Sunday, August 12, 2012


Matthew 13:47-50 (25:35-46)
August 12, 2012
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

             That’s the kind of parable Jesus would teach, after hanging around with a group of fishermen. He draws upon their daily work, as they cast large nets into the Sea of Galilee. “God’s kingdom is like a wide fishing net that catches every kind of fish.”

            Experience says this is true. Look around this room: there are all kinds of people here. All kinds of people. Do you know how rare that is?

Last Thursday night, I celebrated my wife’s birthday by taking her to Philadelphia for a preseason football game. Two of our daughters went with us. It was a great night for football. I have to tell you, the Steelers second-string looks almost as good as the Eagles’ starting line-up. At seventy dollars a seat, I’m glad the players looked pretty good. Troy Polamalu even had his hair pulled back in a pony tail.

The night would have been perfect, had it not been for the fan two rows behind us. She couldn’t keep her mouth shut. She was nasty. When the opposing team played well, she cursed them. When her own team played poorly, she used profanity. When the referee made a call she did not like, she started singing, “Three blind mice.” She was impassioned, insulting. She was not interested in athletic competition. She wanted annihilation. When I got the courage to turn around and look at her, I saw a short grizzled woman with an angry face. For three hours straight, whatever occurred on the field, she told the entire stadium what she thought about it.

That’s the situation we are in, you know. The over-amplification of the individual. The megaphone on every opinion. The assumption that my way is the only way, that I’m entitled to obliterate you because I’m right and you are wrong, just because I say so.

This is an odd ideafor Presbyterians, I suppose. We come from a reasonable tradition. Our whole government is based on the principle that the pursuit of the truth is a community activity. We seek God together. And should we differ, we pray, we discuss, we stay in communion, and we put it to a provisional vote so we can move forward. That’s the Presbyterian way: we respect every voice, and we listen for God in the majority of voices.

But even among our national flock, I’ve noticed recent breakdowns. Sometimes there are strident voices bullying those who do not agree. Winning becomes more important than being together. On the last night of this year’s General Assembly meeting, I watched online as commissioners nitpicked at one another 11:30 at night. I shut down the computer, went to bed, and later heard that people badgered one another until a quarter of two in the morning, all in the name of Jesus.

This loss of civility is a dramatic change over a hundred years ago. Presbyterians, like everybody else, can be a feisty bunch. Our Scottish forebears settled their early disputes with swords and blue war paint. But at least they eventually build a civilized approach to church life with dignity and mutual respect. These days, there is much more division in our society and precious little respect.

I would commend to you a book called The Big Sort by news reporter Bill Bishop. He has studied voting patterns, community demographics, and spending habits, and concludes that Americans are clustered against one another in alarming ways. These days we are told there are Red States and Blue States. People tend to migrate to communities that “feel right,” where the people surrounding them are mostly in agreement. Gone are the days when the three major television networks provide a central narrative for the nation. The conservatives tune in to Fox News and the liberals watch MSNBC. There is hardly any middle ground, and most people listen only to what they want to hear.

Have you noticed this? As Bishop writes, sometime in the 1960’s,

The old systems of order – around land, family, class, tradition, and religious denomination – gave way. They were replaced over the next thirty years with a new order based on individual choice. Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhood, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment. (These) like-minded, homogenous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong. As a result, we now live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts about what’s right and wrong bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit online, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in . . . and the politicians exploit this.[1]

I realized that a few months ago when I heard my friend Matt Cartwright was running for Congress. He’s an attorney in Scranton. I know him from years ago in the Rotary Club. I wanted to find out more about his positions on the issues. So I looked up his website and found out more. Then I discovered that I can’t vote for him – Congressional District 17 has been wildly redrawn. The politicians have gerrymandered the district to ensure that they will win the next election.

In such a divided, parceled-out society, where do we learn how to live together? How can we have a true, deep experience of community? How do we work out our differences? How do we pursue the greatest common good?

