Buckle up buttercup. We are going to talk about big ideas today. Let’s go.
We need to start with who God is and what God is about. For each of us, this foundational understanding of God controls how we hear Scripture and how we live out our faith.
For me God is LOVE and LOVE is the force that has created all things and all people. And LOVE’s mission, God’s vision and purpose—what God wants—is for all that has been created to live in right relationship with one another and with God because everyone and everything living in right relationship with each other and with God is the key to a flourishing and ongoing Creation. Are you with me so far?
Beloved, I also believe that God is going to get what God wants because I believe there is no greater power than God. There is no greater force than Love. If somehow my understanding of God includes that some of Creation is not going to be part of salvation, then I am saying there is some force that is greater than God’s love. That something can actually “win” over God’s love. Still with me?
So that brings me to the parable of the net in today’s Gospel reading. Growing up I was taught that when we die, if we are good we go to heaven, and if we are bad, we will go to hell. Therefore, this parable of the net in today’s Gospel would mean that bad people—people who do not follow God—will go to hell. They’re out. While us who do believe in God get to go to heaven (at least if we do a good enough job, right?). And yes, sure, it’s not our role to do the separating—that’s clearly God’s work—but there’s still going to be some who are in and some who are out. AND somehow—all this work of getting it right and being my best version who follows God perfectly—that all has to happen between my birth and my death. I have to get it right before I die. Still with me?
Beloved, today I am inviting us to ditch this understanding of the parable, and to throw out this understanding of God and God’s kindom Kingdom and allow a different understanding to take hold of our hearts. And here’s why:
If faith–if loving God and following Jesus–is about being good enough before we die in order to get into heaven, and if you aren’t then you are banned to hell—-then God is not going to get what God wants. Some of Creation will not be restored to right relationship. If this understanding is true then some of Creation is expendable. And I guess Jesus is just kidding when he says ALL. When, in chapter 10 of the Gospel of John Jesus says: "You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd. “ And then in the 17th chapter of John Jesus says: “...that they all may be one…I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one….”.
And let’s not forget in Genesis, chapter 1 when God declares that all of Creation is good, very good.
If parts of Creation are expendable—if some people are not going to be part of salvation—restored to right relationship with God and each other—then God does not get what God wants and there must be a stronger force than the Love of God in this world.
Deep breaths, now, and let’s do some more unpacking. Beloved, first of all, Heaven is not a destination; Heaven is not a reward. Heaven is wherever God is; heaven is dwelling with God. It isn’t a future promise. It is a present reality. More than once Jesus says: The Kingdom of heaven is near. Sometimes it is the Kingdom of God in Scripture, but Matthew really liked to call it the Kingdom of heaven. Now, Jesus doesn’t say: The kingdom is coming; Jesus says "The kingdom has drawn near."
Because God’s kindom kingdom is always within our reach. Heaven, Beloved, is always at our fingertips. And when we follow Jesus, when we follow the way of Love, we are the seed that grows large enough to nest all the birds. All those who need shelter and homes and food to eat. God does the planting, our work is to grow and become. And remember, a seed dies to what it was and becomes something else. The husk falls off the seed, and the new life of the plant breaks through and works its way out of the soil and becomes a new thing. Becoming requires change, and change requires loss and struggle, and it’s hard and it usually hurts. Talk about weeping and gnashing of teeth. No wonder.
Next, Jesus tells us, in the Kindom Kingdom, God is the woman who leavens the dough—mixing leaven into the the flour, to make a lot of bread. In fact, in this parable, there’s enough flour to make enough bread for a wedding feast. God is the cook; we are the leaven, the love that activates the dough to become nourishment for all the guests.
And then we move to those other stories Jesus tells us about the kingdom. What if, Beloved, what if we are the treasure and God is the one who sells everything to keep us? Imagine if this is how the Kindom Kingdom works. We are the treasure…..
And what if, Beloved, we are the Pearl and God is the merchant who gives up everything to have us. Let that sink in a moment. You are the pearl of great price; you are the treasure and Love seeks to find you, be with you, give everything for you. And me. And every person, part and parcel of Creation. That’s the Kindom Kingdom. That’s how God works; that’s the story of Jesus. Love one another as I have loved you……Marinate in that for a moment.
