Old and New - Reservoir Church
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We Are Reservoir - 2023

Old and New

Steve Watson

Sep 10, 2023

A few years ago, it seemed like an old friend and I were drifting apart. At least one of the reasons was that we’d both changed over the years – changed some in our faith, our religious practice, some of our values and lifestyle. It was bothering me, because I knew other people who had lost old friends, who had even best friends cut them off when they went through these kinds of changes, like friends can’t worship differently, or live differently, or believe differently. I didn’t understand this, but I also didn’t want to lose an old friend, so I flew out to visit him and asked if we could talk about this. 

Long story short, we haven’t lost our friendship. We’ve stuck in it across our differences. But part of how this made sense to him was interesting to me. He was like: Steve, some of us are really focused on innovation – looking for new and better ways to do things, to live, to believe. And that’s good. He used the spiritual language of calling, like maybe for some of us, our purpose, our destiny, our way of living in God’s call for our lives, is to focus on innovation

But for some of us, my friend said, we’re more interested in preservation how to hold on to old things and transmit them to future generations, how to not lose ways of doing things, ways of living, ways of believing that we’ve inherited from the past. He said:

This is good too. Some of us are called to preservation, especially when everything is changing so fast. 

He said it seemed like he was more about preservation – in his religious life, in some of his beliefs, and that maybe I’m called more to innovation. Different interests, different calls maybe, but why couldn’t we respect and appreciate each other? Of course we could still be friends. And we are.  

I’ve kept thinking over the years about my friends’ categories, his values for both preservation and innovation. He had churches in mind, for instance. 

He thinks of us here at Reservoir as innovators. This church started in the 1990s to explore the life and teaching and ways of Jesus for a very secular, not very churchgoing culture. And that’s given us a commitment to some things which haven’t always been traditional our faith –

  • to use ordinary language for religious ideas,
  • to chip away at the patriarchy and racism in our tradition,
  • to value the love and the relationships of queer people,
  • to integrate faith with science and day to day working lives and other parts of so-called secular culture.

We’re not the only ones doing these things, but they’re really important to us. I guess that makes us innovators. 

This summer, though, while I was on a sabbatical, I took a couple of retreats and worshiped with a very different Christian community nearby. More than they read the Bible in worship, they chant it, kind of like you would have heard in a church seven, eight hundred years ago. They remember and celebrate the faith and example of other believers that have been dead for hundreds of years. They’re preserving an old tradition, so their worship is very unfamiliar to me but also beautiful and rich. 

This goes way beyond church and religion of course. There’s a business in my neighborhood that does all kinds of delicious things with the flavors they add to the croissant. Innovators. And there’s another business that likes to say they serve the best Middle Eastern falafel in Greater Boston. Friends who are from that region are like – meh, it’s nice that they try. But still, A for effort. They are preservationists.

I taught middle and high schoolers for years in a small, start-up public school in Boston. We were trying to do something really special for the kids in our community. And so we merged some best practices we could find for small school innovation in public schools, with a holistic approach we borrowed from a Christian ministry in Hong Kong, and a kind of elite private school college prep curriculum. I know we were the only school in the world playing with the combination of sources we were using. Innovators.

But then I went to be the principal of a comprehensive public high school in a nearby city. It was the only high school in town, it was something like 150 years old, and for a lot of the community, what they most wanted to see was that their kids’ high school experience would be just like theirs. Change sometimes came hard and slow. There were a lot of preservationists around.

Old and new. Some of us focus on preserving the old, some of innovating the new.

The more I’ve sat with this, though, this doesn’t seem quite right. I feel like at least the best things in life value the old and the new. The best things are preservationists and innovators. 

That old-school falafel joint – they’ve gotten into online ordering.

That trendy croissant store – they’re working with a miracle of butter and flour developed in the 13th century.

The monastery I like to visit. They may chant 12th century hymns, but one of the monks texts me the security code to get around the building when it’s time for one of my retreats.

Even us at Reservoir, we may be doing new things to be an accessible and winsome community for the times and place we live in. But we’re still committed to the Way of Jesus, an itinerant 1st century rabbi, himself an innovator in an ancient wisdom tradition. 

The best of just about everything is old and new. It’s preserving and innovating. Maybe this sounds obvious, but it’s something Jesus felt the need to affirm and say some stuff about. 

Here’s one place, in the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 13:52 (Common English Bible) 

52 Then Jesus said to them, “Therefore, every legal expert who has been trained as a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings old and new things out of their treasure chest.”

Treasures old and new. 

Jesus is most specifically talking about a group called scribes. They were religious experts in his culture, but also legal experts. So these were the people who drew up contracts like marriages, land sales, mortgages. 

Jesus has a word for teachers, for pastors, lawyers, real estate agents who want to do their work God’s way. 

