Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rivers: Believing In The Amargosa

Baptism/Confirmation.08 – St. Martin’s, Pahrump
Mark’s Gospel begins as the Christian life begins,
with a story of Baptism.
Jesus went down to the Jordan River,
waded into the water,
and then was driven by the Holy Spirit
out into the desert.
That moment in the River
set the course of his life.

A great river touches our souls.
It says something about life.
Many rivers around the world
are considered sacred,
like the Ganges where Hindus go
to be healed or to die.

I invite you think this morning about another river,
not very close-by
but closer than the Jordan or the Ganges.
I invite you to think of the Missouri River.
It is the longest river in the United States.
A tributary of the Mississippi, together they comprise
the fourth largest river in the world.
With its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Montana,
there is a depth and a vastness about the Missouri,
a flowing toward even deeper distant mystery.
You could ride it right out of Montana into the Gulf of Mexico.

The Oregon poet, William Stafford wrote a poem
called Witness about dipping his hand into the Missouri
– in a private ritual act that is a bit like Baptism.
He wrote:
This is the hand I dipped in the Missouri
above Council Bluffs and found the springs.
All through the days of my life
I escort this hand. . .
Like Jesus, driven into the desert, the poet
finds himself far from the mountains
where the river began.
At Fort Rock, in the High Desert of Eastern Oregon,
Stafford remembers his baptismal moment.
He writes:
On top of Four Rock in the sun I spread
these fingers to hold the world in the wind . . . .
Even on the last morning
when we all tremble and lose, I will reach
carefully, eagerly through that rain, at the end –
Toward whatever is there, with this loyal hand.

Baptism is a ritual encounter with the deep mystery of God.
It can be in a font or in a river.
Either way, it is a tiny sign of that Deep River
which is the divine nature,
a river that runs even deeper than any religious tradition.

But a wade in the water does not make us a fish.
And baptism does not initiate us into a life
of perpetual dwelling in a spiritual state of bliss,
an endless awareness of God.
The next life may be something like that,
but this one is not.

The minute Jesus was baptized,
the Spirit drove him into the desert.
It did not dawdle and neither did he.
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the desert,”
Mark says.
And we know what happened there.
He was hungry and thirsty and tempted by demonic voices.
It was life hard and raw.

We all know about life hard and raw.
It is the tedium of our daily grind.
It is the trials of personal relationships
with all their complexity and ambivalence.
It is health worries, money worries, family worries.
Tempted as Jesus was,
our minds turn from contemplation of God
to securing our livelihood, securing our reputations,
trying to get some control over the world around us
so we can make it go right.
That’s the desert. It’s where we live.

The poet, William Stafford, went to the desert
after his hand was baptized
as we pour water over someone’s head.
“On top of Fort Rock in the sun,” he said, “I spread
these fingers to hold the world in the wind . . . .”

Now what does that gesture mean
-- the reaching out of a wet hand into the wind
and toward the world?
It reminds me of a private ritual, a sort of prayer,
by an old bishop who died back in the 1940’s.
He used to get up each day and after getting dressed,
he would look into the mirror and say,
“No matter what happens this day,
for good or for ill,
no matter what happens, come what may,
I am baptized.”

Baptism is an encounter
with the depths of reality itself.
It is a dipping of our awareness
into the river of eternity.
It is to be claimed by God
and to acknowledge that claim.

And from that time on, we live our life
in this world, but not of this world.
We become ambassadors from a deeper reality.
We are, as Paul said, and as William Stafford says, “witnesses.”
We have seen something deeper,
and we testify to the world that we have seen it,
touched it and been touched by it.

That’s what it means to claim our baptism.
We claim our baptism in the rite of Confirmation.
If we are baptized as children,
we receive grace mediated by the community of faith
who take the vows on our behalf.

In Confirmation, we claim our Baptism.
“(We) spread these fingers to hold the world in the wind . . . .”
We claim our Baptism each time we reaffirm our vows
as part of baptizing a new Christian,
or on the High Holy days, or when the bishop visits.
But most importantly, we claim our Baptism
every day out in the desert where we live.
We claim our baptism by remembering there is a River
and we have touched it.

The world’s great rivers are symbols
of the deep flowing mystery of God,
of the great life-giving crystal river
which Revelation Chapter 22 says
flows eternally from the throne of heaven.
But sometimes God is more like our own Amargosa river.
Mostly it’s underground. It doesn’t meet the eye.

The unbelievers of the world only trust what they can see.
They have a hard time believing the Amargosa River is there.
Of course if they drilled down a ways, they’d find water.
In the situations of life that look like Death Valley,
unbelievers just give up
and spiritually die of their own despair.
But a believer drills a ways down.
We call that drilling “prayer.”
We drill down and we find grace.
We find God’s gentle consolation.

We dip our hand into the river of grace,
and then for the rest of our lives
we hold that hand out to the world.
And when we come to end of our days,
as William Stafford says,
“Even on the last morning
when we all tremble and lose, I will reach
carefully, eagerly through that rain, at the end –
Toward whatever is there, with this loyal hand.”

Even at the end of our lives, especially at the end of our lives,
we will trust in the grace we have touched,
in the grace that has touched us.

Today we will baptize some.
Others will claim their baptism in confirmation.
Others will join our communion without having to swear
any allegiances or accede to any complex doctrines.
Simply claiming again their Christian baptism
is the only key needed to open our door.
And all of us will reaffirm the grace we have accepted,
the grace that has accepted us.

We all reach out a hand today,
we reach it out still dripping with grace,
reach out our hand into the Spirit-wind of God,
reach out our hand to the world
as a witness to God’s love.