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Watershed Discipleship – River Sunday

September 24, 2017

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on The Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation – River Sunday – September 24, 2017

Ezekiel 47:1-12

On Wednesday afternoon August and I went canoeing on the Bronx River. We were down by Concrete Plant Park, in the Bronx, a reclamation project carried out by the NYC Parks and Rec Department to turn a former industrial site on the banks of the river into a welcoming community park. Today, under the shadow of the abandoned structures for moving, grinding and mixing stone are bike trails and benches, chessboards, an urban garden used by school children as well as an experimental food-way to attract pollinators and provide an opportunity for neighbors to forage everything from kitchen herbs to tea. The Bronx River Alliance, which for the last ten years has dedicated itself to protecting, improving and restoring our local watershed, was holding a free river paddle.

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However, when we arrived, Katie Lamboy, the community educator for the Alliance, told us she had actually just closed down the paddle. It was too windy, and she had to rescue too many people who were being blown down the river. But, since we had come all the way from Westchester, and August and I are experienced paddlers, she agreed to let us out by ourselves – provided we promise to call for help if we needed it.

We had a good workout, good conversation, good father-son time, as we navigated the Bronx River, the river that defines the natural community in which we live – and with our understanding of watershed discipleship, it is the river through which and around which God speaks to us.

Watershed discipleship means learning from – being students of – the natural community in which God has placed us, place being the operative word. We do not exist in abstract time and space, but in particular places, rich in history and need, different from all other places but through which we are connected to all others. Before fossil fuels, coal and oil, trains and cars, our rivers were our primary highways. Regional watersheds, the places where rainwater gathers and flows toward a common destination – are earth’s natural communities, and the Bronx River is ours. Ecosystems, early economies, even Eden itself, were defined by the rivers that run though them.[1]

Rivers run through our scripture as well, as Pastor Lynn has pointed out and beautifully rendered on our church’s Lenten banners, and rivers were particularly important to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel received his first vision of God beside a river, although it was not his river. It was not the river he called home. And in that fact we learn much that we need to know about the prophet and his message. Ezekiel had been a priest serving in the Temple in Jerusalem when the Babylonian Empire besieged his city. In the year 598, when the city’s defenses finally collapsed and Jerusalem was captured, the priest Ezekiel, along with nearly 10,000 of ancient Israel’s elite, was carried into exile and re-settled along the Chebar river – nearly 1500 miles from home. It was there, beside that river, ten years later, that Ezekiel received his vision of the final destruction and desecration of God’s Temple in God’s city. And it devastated him.

In this vision, Ezekiel felt himself transported back 1,500 miles to Jerusalem in order to witness first hand the city’s destruction. In this dream-state he sees the ‘Glory of God’ rise up above the temple, borne on the wings of cherubim and seraphim, angels riding on wheels within wheels, wheels capable of carrying God’s Glory off in any direction. The book of Ezekiel is made up almost entirely of such visions, all of which carry an unrelenting message: “Our home is lost. It was a mistake for us to put our trust in force of arms, military alliances, or believe in our own national greatness. In doing so we ignored the message of the prophets before us: messages that spoke of justice and peace, the distribution of resources with primary concern for the poor, the widow and the immigrant. Look back and you will see that before the end, God had abandoned our nation’s militarized borders, Jerusalem’s fortified walls, even our religious temple itself. God no longer even wanted to be there. In fact, God went into exile long before we did.” Whew. Reading Ezekiel is emotionally draining, its message one of unrelieved doom and gloom, imagery with very little relief.[2]

But there is a reason for that. He was trying to help God’s people to see what they did not want to see.

Gene Peterson has called Ezekiel our Bible’s “master of dealing with catastrophe.”

Catastrophe strikes [he writes,] and a person’s world falls apart. People respond variously, but two of the more common responses are denial and despair. Denial refuses to acknowledge the catastrophe. It shuts its eyes tight or looks the other way; it manages to act as if everything is going to be just fine; it takes refuge in distractions and lies and fantasies. Despair is paralyzed by the catastrophe and accepts it as the end of the world. It is unwilling to do anything, concluding that life for all intents and purposes is over. Despair listlessly closes its eyes to a world in which all the color is drained out, a world gone dead.[3]

Caught between those in denial and those who despair, Ezekiel sees; he sees the catastrophe, describes it in detail, offers it to others to see, insisting that God is still at work, even within the catastrophe. That is perhaps why I have been drawn to this prophet again and again over the last couple of months. In the midst of war and rumors of war (and an industry of war and the desire –on the part of some- for the next war); in the midst of fire, earthquake, wind and rain; Houston, Barbuda, Immokalee, Mexico City, Puerto Rico; in the midst of ongoing genocide in Myanmar (about which there is amazing silence among political leaders); in the midst of name calling between nuclear powers made more dangerous as US bombers flew off N. Korea’s coast just yesterday; in the midst of climate change, which has been famously described as a slow motion catastrophe; yes, in the midst of this I am find myself turning to the relentless and suffering voice of the Prophet Ezekiel to hear a word of hard won hope. Peterson, again:

Ezekiel found himself living among a people of God who (in ways astoundingly similar to us) stubbornly refused to see what was right in front of their eyes (the denial crowd). There were also some who were unwilling to see anything other than what was right before their eyes (the despair crowd).[4]

Ezekiel saw all this, but he also saw God.

