by Daniel Harrell
This morning’s parable from Matthew 13 draws its comparison to Galilean fishermen who hauled their daily catch ashore and sorted the good from the bad. Here at the end of Matthew 13, Jesus said this is what the kingdom of heaven is like, and how it will be at the end of the age. It’s a little how it was this past Tuesday too. I mentioned last Sunday how the looming Election Day felt like a Judgment Day which Jesus always said would happen as we least expected. Boy was he right about that.
There was certainly a sorting, though whether good fish or bad depended on the sea you swim in. One’s “47 percent” “basket of deplorables” “clinging to their guns and religion” was another’s forgotten and silent majority, working class communities Sarah Palin labeled as “the real America” way back in 2008. She said this while campaigning in my own hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. Writing last month, progressive New Yorker writer George Packer noted how those real American communities were even back then “hollowing out, and politicians didn’t seem to notice. A great inversion occurred. The dangerous, depraved cities gradually became safe for clean-living professional families who happily paid thousands of dollars to prep their kids for the gifted-and-talented test, while the region surrounding Greensboro lost tobacco, textiles, and furniture-making, in a rapid collapse… allowing Oxycontin and disability and home invasions” to take hold.
This is where all my family still resides, conservative Christian rednecks, a slur you can still speak at dinner parties and get away with. As a white middle-aged Southern man with redneck roots, I empathize with my family whom I love. They voted for thunderous political change. However, in this era of identity-politics and Twitter backlash, let me come clean as a Southerner by birth but for 25 years a New Englander by choice (though now a Minnesotan by the will of God). My adopted identity is that of a mildly pretentious and privileged East Coast intellectual with a PhD in my pocket, a heart-challenged head-case who prefers preaching highbrow, inaccessible sermons with no life application, my twang tempered by years of progressive perspective.
“How did God let this happen?” was posted repeatedly by friends on my Facebook feed. Down in my family’s churches in Rockingham County they’re praising the Lord this morning. It’s as Abraham Lincoln declaimed the last time our country was so severely and dangerously divided: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
I love Abraham Lincoln, but he was a butcher when it came to the Civil War. Roughly 2% of the population, an estimated 620,000 Americans, died fighting each other. “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
Were I preaching in a Lutheran or Episcopalian church this morning, you’d have heard the gospel passage assigned by what’s called the Lectionary, a sermon guide based on the church calendar many denominations employ as a kind of homiletical safety belt, keeping preachers buckled to the Bible rather than flying by the seat of “the gospel according to whatever I’m feeling.” We preachers too often decide what we want to say first and then find a Bible passage that fits. Lutherans and Episcopalians, as well as Roman Catholics and others, are all reading Luke 21 this morning where the theme is the end of the world. Jesus foretells the brutal destruction of Jerusalem and its Jewish Temple by the oppressive armies of Rome. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.” he said. “You will be hated by all because of my name.” The Bible ascribes Rome’s butchery to the Almighty. Despite dire warnings from doomsday prophets, the chosen people of God refused to repent of their idolatry and pretense. They treated God’s law with contempt, took grace for granted and as license to live as they pleased, using the Temple itself as a cover for their sin and duplicity.
In the Old Testament, divine recompense for this arrogance thundered in through Babylonian invasion. The Babylonians leveled Solomon’s extravagant Temple, looted God’s people and sent them into decades long exile. By God’s grace, the chosen, still chosen, in time returned to Jerusalem and humbly rebuilt and promised to do better, but history has a way of repeating itself. Standing in that refurbished temple centuries later, Jesus thundered, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” The Romans soon had their turn and tore the Temple to the ground again. Only a Wailing Wall remains. “How did God let this happen?” Abraham Lincoln answered, “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
Congregationalists, for the most part, have never been much for letting lectionaries or liturgical traditions determine our sermons, for better or worse. Jesus instructed, “Do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” Granted, Jesus was talking about how to defend yourself as a Christian when you’re arrested and brought to trial, which preaching can sometimes feel like. I confess I don’t have enough faith to fully hear or to speak on the spot what the Holy Spirit might say. Instead, I try and trust the Spirit a few months in advance and map out my sermons ahead of time, for the sake of self-restraint and hopefully obedience to the word of the Lord. I decided last summer to walk us through Matthew 13—the politically-charged kingdom of heaven as sower and soils, a mustard seed and yeast, wheat and weeds, treasures and a pearl. Going into this rancorous presidential season, I thought it made sense to remind ourselves of Christ’s kingdom vision for political power. I also thought I knew who’d end up as President.
Back on the parable beach, fishermen cull their catch. Inasmuch as this final parable portrays “the end of the age,”—or the end of history or the end of the world depending on your translation—we presume the shore to be eternity and the fish to be humans. Jesus speaks to his disciples here, many of whom were fishermen by trade and told they’d become fishers of people.
On shore with full nets, a nod to the fullness of time, the catch is judged either good or bad. Interestingly, the text never expressly mentions fish. The kingdom net is specifically a dragnet that indiscriminately rakes in everything of every kind—fish to be sure, but also seaweed, flotsam, jetsam, plastic bottles, boots and beer cans and rusted anchors, every kind of marine debris. The kingdom net hauls in the whole of creation without question, just like the sower sowed his seeds everywhere and the baker’s yeast permeated the whole dough. Sink or swim, the kingdom net rejects nothing, everything finds it way to shore.
