Some of you have heard me tell stories about my Grandfather, who left home when he was sixteen and got a job working on a steam boat on the Mississippi River. As he aged, my grandfather began to suffer from dementia, and no longer remembered our names. But he seemed to recede in his memory into that particular time in his life: his time on the riverboat.
Walking around the house he’d repeat it to himself, “I used to work on a steamboat. On the Mississippi River.” “That’s right, Grandpa,” we’d say.
Sometimes I’d try to ask him questions – what it was like. But he was never able to tell me anything more. He only told us that he’d worked the steam boat from his home state of Mississippi all the way up north. All the way to the source of the river.
The source of the Mississippi.
I used to imagine it as an almost mythical place in my mind, in the same way I imagine the spring that’s described in this passage from Revelation.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift
from the spring of the water of life.
As if going there could restore something sacred
that we lost,
a long time ago.
Grandpa died a little more than a year ago, and a few months later I was on the phone with my Mom. She was in the middle of one of those stream of consciousness moments that mothers sometimes have. She was saying, “Now, of course, we’ve been getting up earlier than in the morning because your Dad needs his coffee and the cats are always trying to wake me up to get me to feed them but you know I had a dream this other night about your Grandfather.
Do you remember how he would always talk about going to the source of the Mississippi River?”
“Yeah,” I said, curious.
“Well, I had this dream, that I was there.
And he was there too.
And you know, he was fine.
He was just fine.”
The revelation of John is a promise.
A promise that God is making all things new.
A promise that there is a day coming
when God will dwell among us,
and death will be no more.
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
It is a vision
of a holy city,
a new Jerusalem.
Where everything is completely different.
And yet, at the same time, everything is just the same:
My grandfather, at the source of the Mississippi.
eyes clear and sharp,
free of the maladies that plagued him.
Just the same, and yet, entirely different.
Augustine wrote of a notion of the human condition that was later picked up by Martin Luther and Karl Barth. He writes of humans and humanity as being incurvatus in se, “curved in on ourselves.” He imagined that, simply by virtue of being human, we are born naturally curled inward, as if we are stricken with some kind of spiritual scoliosis. Part of our very nature is that our focus rests on ourselves and our own small worlds, and we must struggle to straighten our backs, to turn our faces toward the blinding light of our creator.
And so we also struggle to love one another.
A wise preacher I heard this morning reminded me
that even in the midst of remembering all of those who died ten years ago on this day,
and we should remember them,
we can also remember
that only hubris lies in imaging that
“what happened that day is something that has not happened before.
What’s different is that it happened to us.”*
Throughout the world the same story plays out.
It is not just us who have lost our parents, our siblings, our children
to violence and hatred.
Around the globe, in a million different acts of war or conflict
we cannot seem to keep ourselves from committing,
others are lost.
And they are parents and siblings and children as well.
We are loved by God,
and yet imperfect,
as if we suffer from an illness
that repels love,
turning us in on ourselves
and against one another
in hatred and violence.
And still we have this promise of a new Jerusalem.
Of a place where God has made all things new.
Where the river of life runs cold and clear.
To be a Christian is to return to the banks of that river
again and again,
to be drawn once more to its shores and to drown in its depths.
God’s promise is both for tomorrow and for today,
for I do believe that each time we return to those banks,
a veil is lifted
and God lifts our heads toward the light.
We wait for new heavens and a new earth,
but waiting is not enough.
Dripping as we emerge from the water of life,
we are called to redeem the world:
to turn again to God and knit together a all that is broken.
And still we dream.
Of our return to the source of the river,
where everything has been made new.
Where we might finally stand straight and lift our heads,
see one another as we truly are:
healed of the maladies that once kept us captive.
We’ll meet at the source of the Mississippi River.
And there, we find that
everything is fine.
Everything is just fine.
*The Rev. Jon Walton, sermon preached on September 11, 2011 at First Presbyterian Church, New York City