A hundred years ago, that may have been an issue, but Americans still had a shared dream, that if they worked hard, and worked together, they could advance in each successive generation. As I have often noted, the new American dream seems to be to make enough money that you don’t have to deal with your neighbors, and can arrest them for trespassing if they walk across your lawn.

I am haunted about this change in our society, this rampant division and its segregation. I believe it is a mission field for the church. If Christian people believe that every person is a child of God, that every human being is endowed with God-given dignity, then the Christian congregation must be a place where people respect one another. Where they don’t bludgeon one another with intractable opinions. Where differences are honored – and a higher righteousness is pursued.

And it begins with the clear call of Scripture to be our brothers’ keepers, to be our sisters’ caretakers. We have to find ways to get along even when we disagree, because the world outside our door is not getting along at all. The first sign of God’s kingdom is a Christ-centered community where people care about one another. It is the challenge that we must keep working out.

            I recall the stories about Paul Lehmann, a scholar who taught Christian ethics in the last generation. He taught at Princeton Seminary, and some lesser schools like Harvard and Union. He was a personal friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he took on the fear-mongering of Senator Joseph McCarty. He was a great man.

            Professor Lehmann used to teach his students that the best way to deal with your opponents is to listen carefully to what they say, and then restate their position in such an unbiased way that they can say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe.” In other words, you respect them. You earn the opportunity for them to respect you. Then you work together to discern what you have in common, and where you agree to disagree. The purpose was not to win the argument, but to build a relationship.

            Do you have any friendships with people who disagree with you? Unlike the general cultural consensus of a hundred years ago, post-modern American life wants to segment and divide. And the Christian faith calls us to live together, to work together, to seek the public good – and let God sort out the complexities of who we are and what we are not.

            I think I have a number of friends with whom I disagree on this or that. A friend named Beth recently said, “Life is complex. People are complex. We are not an issue or a side in an issue, we are stories, shaped in a multitude of ways. We are shifting sand. We are growing and changing always. Let's not put each other in categories.”

That’s why the parable of Jesus is so striking. “The kingdom of heaven is like a wide net that catches all kinds of fish.” All of them are in the net together. It is only at the last moment when they are sorted. Before that moment, all divisions are premature. They have to co-exist. Yet the moment finally comes when the good fish are sorted from the bad fish.

Jesus is not commenting on the quality of the tilapia in the Sea of Galilee, which grow to pretty much the same size. He was a carpenter, after all, not a fisherman. But he was assessing the final catch, much like he does all throughout the Gospel of Matthew. God is preparing for the final sorting-out, he says.

Remember his big story on the final separation? “When the Son of Man shall come, he shall divide those on his right from those on his left, the sheep from the goats.” And how will he divide them? On the basis of how they treated their neighbors. Did they welcome the stranger? Feed the hungry? Clothe the ragged? Visit the sick and the prisoner? Did they show basic human compassion and sympathy? Or did they walk by, in neglect and self preoccupation?

The Bible points to a final sorting-out that God shall accomplish. The good shall be separated from the bad, the righteous from the evil. The life we have here and now is a long rehearsal for that final restructuring. Either we receive the people that God puts into our lives or we don’t. Either we love our neighbors and work for their benefit, the same way God loves us, or we don’t. Jesus sets the example and then watches to see what we do with the time we have.

And lest we think this is easy, we hear him make the sad observation that, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). It really does matter how we treat one another, how we welcome those who are both similar and different to us. When Christian people do this, they are a sign of God’s will for the whole human family.

Maybe that’s why a Catholic church got serious about welcoming strangers. They call themselves the “Our Lady of Lourdes Community.” I don’t know where they are, but I want to join up with people like them. Here is what they print as their words of welcome:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you! [2]

            Do you know the most powerful word in the human language? It’s the word “welcome.” Welcome. Welcome to the kingdom of God. Welcome to the community where you want to belong, and where they want to take you in. Welcome to the arms of Jesus Christ, your friend.

[1] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009) 39.
[2] Anonymous source, now making the rounds on the internet.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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