The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Sam I Am Strikes Again”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 14-17
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
Life has joy and sorrow. When joy comes, be glad; when sorrow comes, weep. Weeping may tarry through the night, but joy comes with the morning.
If you are at the wedding banquet, enjoy the meal. If the winds of fate have brought drought or hardship, draw from the strength of your character, from grace, and endure.
There are things that are always true, eternal, written on the heart—the old cloth of the soul. Truth and justice and beauty are the threads; they form humility and compassion and love and sacrifice. The old cloth doesn’t go out of fashion. It is always with us. We can tear it; we can tear ourselves apart. To mend the old cloth, you need old cloth; love heals love.
To each generation there are new things, new wine. New ideas, new ways of living, a sense of the unimaginable. To find them we must be bold and risk our peace, leap unto the not yet known. The new wine of each generation is not contained in the old wineskin.
The disciples of John, they were struggling. Herod arrested their teacher; things were falling apart. This was not a time of feasting. But, if truth be told, it was never a time to feast with John the Baptist. Not unless you consider eating bugs in the desert a feast. I don’t. You shouldn’t. It was a tough time for them and it was not a tough time for the disciples of Jesus. The happiness around Jesus was offensive to the disciples of John. In anger they said, you’re worse than the Pharisees. You might not know 1st century banter, but that is pretty bad, a hypocrite of hypocrites.
They took a swing at Jesus. Not at him directly mind you. John still believed Jesus was the Messiah. But they didn’t hold back with the disciples.
Jesus responded to their anger with three teachings. It is good to note, Jesus didn’t rebuke them. He offered mercy. Really, what gave to them was a way out. They were stuck, in a bad place.
It was never easy following John the Baptist. John was apocalyptic, nihilistic, pessimistic. For him things were bad and they were going to get worse. Jesus says, life gets better. There is feast and famine, wedding coat and funeral suit. Life is both.
John and his disciples were trying to mend the old cloth of the soul with zealotry; they were strident. They were trying make things right with being serious, right the wrongs with purity. Jesus says, it doesn’t work that way. The truth is always true, the good is always good, beauty is ever beautiful. You must trust it; truth restores the truth. Mend it, but don’t force it.
Where I believe they were really struggling was with new wine. Maybe because they didn’t drink wine. But new wine was the stumbling block for the Pharisees too. Jesus is humble, offers mercy and forgiveness, welcomes the sinner, and perhaps most unnerving, he is unwillingness to be bound by the law, or what he called fulfilling the law.
This was too new, too much, unimaginable. The idea that the law was fulfilled was not how they looked at life. The disciples of John and the Pharisees would each try to put Jesus’ teachings, the new wine, into old wine skins, purity codes, restrictions, and traditions.
It was a tough time for the disciples of John.
I have a few preaching traditions. I always try to draw on Lincoln at Thanksgiving; Gettysburg at the Fourth of July, and a children’s book on Palm Sunday. Well, it’s not the Fourth of July.
Dr. Seuss has been controversial in the past. In 1971, his book about the Lorax was a rather plainspoken appeal for environmentalism. The Lorax was focused on deforestation, but it could have been pollution or strip mining or other types of overharvesting. That it was about deforestation caused the Lorax to be banned in community libraries where the main industry was logging.
His other book often an easy target of critique is the Butter Battle. Published during the Regan years, this not-so-subtle critique of nuclear arms garnered him such descriptions as communist, threat to the nation.
Although no one has found controversy with One Fish Two Fish, most of his stories do have a moral and thus a challenge. My favorite story of his, Yertle the Turtle, is clearly a critique of political power and capitalism. Seuss’ stories simply waded into the challenge of the day.
Groans were heard far and wide recently when his first book And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street was removed from publication for a time. The family of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, suggested the depiction of an Asian-American in a stereotypical image and the reference to “Chinaman” was worthy of a pause. This frustrated some folks. “Cancel Culture!” They cried.
Yet if you consider what Geisel wrote and his desire to be honest about the challenges of the day, the family is being consistent with his vision. Be honest about what is wrong. Say it out loud.
I say this not to argue the merits or challenges of cancel culture; I say this because the books of Dr. Seuss should be taken seriously. Yes, they are silly, but each one has an important message, a Palm Sunday sort of message. The persistent them of Dr. Seuss, which started with the first book, To Think I Saw it On Mayberry Street, is so needed today. The persistent message is this: Open your mind, your heart to imagine the possibilities of life.
