Nevertheless, She Persisted (Retreat for Survivors of Third Sunday in Lent)

Samaritan Woman Roman Caracombs

The story of the Woman at the Well (name not recorded; how surprising) in the Gospel of John recounts an encounter between Jesus, an itinerant Jewish teacher, and a Samaritan woman, someone with whom, due to her gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs, he is expected to avoid.  It’s the longest conversation he has with anyone in the Bible, a conversation in which he elicits from her an acknowledgement that she has been married five times and is now with number six, but swiftly moves on to a revelation of who he is, which in turn upends her entire life.

The Samaritan Woman and I have had a long relationship.  A decade or so ago, I spent several days meditating upon and praying with her story, and her movement from an encounter with Jesus at the well and out into the world to tell what she had heard was a pivotal factor in propelling me into seminary.

A few years later, my son gone, I often focused on her exhaustion and disappointment.  She has a history of negative characterizations due to those five husbands, but there is no indication in the story of anything untoward on her part.  (My father was widowed three times and divorced once, and I was once a family lawyer, so I am well acquainted with the disillusionment and heartache that follow the end of dashed hopes, whatever the reason.)

This year, I find that I am really, really liking the Samaritan Woman.  I mean, I always did, but this year, her persistence in leaving behind her water jar, the symbol of a life tangled in the expectations and promises of others and in the sadness and hardship which have come her way, and walking confidently into a new future ~ this year I am seeing not only the gift of water rushing from Jesus’ life into hers, but the gift of determination that she packs up and takes with her.

I don’t know where you are as you read this.  If you are in the early years, it may be all you can do to sit by your well, and that’s okay.  But if you can look ahead, even of only for a minute or two at a time, perhaps you can see a future.  Not the one you wanted or planned for, but the one that came your way due to the past being smashed to bits.

How might you respond, when you can?

 

 

River of Life

green river 2

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the tenth in the series, was preached on August 16, 2015. (I don’t seem to have a copy of the ninth sermon.  What I do have is a vague recollection of having preached without a manuscript that Sunday. ) This sermon is on one of my very favorite topics: God’s new creation.

*****

This has been a watery summer!  As you know if you’ve been here for even one Sunday, we have been using the study series Come to the Waters in our Thursday Bible study classes, and the themes of that study have served as the springboard for our summer sermon series.

We began with Genesis, and the turbulent waters of chaos from which God created the universe.

We remembered the life-giving waters of baptism, and renewed our own baptismal covenant.

We moved into the story of God’s liberation of God’s people: the crossing of the Red Sea from slavery into freedom, the gift of water to a people trudging through the desert, and the crossing of the Jordan from desert journey to promised land.

We talked about the stormy waters in which we encounter Jesus, and about the waters of justice which we are all called to serve.

We plunged into the streams of mercy, which represent both forgiveness and abundance.

We wondered with the woman at the well about living water, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and last  week we pondered the rivers of living water — our own spiritual gifts, be they hospitality or  teaching or compassion or something else.

And today – today we reach the river of life in the Book of Revelation

In other words, we have hopped, skipped, and jumped across and through the entire Bible, with a view toward how many, many times water appears as a means by which God engages with us.  Water, water everywhere, as we realized at the very beginning.  Water at the beginning and at the end, and all the way through.

Now I am wondering today: How many of you have ever read any of the Book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible?  How many of you remember ever hearing a sermon on the Book of Revelation?

Revelation is a book we tend to steer clear of.

For one thing, we like to focus on the Jesus of the gospels, on his story and on the stories he     tells.  When we move out of the gospels, we head for the epistles, the letters of the early church     in which we are advised on how to be church ourselves.  And when we take leave of the Greek       Bible, we like the basic stories of the Hebrew Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses. David . . .  and   the prophets, who remind us of our call to social justice.  Revelation?  We avoid that one!

Revelation seems like a weird and incomprehensible book to us.  It’s filled with strange visions and symbols, and who knows what those mean?  Seven seals?  A woman clothed with the sun?   A rider on a white horse?  Who understands any of that?  It can help to know that the Book of        Revelation is basically a book written in code, a book for the persecuted Christians of the first  century, a book designed to conceal its meaning from the Roman authorities.  But you still have     to decode the code – and that’s not easy in a book of apocalyptic literature.

Apocalyptic – now there’s an unhelpful word!  What does that mean?  It actually means      disclosure, or revelation, of something hidden, and in the Book of Revelation, it means a    disclosure about end times.   Many of us, thanks to movies and books like the Left Behind series,   have come to think about the end of the world as a time of terrible violence and destruction, and if that’s the case, of course we don’t want to read about it, code or no code.

In our culture, we have developed another  theory, a vision of end times, at odds with this idea  of a violent, bloody was with disastrous consequences for almost everyone.  We have developed    an idea of heaven – heaven as a place to which we get to go after we leave this crisis and sorrow- ridden world, heaven as a really nice place in which we will dwell in some sort of    disembodied form – and which yet will be filled with all the things we like, whether those be  chocolate or golf courses, as well as with the people we love and yes, God, too – all in some kind of spiritual form.

This world, this creation, will be done for – it will disappear, and we will all go to a heaven filled with flowers and waterfalls and other lovely things.

But in reality – in reality, as we are promised in the Bible, something much grander lies ahead for us.

The reality is a renewed and restored creation, a city filled with the blessings of a garden, and the river of life running through it.

That’s what the Book of Revelation is about!

Let’s listen to what theologian N.T. Wright says about this new creation:

“The God in whom we believe is the creator of the world, and . . .  will one day put this world to rights. That solid belief is the bedrock of all Christian faith. God is not going to abolish the     universe of space, time and matter; [God]  is going to renew it, to restore it, to fill it with new joy     and purpose and delight, to take from it all that has corrupted it. ‘   . . .

The last book of the Bible ends, not with the company of the saved being taken up into heaven,  but with the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, resulting in God’s new  creation, new heavens and new earth, in which everything that has been true, lovely, and of  good report will be vindicated, enhanced, set free from all pain and sorrow. God, [God’s very  self], it says, will wipe away all tears from all eyes.

One of the great difficulties in preaching the gospel in our days is that everyone assumes that   the name of the game is, ultimately, to ‘go to heaven when you die’, as though that were the  last act in the drama. . . .  But —  Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world; God will  make new heavens and new earth, and give us new bodies to live and work and take delight in   [God’s] new creation.

And the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has  already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter morning, having  faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has corrupted and defaced God’s lovely   creation.”[1]

This, as Bishop Wright tells us, is the “real theme in the scriptures which gives meaning and purpose to all of our life . . .   .  This theme is present in a thousand passages, celebrated in poetry and song, articulated in rich and dense theology, lived out by the Lord Jesus himself.”[2]

So what is the new creation, and what has it got to do with us and our water sermons?

To start with, we thirst.  Our Psalm reading today reminds us: as the deer thirsts for water, so we thirst for the living God.  Others of our readings this summer have reminded us: the Israelites thirsted in the desert.  We thirst for justice, and for mercy. The woman at the well discovers that she thirsts for living water.  We pour out our longings, as the Psalmist says.  Water represents our hopes, our dreams.

And so often, the result of all this pouring out of longing is that we find ourselves in watery storms.  The Psalmist says that, too:  “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.”  We are lost in difficult waters; we are submerged by the waves.  Think of the disciples out on the sea in their little fishing boat.  Think of how we try, and yet we sink, just like Peter.

