Sunday, June 29, 2014

No Taming This River

(Preached at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds of Des Plaines, June 29, 2014.)

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,I the Lord will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys;I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together,so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand,that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

-         Isaiah 41:17-20

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and God’s servants will worship God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
-         Revelation 22:1-5

These passages—the one from Isaiah 41 and the other from Revelation 22—are pretty special to me. They were both read at my wedding, which occurred only four weeks ago. I know, I know—not traditional wedding scriptures. No 1 Corinthians 13 of “love is patient/love is kind” fame or 1 John 4, which declares that God is love. It’s not even the wedding at Cana, which is recounted in the beginning of the gospel of John, but that one would have been weird at my completely dry wedding. Nope. My wife, Kacie, and I chose some prophecy for our wedding.
The Susquehanna River in the background
of the Fort Hunter lawn where Kacie and I
were married. (Photo credit Doug Austin)
Ok, so we didn’t really choose these passages for their prophetic prowess, though it’s pretty cool, too. We figured out our wedding scripture by looking around us when we did our site visit at a country park called Fort Hunter, just north of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. See, we got married on the lawn between the old Victorian mansion of the park and the Susquehanna River. It was the river that inspired us. I grew up beside that river—the mighty Susquehanna, which divides the state of Pennsylvania between east and west (and Eagles and Steelers, if you follow football) and upon which no boat bigger than a flat-bottom motor boat can travel. It starts somewhere up in the hills of New York and then cuts through the Northern Tier and coal country, going past my little one-traffic light hometown (which is one more traffic light that it had when I was living there), surrounding the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which nearly blew up in the late 1970’s, and finally empties into the Chesapeake Bay down by Annapolis, Maryland. It’s a beautiful river, even if it’s not particularly useful for shipping like the rivers of the Midwest. It also passes Lewisburg, the town where my overeager Methodists in central PA like to think Robert Lowry wrote the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River”—he did have a house there after all. Too bad Lowry was Baptist  and actually wrote the song with different lyrics about a church in Brooklyn. It’s nice story, though, and it’s a nice river, too.
But I’ve seen the Susquehanna show its untamed side, too. In 1996 after hard winter with a blizzard or two, the high river and its ice took down a span of the Walnut Street Bridge in Harrisburg. In my senior year of high school the remnant of an Atlantic hurricane whipped up the river until there was 6 feet of water in the square of my hometown. I recall folks fishing there, where cars usually parked to pick up their pizza at Zeiderelli’s, though I hope they didn’t eat whatever they caught, considering the sewage treatment plant was less than a hundred yards away. Then again, maybe that’s why Zeiderelli’s had a limited-time-only small-mouth bass pizza that autumn. Hmm…
There’s no taming rivers, really. There’s always been that tension about rivers, and water in general. Get too much, you’re knockin’ on Noah’s door. Get too little, you join Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Of course, all the great civilizations of the ancient world—the ones that started building their cities 20,000 years ago—were by great river systems. Egypt had the Nile. The Chinese had the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Mesopotamia in the Middle East was the land “between the rivers.” The rivers brought not only the water which no human can live without but also the rich silt of dirt that accumulated as it flowed inexorably down-hill. In fact, many of these civilizations were successful at early agriculture because their rivers regularly flooded and renewed the soil with its floodwaters. Maybe that is to say that untamed flooding isn’t all bad.
However I know that you all have a pretty tense relationship with your river, too. You already know that there’s no taming this river. The mighty Des Plaines River has left its mark on your little civilization here at the Historic Methodist Campgrounds. I remember when I first came here last summer. The mud was mostly dry, but it was still visible in the grass and on many of the cottages. I understand many of you have been in the process of putting your cottages on stilts, and I understand that some of you didn’t make those stilts high enough for those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters. I understand that these floods were supposed to be hundred-year floods, and they occurred twice in 5 years. Still, let’s praise God that we can meet in this tabernacle of the Lord without floating around in anchored dinghies. I’m confident that God would meet us nonetheless, but I’m glad that God has kept the ground here dry, at least for today.
What do we make of these untamed floods? How do we understand these watermarks five feet above where we stand or sit now? And if God is the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omni-benelovent God that some our doctrine declares God to be (hope you don’t mind me getting theological in here), what does it mean that God doesn’t tame these floods? My seminary professors say that these are issues of theodicy, coming from the Greek theo, which means God, and diche, which means justice. So we are treading in the untamed waters of God’s justice now, and the water looks as murky as the Des Plaines river floodwaters.
