Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 12, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Amos, like all good prophets, does not mince words. Moved by the will and vision of God, he states clearly that the trappings of religion are traps. Religious practices that remain in the sanctuary, that do not translate into faithful lives in our streets, are a trap. We must break out of the traps we set in the name of God in order to free ourselves and each other in response to the will of God. We must let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
For many of my colleagues, this is the one day a year where they can “safely” preach about justice. By which Amos, and all of the prophets, means a balancing of the scales between the haves and have-nots in the world that we live in right now. This is, obviously, not a worry for me. We are a congregation that readily acknowledges the imbalances of the world and gives generously of our time, talent, and treasure to even them out. So what more is there to say? Should I just invite us to do high fives and move on to the next hymn? We could be to the coffee and cookies in 15 minutes!
As I prayed this scripture, and about our church—as I considered our consistent willingness to jump into justice and righteousness—I found myself wondering about the stream’s source and its structure.
Because water takes a toll. Whether it is sitting or trickling or raging, water changes everything it touches. Water grows plants but water also rots wood. Flood water can ruin a home but clean water can revive it.
And God would have justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice and righteousness, those are rivers that come with a lot of debris, sudden rapids, and toxic spills, as well as seemingly eternal doldrums, unmoving.
If we are to create the conditions so that justice and righteousness are as strong as the Niagra and as wide as the Mississippi, then we had better make sure the riverbeds are deep and the banks strong. We had better keep our eyes as much on the source of justice and righteousness as those destinations, or we may find ourselves overwhelmed by waves or so tired of rowing our oars that we jump ship for dry land, just like Amos’ original audience.
So today I want to look at the waters of creation and those of baptism.
The Bible is not, of course, a biological textbook. It is a metaphysical one, it is a theological assertion about the nature of life. And it asserts that life began in the moment holiness invited deep water to do a new thing. And it asserts that it is good.
Over and over again in Genesis as the divine brings forth from water and not-yet-substance the elements of life that are familiar to us, and those that are strange, God says, “It is good.” Creation is good and God has faith that we have the capacity to tend to that goodness.
We fail, of course, out of our hubris, but we do not destroy the goodness. Every river, including those of justice and righteousness, continues to flow out from Eden, keeping us connected to our source, to the goodness we need and the goodness to which we can return.
Which is what Jesus then invites us to do, when he steps into water to make a new thing.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—our gospel communities—do not agree on everything when it comes to Jesus. They don’t agree on whether his birth was special; they do not agree on whether Jesus understood himself to be an anointed one or not; they do not agree on how many times Jesus appeared after Good Friday or to whom.
But in all four gospels Jesus is baptized by water and the Holy Spirit in the Jordan River. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, meaning his very first intentional, public demonstration of what it means to be faithful to God, is going into a crowd and then immersing his whole self into that tributary of creation’s deep so that he could rise up again as a force for creation’s redemption.
We do the same thing when we are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
In our baptisms, or later in our confirmation if we were baptized as children, we vow to renounce the powers of evil through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We vow to profess Jesus Christ as teacher, guide, agitator, and scandalous presence. And we vow, by the grace of God, to resist oppression to show love and justice as best we are able.
And we do so as Jesus did: publicly. He did not have a secret baptism. Jesus isn’t directing us into the water alone. Jesus knows that bodies of water are dangerous, including the ones God expects us to unleash. We need to go with a crowd, or at least a few other disciples, in case we do not come up after going under.
That is why, after the one who comes to the font makes their promises, so do all of us here gathered, too: We promise, by the grace of God, to grow with the baptized in the Christian faith, by celebrating Christ’s presence and by furthering Christ’s mission in all the world.
Jesus made it clear to all who had eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to listen, that the teaching, healing, feeding, eating, resting, and resisting yet to come, the rivers of justice and righteousness he let flow, have their beginning in the waters of God’s goodness and their success in the collective strength of community.
THIS IS IT
Justice work is taxing and slow and will never be done in our lifetimes. We are not buckets or boats, ready-made to receive, permanently resilient to the erosions of energy and heart that the river of righteousness leaves behind.
But we do have this. (At this point I have set up the font and am pouring water into it.) From the time before time, through Eden, and through the flood. Through the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Through the fonts of early house churches and the baptisteries of full immersion. Through the Ames aquifer and into this pitcher here.
Baptism by water and Holy Spirit is where we enter into the rivers of justice and righteousness and this is how we stay afloat no matter where or how hard they flow.
I know it is not our tradition to do altar calls—we don’t even have an altar, but a Communion table—but Amos has made it clear what to think of tradition. So is there anyone here today who has not been baptized and would like to find freedom from the trappings of fear, isolation, and propriety, to know the goodness God intends for us? Is there anyone here today who has not been baptized who would like to tap into the source of goodness in order to work for freedom with those who are trapped by racism, poverty, and illness?
If so, please come forward now. (One person did. He made his vows and then we made ours.)
Is there anyone here today who has been baptized, and would like to renew that baptism, to be reminded of the deep rivers of goodness from which we come and the collective strength of this community in which we worship and work?
If so, come forward now. (As they did, we sang “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”.)