Matthew 9:16-17; Matthew 5:14-15; Luke 6:47-49
You may recognize the title from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Do we have any fans here? “And Now for Something Completely Different,” is a film is a collection of sketches from the first two seasons of Monty Python on British television. The name comes from the catchphrase, used frequently in the show to introduce the next act.
If you are a fan of Monty Python, you know that the humor is bizarre, sometimes inappropriate and, usually funny! The Monty Python team had a way of looking at the world in an upside down, ridiculous and often ludicrous way. But it made for good entertainment.
So, Jesus was not so different from Monty Python. He turned the cultured precious norms on their heads. And he made no secret of it. He started right out being right up front. I am going to introduce you to something completely different! Hold on to your seats!
About a month ago, I decided to focus our attention for a while on the teachings of Jesus. I have searched the topic and talked with some of you about this idea, and I noticed an interesting thing. Most of the time when I asked about the teachings of Jesus, the answers I got referred to teachings about Jesus. Jesus was one of the greatest teachers of all time, and yet, our attention tends to focus on teachings about him rather than what he actually said. For these next weeks, I want to focus on what Jesus said. Not on what we say about Jesus.
I pondered the best way to do this. The Sermon on the Mount? I did a sermon series on that a couple of years ago, though you may not remember. It is always worth another look. It is certainly the greatest single collections of Jesus’ teachings we have in the whole Bible.
But Jesus wasn’t known so much for his sermons as for his stories. Stories, as Jesus knew, are one of the best ways to help people to remember something. We are built to remember stories, and to retell them to others. Many of you knew Bob Hall. He had a gift for remembering jokes. He was always full of them, sifted carefully for what he could tell in church! But stories are even bigger and more memorable than jokes.
The Bible is full of stories. The Hebrew people at the time of Jesus were still primarily an oral culture. Many did not read. The whole history of the Hebrew people was handed down around the campfires each night before bedding down.
When I was a child, we went camping often. And the treat was the slow-down time at the end of the day around the campfire. What made that time most memorable, was the time we could get Dad or our uncle John to tell us a story. Those stories were larger than life.
Or, change the scene…. Thanksgiving dinners at grandma’s house. The family stories were told there. That is where I learned the heart and passions which make me who I am, where I learned the stories of my family, and my heritage. Even now, when I gather with my siblings, we like to rehearse these stories. Oddly, over the years we each remember them differently – in fact – sometimes I wonder if we grew up in the same family! But each of us were shaped by those stories. And we have agreed that there are certain stories which have made us who we are, which we carry in our bones, which make us of the same “stuff.”
We could apply the same principle to Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. A few years ago we did a study on our “DNA,” what stories and memories make us who we are. There are so many stories – from ghost stories, to cheerleading stories, to smoking on the steps stories, to sneaking into the vast air handling ducts to hide from parents stories. You have your own. Stories of our high points, and stories of our failures. Let’s never leave these out. They are often the most powerful, shaping what we become. But, even if you are new to this place, these stories linger. Some of you sense them around you, hear them whisper in the walls.
So what are the stories which make us who we are? Yes, the Mt. Tabor family stories. But in the end, the stories that matter are Jesus’ stories. And we have lots of them! The Chronological Bible gave me the idea of approaching them in chronological order, rather than by book or theme. The first group of parables we read today focuses on the fact that there’s a new story being told, that it’s not to be hidden, and it serves as a foundation for what’s coming next. Just that they come first in Jesus’ ministry tells us something about them.
Don’t patch an old coat with new cloth. Don’t fill old wineskins with new wine. Doing what I say is to put a strong foundation under your house. Light is visible – it can be seen from a distance, and close up, a small candle lights a whole space.
Each story has its own fine points, but together, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, they say: And now for something completely different!
The first two metaphors in particular draw attention to the new thing which is coming in following Jesus’ way. Jesus is talking to Jewish people mostly at this point. Some would be influenced by the Pharisees, some by John the Baptist, others would simply follow the Temple liturgies. They are trying to figure out what implications Jesus’ teachings have for what they have always done. Jesus’ answer is simple. What I teach is something completely new. Don’t try to add it to what you have always done. The two will destroy each other, like putting new wine in an old wineskin. The old structures and containers, just won’t hold this new way of living.
We bump into this one in the church – not just ours. The seven last words of the church are not far off: “We’ve never done it that way before!” True! We’ve never done it that way before. It’s a whole new way of living! It is Jesus’ affirmation, not a complaint.
This way is a rock on which to build a house that will withstand a flooding river. In the first home I owned, we did a complete remodel of the kitchen. Just after we finished, we took a weekend vacation with friends. When we came home, the whole house was flooded with hot water. A pipe to the new dishwasher had burst producing a river flowing through the house. It went from the kitchen into the dining room, ruining all the hardwood floors and flowing down the floor furnace, eroding the dirt under the central chimney. As the soil washed away, the chimney sank, and pulled cracks in all the walls adjacent to it, including the new kitchen tile. It didn’t sink very far, but it did an immense amount of damage! Had that chimney been seated on a rock, it would have stood firm under the water’s attack.
The point of this particular parable, which I can’t emphasize too strongly, is to build your life’s foundation on Jesus’ way, not on what people say about him, not on what a pastor says, not on what the scholars say. We have all been wrong. And more importantly, what has been said in the past is an old wineskin, holding good wine for those who heard at the time, but fragile and inadequate for the decisions and questions we face now.
So much of what is wrong with modern Christianity is that we have come to rely on teachings about Jesus rather than living the way Jesus did. I don’t know how many times I have heard Christians say, “I don’t know much about the Bible, but…,” and go on to comment on something they believe Christianity teaches. That is like building a house on the sand. When the storms of life come, there is no strength, and life falls flat.
Jesus warned his listeners that his teaching was something completely different. And if it is poured into the old wineskins, the skins will burst and the wine will be wasted on the ground. The way Jesus taught disciples to live is something completely different from the tried and true ways handed down for generations. And I think this is true in every generation. Each person, each generation has to find its own way to live the teachings of Jesus. And for each of us, Jesus warns, when we live his way, we will be like new cloth or new wine, and all that newness will stretch and stress all we have known.
Is it disaster? Is it completely unsettling? If our values and actions are aligned with those of our culture, the answer is yes.
But it is light. And what does light do? First, it is like a city set on a hill top. If we live in the way of Jesus, people will notice. The practice will be seen.
Jim Wallis of Sojourners, tells the story of organizing a candlelight vigil and one of the most common questions people asked was, “Do we need to bring our own candles?” The question is a good one for us today. Do we need to bring our own candles? Yes! Absolutely! Jesus said: You (we) are the light of the world. And we can’t be the light on the hill, the light which guides the world, if we don’t bring our own candle, the one which is our own light.
The other part of this candle parable is where Jesus reminds us that candles are put on a stand, not under a bowl. Why? Because the purpose of a candle is to chase away the darkness, to help us see where we are going and to be true to our path. We are the light of the world.
And that means living in a different way. It means that when people are around us, they feel lighter, happier, more centered.
I am reading a book about the founding of the Aurora Colony. This religious community didn’t just have the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But they had the “diamond rule” – make other’s lives better than your own. Mother Teresa had something similar to say – “Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
This is what it means to be the light of the world. We are called to a new way of living, which brings light, hope, joy. And it won’t fit in the old wineskins of building our own little kingdoms. As we come together to make each others lives better than our own, we will see the light.