Sunday, April 18, 2010

God is a River: the sermon

GOD IS A RIVER (an auction sermon)
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 18, 2010

It’s always a lot of fun to put a sermon topic up for grabs at the annual auction; I never know who might buy it and what they might select as a topic. I find it is always a nice surprise and the topics folks choose are as varied as the choosers. One thing I can count on---that each topic will take me in another spiritual and religious direction.

When Gloria bought the chance to name a topic, she asked if I would be willing to consider a song as a basis for a sermon and---you know me---I was delighted at the idea. She brought me words and music to several of her favorites and asked me to choose the one that spoke to me.

It’s funny how songs can affect us. It can be the melody or the harmony or the catchy rhythm; it can be the words or the people who are singing the song. A song can express joy or sorrow or confusion or it can be humorous. My favorite songs tend to be the songs that express an idea that I resonate to.

So I listened to all the songs Gloria gave me and read their words, but the minute Peter Mayer’s music started, my mind was flooded with images.

I saw myself playing in gentle Ecola Creek at Cannon Beach in Oregon, as a child, wondering what it was like farther upstream as it slipped quietly and mysteriously out of the Coast Range forest.

I thought of wandering along a tiny stream through a horse pasture in eastern Oregon, noticing how even in such a small current the eddies and ripples could form.

I remembered living on the banks of the Columbia River in the Gorge and watching the river in flood stage, wondering what it was like before the dams went in and remembering the fishermen at Celilo Falls in the 50’s.

Then, on Outward Bound in Colorado many years ago, facing the rapids of Lodore Canyon in Dinosaur National Monument as a total rafting novice, clutching my paddle and barely hearing the words of our instructor as I gazed at the turbulent waters of a rapid ominously named Hell’s Half Mile.

I saw in my mind’s eye the indelible image of our African American Outward Bound river guide Jesse, reaching down to snatch a struggling teenager out of the maelstrom of Warm Springs rapid in Dinosaur, on a later student trip I’d organized while a teacher at my Colorado junior high.

I felt again the icy shock of the water as I let myself down into the Green River in Utah, to experience being buoyed up by my lifejacket, trying to remember the guide’s directions: if you fall overboard, point your feet downstream so you can bounce off the rocks, steer with your arms as best you can, your lifejacket will hold you up and the river will carry you.

The sweet memory of our four year old son, asleep in his lifejacket on our raft as we rode the currents of the Upper Snake river in Idaho, asleep, that is, until a sudden riffle splashed him awake giggling.

A few years later, shivering with cold and trying to keep my son warm after a drenching rainstorm while rafting the North Fork of the Platte in Colorado, a scary experience with hypothermia.

A languid drift down through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons in canoes and then a mud bath underneath the crumbled structures of an Anasazi ruin.

Watching friends (and some of our food supplies) being tossed into the water as their boat flipped on a huge rapid named Hermit in the Grand Canyon and on that same trip, the sorrow of realizing that my marriage was over and yet finding a tiny bud of hope that things would finally get better.

It’s hard not to take you on a trip with me down memory lane, or perhaps memory river, as I have a long history with rivers, in another life. And rivers have had an important spiritual connection for me.

Peter Mayer speaks, in his song, of thinking a rock in the middle of the stream can be his salvation. He describes the ever-shifting waters of the river of life as scary, uncomfortable, fretful, twisting and turning and he reaches out for something solid, something unmovable, something dependable, something he can cling to.

This is a pretty natural thing to do, as we humans negotiate the river of life. Unfortunately, a rock in the middle of a stream is not a particularly good place to be!

A boat full of people that comes up against a rock in the middle of a river is apt to fill with water on its downside and toss its passengers into the drink, leaving the boat itself pinned against the rock by the current.

A lone human on a rock is almost unsavable, as the current may not allow for rescue by another boat or person. The only way for a person in that pickle to get out of the river is to jump back in the water and float downstream to a welcoming eddy. And, of course, swimming in turbulent waters only works if you’re wearing a good lifejacket.

