a sermon for River Sunday

Season of Creation

on Genesis8:21b–22, 9:8–17; Psalm29; Revelation22:1–5; John7:33-34,37-39a

A lot of thisriver Season of Creation seems to have been confronting where our perceptions don’t square with the world around us as God created it. I hope those have been worthwhile considerations, but they have meant less living with creation this season.

So today I want to begin by taking you to Otter Creek. Otter Creek was down the slope from my house outside of Eau Claire where I grew up. It gave a chance to explore the woods, from ice cracking under my booted feet to the musky musty skunk cabbage as the first green thing in those woods, and frog song to crunching fall leaves. Among memories along those waters were jumping down sandy ledges and too many stinging nettles, slowly finding cool liquid relief. The best memory is the first trout I caught, still my biggest brown. I can recall how my spinner moved through the eddying water of that bend’s pool and still feel the surprise of that smooth skin and soft belly in my hands, after having only held fish with rougher scales. But as a reminder encounters with nature are not all splendor, it was beside our Otter Creek swimming hole that I tried chewing tobacco for the first time.

Friends and I regularly talked about following the creek up to its source, a project we never really attempted, partly because it was slow progress with so many meanders, but also because, why would we need to find an origin when already every place we found ourselves had so much to engage and delight us?

Still, for tracing to origins, I also go back to my family’s first house a block from the Yellow River up in Spooner, and continue tracing those flowing waters here along the Yahara River chain of lakes. In between, some of my identity and existence emerged from the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Like when I lived in Washington, also where the Wenatchee River began to flow together with the great Columbia, confluences are said to temper the weather and have lore of serving as native American gathering places. From that pre-history, and long after rafts of white pine lumber floated past, below dams that generate power for our lives, these still are places of new beginnings as that merging of rivers in Eau Claire, for example, has given rise to Phoenix Park, from industrial wasteland to become again a gathering place to exchange goods like vegetables and artwork, and a new music center to serve for education, enlightenment, and enjoyment, all flowing up and emerging from the rivers.

I can’t take you for a tour of Otter Creek or soak you into my history with these rivers, but I’m hoping these stories call to mind your places, the waters you have known and how amid your life “a river runs through it.” As Al Heggen said at the Capital Brewery Bible conversation Tuesday, describing his own affinity for the Upper Iowa River in Decorah, we each hold dear such places where our lives have flown together with the streams. Carrie McGinley spoke of the Mississippi starting so small and visiting the Great River museum in Dubuque and maybe to travel the length of it. See, our very selves are part of the confluence.

Amid these currents that flow with our past, to now, and time yet to come, we know it’s not always peace like a river. There can be turbulence. It seems like a long time ago that earlier this summer I was complaining of the trickles of water soaking into my basement and my CSA farmer worrying if plants would survive in fields inundated and saturated by rainfall. Much more clearly, we’re holding horrors from Houston as rivers poured down streets and people you know were trapped by rising floodwaters.

Those news reports and images create for us another understanding of confluence. Rivers not only flow along with the story of our lives. Not only human culture has been at the confluence of waters, from the development of agriculture by ancient Mesopotamians (whose identity is summarized in the name that means “between rivers”), or those native Americans wintering in intertribal peace, or how our cities have arisen from the life of waters. Besides those forms of confluence, we also notice confluence in meaning of the waters themselves. They are not unequivocally peaceful or universally beneficial. In waters and with rivers, the value or worth mixes and intermingles, swirling to engulf with surprising depths beside the wading stone-skipping calms. The good and the bad flow together.

In simple natural terms, for example, we have to observe that flooding can’t be equated only with the bad, damage or destruction. The Mississippi was used to spring thaws that swept waste from the backwaters and renewed habitats for a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. As we’ve installed dams, we think we’re minimizing negative outcomes of ebbs and flows in river level, but our manufactured environment has meant loss of diversity and wellbeing in the river’s wetlands.

Again, the Nile was a dwelling place for civilization precisely because it was prone to flood. When the rushing waters rose, they carried along and deposited fresh soil on the floodplain. Sure, water was up in the fields. But that was what brought life, brought the nutrients that allowed another season’s fertile farming.

Such paradoxes or confluences of good and bad come in the Bible, as witness to the flow of our lives. Psalm 137 laments that it’s impossible to sing faithful songs of joy by the rivers of Babylon while in enemy captivity. But the prophet Isaiah (ch2) expects nations will stream together, and down by the riverside we ain’t gonna study war no more. These opposites co-exist.

With today’s readings, as we require fearful storms to gain the beauty of the rainbow, the terrifying story of Noah and the flood annihilating almost the entire earth in some way exists so we can get the promise. As people who didn’t have to live through that flood and as that calamity recedes into the background, we’re met mostly by the message of abiding love, the assurance of providence, that the good God intends for our lives will continue. That, and not devastation, is the focus.

At least that’s the intention. It’s rawer and a harder word this week when we’ve witnessed more stormwaters and are left wondering where God’s presence or intention has been in Texas, if God has forgotten, if the promise was true.

