“Gather at the river and be gathered”
Rev. George C. Wong's Sermon for the 10th of January, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord
A feast day that falls on January 10 is at peril of getting lost in the afterglow of Advent, Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany. Yet, it would be short sighted to gloss over this day. It is a significant feast day inextricably linked with those preceding celebrations as a day on which we remember the Baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus transports us to the banks of the river Jordan. The river is more than an incidental backdrop for the Baptism of Jesus; that smallish river barely weighs in above a creek in status, yet was chosen to be the site of the pinnacle of John’s ministry and the place of initiation for the ministry of Jesus. In many ways the river connects with and highlights the larger mission of Jesus.
Rivers have always fascinated me, perhaps because I only knew a man-made version for many years. I grew up about 200 yards from a stretch of the Los Angeles River, which is nothing like a bona fide natural river. Fearful of its power to sweep away anything in its way during rainy season, the residents of Los Angeles lobbied the government to tame the river. The LA River long ago ceased to be a river; instead it is flood channel and an enormous engineering endeavor which literally shaped nature to fit the requirements of a sprawling metropolis. Built by the Army Corp of Engineers, the riverbed and its banks are an immense concrete channel which snakes fifty miles through the heart of downtown, the inner city and on into the sprawling outer suburbs. Occasionally a patch of weeds or shrubs will break through the concrete. Tires and shopping carts form part of the landscape down in the channel. In short, it is a bleak, industrialized picture of a river.
The naturalist and poet named Lewis Mac Adams starting off his loving elegy for the much maligned river with the words: “Where did it go?”
Even concrete rivers draw people. I went to school with a kid name Ron (not his actual name) who lived in a nearby neighborhood, also by the river.
A friend since first grade, Ron changed over time. Perhaps to compensate for his shyness, he began looking for ways to get attention. If I heard the occasional explosion in the riverbed, I guessed it was likely Ron throwing an M-80, essentially a super-sized firecracker, off the bridge into the channel. Ron loved that the boom of the initial explosion as it echoed off the massive concrete walls of the river. He never got in trouble, probably because he could pass for a choir boy maybe even a human cherub with ruddy cheeks, freckles and green eyes. I think being one of seven children with two working parents, he got lost in the shuffle of his large family. The choir boy and cherub on the outside was lost.
I will come back the desire to be noticed later, but I want to speak a few words about other aspects of rivers.
Most here know that the rectory sits less than 200 yards off the banks of the Rockaway River. I am glad that even though the Rockaway River has at times flowed over banks as it did during Sandy, that it hasn’t been paved over—which would be a huge loss to me and many I see walking along it and fishing in it.
It recently dawned on me that the Rockaway River and the Jordan River bear a surprising resemblance to each other. The Jordan is deeper and also murkier, but if rivers could be such cousins, they are. One particular thing about the Jordan river is that it runs along the border of Israel and Jordan. A checkpoint restricts access on the Israeli side; we had to wait about three hours on our bus during which time security boarded and scrutinized our passports and confirmed that we were on a religious pilgrimage.
Additionally, our amazing, seasoned guide from St. George’s College reminded us to not to make sudden movements on the banks and not to venture into the river too far. That could have been taken as trespassing into Jordan and we could be arrested or possibly shot by a jumpy border guard.
And, it is severely polluted, its natural flow mostly replaced by partially treated sewage water generated by all the occupants of the region. Like almost everything else in the Holy land, the River Jordan is both a source of life and also subject to complications and messiness borne of regional rivalries, geopolitics and the struggle for water and resources. In short, it is a thin watery thread of life that is perfect by virtue of being so ordinary and flawed.
2,000 years ago some of these political, and environmental challenges were not the same; but it was still a small, brackish, non-descript river. Remember the story of Naaman, the leper, who had initially refused to wash in the Jordan because it was not pristine like the great rivers of his homeland.
So, given that the Jordan river has such shortcomings, why did Jesus choose to be baptized in the Jordan?
Perhaps, by jumping into that murky river—the baptism of Jesus stands as a prime example of the willingness of Jesus to get into the muck alongside each of us.
We might like Ron feel down in the muck and lost in the shuffle especially these days in the midst of pandemic, social and political unrest. I think Ron was desperate for an Epiphany; no amount of misguided acting out or needy antics could substitute for a spiritual breakthrough—one that let him know he was loved and worthy of love. It has been many years since our days in grade school and I long ago lost touch, so I don’t know if Ron ever found the comfort and peace. I don’t know if he ever had an Epiphany.
But we are fortunate today, because today we celebrate of the Baptism of our Lord, one of the three Epiphanies of Christ. Perhaps it is something we have been hungering for as well. At the Jordan river, Jesus shows that he will plunge in with us; from the banks of the Jordan on that day, he showed that we are not alone even if it feels like it sometimes.
The Son of God descended from the heavens on high and stood in that murky, undersized river.
In process, as the fisher of men and women, he casts a net that is wide enough to catch all of humanity:
The poor and the rich
the black, the white, the brown, the yellow,
the able bodied, the disabled,
the sick, the healthy,
the wise, the uniformed,
the hurting, the successful,
the educated, the uneducated,
the young, the wizened
the ones who are ignored, the ones who are the center of attention,
the hopeful, and the discouraged, that is to say, all of us with all our better and more challenged dimensions.
