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"A River Makes Glad the City of God" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 9, 2017

posted Jul 10, 2017, 12:34 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Last week I attended the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the bi-annual national gathering of our Christian movement.  Delegates and visitors came from around the country to listen to inspiring speakers like the Rev. William Barber, who is starting a new Poor People’s Campaign; to elect our national leaders like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who was confirmed as our leader on issues of justice and transformation; and to pass resolutions expressing the witness and shaping the future of our movement.  This year I went as a visitor, which meant that I had more time to do what I like best at General Synod: catching up with friends from around the country.  All these things together - inspiration, direction, and friendship - make General Synod special.

We’ll all have a chance to sample General Synod directly because the next national gathering will be here in Milwaukee in the summer of 2019.  But I also wanted to give you a taste of it today, with elements of our worship service drawn from what happened at General Synod.

The overall theme of the General Synod came from Psalm 46, “There is a river that makes glad the city of God.”  The event took place in the cavernous Baltimore Convention Center.  To make it more of a worshipful space, the center stage included an altar area, with a gently gurgling fountain on one side.  A massive screen across the back displayed images of streams and rivers, a range of images changing throughout the sessions and services.

As I watched the images, I noticed something peculiar.  Synod met under the theme, “there is a river that makes glad the city of God.”  But all the images showed rivers and streams devoid of buildings: a stream through a field, a river running over rocks, a forest glade with a gentle ribbon of water.  Nary a house, much less a skyscraper, in sight.  And ironically, we were gathered on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary formed by five major rivers running through metropolitan areas: Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk.

We celebrated the river that makes glad the city of God but without any images of rivers in actual cities!

This dichotomy reflects the basic split we’ve long lived with in America: nature vs. the city, a split that only really exists in our minds, for our most urban spaces teem with “nature” and our most remote wildernesses bear signs of human change to the climate.  We need new ways of imaging nature and the city, not as opposites but as interwoven.

And so I started to think about the streams and rivers that run through actual cities; including our city: the Milwaukee, the Kinnickinnic, and the Menomonie.  What spiritual lesson can we learn from the streams and rivers of our cities?

Years ago urban planners treated urban streams and rivers as problems.  The rivers flowed through run-down industrial parts of cities; polluted.  And they occasionally flooded.  To control the urban river, planners built concrete culverts to contain and direct the flow of water.  We built highways for cars and culverts for rivers. Sometimes the rivers were even completely covered; forced into tunnels and chutes, treated more as a problem than a resource.

But in recent decades the thinking about urban streams and rivers radically changed.  People began stream restoration projects.  Concrete culverts were removed, embankments softened, wetlands recreated; all so streams could return to their meandering through cities.

One of my favorite urban stream restorations took place in Seoul, South Korea.  I love it because of the dramatic before and after pictures, which I’ve reprinted in your bulletin.  Urban planners had built a highway over the Cheonggyecheon Stream and routed it through a culvert.  But then the city rediscovered its urban stream: a new generation tore down the highway, restored the stream banks, and created an urban river parkway.  A number of changes happened: bio-diversity increased, land-values rose, and the urban heat effect dropped in the blocks around the stream.  Pollution decreased too.  As one study documented, “[The project] reduced small-particle air pollution by 35%. Before the restoration, residents of the area were more than twice as likely to suffer from respiratory disease as those in other parts of the city.”  In other words, the city became more livable.  The river made glad the city of Seoul.Cheonggyecheon-Stream-Before-After1.jpg

What can we learn from an urban stream restoration like that of the Cheonggyecheon?  It often feels to me that religion seeks to contain the wildness of the Spirit much like urban planners once sought to shunt streams into converts.  Our religious tradition long worried about passions; and so we constructed ways to control and direct them with rules and doctrines more rigid than concrete.  But the Spirit cannot be bound by a culvert.  I find that I long for the theological equivalent of a stream restoration project, to claim the natural ebb and flow of the spirit, to meander.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) undertook a stream restoration project that speaks to this change in spirituality.  MMSD is in the process of removing the concrete culvert lining the Menominee River from an area near the Brewers’ stadium.  A one-mile long section of the river will be restored by replacing the concrete with stone and rock.  Before, when lined with concrete, the river acted like a waterslide, whooshing fish downstream and making it impossible for them to swim upstream.  The restored stream bed of rock will create a natural pattern of deeper pools and shallow riffles.  Fish will now be able to return all the way to Menomonee Falls because they can swim and rest.


This stream restoration project here in our own city points toward another spiritual lesson.  The move from concrete culverts to natural streambed allowed fish to both rest and rush.

Do we allow ourselves the same pattern - times of resting, times of rushing, as we follow the natural pattern of a streams pools and riffles?

Most pastors take off Monday or Friday, however, years ago I changed my schedule to work Monday through Friday, but shorter days so that I could pick my kids up after school.  That way they didn’t have to do an after-school program.  I continued that pattern long after Tomas and David grew big enough that they didn’t need me, or want me, to meet them after school.  Recently this Spring, I realized this wasn’t working for me.  And so I started taking Mondays off.

I liked having a day to myself, but I noticed something more.  Years ago, I used to finish writing my sermons by the end of the day on Friday, but for many years this had crept into Saturdays; until eventually it was most of Saturday.  However, when I started taking Mondays off, I also started getting my sermons done on Fridays again.  It gave me a pattern of rest and rush.

This practical experience in taking time off reminds me of something Martin Luther once said during the midst of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther told his students, “I have so much to do today that I have to take even more time in prayer.”

I always thought it a funny comment, but I know more deeply now the truth behind his words.  Sometimes, when we have much to do, we need even more time to go slowly.

Are you like a fish trying to swim up the fast rushing waters of a stream in a culvert?  Or, have you found a way to rush and rest, a natural stream that can take you far?  For it is the pattern of pools and riffles which make glad the soul.

Lastly, I want to think about a metaphorical urban stream, the stream described by the prophet Ezekiel.  We heard a portion of Ezekiel’s vision as our first reading.  He stood at the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem, when he imagined a spring erupting in the floor of the sanctuary.  The water flowed east, out the front doors of the Temple, and down into the courtyard.  There it swelled.  Ezekiel imagined an angel guiding him along the river; “Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.”  The river flowing from the Temple grew and grew, from a trickle to stream to a river to a flood.

Later, in the portion we didn’t read, Ezekiel went on to describe the water from the Temple flowing down all the way to the Dead Sea, until the water of the Temple transformed the salty waters of the Dead Sea into a place of life and abundance.

But our reading ended with the question of Ezekiel’s angel-guide, “Mortal, have you seen this?”  And it’s a question we ought to ask ourselves; have we seen the river of God’s grace flow with renewing power?  Have we seen the power of God’s grace grow from a trickle to a mighty river that cannot be stopped?  Seen the river that makes glad the soul?

This last week while at General Synod, I heard a story of a small spring that became a mighty river.  The Central Atlantic Conference of our Christian movement hosted General Synod.  During one of the worship services they shared the story of the First Congregational Church of Washington, D.C. and the founding of Howard University.

The First Congregational Church in Washington wasn’t founded until just after the Civil War.  New Englanders joined the federal government, working on Reconstruction and trying to figure out how to help recently freed African-Americans.  A debate arose in the church about its mission: should the church work to help African-Americans or should it also integrate African-Americans into its own congregation?  This rose into a church fight; but the vision of integration won.

During those difficult years, amid a church fight, a few members of the congregation gathered one night for prayer.  As they prayed and dreamed together, a vision arose of starting a new university.  It must have seemed impossible: a divided church in a divided nation starting something audacious.  And yet they tried.  One found a three-acre campus, another secured funding through the Freedman’s Bureau, and soon a few students arrived.

Those fragile hopes persisted into Howard University, a now top-tier research institution rooted as a historically black college.  A spring in the city became a river of learning.


Ezekiel’s vision of a spring in the Temple becoming a mighty river makes me want to look around our city to see where the waters of transformation can be seen.  One of those springs, in my mind, is a new effort by Dana World Patterson to confront human trafficking.  We recognized the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, which Dana chairs, last year at our anniversary dinner.  This summer Dana began a new effort: barbershop conversations about human trafficking, ones in which men speak to men.  As Dana explained recently, “[there was power in men talking to other men] about the ills and devastation of human sex trafficking in a way that enhances responsibility, creates accountability, and is supportive to end the demand.”  Talking to Dana about this program feels like standing beside a small spring that’s about to become a river transforming the city.

We sang Chris Grundy’s song “Already Done Walked” at Synod.  At one point, Chris explained how his experiences at Eden Seminary in St. Louis led him to write it.  When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, students and faculty joined in the protests.  Chris wrote the song as a reflection on the experience.  Those protests sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, a still growing river which will change our country just as surely as Ezekiel saw water from the Temple bring life to the Dead Sea.

There is a river that makes glad the city of God.  And both the real rivers in our cities and the metaphorical river of God can help us imagine our spirituality: a spirituality restored to ebb and flow, a spirituality of rest and rush, a spirituality which may start as a small spring but bring a torrent of transforming grace.  I thank God for such a river.  Alleluia and Amen.