Or maybe the terrifying conclusion is that we can combat God’s goodness and drown out the blessing God voiced in Genesis and intended to continue. Maybe Hurricane Harvey is less an Act of God than an Act of Humans: climate change warming the oceans multiplied its power, coastal development tore out shoreline buffers, and harm is even in the way we construct cities.

Similarly of our ruin, the waters that give us life and gave rise to our civilization we not only pollute, but slurp to parched, causing goodness to wither. My vacation travels followed part of the course of the Colorado River, in many ways the lifeblood of the southwest. But we suck those waters dry, straining out all the goodness of life. The river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California, and to gaudy fountains of the Las Vegas strip, and to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This river carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously goes for years without even reaching its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

This may be a repercussion of our lives, simply of our existence, or it may be due to a result of our sins. But saying that means we must fearfully confront whether we’ve overruled God’s goodness with our badness, the promise with our curse, the intention for life with our deadly mistakes.

Of course, that is not the message of our faith, though. We proclaim that evil will never have the last word, that even death is not final, that God will not give up on life. Holding this tension, we have that peculiar observation that waters are neither unambiguously good nor explicitly evil. That is the message of your baptismal waters, as well. Those are life-giving waters, by also bringing death. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned daily, and on the other hand daily a new person is to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Drowning and new life, dying and rising, death and resurrection: two sides of the same coin. This is not merely the ending of what has been wrong in our lives and interactions with the world, but also the promise of a new creation. Neither can you have the new beginning without the end of the old. You can’t be cleansed and made fresh without being rid of old stains and rottenness. If you imagine you’d prefer not to die, then you won’t be met by new life. If you pretend you’re doing fine, then you can hardly imagine or begin to grasp—much less live into—the gracious goodness God is striving to bring about for you and for God’s earth by this way of living wet.

Our Revelation reading may be the Bible’s culminating picture in its final chapter, the river that flows out from God, nourishing the tree of life, without interruption bearing fruit to feed and heal. Again for paradox, even in this final image, we still need healing among nations, to reconcile relationships. But that opportunity is ceaseless. The flow of grace will not be stopped. The crystal clear and bright waters of the river contain no corruption, nothing wrong. Picture the Colorado, flowing and free.  Picture the Jordan River bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara purged and joyful. Picture Otter Creek or your own streams, not only a memory but the locations of your future. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life and endless potential. Picture the confluence where your life mingles and flows with all of creation.

This is where God’s current is carrying us. All creation recognizes it. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We brim with God and all creation in this promise for life. Shall we gather at the river?

Advertisements
Standard

Temptations and More

sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent        (Mark1:9-15; Genesis9:8-17)
We can start by whittling away at this Gospel reading.

We already heard vv9-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord festival in early January. A couple weeks later, we heard vv14 & 15 with the start of Jesus’ ministry and calling the first disciples. So of this Gospel reading, the only part we hadn’t heard recently was vv12 & 13. Somebody must have decided to stretch today’s story by adding on those other pieces, thinking we needed more context and content, or that you’d claim you hadn’t gotten your money’s worth at a Sunday service with only two verses of Gospel reading.

Now, the lectionary always has a story of the temptation of Jesus on the 1st Sunday in this season. At least in part that’s because our 40 days of Lent are somehow supposed to parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In years when we hear from Matthew or Luke, there’s actual content to the temptation story. Instead of Mark’s two verses, their versions go on for around a dozen verses, and also include plot and dialogue and action.

In Mark, we’re left with something like four characters with a single verb each. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn, since they have implications for you, too.

We might as well start with the Spirit, since she’s the big motivating factor in the reading. Verse 12 says, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” Now our translation says this Spirit had descended “like a dove on him” at his baptism, but it would be better to say the Spirit is taking up residence in him. That’s not just because it’d be weird to picture Jesus walking around with a bird on his head, but more because this is what spirits do in the Gospel: they inhabit and claim you, taking over your life. Quite literally, they possess you. We’ve heard that of unclean spirits in recent weeks, but this is the clean spirit, the Holy Spirit, and those others unholy spirits.

That all makes it even more interesting that the Holy Spirit did the same thing to Jesus that he does to unclean spirits: it drove him out or cast him out. Mostly this is a word used for what Jesus did to demons, including three times in the first chapter alone. This is one of the differences that makes Mark’s version of this story so lively. In Matthew and Luke, it blandly says the Spirit led Jesus. Here in Greek, the Spirit literally “threw him out,” ekballei, like “ball” and ek like exit.

Now we can’t say exactly why we needed such a tough word of the Spirit expelling Jesus, with such oomph either away from society or out toward temptation. But it is a strong reminder for us of God’s work. If you imagined that the Spirit is only a gentle guide to lead you quietly, this says she’s a much more demanding and powerful force.

The only other time the Holy Spirit comes up in the Gospel is in giving you the words you need. Just as Jesus won’t allow you to be occupied by the negative spirits, so this holy protector and advocate comes strongly to your defense. And she seizes hold of you to operate in you for God’s good purposes. So that’s the first of our four characters and their single verbs.