Now, let’s get back to that net parable. Following this way to look at the parables, God, then, is the one who gathers us all up, the net: “I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd.” And the messengers of God (that’s what the word angel means) God’s workers, God’s servants will be the agents who remove the evil from the gathered—or in other words: release us from whatever keeps us from living love, being love, sharing love. (and yes, beloved—that’s change, that’s loss, that’s death, and all that hard business certainly leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth). Still with me?
This being freed from evil, being freed from sin does not happen by magic. God doesn’t simply cast a spell and make it so. Nor does God use fear to demand compliance. This is not God’s character. Even though there are Scriptures that would have us believe that. Right? There are plenty of passages written by faithful people who were trying to describe how they experience God, how they understood God to act in the world. They describe God as angry, as almost spiteful—only on the side of the righteous and working to put an end to the unrighteous. That version of God, that understanding of God, is in the Bible.
But if that version is completely accurate: Why Jesus? Why do we have Jesus—this One who comes and asks us to realign how we understand God and the Law and what God asks of us. If Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, as we profess, if Jesus is a human who shows us how to be a God-centered human, then we may need to reject those past understandings of God as vengeful and spiteful and angry and war-mongering. Because Jesus is not that. Ever. When faced with the possibility to right the wrong through violence, Jesus always refuses. Even on the cross. And when the merchant found one very precious pearl, he went and sold all that he owned and bought it.
Instead, in Jesus, this God-in-the-flesh, we see that God frees us from evil, from sin, by living in a new way. God doesn’t free us through fearful compliance, but by love. By loving us enough to give us the choice. God shows us, in Jesus, what love looks like, what it costs, and the resurrection it provides, the new life it gives. We are freed from the grasp of evil when we choose to live and follow love. After all, that’s the command: Follow me. Live this way. Love one another. Forgive one another. The kindom kingdom has come near.
Beloved, this life of faith isn’t fire insurance. It’s life insurance, love insurance. God isn’t watching to see who needs to be tossed out; Paul tells us nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death. And here’s the other unpacking that needs to happen: we don’t have to get it all right before we die. It isn’t game over when we take our last breath. If it were, why does Jesus descend into hell after he dies? Why is that part of our Good News if it is not to offer to those who are still distant from God a pathway back to right relationship with God and all of Creation? And not to mention that we claim to be an Easter people—ones who believe in life after death, the resurrection. Why would we think that God cannot act after we die, that we cannot change after death? And then, again, there’s this: For 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…”
Perhaps Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, said it best:
"If you have been told that God is some kind of punishing, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system who is basically always disappointed with you for being a human being then you have been lied to. The church has failed you and I am so sorry."
Just over a week ago, I found myself in a state of being that I do not remember ever experiencing before. I wasn’t physically feeling quite right—I was off. Light-headed, out of sorts…now some of this could have been the smoke in the air, but it was also accompanied with a lethargy. Not my usual way of being. I didn’t want to do anything really. I felt hopeless…..like I was at in a gray fog and I really didn’t want to find my way out…..Now, it did not last too long….just over 24 hours…..but it is not something I would like to experience often and would prefer never to experience again.
I have been fortunate enough to be someone who has been mentally well my entire life. During some difficult junctures in my life, I have sought counseling or spiritual coaching, but I have never really experienced ongoing anxiety. Grief, yes, but not depression. A blessing, I know. But, I think that last week’s experience of gray was a taste of depression.
Today we hear Jesus say: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)
Beloved, I arrived in that gray fog because I was overwhelmed by all the negative situations that are realities in our world. The state of this creation as it is dying and seeing/feeling that first hand in the smoke from the Canadian fires; the decisions on a federal justice level that I consider to be taking steps back into racism and bigotry; local decisions on a county level to, again as I see it, do the same—act as if racism and bigotry is not an issue here. The injustices done to those on the economic margins. And a plethora of other big concerns. Another aspect of these realities is that I have to come face to face with the truth that many of my fellow citizens have a completely different understanding and vision of who they wish America to be, how they want this world to be—and, of course, there are always smaller, personal storms brewing within that get mixed up in the maelstrom.
Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
The first step from the bottom of the pit was telling my husband that I thought I may be experiencing depression. I named it. A little scary because it isn’t necessarily who I think myself to be. I didn’t feel ashamed but uncertain. I think the naming of it opened a window—a window still a bit out of my reach—but a window that shed some light into the gray and blew in some fresh air—and something to reach for. Because, Beloved, talking with people you love—particularly when it is about things that matter—that’s a form of prayer.
The second step is really a step that was put into place long before this period of gray began—the practice of intentional, set-aside-time-for prayer. Now, this part of my prayer life hasn’t always been rich; even since I became a priest. Like anyone I have dry spells and valleys. But especially since I have been involved with the Center for Clergy Renewal and my immersion last summer, my prayer life has been consistent. That consistency (some days rich and some days shallow) has built a strong grounding, a centering. And it provided me a path out of the fog.
And the trick is: letting go. Really. Letting go.
As I sat with the Holy, I came to realize that what was beating me down was my holding onto things that are outside of my control—-I was worrying about how other people were acting, climate change, the state of our nation, the state of our community, homelessness, poverty, injustice, my children’s and grandchildren’s lives…..
Now, these are all things we are to be concerned with—but I was dealing with them at the wrong level. Let me explain
Let’s think of it like this: in our lives, there are two circles: the Circle of Control and the Circle of Concern. What sent me over the edge is that I was overwhelmed by all the things in the Circle of Concern–all those things in pink—again, legitimate concerns and things we should be willing to do something about and adjust our behaviors due to them—but I lost my focus on the Circle of Control: those items in green. What I can actually do.
After naming my depression to Murray, instead of allowing the call to “just do nothing and retreat from humanity” have its way with me, I turned to the other whisper: Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.
You know, Beloved, times weren’t better when Jesus lived. His people were oppressed by the Romans. Many were poor and unhoused. Enslaved. Undiagnosed. Cast aside. Now, there may not have been the climate change we experience, but there were droughts and floods and other disasters to deal with. And yet, Jesus—who must have felt a lot of weight on his shoulders knowing his job description—Jesus stays grounded. Centered. In the midst of it all.
Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.
Let me point something out: even though God showed up in the flesh—in the life and ministry of Jesus—there was still poverty, thirst, and the Roman Empire. All those things were still around when Jesus left. Jesus didn’t end the crappy situations that were realities for his people. Having Jesus in their lives did not erase these situations. Let that sink in.
What Jesus gives us is a way to live abundantly in the midst of these things. That’s it.
I think that sometimes people want Jesus, want Christianity, to be a magic pill that we take and then the crap of life will no longer be true for us. Or it’s a magic train ticket so that when we die we will leave it all behind and end up in a wonderland of clouds, angels, where only the good people go.
I think both of those ways of thinking about this Way of Love that we call Christianity are bogus. False. Hot air.
The Way of Love is about how we live, not what happens to us when we die.
The Creator knows that to live in this Creation—where humans have free will and humans are self-centered until they learn and choose otherwise—the Creator knows that this life is a tumultuous ride. And because we are—every single one of us, even the dopes that cause the tumult—because we are Beloved—Love provides us a path, a grounding, a centering, and a truth that can provide us, if we choose, an abundant life—no matter the current situations. A life of joy, love, resilience and resurrection. Even in the midst of whatever the reality of the world is around us.
This path, this rope to grasp, is our connection to Love itself. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. The intertwined strands of this rope are prayer, breaking bread with others, gathering in community, work, serving and loving neighbors, silence, time away, time alone. And, of course, the Truth of Love is our grounding. And that Truth is that what we know as life is one narrative that is unfolding in time as we know it. Our day-to-day existence that is very much situated on this planet at this time. But, Beloved, to believe in God is to believe that there is another narrative that is beyond this human one; a narrative that has always been. The author of that narrative is not a person—but a force, a presence, an existence that permeates everything that is. We know this force and presence as God, as Creator; we know this force and presence as Love. And Love holds everything. Every thing.
In life and beyond this life.