And then – ahead – promised by God: a new creation! Heaven and earth BOTH renewed and restored.  A time in which the sea is no more!  (Now, that line has always bothered me.  I love the sea.  How can its disappearance be a good thing?  But we need to remember what we talked about at the beginning of the summer: to the people of the Bible, sea represented chaos.  “The mention of the absence of the sea in this new creation is meaningful [because] in the ancient accounts of the creation of the world, the sea represents the most formidable element of creation, associated with the primitive abyss that is opposed to the Creator.”[3]  So perhaps there will be seas in the new creation – I, for one, hope so – but there will not be chaos.)

Instead of chaos, there will be a holy, glorious city.  A city whose gate is never locked.  A city – and let’s pay attention here – not a city to which we go “up,” but a city which comes to us.  The renewed creation is our creation, not a distant, far off heaven in the sky.

God will dwell with us; God will make God’s home with us.

God will wipe away every tear.

Death will be no more.

All who are thirsty will drink.

God will make all things new.

And in the midst of this renewed creation?  The river of the water of life, bright as crystal.  No more scary, churning, chaotic waters of the deep seas, but a bright, shining, flowing, river of peace.  A river of joy.  A river of justice.  A river of healing.  A river along which the tree of life grows and produces fruit and healing leaves.

We, today, we live in an in between time – in between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the complete restoration of his universe.  We live in the already-but-not-yet time of Jesus Christ – the reign of God among us, but not yet complete.  The work of the kingdom awaiting our participation.

But we live in a time of great, good news.  The world will not always be as it is.

People will not always hunger or thirst.

Bullets will not always fly; bombs will not always explode.

Young women will not always be sold into sexual slavery.

Rivers will not always turn orange.

Racism and other –isms will not always hold people captive.

We will not always be separated from our loved ones.

Because – because God is going to renew and restore all, and God is going to dwell with us, and death, in all of its insidious forms, will be no more.

Because all of creation will be healed, and a river will run through it.

 

Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright. Bishop of Durham, “The Road to New Creation,” September 23, 3006.   http://ntwrightpage.com/sermons/Road_New_Creation.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Professor Nicolet Anderson, Working Preacher, November 4, 2012. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1467

Image: Green River, Utah

 

 

Living Water

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the eighth in the series, was preached on August 2, 2015.

*****

Do any of you recall the book Silent Spring? Written by Rachel Carson and published in 1962, Silent Spring revealed the effects of chemicals, pesticides in particular, on our air, land, and waters.  With that book, Rachel Carson effectively launched the modern environmental movement.  The title of the book comes from a poem, and refers to the silencing of birdsong – the springtime quiet silence we could expect if we continued to pollute our earth and its waters with chemicals – if we allowed our waters to die rather than to live.

People are often under the impression that the problem with environmental poisons, such as DDT, is that animals, including birds, ingest them directly.  But perhaps the most significant problem is that the chemicals seep into the water system, into groundwater, streams, rivers, and oceans, and cause them to die, thus transforming entire ecosystems which depend upon those waters.

In Ohio, a major symptom of waters dying from pesticide use was the declining bald eagle situation.  In 1979, the Ohio bald eagle population had been reduced to four nesting pairs – in other words, bald eagles had been almost eradicated from Ohio. The reason? Dying waters.  DDT seeped from farmland into the waters of Ohio, and from the waters into the fish, and from the fish, into the eagles.  And then – the problem wasn’t that the eagles died from eating the fish.  The problem was that, with so much DDT in their systems, the eagles hatched eggs with shells that were too thin – and when the eagles settled into their nests to brood their eggs, the eggs cracked open under their weight.

The effect of pesticides on waters – on dying waters – is pervasive and insidious. From farm to water to fish to eagle to egg – DDT affected every ecosystem level critical to eagle life, and almost destroyed the entire population.

But then – after Silent Spring sounded the alarm, and environmental protection laws were passed, and DDT was banned, and we began to regulate the uses of pesticides and other chemicals – the waters began to clear, to heal, and to live again!  Today, there are about 200 nesting pairs of bald eagles in Ohio – a sign that living waters are as essential to life at all levels as dying waters were destructive to entire systems of life.

Jesus knew something about this.  Jesus knew something about the differences between water which is never enough, water which fails to quench thirst, and water which is life-giving and healing.  Water which runs clear with the presence of the Divine.

When Jesus encounters the woman in our story today, the woman at the well, he has become deeply acquainted with the insidious waters of a faith which is, at best, limping along.  In Judea, to the south, people are arguing over who is baptizing more disciples, Jesus or John.  Who has more adherents, the Presbyterians or another denomination?  Who has more followers, Donald Trump or Jeb Bush?  We’re familiar with these arguments, aren’t we? – and we know that they are not exactly life-giving.

Jesus, tired and worn down by disagreements which detract from his ministry, heads north, back to Galilee.  But he and his disciples stop in Samaria, in Sychar, a place in which he is pulled right back into the disagreements which so intrigue people of faith.

The Samarians, you see, although they, too, are descendants of Abraham and Jacob, have some significant religious differences with the Jews, so much so that it is extremely unlikely that a Jewish man like Jesus would come to a well seeking water from a Samarian woman. For that matter, in that time and place, it would be a violation of numerous religious laws for a man to ask a woman not his wife, or daughter, or mother, or sister, for a drink of water.

So Jesus has waded right into the waters of disagreement, of rules which diminish rather than further life, of rules which create hierarchies and divisions rather than community and connection.  It’s one thing to recognize appropriate boundaries, to create rituals and regulations which identify who we are and help us to celebrate our lives and our heritage.  It’s another entirely to focus on our differences in ways which deride and criticize others.

And this Samaritan woman – she gets right into it with Jesus.

How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samarian?

How is it that you, a man, ask a drink of me, a woman?

Where do you get that living water of which you speak?

Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob, who gave us this well?

But Jesus – Jesus is quietly persistent.

I have living water to give you.

This water here, this tangible water – it will not quench your thirst forever.

If you drink the water I offer, you will never be thirsty again.

The water I offer will become a spring in you gushing up to eternal life.

In other words, the water I offer will fill every crack and crevice in your thirsty life.

The water I offer will be yours for generation upon generation.

The water I offer will pervade your life with renewal, and will flood your life with growth.

How do you know when you have encountered the living water of Jesus Christ?

Living water moves!  Living water nourishes!  Living water creates new life! Living water overcomes barriers!  Living water seeps into every level of your life!

In the Bible, water is often understood as a symbol for the Spirit of God, a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  I wonder what might happen if each of us this coming week understood our presence here in worship,  and our encounter with the word, through the reading and the sermon, and with sacrament, through our receiving of communion, to be an encounter with Jesus.  With Jesus himself! – an encounter as real and personal and deep as that experienced by the woman at the well.  And then I wonder . . .

What if we moved forward into this week and asked God for a specific grace, a specific gift: that we might remember, every day, that we ourselves are filled with the water of the Holy Spirit?  That Jesus has given us living water, water that completely quenches our thirst?

I know that we Presbyterians aren’t a very demonstrative lot.  We are the chosen frozen, after all. We look askance at emotional expression, even, or perhaps especially, in church.  But we also hold our scripture in high esteem, and it’s right there in the Bible; Jesus himself says it: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  The water that he has given YOU – and you have been marked with that water ever since your baptism – that water that he has given YOU will become a spring in YOU gushing up to eternal life.  To a new life.  To a life in which the kingdom of God prevails.

So think about that this week.

If you pause as you get out of bed one morning and think, I am filled with the water of the Spirit, will your day be different?

If you are trying to complete a difficult task and you think, I am thirsty for this to be over, but the Spirit quenches my thirst, will things proceed more smoothly?

If you get angry at someone, but before you say anything, you pause to consider, my words are moistened by the Spirit, will some unexpectedly gracious words come out of your mouth?

