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Sermon: “The River”

Sermon preached at the Emory United Methodist Church, Virginia, August 19, 2018.

Text: Ezekiel 47:1-12

Late summer, 587 BCE: Following war and a prolonged siege, the Babylonians and their allies had breached Jerusalem’s walls, set fire to the city and destroyed the temple. Many of the citizens had been slaughtered; others were marched into slavery. To Ezekiel it was as if his homeland had become a mound of bones bleaching in the sun. Had Yahweh removed Himself from Israel?

Then God showed the prophet a vision: Water bubbled up from below the threshold of the Temple. It flowed in a stream to the east and the south, toward the area of the Dead Sea where nothing grows and all is barren land. And as the water moved, it became deeper and wider, up to Ezekiel’s ankles, then his waist, until it was a great river. And wherever the river flowed, it brought forth vegetation, fish, great trees, and multitudes of living beings. The river brought life.

Introduction: Who are we as Christians? As United Methodists?

Has God removed Himself from our nation? Not long ago a young man called me. I could tell that he had something important in mind. We know each other well. “Christians can be such hypocrites,” he began. Who are we as Christians? As United Methodists?

Let me share the results of a couple of surveys with you. The first was a study that appeared this year indicating that only 17.7 percent of Americans go to church on any particular Sunday. The survey, ongoing since 1980, also showed that attendance has been steadily declining. If present trends continue, by mid-century the percentage of Americans attending church will be roughly one in ten.

The second study was a Pew Research Center “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” (2010) where six out of ten respondents indicated that religion was very important to their lives. Now, that’s good news! But the survey also showed that evangelical and mainline Protestants, people like us, only answered about half of the questions about religion correctly–52 percent. Atheists did better, at 65 percent. Churchgoers only scored about half correct on questions about the Bible and had trouble identifying Martin Luther and other historical religious figures. Over half did not know what the church teaches about the sacraments and other Christian doctrines and rituals. So, the bad news is that in spite of the importance we claim to give to Christianity, many of us are poorly informed about the tenets, practices, and history of our own Christian faith.

The studies give insight to how it is possible for those seeking power to co-opt Christianity for agendas far, and even opposite, from God’s will. But hypocrisy need not be willing. Most people stand outside of faith or on the periphery of faith. Can we fault outsiders for confusing Christianity’s true values with those of popular culture, if we who confess ourselves Christians are not clear about the essentials of our own faith?

The River

In my History of Christianity course, I sometimes compare Christianity and its long history, variety of rituals, affirmations and practices, to a large river with its many currents flowing between not-always-fixed banks. There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world gathered in more than 30,000 denominations.

My love of the river metaphor goes back, no doubt, to when as a young person in South America I would go fishing with my Father on the Paraná, the river that marks Brazil’s boundaries with Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina before reaching its estuary south of Uruguay. We would travel for two days through rough country to reach the river. Those wildlands untouched by civilization have almost disappeared now, but fifty years ago one could still see the troops of Bugil “howler” monkeys everywhere, an occasional jaguar, an anaconda or sucurí in the wetlands; the parrots and macaws flying overhead, always in pairs for they mate for life. Those times proved formative: being one with the wonder of God’s creation, experiencing firsthand what Rudolf Otto described as “awe before the holy”–looking up into the blackness of the night and seeing more stars than a mind could count. And then the river! The name “Paraná” is indigenous Tupí-Guarani and means “like the sea,” “as big as the sea.” And true, the Paraná is 700 miles longer than the Mississippi with a greater discharge. Its basin covers 1.2 million square miles.

Heresy?

The diversity we encounter in Christianity is vast. And the church strives to be inclusive. But during the rainy season, even the Paraná on occasion overflows its banks. And that is the way it is with Christianity. Historically the church has defined itself not by specifying every aspect of its practices and beliefs but by pointing out when these spill beyond the river’s banks.

To give an example, a few weeks ago, there was a story in the news about a televangelist who was asking for donations so that he could purchase a $54 million-dollar jet. He already owned three planes, along with mansions and luxury cars, but he indicated he needed this fourth jet so as more easily to travel to preach Christ’s good news. The way he explained it was that “if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn’t be riding on a donkey but would be flying in planes.”

You can’t make this stuff up! If you hear some humor in my voice, it is because a person has to laugh not to cry. The third commandment, “Don’t take the name of the Lord God in vain” in plain English means not to use God for one’s own purposes! And while appropriating the trappings of Christianity, the religion of the $54 million-dollar jet really is not us. It is not deep river. It is Christianity beyond the banks, off in the marshes.

On a very serious note, now, you and I are keenly aware of how our public discourse has turned ugly-side up the last couple of years by racism, abuse, immigration, and other topics. There is much fear in our society—and hate. That was really my young friend’s concern about Christian hypocrisy, the hatred. But let me just say, wherever fear and hate abound, that is not Christianity. That is religion in the marshes.

Orthodoxy

What are some of the deep-water currents of our faith? Certain beliefs are deep water. “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that he has been raised from the dead, and you will be saved,” St. Paul wrote (Rom. 10:9). In the back of your United Methodist Hymnal you will find several affirmations of faith. These creedal statements are short-hand reminders of our foundational beliefs. For instance, most of the historical creeds begin with a short affirmation of God as Father and creator of heavens and earth. In the fuller version, Christians believe that everything that God created was good; that there exists a brotherhood and sisterhood among all humans that traces back to God’s creation. We believe that God made us stewards of creation, responsible for the world’s creatures, gardens, all forms of life, the earth itself. God entrusted creation into our care for our generation and future generations. We believe that God created us in His image and likeness, providing us with rational minds able to comprehend creation and be creative in our own right, able to love in some measure as God loves, able to discern justice and practice mercy.

What are the bases for our beliefs? Christians read the Bible; we develop and use our minds; we study the writings and lives of model Christians from past and present; we participate in worship services and group meetings where we help each other reflect on who we are; we pray, asking that the Holy Spirit lead us in our studies and meditations. And we do all of this while fixing our eyes foremost on the life, teachings, passion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, letting everything else be filtered through that lens. It is deep-water to Christianity that Jesus gives us our best insight into God’s nature and will.

Pietism

It is deep-water also when Christians emphasize their devotional life. In the Gospel of John, we read about a man, Nicodemus, who followed Christ at a distance and came at night to talk to him (John 3:1-10). Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again. Jesus didn’t say this to everyone he met, but he said it to Nicodemus. Our own John Wesley reported in his journal that a heart-warming experience marked a turning point in his life. And some here in this congregation have experienced similar events. I remember many years ago responding to an altar call at prayer meeting, deeply affected at that moment by my failures and rebellion before God but overcome with an even deeper realization of God’s grace. “We are restless,” Saint Augustine’s wrote in his Confessions, “until at rest in Thee.”

While often focusing on such turning points, the Christian life is more appropriately described as a pilgrimage. Much happened leading Wesley to his Aldersgate moment. But even when such a heart-warming event takes place, contrition and the accompanying emotional elements are only prolegomena to embarking on a new life. In Galatians, Paul reminded his fellow-Christians that “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). Paul liked that phrase being baptized into Christ. As Christians, you and I have committed ourselves to giving up our identity in favor of Christ’s. This commitment confronts us with each decision we face, every day. Our walk with Jesus involves our rational selves and our emotional selves.  It affects every part of our lives.

Not of this world

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is deep-water for Christians to focus on eternity. I don’t mean by this that Christianity is a religion of pie-in-the-sky. Sure, Christians believe that the resurrection of Jesus signals that you and I and others will also rise from the dead. And it is pleasant to think of seeing loved ones and old friends again and comforting to believe that someday we will understand things that seem mysterious to us now. But when Jesus answering Pilate at his trial said that his kingdom wasn’t of this world, he meant that his authority was from a source not perceived by Pilate’s normal senses. Jesus trusted in a force more ultimate than the powers that Pilate yielded.

“I lift my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). What are our essential values? Where is the Christian’s north star? We are called to be a holy people. Enticed not by the power, wealth, and security that Pontius Pilate considered valuable, let’s fix our gaze on our true home, God’s kingdom.

Sanctification

Sanctification, seeking ever to live a more holy life, is deep-water Christianity. Here is Paul’s advice to the people of Colossae: “Put to death . . . impurity, loss of temper, evil desire, and greed. . . . [G]et rid of such things as anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. . . . Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:5, 8, 12-14.)

Wesley held that Christians should always be moving toward a more perfect love. Our Methodist sentiment is recaptured in this saying attributed to him:

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Sometimes you and I hear misguided Christians affirm that the ends justify the means. The argument goes, we need to safeguard our communities and way of life, to protect the sanctity of marriage, etc., therefore we need to be willing to take actions out-of-step with the gospel—that is to use lethal force against others, to take away the free-will of fellow-persons, to close off opportunities from those who are not as privileged as we. So, the ends justify the means.

But that is not us. In Christianity, the means are the ends and the ends are the means. They can’t be pulled apart. The goal is to walk with Jesus, to be clothed with Christ, to give up the self, for our will to be subsumed by the Lord’s will.

Social Gospel

The great river of Christianity holds many currents within its banks, and I could continue talking with you about them for a long time. But let me mention just one more before closing. “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asked. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Sin doesn’t only pertain to individuals. The structures of society itself can be demonic: Slavery, racial hatred, misogyny, child and sexual abuse, war, violence, dehumanization, corporate greed, the destruction of the environment, profligate affluence in-the-midst-of desperate poverty—and the list goes on and on. After creating the garden of Eden, God placed us as caretakers of his creation, and as I said earlier, we’ve been entrusted with making certain that God’s world is a healthy place for all inhabitants, including future generations. This social aspect of the gospel calls for our direct involvement with the world. Social responsibility is a strong current in the Christian river.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth. The here and now is important. What you and I do is important. “There will come a judgment day,” Jesus said. “And on that day, the King will say to some ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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 when the righteous ask the king, when did we do these things, he will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, when you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Mt 25: 31-40)

Conclusion: Water from the Temple

Ezekiel had a vision of a river that would bring life again to his dead homeland. As you recall, that river arose first as a small stream from the threshold of the Temple. For Christians, the church has replaced the Temple. You and I are the Temple, the body of Christ.

The great Saint Augustine explained evil as an absence: As darkness is the absence of light and as death is the absence of life, evil is the absence of good (City of God, XI, 9). “Had God removed himself from Israel?” Ezekiel asked. “No!” And God is not absent from our nation either. But are we absent?

Who are we as Christians? As United Methodists? We are the people of God, bubbling up as a small stream right out of this place, testifying to the presence of Christ, bringing light where there is now darkness, life to a thirsty world, good to all whom we meet, sharing God to those with whom he is absent.

About religiousjourney

I'm a professor at Emory & Henry College and operate the religiousjourney.com blog.

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