Isaiah 50:4-9; Mark 2:18-22
Second-hand gowns for sale?
It’s at least arguable that students come to University for more of the same as before. We still have teachers, classes, homework and exams. Prefects are still around, only we call them Sabbatical officers; parents have become wardens. The hockey team is still a hockey team, while school dinners have morphed into, well, lunches back at hall. School uniform has become red or black gowns, while that concert featuring the school band of shoe-gazers covering songs by the Killers has become… Jedward. And of course, your head-teacher has become our Principal. One Mlle Bertin, who made hats for Marie Antoinette, once said, There is nothing new except what has been forgotten. Perhaps University is like that. (Though I’ve heard that Jedward were unforgettable – for lots of reasons.)
And undoubtedly there is continuity from life before University to life at it. I’ve heard it said that academics are simply people who never wanted to leave school. And similarity may be part of St Andrews’ appeal – after all moving here is hardly a lurch into 21st Century urban living. Even our nightclub 601 celebrates how old the University is.
However, in ways which are obvious and subtle, there is discontinuity too. University marks a break with the past, and is a time of real transformation. If we move through student years as if we’re still a child at home or at school, we will experience cognitive dissonance: the attitude in our mind will not relate well to the reality of our lives.
In today’s New Testament reading from the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells two tiny parables, two images really about this question. How new is the new? Is it continuous with the old, with what lies in the past?
In the first, he says that no-one sews a patch of new cloth on an old cloak, because it will actually make the hole worse. Apparently this is because when the cloak is then washed, the new cloth will shrink tearing at the old cloth. Some of you getting to the end of your clean clothes may be stressing about operating a washing-machine for the first time in your life – I bet you didn’t expect laundry advice in Chapel.
In the second parable, Jesus says that no-one puts new wine into old wineskins, for it will burst the skins. In a time before the handy screwtop bottle, wine for people on the move was kept in leather skins. And wineskins grow brittle in time and so young, perhaps still fermenting wine will cause cracks to appear, and it will seep out. You certainly didn’t expect advice on transporting wine from Tesco to hall this morning.
What do these vignettes mean? It seems clear that Jesus is presenting himself as a new expression of the divine. He was a Jew, of course, and had inherited that deep and rich engagement with God which we find explored in the Old Testament – God’s love for his people, the giving of Law, wisdom and praise, and the challenge of prophecy. Jesus doesn’t repudiate that inheritance. But he does proclaim that there is now a new revelation, a new teaching, a new presence of God in the world, a new way of understanding who God is – and that Jesus himself is this new life of heaven on our earth. Jesus is the new cloth, Jesus is the new wine. The English poet William Blake wrote, The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest. That may be true for ordinary wine. But as an image, Jesus says, it is the new wine which is the true fulfilment.
So what do these images suggest for us? I think – that if this new cloth, new wine can change us, we need to be open to change. We need to be cloth which can be as fresh, unshrunk, unjaded as he. We need to be wineskins supple and shapeable enough to receive his wine. You can’t stuff this new expression of who God is into the old categories: it all has to change – language, concepts, structures, lives. This is a huge subject but let me touch on how Jesus changes our understanding of God.
The Creator has become a creature; the Word has become flesh; the giver of life receives life; God’s reign has begun; divine power is handed over and becomes powerless; the giver of law becomes a convicted criminal; the Son of God lies dead in a tomb; beyond death is hope of new life; law gives way to grace; and the family of God extends from one nation to a community open to all. It’s astonishing: all this profound unfolding of who God is encapsulated in two simple pictures: a patching, and a pouring.
Let’s return to St Andrews, and to our lives here. Whether brand new, or a long-time resident, what garment, what wineskin will we be? I don’t know – and perhaps you don’t know either. That can be alarming: it’s not the same as school and home, and it can be challenging to fit in, to make friends, to take responsibility for your education. Last week at an induction for Masters students, 48% of them said they were worried about not being brilliant. What honesty. Let me suggest that if you’re feeling something like that, it’s OK not always to be brilliant. There’s room for mediocrity in every life – and it’s natural. But every life has gems of achievement and experience, which sparkle brilliantly.
What’s exciting is not knowing exactly who we will be. There is plenty in the mix – faith and doubt; belief and scepticism; religion and politics for starters. Then there’s how to relate what we learn to our underlying convictions: studies in biology, history, medicine and philosophy for example to set our minds fizzing with deep puzzles and connections. And then there are explorations in friendship, in conversation late into the night, in love, in loss and in community – and indeed all of these rolled into one at Raisin.
What I am suggesting is that we explore the new cloth, the new wine of this Jesus-shaped God, and then discover what shape we take around him – what cloak we are: smart, elegant, modest, revealing, tight, baggy, colourful, muted, wrapped around us, or half-off.
A story you may hear again at your graduation was told by a comedian called Bob Orben: A graduation ceremony is an event where the speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical gowns that individuality is the key to success.
But each person truly is different and makes a unique response to the new wine of Jesus poured into our lives.
If I have only one word of guidance – actually I have two. The first is always separate dark from light clothes in a hot wash – or you may end up wearing many shades of grey…
But my real advice is: don’t borrow who you are from someone else. Don’t pick up second-hand views of how you relate to God, what faith is, and what you are worth from others. Oscar Wilde wrote: Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Let us ensure there’s more to be said about our lives.
Our Old Testament reading today from Isaiah offers a particular perspective on this, when the prophet celebrates God’s help in strengthening him to face opposition, trouble and the accusations of others.
It is the Lord who helps me:
Who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
The moth will eat them up.
The prophet will not be imprisoned by the past, by the negative views of others, by their trying to define who he is. Their garment is past it, beyond repair. Instead, he dwells in the forgiving love of God, who values him, and helps him daily.
Let me gather up these thoughts. There is much that is familiar in the transition to University, but it’s not the same old same old. There is an opportunity here to discover who we really are, to be shaped by the new cloth which is Jesus, the new wine which is Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection breaks apart any stale, moth-eaten image of God which prevails. And in discovering who we are, I urge you to resist picking up cheaply any second-hand gowns which are for sale. It may be tempting to accept someone else’s thoughts, another’s faith, a parent’s approach, the dominant vision of society as your own. But second-hand gowns are old, and frayed, and they smell a bit, and they won’t quite fit you. Find your own clothes. Discover your own skin.