As I re-centered myself—through time in Love’s company, (both in prayer and in community) by choosing to grasp that rope—I remembered this Truth. And so those concerns that are outside of my control—I handed those over to Love. I reminded myself that those are Love’s to hold, to manage. My bit is to figure out what I can do to strengthen the Love that tends to those concerns.
I reminded myself of what I am already doing–items in the green and blue on this slide–that inner circle of control that does affect and shift the outer circle of concern. I let go of all the big, overwhelming things I cannot address and filled my pockets with what I am already doing. This gave me a renewal of energy—the capacity to leave the fog. I found myself feeling desire and excitement to re-engage. Hope blew the fog of gray out of my head and heart……..After all, this is what Jesus does: Jesus tended to the neighbor in front of him, the folx around the dinner table, those who were within his listening circle. And because he kept moving, those circles of influence shifted as needed.
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me….
Beloved, I am a do-er. So sometimes, when I care deeply, I do too much. I see too much. I carry too much. And the result isn’t always that more gets done. Sometimes what happens—at least this time what happened—is that I was slayed. Cast down.
But, because I have been blessed to be pickled in the Jesus juice my entire life—and because the Spirit has reminded me to keep jumping in the brine—I heard Love’s whisper and saw Love’s light and it gave me the way out. It resurrected me. And I know, I trust, Love will be there to do it every time I need it.
Sometimes, Beloved, and for some folx—it’s a longer time in the depths, it’s a harder road out. Let’s not romanticize this and make it seem like if you only pray right or believe right or do it right, you’ve got it made. I have loved folx who couldn’t make it out. Even though they had exceptional faith. Gifts and capacities. The fog, for them, was unrelenting.
But, I believe, Love has them, Love is holding them. And somehow their being continues where they are no longer weighed down by those things they could not let go or be released from. And I do not know why it’s that way. I can’t reason myself to an answer. All I can do is trust the Love that I know and believe to be the strongest, deepest, most elastic and resilient force in Creation.
We have heard two versions of this passage from Matthew today, let me add part of a third. This is from the First Nations Version of the Bible:
Come close to my side, you whose hearts are on the ground, you who are pushed down and worn out, and I will refresh you. Follow my teachings and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest from your troubled thoughts. Walk side by side with me and I will share in your heavy load and make it light.
Beloved, may it be so. For me, for you, for our neighbors. May it always be so.
Do you remember that song on Sesame Street: One of these things is not like the other…..? That’s what I hear in my head when I read the Gospel for this morning. Jesus gives examples and first it’s prophet to prophet….righteous person to righteous person…..but then it changes to when you give something to someone—one of these little ones—who can not repay you in kind….and it’s no longer about getting what the other one has, but it’s about not losing what is already yours.
In the Message Translation, Biblical scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson puts it like this: Jesus says: “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
Take out and hold up the Monstrance
Beloved—this beautiful, strange thing is called a monstrance, comes from the Latin word, monstrare, which means ‘to show.’ It is a work of art that has been made to hold a blessed host—those wafers of bread that have been used in communion services for centuries. Monstrances were created for a practice called adoration. Sometimes it can have ritual and liturgy wrapped around it; last weekend the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac held its Eucharistic Festival, and Adoration was a part of that gathering. Or it can be done more simply; for example, when we strip the altar on Maundy Thursday, we move some bread and wine that has been blessed down to our prayer room and people keep vigil there throughout the night until noon on Good Friday when we eat the bread and drink the wine because it is Good Friday and Jesus has left the building. The blessed bread and wine are present during the vigil so those who wish can practice adoration during that vigil.
I am a big fan of keeping the vigil; it has been a part of my Holy Week life since I was a teen-ager. And there have been a few times, as a priest, that I have used the monstrance for Maundy Thursday. But I find it more meaningful to simply have the broken bread and a vessel with wine when I practice adoration. For me, on that night—that Maundy Thursday vigil—being present with the blessed bread and wine helps me to connect with the beauty of that night, that last supper when we are called to love one another; when we are called to do what Jesus does: allow our lives to be broken open so that our lives can be given to sustain one another, feed one another, give cold water to those who thirst.
