Breaking Bad in Southeast Connecticut...
Published by Ronald Steed,
Sermon for Sunday, July 30, 2017 (Proper 12)
St. James Episcopal Church, Poquetanuck, CT
I've been binge watching the Netflix show Breaking Bad over the last three weeks. It's really compelling drama about a brilliant and egotistical High School Teacher named Walter White who gets lung cancer. Without any savings to speak of and without the kind of health care he thinks he needs... healthcare that his insurance company won't pay for... he decides to become an illegal drug manufacturer. He takes his gift for chemistry and puts it in the service of cooking highly addictive crystalized methamphetamines. The resulting circles of destruction are breathtaking to watch; to his family, to his colleagues, and to his community. I can't get enough of it!
Part of what is so deeply disturbing about this show is that Walter White’s Kingdom seems so powerful and overwhelming. Who can stand up to it and survive? And worst of all, Walter’s Kingdom seems to be hard at work right here in Southeast Connecticut. Many of you read in The Day last week about the recent rash of K2 synthetic marijuana cases that sent 14 people to the hospital. Do any of you know someone who has died of heroin addiction? I do. The drug lords, the law enforcers, the healthcare industry, the insurance companies, the lawyers, the corporations, the politicians, the agencies… all of these Powers and Principalities at work in our region and throughout the world seem incredibly powerful and often violent. And by comparison, God seems weak. What is a mustard seed compared to a heroin dealer? God seems weak by Roman and Drug Lord standards. With Jesus hanging dead on the cross, every Roman there thought “We won; this silly man with his talk of God’s Kingdom is dead". No one was expecting resurrection.
Matthew's gospel offers a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that seems way different from Walter's Kingdom. Unlike Breaking Bad, Matthew doesn't give us a compelling drama in this part of the story, although all this is headed toward crucifixion and resurrection, which is the dramatic and earth-shaking clash between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar. Today, we get six tiny parables in which the Kingdom of God is said to be like a mustard seed, like yeast, like hidden treasure, a pearl of great value, a net thrown into the sea, and like the master of a household. In Walter White’s Kingdom, there are great men (they mostly are men) who do impossible and violent deeds, but in Matthew, there are plain and unremarkable people doing what they do every day: someone sowing a field, a woman making bread, someone who finds a treasure, a searching merchant, a fisherman throwing a net, a writer. If Walter’s Kingdom is about heroic and powerful violence, it sounds to my ear like the Kingdom of God is ordinary, plain, and weak.
Walter's Kingdom has an abundance of drugs, of money, and of violence. Walter is a very controlling individual, and as he sees it, he is creating abundance for his family through his own personal genus and he finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. But it still not enough. Much of the drama in the series is about the incredible violence that results from all that abundance. In the Kingdom of God, abundance is created differently. The mustard seed becomes a great tree and a home for birds... it is a home, a place of security, a place of rest. Three measures of flour is a huge amount; more than a bushel. When that bushel of flour is leavened with yeast by the woman, it is enough to feed a whole village! So the woman has plenty of bread to share with everyone... enough for the community. And note how the abundance is NOT created by the personal and heroic effort of the sower, or the woman, or the one casting the net, but by the mysterious and unnamed Spirit working in the seed, in the yeast, and among the fish. Further, I get the sense that the buyer of the field with treasure and the merchant who finds the pearl of great value, have an abundance of peace and rest... they have found what they were looking for thanks to the Spirit and nothing else compares to it... it is enough for them. So the Kingdom of God has abundance created through us by the Spirit and not heroically and violently by us, and… it is sufficient…enough to bring peace and rest.
In Walter's Kingdom, there are few people who are not caught up in the drama of the drug trade, and almost no one I would call “good", which is pretty realistic… good and bad run through all of us in Southeast Connecticut, me included. One pretty good character is the High School Janitor. When Walter is sick with chemotherapy and throwing up in the school bathroom, the janitor is right there… “You go back and teach those children Mr. White, I’ll clean this up." He’s there like that for Walter more than once. But he gets fired under suspicion of stealing laboratory supplies, which in fact Walter stole for his meth lab, and of course, Walter says nothing. Later, this janitor is murdered at his new job as a convenience store clerk by a couple of addicts who are high on Walter’s product. There seems to be no justice for good people in Walter’s Kingdom… they are just grist for the mill. And yet, justice is a principle theme of the show. The narrative makes me feel like justice is meted out when a bad guy gets axed… “He had it coming" I want to say to myself. In the Kingdom of God, the net catches all the fish; good and bad alike. And it is left to the angels to sort them out at the end of the age. Fr. Ron’s point last week that it is not for us to make that judgment is important. In the Kingdom of God, there will be justice… a reckoning, but it is God’s work to provide, not ours. That doesn’t seem very satisfying does it? The suffering and hurt in this region is very real; some of you have felt it. We want justice.
There is no rest in Walter’s life; there is no peace. The Powers and the Principalities of the world have wrapped him up in knots and he becomes self-righteous and self-justifying about the most appalling actions. If one of you were to drop the tiniest seed of the Word of God into Walter’s soil, I wonder what would happen. I have my doubts that it would grow. And yet… I think that is part of the good news of Jesus Christ… part of the Kingdom of God… that we are not alone as sowers of the Word… the Spirit is at work with us, powerfully, through the Word. In some way that is secret and mysterious, the Holy Spirit… that treasure hidden in our bodies… might cause that seed to grow in soil we know nothing about, into something incredible… something abundant, a new creation way beyond our imagination. I have seen it happen in some unlikely people, and that includes me… some of you have seen it too. It could happen to someone like Walter White.
What happens when The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Walter White clash in conflict? The cross is the answer. This is what happens when God comes to live among us… God gets hung on a cross. And it looks to all the world like God is weak and ineffectual. But then there is resurrection… the love of God breaking through all the barriers we erect against his love. Breaking that cross with new life… new creation. Can a drug lord stand between us and the love of God? Can a meth lab? Can the violence of our society separate us from the love of God? Can a hit of K2 or heroin in a Preston neighborhood act as a barrier to God’s love? Paul has an answer to that question today in one of the most luminous lines of scripture ever written; “…I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That is great news for the Walter Whites of the world, and for us too. So… go sow some seeds… leaven some flour with yeast… toss a net into the salty sea… and rejoice in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the world. Amen.