Sermon
January 13, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do
you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this
way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water,
suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

John 5:1-9
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew
Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids -- blind,
lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight
years.  When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a
long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?"
The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when
the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps
down ahead of me."
Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat and walk."
At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

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Sermon: Take Me to the River

Last fall we rented the movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and ever since I
saw it I wanted to bring one song from the soundtrack into church and use it
in a sermon.  Today's lesson provided the perfect excuse.

Not everyone in our house enjoyed the movie, but I watched it twice - once
for the whole story and a second time just for the music.  The soundtrack
won Country Music Album of the Year and is nominated for the same award at
the Grammys.

The story follows three escaped convicts through their adventures - or
misadventures is probably more accurate - and in the scene associated with
this song they stumble upon a congregation that is walking and singing
through the woods towards a river for a baptismal ceremony.

Two of the convicts are so moved by the sight and sound of this congregation
that they plunge into the river to have their sins washed away and come out
convinced that life has begun anew for them.  Of course, the past does
manage to catch up with them all, but for that you will have to rent the
video.

When you see a full-fledged full-immersion river baptism, it can make an
indoor baptism seem a little watered down - there is just something about
the great outdoors and the power of a river.  In fact, the Bible itself is
bracketed front, back, and center with the presence of the flowing rivers.

Let's start at the beginning, at the creation:
And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden. Out of the ground the LORD God
made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the
tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil.  A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from
there it divides and becomes four branches: The Pishon; the Gihon; the
Tigris, and the Euphrates.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and
keep it.

And let's skip to the end, to the new creation
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first
earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. The angel showed me the
river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of
God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either
side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit,
producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the
healing of the nations.

In the middle of the Bible narrative we find two rivers - one is a river of
despair and the other is a river of hope.  The river of despair is in
Babylon, where the people are forlorn in exile and the psalmist cries out:
By the rivers of Babylon -- there we sat down and there we wept when we
remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our
captors asked us for songs.  How could we sing the LORD's song in a foreign
land?

The river of hope is the setting for our Gospel this morning, the river
Jordan, where the crowds are gathering and John is baptizing.  And Jesus
comes to him but John resists: "I need to be baptized by you, and do you
come to me?" And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the
water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,
"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

There must be something about the power of the river that places it at the
center of creation's story, at its beginning and at its end.

We should know what that is, living along the banks of a river as we do in
New Milford.  I admit, when I'm crossing it on the way to the high school at
7:00 am I don't often ponder it's spiritual significance, because I'm just
wondering how long is the line at the light at Lanesville.  But listen, for
a minute, to the opening words of the 1946 book "The Housatonic, Puritan
River" by Chard Powers Smith:

People frequently look out at the cosmos or into their own hearts, searching
for some fixed reality they can call God, some rock to anchor to beneath the
shifting surfaces of life.  For this purpose, no symbol is better than that
of a great river, whose surface of easy or tumultuous flow is forever
changing and unstable, yet to the eye and ear is always the same...  The
value of a river as a symbol of eternal truth is increased if the valley
through which it flows likewise suggests permanence beyond change, if the
hills are wide and gracious under the sky.  Significantly among the rivers
of America today, the Housatonic and its valley combine these qualifications
as symbols of the truth that many seek and some sometimes find.

How little did we realize there was such a rich resource for spiritual
nurture flowing just a stone's throw from our door.  But I don't want to
confuse the river with what the river reveals. That was the problem of the
sick man by the pool in Jerusalem in our second lesson this morning. When
Jesus saw him lying there he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The
sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the
water is stirred up;

This was a place of healing, but there was a certain ritual to the healing -
healing was only for the first person into the water after the water was
stirred up by the wind.

He did not realize that the same spirit that set the water in its course and
that stirred it up and that healed the sick was fully present in front of
him, in the flesh, in the person of our Lord.  Then Jesus said to him,
"Stand up, take your mat and walk."  And at once the man was made well, and
he took up his mat and began to walk.

I said earlier that after seeing a full-fledged full-immersion river
baptism, an indoor baptism might seem a little watered down - but in truth
it is not.  Because faith is not really about the setting or the symbols,
its not about what surrounds us, its about an inner connection between our
mortal spirit and the eternal spirit of God.  Anything that can help
establish this connection is great, but eventually it's what sense of
assurance you have in your heart when you lie down at night and close your
eyes and the only river at hand is the river of your own thoughts, desires,
delights, fears, hopes, regrets, plans and prayers.

In baptism God declares that each child is his own, each child is chosen,
each precious, each beloved.  But we put ourselves into prisons when we
think we have to earn or even steal what God has freely given.  We put our
hopes in ourselves and others, and like the man at the pool we soon realize
that others will disappoint us and we do not have the power in ourselves to
find solace in the healing waters. Like the escaped convicts we might break
free and if we're lucky we'll hear a song of faith and witness a sacrament
of conversion and we too will plunge into the river to have and come out
convinced that life has begun anew.  Amen


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