Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Mike Turgeon “Discipleship by the sea: Mercy” January 23, 2011
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?"
Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.
"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."
There is no mercy in the letter of the law. Of course, in the law, it’s all right there in black and white, so mercy is not required. Each letter of the law is meant to spell out the awful truth that can’t be budged.
By the letter of the law, you either do right, or you do wrong. In the law, there is not a lot of wiggle room. And yet, the law of which we speak is the law of God, handed down to Moses who delivered it to God’s people.
The story of the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, is about how following the law leads to holiness. It was not an easy journey but you could get there. In fact, the original Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments, morphed into over 600 other laws, regulating everything from your diet to the choice of clothing material. To call that a narrow road is an understatement.
From the law, you could reach purity. But human nature being what it was, and is, the biggest temptation on that road was pride. Pride is that thing that causes us to say, “I’ve got a better way than God’s way.” It is pride driving the Pharisees to ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples not fast?” Regular fasting was a major indicator that you followed the law.
These scribes of the Pharisees we’ve been speaking about these last couple weeks did not just pop up over night. I mean, as far back as when the Israelites stopped wandering, they began wondering, who is going to enforce these laws God has handed down? So they raised up Judges. One of the first, and most powerful being a woman, Deborah. The people commissioned judges to interpret the inevitable contradictions in the law.
Now, they probably should have stopped with the Judges, but the people were sure they needed a king. Well that opened up a whole new can of worms, and they learned the up close and personal truth about earthly kings, they have their good days and their bad days, so be careful what you wish for.
The scribes of the Pharisees echoed what the kings did; they took the law into their own hands, and 600 plus laws later, they’ve got the people right where they want them, paying more attention to the details of the law than the God who gave the law.
And when Jesus threatens this game, he had to be challenged. But the Pharisees send the scribes to do their dirty work.
It all starts out rather innocently as it usually does between Jesus and his challengers. “Hey, Jesus, what’s with the tax collectors and sinners? Shouldn’t you be hanging around with a better crowd?”
Or, remember this one? “Hey, Jesus, why is that woman wasting all that precious ointment by pouring it on your feet? Shouldn’t you be selling it and giving the money to the poor instead?”
And now this: “Everybody else’s disciples fast, why don’t your disciples fast? What gives?
These hard-liners want to know.
The Jews struggled mightily to find a God identity in the law. Fasting tried to address this. All faith communities must find their God identity. But the rule of law is not an end in itself for a faith community, and if it is, then pride is lurking somewhere in the bushes.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time think they have the final say on who will be deemed holy and who will not. For them, there is no more important question. They thought they had God wrapped up in a nice, tidy package, the better able to pull him out when it was convenient.
But the times they were a-changin.’
There is no mercy in the letter of the law; purity is possible, yes, but no mercy. Jesus came to show a new path to mercy, a path leading directly through him.
As Jesus himself said, he did not come to abolish the law, he came to complete it, to use the law to accomplish a greater purpose. After Jesus, the law was no longer two-dimensional, it had depth. In fact, in Jesus, we now live in a new law—the law of love. This is it, folks, our big break. The Gospel of John put it this way, “The law, indeed, was given through Moses; grace and truth come through Jesus Christ.” There is no mercy in the letter of the law, but there is mercy in the love of God.
Ironically, the law is aware of mercy. By definition, mercy describes leniency shown by one person to another. Mercy is compassion or relief given to an undeserving recipient.
Years after the death of President Calvin Coolidge, this story came to light. In the early days of his presidency, Coolidge awoke one morning in his hotel room to find a cat burglar going through his pockets. Coolidge spoke up, asking the burglar to please not take his watch chain because it contained an engraved charm he wanted to keep.
Coolidge then engaged the thief in quiet conversation and discovered he was a college student who had no money to pay his hotel bill or buy a ticket back to campus. Coolidge counted $32 out of his wallet--and gave it to the man! He declared the money to be a loan, and advised the young man to leave the way he had come in so as to avoid the Secret Service! And yes, the loan was paid back. Today in the Word, October 8, 1992.
The mercy of God’s love will always seem just as shocking. But have you ever noticed that the law of love may be an even narrower way than the law itself? It is much easier to quote chapter and verse concerning who’s in and who’s out, what’s right and what’s wrong. But to actually extend love and mercy to someone we think does not deserve it? Lord, don’t make us go there!
