This is the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 3, 2002. The Scriptures were Joshua 3: 7 – 17, 1 Thessalonians 2: 9 – 13, and Matthew 23: 1 – 12.
Last week I spoke of how the Hudson River at Beacon gives me a connection back to the Mississippi River. If there has been one constant in my life, it has been the Mississippi River. Though I grew up in many different parts of this country, it always seems like I return to “Old Man River.” Be it through my grandparents living less than five miles from the river in St. Louis, my going to school in northeast Missouri, my home in Memphis, or teaching positions in Illinois and Minnesota, it always seemed that the Mississippi River was somewhere in my own backyard.
And just like many other parts of this country, the Mississippi River of one section is radically different from other sections. In the north, from its headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota, to Minneapolis, the River is a narrow stream that one can walk across in the winter when the ice cover is thick and deep. In fact, when the river freezes over, it often freezes over all the way down to the Missouri and Illinois sections. When the Mormons living in Nauvoo, Illinois, were forced into the exile that would lead them to Utah, they crossed the frozen Mississippi in one of the coldest winters known.
Between Minneapolis and St. Louis, the river is dominated by the locks and dams built by the Army Corps of Engineers during the 1930’s and 1940’s to combat the floods that once were a plague and fixture of the farms along the river. Below St. Louis, the river is the one Samuel Clemens wrote about as Mark Twain. As it flows slowly down to New Orleans, it changes into the delta country that gave birth to the “Blues” that drifted north to Chicago and the sounds of jazz that came out of New Orleans. At New Orleans, the Mississippi turns into the alluvial flood plain spreading out into the Gulf of Mexico. At Memphis, the Mississippi is about three miles wide. On a good day in the summer, just like a good day in a Minnesota winter, you can walk across the river.
I can imagine how it must have felt to settlers traveling west when they first stood on the eastern banks of the Mississippi, looking at all that was on the western shore and wondering how they would get across. Those who sought commerce on the river were at the mercy of the river, able to only transport goods downstream and having to find ingenious ways to go upstream.
But when the technology of the time enabled them, they built engines to power the steamboats that gave birth to the stories of Mark Twain and later enabled them to build the bridges that crossed the river at St. Louis, Memphis, and Vicksburg.
The Israelites must have had the same feeling as they stood on the banks of the River Jordan, looking across its waters into the Promised Land. But rather than any particular technology, the Israelites had the Ark of the Covenant, the vessel in which they carried the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Hardly the secret weapon that Indiana Jones attempted to obtain, it was the physical embodiment of the Holy Spirit and represented the connection, the bridge, between God and the Israelites.
With the Ark preceding them into the river, just as Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea with his staff, the waters of the River Jordan parted and the tribes of Israel triumphantly entered the Promised Land, claiming the ancient homeland once again. It is important to note that in any battle the Israelite army entered into, if the Ark of the Covenant led them into battle, the army was undefeated. When they Israelite army was too proud and confident in its own abilities and left the Ark behind, they were defeated. The Ark of the Covenant served as a reminder of the connection that existed between the people of Israel and God.
I think this was one of the reasons for Jesus’ anger being directed at the Pharisees and leaders of Israel in the Gospel reading for today. Through their roles as leaders and guides, they served as the bridge, the connection between God and the people. Yet they were more interested in their own appearances than they were in keeping the connection open.
The breadth of their appearance was about as wide as the Mississippi is wide at the bridge crossing in Memphis. It’s just that the faith of the leaders was also just about as shallow. It is one thing to make an effort to show your righteousness but without action, such a show is meaningless.
Instead of being the connection, the bridge that the people needed, the leaders were more often barriers, keeping the people away from God through their rules and interpretations of the Law. And, in putting up barriers, they took away the initiative of the people to seek God. Each rule, each barrier pushed the people further and further from God. As they moved further from God, they became lost once again.
Jesus sought to be the bridge between the people and God, a task that many leaders had forgotten. We are constantly reminded in the Gospels that Jesus came to restore the connection between the people and God, to make it easier to close the gap that existed.
One might think that would be the end of it but we have seen over the years a repeat of that very situation, of leaders who put great importance in their own appearance and less in helping others to find and hold onto the connection with God. It was this “lukewarm” Christianity that Wesley so visibly hated; it was this reliance on show rather than on action that lead him to seek a better way.
Wesley was one to quickly point out that we are not perfect and that perfection is a very difficult, if not impossible, thing to obtain. But, having accepted Christ as our Savior, it is our duty to seek perfection through our actions. It is almost a necessity that we put into action what we say.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul pointed out that he continued to work as a tent maker in order to provide for his own well being and in order not to be a burden on his converts. His main point in the section of the letter that we read today is show that his ministry was motivated by a desire to spread the Gospel and not for any riches or glory that might come to him for his works. In the closing passage of this section of the letter, Paul points out that the work of the Thessalonians also served as a bridge to those lost in the secular world seeking to find solace and peace. Their work also served to contrast the love and grace of God to the legalism of the Jewish religion of the time.
There comes a time when we each face a river. Perhaps it a real river like the Mississippi or the Hudson, but more often it is a crisis in life that cannot be described in any physical dimension. We are reminded that in order to cross such a river we need assistance. Crossing the Mississippi proved to be easy for the early settlers of this country who first used flatboats or steamships and later bridges. But such bridges or means of crossing the river don’t help when it is the depths of our soul that must be crossed.
Then, our only hope can be found in the one who came to close that gap, Jesus Christ. Through him, we are promised access to God, to salvation and freedom from sin and death. And once we have crossed that river, once we have reached the other side, then it becomes a part of us to help us find their way across. We are reminded that our faith is not so much show but more a cause for action. That we, having taken on the job of being Christ’s servant in this world, must help others cross the river.