And if you are acknowledging and relying upon the living waters of the Spirit, the waters offered you by Jesus, will your words and actions affect others in grace-filled ways?

They will, because water affects every aspect, every level, whether of a single organism or an entire ecosystem.  Healthy, living waters mean that hundreds of eagles soar across the skies of Ohio.  Healthy, living water from Jesus mean that the Spirit soars in our lives.  Amen!

Streams of Mercy

high falls

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the seventh in the series, was preached on July 26, 2015.

*****

A few days ago, I was out walking early in the morning, and I paused to pick up a piece of paper lying on the sidewalk.  That piece of paper turned out to be a flyer or bulletin insert from a church – from Fairmount Presbyterian Church, in fact – and near the top of its listing of services and events, it said, “Experience the Holy!”

“Experience the Holy” – what a great invitation, I thought. What a wonderful way to think about why we come to worship – to experience the holy.

And what a marvelous way for us to think of today’s topic –mercy: as an experience of the holy.

As you know if you’ve been around this summer, we have been focused on water for a couple of months, thanks to our Bible Study, Come to the Waters.  Did you know that water is mentioned over 800 times in the Bible?  I learned that this week as well, since it was mentioned in another flyer – that one advertising the fact that the author of the Come to the Waters study will be speaking at Rocky River Presbyterian Church in August.  800 times water is mentioned – 800 experiences of the holy – and we’ve touched on only a few of them.  Perhaps mercy encompasses them all.

I would guess that, for many of us, the first word that comes to mind when we think of mercy is forgiveness.  Perhaps we imagine characters in a novel or film seeking mercy – seeking forgiveness from a ruler or a leader for some wrongdoing.  Perhaps we think of someone pleading for mercy from the court as the sentence for a criminal transgression is being handed down.  Perhaps we think of Jesus’ words in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

The Lord’s Prayer is sometimes referred to as “the perfect prayer.”  It is the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples as a model when they asked for instruction in prayer.  A short prayer, with short sentences – and in this one short sentence, we ask God to forgive us, to show us mercy, as we do the same for others.  This model prayer reminds us that we are always in need of forgiveness, and we are always in need of extending forgiveness to others.

Perhaps you think not?  I know that some people resist the Prayer of Confession, which comes so early in our order of worship, muttering to themselves, “I’m a good person! I’m not a sinner!”

The two are not mutually exclusive.  We are, on the whole, good people.  And yet we miss the mark all the time.  Someone we are oblivious, or careless, to the hurt we inflict. Sometimes we make mistakes.   Sometime we are intentional about causing harm, or at least dismay.  How astonishing, then, that we are taught to pray for forgiveness.  For mercy.  For an experience of the holy.

But Jesus does not permit us to forget that we, too, are called to forgive.  Isn’t that a bit more difficult?  A lot more difficult?  I recall a friend, having forgotten something he had promised to take care of for me, saying, “But you are forgiving.”  “No, I’m not!” I thought silently, and angrily.  It’s not easy, is it?

And yet forgiveness, extending mercy to others, is essential to our peace of mind.  Do you know that even the Mayo Clinic website has an entry on forgiveness?  Listen to what it has to say:

” . . .  if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing  forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can  lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it   doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”[1]

Or we might put it more succinctly: When we don’t forgive, we hurt only ourselves.  When we do forgive, we experience the holy.

Jesus, although he speaks very succinctly in the Lord’s Prayer, knows whereof he speaks — from Scripture, and especially from the psalter, the Book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible.  Listen again to the words from which he learned the healing power of forgiveness:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin (Psalm 51).

The Psalmist is using the imagery of water to describe what happens when God’s forgiveness is effected.  God blots out our transgressions, just as we blot out a stain with a wet washcloth.  God washes us of our iniquities, our wrongdoings – the holy experience of forgiveness is like the holy experience of standing under a warm shower, and allowing the dirt and grime of the day to be rinsed away.  God cleanses us from sin – God’s cleansing is like a hot bath, with a scrub brush taken to those stubborn spots of mud.

Forgive us, as we forgive others – but forgiveness, whether we are the recipient or the giver, is not a simple exchange of words, or even of acts.  Forgiveness is a deep, deep cleansing, a transformation of who we are.

But the mercy of God is even more than that – more than forgiveness of our errors, more than the grace by which we forgive others.  The mercy of God is the water in which the entire creation is bathed.

Pope Francis, who has become an astonishingly popular religious figure for people of all faiths and none, is a passionate advocate for God’s mercy.  In the quote on the front of your bulletin today, he recognizes the bridge between mercy as our personal experience of God’s love and mercy as an expression of God’s creative gifts, the mercy which the prophet Isaiah anticipates.  When we listen to Isaiah’s Chapter 35 depiction of renewed creation, we get a glimpse of a world infused by mercy – by the goodness, the generosity, the extravagant hospitality of God:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Mercy is not merely about forgiveness.  Mercy is about growth and beauty – about the experience of the holy.  When we seek and receive forgiveness, when we bestow forgiveness, the dry deserts of our angry and hardened hearts begin to bloom – with gratitude, with joy, and with peace.

waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

God’s merciful creation is God’s exuberant creation.  God offers mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is, just as God pours water into our lives, from the waters of world creation to the baptismal waters of our own creation.  God does not want the desert to remain a dry and weary land, not any more than God wants us to be parched by heartache and brittle with longing.

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

What are the burning sands in your own life? Where do you fear to tread because the soles of your feet will be singed?  Where is the thirsty ground in your life?  Where are the hard and cracked places, the places where nothing seems to cushion your walk?

In those places, promises Isaiah, in those places, quiet pools and gurgling spring will appear.   Where you are tormented and exhausted, a pool, an oasis, of God’s merciful presence will appear.  Where the work is too hard and the journey too long, springs of water will rise up to quench your thirst.  God’s mercy saturates the earth and all of us who inhabit it.

One of the contemporary poet Mary Oliver’s most famous poems is called “The Summer Day.”  It seems to me that her poem captures much of this vision of Isaiah’s, this vision of a world overflowing with the mercy of God.  A world in which God’s gracious mercy goes far beyond forgiveness, and even far beyond personal transformation – a world in which wave after wave of God’s abundant love surges throughout our lives, offering us opportunity upon opportunity to experience the holy.  A world which invites us to respond with our very lives.

Here is Mary Oliver’s version of Isaiah’s vision:

“Who made the world?

. . .

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?”

Indeed, what is it that you are going to do with your one wild and precious life, in a world saturated by the love and mercy of God?

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692

Image: High Falls, DuPont State Forest NC ~ August 2016

Waters of Justice

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the sixth in the series, was preached on July 19, 2015.

*****

This has been a season of water!  Plenty of water outside, with all the rain we’ve had.  And water inside, as we make our way through the Bible Study, Come to the Waters, and gather to worship around the same themes: creation, baptism, thirst, danger, courage, and presence.

How did you do with last week’s assignment?  Those of you who were here last week know that we talked about the episode in which the disciples are caught in a windstorm out on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus comes walking across the water to them.

We learned that, regardless of whether we are hiding out in the boat like most of the disciples, waiting for the storm to pass, or emboldened like Peter to strike out on the water, Jesus says the same things to us: Be not afraid.  I am with you.  And we learned that the disciples saw, in Jesus’s presence and power, the Son of God.

Today, we are moving out from last week’s focus on ourselves to a focus on our neighbors, and on the rest of the world.  We as Christians are called to journey both inward and outward.  We are called to an inward journey of growth in faith – to lives of prayer, of contemplation, of study, of worship, both on our own and in community.  And we are called to an outward journey of mission – of being sent to spread the good news of the kingdom of God among us, through both word and action.

