“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.
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George C. Wong
is the Rector
M, T, Th 7:45 am - 2:30pm
(1) 973 627 3304
155 Morris Avenue, Denville, NJ 07834