27 January 2013

Building the Body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ January 27, 2013

“Now you are the body of Christ,” wrote Paul, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).   “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).  Many members, one body.  One body, many members. 

We should all be grateful (I know I am) that Paul came up with such a beautiful, organic, living and dynamic metaphor for the Church of Jesus Christ.  When you consider the church, here’s an image for you.  Play with it, indwell it, and allow it to shape your understanding of what the community of Christ is like. We’re like a body.  Not a machine.  Not a building.  Not an institution.  Not a business.  A body.  Not some day, not when we get our act together, not when we’re one hundred percent faithful will we become a body.  Just the opposite, really:  you are, now, the body of Christ, by virtue of your baptism into Christ. We’re a breathing, living body engaging the world and embodying God’s grace in the world, continuing the mission of God in Christ.

So remember you who are Corinthians, act, live, breathe like a body.  Care for the body.  Love the body. Really live in your body. Treat the body with the respect it deserves and all its members – all – with the honor they deserve.  That’s what Paul is getting at here.  He see’s the church in Corinth as a whole, already possessing a unity found in the “one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:13), and because this sense of the Spirit is informing how he sees all the members of the church, he invites them to do the same.  Claim who you already are and live from it, he says.  See the unity, the one-ness of the community.  See the way all the members are essential.  All the members are connected, like every member of a body.  “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12: 26). 

If we keep on reading, chapter twelve pours over into chapter thirteen, which is the great “love chapter” of Corinthians.  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (1 Cor. 13:1-8a).

Chapter 13 is often read alone, but these two chapters, 12 and 13, are really one piece; they really need to be read together by the church, by the body of Christ, together embodied by the Church.  And Paul writes to the Corinthians in this way, as a pastor, because they’ve forgotten who they are; they’ve ignored their unity and the lack of love tears the body of Christ apart.  Without love, the members of the body go off on their own, doing their own thing, with their own agendas.  Without love all becomes fragmented.  Without love, one member thinks it’s better than the other, instead of seeing how each member is connected to every other member. 

Last week in adult education we read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1929-1968), “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  At the beginning of the letter, it’s as if King is channeling Paul, learning from Paul; King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects us all indirectly.”  Now it might be idealistic to think the entire world or even a nation will live this way, but it’s not idealistic to suggest that this is the way the church can live when it knows it’s the body of Christ – and Christ, as Paul said, is not divided (see 1 Cor. 1:13).

But First Church, Corinth was a terribly divided church, painfully so.  It troubled Paul.  You can tell how much it weighed on him by the length of the letter; there were many concerns to address.  There was a considerable attitude problem there and some members needed an attitude adjustment.  They were the spiritual elite, the pneumatikoi Paul calls them, members who thought they were more spiritually gifted than others, “super Christians.”  It’s in this context that Paul writes, earlier in chapter 12, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).  You can also see now why the only gift that matters is love.

This brings us back to Paul’s use of the body metaphor – and the centrality of love, for all the members of the body matter. The Corinthians' church cannot experience mutuality and equality until something changes.  There are really two groups in tension here.  First, those with low self-estimation, who think of themselves as spiritually inadequate, ill-equipped because they are not like the others who claim to be spiritually elite, “super Christians.”  The ones with low self-estimation wish they were other than who they are.  But Paul wants to lift them up, to let them to know they are important and just as necessary to the life and health of the body as everyone else.  The second group is made up of those with a low estimation of others, who think they are above, better than the others, they’re puffed up in self-importance and look down on everyone.  Paul wants to knock them down a few pegs.  They must share in the honor and the suffering of all the members of the body.  Because that’s what love does, it bears all things,…endures all things.

The body metaphor allows Paul to make another important point: since there are many members and one body, since there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, varieties of ways to serve God, then the body of Christ should expect and even celebrate variety. Unity in Christ does not mean uniformity.  Difference can be accepted and embraced. This is where love comes in because love makes space for the other to exist, the one who is different from you.  The other doesn’t have to be like you or look like you or dress like you or have the same gifts as you or believe like you or serve Christ in the world like you.  Actually, difference is expected and it’s necessary in order for the body of Christ to be a true body and healthy.

