Strike Tents!

June 4, 1995


Strike Tents!

The two words of my sermon title still reverberate from my three years in the military. Strike tents! Any man — or, in these days, woman — who has awakened to reveille while on maneuvers or in combat, and heard those words probably still feels the reluctance they often evoked. Strike tents! We’re moving out! Moving where? we would wonder. Into what? — we just got comfortable. I remember a bitterly cold night in Iowa when our company of 500 was ordered out just as darkness fell for an overnight bivouac on the sleet-covered marshes of the Mississippi River. When we finally got there, half frozen, I pulled weeds to get insulation and softness under my sleeping bag, and scooped up sleet with my helmet to pack against the tent flaps. By nearly midnight I had it as cozy as I could make it and had just crawled in for the night when the most unwelcome words imaginable rang out over the camp: Strike tents! We’re moving out! It seems our company commander had decided to test our readiness on the worst night of the year. As we struck tents and hiked back in the wee and frigid hours of the morning my platoon expressed their feelings with some of the most creative vocabulary I had ever heard.
The reminiscence is a way of getting to the point I’d like to make this morning: that the voice of Jesus was by no means always welcome in his lifetime. He sounded reveille for the complacently pious among his people, and his wake-up call was about as popular as the one I heard that night on the river. Over and over Jesus said, “You have heard these things said to you by those of earlier times, but I say to you….” and he called for change. Annoyed fellow synagogue members, who had settled in comfortably, called him a radical who hadn’t the good sense to let well enough alone. It was the eternal problem of custom vs. novelty, the old vs. the new, the settler vs. the pioneer.
He got into trouble right away by tampering with the segregated lunch counter — not divided on the ground of race but on the basis of religion. The good Jewish folk who observed every jot and tittle of over 600 laws kept themselves carefully distant from those who didn’t….and Jesus, for whom compassion and friendship were more important than ritual, ate with the wrong crowd. Worse yet, he seemed to enjoy it, and one thing the years will teach you is that some people cannot bear it if you are happy. Miserable themselves, they cannot imagine that so much joy could possibly be innocent. Strange and terrible as it may seem, all you have to do to bring down on your head the envy and dislike of some unhappy people is to be happy yourself.
So not only did the young prophet from Nazareth seem too happy to be properly religious, but he upset the super-pious even more by failing to fast as often as they did. Their ancient law had called for an annual fastday, but pious Jews added many more of them, so that the boast of the typical pillar of the synagogue was: “I fast twice every week.” (Lk. 18) Somebody, somewhere, had fantasized that Moses went up on Mt. Sinai on Monday and came down on Thursday, so those were the days when the truly righteous fasted. Jesus, again, was not quite that scrupulous. There were times when he fasted, and he supposed his own followers would fast so he told them how to fast successfully, but he didn’t do it himself often enough to satisfy the legalists.
“We’re too happy right now to be fasting all the time,” he said to these critics. “Fasting is a good discipline and has its place, but it was never meant to become a ball and chain. I’m with my friends, but that great joy won’t last, so right now we have priorities more important than fasting. One day soon the conflict between the old order and the new will cost me my life, and then fasting will be the proper language of the heart — but not just now. Lighten up, and join us.” He simply refused to believe that God wants life to turn into joyless routine. He took the time to marvel at the beauty of wildflowers. He made wine at a jolly wedding. I hope it does not sound sacrilegious to you, but I think that being in his company would have been as much fun as it was a challenge to one’s spirit. An American bishop got to spend a morning once with the famous Japanese Christian Kagawa, and said later that what he never forget was the great man’s curiosity and exuberant interest in all sorts of things ….how he talked of fishing and geology, and of experiments with Swiss cattle on Japanese mountains. It was, the bishop said, the sort of excitement you expect in a boy.” It’s an article of my faith that Jesus was like that, and I have often wished that these words had been recited more often in my childhood church: “I have said these things to you that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be abundant.” There are several tests for measuring the success of a church: sheer happiness is one of them.
