Blending Old and New

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

February 27, 2000

Hosea 2:14-20; Mark 2:13-22


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.


Blending old and new has been age-old challenge. Arriving at something new and vital can be so enlivening that to get to it, you can't choose the old form to hold it together. In his Cotton Patch version of the Gospel of Matthew, farmer, and Greek philosopher Clarence Jordan writes of the proverbs found in Mark 2:21-22:

Nobody ever uses new, unshrunk material to patch a dress that's been washed. For in shrinking, it will pull the old material and make a tear. Nor do people put new tubes in old bald tires. If they do, the tires will blow out, and the tube will be ruined and the tires will be torn up. But they put new tubes in new tires and both give good mileage. (C. Jordan, Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew and John, Association Press, 1970, p. 36).

What we know about dresses and tires, we would be wise to put into practice for faith and life.

For example, we all know that it's true - one does not replace a torn inner tube of a bald tire with a new tube. We're just asking for trouble. Yet, is it not also true that new times call for new forms of worship, work, and expressions of faith? Jesus felt that the faith he was inspiring based in the love of God and neighbor had to stretch beyond old laws and the old ritualist delivery systems. Nevertheless, to move into new forms of worship, work, and faith calls for a theological and biblical rootedness. In her book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva J. Down reminds Christians that changing the way we do worship and live our faith should not be done at the expense of giving up the ground of faith from whence we come. It is absolutely essential that we know our "ground of being" (to quote Paul Tillich) before being moved onto new ground.

In Alfred Lee's History of the City of Columbus, Ohio, Volume 1 (of two), published in 1892, Lee dedicates 22 pages to the Congregationalists. Writing the essay on Congregationalists, Rev. Benjamin Talbot exclaims on page 831:

In the face of growing hostility to slavery . . . Little Congregational churches sprang up here and there, or came over from the Presbyterian connection, composed of warm hearted, earnest Christians, full of sympathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed and ready for every good word and work. In some places they aroused bitter opposition and even persecution . . . (including the burning of one of our churches in Holmes County.)

Continuing on p. 832 and speaking directly to the Columbus congregationalists (of which we were the Second church to be established in 1852, a whole 15 years after the Welch Congregational Church), Talbot writes:

They are well officered having faithful, energetic, wide-awake pastors, fully abreast of the times and equal to the needs of the community; and as the people also have a mind to work, these churches will, with God's help, prove more and more a power for good.

While it was the mid-19th Century anti-slavery stands which brought about the formation of this (and many) congregational churches in central Ohio, we must also remember that the "old wineskins" of heritage include pastors and lay leaders of this congregation who throughout the 148 years of existence has taken community leadership on the frontlines of issues such as: labor strikes, racial civil rights, fair housing, and civil, social, and economic justice for the poor, and most recently around persons who are persecuted or unjustly treated because of their sexual orientation.

Among the finest leaders First Church has ever engendered was the Rev. Dr. Washington Gladden. From 1882-1916, Dr. Gladden preached and taught that:

The church did not exist to rescue individuals from a sinful world and to prepare them for heaven but to herald and assist the transformation of earthly society into the Kingdom of God. To do so the church needed to extend beyond the spiritual needs of the individual Christian to the challenges and the progress of that Kingdom. Thus, the message of the Kingdom was two-pronged: to the individual it gave assurance of God's love and taught truths vital to Christian experience; to society it proclaimed the law of love, righteousness, and justice that would bring corporate redemption. (Jacob H. Dorn, Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel, OSU Press, p. 79).

Following this combined vision of individual care and assurance coupled with social transformation and justice, Dr. Gladden never allowed himself or this congregation to lapse into complacency. Lest our for bearers in faith rest contentedly in the hope of salvation, he declared:

There are no saved people, but only those who, in pursuit of a "complete, symmetrical, "perfect character" are "being saved." Christianity is not a contractual possession but a way of life that its members need to pursue assiduously. Although we were being saved by faith; that faith would not be thrust upon us; rather we must "open the door" to divine influences. We must endure a period of conflict between their higher and their lower natures before we would enjoy the freedom of Christ. (Gladden sermons, quoted in Dorn, ibid, p. 81).

