By Carl Wilton
This sermon was originally preached on June 11, 2019 at the Stated Meeting of the Presbytery of Elizabeth in Woodbridge, NJ as the presbytery considered and voted upon its response to the “Invitation to Participate in NJ New Missional Communities.”
The presbytery accepted the Invitation by unanimous vote.
Read about the Missional Structures conversations happening throughout our region for more info.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)
During the years when I was growing up, we had a number of cars in our family. Big cars, little cars, new cars, old cars — they came and went, according to the fortunes of my dad’s business and my mother’s teaching salary. We were a suburban family in the Sixties, which meant there was often one common denominator amongst all those vehicles that ever occupied our driveway: the station wagon.
It’s hard for kids living today — in this age of SUVs — to understand the glory that was the American station wagon. It’s an odd name for a car. It didn’t look anything like a wagon; and we never spent much time driving it to stations (except for the gas station). I understand the name comes from a type of horse-drawn wagon they used to use to haul freight back and forth to railway stations. (There’s your trivia for today.)
It was an age of innocence, an age before seat belts — so that meant, as often as not, a whole rabble of us kids would end up rolling around in the back of somebody’s station wagon where the cargo was supposed to go. Nobody ever thought to warn us that, in case of an accident, we’d become flying projectiles. Somehow, we all survived.
The coolest station wagon of all, without question, was one belonging to our aunt and uncle. Back in the flat cargo space of that particular model there was a sort of trap door. Pull it open, and up would pop a whole other car seat — a big old vinyl-upholstered bench seat. My brothers, my cousins, and I used to fight each other for the privilege of sitting in that rumble seat. We were small enough that three of us could squeeze into it.
The chief attraction was the view: you could gaze out the back window and see the road behind you rapidly receding. It was a whole different perspective. If you were lucky, at a stop light you might be able to attract the attention of the driver behind you by waving and making faces.
The view through the rear window was always entertaining, even if it was a bit strange. You never quite knew where you were going: but you sure became an expert on where you’d been.
Since becoming a member of the Presbytery of Elizabeth over a year ago, I’ve been struck by the way we announce our meetings. Tonight is the 685th stated meeting of the Presbytery. Now that’s what I would call a rear-window view!
The church I serve as pastor does something similar. We announce, on our webpage that we’ve been “worshiping at the Lamington Crossroads since 1740.” Our hindsight is, indeed, 20/20.
All of us, in our various congregations, struggle with this issue of change. Which tradition is worth holding onto? And which one deserves to go the way of the communion token?
Our Lord has a few things to say in the scriptures about change in the community of faith. Some followers of John the Baptist come up to him and say, “We, along with the Pharisees, are big on fasting. But we’ve noticed you and your followers aren’t. What’s with you people?”
It’s not entirely a friendly question. Rather than answering it directly, Jesus delivers a couple quick parables. He speaks of sewing a patch on an old cloak. Better make sure the patch is pre-shrunk, he tells them. If it isn’t, your cloak won’t keep the rain out.
Then he talks about transferring a batch of new wine to a wineskin. Better make sure it’s not an old wineskin, he warns them. If it is, when the wine continues to ferment, and the gas inside expands, that dried-out old skin won’t expand along with it. Kaboom! Instead of drinking the wine, you’ll be wearing it!
There’s nothing wrong with the wine. It’s new wine, so it does what new wine always does. Its chemical composition changes. The problem is with the container. It’s got to be able to accommodate change.
That is the issue before us this evening, as we take an important vote on whether the mission of the Presbyterian Church in the State of New Jersey, in an age of diminishing resources, is better served by seven presbyteries or four.
Our Book of Order says, of councils of the church — of which presbyteries are one example — that they “exist to help congregations and the church as a whole to be more faithful participants in the mission of Christ” (G-3.0101). In other words, presbyteries are not an end in themselves. I’m quite certain that no one has ever been led to Jesus Christ by a presbytery. Nor has any hurricane survivor’s house ever been mucked out by a presbytery. Presbyteries don’t tutor disadvantaged children, nor do they stand as advocates beside battered women in court.
If such activities are the new wine of the coming reign of God, then councils of the church — like presbyteries — are merely the container. Now, containers are important: there’s no doubt about that. If you didn’t have a wineskin, all that beautiful wine would be a sticky puddle on the floor. But let’s not confuse the container with the mission.
There’s another passage in scripture that talks about containers. Walter Brueggemann, one of our most eminent scholars of scripture, was preaching once about 2 Corinthians 4:7, in which Paul says, “But we have this treasure in clay jars...”
Those clay jars, of course, were the ubiquitous amphorae — the rough clay jugs that were used throughout the Greek and Roman world to transport wine. His point is that the treasure of the gospel — the wine — is carried in a rather humble vessel: the testimony of the apostles.
In explaining that passage, Brueggemann wants to make sure we don’t confuse the container with its contents. Listen to his words:
We have this treasure in clay jars.
We have the container and the stuff contained. And we have confused them! We think the clay pot is the real thing and have neglected the stuff inside. And when we do that, being the clay pot, we think that we are the treasure. We might, in a moment of great eloquence, even dare to think that the “extraordinary power” belongs to us. We might think that the church, the clay pot that holds the treasure of the gospel, is a big deal. We might think that all the little stuff that so preoccupies us and uses up our energy is more crucial than the stuff inside the jar....
It is the old, old story of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!
Everything else is a clay pot that is designed to hold and transmit and enact the treasure. Everything else!…the church and its ministers, its hymnals and catechisms, its budgets and programs, its pensions funds and mission boards, its conference offices and dioceses and ordaining councils, its congregations and middle judicatories, its church bells and bulletins and candles and music programs, its seminaries and their curricula, its research and commentaries and learned articles, its youth groups and mission trips and church camps, its mission festivals and quarrels and acts of mercy. Everything else is a clay pot…fragile, likely to break, never fully able to contain the truth and richness of the treasure.
(Walter Brueggemann, “Getting Smashed for Jesus,” TIME.com, May 25, 2014)
When the followers of John questioned Jesus about a certain kind of rigorous fasting, he responded by saying that fasting was not the most important thing. It was an honorable spiritual practice, but it was not to be confused with the Spirit itself. It was a container for the sort of devotion God’s children are meant to live out, but it was not itself that devotion.
This evening we vote on whether or not to accept the Synod’s invitation to participate in a process of re-drawing our presbytery boundaries in this state. It will lead to changes in our presbytery — the wineskin that bears the treasure of the gospel but is not itself the treasure. If we do vote to go forward with the plan, some of those changes will seem more like discarding the container and replacing it with a new one. But — as Jesus and Paul remind us — such is always the way in the church.
The question for our discernment is, “What is the right container? What is the best missional community for holding the treasure of the gospel in this part of God’s creation, allowing for its predictable change and transformation in the years to come?”
As we proceed with this process of discernment, let us remind ourselves of the dynamic nature of our Christian faith: that, as our old motto puts it, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: the Reformed church is always undergoing reformation. Reformation, by its very nature, means both blessing the old — which we must sometimes let go of — and welcoming the beauty of the new. “Faith begins by letting go,” as our hymn puts it,
giving up what had seemed sure,
taking risks and pressing on,
though the way feels less secure:
pilgrimage both right and odd,
trusting all our life to God.
(Glory to God #684)
The Rev. Dr. Carl Wilton is the Pastor of the Lamington Presbyterian Church in Bedminster, NJ (Elizabeth) and served as the Polity Advisor to the New Jersey Missional Structures Working Group.