“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…[He will] clear his threshing floor and…gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:15-17,21-22
It’s easy to imagine a text like this becoming the pretext for a certain kinda sermon – the kind that makes your average Episcopalian distinctly uncomfortable: Fire and Brimstone”… “Hellfire and Damnation” … “Longer than 12 minutes”… That kinda sermon.Well, that’s not how I preach. But you know what? I don’t think it matters. I think we’re gonna feel uncomfortable anyway. It’s the text itself that makes us uneasy, not the sermon: the way we read the text and the way the text reads us.
When we read texts like this one, our mind’s eye sees God sorting out not wheat and chaff, but people: good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, us and them. It’s not entirely unappealing to read it this way. Either/or is always easier than shades of grey: just choose the right side, just join the right team…just put on our “I’m with Jesus” tee-shirts and “Team Jesus” wristbands and all will be well.
Yet if we are the least bit introspective, we know it’s not like that, because we know we are not like that. Each of us has parts we don’t wanna see, that we wanna hide from others, especially God, yet that we know God must see even clearest of all. No. If God is sorting us out into wheat and chaff based on what we deserve, we know which pile we are headed for…and it ain’t the one destined to become bread.
But there is hope. And here it is: We’ve been reading this text wrong. Don’t feel too bad. Almost everybody does. It’s almost impossible not to. It’s part of our DNA. We human beings are deeply tribal, deeply narcissistic creatures…Deeply driven to divide ourselves in US and THEM…Deeply disposed to raise inconsequential or even imaginary differences into things worth fighting – or dying – or even killing – for…And most of all, deeply certain that it is “inherently” better to be US than THEM. We can’t help it…It’s part of our fallen human nature. We want a quick and easy way to be part of something greater than ourselves, so we fool ourselves in to thinking that a joining an exclusive, human-created group is the only way out of our human isolation. We want a quick and easy way to feel good about ourselves, so we trick ourselves into thinking that having groups of people to look down on will make us feel better by comparison. And it does…for a little while. But in the end, when base our sense of wellbeing on these things, we are putting faith in a counterfeit.
Jesus, on the other hand, came to do away with counterfeits and to reveal to us the real story. Jesus came to take our tribal narcissism to the cross with him; to show us a way to be part of something greater than ourselves and to feel acceptable to ourselves and to God that does not require deceiving ourselves.
Now I’m kinda fond of the Jewish form of Bible study known as Midrash. One of the reasons for my fondness, beyond my fact that we are both Jewish by birth, is that the structure of Midrash is intended help us see past some of the preconceived notions we bring to the text. It does this by requiring us to look at a text literally in order to discover what it literally does and, more importantly, literally doesn’t say. Most important of all, it is predisposed to paradoxes – about God, about us, about life – knowing that, more often than not, the opposite of a deep truth is not a falsehood, but another deep truth.
So let’s do a little Midrash on this passage. Okay? Literally speaking, does it say anything in this passage about dividing people into groups? Let alone groups of people bound for heaven or hell? No? So why are we imposing that meaning on our interpretation of the text? Is there another interpretation we can make here? One that gives us a deeper understanding, more consistent with what we know about the love of Christ?
Now, I’m not a farmer. When it comes to threshing wheat, I haven’t a clue: Wouldn’t know a winnowing fork from a salad fork…Wouldn’t know a threshing floor if it bit me…Probably end up gathering up the chaff and burning the grain. I am, however, quite conversant with another Jesus’ oft-used purification metaphors. Having studied the craft of working precious metals and worked with lost-wax casting years ago, I am intimately familiar with the process of separating gold from dross. It was a simple process, but it was not an easy one. You use an welders torch, not just to melt the gold but make it hot enough to boil – that’s hot – molten lava hot – 1,000 degrees – Celsius – and hold it there, scooping out all the impurities that float to the top until all of it has boiled its way out. It was hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable work, and not altogether safe. At least one of my freckles once had a tiny drop of gold underneath: a result of one of the inevitable spatters that occur. But you know what they say: “no pain, no gain.”
And if that’s what it’s like for the jeweler – God in this metaphor – imagine what it must be like for the gold (if gold could feel). Now you’ve got the right picture in your mind: We are meant by God to be works of art. Each and every one of us are meant to be a unique creation of the Master Artisan. And we are also living paradoxes: each of us contains both good and evil, wheat and chaff, the image of God and the imperfection of the world. And if we are going to be what God intends, we have to be willing to let God apply some fire to our lives to burn away those impurities that keep us from really shining.
And what I want to suggest to you is that if we assume, as the Scripture often claims for itself, that God wants to speak to each and every hearer with each and every text, then all the wheat and chaff talk is not about God sorting people into “Team Jesus” and “Team Satan,” but about God being so determined to make each and every one of us whole and to draw each and every one of us unashamedly into God’s presence, that God will use every tool at God’s disposal everything good and everything bad in each and every one of our lives, every person that we meet, every community that God calls us into, to purify and mold and shape us to the point that we are ready for our ultimate communion with God.
And so our prayer should be, in the words of the communion hymn, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me; Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us.
This sermon was delivered at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church on the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, 2013.