Once ashore there is a sorting, and we presume since Jesus told his disciples—and by extension you and me—that they were the fishers of people, we presume we get to determine who’s good and who’s not, what’s right and what’s not, what goes into the basket and who gnashes their teeth in the furnace of fire. Surely every misogynist, racist, homophobe and fear-mongering, foul-mouthed and morally repulsive demagogue and his followers all get the toaster. There they sizzle alongside the smug, the condescending self-righteous, the entrenched and entitled East Coast elites who buy their way out of multiethnic tensions and resentments and whose idea of heaven is nothing but diversity and efficiency, “heirloom tomatoes and self-driving cars.” It all depends on the sea you swim in.
Wisely, and rightly, Jesus assigns the sorting to unbiased angels, messengers of God with no agenda save the Lord’s own. As for us humans, “let us judge not, that we be not judged.”“Do not take revenge,” the apostle Paul wrote to Roman Christians, “but leave room for God’s justice. As it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.’” Unlike popular depictions of human justice, God neither dons a blindfold nor requires scales to measure. The Lord does his justice with eyes wide open.“There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known,” Jesus warned. God Almighty is not impartial toward evil, but the Lord does love mercy. He loves mercy more than we do.
I spoke with so many of you about the election this week. Dr. Holly Willis, a member of our congregation who teaches at St. Kate’s, described last Wednesday as “a tough day to be teaching at a women-centered, social justice focused, minority-heavy university… emotions ran high.” Filled with emotion, one St. Kate’s student published her opposition to the election outcomes and to “white Christian supremacy” in the Star-Tribune. “We, the liberals,” she wrote, “watched the presidential victory in shock. How could this be? Were we not on the side of the good? Were we not fighting for the poor, the vulnerable, the abused? Were we not better than they? They will be told that they are to blame. And yet, I wonder whose lack of kindness, whose lack of understanding, and whose lack of charity has led us to this place.” Our own resident theologian Dr. Kyle Roberts encouraged, “Now is the time to double down on love, not anger, not hate, not fear. There is no better time. But it must be an active, justice-seeking, peace-making love, not a passive acquiescence to the powers and principalities. But it must be love, nonetheless. Otherwise, we lose everything. Because love is everything.”
The kingdom of heaven is a full net, bursting to the breakpoint, another nod to God’s love for all things. The kingdom hauls in the whole of creation without question, kneads its yeast into the whole batch, sows its seeds everywhere despite the dirt. Remember, the best soil is still full of cow poo and the fish picked as good still get fried in a pan and eaten for supper.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Have you understood all this?” And they surprisingly answered, “Yes.” To which Jesus then replied, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Nobody really knows what Jesus meant by this. Jesus was my kind of preacher.
Not wanting to overreach (or over preach), I was planning to end my sermon right here. Just then an early morning email arrived from Brian Jones with wise words from 85-year-old Canadian and Christian philosopher Charles Taylor of whom Brian and I are both fans. Reading the article Brian sent, I wondered, does the Holy Spirit do email?
Charles Taylor writes, “We all seek a sense of what it would be like to be fully connected to something. We all have a sense of what really living, and not just existing, would be. We know that there’s a level of life that’s rare to attain. And whether we attain that or not can be a source of deep satisfaction or shame to us.”
In big cities, Taylor says, it’s easy for people to feel engaged in the project of democracy; they’re surrounded by the drama of inclusion. But in the countryside, where jobs are disappearing, main streets are empty, and church attendance is down, democracy seems like a fantasy, and people end up “sitting at home, watching television. Their only contact with the country’s problems is a sense that everything’s going absolutely crazy. They have no sense of control.” “During a crisis of democratic faith, we may still go to the polls. But we’ll participate in a spirit of anger, spite, irony, or despair. Some of us, Taylor concluded, will cast votes that are, essentially, ‘declarations of disbelief.’”
“Many people who voted for Clinton did so while “holding their noses”; others pitched in for Trump even though they didn’t really believe in him.” I mentioned last Sunday how the hometown crowds, in the last passage we’ll read from Matthew 13, were amazed by Jesus’ words and deeds, but they had their doubts about his being king. Scroll to the end of this chapter and his friends and neighbors apply the identity politics of their day: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers men we know? His sisters too? Where then did this man get all this?” Matthew adds “they took offense at him.” How ridiculous for a nondescript nobody from backwater Galilee to crown himself the royal Son of David. Some might suggest it’s as ridiculous as what happened on Tuesday.
Knowing the fear of the Lord, the prophet Daniel prayed for the self-deluded Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar who kept him captive in exile, the apostle Paul prayed for his jailers, Jesus prayed for his executioners and betrayers from the cross. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, stoned for his own sense of what it mean to be fully connected, prayed to God that his killers not be held to account. I can pray for my President and my President-elect. I can fear the Lord and double down on love for my enemies and neighbors. I will strive to do right and make peace and keep hope as I long for that farthest shore where perfect justice and love will get done and fish will get fried and enjoyed as delicious by everybody willing to sit down together and eat.