And, as we all know, healthy bodies are important.  This is another reason why the church-as-body metaphor is so helpful because it helps us to focus on the things that matter and it strengthens our witness in the world.  In order for us to live, to thrive, we need healthy bodies. When our body isn’t healthy we’re limited.  As we know, healthy bodies require proper nutrition, exercise, rest, and purpose.  We know what happens to the body when our diet is made up of junk food, when we watch too much television on the sofa, when we are not challenged and stretched, when we are overworked, over-stressed  when life has lost direction and meaning.  Parallels can be made with the health of our faith and the health of the church.  Certain conditions are required to yield life both in our faith personally and together as a church; when these are lacking or ignored, then we suffer with a kind of “spiritual sickness.” There are a lot of people in the religious world trying to survive on a diet of junk food; and they’re making the church and the world very sick.  And there are a lot of unhealthy religious communities out there.

To be the body of Christ means, ultimately, that this body, the church, like one’s own individual body, does not belong to us.  The body belongs to Jesus Christ and by baptism into Christ we have been engrafted into it.  This means that the life of the members is dependent upon the life of the overall body, and the life of the overall body is none other than the life of Christ. “[W]e were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13), Paul says; Christ hydrates the body, as it were; and it is Christ who breathes through us, who gives us breath, breathing through us with the breath of his life, breathing one Spirit.

On Monday at the Inauguration there was one moment that really struck me.  It occurred listening to the inaugural poet Richard Blanco read his poem “One Today.”  He walked us through one day in American life, from his perspective, of course, assuming that perspective could be shared by all.  At one point in the poem he invited us to “Breathe.”  “The dust of farms and desert, cities and plains/ mingled by one wind – our breath.  Breathe.” As he read it he seemed to drag out the word “Breathe,” and then paused ever so slightly.  I was on the Mall watching it on one of the Jumbotrons (one that worked).  There was something about that moment hearing him say these words with the members of Congress and former presidents and other dignitaries behind him, surrounded by thousands on the Mall and millions watching at home, around the world, inviting all of us to acknowledge our breath, inviting us to “Breathe.”  It felt like Blanco was about to lead the world in a contemplative prayer or meditation exercise:  “Breathe.”  Breathe the breath that animates the world and brings us to life, the life that we share.

On this Sunday in worship before we gather for our Annual Congregational Meeting, consider the members of this body of Christ and Catonsville Presbyterian Church, a member of the worldwide body of Christ.  In the Annual Report you’ll find your pastors’ reflections of 2012. Please take the time to read the reports and reflections.  Dorothy Boulton and I sat down several weeks ago and took the pulse, as it were, of this body and came away with the reading:  steady and strong.  And we came away giving thanks for the ways Christ lives among us in this church and for the ways the Spirit is breathing through us. 

What we sense – and others have told us so – is that something is happening within us and among us.  The Spirit of Christ is breathing through us.  Some of the new members who joined this year told us that they sense something very different when they cross the thresholds of the sanctuary, something that pulls them in and speaks to them.  There is, at times, a palpable presence, a vital energy, a feeling that, we believe, is an expression of what the Holy Spirit is doing with us and through us.  This body is alive and it’s thriving in all ways.  And we are growing.  We are grateful for the new members who have joined this year, for their gifts and experiences that are already contributing to the health of this ministry.  Numerical growth is important.  But what we’re talking about and what matters most for a healthy body cannot be easily measured, but nevertheless are real. 

We see a people growing in faith and commitment to Christ, to one another, and to the world; growing in our capacity to extend and receive love.  There is a reaching down and a reaching out occurring – people growing in their understanding of the “breadth and length and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:18) of Christ’s love and then embodying that love here, at home, at work, around the world.  Yes, we have our challenges. Of course we do.  A major one will be paying for the repair of the Beechwood Avenue steps, which is coming.  Of course there are challenges, but God is always faithful; God has always been faithful to this congregation.  

From your pastors’ perspective, when we hear the challenges facing other congregations in the presbytery and across the denomination and in other denominations right here in town, when we read and hear stories of the struggles facing the church in other places in the United States, we have a lot for which to be thankful.  You need to know that it’s tough doing ministry in this age, it’s tough being the church these days when a growing number in our society see us see us as irrelevant and treat us with suspicion. There are churches struggling to keep their doors open and pay the bills; for many it’s extremely discouraging.  We as a congregation, as whole, have much for which to be thankful and hopeful. 

