a sermon built on a river

Fourth Sunday in Season of Creation | River Sunday
Texts: Genesis 8:20-22; 9:12-17 | Psalm 104:27-33 | Revelation 22:1-5 | Matthew 28:1-10

This sermon focuses on the reading from Revelation. I invite the reader spend time with the vision in Revelation 21 and 22 along with this sermon.

Our home is a city built on a river. Like so many other cities, the Chicago we know today owes its existence to the community of waterways that surround it. The Chicago River is relatively short but hugely important because, by way of the Chicago Portage, the river connects two massive systems of waterways: the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. From ancient times, these waterways have been a source of life, like a network of arteries and veins: delivering nutrients, carrying away waste, and constantly refreshing the ecosystem with new water.

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In this map, created by by geographer Robert Szucs, the Mississippi River basin is shown in pink.

These days, the rivers carry goods and materials, ideas, services, and people in an economic circulatory system that reaches every cell of our reality. The exchange of products for money, and money for life, forms the basis of the ecosystem. Rivers deliver profit and wealth to the powerful, and carry away pollution to the vulnerable. A short water taxi ride from the Loop to Chinatown takes riders past fancy restaurants and luxury condos, expensive hotels and extravagant skyscrapers, like monstrous trees of economic equality on either side, with roots deep in the soil of capitalism, and leaves that poison the city with economic, racial, and gender oppression.

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This is just one side of the city we live in, but it is a side that I I know many of you experience every day. Every day you walk by people who are experiencing homelessness. You or someone you know can’t afford to pay rent. It feels impossible to find sufficient healthcare. You’re working to make the world a better place, and the work is difficult. When people suffer, it violates your deepest values. And it affects you personally too.

It is good to remember that last part – it affects all of us. Those of you who regularly use social media were inundated this week with “Me too.” posts – story after story of sexual harassment and assault that were part of a viral campaign to raise awareness about the epidemic of gender-based violence. For some people this campaign was painful or triggering; for others it was empowering and life-giving; for others it was surprising or confusing or problematic. For me, one of the things that made the campaign important was the reassurance that those of us who have experienced sexual harassment and assault are not alone. It affects all of us.

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Illustration of three women holding signs which read “Me Too” (Tara O’Brien)

We experience the gift of solidarity when we see one another’s pain – whether the pain of gender-based violence, or of addiction, or of mental illness, or the pain of exclusion or loneliness, or of compassion fatigue, or shame, or the pain of internalized racism or homophobia, or any other pain that marks our lives – We experience the gift of solidarity when we are able to speak, and to hear from each other, “Me too.” And in that solidarity we also hear Christ speaking “Me too.”

It is so important to remind each other that we’re in this together, and that God is in this with us, because in an ecosystem driven by competition and consumerism and alienation and fear, we are all affected. And this ecosystem is not our home, not really.

Our home is a city built on a river. Today’s reading from Revelation gives us an apocalyptic vision of the New Jerusalem, with the river of water of life flowing from the throne of God right through the middle of the city. Stretching up tall on either side is the tree of life – ancient reminder of how creation was always meant to be – producing fruit constantly, food for all, with medicinal leaves that heal the nations. The currency of the city is life, and that life flows freely, abundantly, forever through the city.

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In a scene from the City of God Bible Art Mural Project, children swim in the river of life that flows through the city. (Rio de Janeiro: Joel Bergner)

The most important thing about the city is that God is dwelling there. The description begins in the previous chapter:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be God’s peoples,
and God Godself will be with them;
God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (21:3-4)

Popular religion often paints a picture of God as far off, or of the reign of God as something that will take place somewhere far away, maybe up in heaven. But the writer of Revelation – the revelator – is giving us a very different vision. God makes God’s home here, on the soil of the earth, in creation, alongside us. The throne of God is not anywhere else but on the earth, in the city, and it is the source of water and life and light.

Our home is a city built on a river, but this is not the city as it is today. God says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (21:5) This is a city like none you’ve seen before. It has huge fortified walls so that nothing evil – no wealth or hatred or fear has a place. But while there is no place for evil, there is plenty of room for people; the revelator tell us that “the city’s gates will never be shut by day and there will be no night there.” (21:25)

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“The river” (Russia: Aristarkh Vasilyevich Lentulov)

Our home is a city built on a river – and what I just said is a political statement. The revelator tells us that in this city, God and God’s people will reign forever and ever. This phrase “reign forever and ever” was not just any choice of words, this was a re-appropriation of an imperial political slogan. Roma Aeterna – Rome eternal – meant that the empire was in charge, and it was here to stay. It would have been difficult for citizens of Rome to envision any other kind of city when the city-as-it-is seems like it’s always been this way, and there’s no change in sight. (For me, this is highly relatable.) But the author of Revelation is leading the crowd in a chant: “You say Rome eternal, we say God eternal!” And not only God eternal, but us with God too. The power structure being described here is not top-down, not “power over,” but “power with.” A grassroots movement of people power rooted in love – that will be the government, says the revelator.

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On the right, Fleuve de Vie, the “River of Life” (Urgell Beatus, c. 10th century)

Our home is a city built on a river, and God is inviting us to come home! Come home now, come home later, come without waiting for eternity to arrive! Hear this invitation from the end of the book of Revelation, the climax of the vision:

The Spirit and the New Jerusalem say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Our home is a city built on a river. And God is calling, “Come home.” That’s what we practice doing here, imperfectly but earnestly; we try to do ‘homecoming’ each time we gather as a community. We practice coming home whenever we gather around the feet of the divine and listen to the stories about when creation was little. We play resurrection with our siblings and cousins without keeping track of the time. We rest in the safety, and love, and warmth of God. God gives us a bath in the free waters of new life, and sets the table with a good, nourishing home-cooked meal.

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A young woman is being baptized in the Rappahannock River in “Rappahannock Baptism-900” (Virginia: Mirinda Reynolds, 2012)

Our home is a city built on a river. And God is always creating that home in our midst, more and more each day, as the river of life nourishes and renews all of creation. The God who gives us this vision says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (22:20)

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