Pat Robertson, that sage of the 700 Club who told New Orleans and Haiti that their natural disasters were because of their deals with the devil, might say that these floodwaters are sent directly from God to punish unrepentant sinners. Then again, Pat Robertson also recently said that tattoos were worthy only of heathen. If Pat Robertson is consistently right, then you have word of God coming to you from a heathen today. Well, I was taught to respect my elders, but I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology. I don’t respect Pat Robertson’s theology because, as some of my African American colleagues would say, the Lord God Almighty is no respecter of persons. That is, God will work good things in us and through us flawed humans despite our sin. That is, God will take the weakest parts and honor them the most. That is, God will redeem even the greatest sinners, like maybe some Roman soldiers whose job it was to crucify uppity Palestinian Jews, and transform their most terrible instrument of humiliation and death, like maybe some old rugged cross from the reign of Emperor Tiberius, and make the most glorious symbol of victory, justification, and grace in the history of creation. Let’s give God some praise for God’s untamed river of redeeming grace!
Now I love praising God. It’s one of my most favorite things to do, whether it’s an old Charles Wesley hymn like “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, or it’s an African American spiritual like “Go Down Moses”, or it’s some praise chorus fresh off the pen of David Crowder. Coming together to praise God is so good, we can rise up from these murky floodwaters into that third heaven that Paul visited long ago. I’ve heard experiences like that called “mountaintop” or “burning bush” moments, and if you haven’t experienced one yet, I pray that you will, because it is so good. Fresher than the freshest spring, sweeter than the sweetest honey, warmer than the warmest sunlight. Hallelujah!
Here’s the thing: we don’t spend all our lives in the third heaven. In fact, we’re really, really lucky if we get to spend even one nanosecond up there. No, dear friends, we spend nearly all of our earthly time here on earth, often stuck in the mud or trapped in floodwaters. So, to repeat an earlier question, where’s God’s justice in the floodwaters of this untamed river?
Let me drop a bomb on you now that sends a shockwave more powerful than any thermonuclear warhead our military or any other military can hope to build. God’s justice is not our justice. You might be shell-shocked now, so let me repeat that. God’s justice is not our justice. Just to make sure it’s getting through that Lake Michigan fog, say it with me: “God’s justice is not our justice.” No! It’s not! And let’s praise God for that! God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s justice is not our justice. God doesn’t throw away black and brown and poor folks into jail for profit or for election-day boasting. God doesn’t sentence minors to a lifetime of prison rot. God doesn’t execute folks whose innocence would be proven with just a little more effort. No, dear friends, God’s justice is not our justice, praise God! Hallelujah!
See, dear friends, God’s justice does actually flood us. God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Yes! Maybe God’s justice really is in those untamed Des Plaines River floodwaters, just not the way Pat Robertson thinks. See, God doesn’t want us to suffer, and God doesn’t make us suffer. Why would God want to do that when we humans are so good at making our own sinful selves suffer? No, God’s not in the suffering business, but God IS in the redemption business and the repentance business.
When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ started his ministry in northern Palestine 2,000 years ago, he said, “Repent! For the reign of God has come near.” That word for repent is the Greek metanoia, which more precisely translated means to “re-orient” or “re-center”. It’s like when we’re caught in water over our heads, and we get off course. When I was in Boy Scouts, we always started summer camp with a swim test. I was always finished the test strongly, but I was always swimming off course for whatever reason. I always felt bad for the Boy Scout swimming next to me because he was in danger of me strongly swimming directly into him. I needed somebody to “re-orient” me so I could finish the test. I needed to repent of my wrong course so I could get to the place where I needed to go. That’s what repentance is about.
Dear friends, maybe the floor under our feet is dry today, but let’s confess that we are awash in the floodwaters of sin. We need to repent. Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots which took place in West Greenwich Village of New York City, and today a million people are gathering on the North Side of Chicago for what is known as the Pride Parade. Maybe you don’t like some things that are part of the Pride Parade, but you probably don’t like some things in the Bible, too. If you think that you do like everything in the Bible, then I challenge you to read the Bible more closely. Then I challenge to check out Pride again. Because the men and women of Pride know some stuff about repentance. They know what it’s like to repent of the isolation and shame and endless bullying that they suffered for years. The real question is when will the rest of us repent of our idolatry of the white, heterosexual man who has the body of an underwear model and the bank account of a hedge fund manager. When we repent of our sinful idolatries and truly worship God the way God calls us to—that is, by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God—then maybe we too can celebrate the new heavens and new earth that God has prepared for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
So even when we are in the midst of murky floodwaters, let us praise God for justice that cuts through the clouds like a ray of sunshine. Let us praise God for throwing us a life preserver was the river rages around us. And let us even praise God for that lovely untamed river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing untamed from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of North Halsted Street in the city of Chicago. On either side of this untamed river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, but especially at the end of each June; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations, but especially for these United States of America. Nothing accursed will be found there in Chicago any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in Chicago, and God’s servants will worship our most gracious and loving God; they will see God’s face, and God’s name, “I am what I am,” will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night where innocent people get beaten up just for being who they are; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

May it be so. Amen.