This is not to say that we’re perfect.  Sometimes we’re not all that loving; sometimes a thoughtless word is uttered here or there.  Not everyone who enters this sanctuary experiences God’s welcome. Some visit and never return.  Sometimes we don’t all agree.  In a church at any given time at least one person is upset with someone or something.  We can’t make everyone happy.  Actually, we’re not called to make everyone happy.  We’re called to be faithful.  There’s no such thing as a perfect church because there’s no such thing as a perfect person.  And the church, as we know, is not a building or an institution or a business, but a people. God has not called us to be perfect, but faithful.  And being faithful is a whole lot more fun than trying to be perfect!

Being faithful helps to build the body of Christ.  Being faithful means expanding our capacity to give and receive love. What Paul wrote to the Galatians applies to the Corinthians and applies to Catonsvillians too: “For in Christ…the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (Galatians 5:6).  …the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love.  And let us breathe.  Let us breathe the breath that animates our bodies and brings us to life for the sake of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the world.  May it be so.

24 January 2013

What God Joined Together

Isaiah 62: 1-5 & John 2:1-11

Third Sunday after Epiphany/ 20th January 2013

Now, that was a memorable wedding reception.  Cana in Galilee had never seen such a sight, then or probably since.  And just when the party was really getting going, the wine ran out.  As a guest, feeling the host’s embarrassment, Jesus’ mother turns to him and says, “Do something.”  She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”  And so Jesus is coerced – by his mother – into performing his first miracle. What does he do?  He changes water into wine, of course.

Pay attention to what’s going on here and how Jesus acts.  John tells us, “Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6).  These water-jars once contained water, not for drinking but for purification, for washing before a meal.  The water-jars are sitting there presumably empty because Jesus then tells the servants to fill them again with water, to the brim.  And that’s what they do.  Now the term “water-jars” is misleading; they were really more like jugs, large enough to hold roughly fifteen, twenty, even thirty gallons of water each, as the text says.  Jesus ordered the jugs to be brought to the chief steward who then drew some of the water, now wine, surprised and impressed.  The steward turns to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk.  But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).

            This is not a small amount. Do the math.  If we’re talking fifteen-gallon jugs times six:  that’s 90 gallons of wine.  Thirty-gallon jugs times six:  that’s 180 gallons of the finest wine! 

            We discover a few things here:  Jesus blesses the feast with his presence; he knows that weddings, that marriages matter. Jesus offers the best (not the second-best!), he wants to make sure the bridegroom and bride are seen as good hosts, extending hospitality to their guests, and he wants the guests to have a good time. And we also learn from this that Jesus loves to party and that he has exquisite taste!

            Only John’s Gospel includes the miracle in Cana, but John is not alone in showing that Jesus lifts up wedding feasts as significant.  One might try to make a case that these texts demonstrate that marriage is sacred and holy, marriage between a bridegroom and a bride, man and woman. One can try to use such texts to say something about contemporary understandings of marriage, particularly when some states, such as Maryland, and some denominations, such as the PC (USA), are modifying or trying to modify how we define marriage.  We have to be honest, however, and acknowledge that sometimes there’s a little (or a lot) of historical amnesia at work in our wrestling with scripture and contemporary issues.  There’s no such thing as a traditional biblical view of marriage.  We can be assured that the marriage of the bridegroom and bride in Cana has little in common with our view of marriage today based on love, mutuality, and equality between partners.  But that’s a sermon for another time.

            Instead, this morning I want to party – or at least draw our attention toward the party.  It’s striking that the miracle occurs at the wedding feast, at the party.  It’s striking that in the other Gospels we hear less about the marriage ceremony per se than we do about the reception.  Like today, wedding receptions are something to look forward to.  A lot of time and effort and expense go into them.  Today there’s so much focus on the reception, sometimes more than anything else; sometimes wedding guests skip the ceremony, when it’s in a church, and just show up at the reception.  But that, too, is a sermon for another time. 

