I remember my parents getting the bright idea one-day that they were going to create some homemade beer–a common country practice, by the way–in old Scandinavia. We were on summer vacation at my grandmother’s home in Finland. It was very rustic, and still is, I might add. No electricity, running water that you hand-pumped from the well to a holding tank in the ceiling and hot water that was heated by the wood burning stove. In the midst of a long midsummer night, they had been telling us about the way things “used” to be and how wonderful it was to have that home brew. This was new to me, because neither of them was much of a beer drinker, so this image had a powerful pull to it.
So the water was boiled and cooled, slabs of stale dark sour bread were cut into the mixture (because that was how it was done), yeast added and the whole mess covered up with a clean linen towel and laid to rest on the edge of the warm stove. The glorious elixir now only hours, days away from perfection.
During that night, however, we were awakened by a very strange sound. Coming from somewhere in the house was a “blurrrp, blurrrp, blurrrp” loud enough to wake us all. Into the kitchen we ran and discovered that the brew had taken on a life of its own. Outgrowing its pot, it had moved over the stove, down onto the floor and was now heading for the door. All the while growing and moving and “blurrping.” We never did get to taste that country brew; both my father and mother agreed that something must have happened to the recipe (or their memory of it!) and out it went. But the power, forcefulness and determination of that living liquid remains with me to this day.
Our lessons this Sunday speak quite eloquently to this power. Call it the Spirit, new wine, grace–it is the relentless love of God that spills over, that bursts all constraints, that fills all things. The sad and unfortunate reality, however, is that most of us have forgotten this. We look to the surface of things, the cover of the book, so to speak, and not to the content.
Today’s parable from Mark has always puzzled me. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
What is it about? Preserving the old container, or getting a new one? Saving the garment? Or is it about the patch? In reflecting on these questions I have come to realize that we–I, perhaps you, and especially parts of the church today–have tended to focus on the container rather than the content. As regards the church, as with so many contemporary institutions, we get caught up in matters of image, we worry about our style and our message gets moved to the back burner. In this light it is no wonder that this parable is paired with the lesson from the prophet Hosea.
This story of Hosea and his “wandering” wife Gomer is at its heart one of the most beautiful love stories in the Bible. In summary, God has commanded Hosea, a faithful and righteous man, to take the local adulteress (for lack of a better word), named Gomer, to be his wife. They have two children, and they are to be named “No Mercy” and “Not My People.” Gomer leaves him and goes out after other men. Now, needless to say, Hosea is a bit “ambivalent” about all this. He details her sins and threatens her destruction, yet in his next breath, he loves her and wants to woo her back. Despite her unfaithfulness, Hosea makes the decision to bring her back and begin the marriage again. But the story doesn’t end there.
Just as Hosea decides to woo back Gomer, so God decides to woo back the apostate Israel. The Lord said to Hosea, Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband.’” The Lord also will have pity on the children, and rename them. No longer shall they be call “No Mercy” and “Not My People,” but they shall be called “Mercy” and “You are my People”; they shall say, “You are my God.”
The power and desire of God is to woo us–to call us “his people” and to bring us into the land of our heritage–and have us say, “You are our God.” The story of salvation is God’s continual reaching out to humankind. In its final and decisive moment, God desire for us came in the form of Jesus Christ.
If humanity could not be faithful to God, God was going to be faithful to us–in the person of Jesus. To the religious leaders and civil authorities of his day, Jesus was a troublemaker, a radical threatening to subvert the status quo. To those who saw and experienced him, it was a life altering moment. And so it is for us. As St Paul wrote–”Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus Christ] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”–we are reminded of just how far God will go to show us his love. We are reminded just how far God will go to look for us, to restore our senses and bring us to himself. In human form, Jesus came among us and called to us. He came among us as one of us and showed us who the Father is and who we are to the Father. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, he raised the dead to life. Jesus brought good news to the poor; gave honor and respect to those who had none. He proclaimed the Kingdom of God. And that, dear friends, is the new wine.
If we look just at Gomer, at who she appears to be, we lose the power and content of Hosea’s love for her. If we look only at the wayward children of Israel, we miss the power and grace of God. If we look only at the type of church we are . . . what our public face is . . . we miss the proclamation of the Kingdom . . . we forget the content . . . the New Wine of Christ. . . and focus only on an empty skin.
So, my sisters and brothers, judge not the book by its cover, worry not about the container. But seek the wine. Come drink deeply of the new wine that is the life of Christ. Let you, yourselves, become the container of the power and love of God. Show it forth. Relish it. Live into it. Share it. For it is together and only together in the power, forcefulness and determination of that living liquid–the new wine of Jesus of Nazareth–that you and I, all of us, become the Body of Christ, and therefore are the Church.