Last week, we were immersed in the waters of our inward journey, wondering about ways in which we come to know and understand Jesus in our own lives, whether we are frightened or brave, whether we are cowering in a boat or stretching ourselves to meet him.

This week, we move on to the waters of our outward journey, to the waters of justice and service. To the world beyond ourselves.

Let’s start with Amos, the prophet.  Sometimes people aren’t so sure what a prophet is.  Is a prophet a fortune teller, someone looking into a glass ball or shuffling through Tarot cards, to tell the future?

Not in the Biblical sense.  In the Biblical sense, a prophet’s job is to call the people back to God and to God’s priorities.  Often, a prophet’s job is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo, with the way in which we have drifted away from God, and to return us to God and to what God wants.  As the saying goes, the church’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – and the prophet is in charge of the second half of that equation.  To afflict the comfortable.

What does that mean?  How are we called to be afflicted?  What should agitate and disturb us?

We are called by the prophets to be afflicted by the cry for justice in our country and world.  We are called to be aware of unfairness, of wrong doing, and, even more, of what we might do about it.  And – there is always something that we can do.  We start by learning, and then we take action.

A few weeks ago, as you know, I was in Washington, D.C., advocating for mental health and suicide prevention legislation and dollars.  How did that come about?  Well, I started by learning.  I started by reading and talking with people about mental health and suicide prevention, and learning about statistics and causes and prevention.  I learned that a lot of the assumptions people make about mental health issues are not true – we know all kinds of things today that we didn’t know even a decade ago.  And then I went to work as a volunteer for a suicide prevention organization, writing letters to our senators and representatives about mental health legislation.  And now I’ve been to Capitol Hill twice, along with 300 other volunteers each time. Never did I think that I would be one day talking to a United States Congressperson about the National Violent Death Reporting Act, or about legislation to ensure that veterans receive proper medical screening – but I started learning how to afflict the comfortable, and how to seek justice for the underserved and unserved in our health system.

Three hundred of us.  And the week before I went to Washington, I learned that a friend from another congregation had been there advocating for diabetes education legislation. And while our group was there, we met some of the 700 people there to advocate for environmental legislation, and some of the 900 people there to advocate for funding to treat and cure pancreatic cancer.

Justice in action.  Inspirational, and amazing, and life-giving.

But I can’t do that, you might be thinking.  Maybe that old prophet Amos, 2500 years ago, maybe he meant that we should cause justice to roll down like waters, but he didn’t mean me.  Or us, in our little church. In which case I would say, Who do you think he did mean?  Of course he meant you!  He meant all of us!

Too hard, you say.  Can’t do it.

But you have done it – think of our Selma program last winter!  Remember – we were able to take dozens of students and their teachers, from both Euclid and Cleveland, to see the movie Selma, and then to host them for lunch and a panel discussion. That was a wonderful day in this church – so many of you helped with the lunch and the overall visit – and that was justice in action.  Justice in the form of education – which is the first step in making changes in society.  We haven’t done enough of that around here – that’s for sure – but we made a start.

And there are other ways in which we reach out, not only on behalf of those seeking justice, but directly to those in need.  Our outward journey is about service as well as about justice.

Let’s look at Jesus and what he says.  One of the things of which our water study has reminded us is about how many ways we come to see and to know God.  We wonder about that, don’t we?  When disciples wondered the same thing, Jesus told them a story about a king, who says to those at his right hand, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  And the king’s followers say, “When did we ever do anything like that?” And the king says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The work of justice is the work of seeking out and altering the root causes of injustice – of poverty, of discrimination, of inequity in health care, in education, in housing.  That’s why we talk about making changes in our laws, and about educating our children so that they can be the next generation of change.

But as long as injustice exists, so does the need for caring for our neighbor. So does the need for providing food and drink and hospitality and clothing and care for the sick and imprisoned.

And some of those things we do well, and it is in offering that care that we see the face of Jesus most immediately in front of us. You may have heard me quote Sue R. before: she once said that, with our meals and our thrift shop, “we feed and clothe the neighborhood.”    We don’t do those things just to be good people, of course.  We do them because we are called to see the face of Jesus in our neighbors.  When we offer food and drink to others, when we provide them with low-cost clothing and household items, when we help others who are in trouble or sick – we are doing the same for Jesus.

Jesus, of course, learned from the prophet Amos, just as we do.  One thing we know for certain about Jesus: he knew his scripture!  He was raised with a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which for him would have been the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament.  And thus he knew the prophets well – the prophets whose words he himself had come to fulfill.

This means that he understood the call to serve as he himself did served.  He also understood the call to justice – that it is not enough to feed the hungry, but that we are called to further the kingdom of God so that there is no more hunger.  And he knew something more, something more that Amos says: that these calls, these calls to service and to justice, grow out of our worship.  That our inward journey leads to our outward journey.  That worship by itself is not enough – that we cannot call ourselves true disciples of Christ unless we follow him into the world and its needs.

Amos was on fire when he spoke to the people all those centuries ago.  Amos told them that God was not the least bit interested in their assemblies and music and offerings – in fact, Amos told them that God DESPISED their assemblies and music and offerings – because that’s all they did.  They may have worshipped in beautiful and even sacrificial ways, but they did not go forth into the world to share God’s goodness and love.  They did not participate in justice, rolling down like waters, or in righteousness, running like an ever-flowing stream.  They did not leave the sanctuary ready to roll up their sleeves and help others. They stayed in place, in their temple and in their self-satisfied lives, they stayed stock-still, as if they were stuck in a puddle — when they were called to be on the move – to be part of the rolling, running, MOVING waters and streams of justice and righteousness.

What about you?  Will you go and help with the community meal this afternoon?  Will you write a letter to a congressperson this year?  Will you remember that we are called to be a people moved to action just like the rolling and streaming of the waters of justice and righteousness?

Can you do those things?  Can you follow Jesus, knowing that to see him in others means to act for them and with them?

I know that you can!  Start today!  Go into that kitchen after church and lend a hand, go to the meal and visit with our guests, go online or read the paper and learn about hunger in Greater Cleveland.  You are the people of God, and so you are called to be people of service and people of justice!  Amen.

Stormy Waters

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the fifth in the series, was preached on July 12, 2015.

*****

Just in time – Jesus comes to rescue us.

As we have moved through this summer’s Bible Study, Come to the Waters, our attention has been often been focused on Biblical passages other than those in which Jesus himself acts.  We did speak of his baptism, in the waters of the Jordan River, in which he like us, is named as God’s Beloved.  But we have also looked at the waters of creation covering the earth; at the waters missing from the earth as the Israelites trudged through the dry desert, and at the raging waters of the Jordan during the season in which the river fills and the Israelites had to cross the river to reach the land God had promised to them.  Today, having pondered what the desert and the Jordan crossing mean for us, as individuals and as a church, we are presented with tumultuous waters again, and with Jesus himself in the midst of them.  Just as we need him, he is here.

Today’s story is so familiar that perhaps you barely heard it being read.  The disciples are in their boat, crossing the Sea of Galilee; the winds rise; and Jesus appears them, walking across the water.  Peter decides that he will do the same and leaps out of the boat.  At first, he, too, walks easily on top of the waves, but then he looks down and begins to sink.  Of course, Jesus recues him, and the disciples, completely in awe of Jesus’s powers, declare him to be the Son of God.

You know this story, right?  Mostly you probably think of it as a miracle story – after all, that’s how we refer to it in popular culture.  Even if people have little knowledge of the Bible, they know that someone who “walks on water” can do anything.  Maybe you’ve wondered if it even happened – did any of the miracles in the Bible really happen?  Some people are inclined to say “yes” – it all happened just as it is written.  Others are a good deal skeptical, and may point to the fact that, in the ancient world, walking on water was described as something the gods did — a metaphor, a symbol, of their power and authority.  And still others joke about it:  One of our members, who shall remain nameless, told us in Bible study this week about learning to swim, and waving at her mother from the water, to reassure her mother than she was indeed conquering that difficult skill.  What her mother didn’t know was that she was waving from shallow water, with one foot on the bottom of the pool!

So we have a familiar story, a miracle story, a story that maybe we can’t quite take seriously.  We think we’ve got this one down.  But today I want you to think about some things that you might not have noticed in this story.

To start with, Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat.[1]   They don’t just decide to sail off into the night – he makes them – he compels them – to get into the boat.  Jesus himself is going up the mountain to pray.  They must all be exhausted – they’ve just fed thousands of people.  And Jesus needs to be alone.  But the disciples – he sends them off together, he insists that they get into a boat, and he sends them into a windstorm.

There’s that idea of being sent that we talk about so often.   We are expected to move, to travel, to go from this place to that.  There’s a certain restlessness to discipleship, isn’t there?  Discipleship is not about remaining in one place.  Get into the boat and go – that’s Jesus’s command.

And go where?  We’d like to think that when God sends us off in in a boat, we’re going to have a nice quiet sail around a calm bay, and maybe a picnic to enjoy out there in the peaceful water.  I don’t know about you for sure, but I always have this idea that God is going to send me into a life of ease and success.  A safe neighborhood, a contented church, a classroom filled with studious students – those are the boats in which I hope God is going to send me off.

But . . . no.  Jesus sends the disciples off into the winds.  Jesus sends them off into a tumultuous seas.  Jesus sends us into real life, and gale-force winds bear down on us.

Where Jesus sends us, we are going to be battered.  I actually love that word – the disciples’ boat is battered by the waves.  Think about what battered means.  You might think that it means worn down, beaten up – and it does, of course, mean those things.  But people who have been battered by the waves of life are also often people of great wisdom and peace.

Not always, of course.  Some people who are battered by life’s storms allow hurts to strangle them with bitterness and anger.  But for those who open themselves to the experience of the fullness of the struggles of life comes a new depth of understanding, of compassion, and even of hope.

Our Christian faith tells us that these things – understanding, compassion, hope —  come from Jesus.  The same Jesus who comes to the disciples and who speaks to them comes to us and speaks to us. And it doesn’t seem to matter who you are, which kind of person you are.  Are you hiding out in the boat, like eleven of the disciples, terrified of the winds and hoping to remain safe right where you are?  Or are you like Peter, willing to climb out of the boat and willing to try to pass across the water?  The truth is that we all have some of each of the disciples in us, depending on the day and the situation.

And what is Jesus’s response?  To the disciples cowering in the boat and then crying out in fear because they think they are looking at a ghost, he says, “Take heart; do not be afraid.  It is I.”    Isn’t this what Jesus always says?  Be not afraid.  I am with you.

To Peter, who suddenly understands the force of the winds and begins to sink, Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and says, “Why did you doubt?”  In other words, I am with you – spoken with actions, not words, this time.  And: Do not be afraid.  There is no reason to doubt.

Jesus’s message is pervasive and consistent.  You know, as parents, we are often told to be consistent.  Always the same rules, always the same consequences.  Not really one of my own strengths as a parent.  But Jesus always is consistent.  I am with you.  Don’t be afraid. This is a message we need to hear, over and over again, in our personal lives and in our lives as a congregation.  Whenever we set out on stormy waters: Jesus is with us.  We need not fear.

As we have talked about these intense waters in our Bible Study classes these past weeks – the rushing waters of the Jordan which the Israelites had to cross to reach the Promised Land, and now the waters of the Sea of Galilee stirred up by the wind,   we have also been talking about our own journeys of faith and, in particular, times of significant growth for us.  Times in which we came to understand who God is and what God’s presence means to us.  In fact, this past week, in one of the classes, we drew symbols of important times or events in our lives of faith.  I’m no artist myself, although I do love to color, so I was really excited when Sue was able to identify one of my own drawings!  Talent aside, however, I think that it was helpful for us to think about times in our lives when we have discovered God anew or discovered something new about God.

And so I have a challenge, a project, for you this week.  I’d like you to do just what we did in class – I’d like you to draw, or color, some symbols or pictures of important times in your growing faith.  You don’t have to draw, of course – although making art, doing something with your hands, can really help to sort things out in your mind.  But if you don’t want to draw, at least consider:  What are three times in your life in which you came to recognize or know God a little better, as Peter and the other disciples did Jesus through this adventure in the boat?

You may come up with some expected events, some times of church ritual and celebration, like a confirmation, or a wedding.  You may recall some important encounters or conversations that have had a life-long impact on you.  And you may even discover that during a time or two when you have been battered by the winds of life, God became more present, more known, to you.

The disciples become convinced, as a result of Jesus’s presence and actions, that he is, as they proclaim, “truly the Son of God.”  They discover that, even as they are battered by the winds of the storm, they are also battered by the love of God.  There’s actually a famous poem by the 16th and 17th century English poet John Donne which begins with the words, “Batter my heart, three person’d God . . .”.   It’s an intriguing idea, since to be battered means to be beaten or pummeled – really, by the love of God?  But God’s love is as insistent as the waves rising in the winds, and God’s love pushes us to grow, to change, to become more attentive to the mysterious ways in which God moves – even, or perhaps especially, in the gales of our lives.

And so: pay attention, this week.  Look back.  Look at your lives right now.  Might you hear the voice of Jesus, telling you not to be afraid?  Might you see his hand stretched out to steady you?  Might you know that God is present, in all of the challenges and winds of our lives?

Let’s close again with the words of the poem we heard last week, with a reminder that

you do not cross the boundaries alone,

that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,

that in the depths that would knock you

off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor

 

to hold and to guide, and waters of danger

shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos

may bring newness of life, and out of the noise

of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.[2]

 

Amen.

 

 

[1] I am indebted to Professor Carla Works for her exploration of this idea in her August 10, 2014 Working Preacher column.

[2] Andrew King. “Into the River.” A Poetic Kind of Place. https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/category/joshua/.

Thirst

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the third in the series, was preached on June 28, 2015.

****

When I was a little girl, I attended a small country elementary school several miles from home.  It was a very basic sort of school – a two-story yellow brick building set among cow pastures, with a very basic sort of playground.  On one side, for the younger kids: some gravel, some grass, some swing sets and slides.  On the other side, past that invisible line that divided third-graders from fourth-graders, more gravel, and a baseball diamond and a basketball blacktop  for the older kids.

And on each side, nested up against the building: one water fountain.  One water fountain for 100 children.  On those really hot days that sometimes envelop southern Ohio in late May, we often spent our entire 15-minute recess periods in line for the water fountain.  People didn’t carry water bottles in those days, classrooms weren’t air-conditioned, and the sun was merciless.  All we wanted at recess was a drink.

After last week’s brief veering off course, we are back to the topic of water, the subject of our summer Bible study.  You may recall that we started with the waters of creation: the tumultuous depths from which God created the whole world.  We moved on to the waters of baptism: the clear, cool waters from which God creates us anew, promising that we ourselves are being created and re-created by the love of God. This week, we are invited to think about thirst.

About that longing to quench dry mouths and throats that propels first-graders away from the swings and slides and into a long line in the sun.

About that frightened longing that the early Israelite people experienced when they found themselves in the desert, freed from slavery in Egypt but suddenly adrift in the sand, no source of water in sight.