            In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son,” only to have people RSVP with lame excuses why they couldn’t attend (Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24).  Wedding banquet etiquette matters:  “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited” (Luke 14:8).  And even beyond the Gospels, the vision of the future we’re given in Revelation, the goal and end and purpose of human history is described as a great wedding feast between the Lamb of God, Jesus, and his bride, the church (Revelation 19) – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.

            The point here is that Jesus and then the early church lift up marriage feasts, receptions, banquets as metaphors for the kingdom of God.  It’s an image of what life is and can be and, indeed, shall be in the kingdom of God.  There is a wedding, a bringing together of man and woman to form something new – and the party follows.  But it’s not just the wedding of man and woman per se that warrants a party.  It’s the bringing together that matters.  It’s the pledge, the promise, the covenant itself that means something to God. God wants to be wed to us, united with us, joined with us, pledged to us, in covenant with us. And weddings warrant celebration. This is exactly what we hear in Isaiah 62.  Listen again to what Isaiah says to the nation Israel, “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.”  And then Isaiah envisions Israel’s future as a marriage celebration, “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is 62:5, emphasis added).           

            Jesus carries on this metaphor of joy and rejoicing and celebrating when two are joined together and form something new. God’s kingdom is about coming together, bringing people together, forming bonds and unions, covenants, marriages.  And if the people invited don’t want to come to the banquet, then go out to the highways and byways, even the ditches along the road, and invite everyone else to come!

Several weeks ago I lifted up the root meaning of the word religion.  It doesn’t really mean being holy or following religious practices; it has little to do with belief.  Religion, from the Latin religare means to make a connection.  Our words ligament and ligature come from the same root.  Religare. It’s all about connection – God connecting with humanity, humanity connecting with God, human to human, person to person, connecting with the depths of the self, connecting with creation, with the cosmos itself.  As Einstein (1879-1955) showed, this entire universe – at every level, from the micro to the macro, including the properties of light – is all based on connections, relationships, making those links and discovering how we’re all connected.

It’s really this simple and profound at the same time. And the One who connects with us is Love itself because that what Love does – Love connects.  And because it is Love it’s untiring, it never gives up on us, never gives up searching, reaching, desiring us. And we never tire in needing to hear it again and again, to know it, to feel it, to encounter this Love.  Now we can easily exchange the word “connect” with “marriage” and the meaning still holds.  In this sense, God has always been in the marriage business and it’s our job to make sure that we don’t undo what God has joined together.

But there’s so much at work in our hearts and in the world, in the brokenness of the world, which works against this, which disconnects, which wants to break asunder the very bonds that God has pledged to uphold.  The plight of the human condition is rooted in the fact that we’re often disconnected from God, from others, from ourselves, from creation.

If God is in the marriage business – wed to humanity, bringing together disparate groups and peoples – it seems that it’s incumbent upon us to be wary of those forces in the world trying to divorce us from God, from our neighbors, from our enemies, from strangers, from ourselves; those entities that want to divide and conquer, hammer wedges between people, often for political gain, demonize the other as if the other is not a sister and brother equally endowed with the image of God.  It’s important to name these forces and fears and lies and so weaken their power over our lives.

On this weekend as we honor the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), it’s important for us to remember a time when there was not a happy marriage between blacks and whites in the United States – both figuratively and literally.  For too long it was assumed the humanity of a Caucasian had nothing in common with an African-American.  First, separate and not equal, then “separate but equal,”[1] but just barely equal, yet still separate in many ways.  To bring together.  To integrate. To make one, with differences to be sure, but still one, was the work and struggle of a generation. And that work continues. We are still on the way toward realizing Martin’s dream and some still don’t want to hear anything about no “mountain top.”[2] Just because Americans voted for a president who is African-American doesn’t mean we’ve come to terms with racism and our racist past, because we haven’t. Racism, both conscious and unconscious, continues to wreck havoc upon us.  Many churches are still segregated on a Sunday morning and wary of cultural and ethnic diversity of any kind.