Now for some people, this practice may hold no meaning; it may seem like empty ritual. That’s valid too. One is not more right than another. And friends, our rituals can become idols like anything else. This monstrance can become an idol. We can get so caught up in doing it right, or doing it best that we forget the point: rituals are never the ends; they are a means to becoming……
So I didn’t go this year, but I have been in the past, and what happened last weekend at the Eucharistic Festival is that a blessed wafer of bread was put in a Monstrance like this and then a priest carried it—and didn’t even touch the monstrance with his hands; he had a cloth that went around his hands to carry it—and then the Monstrance was carried outside; there were four people who carried a canopy over it as it was processed to an outside altar. The Monstrance was treated with reverence and honor; carried as precious cargo to be adored, loved, respected.
Now, this particular practice is not my thing. While there are shared theological bits with the blessed bread and wine in the prayer room during the Maundy Thursday vigil, that particular practice of liturgical adoration actually removes me from Christ rather than drawing me closer. I get distracted by the ceremony and lose the purpose. But I know folx who find it very moving and meaningful. Sadly, in church history, rather than making room for one another’s practices, we often completely dismiss those that are different than our own, usually by starting a new denomination or another church.
But here’s the crazy beautiful thing, the mysterious truth, that this Monstrance does remind me about: Here’s this work of art that holds the blessed bread and body of Christ within it; it is to be revered, adored, respected, loved. Beloved: what if we understood, what if we lived our lives, with the understanding, the knowledge that each of us is a monstrance. Each of us is a beautiful work of art who is meant to be loved and respected, and we carry the Christ within us. To show–to shine–the Christ within us. Each week we come and receive; we are welcomed here and reminded that within us we carry the life and love of Christ. We hold out our hands and take Love’s body into our bodies; and in this we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. And then, like this Monstrance that was carried outside with ceremony and ritual—we go out into the world, carrying the love of Christ with us so that others may see and know and be reminded of who they are: the Beloved.
Beloved, what if we understood, what if we recognize, that everyone we meet is a monstrance? Every one. Some may be bright and shiny and hard to miss; some may be a bit dull or dented….frankly, sometimes I feel like that blessed wafer has fallen out and the little door that was supposed to hold it is off its hinges…..and yet, still…..
How would this image, this truth—that we all have space within us to have the body of Christ, the presence of Love, at our center—that we are all God-bearers in this life—how would this change our welcome? Our assumptions? Our expectations, our reactions and responses? How could this help us to love ourselves? To love others…..which, Beloved, is how we love God.
You know, it is tradition that we consume the bread and wine that has been blessed at our communions. Again, Episocpals and Lutherans hold this tradition differently–and both for valid reasons. But within the Beloved Community, we Episcopal-Lutheran people, we either eat it or we drink it or we put it back into the earth from which it came. We don’t dump it down the sink or throw it in the garbage. We have special cloths and vessels we use at communion; we take care with these things. Not because magic happens or because God will strike us down if we don’t.
We take care, we act with reverence, as a way of honoring God’s love for us. To point out the magnificent brilliance of this moment when we re-member. You know those words: do this in remembrance of me. This isn’t simply about calling to mind the last supper; in this moment we gather to re-member–to literally put back together, member by member, this Body of Christ…..so that we can then go out into the world and be the Body of Christ.
If you watch, no crumb goes astray. We have a cloth to catch it on the table. If a crumb falls to the ground, I pick it up and eat it. We take care of this bread and wine that somehow becomes, is connected, holds and contains Jesus who is love; Jesus who is the One who saves. How exactly? I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But, Beloved, what if we then treated the living Body of Christ in this same way? What if we held the same reverence for every person we meet? If we took the same kind of care…..Prophet, righteous, little one…..What if what we do on Sunday informed every minute of every day of our lives? I mean, this is why we have rituals—like drops of water on a rock, these rituals they shape and reshape us; they realign our hearts; they refocus our vision; they attune our hearing to God’s frequency.
Priest and scholar Barbara Brown Taylor wrote: “With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, Jesus did not give [them] something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—-specific ways of being together in their bodies….. ‘Do this’ he said--not believe this but do this— ‘in remembrance of me.’
So come, Beloved, receive what you are; become what you receive. Love in the flesh for the sake of the world.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.