Matthew 9:16-17, 23:1-10
The Rev. Tom Herbek
November 5, 2017
Jesus talked about faith using the metaphor of putting new wine into new leather wineskins, not old ones, which would split as the wine fermented. As we grow in our faith, as we find new meaning in life, the framework of our faith must also change. We must have a framework of faith that enables and encourages us to be life-long learners.
In my senior year at VA Tech, I was fortunate to be able to do individualized study, undergraduate research, with a true life-long learner. Dr. David West, professor of biology, held Masters degrees in geology, ornithology (birds), and entomology (insects), and his Ph.D. was in genetics. Several times each week, we would hike up in the mountains to study a colony of butterflies in a valley completely encircled by high mountains with no way in or out except climbing the mountain. His infectious enthusiasm for the nature we encountered in our trek enabled me to learn and to think as a naturalist would see the world.
And the remarkable thing was his delight in discovering new things as we hiked. Even with his vast knowledge and distinguished accomplishments, what energized him was being able to discover new things, being able to still learn. David never lost his love of learning throughout his life.
We are called to be life-long learners too, when it comes to our faith. Jesus said we will be students always, and that is exciting.
Perhaps we can all learn something about faith from the Orthodox Jewish schools. Leonard Sweet, former dean at Colgate-Rochester Divinity Schools, describes them:
At traditional Orthodox Jewish yeshivas (schools), the study hall is filled with noise. Not just noise, but debates and sweat, as matched learning partners verbally battle it out over how best to interpret the texts and traditions of the Jewish faith.
In fact, a yeshiva student won’t ask, “What are you studying?” Rather, the appropriate question is “What are you learning?” Studying infers a solitary, sedentary ingestion of information. Learning is a social, active exercise – a dialogue that must necessarily engage two or more individuals in order for true learning to be accomplished. In the Jewish tradition, “learning” is a verb, a never-finished action.
Learning, continually interacting with and challenging the experiences and informational input that surrounds us, is a life-long process. Gerontologists are now recommending that as we age we intentionally set up new, unexpected circumstances or encounters for ourselves every single day, in order to keep our brains fit and flexible.
Such simple learning exercises as taking a different route to the store, doing a crossword puzzle, planning and executing a sewing, building, or other creative project, all help contribute to keeping our neurons firing, our brains healthy, and strengthening our mind’s ability to learn.
With so much changing around us every day, sometimes changing the way we understand who we are and who God is, is the last thing we want to explore. But author Barbara Kingsolver once said that: “Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you’re trying to do something else.”
For me, most of the important things I’ve learned about faith and life have happened that way. And sometimes I have been forced to learn because changing becomes less painful than staying the same. Sometimes the things that have enabled us to survive in our earlier life become the things that keep us from learning and growing in our later life and in our faith.
Author and social worker Brene Brown describes this in her own life:
As I look back, I realize I probably owe my career to not belonging. First as a child, then as a teenager, I found my primary coping mechanism for not belonging in studying people. I was a seeker of pattern and connection. I knew if I could recognize patterns in people’s behaviors and connect these patterns to what people were feeling and doing, I could find my way. I used my pattern recognition skills to anticipate what people wanted, what they thought, or what they were doing. I learned how to say the right thing, or show up in the right way. I became an expert fitter-in, a chameleon. And a very lonely stranger to myself.
But I was growing weary. I was running on fumes. Anne Lamott quoted an observation from one of her sober friends that sums up that kind of running away perfectly: “By the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”
Sometimes we only learn when staying the same becomes too painful. Sometimes we begin to deteriorate faster than we can even lower our standards, and then we know we must learn and grow in order to survive.
Learning is not always easy. Pain and struggle and grief are a part of life for all of us. But God is with us in the pain and struggle and grief, and God is with us in the growth and learning.
New ideas, new experiences, new relationships are the new wine of life. We have to put them into new wineskins, new understanding of who God is, and who we are, and the meaning of life. Jesus calls us to be life-long learners, life-long students on our journey of life.
May we each feel the presence of God with us every day on our journey as learners.