Old and new

Matthew 9:9-17

Thirty years ago this week the last long national strike began, when Arthur Scargill led the miners out. A big part of English culture certainly used to be that the most respected and honoured manual worker was the miner. I suspect that if you lived in Surrey, the miners’ strike didn’t make a big impact on your life. I grew up in Warwickshire, and at that time I was the same age as many of our children now in Junior Church. The miners’ strike wasn’t on our doorstep, but I remember it was a bit hairy in Coventry, our nearest shopping centre, near the north Warwickshire coalfield, but that was absolutely nothing compared to those who lived in County Durham and South Yorkshire, and in Nottinghamshire, where the flying pickets attacking the remaining working miners. History has vindicated the miners, in the sense that publication of government papers clearly shows that the government at the time did intend plan to close the vast numbers of pits the miners said they did and which the government at the time denied, and which denials we now know to be lies. However, history also shows us that miners were, quite naturally, seeking to keep alive an industry which was no longer economically viable. Demand for coal was falling as the railways had stopped using steam, electricity generation was switching to gas and nuclear and renewable sources, environmental awareness was rising, and the coal remaining in the ground was more difficult, and therefore more expensive, to extract. In short, the industry was going to die, even if they way the government went about it wasn’t right, the result was inevitable. What I mean is that the old ways were no more, and a new way was to come.

A few years later we saw something similar, when the Berlin Wall came down as communism fell across central and eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Her majesty’s ambassador to Romania at the fall of the Ceaușescus lives in Farnham. His wife hid in the basement of the embassy while the Security forces loyal to Ceaușescu searched the building, and who wouldn’t have done the same. Throughout Europe, the old ways were no more, and a new way was to come.

Those of you a bit older than me might remember the 1960s, when revolution was in the air. Protests, especially among young people, were the order of the day. Young Americans protested against the Vietnam War. Students in Paris told factory workers they had nothing to lose but their chains (the factory workers mostly ignored them). Undergraduates in Oxford protested about such weighty matters as college food and the wearing of gowns for lectures. What was really going on was not so much that there were lots of things wrong in the system (though there were some – there always are). Rather, these were the signs that a new generation that had grown up after the Second World War, was no longer happy to be told by its parents to behave in the old ways. It was time to make everything different. The old ways were no more, and a new way was to come.

This is what our reading from Matthew was all about. Jesus called Matthew away from tax collecting, to a whole new way of life and thought. Then Jesus offers the disciples the image of wedding feast, where the guests cannot fast until the bridegroom is gone, and then Jesus reminds us that mixing old and new cloth for repairs doesn’t work, just as new wine can’t go into old wineskins. This passage is full of questions to which his answer was ‘Because everything’s different now.” The three pictures Jesus himself gives all show how impossible it is to combine the new thing he’s doing with the old way things used to be. Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners? Because, while other religious leaders of the day saw their task as being to keep themselves in quarantine, away from possible sources of moral and spiritual infection, Jesus saw himself as a doctor who’d come to heal the sick. There’s no point in a doctor staying in quarantine because he’ll never do his job. You can’t combine funerals and weddings: you can’t be gloomy while you’re celebrating a marriage feast. If you’re mending an old coat by sticking a patch on it, make sure the patch is made of cloth that’s already seasoned and has done all the shrinking it’s likely to do. Otherwise, when it shrinks, it will just make the hole worse than it was in the first place. And you can’t put new wine into old skins, or there will be an explosion. The old ways were no more, and a new way was to come.

The same thing, of course, applies to church. Some things are always the same – we listen to the Bible, we break bread and share wine, we seek God’s Word and God’s will, as Christians have done for twenty centuries. That’s what we’ve always done, and always will do. But we can’t always do it in the old ways. We can’t expect people to join a church on the understanding they want it to stay the same, let alone change it back ton how things used to be years ago. We can’t expect new people to be drawn into the fellowship in order to perpetuate our old ways. I don’t mean change for change’s sake, but if we are a living church, encountering and sharing a living God, being alive means constantly changing. The day of our Annual General meeting is a good time to pause and think. What form should our change take? In what ways might God be leading us to change? The old ways are no more – what is the new way that is to come?

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