Christ of the River

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 “Christ of the River”

A reflection onMatthew 3:13-17 for the Season of Creation

July 21, 2019

Did you ever have a place on earth that your soul loved? Maybe a mountaintop or a forest, or the shore of a lake? The kind of place where, when you are there, your body and soul remember that you are connected to God, and to every living thing in the whole world? The kind of place where you remember who you really are, and whose you really are?

I wonder if you can remember, right now, what it feels like to be in that place. I invite you to hold onto that feeling as I share a story with you…

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a little boy who loved a river. His name was John. Maybe you’ve heard of him. From the time John was a little boy, he loved two things in this world above all else:  he loved God, and he loved the river that ran through the wilderness just outside his village. Whenever John stepped into that river, he knew that the river was God’s own life flowing through the body of the world, bringing life to every creature. When John stepped into the river, he remembered that all life on earth is connected and nourished by the rivers of the world, and that everything those rivers touch is precious, and sacred, to God. That’s what John remembered every time he stepped into the river.

Well, as you probably know, when you find the place on earth your soul loves best, it can be very hard to leave. Every night at dinner time, John’s mom had to walk all the way down to the river to bring him home before it got dark. And every night, as they walked home, John said to his mom, “When I grow up, I’m never going to leave the river.” “But where will you sleep?” asked his mother. “I will sleep outside, under the stars,” said John. “And I’ll listen to the song of the river all night long.” His just mother smiled. She knew that when he grew up, John would want to live in a house in the village, just like everyone else.

But she was wrong! Because John was watching. He saw what happened to people who lived in the village, and in the big city, too. He saw how people built houses with roofs and forgot all about the stars. He saw how people cut down too many trees to build their cities, forgetting that trees are also sacred to God. John saw how people dumped their trash in the streams that ran to the river, because they forgot that the streams of the earth carry the life of God through the world. John saw that when people live in a city, it’s easy to forget that God is right here with us  in the body of the world. John saw that in the city, it’s easy for people to forget that our lives are connected to the lives of the animals and plants. “In the city,” John said, “It’s too easy to forget the ways of God. But I will not forget. I will live beside the river!” 

And so it was that as soon as John was old enough to leave home, he kissed his parents goodbye and set off for the wilderness, where he slept out under the stars and listened to the song of God’s river all night long. Some people say that John ate locusts for dinner and wild honey for dessert. And the people back in the village and in the big city knew about John, and they were glad to know that he was out there in the wilderness. Because the people in the village and in the city, so far away from the river, got lonely for God. They forgot who they were and whose they were. 

So do you know what they did? Can you guess? Whenever the people forgot who they really were, they walked out into the wilderness, all the way to the river. Then they asked John to baptize them: to dunk them in the river and wash away their tired city dreams. They wanted the river of God’s love to flow over them, so that they would feel connected again to God, and to the earth, and to all the other creatures God loves so much.

John dunked a lot of people in the river. So many that he came to be known as John the Baptizer: John, who helps people remember the river of God’s love. John, who helps people return to the ways of God. 

Maybe you’ve heard of John the Baptist. Maybe you’ve even heard that John the Baptist had a cousin who was just a few months younger than John. Anybody know who John’s little cousin was? 

One day, John was out there baptizing people in the wild river of God’s love, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone walking toward him from the village. John hadn’t seen his cousin in many years, but right away, he knew it was Jesus.

“Jesus!” said John. “What’s up?”

And Jesus said, “John, I want you to baptize me.”

“But why?” asked John. “I know you haven’t forgotten the ways of God.”

“I haven’t forgotten the ways of God,” said Jesus. “But so many people have! I’m pretty sure God wants me to leave my home and travel far and tell everyone that everything is connected—the rivers and the lakes and the trees and the people—all one body on earth, and that God loves all of it, every leaf and wing and heart, no exceptions. 

“If I’m going to tell people this story,” Jesus said, “I need to take the spirit of the river with me.”

So John baptized Jesus. And when Jesus came up out of the water, he was dripping with the river of God’s love. He came up with the soft river sand between his toes. He came up covered with the kisses of fishes. And Jesus knew for sure that he belonged to God, and that the river of God’s love was going to carry him into the world.

Which is a very good thing to know when you’re about to go out and do the work God is calling you to do in the world. That’s why, just like Jesus, we get baptized, too! When we get baptized, we come up dripping with the waters of our rivers, with the waters of the ocean. When get baptized, we say to each other, out loud, that just like Jesus, we also belong to the God of all creation,  and that it’s our job to make sure that the rivers, and the lakes, and the oceans, and all the waters of the world are safe, and clean. Because the waters of earth are for the life of the world, and that life—every bit of it—is sacred to God.

I wonder if you can picture Jesus in your mind, the way he might have looked when he came up out of the river, dripping with that chilly water, dripping with the rushing current of God’s own life. 

“Look,” says Jesus. “I know the wild places of the world are in big trouble. I know it sounds like the mess is too big to fix. I know,” Jesus says, “that there’s a river running through Salem, Oregon, whose fish are filled with PCB’s. I know there’s an island of trash the size of Texas floating around the Pacific Ocean.

“But this is our moment!” says Jesus as he stands there, dripping. “We were baptized for times like this; you and I were baptized in the river of God’s grace. We were made for this!” Jesus says. “Follow me!”

Then Jesus takes off, still dripping with the grace of God, dripping with the life of God’s holy river, and he’s headed for the Willamette River where the steelhead and the Chinook used to run by the tens of thousands. He’s headed for Lake Albert drying up in a cloud of dust. “I’ll meet you there!” Jesus says. “Together, we’ll stand up for every river and lake and sea. Together, we’ll walk through the body of the world dripping with blessing, dripping with healing. Together, we’ll stand up for all the wild places, in the name of the God who made them; in the name of the God who baptized us in the holy waters of the world.”

Beloved, this is Jesus’ call to us. This is John’s call to us, at this moment in history, as we follow Jesus into the sacred wilderness of all creation this season. And I wonder…what part of this broken, beautiful world is yours to love? What wild place needs your voice, your healing, your passion, and your care? Is it a place your soul loves? A place your family loves? I invite you to picture that place in your mind now. See if you can hear what it is God needs from you; what God might need you to do to save this holy place, and all the holy, wild places of the world? I invite you to make that promise now, in your heart. And when you’re ready, find a friend nearby, maybe someone you didn’t come to church with. Tell them what place is sacred to you, and what promise you are making this morning. I’ll give you a minute to find each other.

Friends, here’s the good news. The world is calling, and we do not make the journey alone. The Christ of God goes with us. The Christ of the River goes with us, dripping with the blessing, and healing, and joy that are the gifts we bring to the world. God’s wild Holy Spirit is hovering above the river even now, calling us. Let’s sing. A song for the journey ahead…

 

The Voice of the Spirit

A Reflection on Acts 2:1-21 for the Season of Pentecostpentecostposter

We are making our way through this beautiful season of Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit arrives to live among us. Last week, we talked about all the different ways people have imagined the Holy Spirit, and also what it might feel like — in our bodies, in our minds — when that beautiful, wild Spirit is at work.

This morning, I’d like to talk about another way we can recognize the Holy Spirit’s arrival: the urge to find your voice.

We can see this happening right here at the start of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit swoops into the room and Peter, suddenly finding his courage and his voice, stands up and quotes from the Hebrew prophet Joel: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” This is a pretty accurate description of what it means to be a prophet, of course: to listen for what the Holy Spirit is whispering in your ear, and then then to find the courage to use your voice to speak the Spirit’s words, speaking out on behalf of God’s dream of justice, God’s dream of healing, for all creation.

In the church, we like to call this an act of prophetic witness. This is what we ourselves do when we give voice to the voiceless, and it is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit arrives, says the prophet Joel, ordinary people just like us — old people, young people, women and men and nonbinary — become prophets. We use our own voice to speak a vision of God’s future into the world.

Now, if you’ve looked at the Bible, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s not easy to be a prophet. It takes courage to use your voice on behalf of those who have been silenced. Sometimes, we call this coming out: using our voices to come out on behalf of the marginalized. Standing up for those whose voices have traditionally been excluded from our communal conversation.

A few weeks ago, I went to a remarkable and beautiful house concert. I was going to say that I got invited to the concert, but if I’m honest, I might have to admit that I invited myself.  I knew that Zanne D’Anna had been working really hard on a whole bunch of songs, and I wanted to show up and support her. What I thought was that Zanne and her friend Deanne were taking the courageous step of standing up and singing, solo, in front of all their friends. Talk about coming out! But then the concert began. And I realized that while this was certainly a moment of personal courage and growth for both Zanne and Deanne, it was also something much more. This concert was an act of prophetic witness. Most of the songs that Zanne and Deanne had chosen were songs that give voice to those who have traditionally been silenced. They sang a whole set of brilliant music by the hilarious queer composer Paul James Frantz. Then, they sang song after beautiful song giving voice to the most vulnerable among us: schoolchildren…the devoted teachers of those schoolchildren…a rapidly warming planet…the creatures on this planet who are hanging on for dear life. It was a stunning gift to hear these voices in song! This wasn’t simply vocal performance for the sake of finding one’s own voice — though that is certainly reason enough to sing. This was vocal performance for the sake of justice, and healing, and compassion. I’m here to tell you that Zanne and Deanne were singing for all our lives: for the vulnerable, precious gift of life itself, and for the lives of those who have no vote and no voice. Talk about prophetic witness. This, friends, is what it means to let the Holy Spirit fill you. This is what it means to stand up and use your God-given voice.

And I wonder: How is the Holy Spirit calling to you to use your own voice? On whose behalf are you being called this season to speak up and speak out?

This month–the month of June, which is Gay Pride month all over the world–I’ve been listening for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. In particular, I’ve been listening for the call of this rainbow-carrying Holy Spirit who flies over our chancel all year long. And what she’s been whispering to me this month is that I need to use my own voice to ask what it means for us to be an Open and Affirming Church today, and what that ONA commitment requires of us in this particular time and place.

That Holy Spirit has been telling me that as the new pastor of what I believe to be the oldest Open-and-Affirming church in Salem, I need to use my voice to ask why the city of Salem does not celebrate Gay Pride in June. Why is it that folks in Salem think it’s okay to move Gay Pride to August? Gay Pride is not a moveable feast. It’s not just a party in the park that we can schedule any time it’s convenient.

Can you imagine anyone suggesting that we move the 4th of July to a more convenient day? It would never happen, because the 4th of July commemorates a specific date in history: the date that our nation’s Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Friends, Gay Pride takes place in June because it, too, commemorates a very specific date in our nation’s history: June 28th, 1969, when gay, lesbian, and transgender people took to the streets of Greenwich Village to fight for their rights, their freedom, and their lives in what has come to be known as the Stonewall Uprising. The Stonewall Inn was a haven for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. As one historian put it last week, Stonewall was the only place you could go if you were too young, too poor, or too different to fit in anywhere else. And that haven was routinely raided by police, its patrons beaten and harassed, simply because they were too young, too poor, or too gay. Until the night of June 28, 1969 when the marginalized found their voice and risked their lives by taking to the streets in protest.

Friends, this is why we have a Gay Pride movement today, This is why we are an Open and Affirming church today. And this is why in every other city, we take to the streets together in the month of June, not just for a party, but for a parade. We close off the streets and have a parade to honor the street protests of 1969. How is it that Salem, Oregon has turned Gay Pride into a picnic by moving it to August and eliminating the parade? For queer folk in 1969, we know that life was no picnic. And I believe we dishonor their sacrifice and silence their voices by canceling the parade and having our celebration in August. The Holy Spirit is whispering to me that it’s my job to use my own voice this year to see if Salem can do better. And you’re invited to join me.

But that’s not all. That rainbow-carrying bird has been chatty lately, and she’s whispering to me that I need to ask you something. Beloved, I know it matters to you that you are an Open and Affirming church. I hear how proud you are of your longtime ONA commitment. What I don’t understand is why anyone walking or biking or driving through our neighborhood could easily think that St. Mark Lutheran Church, which has a rainbow symbol on its sign, is Open and Affirming, while First Congregational Church, which has no such symbol anywhere on its building or sign, is not. Why is it that there is no visible sign on our property flagging us as a safe space for LGBT folks? Is it because we have taken this safe space for granted? Have we forgotten that LGBT youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers? Have we forgotten that right here in Salem, LGBT folk of all ages need to be able find us? LGBT youth, in particular, are often not safe at home. They are often not safe at school. There are youth and adults in our community who would never think to go looking for a safe church online, because they have no idea that we exist. LGBT youth and adults need to see a rainbow on our church sign, or a flag hanging from our building–or both!–to know that this is a safe place for them. To know that we are a safe community for them.

The work of becoming Open and Affirming does not stop when a church takes a vote. Just as the work of bearing God’s extravagant love to the world didn’t stop when Peter found his voice that day in Jerusalem long ago.The disciples found their voice and came out that long-ago Pentecost day, and ever since, the church has struggled to continue hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit and to continue answering her call — to keep asking how we ourselves are called, in this time and place, to be a voice for the most vulnerable among us. This is what we mean when we say that God is Still Speaking. And so are we. Thanks be to God.