A river has a way of making human beings come to terms with their own lives. We see in the course of a river the way obstacles in its path shape that path, how an inflow of rock and mud from a tributary stream forms a rapid that changes the surface of the water. And downstream from the rough water, there is inevitably an eddy, a sidewater where the current doubles back on itself and offers rest to boats or logs or lifejacketed passengers who float through.

A river’s life seems much like a human life in the way obstacles shape us, how infusions of new things change our lives, and how a resting place usually appears at the end of the hard times.

We’ve all had times, I suspect, when we did wash up on a solid rock in the middle of the stream of life and had to figure out our next move. We may have looked at the rushing waters of life and realized that we weren’t quite ready to jump back in, that we needed to rest there for awhile and get our strength back. And that worked for awhile, it gave us a chance to think about the best direction to leap, when we left the rock.

But eventually, perched on that rock in the middle of life’s stream, we got cold and hungry, night fell perhaps, or sun beat down so strongly that we were burned and sore. And rocks are HARD, not very comfortable in the longterm, as a bed.

Yet the river looked cold and swift and perhaps there were other things floating by that didn’t look very pleasant. Who in their right mind would jump into that swirling water? But who in their right mind would sit forever on that rock?

Some people do, of course, sit forever on the rock. It might be the rock of inflexible religion, or the rock of an abusive relationship, or the rock of addiction, or the rock of wealth, or the rock of fear, or the rock of anger or the rock of security. There are many rocks of ages in the middle of the stream.

Peter Mayer calls the rock a savior, a safe spot, and he describes his efforts to hold on until the water sweeps him away again. Life will do that sometimes, sweep us back into the current because we can’t hold on any longer. We have no choice but to rejoin the stream, sometimes. It depends on the size of the rock!

What makes it easier to jump back in the stream is the reliability of our lifejacket.

Back in the days when I was first learning to paddle a raft, to steer it in the river, to read the rapids in order to chart the best course through the bumpy waters, I learned a lot about life jackets. I learned that they had to be well made, they had to be well-designed, they had to have enough straps to hold them on securely, they needed to hold one’s head above water, to keep an unconscious person in a breathing position.

A good lifejacket was worth its weight in gold. It mustn’t ever get waterlogged; you didn’t treat your lifejacket carelessly in those days. You didn’t let it get walked on or punctured by thorns, if it was one of the old kapok jackets with plastic covering its cotton filling. It’d take you straight to the bottom if it got soaked. I hope all those old lifejackets are outlawed by now.

But the most important lesson of all was that it was necessary, on the river, to wear my lifejacket all the time we were on the water. On very calm, lazy stretches of river, we might doff them briefly to cool down, but as soon as we approached any riffle, we’d put them right back on. A lifejacket in the bottom of the boat is no protection, even in calm water.

Peter Mayer’s song describes God as a river, a moving stream of life that bears us up, teaches us to let go and let life carry us where it will, and is always tugging at our resistant selves. It’s scary to look at life sometimes; other times it’s gentle and satisfying. Life can be a wild raging rapid or a slow meandering flow; it can be a deep and narrow passage or a peaceful sandy shoal.

What the song doesn’t mention is that letting go of the rock can be easier and safer than it sounds. An unprotected swimmer is in great danger in a river; even the strongest swimmer can drown unexpectedly.

When my brother, at age 16, decided to swim the Columbia River at Maryhill, near Goldendale, my dad was right there beside him in a boat, ready to offer help if necessary, probably with his heart in his mouth because the Columbia was about a mile across at that point! My dad was a strong loving presence ready to help.

A child needs that strong loving presence in order to stay afloat in the river of life; parents and guardians and other adults provide that presence. A grieving widow needs a strong loving presence in order to weather the death of a spouse; sisters and brothers and children and friends provide that presence. A lonely single person needs a strong loving presence in order to find companionship and community; a congregation, a group of old friends, a neighbor can provide that presence.

We all need that strong loving presence to stay afloat in the river of life. We give it to each other and we receive it from each other. That’s the work of a faith community---to give and receive that strong loving presence within these walls and outside this meeting house, in the larger world.

