Note: If you watch the sermon video, you will notice that I acknowledge upfront the shootings in El Paso and Dayton. While I did not change the sermon, I made clear that we must speak to this violence. The sermon itself as written does, in fact, speak to these realities.
Just a few days back some of us crossed the mighty Mississippi on our way to and from the General Assembly in Des Moines. As far as I know, nobody tried to wade across the river. It’s too deep and too wide to wade across. We either drove across bridges or took a plane to Iowa, because unlike Moses or Joshua or Elijah, none of us appears to have the power to divide the waters.
Whether it’s a river, a lake, or a sea, water plays an important role in the biblical story. The very first sentences of Genesis declare: “when God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and wind from God sweeping over the water—God said ‘Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:1-3 Tanakh). That was the first day of creation, but on the third day of creation, God separated the waters so that dry land could appear (Gen. 1:9).
Throughout the biblical story, people cross bodies of water, are baptized in water, or seek water to sustain their lives. Of course, there is the story of Noah and the flood, which serves as a sign of judgment, which means water can destroy as well as sustain life. Water also often serves as a sign of transition.
Consider that God called Abraham and Sarah, who lived beyond the rivers, to cross those rivers and head to Canaan. Jacob wrestled with the angel before crossing the Jabbok to meet Esau. Israel crossed the sea to escape slavery in Egypt, and then forty years later, Israel crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spent time crossing rivers and lakes, while Paul sailed the seas on his missionary journeys. As the biblical story comes to a close in the book of Revelation, the people of God gather at the River of Life. We may be land dwellers, but water is clearly part of the story.
Since water plays such an important role in the biblical story, it seemed fitting to center the upcoming sabbatical around the theme “River Crossings.” Biblical stories centered around water can provide a starting point for conversations we’ll be having in the coming months about the future of the congregation. Since I don’t believe the future is predetermined, I can’t say what that future looks like. I have some ideas, but we need to listen for the voice of God. Where is God leading? What rivers and seas must we cross as participate in the unfolding of God’s work of redemption of the world?
Now, crossing bodies of water can be intimidating. Sometimes we need a bit of a push. It’s good to remember that it took the approaching hoofbeats of pharaoh’s army to get Israel moving across the seabed toward freedom. The same is true for us. Sometimes we need to be pushed before we take important steps into the future. One of those steps might include new forms of ministry collaboration, like the one I discussed with the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Troy just the other day. Collaboration is, I think, part of our DNA, so this shouldn’t be a big jump for us, but it’s still a step into the water that leads to a new future.
The word we hear in Isaiah 43 was delivered to exiles living alongside the rivers of Babylon. They were probably wondering what the future held. Would they ever return home? If so, was it worth the move? As they pondered the rivers they would have to cross in the coming years, the prophet reminded them that they were precious in the sight of God. Because God created this people called Israel, they needn’t be afraid of the rivers yet to be crossed.
The words we hear this morning from Isaiah are filled with compassion, grace, and mercy. But, they follow right after strong words of judgment. When we take Isaiah 42 and 43 together, we’re reminded that redemption involves repentance. God’s love might be unconditional, but to fully experience that love we have to address our areas of brokenness. Then we can be that movement of wholeness in a fragmented world, which is a world filled with violence, anger, hatred, and greed that needs redeeming. Yes, there are rivers that must be crossed so that the world might be redeemed. The good news is that “when you walk through water, I will be with you; through streams, they will not overwhelm you” (Is. 43:2 Tanakh). That is because, according to God: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” God declares to those who are precious in God’s sight: “fear not, for I am with you” (vs. 5 Tanakh).
This is a good word to hear as we get ready for the sabbatical. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a bit anxious. I’m not concerned about what I’m going to do while I’m away, but I want to make sure everything is in place so the congregation has a good experience. I hope you miss me, but I want you to be blessed. So, I want to make sure everything is ready to go when I leave. I know we’ve been through this before, but I have this fear that something might fall between the cracks. That’s why, I take comfort in this word given through Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I am with you” as we cross the rivers that lay before us.
I began the sermon contemplating crossing the wide Mississippi. Then I thought about the not quite so wide Detroit River. Both rivers are much too deep to wade through, and as far as I know, none of us is gifted with parting waters so people can walk across the rivers on dry land. But, these two rivers share an important quality. Both rivers serve as borders. The Mississippi separates Illinois from Iowa. The Detroit River separates the United States and Canada. I remember quite visually my first experience with this river that separates countries. Dick Zimmerman took us down to Belle Isle so we could see Canada. I’ve done the same for our out-of-town guests. It’s kind of amazing.
Just like the biblical rivers and seas and lakes, these two rivers mark places of transition and change. When you cross through that tunnel into Windsor, the speed signs are marked in kilometers and the temperature is measured in centigrade. Customs officers on the other side of the river ask for passports and ask why we’re crossing the river. Am I tourist, or am I seeking refuge?
There are people lining up at the southern border hoping they can find refuge north of the border. It might be a river or it might not, but there is a border to be crossed. That border crossing can involve fear and trepidation. I pray they hear the comforting words of God: “Fear not, for I am with you.”
Getting back to the Sabbatical, there will be a number of opportunities to consider the theme of “River Crossings.” In sermons, Bible studies, and seminars, there will be opportunities to reflect on stories from Scripture that speak of water crossings. Most of these stories speak of moments of change, transition, and transformation. It might be the story of a child pulled from the waters by pharaoh’s daughter. It could be the story of Israel’s departure from Egypt through the waters of the sea. Or it might be the story of the people crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. None of this was easy. According to Scripture, it took some forty years of wandering in the desert before the nation entered the Promised Land. Some of the people got tired of the journey and thought about returning to Egypt and slavery. Then when the people got to the Jordan, there were those who were reluctant to cross the river because they heard reports that the so-called Promised Land was really quite dangerous! Each time we come to the river, we hear the word of God declaring: “fear not, for I am with you.”
We may not know what lies on the other side of the river, but if we choose to wade through the waters, God’s promise remains with us. With God’s promise to be with us as we pass through the waters, may take a bold step forward into the river, singing: “I want Jesus to walk with me. All along my pilgrim journey, O, I want Jesus to walk with me.”