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At the Water’s Edge – 6/3/2012

[This homily for our annual Music Sunday preceded our choir’s performance of John Rutter’s Deep River.]

There is a moment in every night, hours before the dawn, when the quiet of the dark is at its peak. A time when everyone who was ever going to sleep through this night has already gone to bed, and none of them are yet awake. A time when even the sleepless grow quiet, and the world itself seems to be alone with its thoughts and waiting. It is a moment most often experienced by folks who work the third shift, by the parents of crying children, and by people who are worried about what the morning holds for them.

In a few minutes, our choir will favor us with a cycle of songs drawing on biblical themes and images, some of which come from the Book of Joshua. For those of you who might appreciate a reminder, Joshua is the 6th book of the Hebrew Bible. Its story opens just after the death of Moses, who led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through forty years in the desert, to within sight of the promised land. Leadership has passed to Joshua, and at the start of the third chapter of the book named for him, he leads the people to the river Jordan. They have only to cross it, and they will be in Canaan, the land of milk and honey, the place of freedom they have been seeking for generations.

But before they cross over, the whole wandering lot of them spend the night camped out on the banks of the river. And so I have to imagine that there were a great many of that nation of former slaves who shared that night’s moment of utter quiet and uncertainty. Forty years and it comes to this: standing at the water’s edge, about to cross over. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Life holds many such moments, for each of us, when we find ourselves perched on the cusp of something hoped for, or feared, or both. Seeking a new job, or just giving up the current one. Beginning a new marriage, or ending an old one. Becoming a parent; enrolling in school; telling someone you love them; putting the bottle down – the more that the change matters, the more likely that it will wake you up in the night.

As much time and work as it took you just getting to that riverbank, it doesn’t make the crossing any easier. Because it’s not just milk and honey on the other side. When Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan they knew they were in for a fight, and the first stop on their itinerary was the city of Jericho, with its mighty walls. There is always a way forward, in every moment, but there are also a million ways to stand still: just keep quiet, or back down, numb yourself, and keep doing whatever you were doing, and being just as unhappy about it. You can only take that first step into the river when you are ready to reach out to the struggle ahead. When you can say, “Give me some new trouble; I’ve had enough of the old.”

Some of us here today are standing at the water’s edge, about to take some great risk, or not. And some of us are already in it up to the hip. And it might just be that one of us here today is exactly one footstep into the river, and it’s the step you took when you came through those doors this morning.

The songs we are about to hear come from the African American Spiritual cannon. The stories of the Hebrew Bible loom very large in that tradition because the experience of a people living in bondage seeking and ultimately winning freedom spoke profoundly to the everyday reality of human beings living in the inhuman institution of slavery in America. Crossing Jordan was a metaphor for the passage to the North, and often on to Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Act did not apply. Crossing any river, in fact, had benefit for a person escaping slavery because the water broke up your scent trail, and made it harder for the dogs to follow you on the other side. Things were a little different in the biblical story of Joshua, however. It is said that as the people entered the water, the river stopped flowing, and they walked across dry-footed.

So whenever you find yourself in such a predicament – when you wake in the quiet of the night and ask yourself, “Lord, is going forward any better than staying put?” – remember that you are not alone in that moment. Your problems may be personal, and no one else’s struggle identical to your own; but there are others, all over the world and stretching back long before Joshua, who looked out over their own rivers, and wondered about how they were ever going to make it on the other side. If your heart lies in another land; if there is only slavery in one place, and the possibility of freedom in another; if the only thing more frightening than pressing on is going back, then press on – with such courage and determination that the river had better get out of your way.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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