A year or so ago, our roofer, John, was finishing up the many months of work he and his crew put in to re-build the gutters that are integral to the roof and walls of this church. I can tell you, within the secure confines of this service, that the gutters are made of copper – a temptation to thieves, since it has a high resale value. And to any thieves out there plotting, I can tell you that the gutters are built into the masonry of the church, not just attached to the outside of the building, and, therefore, more or less impossible to steal.
It had never occurred to me that a roofer was a craftsman until I saw John’s work. I went up onto the scaffolding with him to see how the seams of copper are soldered together. The copper was new and gleaming, bent into long, shallow, sloping pans, the seams carefully zipped with long, rippled lines of solder. It is beautiful work and I was amazed to see how lovely a gutter could be.
I was also amazed at the tools John and his men used. To me, a soldering iron was something from Heathkit or Sears that looked like a miniature curling iron, or an over-heated WaterPik, or an electric meat thermometer. But John’s tools have no electric cords. His irons are old ones: smooth, rounded wooden handles, each with a metal shaft leading to a triangular working-end. These irons are placed in little propane-fired ovens or furnaces that the roofers have on their scaffolding, and heated up to a red glow before being applied to the flux and the solder to make a water-tight seam.
Up there on the roof with me, John took out one of his irons and held it loosely in his hand, and told me about the man who had owned it before he had, from whom John had learned his craft. Had it been owned by someone else before that? I don’t remember. Was it his father, I don’t think so, but maybe. The details hardly mattered, it was astonishing to me to discover that these roofers were practicing a craft with old tools, like the ones probably used when Saint Mark’s was built: tools that had been handed down over at least two generations, maybe more. These kinds of tools you will not find at Home Depot. And this iron - simple, inelegant, well-used, that really seems to be little more than a glorified ice pick, and which, no doubt, is deeply ineffective in the wrong hands, and which I’m sure could be used to dig holes, or break windows, or in all kinds of inappropriate and damaging ways – was, in the right hands, a thing of a certain beauty.
I’ve asked you to consider this tool, used right here at Saint Mark’s, by a person known to any number of us, and for the benefit of everyone sitting here today, because in today’s Gospel reading we hear John the Baptist talking about one of the tools that Jesus uses. It is not a hammer or a chisel or any of a carpenter’s tools that we might expect Jesus to have been given by his own adoptive father, Joseph. In fact it is a tool that Jesus may never actually have picked up in his hands. But it is a tool that, I am told, would have been well known in his day: the winnowing fork. This over-sized wooden pitchfork was used to heave lumps of wheat into the air to let the wind carry off the lighter chaff, as the heavy grain fell to the threshing floor.
Few metaphors have as much staying power as the one of separating the wheat from the chaff, the nourishing from the inedible and indigestible, the good from the bad, the useful from the useless. And it is that metaphor that John the Baptist uses to describe the impending ministry of Jesus: 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. He might as well have said that there are two kinds of people in this world – the good and the bad, those who will be blessed and those who will be cursed, for that is the effect of what he seems to be saying.
Now, most of us probably do think it is a good idea to separate the wheat from the chaff. We expect it to happen in schools, once our kids get out of kindergarten. We learn about it as children, when dodge-ball teams are chosen and someone has to be left standing there, last to be picked. Application processes to schools, colleges, and jobs, have the effect, it often feels, of separating the wheat from the chaff. Most of us don’t mind having the wheat separated from the chaff – as long as we and our kids end up with the wheat! We expect this winnowing to be a part of the many complex processes of our complicated society, and we put up with it, even if we don’t like it; we learn to play the game, because we know how important it is in life to end up with the wheat and not with the chaff. So we can tolerate this almost anywhere, from almost anyone – but not from Jesus!
I submit that most of us do not like the idea of Jesus with his winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff. And we certainly detest the notion that the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire! How judgmental it sounds!
Anciently the church taught people to sing to Jesus, “We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge.” But these words don’t trip lightly from our lips anymore. We can accept the idea that Jesus is our savior – on our better (or worse) days – but not so much that he will be our judge. As if Christian teaching weren’t passé enough, the idea of the Last Judgment may for some be the last straw.
Unpleasant though it may be for us, however, it is hard to escape the thread of judgment that runs throughout the New Testament, and it is impossible for us to unseat Jesus from his seat as judge – to displace him from his threshing floor.
I suspect we have such a hard time with Jesus as judge because in our own day justice seems far removed from truth; and honesty does not seem to be requisite, admired, or much sought after within our justice system. And typically, we imagine that what is true on earth must also be true in heaven, as it were.
Add to this picture the blatant and appalling hypocrisy of the church on everything from bloodshed and war, to the amassing of wealth, to the rampant abuse of children by clergy, and outright lying about sexuality, and you can understand why current seekers-after-truth are less and less interested in hearing about judgment from people (especially men) ordained in Jesus’ name.
Who has any moral authority in our world to call anyone else to account? When even Tiger Woods is guilty of the tawdriest sins, who else is left?