He says it’s like a person who has an old family heirloom, passed down for generations. And they also have the newest gadget they picked up this year. And they love and use them both.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

This is good life advice. In any profession, we should draw upon the established norms, the best practices, the accumulated knowledge passed down over time. Preserve it, use it, learn and be wise. 

And we shouldn’t only be stuck in the past. Teachers can adapt new technologies when they make classroom learning more efficient or more engaging. Pastors, lawyers, property managers, you name it, we can do things differently when we find a better way.

Old and new, preservation and innovation. 

It’s part of the Way of Jesus as well. 

There is wisdom in the roots and heritage of the faith – in the ancient sacred texts, in the tradition – that is worth learning and using. And yet the Way of Jesus is also ever-evolving. Nothing stands still, everything is changing, religions, faiths, spiritual quests as well. 

This wisdom of old and new reminds me of something else Jesus said, something a little more specific, this one from the 9th chapter of Matthew. 

Matthew 9:14-17 (Common English Bible) 

14 At that time John’s disciples came and asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees frequently fast, but your disciples never fast?”

15 Jesus responded, “The wedding guests can’t mourn while the groom is still with them, can they? But the days will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they’ll fast.

16 “No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk cloth on old clothes because the patch tears away the cloth and makes a worse tear.

17 No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If they did, the wineskins would burst, the wine would spill, and the wineskins would be ruined. Instead, people pour new wine into new wineskins so that both are kept safe.”

This is a friendly conversation between old and new. A few folks are like – we fast. This religious practice is really important to us. Part of our heritage, our faith. And notice, Jesus isn’t like – that’s stupid. You don’t need to do that. 

He respects their practice. He says his own disciples will return to it at some point. But something else is going for them now, so they’re doing things differently. 

And then he tells this little anecdote from the worlds of clothes-mending and wine-making. Everyday life. He’s like: if you want something new, you can’t only use the old to get it. Old wineskins are great for holding old wine – which can be a treasure. The container and the wine have aged and stretched together. But to get something new – to make new wine – you need a new container as well. 

Jesus is not saying the old is bad. 

He was what we’d call poor. Everyone in his circles kept wearing and passing along old clothes. And Jesus has a word about how to best preserve them. 

Jesus lived in the patterns of an old faith tradition. He didn’t start anything from scratch. He learned how to pray from the psalm book in his Bible. He learned about rest and joy and justice and the goodness of God from the best ancient wisdom and practice of his tradition. 

Respect and preserve what’s worth keeping. 

But he also said:

there are some things I’m doing differently for a reason.

New wine in his culture can be a metaphor for the new activity of the Spirit of God. The hope, the redemption, the new possibilities God is making available at this time in history. And Jesus says:

to keep up with what God is making possible, you have to innovate. You have to try new things, to not be afraid to adapt and change. 

This is the nature of life, the nature of God, and the nature of this church community too. 

When I worked in schools, there were always debates going on between old and new ways of doing things. What books kids would read, what assignments they would do and how those would or wouldn’t be graded, how teachers would impart material to their students and lead discussions, just about everything in the profession had these old vs. new debates around them. 

And a lot of those debates went nowhere because they got stuck in old vs. new, right vs. wrong, when the truth is that there are things about education and learning that have been practiced over decades or centuries that are worth preserving and there are also new things we’re trying to accomplish that require new tools. 

  • What’s worth keeping?
  • And what new things do we need to try to accomplish new goals?
  • Were much more interesting questions than is the old or the new better?

Same with almost any area of life. When our kids were little, we picked up on so many debates on the best way to parent young children.

  • How do you help them sleep better?
  • Teach them right from wrong?
  • Help them learn how to read?
  • Do you want them to depend on you more or less, and in what ways? 

And again, it felt like everyone in the conversation was like: the old way is good. It worked when I was a kid. Or the opposite – the old way sucks, it’s gonna ruin your kids. Now we know this way is better. Old or new, right or wrong. I wish it could have all been a little less judgy, a little humbler, and we could have asked more: what’s worth keeping? What do we appreciate about the old ways? And what new things are we trying for, that might take some new tools? 

Friends, I believe that life isn’t just like this. God is like this as well. In our faith traditions, we like to emphasize the unchanging nature of God. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. 

And to a degree, this is right. God’s nature is unchanging. Three times the Bible says God is something…. That God is Spirit. That God is Truth. That God is Love. I don’t think that ever changes. God is always omnipresent spirit, never sometimes all contained in the body of one cricket or something. God is always true. God is always love. And you could add things… God is always just, kind, creative, and so on. 

But the Bible at least teaches that God tries new things. God does new things. God doesn’t just set a plan for the universe in motion and lets it go. No, God adapts. God responds. God improvises. 