When we build a Habitat House, we’re providing that strong loving presence; when we donate money to Good Cheer, we’re helping Kathy McLaughlin and her crew provide a strong loving presence. When we give appreciation to those who have helped us, we provide that strong loving presence.

But there’s something more that helps us stay afloat in the river of life and that’s our lifejacket, the understandings that we have about life and death that help us not be afraid, that keep our head above water even when we are beset by the crashing waves of life.

I was curious about the many kinds of lifejackets I know are available these days. The old Mae West, so named because its wearers looked as physically well-endowed as the legendary actress Mae West, was bulky and cumbersome and not always reliable, if it had been treated roughly. (No doubt similar to the legendary actress herself!)

Physical life jackets have a wide buoyancy range and are recommended for different activities, from aiding new swimmers to open water rescues and storm-related dangers.

But the metaphorical lifejacket I’m talking about here gives a swimmer in life’s river a buoyancy that comes from a sort of safety net of understandings of life.

Some people may find that their faith in a traditional religious doctrine is an adequate lifejacket for their river of life experience. Others may discover they need to understand more about the river’s behavior and these understandings are a good lifejacket. Yet others swim the river unprotected by the presence of a lifejacket; some of them survive nicely, others go under.

What does a physical life jacket do? It keeps the swimmer’s head above water. It is brightly colored so the swimmer can be easily spotted in the water and it provides a little warmth against hypothermia.

What does a metaphorical life jacket do? It provides a sense of hope. It draws others to us and it provides warmth and security.

But, of course, it can’t protect us from all of life’s stormy waters. People drown in rivers even when they’re wearing a life jacket. It just happens. The currents can overpower a swimmer even then, even pull off a loosely secured lifejacket. What happens then?

Here’s what I think. Nothing can keep us entirely safe in life. No matter what my precautions, things can go wrong. But I still have hope because I have come to understand that we are all connected, that life and death are one, that healing is not necessarily a cure, that loss can be the doorway to great joy.

I have learned not to be scared of the river of life. I know it has its dangers and its pleasures. I know I have only a certain amount of control over my life. I have spent 67 years creating this life and letting life create me and I trust that process.

It could happen that something could go terribly wrong---I could come down with a serious illness or have a bad injury; I could make a dreadful mistake of some kind and have to face the consequences; I could find myself in desperate financial straits under certain circumstances. Lots of things could go wrong. There is a lot I could worry about.

There are things I could worry about that I can’t control: my son’s life is no longer in my hands. I can’t warm him up by the fire anymore when he’s shivering or give him Tylenol when he’s feverish. I have tried to give him a sense of his own lifejacket and he’s been on the river enough that he knows how important a good strong lifejacket is.

So what does my metaphorical lifejacket look like?

Well, mine has invisible cords that connect me to the people in this community and to the friends I have in other places; they aren’t going to let me drown without a fight. My lifejacket has a strong buoyancy that keeps my head above water and helps me see that there is hope out there, that there are people and ideas that can keep me afloat; my lifejacket is a warm layer against my heart that reminds me that the river is beautiful, that it is being what it is, a flowing body of water, and that I am flowing with it.

My lifejacket is my life’s work, what I feel called to do, the service I can render to others, the ministry that I offer you, my congregation, and the larger community. It is the love I have to give to family, to friends, to all of you, and to myself and my household. It is the love I have for music and art and new ideas and books and conversations.

I am continually repairing my lifejacket, to keep it in good condition; I read and I think and I talk with people about the insights and ideas that keep me alive, keep me thinking, keep me connecting with the universe.

I keep my lifejacket on all the time I am on the river of life; I never know when I might need it. I don’t set it aside very often, because I need it to help me remember to be authentic, to be kind, to be an instrument of justice, to be humble as I swim this river of life, which the song calls God.

My lifejacket helps me float down the river of life----with my feet out in front of me so that I can bounce off the rocks, with my arms steering as best I can, and with the trust in my heart that I will find a resting place at the end of the rapids.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that others may need us to buoy them up, and let us keep our lifejackets in good repair so that we don’t let ourselves or others down. May we serve our community well and grow as we serve. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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