Since we’re talking about the holy versus the unholy, or God’s good work and what tries to interrupt that, let’s proceed to Satan. Verse 13 begins, Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Like the Spirit, Satan isn’t really a major character in the rest of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the only other time Satan is identified is when Jesus rebuked him, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” But in that case, Jesus was talking to his closest disciple Peter, because Peter wanted to convince Jesus away from his mission, that he didn’t need to die on the cross. Satan is also symbolized as a bird that tries to pluck the seed of God’s Word away from us, so that our faith can’t cling to God’s promise, to grow in trust.

The word “tempted” is also rarely used in Mark’s Gospel. Each of three times is about Jesus being tested by the Pharisees, to try to get him to stumble in his teaching or to do a miracle. It’s worth noting that Jesus doing miracles on demand would be giving in to temptation. That’s because faith is about trust, and if Jesus is constantly on trial and proving himself there’s no room for trust. Just picture if you tested your loved ones every day, saying, “if you love me, prove it.” It would wreck the relationship.

Beyond that, we probably each have our own understandings of Satan or temptation, of what you recognize as evil or try to avoid for whatever reason. In Matthew and Luke, Satan tried to tempt Jesus in three different ways, which Martin Luther grouped into the headings of “the devil, the world, and your sinful self.” The sinful self are those internal, personal appetites or lusts. Maybe for you it’s candy or alcohol. Or related to sex or your looks or possessions. These may not be inherently bad, but get warped by our desires. The category of the world is pride, trying to prove yourself as better, wanting power or prestige over others.

The final, most insidious is the temptation to forsake God’s promise, to turn away from Jesus, to claim this way of suffering love is wrong. This is not doubt; doubt is trying to believe. No, this is despair, claiming you might as well stay in bed on Sunday because this doesn’t matter and there’s nothing special to be gained here. Or it is making your own categories of holiness to exclude others, of making God in your own image. Or maybe the opposite, of excluding a God who would love people like you. These are broad headings of how what we want gets corrupted and leads us away from God’s will for our lives, for our neighbors, and for the world.

For us, we know it’s a struggle we are constantly failing, which is why we need a forceful Holy Spirit, and also lots of forgiveness and grace. For Jesus, all it said was he was “tempted by Satan.” With that, we’ve managed to say a lot about just a couple words from Mark.

So let’s move on to the next cadre of characters: the wild beasts. This, again, is worth noticing as a detail specific to Mark. The wilderness isn’t just a venue for some sort of sudden death spiritual elimination round as Jesus and Satan duked it out. No, Mark says it was also a camping trip. Jesus was in communion with the other creatures.

I heard this talked about recently as if the wild animals were the next scariest thing after Satan. I don’t agree that that’s what’s going on here. It doesn’t say Jesus was fleeing from the wild beasts, but that he was with them. Neither do I expect this is a peaceable kingdom story quite yet, of the wolf and the lamb living together, hanging out with a harmless snake. It’s not a cartoon image. But it is important to notice that these creatures are part of the relationship with Jesus. They’re not left out.

Like in our 1st reading, with that beautiful ending of the flood. We could say so much about it. We picture Noah as the main character, but God is absolutely insistent that this blessing, this new covenant is for all creation. In fact, no less than five times God reiterates the promise, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth…between me and you and every living creature…all flesh.” Maybe it’s redundant not because the animals needed to hear it but because we humans need the reminder of the covenant, and that it’s about God’s work here on this earth. Jesus was with the wild beasts; they aren’t separated from what he’s up to.

It isn’t an individual gift for you, but is establishing blessing for all creation. Perhaps as you gather to be served the blood of the covenant here in the Lord’s Supper, you can also remember this. You share in this broad communion.

That brings us to the last characters in the temptation story. It says, “the angels waited on him.” Just as with the others, it is surprising for angels to show up here. Angels are normally messengers, delivering God’s word. Here they are instead serving food. You might notice that means Jesus isn’t fasting for the 40 days in this version. It’s also the same word of what Peter’s mother-in-law was able to do after Jesus healed her; she was able to go back to making snacks. The word in Greek is a familiar one: the angels were deacons. It was the typical word for serving food.

That also makes us think more of this table where we are gathered into God’s covenant. Where we commune, are united in the promise. Where we’re left to trust in Jesus’ presence with us, though it seems dubious or ridiculous, so unmiraculous. (Plain bread?!) Where we get to step out of our typical roles and practice serving each other.

There at the end of the temptation story, Jesus goes back into his mission and ministry, to regular life. Mark managed to set that stage in only two verses. For our part, we’ve really expanded on it.

So here’s a briefer recap: You arrived here, compelled by the Spirit to come. You are filled with and empowered by—or, even more strongly, possessed by—the Holy Spirit. Second, here you honestly face your own temptations. Third, it’s about understanding your vast community of neighbors on earth, and, fourth, for practicing hospitality and peace and caring. Finally, you are thrown back into daily life in the world to continue that work of serving and strengthening, of resisting evil and joining good.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, Think on Me (ELW #599)

Standard