I met my childhood best friend in kindergarten. Her family moved to the area sometime in the spring, I want to say April, but this was some nearly 30 years ago, and I was six, so as far as memory goes, I’m happy with what I can get. Anyway, it was sometime in the latter half of the school year. Her family had just moved from Atlanta, and she had short hair. What I do remember, is how I introduced myself. With the kind of confidence only a six-year-old can have, I walked right up to her and said “Hi boy, I’m Rob. What’s your name?” And she, with that same six-year-old confidence, said “I’m a girl and my name is Liz.” I don’t remember what came next, but somehow we came out of that and developed a friendship that has endured nearly 30 years and generated many stories, that I won’t be telling today.
Today, I just have one. Just a few years after we met, when we were in fourth or fifth grade, Liz’s dad, Paul, decided that he was finished working for someone else, as a manager at a local branch of a now-defunct camping/hiking gear store (something like REI, but smaller), and decided to open his own store, called, plainly enough, The Outdoor Store. The store was in a little strip mall near my house, not near to any water, but they sold canoes and kayaks. Fortunately, there were a few public lakes nearby, and so, every few weeks in the summer, they would take demo models out for people to try, which is how I first learned to paddle. Even better, in the fall, they would auction off the demo units, which is how I got my kayak on the cheap.
This led to many canoe and kayak trips on the James River with my dad through middle and high school, and, in reduced frequency, beyond, up to our last trip celebrating his retirement in July 2017. We had a roughly nine-mile trip that we knew by heart, including the perfect small island to stop for lunch. This island had a little rapid next to it that was straight enough to use as something like a natural water slide that we first discovered on a trip with my friend, Liz, and have now introduced to my nephews.
We knew this stretch well enough, and did it often enough that, for me, that 9 miles is the James River. Even though I spent much of one summer in seminary doing my Greek homework on Belle Isle, an island in the James River in downtown Richmond, it’s that stretch of 9 miles above Hatton Ferry that will always be the James River for me.
I’ve made a lot of jokes about the river, mostly at DC’s expense. Here the river is clean enough to tube, fish, swim. The Potomac in DC is so dirty it’s illegal to swim in it, except for certain events, like the triathlon, where they actually chlorinate the course…and even then they sometimes cancel it and move the swim to a nearby pool because it’s still too dirty. I really am excited that the river here does not have that problem. I’m also excited because the South Branch along here is also very similar to my stretch of the James.
I’ve also joked that, if things go badly here, I can just get on a raft and, eventually, make it back to DC, assuming I can navigate or portage Great Falls.
The core of all these jokes, of course, is the fact that, here and in DC, it’s the same river. And, of course, we all know this. Sure, in DC, they call it the Potomac, and here, we call it the South Branch, but we know the rest of the name. Knowing that, however, isn’t quite the same thing as feeling it.
When I see the river here, or talk to people about it, we talk about the trough, or the stretch of river alongside someone’s farm. We look at it and see the width that wouldn’t be hard to swim, maybe even to wade across. So far, I struggle to think of this river as much longer than the stretch between Moorefield and Springfield, or maybe Green Spring.
This is, I think, an amazing thing about rivers: it’s so easy for us to look at them and see only the stretch in front of us, and to forget all the great length stretching downstream toward the Chesapeake Bay, or the oceans.
It’s easy for us to forget that we’re only seeing one small piece of a greater whole.
Today’s texts do something of the same thing. Each Sunday we read small segments from scripture, looking at pieces in isolation, and, hopefully at least sometimes connecting them to the larger whole. Today, we are looking at three texts, one from Genesis, one from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and one from the Gospel According to John.
It’s easy for us to see how two of these texts are linked: after all, in our passage from Roman’s, Paul is explicitly writing about our text from Genesis, about the promise God made to Abram, who would come to be called Abraham, that he would be a father to many nations. This text is a hinge of Genesis: it marks the change from Genesis talking about God’s work on all humanity to God working through a single family. It’s the third time in Genesis that God sets aside a particular family unit (the first, Adam and Eve, the second, Noah and his family) through whom God will work. If we were to move forward in the Genesis text, we would begin to see God working through Abraham, and even expanding the promise to include Abraham’s nephew, Lot.
In this short passage from Genesis, it’s like we are standing on the side of a wooded, mountain stream. It’s not yet very wide, and thanks to the trees, we can’t see very far, but it’s waters will grow as other streams and springs are gathered to it.
It’s this joining and branching of the waters in the stream of Abraham’s family that Paul is discussing in this chapter of Romans. Paul is writing to a Jewish community about one of the great questions facing the church at the time: what to do with Gentiles who were increasingly interested in joining the Christian movement that, at its beginnings, consisted almost exclusively of Jewish people.
There were many smaller questions in play, and that’s where we get some of what Paul is saying here about faith and works and law and wrath—he’s addressing some of those smaller questions about the details around accepting (or rejecting) Gentiles. In all of this, Paul points back to Abraham, the “father of many nations” to indicate that the new Christianity should not be an ethnic religion.
The question they are facing is whether they can allow other rivers to join theirs.
Paul might reply that South Branch merges with the North Branch, merges with the Shenandoah, all of these and many others contribute to the Potomac, which eventually contributes to the Chesapeake Bay, where it’s waters are mingled with the waters of the James River from my youth, and, eventually the Atlantic where those waters are joined by countless others, all of which were created by God.
In Genesis, God speaks to Abraham and says ‘think bigger.’ Not just “I will make of you a great nation.” But also “In you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Paul says to this mostly Jewish group of Christ-followers in Rome ‘think bigger:’ “The promise did not come to Abraham…through the law, but through righteousness of faith…the promise is guaranteed to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of all of us.”
They are asking who can be a part of the community, which people are the beloved of God, and Paul says more than you think.
This is the same thing that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in today’s text from John. It begins with Nicodemus recognizing Jesus authority not in faith, but because Jesus has proved himself through signs. Jesus’ response, is “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” at least, according the NRSV. You may have heard the text as being born again. The problem we face is like the one Nicodemus faced. Jesus is saying both at the same time, but there’s no way to do that in English, so translators have to pick a single meaning, which is what Nicodemus does: Nicodemus response indicates that he picked the single meaning “again.” So Jesus elaborates, pointing to being born of water, making a reference to a woman’s water breaking while giving birth, and then pointing to the spirit…except that Jesus once again uses a word with two meanings: where our text says in some places “spirit” and in other places “wind” Jesus said only one word for both. Nicodemus, like our translators, picks only one meaning, and so does not understand. So Jesus tries again, and this time at least, English is better able to handle the task: when we say something is lifted up, we can mean both physically moved from one place to a higher one, but also made holy, or exalted. When Jesus says “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” he is referring both to the physical raising of his body that will occur as the cross is put in place, but also to the resurrection when he shall be exalted.
Paul tells the community in Rome that when they consider who can be a part of their community, they need to think bigger. Nicodemus is asking what it means to follow Jesus, and Jesus’ answer is ‘more than you think.’
Three times Nicodemus asks Jesus to explain, and each time Jesus response is ‘think bigger.’ There is more happening here then you can yet see. You see this one stretch of the river, but it goes on until it reaches the ocean, and all the oceans are connected.
God is doing more than we can see. God’s love reaches more people than we can imagine, and the power of God’s love is doing more than we know. Praise be to God.