There’s a place in Los Angeles raising awareness around these issues.  The Museum of Tolerance, part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, addresses the hate and intolerance in Nazi Germany, but it also tries to get at the deeper issues of prejudice in human society.  Before you enter the museum with your group you’re confronted with two doors.  Overhead are television screens creating the feeling that you’re on the set of a game show, with a game show host asking, “Which door will you choose?”  Door Number One or Door Number Two?  Which one will you enter through?  One door is marked:  PREJUDICED.  The other door is marked:  UNPREJUDICED. Most people, being in a group, will choose the door marked UNPREJUDICED.  Who’s going to confess prejudice, even if it’s true? So you reach for UNPREJUDICED door, only to find that it’s locked.  It’s always locked.  For the way toward tolerance is through the door of prejudice.

Our prejudices, both the conscious and the unconscious ones, continue to separate us from God, our neighbors, and ourselves.  Here, like in most things, confession is good for the soul.  But this requires a certain amount of honesty and courage and grace to acknowledge what’s there.  Openness toward others is an essential dimension to the life of faith, acceptance of the other, whoever the other might be, is directly related to our relationship with God.  Because, “…limited openness to the otherness of humans always translates into limited encounter with the Ultimate Other – [namely,] God.”  There’s no way around this:  “limited openness to the otherness of humans always translates into limited encounter with the Ultimate Other – God.”[3]

But this Ultimate Other never wants to remain completely other and cut off, divorced from us, but comes to us again and again, most profoundly in Jesus Christ, who, in Christ, comes to us and calls us and loves us into the Kingdom and draws us into community, into relationship, to a feast, a banquet, a party of widely diverse and beautiful people. We are all bound together, whether we like it or not, because God has placed us in this world precisely in this way.[4] Bound together whether we like it or not
    or, until we come to like it –
            or, better yet, love it,
            or, better still, love the other as our brother and sister,
                        who bears the image of God!

            This is what the church is called to proclaim, embody, and celebrate.  The world needs to know that this is what God is calling us toward, this is what we embody, this is what we celebrate.  And, like Isaiah, we will not be silent about it, we will not shut-up about it, we will not keep it to ourselves, but shout it in the streets and from the rooftops, from spires and steeples, a message that shimmers and shines like the dawn and offers the world a new day.  Now that’s worthy of a party, isn’t it?

[1] This phrase was part of the legal doctrine, supported by American Constitutional law, which justified segregation.  The phrase derived from a Louisiana law of 1890, although the law actually used the phrase "equal but separate.”
[2]I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” From Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech given at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, TN, on April 3, 1968.  On the next day, King was assassinated, in Memphis.
[3] David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human (Brazos, 2011), 5.
[4] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2012), “No two people in America have had more violent and loving encounters than black and white people. …[Yet,] no gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality.  What God joined together, no one can tear apart” (166).

14 January 2013

Lord, Bring Us To Our Jordan

Jordan River entering the Sea of Galilee.

Isaiah 43: 1-7 & Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

Baptism of the Lord, 13 January 2012

We don’t know where Jesus was baptized, but we know it took place near the Jordan River.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John all agree that Jesus’ baptism took place along or in the Jordan.  Today, several sites claim to be the site for Jesus’ baptism: one is near Jericho in the West Bank (which reopened to tourists and pilgrims in 2011, now that the minefields nearby were cleared by the Israeli government); one is near Tiberius along the Sea of Galilee; and one site is known as Bethany beyond the Jordan, in the country of Jordan.  John’s Gospel tells us that John baptized people at Aenon near Salim, “because water was abundant there” (John 3:23). We know that there were plenty of springs in that region that fed into the Jordan.

            The River Jordan looms large in the history and tradition of Israel.  It stretches more than 220 miles:  fed by the snow-covered peaks of Mt. Hermon, with an elevation of 9,232 feet, it flows down through the Galilee and into the Sea of Galilee, entering at the north end of the lake, at the south end of lake the river resumes its course down toward Jericho and eventually empties into the Dead Sea at 1,365 feet below sea level, forming the north end of the Rift Valley, which stretches from this region all the way down to Tanzania.  The book of Genesis first refers to the Jordan as a source of fertility to a large plain, said to be like “the garden of God” (Genesis 13:10).  It has a way of showing up in the biblical narrative at key moments, the setting for momentous events.  Jacob crossed it and its tributary, the Jabbok, on his return to Esau.  Along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob wrestled with the mystery man in the middle of the night that left him wounded and renamed (Genesis 32: 22-32). The people Israel crossed over the Jordan and entered the land of promise, led by the priests carrying the ark of the covenant, the presence of Yahweh (Joshua 3). The priests stood with the ark in the riverbed as the people processed past them into freedom. Elisha told Naaman, suffering from leprosy, to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10).

