Matthew 13: 47-53

The Reverend Tasha Blackburn

April 2, 2017

Years ago I attended a church where a disagreement broke out. I know: you’re shocked. It was Westminster Church in Austin, Texas, and it was a unique problem. Before worship, some people would arrive extra early so that they could sit in the sanctuary and pray. They would think about it all week: “I will go and I will sit in the quiet and in the beauty and I will pray.” That is what they told themselves all week long.

And that was the rub. Because it wasn’t quiet. There was another group of people who had begun arriving early too. And they had come to chat. They would talk with their friends and laugh and tell stories, right up to the beginning of worship; sometimes even a minute or two into worship!

So this disagreement developed. And the quiet-seeking prayers began to get more and more upset. It was even discussed at a Session meeting. “Some of us come here to worship!” they said. “And some others don’t seem to care. We don’t quite know why THEY are here!”

Did I say it was a unique problem? Perhaps not.

It may sound like a small disagreement but it points to a huge one that has woven in and out of the Church’s life since its beginning: the concern for purity, for having only the right people in the congregation. Sometimes that means no one who drinks or who dances can be part of the community. Other times the divide has been about sexual practices or even political affiliation. Whatever the issue, its beginning has been about this concern for purity.

This concern is not made up. If we, as Christians, are supposed to be his likeness in the world, then we do have certain standards of behavior and faithfulness that start to become really important. But then we also have this parable of the net. It is the last in the series in Matthew’s 13th chapter. In this short example of God’s kingdom, there are two actions: there is fishing and there is sorting.

The fishing is done by a gigantic net, a dragnet in fact, that is 6 feet deep by several hundred feet wide. The net holds all kinds of fish: strong and weak ones, healthy and sick, delicacies and bottom-feeders.

After the fishing comes the sorting and this is when the many specimens are divided: fresh and smelly go their separate ways, with the smelly getting burned.

One of the favorite interpretations of this parable was that the Church’s leaders were the fishermen and they were “catching” people for the net of the Church but, once they got them, they needed to sort them so that only good fish remained. They had good reason to believe this. Of course, because of the purity issues we just talked about but also because, in other places in scripture, Jesus HAS asked folks to fish for people.

Except the net is not the church. It has the Church in it but it is bigger than that. Jesus says this is what the “kingdom of heaven” is like, remember? So it is bigger than the Church. And the fishermen are not the Church’s leaders. Nor are they the sorters. No, it is more likely that the fisherman is Christ; the net is the gospel; the sorters are the angels of heaven. And we, what are we? We are not fishermen, we are the fish.

Since we are the fish, we should be pretty thrilled to hear about how big the net of Jesus’ gospel is, how deep and wide its reach goes to catch us. But also, since we are the fish, we shouldn’t be surprised when we are surrounded by all types of fish.

The parable is clear that there are two parts to this Kingdom of Heaven thing; the Kingdom of Heaven which is God’s reign that is already present and is also still on its way. The first part of the kingdom is the fishing and the second part is the sorting. We are going to get ourselves really confused if we lose track of the time.

It’s like the family joke about my mother and time. She is always late because she thinks that she can just beam herself up to be at her next appointment without any travel time. If she has a 2 o’clock then she thinks she can get herself across town in those last 30 seconds between 1:59 and 2:00. It turns out this doesn’t work. And we can’t do it either. There is travel time between the fishing and the sorting. We can’t get to sorting any old time we want. Because now—in this life—this is the time for fishing. Sorting is not until later and it’s handled by the angels.

If we can remember that, then we can get close to the kingdom: here and now we can be near it. For the kingdom of heaven is not complete but it has begun. It is about the sorting that will come, but it is also about the big net here and now. For the big net, full of all those fish—the ones that come to pray and the ones that come to chat, the ones that have given their hearts and the ones who have joined up like its any other club, the ones whose faith impresses and the ones whose faith distresses—that big net full of fish we may not have chosen: its part of the kingdom of heaven plan too.

It is what God wants. Here—in this time—God wants the net full. When we learn to live with that reality—that there are all kinds of fish who come with the deal—when we learn to live in that reality with not only patience but with joy, then we will have begun to see what the kingdom of heaven is like in this time.

That story about the people’s disagreement at my church so long ago, it has a final act. After the Session discussed the differences and some folks shared how upset they were that some people weren’t taking worship seriously, the pastor decided to stand in the sanctuary early each Sunday to see who was involved. What she found surprised her.

In many cases the folks who were coming early to talk were the same folks who attended everything. You couldn’t have a Bible study without them being there, or a prayer chain or a committee meeting. Some of these chatters who’d been seen as not caring about worship were the backbone of the congregation. As she watched, she got a second surprise: the ones who were so adamant about total silence were often the ones who didn’t attend anything but that one hour a week.

She became a detective about this and kept on studying. At the next month’s Session meeting she shared what she’d found. She said, “Many folks who come to everything feel like their spiritual tank is full. Their souls are doing well,  so when they come on Sunday morning their priority is to check in on each other. Many folks who only come one hour a week feel like their spiritual tank is on empty. Their souls are feeling it so they come on Sunday and need to force that one hour to fill them up  because they are about to run out.”

Everyone was surprised. The fish involved didn’t turn out exactly like they might have thought. Were the chat-ters really more righteous than the pray-ers? Who knows? And that is the point.

These verses are a parable of judgment.  There is no doubting that. Some of the fish are going to smell too bad to keep. But it is not about judgment between us and them. It is about judgment upon ourselves. We cannot know why our neighbor worships, or why they don’t worship. We cannot guess at their relationship with God or at the motives behind their actions. So stop sorting fish. It is not the time. Instead, we would all do well to spend our time considering our own fishiness. That is what we can be about, striving toward deeper faithfulness and greater righteousness for ourselves.

Let’s again pull ourselves back to that focus because the net is very big and it is very full—of all kinds—of fish. So do not get distracted. Focusing on how our own fish smells is the better way to spend our time in the net. Amen.