Chaff Before the Wind


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 15, 2018


Texts: Psalm 35; Isaiah 56:1-8

        Although better known for his painting “The Angelus,” a depiction of two peasants stopping their potato harvest as the church bell rings, Jean-Francois Millet’s less famous painting “The Gleaners” was the subject of heated controversy when shown to the public in its day. Painted only nine years after the failed revolutions of 1848, the French upper class disdained what it considered to be a glorification of rural workers living in poverty.

         Those workers would have taken the wheat they gleaned to a threshing floor where they threshed or beat the wheat until it separated from the stalk. The next step would have been to toss the separated portion into the air where the wind would blow the chaff, or outer husks of the wheat so that only the edible wheat is left. Although animals can eat the chaff or husks, it is indigestible to people.

        Chaff. Not totally useless but not fit for human consumption. And how often have we seen that sign or one like it: “Do not drink the water,” says a sign in the Rodino Federal Building because of the lead contamination in Newark’s drinking water. For the last year we have been told not to even rinse our mouths from the tap water from the sink and to use water from the cooler. But not every resident can afford bottled water. Chaff not fit for human consumption.

         The Psalmist here was talking about more than drinking water; he bemoans receiving evil for good. When they were ill and afflicted, the Psalmist fasted and prayed for his friends as for a brother but found himself betrayed by the joy of his erstwhile friends when he stumbled, when he was afflicted. Sometimes we have felt that way, be-trayed by the very ones we thought we could trust the most.

         Our sense of betrayal is not just personal but societal as well. And it’s not just for those of us in the east or the west coast, but a disconnect with a sense of who we have been and who we should be as a nation. Over the past decade we have seen an increasing Balkanization of our society and nation.

         In his 2011 book American Nations, journalist Colin Woodward explores the origins of our internal tensions as Americans and points to why so many people feel so betrayed by the Republic for which our flag stands. His 2016 book American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle between Individual Liberty and the Common Good addresses how various points in our history have been exploited by both the right and the left fracturing our increasingly fragile democracy.

         Both right and left feel betrayed by the way they have seen their vision of America trashed. Both right and left are angry and cry to God or Providence or even just among themselves over how the society they dreamed of does not exist. Much of this despair has been reflected in the opioid epidemic, so labeled by the media because, quite frankly, it has affected more of our old Caucasian stock than the minorities in the inner city. Just look at the data nationally and in New Jersey.

        It’s reflected in how the Balkanized United States responds to those who hold power in Washington and how those politicians exploit the fears that so many feel. Much of it, I think, finds its origins in a combination of income inequality, the desire for instant gratification, the lack of a common purpose, and resentment at the so-called elites who have clearly ignored important social issues.

       Now we have the radical right, as the Psalmist writes, who “with contemptuous mocking chatter … gnashed their teeth against me.” The Psalmist prayed that his life would be brought back from the violence against him, that those who cried against him would be shamed and disgraced. I honestly have to say that I have much the same hope as did the Psalmist. No question.

         Intellectually and spiritually I know I must move beyond my own personal despair, for despair is the word for how I feel when I consider the state of our society. Like the Psalmist, I want to find some rescue from the down-ward spiral in our national character. The Psalmist closes with very personal words asking God to reward those who seek justice only for him. Often we feel the same way.

         Moving beyond our personal response to despair is what we must do. And that involves some really un-pleasant tasks including listening, really listening and responding to the despair of those with whom we have so little in common.

         This Psalm reflects a visceral response to the feeling of betrayal by one’s erstwhile friends. But as the Psalmist learned, the persons we may have considered “friends” may be little more than persons seeking to use proximity to power to their own advantage.

         In my prior life in Connecticut, I was active in local politics. I ended up running for a town council seat in a district that had been Republican for years – and years. At a town council meeting as I was berating the incumbent about his lack of concern for traffic issues around a school – really heady stuff, huh? – and he commented, “If you care so much about this issue, why don’t you run for my seat?” So I did.

         I won the nomination of the local Democratic party which really hoped I would just sink – I had run primaries against incumbents and party leaders on issues such as Vietnam and racism and undemocratic processes. Well, I won and they had to tolerate me. They ran a party hack in a primary against me in my re-election bid – but I beat the machine four to one spending the grand sum of $35.

          The Psalmist’s call for God’s justice is really a call for vindication. I knew that then as well as now. The vindi-cation was beating a machine system. And, if truth be told, I reveled in it. And my opponents were shamed. But there was one important difference. I had the common sense to reach out and bring the old machine along so that my victory could belong to all of us.

          Older politicians in Washington talk about a time when they could work together on issues, even important issues before we became so polarized. There is some light at the end of one tunnel, at least, on trade. This past week the Senate voted 98 to 2 for a resolution calling for Congress to have more input on trade and tariffs when made by the President in the interests of so-called national security.

          They figured out that imposing high tariffs on Canada and the European Union will hurt their constit-uents. Amazing. Self-interest actually can bring some opposing politicians together. We’ll see what happens next. Moving beyond the desire for vindication can be difficult.

           Throwing the threshed wheat into the air so that the chaff blows off is the oldest way to separate the wheat from the chaff. In our daily lives, however, that separation is not so easy. Looking at the wheat, you can tell the edible wheat from the inedible chaff. The problem is that often we cannot tell the difference when faced with other kinds of particular dilemmas.

          Even for the prophets, separating the wheat of the moral high ground from the chaff of vengeance posing as vindication was not easy. The Second Isaiah writing in the joy of the return to Jerusalem that Cyrus the Persian not only permitted but encouraged, calls for the inclusion of the foreigners, or non-Jews, into the nation that would be reconstructed, something that the more narrow-minded Ezra did not as he told Jews to put away their foreign wives.

          The expansive vision of Isaiah as he spoke the word of the Lord is that our house, our society and Nation, should be a house of prayer for all peoples, that in wel-coming the stranger we actually continue in our project of establishing a more perfect Union. The strangers we should welcome are not just immigrants to our land but those who are already here but strangers to us.

          They are the ones who struggle with changes in our society that they do not understand. They are the ones who fear different skin color, languages, and religious practices. They are the ones who have been made to become angry that they have lost the status or power they really never had. They are the ones with nostalgia for a time that never was.

           Rather than seeing them as chaff to be thrown to the wind, we need to learn how to increase the yield of our crop of wheat. It means gently watering the fields of tolerance without giving up our own principles. It also means taking on injustice where we see it but rather than gloating in a victory, reaching out to the defeated as they would not reach out to us. And that’s hard to do, really hard.

          I wish I could offer some answers on how to do what needs to be done, how to reach out to those so diametrically opposed to most of what I believe, which is probably similar to what most of you believe, certainly more similar than those we consider our adversaries. But I can’t. We just struggle along trying to figure it out, even with fear and trembling as Abraham faced God.

          Perhaps working on the small local issues where we find some common ground is a way to start. In Connecticut, a long time ago, it was the way to start. That lesson can’t be totally lost. I did not have to throw my ideals like chaff to the wind but I learned a little about expanding the crop.

        Let us pray: Eternal Creator, hold us, give us humility and a sense of what you want. In the name of him who feared little, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.