I think the great joy of life that was in Jesus was an intolerable rebuke to those who worked so hard at religion and found so little happiness from it that over and over they threw the questions at him: Why do your followers eat without washing their hands? They aren’t concerned about using Dial, for sanitation’s sake, but about his failure to wash as a religious ritual. (Mk. 7) And why do you not observe the Sabbath the way we do? (Mk. 2) Their real question under all the others is: What right do you have to break with our traditions? To call on us to strike tents and move out over new and unfamiliar ground? So Jesus, marvelously patient most of the time, tells them little stories to help them see. We call them parables.
“Nobody,” he explains, “sews a patch of new cloth onto an old garment, because the two don’t get along together. At the first or second washing, the new cloth shrinks and tears the wornout, inflexible garment it was supposed to mend.” The parables come straight out of life; we can imagine that Jesus saw his own mother patch clothes and pass them down from one child to another. He uses the stuff of ordinary life to tell his critics that he can’t just sew a patch of new ideas on the threadbare old system he had inherited. He will keep the Sabbath, but change it from a form of bondage to a blessing for those who observe it because they want to rather than because they have to. People who come now to church because they are afraid, driven by guilt if they stay at home, do not make happy people to be with. Deep down, they are resentful. Those who come, as you do, without that fear but from other motives, are happy — which is precisely why we often fought in the churches of my childhood and do not fight in this one.
To be sure they got his point that day, Jesus told them another brief parable drawn from real life. “You don’t put new wine into old wineskins; if you do, the skins burst, and then the wine runs out and the skins are spoiled.” His audience had seen those goatskin bags on the walls of their houses, and how the hearthfire smokes up the room and the skins get dry and cracked, no longer able to flex. Jesus had tried to pour the new wine of his thought into a rigid old system, and he knew the split that was likely when tradition and creativity collided. History proved him right.
By and by, the old wineskin of bondage burst under the creative liberty of a new religion. By and by, the old wineskin of slavery burst under the compassion of the gospel. By and by, the old wineskin of male chauvinism split wide open under the ferment of these words: “In Christ there is neither male nor female.” Over and over, some believer finds the old system too cramped, and stretches it with the fermenting wine of new ideas. When the Catholic priest, Martin Luther, first challenged his church to change he had no thought of splitting it. But it had grown inflexible, and finally, at the risk of his life, he stood before it to say: “I dare not retreat. Here I stand. I can do no other.” When, through the wisdom of others, I received a gift of new wine and tried to pour it into the wineskins of my old creedal church, they broke. I published a book about it and got floods of letters, some of hatred for endangering the System, some of ectstatic joy for pointing the way out of prison to a new and richer life.
But I felt the same ambivalence most people feel when they call for change in a way of life that in some ways has been good to them. I tried to strike a balance by gladly confessing my debt to the traditional, because I had learned already that the old and familiar is not merely comfortable, but almost sacred. The little parables we are reading this morning are on the side of openness to change, but however sober it may sound we also have to be thoughtful and compassionate in tampering with what has become familiar. I remember sleeping in the tube, the subway, in London a few times during World War II, along with hundreds of English parents whose children had been moved into the country for safety and to spare them from the terror of the bombing. It was discovered that the children actually suffered less psychological damage when they stayed in their own homes.
The danger is that like every other good thing we can carry that love of the beloved rut too far. The church gets predictable. Preachers announce “services as usual,” which may be the trouble with them — that there is no surprise, ever. Same approach, same ideas, same conclusions over and over. I had a professor in graduate school once whose notes were over 20 years old, yellowed and brittle with age, and whose idea of teaching was to read them while we wrote them down, word for word. My wrist cramped once and when I paused to shake it this dear old dustbin raised his eyes from the page and said sternly, “Mr. Meyers, you will find it judicious to continue your transcription.” So I kept writing, but it came as no surprise to me that of all the courses I took, that one left me with the fewest useful memories. Marriages grow so familiar that there is no growth or surprise. Wives may wonder sometimes how many men there are with the attitude of that old Scottish husband who confessed, “When I think how much my wife means to me, I can hardly keep from telling her.”