            The River Jordan is significant.  Its waters offered healing, the source of life and fertility in a barren land, the place of struggle and transition, it was a place of new beginnings, the point of entry into a new land, a new future, offering new identities.  It’s not surprising that John the Baptizer chose such a place for his preaching, his ministry of anointing and washing and preparing people for the inbreaking of God’s presence and power in Jesus of Nazareth.  And so the River Jordan becomes the place of baptism.

            The place itself, wherever it was, represents something deep and profound as we consider the meaning of our own baptisms.  As we hear of Jesus’ baptism, we’re invited to remember our own and the ongoing implications of what it means for us to say that we have been baptized into Christ.  Most of us baptized as infants need help in connecting with the meaning and significance of our baptisms.  Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; it’s where his journey toward the cross begins.  We, too, have been baptized, like Christ, baptized into Christ in a rite with ongoing implications.  It doesn’t happen just once; it’s not simply an event of the past.  It’s a present reality.  The more we reflect upon the meaning of our baptism, the more we pray about it, allow its meaning to the wash over us and pour through us, the more our lives will be changed and transformed.  We have been marked in baptism.  It marks the beginning of our journey, a journey that invites us to go down into the Jordan, takes us through the waters of the Jordan, leads us across the Jordan to a land of freedom. 

Where is our Jordan?  Where is this “place” of new beginnings, of rebirth and renewal in our lives? How can we identify it?  How do we know?  Here are four signposts to help us discern:

            The Jordan is a place of washing.  John the Baptist came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  It’s the place of forgiveness, of mercy, of being washed clean and starting fresh.  Water itself is a symbol of washing, of God dissolving away sin.  What’s left is a new person, a new creation, a new opportunity to repent, which means, to change your mind, to change your attitude, to turn your life around and walk in a different direction.  It implies a washing, a dissolving away of past and present stains.   It means leaving aside on the riverbank old destructive patterns, former ways that have not yielded life and then going down into the water, dissolving away unhealthy attitudes and practices and beliefs and perspectives and associations and maybe even relationships that do not yield life, to then take up something new. 

            The Jordan is a place of decision and action.  Something is required of you.  You can’t just sit on the riverbank and watch the river flow by.  You can’t just sit there and watch others being washed, hoping to be washed by osmosis. There’s no room for spectators.  You have to decide to get up and go into the water.  You can’t just believe in the thought or value of going into the water.  The Jordan is about more than having beliefs and ideas and good intentions.  It’s about action. It’s something we actually have to do, experience, feel, undergo.  We have to get up and move and go down into the water.

            The Jordan is a place that calls for commitment.  Either we’re washed or we’re not.  Either we go down to the river or we stay on the riverbank.  Despite my predilection for both-and scenarios in life, this is an either-or moment. 
Either we’re in the water – or we’re not. 
We can’t be in the water and on the riverbank at the same time. 
Either we’re going to go down into the water, like Jesus,
and allow ourselves to be w­ashed – or we’re not. 
Either we’re going to identify with Christ – or we’re not. 
Either we’re going to open ourselves to God’s call
and claim on our lives – or we’re not. 
Either we’re going to be open to the voice the Spirit
and acknowledge who we are as God’s beloved children – or we’re not. 
The Jordan is a place calling out to us for greater commitment.  The Jordan wants us to be fully immersed in its waters, not simply sprinkled (the Presbyterian way), but bathed, immersed, soaked, drenched with its grace, its call, and commitment.

            The Jordan is a place of washing, of deciding and acting, calling for commitment, all of these, in order to prepare us for that moment when we discern the Jordan’s deeper message and meaning.  The Jordan is a place of new beginnings.  It’s ultimately about conversion, transition, transformation, new life, liberation – any of these, all of these.  It’s ultimately about change and being changed by the Spirit of God in order to take up a new life.  That’s why it’s the place of transition.

            It’s a before and after moment, as it was for Jesus.  He went down into the water with one understanding of himself, but he came up out of the water prepared to receive a new understanding of himself:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).  This new identity will chart the course of his life and nothing will ever again be the same again.

