized portable power, making things such as laptop computers, and cell phones viable. He was 57 at the time. Now, at age 94 – 94!! – he and the University of Texas team he leads have just filed a new patent for another type of battery.  If successful, this design would – compared to lithium-ion – be much lower cost, and less likely to overheat and explode, therefore more scalable to devices needing even greater amounts of power.

Dr. Goodenough, who has a tapestry of the last supper on his office wall, credits his Christian faith for keeping him focused on a mission to help the world decrease both its dependence on fossil fuels and the pollution that comes with that dependence. He believes that a divine power fuels his mind and has led him to new ideas and new opportunities at just the right time.

In Isaiah 43, the prophet is speaking to the people of Israel, held captive in Babylon. The enslaved people remember the days of freedom and strength as a nation and long to return to those days. Through Isaiah, God reminds them that it is he who made them and has been with them. Fear not, God will deliver them as he has always done. But notice that God doesn’t promise to return them to former glory.  God specifically says “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Everyone wanted to get away from Babylon, but there must have been a little angst among the Israelites, not knowing what this new thing would be. Someone might have said “be careful what you wish for” or “the grass isn’t always greener”. But knowing God’s previous favor, and trusting that he would again show the way, the people should be open to and even excited about embracing the fresh start, the new beginning, the progress, the upgrade, the change in direction. The old life is gone, but the All-New awaits.

The passage that Sue read from Luke 5 includes a parable pertaining to things new vs. old. Jesus is at a banquet put on by Levi the tax collector. It was attended by other tax collectors and people of their ilk, looked down on as sinners by the Jewish authorities. With Jesus are some new disciples – Simon Peter, James and John, the fishermen who earlier in Luke 5 have left their nets to follow Jesus.  Pharisees who have been observing Jesus and his following, are also present, though they won’t lower themselves to eat with the sinners. The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast and pray as do the disciples of the Pharisees or even of John the Baptist. Instead Jesus’ disciples are enjoying a lively banquet with these low-lifes. Jesus’ first answer is almost flippant, showing his sense of humor, I think. “Well, you can’t make wedding guests fast when the bridegroom is with them, now can you?”

But then Jesus gives another answer in parable – really two different examples to make his point. “Look,” Jesus says – “if I try to repair an old coat by tearing a piece from a new one and sewing it on, I’ll damage the new coat … and the old one won’t look right either, because the cloth won’t match. I wouldn’t be happy with either one”. Jesus goes on with his second example “Listen Pharisees, you’re just asking for trouble if you put new wine in old wineskins, no one would do that”. Now, it’s been awhile since I used wineskins, but as I remember it, new wine continues to ferment for a while as it ages, releasing gas that puts pressure on its container. A fresh wineskin stretches to accommodate, but as the wineskin ages, it dries from the outside, taking a semi-fixed shape and becoming slightly brittle. Once the now-aged wine is gone, if you fill up again with new wine, the additional fermentation could make the wineskin crack, spilling the new wine.

Theologians have generally interpreted this parable as Jesus telling the Pharisees that the new order, the new covenant, won’t be compatible with the old one. The way of faith and mercy and grace won’t be like the way of law and custom and accounting for sins, central to the Judaic tradition. Sounds reasonable. But D.T. Lancaster, Pastor of a Messianic Synagogue in Hudson, Wisconsin has a different explanation which appeals to me. Reminding us that this parable is in the same chapter of Luke where Jesus calls the fishermen to discipleship and tells Levi the tax collector to follow him, Lancaster argues that Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand just who he has chosen to share his ministry with – common people – people who don’t have much grounding or education in the formal ways of Jewish law and tradition. Such people will be open to the things they will see and hear from Jesus. They’ll be excited by the prospect of being part of something All New if you will. If the new followers trust him, they won’t want to spend much time debating whether the old ways were better.

The story of this encounter is found in three of the gospels, but Luke’s account includes a last thought from Jesus, not in the other two. Jesus states, “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, (instead) says, “The old is good.” What is Jesus saying here – that everyone agrees old wine better than new? How is that consistent with the theory that he is promoting the new way versus the old? Since this statement only shows up in Luke, those who think that is Jesus’ intent tend to ignore it. But Lancaster says that if you understand the parable to be more about who the Lord is calling to follow, and the openness they will need to embrace the new way, then the added thought fits nicely. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees “As scholars and lawyers and clerics, you have been drinking a lot of the old wine – of course you’re going to say it is better. But if you want to join me in the all-new endeavor, you’ll put aside a great deal of what you’ve learned, what you think is better and right.  It could be uncomfortable, because some of those traditions and old ways that you hold dear are really only pleasant memories, a warm and fuzzy blanket on a cold night. But in truth, they are old garments that won’t look right when patched together with new material. They are old wineskins that will crack as the new and changing world ferments within”.

Our Christian foundations extend back for millennia. We are told, as the hymnist says – “The Old, Old Story” of Jesus’ love. Rightfully we honor our traditions and keep our memories of the ancient message we’ve heard again and again. But we must remember that a key component of this very message … that we open our minds and embrace the change, the upgrade, the progress, the excitement of the “All-New” direction that God continues to put in front of us, day after day. It’s not only what God wants – it’s what keeps us alive!

Let us pray-

God in heaven, you remind us daily of the old story of your presence in our lives, your support through difficult times and your unwavering commitment to your people. Trusting in you, help us to perceive the still new thing that you are doing here in earth through your people. Help us to reinvent, reinvigorate and renew our commitment to your will and our service to it. In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen