Take Me to the River 01/14/2018
Sojourn Sermon – January 14 – Mark 1:1-11
Rivers are sites of immense contradiction. For a significant part of human history, rivers made life possible. They were important sources of animal protean for early hunter gatherers, and they watered the crops of the first farmers. We find the world’s oldest civilizations situated around rivers, the Indus Valley Civilization, the empires of Mesopotamia, which itself means “the land between the rivers,” and Egypt. It has been argued that even ancient conceptions of the divine often developed around people’s relationship to their rivers. Egypt’s Nile river was predictable, it flooded frequently according to a seasonal calendar, replenishing rich soil and providing an ideal agricultural environment. As a result, Egypt’s conceptions of their gods was largely benevolent. The afterlife was available to nearly everyone, and the gods looked favorably on the people. In contrast, the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers were unpredictable. Much like other rivers in arid climates, they were prone to flash flooding and drought and frequently destroyed the communities that depended on them. Accordingly, the gods of ancient Mesopotamian cultures were angry, violent, and vengeful. Rivers provided for the basic needs of human existence and were the basis of early spiritual life.
At the same time, however, rivers can be sites of violence, often imperial violence. This was true of the Jordan River. The great empires of the east, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, all used the Jordan river as a thoroughfare in their attempts to conquer Egypt, brutalizing the people of Israel in the process. The great and easily navigable rivers of western Europe, the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, and others, made the unsuspecting people of medieval Europe susceptible to Viking attack. And I can’t help but think of our own river, the Cashe La Poudre, and our own town, Fort Collins, so named for a U.S. military outpost built here in the 1860s to suppress indigenous habitants like the Cheyanne, Arapaho, and the Ute peoples. Rivers can spell life and hope for those who live along their banks. They can also spell disaster.
Langston Hughes captures this contradiction in what is perhaps his best known poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
I have known rivers: [Hughes writes.]
I have known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hunt 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 have known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes invites a beautiful comparison between the flow of rivers and the flow of blood. Rivers, like blood, bring life to the world. Indeed, human life cannot be disassociated with rivers. Literary historian, Ira Dworkin, notes that the Congo River had been used in the black community, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance, as a locus of identity and unity for the diasporic community of African Americans. Dworkin continues and reminds readers that the Congo was also the site of some of colonialism’s must brutal and violent episodes. Under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II, the Congolese were subjected to repressive violence and brutal punishment. The most famous example of such violence occurred when the Belgian overlords cut off the hands of the Congolese in order to impair their ability to revolt. One political cartoon, published in Crisis magazine, where Hughes poem would be published a few years later, depicts a handless Congolese man waiting on Albert, Leopold’s successor, saying, “If your uncle left us our hands, Albert, we could be of more help to you now.”
Hughes’ poem then evokes the image of the Nile and the pyramids. Coupled with the image of the Mississippi, one cannot help but see a reference to forced labor and slavery. In other places, Hughes refers to the Mississippi as the American Congo, both rivers depict horrors of colonial rule and imperial subjugation.
Despite these continued images to colonial violence, Hughes depicts the muddied waters of the Mississippi turning golden, as if to say that even in the of days, there is hope in the future. The Mississippi flows to New Orleans and sings, evoking the image of black expression and jazz culture, penned in Harlem during a time of black cultural emergence there, one can think of nothing else. The poem recounts an important piece of American mythology, Lincoln’s trip to New Orleans, where it is said that he saw slavery at its worst and decided it must be brought to an end.
Rivers are places of immense contradiction, representing hope and life, like blood and the muddy waters that turn golden at the end of the day. Rivers also represent violence and imperial rule.
As I said earlier, the Jordan River is no exception to this rule of contradiction. As is true in our own day, the river can be seen to represent violence and repression, but it also has a history of promise and hope. In the OT, the Jordan is often seen as a place where God demonstrates God’s power to save. After the 40 years wondering in the desert, the Israelites, led now by Joshua, come to the river Jordan and camp on its banks for three days. According to Joshua 3, the river parts as the Ark of the Covenant begins to ford it, and the people cross on dry land. This image of parting waters is, of course, a reference back to the parting of the Red Sea. Bookending the wilderness narrative this way implies that the liberating work that began in the parting of the Red Sea culminates in crossing the Jordan. Similarly, this is an image of God fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, that this land would belong to his descendants. The river can also be associated with peace, as David crossed it on a donkey in 2 Samuel 19, when he demonstrates that he will not destroy Jerusalem after the city sided with Absalom in the rebellion.
Similarly, however, the Jordan serves as a motivation for violence. It is often used as an important boundary marker that draws a distinction between Jews, or true Jews, and everyone else. In one particularly horrendous episode, recounted in Judges 12, the river is the site of ethnic cleansing. In a battle between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim, the Ephramites are driven across the river and forced to surrender. As the Ephramites attempt to cross back over, the Gileadites stop them and ask them to pronounce “shibboleth”. If the captives could not pronounce it correctly, if they pronounced it “sibboleth,” then they were killed in the river. Scripture tells us that 42,000 people died under these circumstances.
John the Baptizer goes out to this river, baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins and promising redemption. The sinless Jesus comes to be baptized by John, because rivers are sites of immense contradiction. As Jesus is baptized, the dove of peace descends, the heavens open, and the voice from heaven is heard – This is my Son, with whom I am well please. The true king of Israel, born of humble circumstance, baptized for the forgiveness of the world. Christians have long made important links with episode and Jesus death. Indeed, the language of baptism was often associated with martyrdom, both in the early church and in the early days of Anabaptism.
I want to suggest to you that in Jesus’ baptism, as with the cross, two disparate groups are united in the contradictious river: the violent, the powerful, and the imperial in one group, and the powerless, the oppressed, and the outsider in the other and both are offer hope and redemption together. Jesus is not just baptized in a river: Jesus is baptized in all the contradictions a river represents. Jesus life and ministry where at one time an offering of hope to those the world had forgotten. Jesus healed the sick, ate with sinners, and disturbed religious law. At the same time, Jesus instructed the rich to sell their possessions to give the profits to the poor. He invited tax collectors, agents of the empire, often some of the most corrupt people in the land, into his inner circle of friends and he eats in their homes. And his last words on the cross are words of forgiveness for those who kill him.
Rivers are places of immense contradiction. Here in this story, Jesus baptism represents hope to the words oppressed. Identifying with the people who came to John, people hoping for a spiritual renewal, Jesus initiates an image of rebirth. And for those who who’ve made the river a site of violence and oppression, Jesus baptism is an image of forgiveness and represents the possibility of new life.
I find myself drawn to sacramental language around baptism for this very reason. The great mystery of baptism is not those who are being baptized have chosen to follow Jesus, although those elements are present. The great mystery of baptism is about what God has made possible through baptism: a new community, made of disparate groups of people, where both the oppressor and the oppressed welcome one another in love. Martin Luther King Jr. called this the Beloved Community, and we miss his point if we confuse this hope with the liberal fantasy of diversity. As Cornell West has recently noted, talk about diversity is one of the best way to sanitize talk about racism. Our goal, according to Dr. King, as read by West, isn’t to ensure that our top colleges and legislatures are diversified while minority communities continue to fall victim to police brutality and suffer the consequences of poverty. The Beloved Community cannot be achieved, for example, while our nation continues to drop bombs on Bedouin camps in Yemen and farming communities in Afghanistan. The Beloved Community emerges as the sunsets on what King called the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. When these triple evils are addressed, and only when those triple evils are addressed, the muddy bosom of the Mississippi will turn golden.
But such a community requires a baptism, a dying to the world the benefits from such violence and oppression, an immersion in the waters that bring to light such deep contradiction. Such a community requires new life and rebirth. Such a community requires repentance. Such a community can only be forged in the waters of contradiction that flow like human blood in human veins.
This week, I’ve found myself thinking about such a river. It begins its winding path at the base of Mt. Canby in the San Juan Mountains and flows through the San Luis Valley. It is fed by Rio Cama on its southward journey through Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso and Juarez before finally reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The Rio Grande, Rio Bravo del Norte, like the ancient dusky rivers mentioned in Hughes poem, is a river filled with contradiction. At one and the same time it represents a great hope for those who are fleeing violence and persecution. It represents the possibility of a better life and employment to desperate people. But like the Jordan river, it also represents great violence and oppression, a boundary between one nation and those people who speak differently.
I can’t help but ask myself, what would it mean to see Jesus baptized in the Rio Grande, for him to be immersed in the blood stained waters that separate the US and Mexico. What would it mean to see Jesus emerge, like the millions of migrants seeking salvation on the northern banks of that great river. Jesus, being buried beneath the waters like so many unmarked graves that pock the desert landscape, only to rise again with the promise of resurrection.
What would Jesus baptism in the Rio Grande mean for the border patrol agents who find themselves caught in a story much bigger then themselves, asked to do the bidding of an uncaring and unthinking system. What would it mean for a nation that has turned its back on so many?
Our nation has known rivers. They call us to them like a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’
As we memorialize Dr. King this weekend, we find ourselves baptized in the Mississippi, our nation seeking forgiveness for the sins of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, Lynching, mass incarceration, police brutality and criminalization. So too, we might find ourselves on the banks of the Rio Grande, anxious about what a new life might look like or where it might lead us.
I invite us to reflect on what Cornel West called the sanitized version of Dr. King, the one that ignores the fact that he was wildly unpopular in his own day because he spoke a truth that was inconvenient. He spoke about a kind of future that would not be achieved in courts or state houses. Very few people who just want everyone to get along get assassinated or have FBI files on them. The same is true of Jesus. Itinerant healers and exorcists rarely found themselves on crosses, and there were many in Jesus day. It was the revolutionaries who found themselves on crosses. In his last speech “I Have Been to the Mountain Top,” Dr. King reminded the crowd that his movement hadn’t been very popular. They had been met with police batons and dogs, but most importantly, the had been met with fire hoses. In what it perhaps my favorite quotation of Dr. King’s, he says, “We know the meaning of water.”
It runs deep with contradiction. But in that contradiction is the promise of new life, of salvation and forgiveness. Love for the oppressed and the oppressor. As Christians, we have known rivers. Ancient dusky rivers. May our souls grow deep like the rivers.