“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.”
The story goes that a man walks into an antique shop much like a good many we have in this part of New Hampshire; and also much like some of the shops we have around here, this place is filled to overflowing with knick-knacks and also a fair amount of junk. So imagine this man’s surprise when he looks down on the floor and sees a cat drinking milk out of saucer that looks all the world like it came from ancient China – and sure enough, when he bends down to take a closer look, he discovers that it is clearly a relic from the Ming Dynasty!
Immediately, this man realizes both that he’s found an incredible treasure and that the shop owner obviously has no clue as to the value of that treasure, given that there’s a cat drinking out of it! So he figures this could be the bargain of his life – he goes up to the owner of the shop and says, “You know, that is really an amazing cat you’ve got there.” “That cat?” the shop owner replies. “Oh, that’s not much of a cat; she’s just a stray I got from the animal shelter to get rid of the mice.” And the man says, “No, I really love that cat – in fact, I’d like to buy it from you. How about I give you $500 for her?” The store owner laughed, “You’ve got to be kidding – she really isn’t worth that much, but if you insist, for $500 she yours.”
And then as the man is getting out the money to pay, he casually looks over at the saucer and says, “By the way, I’m going to need something to feed my new cat from… throw in that little saucer and I’ll give you and extra ten bucks.” To which the store owner replies, “Oh, no way. That’s an ancient relic from the Ming Dynasty! It’s my most prized possession; it’s worth more than anything else I have in this store. But you know, it’s a funny thing, since I put milk in it, I’ve sold 17 cats.”
It has been aptly stated, friends, that the ability to perceive value is actually a very precious gift – because every one of us, every day of our lives, is surrounded by things that are of inestimable value; and yet the truth is that some of us know it, and some of us don’t. And I’m not just referring to things like antiques or jewelry – the ability, or the inability to perceive great value also applies to matters of life and faith. And you know that’s true; I’m sure that most of us here could name someone in our lives who has everything that’s truly important in life – things like family and friends, their health and a purpose for living – and yet does not have the first clue as to what they’ve got. In fact, as a pastor, I can tell you that all too often these are the first ones through my door to tell me about everything they haven’t got! I don’t know; maybe this comes from an attitude that having things like money, power and recognition is the key to everything in life – which, of course, it ultimately isn’t – or perhaps it’s the belief that there has to be something better out there than what you’ve already got, so you always have to hold out for the “next big thing;” but the point is that usually to their own detriment they’re unable, or unwilling, to recognize the huge value of what’s right there in front of them!
This also relates to our relationship with God, and it’s what we find in our gospel reading this morning, in which the Pharisees, always so fixated on things legal and traditional where their faith was concerned, could not begin to see the infinite value of what was, at that very moment, happening in their midst; that the Messiah himself was right in front of them in the person of Jesus! Imagine it; the fulfillment of all their hopes and prayers, right there, close enough to touch – yet all the Pharisees could think about was how Jesus wasn’t adhering to the letter of the law!
The issue at hand is the solemn tradition of religious fasting, and you can almost hear their exasperation in this passage: Why aren’t you doing this, Jesus? You and your disciples, you need to be fasting and praying! Even John the Baptist, with all his ranting and raving; he and his people know to fast and pray like they’re supposed to! It’s bad enough, Jesus, that you’re always out there hanging out with sinners and lowlifes, flaunting any pretense of at least appearing to be righteous; is it too much to ask that you at least make an attempt to follow the law?
But this is how Jesus answers: “You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you?” Once again, a bit of a parable to get his point across; in other words, there will come a day for fasting, but right now, the bridegroom is here! There’s a celebration going on, a wedding banquet underway, and why would you be fasting at a time like that – so enjoy this moment that the bridegroom is here! Well, likewise, the kingdom has drawn near, and the time is now to rejoice and celebrate this gift of great and infinite value – so taste and see that the Lord is good!
