1 Epiphany 2017: When the wilderness is a promise land, and the promise land a wilderness

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Water is never just about chemistry
any more than Rivers are only about geography.

To name a river
is to evoke memory and meaning
beyond its banks.
The Potomac is the nation’s capital.
The Delaware is the nation’s bold, imaginative bravery,
as when Washington crossed it.

The Niagara is power and majesty,
and cantankerous fights
about New York City stealing cheep power from Upstate.

Where I come from there are two rivers of note:
The Ohio and The Wabash.
The Ohio is bigger, longer,
and more important in history and commerce.
But to Hoosiers the Wabash is lyrical:
taught in poetry, paintings and song,
and somehow made to symbolize our very identity
even if on the other side of the state.

I’m sure you know this poem about a river.

I’ve known rivers:

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers.
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

That is Langston Hughes,
who wrote “I’ve Known Rivers”
when he was 19 years old,
and it later became the vehicle of his fame.
As the story goes, he wrote it
while traveling from his home
somewhere on this side of the Mississippi River,
and going to California,
which lies on the other side of the river.
Hughes saw the Mississippi from a train
late one afternoon
as the sun set golden on its muddy surface.
But it was not just a river to Hughes;
it was not just water and shipping lanes.
Langston Hughes knew that the Mississippi
was the North Star for slaves escaping the South.
The Big Muddy was the history of his people
as they risked freedom,
and grasped hope.

He remembered too,
that Abe Lincoln had taken the Mississippi
down to New Orleans as a boy,
and while there
the future great-man
saw with blood-shot eyes,
people bought and sold like molasses
or a barrel of nails.
He saw people whipped like dogs,
and heard people kicked as if they were nothing,
and smelled the acrid scent of human suffering.

Abraham Lincoln never forgot
what he saw and heard and smelled.
But it wasn’t just data
stored in a dark crease in his head
only to be lost one night on the floor of Ford’s Theater.
It was a ghost working on him like tanning acid,
eating away at his soul.
Mr. Lincoln would later tell folks
about that memory
and how it changed him.
And Hughes remembered
that it was the Big Muddy that took Abe there,
just like it took his people away from there.

That is how a river is never just a river.

The Jordan River,
that sometimes trickle snaking through the desert
and still there today –
as when Jesus walked,
as when Isaiah prophesied,
as when Moses died –
is not just another river either.

The Jordan River
has bordered time and hope for generations,
not merely a geographical feature
forming boundaries with its banks.

The Jordan was the boundary
between the Wilderness and the Promise Land;
between home and exile;
between the people of the Covenant and everyone else.
If we know the history of Israel
then we know that every important historical transition
took place with a crossing of the Jordan River
from one direction or the other.

After 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai,
Joshua leads the escaped slaves across the Jordan
into the Promised Land.

Five hundred years later,
the Babylonians haul Israel en mass
back across the Jordan into exile,
where they become slaves again.

Two hundred years after that,
the King of Persian, Cyrus by name,
allows the people of Israel to return,
and crossing back over the Jordan
to even rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Each time the Jordan is a line of demarcation,
the border between home and homelessness.

If we don’t know the Jordan
is more than a river when we read the Gospel stories,
then we won’t know
what’s going on in the stories about John the Baptist
and Jesus at the Jordan River.

John the Baptist did not just happen to be there
as a matter of coincidence,
cleansing people at the Jordan River.
John was the first in a sixty-year series
of wild, cult personalities
who knew the meaning of the Jordan River
and used it
to communicate a subversive,
revolutionary message
against the Temple authorities
and Rome.

Here is how it worked according to John Dominic Crossan.

A revolutionary, like John,
would call peasants out into The Wilderness,
to a place on the far side of the Jordan.
Gathered by the thousands on the Wilderness side,
they would ritually cross over in an act of hope –
that somehow by re-enacting the transition
from Moses-in-the-Wilderness
the ritual itself
would set in motion divine action,
that in turn would lead
to the destruction of the Roman Empire
just as Babylon had fallen.

In the minds of the people,
the events of their history
gave the Jordan River that kind of power.

We have known such rivers.
Our souls have grown deep like the rivers…

You and I have crossed many rivers in our lives,
and we have rivers to cross still.

Childhood to adolescence
is a river we cross.
Adolescence to adulthood
is a river we cross.
Life in partnership with another,
through marriage or some other form of commitment,
is a river crossing.
Divorce is a crossing.
Parents cross rivers with their children
as they grow and develop;
and then those same children cross another
with their parents,
as we age and travel toward death.

Death is a river we will all cross sooner or later.
We have all known rivers
and our souls grow deep like rivers…

It is these river crossings that deepen us,
or conversely,
by not crossing rivers we should have forded,
we become hard and shallow.

It is important for us to remember
that the Wilderness does not always lead to misery,
and the Promise Land does not always lead to joy;
and so we do not want to get stuck permanently
on one side or the other.

For example,
leaving the Wilderness for the Promise Land
may sound wonderful
but it also means giving up a way of life
we have known and that has become familiar.

Some people prefer to stay in the Wilderness
where they can complain about their suffering
and harp on their problems
instead of moving on into new life –
wounds, scars, and all.

The Wilderness of our problems
can become as safe and familiar as an old shoe,
and to venture into a new way of being
may seem scarier than it’s worth.

Likewise, we may find ourselves in the Promise Land
and begin to suspect
life or God is leading us back into the Wilderness.

Most of the time we probably cross our arms
and refuse to go.
I mean, when we are fat and sassy,
living the good life and pretty secure,
there is no way we are going camping again
and sleep on the hard ground if we don’t have to.

But hold on,
because here is where our ancient narrative,
our holy story,
pokes us in the eye.
The history of Israel,
the history of Christianity,
this entire story we tell and re-tell,
is all about going back and forth over that dang river.

The Wilderness is as much a part of our story
as is the Promised Land.
Nothing lasts forever,
and for whatever the reason,
our story is about both Wilderness
and Promise Land.

And in fact, the juiciest, best endings,
and most insightful moments,
often come from those times of camping out
in the wilderness.

I do not mean to romanticize here,
because I don’t enjoy dwelling in wilderness moments
any more than you do.
Heck, most of the time
I don’t even like remembering them.
But truth be told,
most of what I know that gives me hope;
most of what I know that leads me to the light,
most of what I know that whispers to me of God;

I learned in the Wilderness.

Sometimes we forget that what we cherish
as we live our lives in the goodness of the Promise Land,
was sown or grew from out of our sojourns
in the Wilderness.

And right there
is a poignant and powerful paradox.
We usually refer to our time in the Wilderness
as a sojourn – by which we mean, temporary.

And we talk about our time in the Promise Land
as if it were our permanent address,
where we expect to live out our entire lives.
But maybe that is not the way it is supposed to be at all?

I think that is what Baptism is all about.
Even though we do our baptisms in a dried up
little watering hole,
instead of in a running flow of abundant water,
Baptism is still always submersion in the Jordan –submersion in the river that deepens us.

Our baptism,
yours and mine,
is about the commitment to equip one another
with whatever it takes to live faithfully,
to live courageously,
to live resiliently,
on either side of the river.
It is about crossing from self-centeredness
to God-centeredness,
from individualism to communalism,
from Us-ism to We-ism.

You know as well as I do
all the crossings we must make in this life,
I’m not telling you anything you haven’t already lived.

But when we think about Baptism,
instead of thinking about it
in the dead language of Salvation,
in which we are supposed to worry about
heaven and hell,
I urge us to think about our baptism
in the ancient but lively language of Rivers –
about crossings
and deepening
and even revolutionary activity.

In the river of Baptism we ask:
What do we need from one another?
What do we need from God?
What do we need to give to others,
in order for us all to get across the Jordan –
whether this time we are crossing into Wilderness
or away from wilderness into promise?

Whether we are moving into the Promised Land
or back again into the Wilderness,
what do we need for the crossing
and are we committed to providing it for one another?
As a people here gathered,
as a community of households and friends,
as a global community of strangers,
baptism is about equipping one another
for the crossings we must make
in order that we deepen like the rivers
instead of drying up shallow and hard.

We have known rivers:

We have known rivers ancient
as the world and older than the flow of human blood
in human veins.

Our souls have grown deep like the rivers…

Let us help one another cross our rivers, and,
when we can,
cross them together.