Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 2, 2003

Ezekiel 47:6-12 The river from the temple

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river. He said to me, "This water flows towards the eastern region, and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the Sea. When it empties into the Sea, the water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh. So where the river flows everything will live.

Fishermen will stand along the shore. From En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds--like the fish of the Great Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food, and their leaves for healing."

Matthew 13:47-52 The parable of the net

"Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

"Have you understood all these things?" Jesus asked.

"Yes," they replied.

He said to them, "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

Heaven and Hell #425 Sorting good from evil

So that we may gain either heaven or hell, after death we are first taken to the world of spirits. There, if we are going to be raised into heaven, goodness and truth are brought together in us. But if we are going to be cast into hell, evil and falsity are brought together in us.

No one in heaven or in hell is allowed to have a divided mind--to understand one thing and intend something else. Whatever we intend, we understand; whatever we understand, we intend. So if we are in heaven and our intentions are good, we also understand what is true. And if we are in hell and our intentions are evil, the things we understand are false. If we are good, our false ideas are taken away, and we are given true ideas that go with our virtue. If we are evil, our true ideas are taken away, and we are given false ideas that go with our vice.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. (Matthew 13:47, 48)

It has been a long time since I caught a fish. Probably over thirty years, in fact. And I don't intend to take up fishing now! But I do remember walking down the path along the Saco River, headed to the little spring-fed sand bar at the river bend where we kids used to go fishing during camp in August. For me, going fishing was not so much about catching fish as it was about being down on the river with my friends. I loved that little sand bar--and I was very disappointed when, some years later, I went back and found that in the ever-changing river, that special spot of my boyhood memories was no longer there.

Of course, none of us was all that good at fishing anyway--except my cousin, who actually knew what he was doing, and generally caught the best fish. Most of the fish we caught were too small, and we just threw them back in. Even when we did catch something big enough to eat, it was usually a chub--which was nowhere near as cool as catching a "real" fish like a trout or a bass. Still, we would put any eatable fish we caught into our bucket or fishing basket, take them back to camp, and the cooks were nice enough to cook them up for us. As I remember, those chub had more bones than flesh. But at ten or twelve years old, we thought it was pretty great to eat something we had caught ourselves. We were never able to parlay our catches into much of a fish story, but we certainly had a lot of fun!

The Bible, on the other hand, does have some great fish stories. In fact, the first four disciples Jesus called were fishermen. Three of them, Peter, James, and John, became his closest followers. And when he called Peter and his brother Andrew from their fishing nets, he said that from then on they would fish for people. And that is exactly what they did. Jesus himself explains that the parable of the fishing net is about catching people for the kingdom of heaven. And the results of that fish story will last to eternity!

Let's explore the meaning of this parable. We'll do it on two levels: what the parable means for humanity as a whole, and what it means within each of us as individuals. In each one of us, "the sea" represents our memory of everything we have learned in life. Water is truth, or understanding. Rivers of flowing water are the things we are actively learning and experiencing. And all that knowledge and experience flows into the vast reservoir of our memory, where it is available for our future use. However, as long as it remains in our memory, even if the particular things learned are about spiritual living, it remains on a natural, worldly level because it is not being actively used for our spiritual life.

On a collective level, the sea, as compared to the land, represents the entire vast sum of human culture that is focused on the things of this world rather than the things of heaven. As we look at the human world around us, there is a whole sea of work, recreation, and leisure activities that focus primarily on our material needs and on physical and social pleasures. And it is right and proper that this vast sea should exist. As long as we are here on earth, we do need to take care of our physical and material needs. And having done our work, it is also good and healthy for us to enjoy this beautiful earth that God has given us, take full advantage of these incredible bodies God has blessed us with, and enjoy the company of the friends and family members that God has provided for us.

For those whose lives are built around spiritual motives and values, the sea becomes a place of recreation and a source of supply for spiritual living. In comparison to fish, spiritual people are represented by the land-dwelling animals, and by human beings. Personally, though I don't go fishing anymore, I love to go to the beach and romp in the water! And as I said, God does want us to take a break from time to time, and enjoy the pleasures of this life.

Yet swimming in the world of earth-bound work and play is a vast school of human fish: thousands and millions of people whose entire lives are focused only on the things of this world. The job Jesus sent his disciples out to do was to catch as many of these human fish as they could, and draw them out of the sea of worldly life and onto the dry land of spiritual life. It is the same job that the Lord, through the church, sends each one of us out to do. Those of us who have committed our lives to the church are also disciples of the Lord. And it is part of our job as disciples to reach out to others who may be receptive to a more spiritually oriented way of life.

What is the "net" that we are to use in this work of spiritual fishing? Let's think about it. A fishing net consists of a whole system of cords knotted together in a highly regular and orderly way to make a container that will capture fish, while letting the water they swim in flow through. In precisely the same way, our personal faith--the system of beliefs we have woven for ourselves according to the orderly divine pattern found in the Bible and the teachings of our church--is the "net" that we can use to capture worldly people's minds, and draw them out of purely materialistic living into a more spiritual way of life.