Jesus goes on from there with the wonderful image of how you don’t take new wine and put it into old wineskins – why? Because as the people of Jesus’ time understood – old wineskins (which were made, by the way, of goatskin leather) were already stretched out to the limit and over time tended to become hard and brittle, easily split and broken. So more often than not, with an old wineskin you’d end up spilling the new wine – for new wine, you wanted a fresh wineskin, one that had the elasticity to stretch and grow and take shape with the new wine as it ages; and so it is with the Kingdom of God, which was in their midst at their very moment in Jesus.
Now, it’s very tempting to look at this passage and make the assumption that since the new wine represents Jesus and the kingdom, and the old wineskin represents the Pharisees and their legalism, therefore what is new and fresh is ever and always good, and what is old and traditional is always bad. Let’s be clear: that’s not what Jesus is saying here; in fact, you’ll notice in the last verse of what we read today, Jesus says that “no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says ‘The old is good.’”
I do not believe that our Lord ever intended for us to abandon the bedrock traditions of our faith and all that God has done in the past – it’s our heritage, it’s who we are as Christians, and indeed, as the church – but I do believe that in this passage our Lord is warning us against missing out on the joy of what God is doing and has yet to do, of not recognizing the value of what we’re being given right here and now!
We must always take care that we do not allow ourselves to become so hard and unyielding that we cannot let the new wine of the gospel fill us, so that we will stretch and grow and become what God has meant us to be. As Thomas Tewell has written, “the finest wine ever made is the gospel of Jesus Christ …and when you taste and see that the Lord is good …when you taste the sweetness of the gospel,” then your life becomes transformed in ways that you can’t even begin to imagine. One of the greatest truths of our faith, beloved, is that our God is ever and always doing a new thing in us and through us; even now bringing forth new wine, but it is up to us to appreciate the great value of what God has done; to recognize the gospel for what it is, and for what it can do; for us, in a very real sense, to actually be the new wineskins in receiving that gospel so that it might be shared with the world.
You know, quite honestly for me this is part and parcel of what we’re doing on this “Stewardship Sunday.” For in and through all of our talk every fall of offerings and pledges and meeting a church budget, isn’t it true that in the end what it’s about is you and I responding to what we have tasted and what we have seen in the Lord? What is an offering, after all; what is a pledge or a commitment of giving if it isn’t a way of sharing something of what we’ve received in such great abundance; the result, if you will, of our having grown and stretched and expanded in faith, love and joy, all because of this incredible infusion of God’s “new wine” in our lives?
Well, it seems to me that here at East Church we have had a wonderful taste of the gospel’s sweetness; it’s there in the smiles and laughter that we see in the children as they race out of here to go to Sunday School; it’s heard in and through the fellowship shared at Holiday Fairs and Harvest Suppers; it’s found in the uniquely personal and deeply spiritual outreach that happens from friend to friend, family to family, church to the world by the grace of God in Christ. And, might I add, it’s in that palpable joy that my wife and I have experienced from the very first moment we became part of a wonderful church family. It’s the certainly that God is indeed doing a new thing in our midst, bringing the finest new wine into all our lives!
I believe that right now, you and I being invited and called to be as new wineskins – flexible, stretchable with the ability to grow, so we may be truly filled with this new wine of the gospel, that we might fully participate in God’s future for us and for all of creation. I do believe that this is only the beginning of what God is doing in and through our lives here at East Congregational Church; and in all honestly, friends, I pray today that our stewardship as a congregation will reflect that.
But as important as the pledges and offerings we’re receiving this morning are for what happens here at East Church in the coming year, understand me when I say that of equal importance is our willingness to grow and stretch in the kind of way that assures that through our lives, our joy, our faith, others might get a glimpse of the kingdom, and in us perhaps see something of the one whose presence proclaims that kingdom’s coming coming; for with that kind of faithful stewardship, there will be no limit for what can be done in this place for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” Beloved, as now we receive both the regular offerings of our hearts and hands, as well as this morning the expressions of our commitment to the church’s ministry for 2013, may our response to the Lord truly befit the great value of what we’ve tasted, and what we’ve seen in the Lord; for it has been very good, indeed!
Thanks be to God, dear friends. Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry