“Where the Party’s At”- Meals with Jesus Sermon Series
“Where the Party’s At”
Isaiah 43:19-21; Luke 5:33-39
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
February 13, 2022
My brother in Winston Salem, NC is a film editor, and he has this next-door neighbor who is part of a cycling group there in the city that gets out multiple mornings a week – and they ride together. They have been doing this for a decade, and slowly but surely growing as people hear about it and join in.
Well, this neighbor learns that my brother is a film editor and says, “Do you think you could us make a documentary about our group?”
Michael, my brother, agrees and begins showing up to these cycling groups at 5am to film. To interview.
A few months ago, Michael sent me a rough draft of his documentary. The participants talk about the rush of riding together but also the fact that many mornings they don’t want to – but they talk about their friends and fellow cyclists who will be there and are relying on them being there – and so they get there.
They talk about how cycling has grown into sometimes sharing breakfast together. Or sharing dinners with one another’s families. Or birthdays. Or coaching one another’s children. Or sharing whole traditions of annual awards and annual meals they share together.
And then probably the most poignant part of this documentary is when one of the co-founders of the group had cancer a few years ago, and they told the story of walking with him through that…
- Of shifting in and out with the family to stay the night at the hospital.
- Of meals brought.
- Of helping with physical therapy needed at one point.
- Of riding in honor of this teammate and fundraising for medical expenses.
Do you know what struck me about this documentary as I was listening to these cyclists in Winston Salem speak through laughter and tears and gratitude about their group?
“This isn’t a documentary about cycling, it was a documentary about human
The kind that lives life with and for one another in every aspect of life – good and bad.
And you know what my next thought was? “The way they talk about this group sounds so much like how people who love church talk about the church. The cycling group is their church.”
Which then led to my third thought: “Why isn’t church their church?”
“Why not the church as the space in which joy and tears and family connection are known? Why not the church for their church?”
The religious leaders said to Jesus, “John’s disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees,
frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink.”
“John’s folks they do religion like you are supposed to – fasting and praying. Jesus, your people are doing things outside the confines of how this goes. Your people act like this is a big party.”
To be sure, Jesus is not against either fasting or praying. He does both of them regularly in his ministry. He teaches about both of them to his disciples.
The issue seems to be that whatever Jesus and his followers are up to – it’s somehow not fitting in with the current expectations of how you live the faithful life and what it looks like.
We’re here at 8:30am (11am) properly dressed, attentive, prayerful, faithful…and you all riding bikes outside?!
Why isn’t church their church? Is life a joy ride?
Every MLK day I have a tradition of reading through Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. If you have not read it or if you have read it – I wholeheartedly commend it to you. King is in jail for protesting the treatment of Black people in Birmingham, and while there he decides to respond to his critics, many of them white Protestant pastors of mainline congregations.
In particular, he responds to them as they continue to say “slow down. Wait. Stop with the sit-ins and the marches. Let’s talk it out. Let’s let the court system we have in place work itself toward justice.”
This is to say, “There is a proper (you might even say ‘faithful’) way to get things done. There’s a structure. There’s a system. Honor that.”
And some of the more haunting words from King’s Letter are these:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”
“Why wasn’t the way of the white moderate mainline church King and his followers’ church? Why does faithfulness among them not look like faithfulness among us? Why are not the faithful ways of slowing down and trusting the process the way heeded?
And whether it’s Jesus’s disciples eating and drinking, or deeply connected cycling groups or those sitting in and marching out, the singular response is tucked deeply in that singular sentence from Jesus:
“No one puts new wine into old wineskins.”
Jesus is the new wine.
- A wine of radical love that brings all the wrong people to the table.
- A wine of uncompromising justice that overturns the Temple tables of orderly injustice.
- A wine that reconciles people to God and one another across every sin, every evil, every disagreement, every difference.
Jesus is a river of new wine. And if you have new wine flowing…you can’t put it into an old wineskin. An old container. An old structure. Or, if you do, Jesus is clear….
…the new wine will burst the old container altogether.
Why isn’t the church their church?
Is ever possible even the most sacred and cherished of containers – proper expressions of Judaism like fasting and praying, proper ways of gathering and doing church in buildings and with committees and patient timelines and all the rest – is ever possible that sometimes the new wine is simply too fulsome, too joyful, too loving, too just to be held only by those?
And so is it ever possible that the river of New Wine just starts pouring forth over meals outside of church and in cycling groups and on the streets…
…because the new wine needs a bigger container? A new container?
I recently read an article by Dwight Zscheile, a notable leader within the Lutheran Church, who published an article in 2018 exploring how ELCA may well be no more as a denominational structure in 30 years time. And he believes the pandemic has only accelerated that direction.
It’s not – he would be quick to say – that Christianity is going away, but that its dominant institutional form in US – denominational-ism – is a container proving too brittle to hold the new wine.
In the article, he cites Candler Theological Professor, Ted Smith, about some key sociological dynamics playing into all this.
