Bursting at the seams

Text: Mark 2:13-22 (new wine and old wineskins)

Last Thursday, Comedy Central broadcast the final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; and to my surprise, watching it made me think about the “new wine” of God’s realm that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading.

The Daily Show is a fake TV news program that has run four nights a week for the last 16 years. On it, Stewart regularly skewered right-wing politicians and pundits in the United States – think Donald Trump and Fox News.

I enjoyed his final episode. It reunited many of the comedians who had worked with Stewart over the years and it showed the love shared by the people who create the show. But it was the end of the episode that most touched me and made me think about new wine. At the close, Stewart brought out fellow New Jersey superstar Bruce Springsteen to play “Land of Hope and Dreams.”

I first heard this song in a Worship course in 2008.  At the end of the first class, the professor showed a video of Bruce Springsteen performing “Land of Hope and Dreams” in a stadium in Spain in 2002. This performance, he said, had a lot of the elements of great worship – a huge gathering of people hungry for hope and uplift, a consummate group of performers who loved creating music together, and a song based on a 1920s Gospel tune called “This Train is Bound for Glory.”

Here are some of the lyrics: “Big wheels roll through fields / Where sunlight streams /
Oh meet me in a land of hope and dreams. / This train . . . / carries saints and sinners / This train . . . / carries losers and winners / This train . . . / carries whores and gamblers / This train . . . / carries lost souls / I said this train . . . / Dreams will not be thwarted / This train . . . / Faith will be rewarded.”

The professor was showing us that God’s Spirit is not confined to church. It blows where it will and can be found even in a stadium filled with rock fans or on a satirical comedy program.

In fact, church might be the last place to look for the new wine of God’s Spirit. Many churches like ours are struggling to survive. For instance, more than 500 United Church congregations have closed in the past decade.

Yesterday, 350 leaders of the United Church of Canada began a week-long meeting in Newfoundland. As our General Council, they will vote on recommendations to restructure the church after a three-year long comprehensive review process. Unfortunately, I am not hopeful about the meeting. The final report of the review task group evades the clear implication of the statistics contained within it – namely that our denomination will cease to exist in the next 20 or 30 years.

I proclaim this painful thought today because I think it is the truth; because I see hope for new life in it; and because the leaders of our church gathered in Newfoundland seem unable to admit that the church is mortally wounded.

The United Church has been in a steady decline relative to the Canadian population for 60 years and in an absolute decline of about 75% for the past 50 years. In 1965, there were maybe 600,000 activists in the United Church with an average age of about 40. Today, there are only about 150,000 of us with an average age of more than 65. Given these facts, it seems obvious to me that even our strongest congregations will close in the next 20 or 30 years.

This would include us here at Mill Woods United, of course, along with our Anglican, Moravian, Mennonite, Lutheran, and Presbyterian neighbours. All the old Protestant denominations are declining in Canada, and even the more conservative churches have begun to shrink in the last few years.

The closure of churches can be gut-wrenchingly painful. And yet, I believe that the demise of church could bring us closer to the new wine of God’s reign. I hope that I can explain why I think this in these remarks.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is challenged by religious leaders who criticize his followers for eating with sinners and not fasting like the followers of John the Baptist.

Jesus responds by saying that everything has changed. He has proclaimed the coming of the reign of God and called us to turn from old ways towards the light of God that exists within and between us.

Jesus compares the joy of God’s reign to a wedding feast and to new wine that is so vital it bursts old wineskins. He sees traditional practices like fasting, ethnic purity, and animal sacrifice as old wineskins. The new wine is the path of death and resurrection that Jesus is proclaiming in word and deed in Galilee.

Today the old wineskins could be our denominations. New wine is not bursting their seams. Instead, it seems to have largely bypassed church altogether.

I am not sure how a church like ours can once again be filled with the new wine of God’s Spirit, but I am glad that we are looking for answers.

Part of the answer is embracing death when presented with a fatal diagnosis. Acknowledging mortality can be painful. But it is not the end of the story. Jesus shows us that, with God’s Grace, it can be the beginning of wisdom . . . and the beginning of the party.

Even while in Galilee, Jesus knows that his mission will end in death. He says “the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them . . . But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away, and they will fast on that day.”

Later, when Jesus turns from Galilee to Jerusalem, he says more clearly that he will be killed and he calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Jesus is the bridegroom at a wedding banquet who invites so-called sinners to join him. The banquet is not designed to deny death but to celebrate the surprising new life that arises from it.

Making a decision to close our denomination need not end our mission. It might just mark our version of Jesus’ turn from Galilee to Jerusalem.

If we embraced our mortality, we would suffer grief. But we might then be better placed to invite other churches to join the party . . . to abandon patriarchy in favour of full rights for women and gay people . . . to abandon beliefs that no longer jibe with the social production of knowledge in an intercultural world . . . and to create new faith communities that could expand with the new wine of God’s Spirit.

Church leaders like Moderator Gary Paterson suggest that we not dwell on statistics. I agree that statistics aren’t everything. But there are also good reasons to count things. We count the weekly offering to keep track of how much money we have to pay our expenses. We count the numbers at Sunday gatherings, and it makes a difference to us whether there are 50 or 350. Even though Jesus says he is there whenever two or three are gathered in his name, numbers do matter.

Since I came to Mill Woods United last year, the number of people involved in church, the level of energy, and our givings have all increased. But the increases have not been nearly enough to make up for increased expenses now that all our staff positions are filled.

The Facing the Future group exists partly because of ongoing deficits. If things stay as they are, a financial crunch looms in the next few years. It is in this context that we ask today’s tough discussion question. Should we disband as a pastoral charge?

I don’t argue that the United Church of Canada close immediately. I like the idea of aiming for our centennial, which is 10 years from now in 2025. Unfortunately, many congregations will not make it. Some have already closed or soon will because of a lack of money and energy.

But it is not crucially important whether the United Church of Canada thrives for another 1,000 years or disappears tomorrow. All human institutions — whether empires or churches — eventually wither away. God as the healing Source and Spirit of Love remains.

With or without a United Church, I am confident that people like us will continue to gather with friends and neighbours to discern the Spirit of Love, to care for one another and the world, and to mourn and celebrate together. Come what may, and with God’s Grace, I trust that we will find ways to create new wineskins that can contain the wine of God’s Love.

I feel blessed to be the minister here and privileged to work with you. I am glad that our members engage with the community as passionate followers of Jesus. And I am pleased that we have a Facing the Future group that understands that our current reality is like an old wineskin.

May our discussion and discernment help us find a way into a future that, while different from the past, will still be true to the God of Love revealed in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

As Springsteen sings, “on this train, dreams will not be thwarted; on this train faith will be rewarded,” come what may.

Thanks be to God.


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