of wine and coats

Garth last week, and Dolly this week! I promise there are other musical influences beyond country in my life. The text for this week has a couple of Jesus’ more confusing statements. We read from Mark in worship, but Matthew and Luke also each record these sayings and then interpret them differently. That’s always a sign that the saying was confusing–even back when the gospels were being written.

In my prep this week, I ran across this sermon by Paul Tillich. He did far better with the text than I did, and you’ll see his thinking influenced mine. Really, if you just have a few minutes, you should listen to Dolly and go read Tillich’s sermon.

If you happen to have more time, the audio of my thoughts from Sunday is here and the text is after the jump.

Clear as mud? These have got to be some of Jesus’ most confusing sayings.

First, let’s make sure we know what wineskins are. The image is like a cloth canteen, or a maybe a camelbak. It was an animal skin that you put your wine in. When wine is new, it continues to ferment and give off gasses. Those gasses expand, and if you put it in something without a little give—an old skin, then as it expands, it’ll burst.

The coat image is a little easier. Cloth shrinks. If you patch a hole on an old coat with a new, un-shrunk piece of cloth, when that new cloth shrinks, it’ll rip.

Okay. That’s clear enough. Put fermenting beverages in appropriate containers and use pre-shrunk cloth for patching.

But presumably Jesus wasn’t just giving housekeeping advice. He was trying to tell us something about himself and the world. And that’s where things get messy.

We want to match A to B, connect the dots and have clear moral. My first impulse with these sayings was to imagine that the new wine is Jesus, and the old wineskins stand for the outdated religious institutions of his time.

Then you have this nice, neat moral which says Jesus didn’t come to create the church and all this stuffy religious institutional bureaucracy. He came to break that stuff open and set us free.

From this we get things like the video, Why I love Jesus, but hate Religion, and reformers in every age who say, we need some new wineskins—more hip and relevant, so that we have somewhere to put Jesus, right?

The only problem with this interpretation is that it’s not really what Jesus said. He didn’t say, throw away all your old wineskins, get some new ones, and then you’ll be set. In fact, he seems just as concerned about the old coat and the old wineskin as he is about the patch and the new wine. The new patch will tear the coat, he says. The new wine will ruin the old skin. He cares about both, the old and the new.

Which makes all of this thoroughly confusing.

This is how parables work. They’re like a plow tilling the soil. They tear up the dirt, turn things over, loosen it all up.

When Jesus tells stories, he wants to till the soil of our hearts, and in the process open up our hearts and our minds for God to grant new understanding.

So let’s back up just a little bit and see if we can get some context.

Jesus was eating with his disciples. And some folks come along and want to know, why do you eat so much?

They’re asking because the other religious people of the day—the ones who follow John the Baptist and the Pharisees, all seem to think fasting is pretty important. So why aren’t you like them, they want to know?

And Jesus says, in effect, you’re asking the wrong question. The question is not whether to fast or not. The question is not really, what are you supposed to do or not do. The question is: what time is it? What time is it?

If it is time for the wedding, you don’t fast. You feast. When the wedding’s over, then you might think about fasting again.

Our spiritual practice is not set in stone for all of time.

Sometimes only a handwritten thank you note will do. And other times, a quick text saying, Thank you! is just right.

Sometimes we pray best with eyes closed in quiet rooms, and other times the only sort of prayer that will do is to kick off our shoes and dance on the tables.

What time is it? That’s the question for those of us trying to follow faithfully.

But how do we tell time? Is there a clock somewhere that says, feasting, fasting, feasting, fasting?

This story suggests that we tell time in relation to Jesus. We ask, where is Jesus right now? What is God up to in our world, right here, right now? We look for Christ, and we make that our center. Like a sun dial tells time based on the sun’s position, so too, we take our cues from God, and move from there.

This is the spiritual tool called discernment. Discernment is the practice of examining and determining God’s will—for our lives, our days, our moments.

There are countless ways to go about discernment. Everyone from St. Ignatius to the Pentecostals has suggestions about how to practice discernment.

Jesus doesn’t get into the details here. But he does get at the overarching principle. The key is to ask, where is Jesus here? Which way is Jesus walking? And then we place our feet in his steps ahead of us.