In the New Jerusalem Church, we have an especially good net. All of the beautiful teachings of our church fit together to make a broad and comprehensive system of spiritual and natural thought that applies to all areas of life. This can be very attractive to people who would like something more out of life, but must have something that satisfies their minds as well as their emotions. It is true that most of us first came to this church either by family connections or through friends who invited us. Yet what holds many of us here is the reasonable and soul-satisfying answers we can find for our deepest and most difficult questions in this church, in a way that no other church can quite equal.

This is the net that each one of us can equip ourselves with for the job of fishing for people. The more we learn about the teachings of the new Christianity, connecting them with all our other thoughts, and the more we ponder those teachings and make them an active, working part of our lives, the bigger and more effective a net we have at our disposal.

As we go out among family, friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances, we can be casting that net out into the world, seeking other souls who might also be captured by this net of spiritual doctrine, just as we ourselves were. And the parable is quite clear in saying that we are seeking to catch fish of all kinds. We never know who will end out being receptive to a higher way of life, and who will not. So we must spread our nets broadly, and not count anyone out--even if he or she looks like a poor prospect for the church. Later in the parable, the good fish are sorted from the bad. But we have to catch them first!

I encourage you, then, to engage the people you see each day in conversation, and let the subject move to deeper and more spiritual subjects when it is appropriate and there is a willingness to go in that direction. Be willing to look below the surface of people's lives, and listen for their deeper struggles and questions. If you find you have something to offer from your faith, have the courage to offer it with no strings attached, simply as a possible pathway of thought or action that might be helpful to them. As time goes by, you will find out which ones also get "caught up" in this wonderful faith that means so much to us.

Now let's get back to the individual level. I mentioned that the "sea" in us is the reservoir of our memory--the gathering place of everything we have learned and of all our experience. Our mental fish, then, are those parts of our learning and experience that have come alive for us. And what comes alive for us are those thoughts, ideas, and experiences that relate to things we love and enjoy.

We can tell where our mental fish are from the things we pay attention to and gravitate toward in the sea of information and activities around us. It is like standing in front of a big magazine display rack in a store. Which magazines catch our interest? Which ones do we take off the rack? Sports? Cooking? Science? Politics? People? Nature? Expand that to all the things we encounter in the world around us each day that engage our mind, and we have identified our mental fish.

As with fishing for people, fishing for living ideas in our minds involves forming some orderly, coherent principles of life that we can use as a net to draw out of our memory those particular living ideas and experiences that will feed our mind and heart, and help move us forward on our chosen path. Each of us has many life experiences; each of us has learned many things. All of them form a part of our memory and our life. But some of them will stand out for us especially strongly, and become an integral part of how we live each day. Others we will throw back into the sea of our memory, perhaps to catch again some time in the future when it has matured or perhaps to leave behind for good. We will need to sort one from another, and decide which, for us, are the good fish, and which are the bad.

This time of sorting is a time of judgment. When speaking collectively of humankind, as Jesus does in his explanation of the parable, the time of judgment is the time when we are gathered into the spiritual world after death, and our true, inner character becomes known. Then we will each find ourselves sorted out according to our own desires, inclinations, loves, and actions. If we enjoy serving our neighbor and doing the Lord's will, we will feel more and more strongly drawn toward heaven, where others like us live. But if the only things we love are having others serve us, and gaining money, power, and pleasure for ourselves alone, then we will find ourselves drawn strongly toward hell, where others live who care only for themselves, and not at all for others--and who actively hate and reject God because they have chosen a path contrary to God's way of love.

If we do choose hell, the fire we encounter there will not be literal fire burning our bodies, but the fire of our own burning hatred for others who stand in our way, and the flaring of anger and revenge against one another. The weeping is our frustration at never being able to fully satisfy our destructive desires. And the gnashing of teeth is the continual clash of one person's false, self-serving beliefs against the conflicting false beliefs of others.

Within ourselves, we also need to sort out our thoughts and our desires. There are many things we enjoy; some of them are good, and some of them are not so good. Some of them lead to health and happiness, to peace and mutual love with the people around us. Others lead to sickness and sorrow, and to interpersonal conflict, anger, and ruptured relationships. As we gain more experience in life and a greater knowledge of the ways of God and spirit, we come to turning points, to times of judgment in our lives, when we must evaluate and sort out our thoughts and desires. At times of major life change, we must make choices about which of our ways of thinking and acting we will keep, and which ones we will reject--just like those ancient fishermen, who collected the good fish into baskets, but threw the bad ones away.

Perhaps some of you are at such a time of change and personal re-evaluation right now. Perhaps you are facing these kinds of choices. If so, you have a great opportunity to begin a new stage in your life; to leave behind thoughts, feelings, and habits that are dragging you down, and move forward on a path of higher and more spiritual principles and motives.

Just as he asked his disciples, the Lord will ask each one of us, "Have you understood all these things?" If we have been doing our spiritual fishing, we will be able to answer, "Yes." Then, nourished and enriched by the new knowledge and understanding we have caught for ourselves, we will become like the homeowner, bringing out of our storeroom treasures both new and old. The old treasures are the good experiences of our earlier life, before we embarked on a spiritual path--such as my memories of youthful days fishing in the river. The new treasures are the greater depths of spiritual life and joy that we gain when we turn our soul toward the Lord, and our lives toward willingly serving our fellow human beings. Amen.

Music: By the Sea
Bruce DeBoer - Used with Permission

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Graphics Background by Judy