I know a minister who attended the worship service of an Eastern Orthodox Church one day in Istanbul. He was curious and interested, but the ceremony went on for a long time and he noticed that almost no young people were present. Later, he talked with the Patriarch about those things, and the Patriarch agreed that the service needed to be revised but that this would mean the calling of an Ecumenical Council. The minister asked him when the last such council had been held, and the Patriarch’s answer was: “In the 8th century.” “Why not call one?” the American wondered. But the Patriarch shook his head and said, “We’re not ready for that.” A dozen centuries had crept by, and he wasn’t sure the ancient wineskin could flex with the ferment of new wine. I remember reading somewhere about an Arab who felt hungry one night, lighted a candle, and opened a date. It was wormy, so he threw it away. He opened another, and it had worms. He opened a third, and it had worms….so he blew out the candle, and ate the fourth one. I meet people in religion who prefer to throw away the light than to discover an unexpected truth.
I have come to think that the radical young Jewish prophet named Jesus did not intend, when he began his ministry, to start the Christian church, anymore than Luther intended to become the founder of Protestantism. But it didn’t take long for Jesus to discover the resistance when he called for new ways of expressing faith. He had no choice but to be true to his own fresh insights, but they were disturbing people he loved, including his own family. In one comment, knowing how he will cause conflict between old and new, he admits he has come not to bring peace but a sword. But he also insists that he comes “not to destroy but to fulfill” — not just to wreck the old system but to bring something new and necessary into it.
We use, in Buttrick’s good words, the old thought forms as milestones, or else we wander in darkness, but not as millstones, or they cause us to drown. We tarry for a night, a year, a decade — whatever — and then we strike tents and move on. The changes that disturb us at first are almost invariably in the form, in the externals of whatever faith or philosophy we live by. The essence abides. When the Quakers gave up grapejuice and crackers in favor of silent communion with God, they still communed….they kept the essence of the ancient commandment. Early on, in Christian history, in the desert lands of the Near East, the church discovered it would have to baptize sometimes with sand, sufficient water not being available. Wise church fathers agreed that water was not the essence. The essence was in the desire of the heart, in the intention to enter into the community of faith.
I marvel at how quickly some good custom can become eternal law, even in a church as young as this one. Someday another minister will look at our Sunday morning ritual and say, “Let’s drop that, and add this,” and some of you will breathe a sigh of relief to get something new, and some of you will be irritated that the old and familiar and even beloved words and sequences have been changed. When inevitable change comes, it might be useful to recall the famous couplet by Alexander Pope: “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” For those who like garish novelty, that sounds too cautious. For those who distrust anything new, it sounds too radical. But it strikes me as a sensible motto. If the new has no root in the old, it withers. If the old grows no new leaves, it dies.
If I have seemed to come down a little harder this morning on the need for change, it’s because most people need that encouragement more than they need reminding of how comfortable the old ways are. So let’s tip the scale a bit toward growth and flexibility by hearing Tennyson speak of the passing of King Arthur in his Idylls of the King. “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/ And God fulfills himself in many ways,/ Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” The Pharisees said, “We fast more often than you. We always wash our hands for holiness’ sake before we eat. We keep the Sabbath more carefully.” And the response of Jesus is: “Form exists to express the living spirit. The wineskin exists for the wine. In every generation we pour it from one perishable vessel into another, trying not to spill a drop, and that’s a great and difficult challenge, but all too often — in a kind of tragic blindness — we invest the wineskin itself with sanctity.”
Don’t do that, the twin parables say. The form grows old, the spirit seeks forever a new house. Even a good custom, sanctified, may imprison and corrupt us. The Christian imperative of each new generation is to keep the door open to new truth. How wise the words of Jesus are: “Bring forth out of your treasure things new and old.” Remember when you visit other churches, and remember as your own church changes through the years that “God fulfills himself in many ways.”

If when we are children, Eternal God, we run to embrace the new
with indiscriminate enthusiasm, when we get older we sometimes
refuse even to shake hands with what is different. Help us stay
` alive, in the spirit of Christ our Lord. Amen.