In the moral landscape of our own age we have become dis-inclined to consider our own sins, to accept our own responsibility – individually or in any corporate sense – for failings. Self-examination is avoided or carried out beyond the limits of judgment, so that no one should be given cause to feel bad about themselves.
What can Jesus possibly do for us with his winnowing fork in his hand? What use is he making judgments that no one asked for and for which we suspect he has no real enforcement mechanism beyond these threats of eternal fire? And what difference does it make if most of the world refuses to show up to the threshing floor anyway?
The assumption behind these skepticisms is that Jesus is as inept with a winnowing fork as you and I would be – that his judgment would look something like yours or mine would. And this assumption is as foolish as the idea that our roofer John’s aptitude with a soldering iron is more or less the same as yours or mine. When, in fact, the tool isn’t even the same as we imagined it to be.
I don’t know what Jesus’ winnowing fork looks like, but I suspect that it is an instrument of infinitely greater finesse than the wooden-tined forks I find pictures of on the Internet. And it takes me not more than a second to see the foolishness in supposing that Jesus’ judgment is anything like mine, since I am often enough impulsive, arrogant, and foolish, but he is always patient, powerful, and wise.
From time to time, I feel the tug of justice like an invisible and insistent undertow, in a sea that pretends it is not there. As more American soldiers are sent to fight a dubious war, I feel it. As the bonuses are handed out at Goldman Sachs, I detect it. When I review the statistics of schools in our city and notice the racial makeup of those who are least well served, I notice it. As the debate about health care drones on, driven by many forces that seem to have little to do with the health and well-being of actual people, I feel it. When I see the church deeply enmeshed in legal battles but less involved with the lives of the poor and the needy, I wonder about it.
Justice, like truth, seems to stumble in the public square, as the prophets warn.
But this is not just a matter of current affairs, it is also a question of individual lives. People make choices. You and I do things that we shouldn’t, and we know better. Even if we don’t set out to hurt people – though sometimes we do – we have learned patterns of behavior that often come at someone else’s expense. Often, we couldn’t even pass the simple tests set by Jesus in the Gospel today:
Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise. A simple enough rule to follow.
How well would the details of our lives and relationships stand up to a closer scrutiny?
And somewhere on his threshing floor stands Jesus. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He is interested in separating the wheat from the chaff. And the mistake we make when we see him there is that we suspect that he would go about this project in more or less the same way we would. And we suspect that he is more interested in the chaff than the wheat, because we would be. But of course this is wrong, as it would be for any thresher. Jesus is really only interested in the wheat. And there is no reason to believe that he is not immensely more adept at judgment than we would be.
And I believe that his winnowing fork is much more delicate than any we could imagine. I suspect its tines are soft and supple not stiff and sharp. And I have supposed that Jesus’ winnowing fork has the power to transform chaff into wheat, making his harvest a greater, more plentiful one than any farmer’s.
The winnowing fork in Jesus’ hand, is a tool that can accomplish more than we ever knew. What can his judgment possibly be like?
The bishop I once worked for used to tell a story that suggested a possibility that is the best I have ever heard of how Jesus’ judgment might work.
The bishop is Australian, but was educated in England at Cambridge. He loves art and flowers and music, and to travel, and a decent glass of wine. And he once told about a trip to Paris when he visited the Louvre and made his way through the many corridors of that museum to the place where the Mona Lisa hung, with her ambiguous smile.
The usual crowd of people was milling about in front of the painting. My friend, the bishop, was trying just to drink it in. And he overheard two women speaking in accents, he reports, that could only have been American. As they paused briefly in front of the masterpiece, one woman said to the other with unmistakable disappointment, “It’s much smaller than I thought it would be.” And then they quickly moved on to find, I suppose, winged victory and be disappointed that her head has not been replaced.
In that moment in front of the painting, though, my bishop suggested, judgment was made. The American tourists made theirs about the painting. And silently, without so much as a twitch of her famous lips, the Mona Lisa made a judgment of those tourists, whose only assessment was disappointment at how small she was.
Perhaps Jesus’ judgment is like that. Perhaps as we wander through the corridors of our lives making decisions, pronouncements, doing whatever it is we do, Jesus judges us silently, stilly, and certainly, his winnowing fork in his hand, barely ever raised, and able to make a far better end of the business of separating the wheat from the chaff than you or I could imagine, perhaps even better than we deserve.
Or maybe Jesus long ago set down his winnowing fork at his feet – outside the frame of our vision. And maybe he sits on his throne, hands clasped calmly in front of him, an ambiguous, mysterious smile on his lips, watching as you and I go about our daily business, making the choices we make, living the lives we live, keeping our second coat or giving it away.
Maybe judgment is made every day as we dismiss the magnificent and the beautiful in favor of the immediate and the cheap, the too-big in favor of the disappointingly smaller-than-we-imagined.
And maybe Jesus is smiling with an even more mysterious smile than Mona Lisa, since he knows the truth, winnowing fork or not: there are not two kinds of people in this world; there is only one kind of people in this world – the kind that Jesus loves. And he wills with all the power of his sacred heart – pierced by those he came to save – that we should stand before him, and love him too.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
13 December 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia