The All-New Old Story

By February 4, 2018Sermons

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