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."
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.