A Sermon from Sherborne
A sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 13th January 2019 by The Reverend Ron Martin, Associate Priest (and Head of Chaplaincy Services at Dorset County Hospital).
Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.
The seventeenth verse in our Gospel for this morning states that, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
My Church of Scotland, Presbyterian upbringing made sure that verses such as this rang loud and clear in my head and heart. “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Can you imagine how a small boy with a vivid imagination would have reacted to such a verse? Well I can tell you, it scared the living daylights out of me. I grew up knowing, because the local Church of Scotland minister made it clear, that I was a sinner. I was chaff. Ok he never said that to me directly as an individual child (that would have been wrong on so many levels even back in those days), but growing up in Scotland in the 60’s and 70’s, that’s the message I heard. There was a message of love as well, of course. But I was a boy living on a housing estate who regularly got into scrapes and mischief, and all I heard when I sat in that hard Church of Scotland pew with the cold blue carpets on the floor and the dark furniture, all I heard was that I was chaff, destined for the fire.
Indeed, if you read some Bible commentaries, they will state that a winnowing-fork is like a pitchfork, used to physically throw the grain into the air, so that the chaff is blown away by the wind, and what falls to the ground is the heavier, more fruitful, more useful good stuff, the wheat. According to some of those commentators winnowing serves as a metaphor for Jesus separating the faithful from the unfaithful—the saved from the lost. The sinner from the saint. You can see my predicament as a young boy can’t you?
The novel by Jeannette Winterton, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, resonated so much with me as a young man. The message of judgement and condemnation for chaff such as me could so easily have negatively shaped my faith and warped my life for years to come. Instead it turned me off faith. By the tender age of 11 I had had enough and I walked away. My mother was good enough, wise enough, to allow such rebellion, and it wasn’t until I was older that I discovered the God of unconditional love. The God who loves me even when I struggle to love myself. The God whom Jesus really revealed. The God who speaks via the prophet Isaiah and says,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.
The trouble with those who isolate difficult passages and sayings from the rest of Jesus life and teaching and indeed from the rest of the Bible is that they so easily fall into the trap of becoming people of the religious tract. The seemingly uncomplicated one liner; no matter that it’s taken completely out of context, they say, “it’s the Word of God!” But we have all learned in recent years, to be wary of the sound bite which, rather than revealing truth, more often conceals and obscures.
Now make no mistake, Jesus most certainly does want to be rid of chaff, but it is the chaff in my life and your life that limits our faith and restricts our compassion and leads us to react in fear and loathing towards anyone or anything that is different. It is the chaff that would limit and set conditions on the love of God. The chaff of small-mindedness, of pride and pomposity, of hypocrisy and judgementalism. How do I know this, well just look at the Gospel’s in their totality? Who does Jesus spend time with, eat with, befriend, forgive and love? It’s the humble poor, the broken, the sinner – chaff! Most who followed him, failed or betrayed him or ran away in fear, but he poured out his Spirit on them anyway and built his Church upon them.
In my experience as a Hospital Chaplain, I come across sick and dying human beings all the time who are painfully conscious of the chaff in their lives. It is a poor and dangerous and deeply damaging form of religion that would dare to encourage them to believe that they are destined for fire as a result. More than that, it is deeply iniquitous and blasphemous to even suggest such a thing. For Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it but rather to provide a cure. Judgement does not equal condemnation.
Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, alluded to in so many of the scriptures and psalms, is the beginning of a ministry that will wash away sins and clear out chaff. In baptism we experience this ourselves as we die to sin and rise with Christ. We continue to experience this as our minds are opened to the liberating Good News that God loves his whole creation and everyone in it. As Isaiah reminded us, we are precious, honoured, loved.
There is a great deal of good and fruitful wheat within each of us. There is also chaff. However, the truth is, everything that is shallow and unworthy, unfaithful and afraid, has already been defeated. Our baptism is a sign of this. The chaff need have no more dominion over us – it is good only for the fire. And that is not frightening. It is a good and liberating truth.