Wineskins

Jane Strohl
Sermon for PLTS Chapel—March 1, 2000

Readings:
Mark 2: 13-22

Last week the local newspapers reported on a riot at Pelikan Bay State Prison, in which one inmate was killed and more than 30 others wounded. The account in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle described the participants as some of California’s “most dangerous and incorrigible felons.” The violence erupted from tensions between rival gangs of prisoners, gangs divided along lines of race and ethnicity. The article went on to state that this maximum security facility had already come under public scrutiny in the last year or so, when charges that prison guards had incited inmates to attack one another were substantiated.

Reading this story triggered unpleasant memories from my days at the University of Chicago. I spent the whole of one Saturday afternoon in a southside precinct station, working through a vast collection of mug shots. My assailant had been busy in the Hyde Park area for some time, and the police were hopeful that I could identify him. I was a U of C student, at the Divinity School no less; just the kind of witness they wanted. Afterwards the Regenstein library was for me a welcome and secure retreat – lots of lights, lots of books, lots of unarmed scholars. Before long it was pretty much back to business as usual. My vocation required that I finish my degree. Then there was the food, clothing, shelter business, and the pressures of paying for the privilege of making the University of Chicago my home. Many a dull moment, but very few free ones.

Everyone here knows the routine. In time life’s daily business explodes into a kind of multinational corporation: there are relationships to tend, sometimes straightforward, often messy; you may add children to the spread sheet and take on responsibility for aging parents at the same time; the relentless rounds and deadlines of academic and parish life demand their due. And don’t forget the material basics: food, clothing, shelter and paying your bills. Business as usual is more than a full-time job.

Yet today’s gospel takes troubling exception to our business as usual. Jesus is intimate with sinners and tax collectors, very likely including people with the kinds of faces and histories that terrified me in that Hyde Park police station. The images of the text are sharply contrasting and surprising. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” And we’re talking about an epidemic here; business as usual is swept away in the wake of a plague. “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.” Back to business as usual when the bridegroom is taken away, but now it is time for celebration – eat, drink and rejoice! We must do justice to what is new. As the hymn proclaims: “Now we join in celebration/At our Savior’s invitation/Dressed no more in spirit somber/Clothed instead in joy and wonder.” This festal garment is not for patching the tears in our everyday garb; we cannot keep the wine from this table in the wineskin of our old ways.

The truth is there is no excuse in Christ’s reign for places like Pelikan Bay Prison, where human beings are used as pit bulls, their lives despised and disposable. Yet we pay the taxes that support it, and we go about our business in its shadow. Our charity, which begins at home, seldom seems at the end of the day to have reached much further afield. As I was leaving the hospital with my newborn, the discharge nurse took my hand and said, “You will be a fine mother. And remember, if you raise a healthy child, you have done a good work for the world.” Ah, here was what I longed for – a discipleship with boundaries, legitimate ethical tunnel vision.

But the washing of baptism has restored our sight. We can never again “unsee” the big picture with all its misery and injustice. And try as hard as we might to improve that picture, we have finite amounts of time and energy and wisdom at our disposal. When the law raises its fearsome head to condemn, it does so through this overwhelming panorama of suffering in which we are complicit. And it drives to despair.

Yet, as Luther put it, this hell is also the forecourt of paradise. The hardest part of discipleship is living in the relentless tension. Simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously serving some neighbors and failing others. Simultaneously business as usual and being not of this world. Simultaneously sick unto death and fit for a wedding feast. And through it all we live, forgiven by Christ’s grace, empowered by the gifts of the Spirit, laboring in hope. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Amen.