|Underground Railroad Memorial, Detroit|
“Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?”
The people of God had finally reached their destination. The Promised Land lay on the other side of the Jordan. Joshua gathers the people at the river’s edge and tells them to follow the Ark of the Covenant into the river. The Ark of the Covenant is the sign of God’s presence with the people. If you’ve seen the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know what the Ark looks like. Joshua tells the people that when the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touch the water, the river will part, so they can pass to the other side on dry land.
As I prepared for the sabbatical, I came across a book titled The Meaning of Rivers, which describes the various ways rivers figure in American literature. According to the author, the defining characteristic of a river is its flow, its fluidity. This is how he describes our encounters with rivers.
Rivers move, flowing over land, through history, and among diverse groups of people, changing considerably from their source to their destination; they also stay, permanent blue lines on our maps, constant waypoints and lasting landmarks. Rivers connect—state with state, interior with exterior, one region with another, the past with the present; but they also separate nations, subcultures, and families. In short, rivers do not cede their meanings easily. [The Meaning of Rivers, p. xii].
As we move through these next three months, each in our own ways, we’ll have the opportunity to consider the meaning of rivers as they relate to our experiences with God, with the church, and with the world. I discovered from my reading of The Meaning of Rivers that there are different ways of experiencing a river. Sometimes we’ll just want to sit beside the river and contemplate its flow. There will be other times when we’ll follow the Ark of the Covenant into the river and cross over to the other side. I suppose we might get in a boat and head down the river to lies further on. Time and place will determine the choice.
The opening chapters of the book of Joshua describe Israel’s entrance into the land God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Once the people of Israel lived in slavery in Egypt, but God heard their cries and sent Moses to lead them through the sea to freedom. It took a while, but now the people stand at the river’s edge ready to cross over into the land of promise. But that will take a step of faith. Life is like that. The way forward involves a certain amount of risk, because we don’t know what tomorrow holds for us. The river marks the end of one part of the journey, and when we cross over to the other side, we begin a new chapter.
The story of the Exodus and the eventual crossing into the Promised Land has always stirred the hearts of people seeking freedom from oppression and slavery. These are stories that fueled the imagination of slaves who believed that there was a better future for them. We hear these stories four hundred years to the very day that the first African slaves were brought to the English Colonies. If you go down to the Detroit waterfront, you’ll find a monument to those intrepid women, men, and children who fled slavery and headed north toward freedom in Canada. We hear this story at a time when people are fleeing oppression in Central America and elsewhere. They’re hoping to find asylum in this country. They too hope to cross a river to a Promised Land.
Unfortunately, whenever we read from the Book of Joshua we have to recognize that Israel’s experience of freedom came at the expense of the people living in the land, the people the author of Joshua says God will drive out. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated occasion. Down through history freedom for one has often led to the loss of freedom for others. We only have to look to the Native American story to understand this reality. We can only hear a word from God in the Book of Joshua if we attend to this part of our own history.
This story from Joshua 3 is but one of many biblical stories involving rivers. Many of these stories speak of moments of transformation. Over the next three months, we’ll have the opportunity to listen for the voice of God and discern in different ways where God is leading us as a people. That future will involve change, and that can be scary, but it can also lead to blessing.
In chapter 4 of Joshua, the people take rocks from the river and set up a monument so that they can remember their journey to the Promised Land. As you look around the sanctuary, you’ll find monuments to the journey we’re taking. There’s a new banner that beautifully captures the theme. We’re using blue as a liturgical color to help us envision our spiritual encounters with water. You’ll find rocks and stones that serve as a “sign among you [so that] when your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ Then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.” (Josh. 4:6-7)
The story we hear in Joshua describes an act of faith. The people have to step out in faith if they’re going to cross over the river. But, sometimes, before we cross the river, there’s time to simply gather at the river and contemplate its flow. We might decide to cast a line in to see if a fish or two will bite. Or maybe we’ll just lay back and take in the sights and sounds of the river. When we do this, we might recognize the fragility of our rivers and decide to do something about protecting them. Perhaps we’ll decide to travel down the river a ways before we cross over. When it comes time to crossing over, we might need to build a bridge or maybe we’ll take a ferry or perhaps we’ll decide to swim. Sometimes the river is shallow enough and calm enough that we can simply wade across. Whatever mode we choose, the point is getting across to the other side so we can see what God has for us on that side of the river.
For us, as a congregation, and for me as a pastor, rivers and other bodies of water will serve as markers on the journey to a new future. We don’t know what lies on the other side of the river, but over the next three months, we’ll have the opportunity to listen for God’s voice. When I return, we’ll begin a series of important conversations about our future as a congregation. I’ve already been in conversations with some of my local colleagues about doing collaborative ministry. I’m not sure where that will lead, but I’m intrigued. In the meantime, we’ll have an opportunity to contemplate the waters that separate us from that future.
When the ancient Christian theologian Origen contemplated the story of Israel crossing the Jordan, he envisioned the act of baptism. He suggested that Joshua was a type of Jesus. So to cross through the river with Joshua is to be baptized into Christ, and “when we are baptized into Jesus, we know that the living God is in us.”
As we contemplate the journey ahead, it’s worth considering the saying attributed to Heraclitus: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” In other words, just as the water in the river is constantly changing as it flows by, the same is true of our lives. No two days are ever the same. As Scott McMillan reminds us in The Meaning of Rivers, “writings that deal with crossing rivers often have a transformative quality, even though the physical distance may be minimal and the physical nature of there is not much different from here.” [The Meaning of Rivers, p. 128].
So, “shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.” [Robert Lowery, 1864, CH 701].
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 25, 2019