God never fails to be there for us smack dab in the river of life—Jesus showed that back then, and it remains true today for all those who follow in his footsteps and for those who are led by the power of the Spirit Jesus left behind to guide us.
Let us then you and I go down to the river and wade in the water with Jesus, the one who came to gather up, console and make whole each and every one of us.
A conjunction and more
The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
The 3rd of January 3, 2021
We recently experienced a conjunction junction. No, I am not talking about the catchy School House Rock “conjunction junction what’s your function. Hooking up phrases and clauses”.
School House rock holds a special place in my memory but I am talking about an even more impressive conjunction, a celestial conjunction.
This Christmas, astronomers said Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. That happens when the two planets orbit so closely together that they appear in the skies to be a shining star. It has been over 800 years since the conjunction has shown as brightly. The amazing thing is that it could be detected even with all the light noise present in our skies.
Apart from a few far flung, remote locations around the globe, we do not have access to the nightscape free of light pollution. So, even if you can detect something like a conjunction, no one can really know what the star of Christmas like 2,000 years ago in the pristine pitch black skies free from any man made lights to distort or distract.
We don’t have access to those kinds of skies but we can easily imagine that the Wise Men’s attention must have been captured by an exceptionally radiant star--its shimmering visible to eyes turned towards heaven. We have learned much about stars even within the last few years. Only recently able to do so with the help of new technology, astronomers, including some working locally at the American Natural History Museum, were able to calculate and confirm that there are billions of stars in the universe. But on that night, out of the billions of stars, one in particular illuminated the skies and the town of Bethlehem.
William Wordsworth described just such a divinely illuminated nightscape in the first lines of his poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light
As learned scholars, the Wise Men would have been trained in the reqisite disciplines of the day, including astronomy. So, they would not have followed just any star but only a star which dressed the earth in celestial light. When they detect this impossibly brilliant star, they packed up some very precious gifts and supplies for a journey and began to follow its movement. They arrived at Jerusalem, at the center of power and prestige—quite the fitting place for things of great magnitude to occur. They make inquiries of the powers that be: “Where is the child? We have observed his star at his rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
The Wise men must have been surprised that there was not a gathering around the child in Jerusalem. Why did they not see the child anywhere in the city? Why was there no talk of the child on the streets? Christopher Smart poses a similar question in his famous poem about the whereabouts of baby Jesus:
Where is this Stupendous Stranger?
Prophets, shepherds, kings, advise!
Lead me to my Master’s manger,
Show me where my Saviour lies.
Alerted by these three foreign scholars, word of the birth of the child sends the chief priests and the scribes into a frenzy because they know the prophet Micah had long ago written that Bethlehem would give rise to the King of the Jews, the King of all Kings.
Herod knows he cannot possibly hold a candle to this Messiah. So he seeks to extinguish the life of that baby boy, by trickery and lies and by any means necessary. Only by virtue of a dream, are the wise men led away and thus avoid leading Herod to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.
The light and the baby that the light pointed towards stirred up much action even commotion. The Wise Men left Jerusalem, having understood what they were looking for was elsewhere. They recalibrate and move towards Bethlehem to find the promised One.
For his part, Herod seeks the baby to eliminate a potential rival and to suppress any and all competition.
The contrasting reactions of the Wise Men and Herod demonstrate something very important about the birth of Jesus.
In a way, the birth of Jesus and Epiphany is a time of decision. Which way do we turn?
We can like as did the Wise Men scan the horizon and take notice of the signs of wonder pointing towards Jesus.
We can follow the star of Wonder, the star of night.
We can bring and offer Jesus the best of what we have in paying him homage.
All of these would be to recognize that Jesus has come to be our star, to be our light. A light which lifts us out of the abyss that surrounds us.
Or we can do the opposite like Herod and react in fear.
Or, perhaps liking neither of those options, we can do nothing.
The grammatical conjunction helps illuminate what is possible and not possible because the one thing we cannot do is to turn both towards Jesus AND turn away from Jesus—that conjunction does not work in life, at least not at the same time.
On the matter of this kind of choice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote in an essay called the “The Two Ways” that we are invited to decide if Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, or not.
And Williams writes further, just as God was free to send his Son to be with us in the guise of a baby boy, we are free to choose Jesus. During the season of Epiphany and at many other junctures, we are given signs to help point the way to Jesus whose life began in the most humble, unassuming way possible in that manger. What might we decide?
The decision changes everything because it impacts the entire arc of our journey from that point on. It is important to remember that the Wise Men started with Bethlehem, but it was just a start.
Epiphany continues that celebration started at Christmas and draws us towards Jesus. Arriving, we find the light that has shone from the beginning of creation, but which was revealed to us in Jesus.
May we in the words of the refrain of our sequence hymn, We Three Kings, find ourselves moving towards Bethlehem always:
O star of wonder, star of light,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light
And this season may each of you bask in the warming, illuminating, transforming, energizing, life-affirming light of Christ!
George C. Wong
is the Rector