But the mercy of the love of God in Jesus Christ will always lead us to places of freedom we cannot imagine. A mother once approached fearsome Emperor Napoleon. This woman was seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offense twice and justice demanded his death.
"But I don't ask for justice," the mother explained. "I plead for mercy."
"But your son does not deserve mercy," Napoleon replied.
"Sir," the woman cried, "it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for."
"Well, then," the emperor said, "I will have mercy." And he spared the woman's son.
(Luis Palau, Experiencing God's Forgiveness, Multnomah Press, 1984.)
Can you let Jesus have mercy on you?
Can you imagine Pharisees showing the same mercy to Jesus that Napoleon showed to the young man? No. They’re looking to guard against loopholes. And the laws on fasting were tailor-made for challenging anyone seen as a threat to the status quo.
Well, Jesus was ready when they came at him. “Why don’t my disciples fast?”
Would you refuse to eat and drink at a wedding feast? Heck no!
Would you put a new patch on an old coat? How dumb is that?
Would you pour new wine into old wineskins? You better not.
Jesus doesn’t answer his challengers with law, but rather challenges them with God’s love.
Mercy is a fresh start, not a stale makeover. Your suit of clothes will start to look pretty ragged if you keep trying to apply perfectly good patches to a perfectly worn out garment.
When the wedding vows have been uttered, get out there on the dance floor, don’t be a wallflower! Celebrate the deep, redeeming love of Jesus Christ; drink a few toasts to his presence every day.
That’s the lesson of Jesus. There is a time for every purpose, but don’t be trying to fit merciful love into its own little box and time slot. Be ready to party with the bridegroom. The law of God is not merely a collection of letters because Christ fulfilled that law and made it live through mercy.
Jesus brings a new answer to the table, one that will not fit on the tidy charts and graphs of the scribes. In God’s love through Jesus Christ, there is no place for you to keep score. It is a bit messy in that way. Some of the worst offenders get let back into the game--the New Wine of God’s love upsets established order and conventional rules.
In the reign of God on earth, Jesus brings this new authority. He brings the Good News of God’s merciful love. In Christ, you put on a new suit of clothes, you drink from a New Wine.
The new authority we’re beginning to see come to life in the pages of Mark’s Gospel is good news to those who will follow the bridegroom into the wedding feast.
I learned something this week about "New Wine." Back in Palestine in Jesus’ day, new wine, or 'sweet wine' referred to the first flow of juice that happens when you pile grapes into a big heap before they’re pressed. The pressure of the pile forces this first fruit of the grape to ooze out. If you’ve ever tasted this juice you know there is nothing sweeter. And the chemistry is such that if you put that product into an improperly treated skin or bag, you can get an explosion.
This triggered a memory for me.
Chris and I were invited to a grape crush party in Santa Cruz one time. Wow, I thought, were they really going to let me put my feet in a vat? And if so, how long would my feet stay purple?
So imagine our surprise at how high tech this operation was. The ‘party’ was less about making the wine than socializing over food and wine while a few of those in the know handled all the machinery and the rest of us just enjoyed the beautiful day.
But being a curious sort, I started asking questions and learned that this wine group had a bottom line for getting together.
They were looking to make a $45 bottle of wine that cost them $4 to produce. They’d only been at it as a group for about 5 years, so they had a ways to go yet, but their product from the previous year was good, no $2 affair.
As my curiosity led me deeper into the system, I finally found myself face to face with the main winemaker down in the working cellar, where the action was. When he described the process they followed from harvest to sale, I learned about a couple iron rules of winemaking that sounded pretty familiar. The most important, apparently, was the one about the condition of the barrels themselves.
They never introduced a fresh squeezed grape juice into a well-aged barrel without treating and conditioning the inside of the barrel.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. What he was saying was,
“Don’t put new wine into old wineskins.”
In his case, they were looking to avoid weird forms of toxic growth and explosive reactions.
And I thought to myself, well aren’t we all, aren’t we all?
New Wine and old wineskins; isn't that the dilemma of the church today? In order to keep from sounding like scribes, we must continually adjust to the new things that God is doing in our midst.
What kind of treatment does the church have to submit to in order to accommodate the new wine? How does it need to be stretched? How do each of us need to be re-conditioned?
The Pharisees were accustomed to throwing sinners out of the synagogue for not adhering to the status quo, for not fitting in. Praise God that Jesus is not looking to isolate the sinners from the righteous. Instead, He is here on a ‘re-conditioning’ project.