In the end of the sermon we will come back to what can happen when you walk home from school, how a fast can turn into a feast; but now, I want to go in reverse, start with the last, the new. I want to start with how hard it is to trust what is new, the unimaginable.
There is no better book about trying something new than Green Eggs and Ham. Try them; try them; you will see, you will like green eggs and ham. Try them with a goat on a boat; in a box with a fox; on a train in the rain; here or there. No, Sam I Am I do not like green eggs and ham.
You know the drill: Sam I Am starts again. He is relentless, persistent, imploring, begging, cajoling. And in the end successful.
The message of the book, like the message of every Palm Sunday, is that the new has come; a new way of living, a new way of God bringing salvation. The king of heaven comes humble and riding on a donkey and the children shout hosanna and life is new. The Pharisees grumble at this because that’s what Pharisee’s do.
I texted my daughter Zoe the other night. I was on a zoom call with the new presbytery and many of the clergy had gender specific pronouns after their names (he/him; she/her). I texted Zoe to say, what is this? She explained how in academic circles people provide this information to normalize the possibility of definition instead of the assumed definition. I texted her back and said, “I need to get out more.” She told me. “You get out a lot.” That made me feel very hip.
But the unimaginable is not just pronouns. Think Pete Buttigieg. He didn’t win the nomination for the presidency, but he did well. He is now a cabinet minister. Imagine Pete Buttigieg running for president 50 years ago, 40 years ago. It would have been unimaginable.
At some point we all try to put new wine into old wine skins. We do. We do because the idea of green eggs and ham is beyond our imagination until its not. The new can be a struggle. I think we’re doing pretty good with this one right now. Sam I Am is quite busy.
Where we need some remedial reading is The Cat in the Hat. You see there are things that just should not be. You should not try to balance on a ball with a rake and a cake a fish and pot and a plate; and you must certainly not do this with your mother’s new dress. “Heavens no,” we say with the fish; this must not be.
You see in moments of vulnerability, rainy days when your mother is out, you forget what is true and unleash thing one and thing two. They seem friendly, but they are not. And even though the Cat and the Hat cleaned up his mess, he made a mess and was quite disrespectful. The fish was right to be alarmed.
Sometimes we forget the truth can only be mended with truth, love redeems love. We forget this when we try to make things right with hate or anger or derision. In moments of vulnerability we try to fix what is wrong with judgment. Jesus taught us this isn’t so, but sometimes it’s like he isn’t around.
We can forget what is true. In this moment we need to remember: mend the old with the old.
I like Palm Sunday. Yet Palm Sunday is a bit of a sticky wicket. We don’t talk about this a lot but, this Sunday of the year is the only one with two name, two directions.
Today is the moment in the liturgical calendar when the well-intended crafters of the seasons couldn’t decide which way to go. They compromise was to offer a choice. Joy with the palms or sorrow with the passion? Now any pastor with a pulse can tell you: it’s about joy.
Not to be critical of Jesus, but his teaching today seems to muddy the waters. He says life gives both, hence today could be both. When you are at the feast, enjoy; when the groom is gone, you fast. Should it be Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, feast or fast? Perhaps this year more than ever, the answer is unclear.
I think we can find some clarity on Mulberry Street.
If it’s been a while since you read the story, it goes like this: a young boy walks home and his father asked him what he saw. And he said nothing. He is challenged to use his imagination the next time And he does. He sees elephants and bands and trucks and clowns, all sorts of amazing things.
The answer to the question, Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, is in the way we open our mind. It is not hard to imagine the worst, to expect things to fall apart, for people to fail, or stumble. Indeed thinking the worst of people is all too easy. To think what is best, to imagine a moment of splendor, of reconciliation of restoration or unbridled joy, well, that can be tough. To see such you may need to cast off a grudge or straighten a bent nose or find the courage to lay aside the desire for vengeance. Those can be hard to lay aside.
No. The answer is on Mulberry Street and I like the fact that the family has withheld publication for a time. The flaws are real and they are not dismissing them. Perhaps that is an even better understanding of the book. To use your imagination, to find what is best, you need to be honest about what is broken. The cloth doesn’t mend itself, nor does it get better with time.
Open your heart to what is beautiful and good and true and be mindful what needs to be mended and repaired. When winds of fate bring a feast, rejoice; when the winds blow cold, then it’s time to fast, to mourn. And let’s keep trying. Be persistent with each other about the glory of what is possible, what green eggs and ham have yet to be found. Sam I Am, like the Holy Spirit, is a goading voice, a hopeful offer: try them, try them; you will see. Amen.
- Matthew 9:14 - 17
- Matthew 21:1 - 11