About that terrible, anguished longing that Jesus knew from the cross, when, moments before he died, he managed to croak out the words, “I thirst.”

This week, we are invited to consider thirst, and I came up with a long list of things for which I know those among us thirst:

We thirst for racial justice and reconciliation, so evident in the last two weeks, post-Charleston church shooting.  I was at the Euclid Collaborative meeting on Thursday, a monthly gathering of folks who provide social services to our community, and our leader noted that, like the year of 1968, the year of 2015 seems to be one of those in which our struggles as a nation boil over. In 1968, the focus was Vietnam; this year, the focus is the tension between black and white, and between and among other racial and ethnic groups as well.  And we thirst, don’t we, for communication and cooperation and understanding and reconciliation and justice?

We thirst for health, for healing – from cancer, from diabetes, from heart disease, from depression, from surgeries, from all of the illnesses and disorders, physical and mental, that beset us.  I spent three days this work learning and working in Washington, D,C, for legislation and funding for mental health and suicide prevention.  Those of us touched by suicide all thirst for an end to the ever-increasing reach of its tentacles.  “A 20% decline in suicide rates by 2025” is our call for change – because we thirst.

We thirst for peace of mind.  We know grief, and we know financial woes, and family troubles, and neighborhood disagreements, and internal confusion and helplessness – and so we thirst for peace of mind, for that peace which passes understanding to fill our hearts.

We thirst for order.  Our things get messy – look at the spate of books and magazine articles and websites about de-cluttering, emptying, discarding, and creating order in our homes.  Sometimes we think that everything would be all right if only our families or friends or co-workers would just get into line – like those kids on the playground, waiting for a drink of water.  We thirst to see everything — material goods, emotions, relationships, governments – in place and in order.

We thirst for community.  We long to know and to be known, to be part of something greater than ourselves, and to be welcomed and accepted and loved.  We are deeply wounded when, despite the best efforts of others, we find ourselves in the outs with those with whom we thought we were in, and we want so much to find ourselves within that safe circle of friendship and caring again.

We thirst for self- expression, for self-actualization, if you want to use a jargon-y term.  We long to grow into the person we feel called to be, and to say what it is we see and experience and know.

We thirst for beauty.  We could spend months, or years, even, trying to define beauty, but I think we all sense what the poet John  Keats put into words: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”[1]  We may each have our own opinion about what makes a beautiful body, or a beautiful spirit, or a beautiful landscape . . .  but whatever it is, we long for it.

And we thirst for safety and certainty, don’t we?  Just like those Israelites out in the wilderness, we want to feel safe, to feel assured of where we are and where we are going.

And what do we do when we thirst?

For one thing, we complain.  Like the Israelites, complaining that they had been led into a barren wasteland, led out of a place of slavery, sure – but their slave dwellings had been places with water and food.  We complain like Moses, too, complaining who whined that God had asked him to lead an unruly people whom he was afraid might kill him.   We, too, complain: Not enough of this.  Too much of that.  We are thirsty for so much, but the glass is never full – or so we think.

And then – what if we get really thirsty?  Thirsty like the Israelites, frightened for the children and the elderly with no access to water.  Thirsty like those who have been denied justice, like black parents frightened for their sons whenever they leave the house.  Thirsty for healing, like the man waiting in an uncomfortable chair in a crowded hallway, wondering about the results of his medical tests.  Thirsty like the gay teenager rejected by his parents and taunted by his friends, wondering if he will ever find community and caring.  What if we get that thirsty?

Then we get frightened, don’t we?  And anxious, and angry?   And we want someone to fix it.  The Israelites want Moses to fix it.  Moses wants God to fix it.  We want the Supreme Court, or the doctor, or our parents, to fix it.

We thirst, and we are afraid, and then,  most of all, we thirst for God. “I seek you,” says the psalmist, “my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

We thirst.  We are fearful and angry.  We do not know what to do.  We want God to pay attention.

What if —  what if we begin by rephrasing the question?  What if we begin to understand our thirst, our longing, as a gift from God? As something which communicates to us God’s dreams for us?

What if instead of saying, “I’m really thirsty – where’s the water?” – what if we say, “I’m really thirsty – toward what is God directing me?” I am thirsty for God – how does God offer me water?

If we thirst for justice, we long for that for which God longs.

If we thirst for healing, we long to see God’s creation restored.

If we thirst for peace of mind, we seek the face of Jesus.

If we are attentive to our desires, to that for which we thirst, we find God’s dreams for` us.

Just` this past week, someone asked me how we hear God speaking to us.  Our desires are one of the main ways! Here’s how Father James Martin explains how thirst, longing, desire, draw us toward God and what God wants for us:

“The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. Our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly.” [2]

“But wait a minute,” you say. “You’re telling me that my desires will lead me to God?  I’ve always thought that I was supposed to resist my desires.  After all. I have a lot of desires – I thirst for a lot – that isn’t good for me – I even thirst for that which causes me problems, or gets me into deep trouble.”

You’re right, of course. We aren’t called to respond to our thirst in ways which are selfish, or unhealthy, or which cause hurt to ourselves or others.  We aren’t called to follow our desires, or to seek to quench our thirst, without prayerful discernment and community conformation.  An alcoholic who says, “I thirst!” and pours herself a glass of vodka is responding to desire for immediate gratification, not to God’s desire for her health.  A student who says, “I thirst for an A!” and cheats on an exam is responding to a desire to get her parents off her back, not to God’s desire for her to learn and succeed in life.

How then do we respond to our thirsts, to our longings?  How do we know whether they are healthy- God-driven thirsts, or merely the maddening calls of our own broken hearts and minds?

We can always check ourselves against the tried and true methods of the church.  Against scripture, for one thing.  You may thirst for that fancy car in the luxury showroom, but the Bible has some things to say about covetousness and theft and material wealth, so you can test your desire for that car against the words of the Bible.

We can also test our longings in our prayer.  If we watch and listen for what God says to us, we can learn to gauge the depth of our thirst for God as opposed to our anxious longing for other things.  God always speaks to us of generosity, of love, of compassion, of caring.  If your longings take you in a direction that harms others, then you want to ask: Are these longings from God?

And our community life provides a third way of testing the desires of our hearts.  If you long for something in life and your friends are skeptical, you might want to reconsider.  If you long to be a great basketball player, but the people you play with point out that you haven’t made a successful shot in three years, then you want to listen.  On the other hand, if you have a thirst for music, and you are being asked to perform in concert after concert, then you are hearing something positive from your community.  Your thirst, your desire, is being confirmed: yes, you have a gift, and God hopes you will use it.

So, yes: we need to check and gauge and test our longings.  Just because we thirst for something doesn’t mean that we should gulp it down.

But at the same time, we should recognize: our desires, our dreams, out thirst, carefully assessed and tended well, are ways in which God speaks to us.  Our desires, our dreams, the empty glass which we  long to see filled – filled with justice, filled with peace, filled with beauty – those represent the thirsts of God as well.

So: Don’t complain about how thirsty you are.  Don’t become anxious or afraid when you look around and see no water in sight.  Your thirst is a gift from God, a gift that will open your heart to the needs of this world and to your place in responding to them.  Amen.

 

[1] John  Keats (1795-1821), Poems of Sentiment IV.

[2] James Martin, S.J., “Our Deepest Desires.” http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/5653/our-deepest-desires (4/13/10).

 

Where Is the Dry Ground?

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This was the fourth sermon, preached on July 5, 2015.