            When Israel crossed the Jordan it marked the movement from slavery into freedom, from wandering in exile to entering the land the promise.  In order to get there they had to transition through the Jordan, they had to cross it.  They had to leave one place in order to enter a new place.  The Jordan always involves a leave-taking.  You have to leave familiar territory, cross through the waters, in order to enter the land of freedom.  There’s no other way forward but through its waters.

            It’s not surprising that African-American slaves in the South identified so strongly with this part of Israel’s history, of crossing Jordan.  In some of the African-American spirituals “Jordan” was code for the Ohio River. To cross that river was to cross into the promised land of freedom.  You can hear it in “Michael, row the boat ashore.”
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah….
Jordan stream is wide and deep.
Jesus stand on t’oder side.
I wonder if my maussa deh….O poor sinner, how you land?
Riber run and darkness comin’.
Sinner row to save your soul.

            The abolitionist Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) was known for singing “Wade In theWater.”  “Wade in the water, wade in the water, children. God’s going to trouble the water.”  The reference here is to the pool of Bethesda (John 5: 1-18).  It was believed that when an angel touched the pool with its finger, troubled the water, there would be ripples throughout the pool.  If you were near enough to the pool you could jump in and be healed.  But to wade in the water during the time of the Underground Railroad meant something else.  When Tubman and others sang, “Wade in the water,” it was code for “follow the streams.”  As you head North to freedom don’t use the main roads and trails.  As you run from slavery, wade in the water, use the streams.  Don’t limit yourself to the shores; get in the water, there’s better protection that way.  The water helps to wash off your scent leaving nothing for the dogs on your tail, leaving no trace, no footprints for those trying to bring you back to slavery.[1]

            Earlier we sang in the middle hymn:
Lord, bring us to our Jordan
Of newly opened eyes,
Through love, immersed in living,
As you were once baptized.[2]
As we begin a new year, I invite you to make this your prayer, both personally and together as a congregation.  Lord, bring us to our Jordan – bring us to that place of washing away all that separates us from God, our neighbor, and ourselves; the place where we can start clean; that place of decision and action; of greater commitment to God and our respective callings in the church.  Can we step away from the safety of the riverbank and go into the depths?  Can we wade in the water?  Let the water wash over us, soak us, drench us, immerse us down into the depths of God’s grace?  And then come up changed people, different people who make a difference?  Can we venture out into the Jordan to cross over toward freedom and new beginnings? 

            This means, of course, once you leave the riverbank and enter the waters, once you cross over the Jordan, through the Jordan, there’s no turning back.  You can’t go home again, back to where you started.  You can’t go back to slavery.  Once you hear the voice and know your identity in Christ, there’s no way to un-hear it or un-know it. Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down.  For what we discover at and in and through the Jordan will change our lives.  If it doesn’t, then we haven’t been to the Jordan, maybe we’ve only been to the riverbank.

            In the movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the great wise wizard Gandalf invites Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, to leave home for the adventure of a lifetime.  Bilbo is not easily persuaded.  He prefers the coziness of his underground home in the shire, reading his books by the warmth of his fire, enjoying tea and jam and a full larder.  Gandalf encourages him to come along, but warns him that if he decides to go his life will never again be the same; he’ll never be able to return home the same person.  In the end, Bilbo decides to go.  It’s not long in the journey when Bilbo has second thoughts; he second-guesses himself, and talks about going back.  But it’s too late. Gandalf says, in one of the many great lines in the movie, “Home is now behind you,” Bilbo. “The world is ahead…. It’s out there!”[3] 

            That was Bilbo’s “Jordan” moment, without the water, but with the same result.  It leads him off on an expected journey, the journey of a lifetime.  Our Jordan moment, or moments, our baptism in Christ offers nothing less:  it’s the unexpected journey of a lifetime, and then some.

[1] Raymond Dobbard, Ph.D., on the hidden meaning in spirituals.
[2] “Lord, When You Came to Jordan,” text by Brian Wren (b. 1936), to the tune:  GENEVAN 130. The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: 1990).
[3] “The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey,” (2012), based on the book The Hobbitt, or There and Back Again (1937) by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973).