Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
Norman Percevel Rockwell was a prolific 20th-century American painter and illustrator. His works enjoy a broad popular appeal in the United States, where he is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life scenarios he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine for more than four decades. Among the best-known of Rockwell’s works are the Willie Gillis series, Rosie the Riveter, Saying Grace, and the Four Freedoms series. While Rockwell’s works are highly praised now, in his lifetime serious art critics often dismissed his paintings and illustrations. To his critics, many of his works appear overly sweet, especially the Saturday Evening Post covers, which tended toward idealistic or sentimentalized portrayals of the American life. Such critique led to the often-deprecatory adjective “Rockwellesque.” In his later years, however, Rockwell began receiving more attention as a painter when he chose more serious subjects such as the series on racism for Look magazine. Possibly, the most famous example of this more serious work is his painting entitled, The Problem We All Live With, which dealt with the issue of school racial integration. The painting depicts a young African American girl, Ruby Bridges, flanked by white federal marshals, walking to school past a wall defaced by racist graffiti.
In many of Rockwell’s paintings and illustrations there is no question that he does indeed depict an idealistic view of American life. And it is also true that many Americans have bought into an idealistic or picturesque portrait of what life is supposed to be like in our country. Hotdogs, baseball, and apple pie; a mother, father, two children, and the family dog taking a stroll in the park; happy families all dressed in their finest heading to church on Sunday morning; generations of a family sitting on blankets in the lush outdoors enjoying a 4th of July picnic as fireworks burst in the background, are just a few images that come to mind. But the ideal American life is more than images we hold in our mind’s eye. The ideal American life is also about a set of principles we hold dear: the land of the free and of opportunity—that notion that anyone can pull themselves up by their boot straps if they work hard enough; the possibility of owning your own home and car; the philosophy that if you work hard you will get ahead; and even the notion that we have an “American faith.”
I thought of Norman Rockwell’s idealistic portrayals when I read our lectionary text from the prophet Isaiah. He, too, had an idealistic picture of what God’s kingdom should or would look like. The wolf living with the vulnerable lamb, the leopard lying down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child leading them. In his mind’s eye, he saw the nursing child playing over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child putting its hand in the adder’s den. It was a picture of safety, of everyone getting along with one another and living together in harmony—a picture of hope and peace, of joy and love.
One could make an argument that idealistic pictures serve an important role for humanity. For starters, they inspire us. They give us something to hope for and to believe in. Often, they help us see what we cannot see—giving us a road map to something better. They can also challenge us and nudge us out of our stuck places—to dream of better days and better nights. But just as one can make an argument that idealistic pictures inspire us and challenge us to be a better humanity, they can also damage us, especially when our lives don’t match up to what has been presented as the great ideal. Take for instance the stranger (the migrant worker) who comes to this country and doesn’t find opportunity or freedom. Or the native who works hard her whole life, sometimes working two jobs, and never gets ahead. Or what about the laborer whose job doesn’t provide health insurance, and the minimum wage he works day and night for isn’t enough to live in the neighborhood that has the high performing schools or to send his children to college. Or what about the child who has two moms or two dads; or the child who lives with his grandmother? Their family picture doesn’t quite match up to those American images of the perfect family. That disconnect can be painful.
But it’s not just the American ideal that can damage us. The idea or ideal that our faith expects us to be perfect can also be damaging. In lectionary group this week, as we read those last verses in Matthew about the winnowing fork and God gathering the wheat into the granary and then burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, someone commented, “Now why don’t you preach on that?” Well, I think I will. To get straight to my point, I will begin by saying that I find Matthew’s either/or kind of theology and thinking to be lacking. I find that it plays into an idealistic or sentimental notion of what it means to be a person of faith. In his picture, we are either the wheat or the chaff. God is either going to gather us up as the wheat or send us into the unquenchable fire as the chaff. Such theology can and often does challenge us, or dare I say scare us, into trying to be someone or something that we cannot be—much like those Norman Rockwell pictures. For years, this kind of either/or thinking and theology has rubbed me the wrong way. If anything, my life experience has taught me that we are neither “all good” nor “all bad.” Each of us holds within our very being the potential to respond out of our best self and out of our worst self. Indeed, the first step we must take as people of faith is to recognize that we are both the wheat and the chaff. We are imperfect human beings, redeemed by God’s love and grace, who are mostly wheat; but who can, at times, be the chaff. Yet, as much as Matthew’s either/or theology annoys me, he does offer something redemptive in his teaching—the practice of winnowing.
I don’t know much about winnowing, but it reminds me of a process that I go through each day as I sit down at my computer to check emails. Each morning I have to shift through three files: my inbox, my Qurb box, and my junk box. You see, sometimes important emails can end up in my Qurb or junk box and if I don’t take the time to separate out the bad emails from the good ones, I can miss something important. I don’t like this process because it takes time, and I have to really pay attention to what I am looking at and searching for. But it is a necessary process. The process of winnowing is much the same way. It requires us to separate out what is useful (the wheat) from that which is not useful (the chaff) in our lives and living. It requires us to pay attention to how we are living and to hold on to those places of love and compassion, while letting go of our judgments and insecurities. As I see it, this act of winnowing is our primary action of faith: separating out and keeping in our hearts all that is good and whole and that which feeds our spirits and souls and letting go of all the chaff, all that keeps us from loving compassionately and acting justly; our fear, our insecurity, our judgments, other’s ideals of who and what we should be. Matthew says this winnowing is God’s work to do. But once again, I would take issue with Matthew. I don’t think that winnowing is God’s work alone. It is our work as well. Winnowing is the work of faith. And it is not something we do once—it is a practice that we must be committed to throughout our entire lives.
If there is an ideal picture of faith, it is the image of us standing with a winnowing fork in hand—separating out the good within us from all else within us that would keep us from experiencing God’s hope for us, God’s peace to us, God’s joy around us, and God’s love within us.
To me, this table that we are about to gather around represents the practice of winnowing. It represents both the good and the bad of our faith—the wheat and the chaff. At this table, we remember the violence and injustice that led to Jesus’ death—the chaff of humanity. And here at this table, we also remember and celebrate how love and grace, compassion and forgiveness (the wheat) can redeem us and all of humanity. Our faith recognizes both the wheat and the chaff. And it invites us to a life-long journey of winnowing. By gathering around this table, we give witness to our commitment to the practice of winnowing, not with malice and meanness, but with kindness and love.