IMG_3380.JPG

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, whom I’m going to call Lucy, was suddenly and unexpectedly widowed.  She and her husband were only around age 50, looking forward to their son’s graduation from high school and some new freedoms for themselves, when her husband  was suddenly struck down, becoming deathly ill with no forewarning at all.  He was gone four days later.

I know that many of you have been in that place.

Instead of the security and comfort of a long marriage, my friend Lucy was on her own – surrounded by others, of course, who rushed in to provide assistance, to create a beautiful memorial service, and to deliver enough plants and food that she could have opened a couple of stores – but basically on her own for what lay ahead:

The terrible, debilitating grief that follows the loss of a beloved spouse and, even moreso, the sudden loss of such a beloved companion.  The grief of her son, their only child, and his own life challenges, now without a dad to guide him.  The financial concerns that always follow a death – we don’t talk about that too often, do we? — but there are funeral expenses, and bills to pay, and questions loom large about life insurance and lost health insurance and one income where once there were two.

I know that many of you have been in that place, too.

For Lucy, the challenges of widowhood were exacerbated by the recent deaths of both of her parents, and her own recent decision to leave a stable job for a business of her own.  So often there are other factors – extended family issues, young children or aging parents, geographical distances.

I know that many of you have faced those as well.

And when these things happen, don’t you feel like the Israelite people, facing the high waters of the Jordan River?  Have you ever wondered where God might have gone, and how it is that you came to be deposited on the banks of a river racing with high waters?

Our story today, our Biblical story, is actually an unfamiliar one to many of us.  We know that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and that God charged Moses to lead them out of Egypt, into freedom, and toward a promised land.  There was a crossing in that earlier story as well – remember the crossing of the Red Sea?  With the Egyptians hot on their trail, the Israelites were fleeing for their very lives, when, so the story has it, God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that they might pass to safety, and then God let the waters reconnect into one sea, in which the Egyptian army got stuck and drowned.

That adventure was followed by forty years – yes, forty YEARS of wandering in the desert, in which the Israelites learned to be a community of God.  And now, as we join the story this morning, the Israelites stand on the banks of the Jordan River, with the land promised to them on the other side.  Moses has died, and Joshua has become their new leader.

Isn’t this a bit like some of our own stories?  We stand between one life and another, between an old life and a new, and we hesitate.  To get from the old to the new looks too uncertain, too downright dangerous.  We want to turn around and go right back to where we came from!

How many people have wanted to start something new, but been incapacitated by fear of the waters that lie between them and a different life?   Where is the solid ground on which to walk?  Who will help?

This space in between, this threshold space, is called a liminal space.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual writer, tells us that  a liminal space “ . . . is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.”[1]

That’s where the Israelites found themselves on the banks of the Jordan, with the desert behind them and the river in front of them.  That’s where my friend Lucy found herself, with married life behind her and an untried life without her husband ahead of her.  That’s where we find ourselves in our church community, with what we know and love behind us, and an uncertain future ahead of us.

So what happens to the Israelites?  God tells Joshua, their new leader, that the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, the huge chest containing the scrolls of the law, are to walk straight into the river – and that then the waters of the river will part.  Dry ground will appear, and the people will be able to cross over.

I want you to imagine this scene for a moment.  Imagine all of these people crowded along the banks of the river.  The waters are high and moving fast.  Even the young and strong among them wonder how they will cross – what about the little ones, and the elderly?  Won’t they all be washed away? The people look back, hopefully, at the desert.  Maybe they could find a way to make do there.  Maybe the past would somehow come to life again.  Maybe they don’t have to leave behind what they know.

And then they discover, through the words and deeds of God, that they can go forward.

In practical terms, they can go forward because dry ground appears.  Solid, safe ground – right in front of them, in the middle of the river.

For my friend Lucy, dry ground has begun to appear in the last several months.  Her friends have stuck with her.  Her business has begun to grow, and her financial future is a bit more assured.  She’s not there yet, but it’s possible that she’ll make it. But had she stayed in the past, hiding out in her house and refusing to step into the waters of change, into the liminal space between the old and the new, she would be nowhere right now.

What about us, in this congregation?  Can we see the dry ground lying ahead of us, beyond the liminal space in which we find ourselves?  Or are we so unwilling to look beyond the tried and true that we cannot imagine stepping out? Can we imagine that the waters of fear and frustration will part for us?  What if the dry ground means we have to do things completely differently?  What if the dry ground lies in other communities, in other congregations, among other people?

And what is most important about that dry ground?  What does this passage tell us it means?

It means, as Joshua says to the Israelites, that “the living God is among you.”  The living God is among you!

Yes — we are called to remember the past.  Our memories contain the teachings that tell us who we are: God’s beloved people.  Our memories of the past tell us how we were formed into community.  From the past come stories and rituals which identify us

But we are not only our pasts.  We are not only the community of before.  The stories and rituals of the past are not the only stories and rituals.  God is with us in the present as well, and God leads us unto the future.

The Israelites became a community in the desert, where God fed them and led them onward.  But look at how all of that changes in this passage!  The Israelites were formed to be a community not for the past, but for the future. The laws and the rituals and the stories of their lives in the desert were intended to be used in a new land, under new leadership, in the future – not housed in a museum in the desert.

I am sure that nearly everyone in this sanctuary this morning has experienced a terrible grief, much as my friend Lucy has.  And hasn’t it also been your experience that at first, and often for a long time, your memories are excruciatingly painful?  You can hardly bear to think about what was, after it no longer is.  Every reminder of the person or place you have lost is heart-rending, and you just want to run, as fast as you can, back to that past.

But gradually, with time and in the presence of God, those memories fold themselves into new lives.  They become teachings and rituals for the future.  You don’t leave them behind – indeed, you don’t leave them behind in glass casings in a museum – but you open yourself to allow them to be transformed into the foundation of something new.

The laws – the Ten Commandments – which the Israelites learned in their wandering days in the desert, and carried triumphantly into their new city of Jerusalem – those are still the foundation of Jewish and Christian life, even today.  But we understand them for our time and our world – they are not stored in a photo album for us to look at on occasion, but they are part of a living, forward-moving tradition.

My friend’s past life with her husband is alive and part of who she is now.  She doesn’t forget him, or their life together, not for a minute – but she isn’t mired in the past. That life, that relationship, is being transformed into a future for her and for their son, a future of courage and determination, and even — joy.

What about our lives here, in this community?  Do we stay on the desert side of the Jordan, looking furtively backward for God to take us back through time, back to what once was?  Are we too afraid of the waters of change, of crossing the liminal space of uncertainty to something new?

Or do we know that God will make dry land for us?  Do we know that God will part the waters that threaten to sweep us away and bring us new life – perhaps in a new place?  Do we know that with God-given courage and determination, we can cross any waters and find joy in new lives?

God is a living God, my friends, and God is among us.  Go forth, and be of good courage!  Go forth, and know that the God of the past is the God of the future!  And know, as the poet Andrew King  proclaims, that:

“you do not cross the boundaries alone,

that you are not abandoned in the raging floods,

that in the depths that would knock you

off your careful feet, God’s love is anchor

 

to hold and to guide, and waters of danger

shall not overwhelm, and waters of chaos

may bring newness of life, and out of the noise

of rushing waters may rise a beautiful song.”[2]

Amen.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-creativity-cure/201306/creativity-and-the-liminal-space

[2] “Into the River.” A Poetic Kind of Place. https://earth2earth.wordpress.com/category/joshua

Image: Green River, Utah

Life-Giving Waters

closing 4

In 2015, Presbyterian Women/Horizon Association published a study, Come to the Waters, based upon the theme of water in the Bible.  Our congregation decided to complete the study over a nine-week period, and each Sunday I preached on the same text which the class was studying.  This sermon, the second in the series, was preached on June 14, 2015.