(And bear with me for a moment while a provide some sociological trends but I think its worthy of our consideration):
Smith observes that for 200 plus years we have been living in what can be termed “The Age of Association.” This age emerged in the late 1700s and early 1800s as the church moved from something that was established by the state and got its money through taxation….and instead became something of a voluntary organization complete with formal membership and funded by donations.
The church, then, operated not unlike a host of voluntary associations that sprung up across our land – Masons and Elks to Rotary and Garden Clubs, from Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Labor unions.
But since the 1960s, Smith observes, the Age of Association has been unraveling and a New Age is becoming more and more apparent – the Age of Authenticity, which has a
strong focus on discovering and expressing one’s true self – which also brings with it a suspicion of institutes. Or, put another way, a suspicion of traditional containers – or at the very least much less sense of obligation toward those containers.
In light of all Smith has observed, Zscheile has this bottom line for the church: “People feel less and less of a need to affiliate with an organization to find meaning, community, and purpose; that is understood instead as a highly personalized journey.”
To be sure, Zscheile is not arguing that the Age of Authenticity is the New Wine – and that old age of Association has no value. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
But, he says like it or not – good, bad, or indifferent – this Age of Authenticity is now here in a prominent way. And so, when it comes to the church (in light of this significant shift), here is what he has to say:
“What does this mean for the church and its leaders? “To the extent to which leaders ’energy is focused on trying to sustain and grow the Age of Association model of congregation… or denomination, returns on that investment will be limited.” At this point, patching up the old wineskin isn’t where it’s at for the most part.
And yet, the church has never had more critical work to do in this country.
Because he goes on to note that in an Age where everyone is expected to find meaning, purpose, and community on their own, there is a great deal of isolation and anxiety and guilt and shame…and this is without a pandemic.
In other words, we hunger to belong. To be known and loved and seen as part of the whole. And so people join cycling groups and even show up at 5am and then want to go and evangelize about their through documentaries because the miracle of this synergy and connectedness is just too good for others not to be aware of. They sit-in and march on the streets when the old ways cannot provide a place at the table for everyone when the old ways cannot hold the justice rolling down like new wine. In fact, as we look around and we see a distinct rise in all kinds of little groups and movements that reside outside the traditional voluntary organizations of the past 200 years, what we are seeing underneath all these imperfection expressions are hearts longing for reconciliation and belonging and justice – the very heart of Jesus’s ministry.
And so Zscheile ultimately invites this thought, which I will preface to say makes me uncomfortable to read, but that is why I think it needs to be read:
“Imagine if your work as a (church) leader was simply to join people where life is being lived in today’s world (in cycling groups, in the marches, in the groups), form relationships, listen to their longings and losses, cultivate community, and draw deeply on the rich traditions of Christian theology and practice to help them make spiritual meaning.
Imagine if this spiritual work was the primary work of ministry—not administering and staffing programs, managing a non-profit, securing volunteers, running annual fundraising campaigns, worrying about decaying buildings. Consider how much energy is being spent on maintaining Age of Association institutions, where the primary focus ends up being on the institution itself, not its spiritual purpose.” I find his words deeply uncomfortable because he is saying that maybe the forms we know and love too easily end up focused on keeping the form alive…that maybe cycling groups don’t find church at church because the new wine is filling in new containers.
He’s even suggesting that for the church get in on the party, get in on the Where the New Wine is flowing….it’s less about fixing the container and more about risking being present in the new containers. At their tables. Their cycling group. Their Helping Hands endeavor. Their march. Their homes. Their monthly book club. Their parent’s meeting.
What unlikely containers come to your mind? To be sure, it’s not simply the end of church as we know it – any space in the church that has expansive wineskin to hold space for reconciliation and belonging (sanctuaries, classrooms, homes)…any space meeting that most fundamental ache of our time – that’s good space. The New Wine of Jesus flows and fills there. I’m simply observing that we need to take seriously the significant shifts that have been going on in our society, that have been accelerated by the pandemic – and rather than grow fearful and worry if can’t still fix the container, organize the container better, get more people into the container…what if we risked a simple prayer to the host of the party:
“Jesus, I want to be one who eats and drinks alongside your disciples. Show me where the new wine is flowing. Where the ache for reconciliation and belonging and justice is being nourished by your love. Even if the container looks so different from what I’ve known. Show me that. I don’t – we don’t – want to miss out on the party.”
Scary prayer. Fair warning: Precisely 11 verses after this passage, we read this: “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.” Joining the flow of New Wine wherever it is unfolding and among whomever it is unfolding in whatever containers it is unfolding is a joy supreme – but let’s not be naive. Among those tied closely to the old wineskin, feathers will be ruffled. King was assassinated. Jesus crucified.
But thanks be to God, even the container of death itself would not hold our Savior. And so we go forth toward the party knowing that truly in life and in death – the way of Living Wine shall prevail. Amen