While God’s call came to Ezekiel beside a river not his own, it ends with visions of dry bones coming back to life and of a natural world restored to health and fertility. But only those who can see clearly the death taking place all around them will see the possibility of new life also taking place. Yes, his final vision (which we read today) includes a homecoming, a restored Temple in Jerusalem, but it is a new kind of temple. Having once seen, Ezekiel cannot forget his initial vision of a God not bound by the temple but free to travel beyond the temple, borne by wheeled angels to the four compass points of the natural world, capable of being be revealed in all places as the God of those places too. He never forgets that the River Chebar in Babylon also serves God purpose.[5] And so in his vision of the New Jerusalem, a restored City of God, there flows an Eden-like river that nourishes and sustains the whole earth, bearing God’s presence and promise to all people. It is the restoration of the River of Life, first mentioned in Genesis, whose water flows East from Eden (Gen. 2: 10). “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,” the psalmist sings. (Ps. 46: 4). And so in our reading today, Ezekiel envisions this wondrous river flowing out from the new temple – ankle deep, knee deep, thigh deep – bringing life to all it touches. Stagnant water becomes fresh, providing habitat for fish, birds, and people, and watering the fruit trees on each side of the river (Ezekiel 47).[6] Even the Dead Sea, the Salt Sea, is purified to bring forth life again. This is no parochial temple, but a place where the worship of God flows out to restore all creation, where justice rolls down like a mighty river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Which brings us back to the need to listen to God in the particular places and watersheds God has placed us. This was one reason for my trip with August to paddle on the Bronx River. It was about connecting with our watershed. But there was another reason as well. I wanted to make a connection between our local water protectors and those I had met in Costa Rica this summer.

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Beatrice and Pastor Jeff beside the Rio Torres

During the last week that our travel seminar was together, we met a woman named Beatrice. Beatrice lives with her family beside the Torres River, in the capitol city of San Jose. Beatrice is the founder of a community organization called Amigos del Rio Torres, Friends of the River Torres. Rio Torres is almost exactly the same length and breadth of our Bronx River, meandering through as many different communities, and I immediately felt compassion for it. You see, unlike the Bronx River, which has received nearly 100 years of protection, improvement and restoration, the state of the Rio Torres is deplorable.

Not only are fecal matter and trash found in the river, but also toxic substances such as mercury and oil. It’s hard to imagine any living organism surviving in the rushing water, but believe it or not, people still bathe in the river. Untreated runoff from businesses and homes and untreated sewage are two of the leading causes of pollution.[7]

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Street and housing built right up to the Rio Torres. Notice the white discharge pipe in the greens.

Ten years ago Beatrice began organizing her community to care for the river. First, she organized them to clean up a public park beside the river, the park in which children, hers and others, met to play. Neighbors formed work groups to clean up the park, establish nature paths for walking, fixed up ball fields for team sports. With the community now present in the park and getting to know one another, they appealed to the government to step up its responsibility for the river; including water treatment plants all along the river. Community members reached out to local businesses, coffee houses and art galleries, asking them to come out and pitch in on community workdays, drag trash out of the river and work to keep it out in the fist place. With cleanup underway, businesses began to see the benefits of a clean and healthy river as well. One restaurant even built outdoor seating for the river-that-will-be. Older residents began sharing memories of playing beside the river as children, and began to teach the history of the river, telling stories about the coffee plantations that both depended on and used to pollute the river, beginning its long decline. Beatrice is proud of what has been accomplished in just ten years especially when I told her how long it took to clean up the Bronx. And she was thrilled that the presence of our group and the commitment of the Biblical University in Latin America to Watershed Discipleship promised to bring more churches into efforts for clean water and healthy neighborhoods.

One thing Amigos del Rio Torres is always looking for new ways to increase community interest in and commitment to the river. I mentioned the regular paddle trips organized by the Bronx River Alliance here, that bring children and adults right out onto and into the river. She was quite excited about the idea and could easily imagine how to make it happen. On Thursday morning I sent her photos of August and I on the river for inspiration.

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August and I on the Bronx River – making connections

We often think of our communion table as the place where we come together with sisters and brothers around the world. But this Sunday, perhaps we might think of the rivers as a place of meeting, as a source of nourishment, as a point of connection as they carry life around the planet. By the rivers of Babylon our ancestors laid down and wept for their home and for their nation. In these uncertain times, we lay down by the rivers to weep, yes, but also to remember our connection, our power, and the hope of new life flowing, knitting us together in common struggle and hope.

Sermon Hymn: My Life Flows On (in endless praise)


[1] See Ched Myers, “A Watershed Moment,” in Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice, May 2014, as well as Ched Myers et. al. Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice (Cascade Books, 2016).

[2] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Orbis, 1997).

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. (NavPress, 2003.)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and the Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 18.

[6] Barbara Rossing in The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads and H. Paul Santmire. (Fortress Press, 2011).


3 Comments leave one →
  1. planehpn permalink
    September 25, 2017 5:10 pm

    do you own a conoe or did you rent one?   bruce  

  2. September 25, 2017 5:46 pm

    Hi Bruce. The Bronx River Alliance was offering a free paddle day. They do this from time to time. Just show up, sign a waiver, and climb in the canoe. Which is great since, now that we are apartment dwellers, there is no room for a boat. The Alliance keeps a full calendar of paddle events on their website. Jeff


  1. The Season of Creation: A Sermon Cycle | revgeary

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