Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 17A)
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
One day, when I was a boy in elementary school gym class, we played scooter ball. Scooter ball is played with each person sitting on little plastic squares that had wheels on them and the players organized into two teams. Like soccer or hockey, the goal of scooter ball was, while sitting on our scooters, to kick a huge ball with our feet down the gym and between two cones in order to score a goal.
I remember nothing about the game, other than that half way through our gym teacher stopped the game. He singled me out and asked me to take off my jersey and switch to the other team. Looking back, I suspect he thought it might more fairly balance out the teams and I should have taken it as a compliment. Instead, I was angry. I was mad. I sulked.
I remember going home that night and sitting in the bathroom crying. I had my elbows on the window sill and my head in my hands and I was mad at my gym teacher. How could he do that to me? I wasn’t so much bothered by going from the winning team to the losing team. Instead, I was angry that I had been sorted out from my teammates. Mind you – we were only teammates for that one gym class. Each class the teams were different. But I felt I had been ripped away from my friends.
Perhaps now decades later, the lingering trauma from that gym class, is why this parable of the net, from this string of parables in the Gospel reading today, speaks to me [Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52].
To me, the parable of the net, and this ultimate separation of the good fish from the bad fish is disturbing and challenging. It recalls last Sunday’s gospel when the weeds were separated from the wheat, and it foreshadows the end of Matthew’s gospel when the goats will be separated from the sheep. The interpretation scripture offers for this sorting in the parable of the net is this:
“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.”
This imagery of a place of eternal punishment and pain is uncomfortable, especially challenging for us Lutherans who preach justification by grace through faith and not by works of the law. What do we do with this theme of sorting, this place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, that seems to take such a prominent place in Matthew’s gospel?
First, we might acknowledge the possibility that Matthew never had a literal place of damnation in mind. Writing to his context of the early Christian community, he might have used this imagery for more immediate reasons.
Surprisingly, it may have been used to comfort the people – to reassure them that God was more powerful than evil. Remember that the people lived in Roman Empire. Sure, the Emperor and Empire might have seemed all powerful at the time – but judgment would come to those in power. The powerful who use their power in self-serving ways; who dominate the peaceful; who fail to use their power to guide and guard the people; will be sorted out, their end will come, God has the final say.
On the other hand, the parable, like the parable of the four soils two Sundays ago [Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23], might have been used to encourage ongoing faithfulness. The community had already been caught in God’s nets – they were converts, followers of Jesus – and now the focus was their continued life as Christians amid the daily realities of life. One commentator writes that the parable:
“holds together two essential aspects of the kingdom. As proclaimed and enacted by Jesus, the kingdom is a great net of divine acceptance thrown over and enclosing all, good and bad alike (see 22:10). You don’t have to be good to be grasped by the kingdom and drawn into the relationship with God that it freely offers. “Once “within” however, conversation of life (“righteousness”) is required. Those who do not bring forth the fruits of repentance will find themselves cast out, as fishermen throw away the bad fish, caught up along with the good, in their net …” [End quote]
The parable announces that in the grace and mercy of God announced in Jesus, the net, the kingdom of heaven, is cast wide: for you and for me, for all peoples, tribes, and languages, and this grace makes a difference in our lives and in the world. In this grace the expectation would be that we are good fish with the power and ability to heal, to restore, to renew, to reconcile, to recreate.
Our First Reading this morning [1 Kings 3:5-12] gives us an illustration of how this works.
Our First Reading highlights the wisdom of King Solomon. For Solomon, the story started in the love and grace of God. God’s grace anointed Solomon king of Israel in place of his father David, and then, once upon the throne, God asked Solomon for whatever he wanted – it seemed like a blank-check kind of ask.
But having received God’s grace, Solomon turned outward. Instead of asking for something that would benefit him personally (riches, long life, revenge on his enemies), he asked for something that would benefit the people: an understanding mind to govern the people – a mind able to discern between good and evil.
Solomon did not ask for wisdom to guide him personally. Rather, Solomon asked for wisdom in order to effectively, and righteously, govern what he described as “a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted.” Solomon asked God for help in his vocation as King.
In our Lutheran theology, when we talk about vocation, we do not talk about vocation in the narrow sense of ordained ministry, or even vocation as work we are paid to do. Lutheran understanding of vocation includes those two things, but it is more expansive. A synonym for vocation might be relationships. The vocation of our lives are all the relationships we have with other people. We have vocations as parents and grandparents and children/grandchildren; as spouses/partners/friends; as siblings/family members; as neighbors/residents/citizens; as employers/employees; as voters/tax payers.
In the nets of God’s grace, we are good fish, when we like Solomon place our vocations and our relationships into God’s hands. When we turn from our own self-serving ways of limited knowledge, and instead are guided by God’s infinite wisdom and compassion to lead and guide.
Though we are not kings or queens of Israel, each one of us does live in a multitude of relationships with other people. In the nets of God’s grace, in response to the grace we have first received, to be a good fish in God’s nets, is to be like Solomon, and place ourselves and our relationships in God’s care in faith, as we pray for the discernment between right and wrong. In this way, I suggest we might think of the parable of the net. While the image of separation, and sorting, is horrible, the effect, is actually to encourage our connections with one another. The effect is to draw us closer to God in faith, and closer to one another in love and service.
Friends, the Good News today, as we receive this parable of the net, is the promise of faith that we are never sorted out of the community of God.
Yes, there is accountability for sin … And yes, earthly punishment for sin is an important way to retain order for the flourishing of life and peace. BUT, God will never stop the game, single us out, and sort us out of God’s kingdom and way from God’s promises!
The promise of unbroken connection with God is the promise of Romans Chapter 8[:26-39]– our Second Reading this morning. Scholar Deidra Good suggests that Martin Luther once said Romans Chapter 8, from which we get our second reading today, should be written in letters of gold because of its pure gospel promises.
Romans 8 proclaims faith in God who persists with us, who sticks with us, and who is faithful to the promises of baptism to never let us go.
- (8:26) “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words”
- (8:28) “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
- (8:31 & 39) “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Friends, this is Gospel Word that goes out today: God’s love and grace announced in Jesus Christ.
This is the Gospel Word proclaimed in baptism: that we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. In that word, we cling to the faith that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
In the power of faith, may we confess and repent of our sin, that we may rise with Christ as good fish of the kingdom.
Along with Solomon, as good fish, may we pray for wisdom to discern between good and evil, as individuals, as a church, and as a nation as we live out the public vocations of our lives.
As good fish, may we proclaim God’s expansive love to the world – that our witness would cast forth the nets of God’s grace, to bring life, healing, and salvation to the world.
Thanks be to God. AMEN.