For instance, let’s say God hopes one good thing for our lives. Maybe God hoped that last year we’d break some toxic pattern in our lives, some addiction we use to numb out, some habit of criticism or meanness or self-sabotage. And God was helping people and resources show up to help us. But we missed it. We weren’t paying attention. We resisted the growth. We just didn’t have it in us. 

God’s not going to just hit replay on last year’s experiences and hope it goes differently. God notices the same fail and might try something different and hope we have it in us to respond this time. 

That’s what Jesus was saying in his generation. He was embodying a tradition of spiritual teaching and of prophetic witness. He was revealing ways to be in relationship with God, to be in loving connection with self, neighbor, enemy, and creator, and to live more fruitfully and justly as well. All of this was shaped by the best of an old tradition, but the ways Jesus was doing that were new. New wine. New divine activity. New possibility. 

So Jesus says to these curious seekers, don’t be distracted by the tradition you don’t see. Notice the new thing God is doing. It’s here for you. Receive it, adapt and change. It’s worth it. 

This by the way is what Reservoir is up to. 

This week and the next four weeks, we’re in our annual We Are Reservoir series. It’s a time when we remember some of our shared values and purpose. We try to make it easy to connect or reconnect with others. And we invite everyone to find ways to belong and to contribute to a community that we hope nourishes each of us while also connecting us to something bigger than ourselves.

So you’ll hear a lot of invitations… invitations to belong, to connect with community, to eat together. Invitations to become a member or to remember why you’re still a member. Invitations to give and volunteer – to contribute to the good our community is shaping together. We hope you’ll say YES to the invitations that seem right for you, and know that for anything you don’t say YES to, that’s OK as well. You’re in charge of your own life, and we all can trust one another to find our ways. 

This month, our sermons will in part explore part of the vision of Reservoir, the way we do things, the life together we’re promoting, that we think has value of the church, but also has value for our lives beyond the church too.

And part of that vision is our spirit of innovation, our willingness to stay rooted while adapting, not being afraid of change. It’s our way of old and new. 

So, on the most basic level, Reservoir is a Christian church. It’s a community that is promoting a way of being human that is rooted in a deep and ancient tradition. 

We read and study and teach sacred texts that are millennia old. They teach us about God and humans and justice and the good life, and how to be in community, and how to live in our bodies, and find more love, joy, and peace in a troubled world or in a restless self. 

Some of our technologies of worship and prayer and ethics and learning and being in healthy relationships are super old too. Because we think the Way of Jesus has life and wisdom to it. It’s worth learning, preserving, and transmitting. 

But Reservoir is also trying to be a new wineskin in which God can do new things for us, our neighbors, and our broader communities. 

When we were getting started, people were realizing that the age of churches as the moral cops of their communities had passed. More and more in this region of the Northeast United States, and really much of the country and the world, people just aren’t looking to churches to tell the whole world what’s right and wrong anymore. That age has passed. To be honest, churches blew it. That’s part of why that age has passed. 

So Reservoir doesn’t do that, even when some people want us to. We don’t lay down the law for all our members, let alone for the community at large, saying if you want to be part of this church, or you want God to approve of your life, you’re going to live exactly this way. 

We don’t do that. We try to create a community where people can be in meaningful relationship with an ancient and wise spiritual and moral tradition, where people can be in a safe and kind community that values personal growth and goodness and justice, where people can even learn relate to an all-wise, all-loving unseen spirit we call God. And we trust that to work. We trust that to help us move in greater love, purpose, health, and goodness.

A generation ago, more followers of Jesus started to realize that people of different sexual identity or orientation shouldn’t be stigmatized anymore, that there are healthier and more helpful ways of re-reading a few ancient texts in our Bible that had been condemning of our queer siblings.

We were like, we want in on that. We can learn how to practice some of our old values while also respecting the love and dignity of our queer siblings and queer selves, and celebrating some different expressions of holy and good gender expression and faithful loving relationship.

Same with a lot of things. Reservoir is at its best when we set our anchor in the deep well of an old faith while at the same time setting our sails to catch the new winds of the Spirit of God. 

I know that metaphor breaks down as all metaphors do, but I hope you get the picture. This is a community of old and new, of preservation and innovation, of profound respect for the ancient faith tradition we keep returning to and of bold and hopeful embrace of new ways of living that faith, when those better match the new wine, the new possibilities that God is presenting in our times. 

I hope you find this community a beautiful and helpful place to support your own best life and faith. I also hope for your lives as a whole, you can enjoy asking those questions in all the arenas. What is worth keeping? What is worth preserving? Since the old is sometimes good and helpful and true. While also not being afraid when lives change, when times change, when needs in your life change, and asking: what new things are worth trying this day, this season, so I don’t miss the new things God is doing around me too.