“When You Pass through the Waters”

When I saw the photo on the bulletin cover, which someone sent in response to our “thresholds” theme, I laughed out loud. It captures one of our doorways here at the church. “Use other door,” the sign says. I don’t know what the person who took the photo was thinking. Here’s what this submission made me think about:

We try to keep that set of double doors shut to keep the heat inside in winter, so the arrow is supposed to direct people to the door at the bottom of the stairs. But instead (quite understandably) people think that the sign means they should use one of the double doors instead of the other. When they pull on the doors, they stick half-open because they’re sealed with weather-stripping. Again and again, I watch this awkward dance. I am frustrated and embarrassed that our threshold, which should be a place of welcome, is so unwelcoming. At the same time, this photo reminds me that, as a community, we continually stand on thresholds of learning and growth. You’re going to hear more later about how we’re beginning the “Accessible to All” process of the United Church of Christ. We’ll be doing an audit of our church, seeking to discover the barriers and opportunities around inclusivity, some of them physical and some related to our attitudes and understandings.

Together, we’ll stand in that uncomfortable, yet hopeful place: the doorway between who we are now and who we are called to become.

A threshold is, literally, that piece of metal or plank of wood which is under your feet as you stand in a doorway. Thresholds are in-between times and spaces. Dusk fading into darkness, night blooming into dawn. The transitions between the different activities of our days and seasons of our lives. The moment when a newborn takes her first breath, or the dying one releases his final exhalation. The thin places where we stand between heaven and earth. In our discussion last week during coffee hour, we identified many thresholds in our lives: retirement, a new job, graduation, living alone after being in a relationship for many years, moving away from home for the first time, having surgery, becoming a grandparent . . .

The role of John the Baptist was to prepare the world to join Jesus on the threshold of a new creation. In the verses just before today’s passage, John called for repentance. “Repent” means “to turn.” John instructed the people to turn away from the ways of a world corrupted by violence and greed. He urged them to turn toward God, to cooperate with the spirit that was at work renewing creation, restoring its webs of relationship. At the River Jordan, God tore open the heavens, removing the barriers that prevented a new world from breaking through. The spirit-dove entered Jesus and the divine voice named him God’s beloved child. This name is not so much a statement of Jesus’ essence (a claim that he’s God) as it is a statement of his purpose (a claim that who he is and what he does expresses God’s desires). In his Baptism, Jesus was publically identified as the key leader of God’s movement toward a new way of being for creation. His life would provide the pattern. His energy would be the guiding force. Baptism also publically identified the people gathered around Jesus as belonging to his community and sharing in his mission.

We, too, stand at a threshold that calls us toward creation’s renewal. With our federal government in a state of paralysis, it’s extremely urgent that we work together at a personal, and local level to move toward a different way of being in the world I was really inspired to hear that more than one hundred high school youth met with the governor and lieutenant governor on their third day in office to talk about climate change. Grist.org reported that:

The group Minnesota Can’t Wait was there to push for a Green New Deal. Organizers called it the country’s first youth-led, state-level effort to demand the policy, which pairs labor and environmental justice efforts. In response to the meeting, Walz announced that he would immediately establish a statewide cross-agency working group on climate change.[1]

According to Minnpost.org, Sophomore Anna Grace Hottinger said:

Minnesota cannot wait for bold but necessary climate action. We, the young people of Minnesota, are calling on our leaders to do what’s right for our state: to stop emitting greenhouse gases and be fossil fuel-free within a decade. We want a transition to clean, renewable energy that is equitable for all Minnesotans.[2]

We all have opportunities to amplify the voices of these youth. This week, we join with them in calling on Governor Walz to continue the Dayton administration’s legal challenge to the Line 3 pipeline. And on January 31 at 3:30, we can show up with these youth at the state capitol as the bill calling for the green new deal is introduced.

Our “Use other door” sign helps me to remember that as a community committed to justice, we’re not just trying to change the world out there. We seek the spirit’s guidance “in here.” We are the change we want to see when we dismantle the oppressions that live in us, when we learn to appreciate the gifts of different kinds of brains and bodies. When we stop centering whiteness, when we allow gender and sexuality to be fluid and expansive. When we honor the earth and know our true place in its systems. Living toward a world of greater justice is threshold work, because we never completely know where we’re going or how to get there.

John said that while he baptized with water alone, Jesus would baptize with the spirit and fire. I take this statement to mean that as people baptized into the community that follows Jesus, we are called into a spirit-led life, a life of purpose. This is not a life of perfect clarity, with all questions answered. It is a life of listening and searching and struggling, a life of reaching toward what is possible. The spirit-led life is spent standing on a threshold between the old world and the new creation. It is a life of discernment, a life lived in tune with the flow of God’s river. Discernment is what I think John had in mind when he compared Jesus to a farmer who would clear the threshing floor with a winnowing fork, separating the wheat from the chaff and burning the chaff in an unquenchable fire. What I hear in this is that thresholds are places of cleansing clarity and bold change. Though it can be painful to release the past and scary to move into the unknown, there are things we must leave behind if we are to be made new, and to enter the new creation God is unveiling in the world.

I love how the poet, Mary Oliver, portrays a spirit-led life, a life of discernment:

A woman was standing in the river up to her waist; she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling it over her body, slowly and many times, as if until there came some moment of inner satisfaction between her own life and the river’s.

This woman’s interaction with the river is an image, for me of prayer. God is the river of water and spirit-fire. Prayer is to stand in its flow, to let its waves wash over us. There is a mutuality about our relationship with this river. We are part of the river and it is part of us. We call and God responds. God calls and we respond. We feel a profound sense of being held and loved, even as we are also challenged and renewed. In very personal ways, the river’s constant flow beckons us each, to cooperate with the spirit, at the threshold of a new creation. Come, now, let us stand in that river. Amen.

[1] https://grist.org/article/minnesota-youth-demand-green-new-deal-in-meeting-with-governor/

[2] https://www.minnpost.com/education/2019/01/day-3-in-office-gov-walz-sits-down-with-youth-to-discuss-climate-change-action/