Do we fast? Or not? Well, where is the bridegroom?

Which job do I take? Who should I be friends with? How should I spend my time? Where should I live? Should I go to church? What should my faithful friends and I do in this world? For all of this, we start by asking, where is Jesus here?

This question is the bedrock of our walk along the low road, because without it, we will find ourselves chasing after every fad, trying to imitate others, losing sight of the goal, and flitting this way and that.

In the midst of all the uncertainty the two biggest temptations are to either embrace the new for the sake of novelty or the old for the sake of tradition.

We know how this goes. We all have friends who resist every change to come along, and others who are the very first on every bandwagon to pass by. We have friends who have signed up not only for facebook and twitter but also for google+ and about.me and pinterest and tumblr, and friends who would have no interest in any of the above, but will only send handwritten notes. There are friends who look for the “new and improved” sign at every turn, and others who are drawn to the stuff labeled “classic.”

So, too, in our spiritual lives. Give me that old time religion, some sigh.  And others can hardly wait for the newest music, freshest fonts, hippest format.

This, I think, is some of what Jesus is getting at with the old coats and new wine stuff, and why he doesn’t come down on the side of the new wine or the old coat.

Whether it’s the new wine or the old wineskin, if we’re worshiping either, we’re missing the point.

When we get that mixed up is when we start trying to patch old coats with new cloth, and pouring new wine where it doesn’t belong. And then we end up with torn coats, and spilled wine.

If we chase after each new thing, or cling resolutely to the old—either way, we miss the mark, and hurt others in the process.

How do we know what to do? How to act? How to pray and who to have lunch with? How do we begin to follow along this road, and know where to put our feet, step by step?

We look to Christ. We listen for his voice, and watch for his movement in our midst.

In Christ, the old cloak and the new patch are both gathered up and counted as valuable. There is room for both the old wineskins and the new wine, because Christ is not limited to the things of this world that are passing away, but offers new life altogether.

When we look to Jesus, revealed to us in the cross, it’s like the world suddenly comes into focus, and all that about new wine and old wineskins, fasting or feasting—those are questions about how to live in the world that is passing away. They are important, but not ultimate.

What is ultimate is that which is not passing away, that world that is being born in our midst—the new life that is born in Christ.

To follow Christ is to live in the midst of this world, while knowing that our home is in the world that does not pass away.

When we do that, the math changes.

Dolly Parton has a great song about a coat that her mother made for her out of rags. Her family was quite poor, but as her mother sewed this coat from donated rags, she told Dolly the story of Joseph who also had a coat of many colors, and when she was done, the song says, she blessed it with a kiss. The song goes on:

So with patches on my britches 
Holes in both my shoes
In my coat of many colors
I hurried off to school
Just to find the others laughing
And making fun of me
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
And oh I couldn’t understand it
For I felt I was rich
And I told them of the love
My momma sewed in every stitch
And I told ‘em all the story
Momma told me while she sewed
And how my coat of many colors
Was worth more than all their clothes
But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
made just for me. 


With love at the center, that coat was finer than all of Solomon’s glory.

This is how things change when we stop asking, which coat should I buy, should I fast or not, is the old wine better than the new, and start asking, what happens if I put Love at the center, if I look for Jesus first, and follow him.

A coat of rags becomes finery, our loaves and fishes feed thousands, and we find that both the old wine and the new have a spot in the cellar.

Living with the Love we meet in Christ at the center of our lives changes how we look at each other, at our jobs and tasks, at our relationships and priorities.

If we seek Christ first, and ask insistently, what time is it? Where is Jesus?, we will discover that our task is not to chase after the newest thing or to preserve the old ways. We are not here to swear allegiance to any of the this, because both the new and the old are passing away.

We are here to follow Christ, to trust in the one who is both bright morning star and ancient of days, the one who breaks in, changes the math, and asks us to leave all the former things at the cross and be born anew with him, into new life, life abundant, life everlasting.

by Sarah W. Wiles
March 26, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA


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One Response to of wine and coats

  1. elderdeacon says:

    Another marvelous sermon. Dolly Parton is my husband’s favorite country singer. I always thought “Coat of Many Colors” was a little hokey but Sarah’s reading it was really meaningful.

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