In a few weeks, we will be treated to round the world pictures of the christening of the new little princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?

But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about.  It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.

What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers.  We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing.  But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?

During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome.  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.

What’s the best welcome you ever had?

I often remember welcomes from my grandmother.  As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio.  To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours.  That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there

And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes?

That she always had time.  Always – time for each of us.

My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us.  She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share.

Welcome welcome welcome.  How was school?  How’s your dog?  Tell me about the new Beatles album.  I have something to show you!  Welcome!

Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?

Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!

Welcome to that for which you thirst and perhaps do not even know it.  Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!

Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us.

John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.

Water throughout the Bible, is a symbol of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.

Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God creates – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.

In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert.  They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known.  So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him.  And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock.

The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them.  They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day.

For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of identity.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist.  John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all.  And thus he makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”

What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.

Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.

When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family.  We do much the same, don’t we – if we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them.  But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved.  Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved.  Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.

Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements — a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.

Welcome to a love that will always have time for you.   Welcome to a love in which you will flourish.  Amen.

In a few weeks, we will be treated to round the world pictures of the christening of the new little princess Charlotte – daughter of Prince William and Duchess Kate.  Everyone will look beautiful in their dressy suits and hats, little Prince George will wear a charming outfit, and Princess Charlotte will no doubt be clad in a long baptismal dress which will flow over her mother’s arms nearly to the floor. The official photographs will be flashed ‘round the world, and everyone will ooh and ahh – and what’s not to ooh and ahh over, with such a lovely young family for whom surely everyone wishes only the best?

But one thing we will probably not hear referenced on the news or read in People Magazine will be an explanation of what the little princess’s baptism is all about.  It will be treated as a secular event which happens to take place in a church – a dress-up day for great happiness – but we will hear little, if anything, of it as a solemn religious occasion.

What is baptism, anyway?  Most of us probably don’t know much more about it than do the People Magazine writers.  We’re talking about baptism today because it’s the second topic in our summer Bible study, Come to the Waters – the second Biblical water subject for these warm days when water seems extremely appealing.  But appealing as water, and the whole idea of baptism are – what is baptism all about?

During Bible study on Thursday, one of our members described baptism as a welcome.  I think that’s a great description. In baptism we are welcomed into the Christian life, and into Christian community.

What’s the best welcome you ever had?

I often remember welcomes from my grandmother.  As you know, I grew up in the country, in southern Ohio.  To get to my house, you first turned into a paved lane and drove up a hill to my grandparents’ house, and then went on down a gravel road behind their place, leading to ours.  That meant that as a little girl hopping off the school bus at the bottom of the hill, my first destination was my grandmother’s – with her offerings of ice cream and late afternoon television shows – and that as a young career woman, my first stop was my grandmother’s, often to drink a glass of lemonade on her brick terrace and tell her about my life – and that as a young mother I drove to my grandmother’s before anyplace else in southwestern Ohio, so that my children could tumble out of the van into the same warmth and love that I had always known there

And you know what was wonderful about my grandmother’s welcomes?

That she always had time.  Always – time for each of us.

My grandmother lived in an era in which homemaking was considered an art – and so she baked bread, and canned tomato juice, and cooked wholesome dinners from scratch each night, and was an expert knitter and intent student of nature – but she always had time to put everything down and turn her attention to us.  She was not the least bit intrusive – there were always treats and games available, but she also left us to our own devices when we preferred that, and was always willing to listen to whatever we had to share.

Welcome welcome welcome.  How was school?  How’s your dog?  Tell me about the new Beatles album.  I have something to show you!  Welcome!

Isn’t the welcome of baptism something like my grandmother’s welcome?

Here you are!  Welcome to the church!  Welcome to a community in which you may grow and be nurtured!

Welcome to that for which you thirst and perhaps do not even know it.  Welcome into the presence of the God who loves you!

Baptism is something we call a sacrament.  Sacraments – and in the Presbyterian Church, the sacraments we celebrate are baptism and communion, the Lord’s Supper – are those rituals which we particularly acknowledge to be signs of God’s grace, of God’s gift of love in our lives.   Sacraments are gifts of God to us in response to our thirst for an experience of the holy, our thirst for moments in which we know that God is present to us in the community of faith. The water of baptism is a sign, a symbol, of God’s love for us. For all of us.

John Calvin, that early Protestant reformer whose ideas and writings and leadership set much of the foundation for our church, tells us that God gives us concrete, tangible signs and symbols of God’s love for us because we need them.  We are bodily creatures, not creatures of air, or of intangible spirit – we are solid creatures of a solid earthly world – and we require solid, palpable, material symbols by which to understand who we are and what we are about.

Water throughout the Bible, is a symbol of God’s deep love all of creation, and for us; of God’s covenant: God’s promise, to care for us, to protect us, and to make it possible for us to flourish; and of God’s Spirit, who encourages and enliven us.

Last week, we pondered the waters of creation – the waters of the deep, the waters of chaos, out of which God creates – everything.  Through those roiling, turbulent waters, God gave birth to the entire world.

In our first reading today, God is tending to God’s people, the Israelites, who have escaped slavery in Egypt only to find themselves wandering in the desert.  They are literally parched, expecting to die of thirst n the hot, dry desert, trapped in an inhospitable environment far from the homes they have known.  So miserable are they that they turn their anger on Moses, their leader, and threaten to kill him.  And in response, God tells Moses to take his staff and strike the rock, and water for the people will pour from the rock.

The people need water, actual water, in response to their physical thirst –but they also need material evidence of God’s care for them.  They are so lost, so disoriented, so frightened – and the water they receive in such a surprising way becomes a symbol for them that God is with them, a symbol of God’s care and promises remembered to this day.

For Jesus, baptized in the Jordan River in today’s gospel reading, the water is an even more profound symbol: a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of identity.

Jesus comes to the Jordan River to be baptize like any other Jew of his time and place, to engage in this ritual of cleansing conducted by his cousin, John the Baptist.  John is surprised to see him – because John knows that Jesus is not like any other person of his time and place – but Jesus is insistent that he should engage in the ritual common to all.  And thus he makes common to all in baptism what happens to him in baptism: the Spirit of God alights upon him and the voice of God identifies him: “This is my Son, the beloved.”

What a welcome! And what a welcome available to all of us through baptism.  This welcome goes well beyond lemonade on the terrace, and even beyond nurture and promise in the desert.  This welcome to Jesus splashes over all of us, and tells us that we, too, are people in whom God’s Spirit dwells, and that we, too, are beloved.

Water in Biblical interactions is not merely about refreshment, or even hospitality.  Water is about identity.

When the little princess is baptized, much will be made of her names – Charlotte Elizabeth Diana – and how they reflect her identity in the line and heritage of the royal family.  We do much the same, don’t we – if we have children, we choose names for them that are of significance to ourselves and our families, and hope that those names will come to bear meaning for the tiny babies who will grow into them.  But those names, however beautiful and meaningful – those names are not nearly as marvelous as the name and identity given us in baptism: Beloved.  Those names, however much they symbolize family history and parental dreams, do not completely reflect the sign and symbol of the water of baptism: God’s beloved.  Welcome, beloved one, into God’s community.

Welcome to a love that precedes you, a love that surrounds you, a love that is not dependent upon you or on your gifts or achievements — a love that flows from God’s spirit just as the water flows from the Jordan or from the baptismal font.

Welcome to a love that will always have time for you.   Welcome to a love in which you will flourish.  Amen.

 

Image: Baptismal Font, Boulevard Presbyterian Church, Euclid OH

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