My friends, this is the rock from whence we were hewn! It is an old rock! It is as old as Christ Jesus himself! From this rock you and I are shaped, formed, and called to give full sympathy to the downtrodden, to lift every good work and word on behalf of the forsaken in the spirit of Christ and in so doing to face the potentiality of bitter opposition and persecution. We are shaped, formed and called to be faithful, energetic, and wide-awake and in so doing to be a power for good in this community! We are called to seek first the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom whose twofold message is the blessed assurance of God's love and the endless pursuit of justice, love and righteousness for all God's children. From this rock we are called not be saved once, but to live as God's chosen ones, wholly beloved, who each day open doors in our lives to the divine influence of God!

In order to make a new creation, we have to be aware that our root in this church, in this community, in the beloved tradition in which we are rooted has been standing on the promises of God for a long time! From generation to generation - first from Dr. Gladden's pulpit at 3rd and Broad directly across from the statehouse to this pulpit beginning in 1931, the message of salvation for all, justice for all, and the Kingdom of God breaking forth in this world and the next has awakened the power for good in this community! This is the rock from whence we were hewn The rock of Salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior!

All that said, like our forebearers of faith, we may not, we must not ever lapse into complacency in our walk with Christ! In Mark 2:13-22, Jesus pleads with us for a certain elasticity in our minds and in our behaviors. It is fatally easy to become set in our ways. When our minds and hearts become set in a certain way, they become quite unable to accept new truth, new insights, and new ways. This is particularly challenging when we are rooted in a tradition which proclaims a Christ through whom new light, life, and truth are constantly being revealed!

How can it be that we are open doors to God's revelation at the same time closed to new ways and forms of revelation? Leslie Newbigin, one of the founders of the United Church of South India inspires us with this thought: The Christian should not be asking, "Where are we going?" when moving onto new frontiers of faith. Rather our question needs to be, "How shall we rise to the challenge and the adventure before us?" Blending old and new calls each of us to be grounded in our heritage while stretching toward our future vision. Like the trapeze artist, we cannot fly to new heights without first letting go of the bar and leaping forward in faith! So it is with each of us as Christians.

Besides patching old clothes and old wineskins, Mark 2:13-22 is also concerned with controversies around table fellowship. Before Christians jump on the bandwagon of chastising Jews about rigid food laws, we must remember that much of the pleasant and the unpleasant for both Jesus and the early church occurred at table. In Acts 11:2-3, Peter is called on the carpet for eating with Gentiles and his criticism comes from fellow Christians. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul reports a crisis in the Church at Antioch when several leaders set up tables for themselves at the fellowship dinner of the church. In the Church at Corinth, the wealthier members of the church knowingly broke bread and celebrated communion before the poorer members of the church could get off work and arrive for dinner!

Whether at First Century potluck dinners for tax collectors and sinners; or parties which welcomed even Gentiles to the table; or whether lunch counters during the early civil rights battles for racial equality or banquet feasts down the street and around the corner at "Out on Main," we as Christians have faced the "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" question for several thousand years now. The questioners have changed, but the question remains the same: "Why accept people to our tables that we see as sinful?" The question is still a vital and probing one. Contextually, you must also understand that "Sinners" was a label for persons expelled from the synagogue because they either broken moral laws or failed to observe scribal or ritual laws. Because table fellowship meant full acceptance of a person, the question cut right to the heart of Jesus' ministry.

And what was Jesus' response? He simply said: "It's not healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17). It's not that Jesus doesn't care about those who are "sin-free" or healthy. That's not true at all! It's just that he recognizes that the people who need saving are most in need of welcome and fellowship. For too long they have been cast out and set apart from others, he has come to demonstrate and live the love of God! I believe Jesus' response is sufficient. Furthermore, I believe that IF Jesus' all-embracing response is not seen as sufficient it is not Jesus who should be questioned for love that knows no end. Rather the one to be questioned is Christ's church for continuing to fall short of God's glory and God's loving embrace of grace at communion table and fellowship tables.

As together, you and I find ways to live out our faith, to blend old and new, to welcome to Christ's table those who have for too long been cast out, we would do well to be inspired by our own Gladden Window in memory of Washington Gladden. Two large central figures are found in the window. The first figure is Charity. The second is Justice. A lancet to the left of Charity consists of three medallions demonstrating corporate acts of mercy: visiting the needy, ministering to the sick and feeding the hungry. To the right of Justice are medallions illustrating the cooperation of capital and labor, arbitration of industrial disputes and citizenship. Finally, four medallions at the base of the window personally commemorate Dr. Gladden's life.

The call is still before us to minister with Charity and Justice for all. As such, something new and vital will spring forth from old, timeless truths. In the name and in the spirit of Christ, Amen.

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