down by the riverside – the river as a boundary

In so many places around the earth, rivers are also boundaries. Rivers, of course, are natural geographic formations that are often difficult for people to cross or to get around. And so in the history of peoples and communities and nations, rivers have inevitably become boundaries that define those peoples and relations between them.

 So the St. Lawrence River forms part of the boundary between the Canada and the United States in Eastern Ontario.

The Colorado River forms part of the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The San Juan River forms a large part of the boundary between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The Zambezi River forms a part of the boundary between Zambia and three other countries – Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Nambia.

Rivers are these natural geographic formations that in many places have also become political boundaries. One people or nation lives on one side of the boundary, and another people or nation lives on the other side of the boundary.

There are at least two ways of to think about rivers as boundaries. And we’ve already been thinking about river boundaries in one particular way – we’ve been thinking of them in terms of a separation – in terms of something that divides people or keeps them apart. From this point of view, the river as a boundary might even be a point of contest or conflict – the river as boundary might become a source of animosity and political strife – or even of war. One simple, historical example – in the war of 1812, American troops crossed the Niagara River to attack British settlements near Fort George and Fort Erie. The British and aboriginal populations there eventually pushed them back across the river. From this first point of view, the river is something that divides or keeps people separated from each other.But the river as a boundary can also be thought from the inside, if you will. The river can be though of from the perspective of a people living in a particular country, or within a particular state, or even within a particular town. In this sense the river provides a boundary in the sense that it defines the area, the space, the territory, within which life is lived. I have grown up in this particular place, between these rivers,

this is where I have made a living,

these are my people,

this is my territory.

Geographically and personally my life and identity are shape by the fact that I live within these very specific boundaries. My particular life, and that of my family or community, is defined by this space, between these rivers.

Here we are on the Island of Montreal – one island, one city – sort of. And as we’ve already said in this sermon series, our lives are to some extent defined by the St. Lawrence river on the south and the Riviere des Prairies (the back river) on the north. Maybe we haven’t lived our whole life in this place – nevertheless, who we are today is to some extent defined by these geographic boundaries. We live within the bounds of these rivers. In some important sense these particular rivers frame our lives.

This was also true of the ancient people of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, rivers are deployed as boundaries that define the people of Israel – God’s people live within and are shaped by particular river boundaries. So it is that in Genesis when God calls Abraham and defines the Promised Land, that Promised Land is defined in terms of the Euphrates river as a north-eastern boundary and that Promised Land, and is defined in terms of the River of Egypt as a southwestern boundary. In our reading today from Joshua, that north-eastern boundary is again identified – the Euphrates river is that boundary of the Promised Land.

So in an important sense, the dwelling place – the home and country of God’s people – is defined by rivers. They are the people that live in this particular place – bound by these geographic formations – this is where they raise their children, pursue their livelihood, and worship their God.

Now of course we can hardly talk about these ancient boundaries without acknowledging that in our present context the boundaries of Israel are very much contested. Not only does modern day Israel does not live within those ancient boundaries, but within those ancient river boundaries there are other people’s living – including Arab Muslims and a smaller population of Arab Christians. Those ancient river boundaries are contested today – and within those boundaries the possession and occupation of land is contested. Before moving on, all we should say, perhaps, is that these very real modern challenges cannot, should not, and will not be resolved by simply referring back to the ancient borders of the Promised Land. There are other theological and political and ethical considerations to be taken into account today as these complicated questions of land and identity are sorted out.

At the same time, even though those ancient river boundaries are contested today, even though we can’t return to them in any simplistic sense – those river boundaries remain important within the story of God’s encounter with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Rebecca, with Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and with their descendants. Those river boundaries remain important because those boundaries remind us that God entered into relationship with a particular people. Those river boundaries locate that particular people within space. Those river boundaries in a sense identify the particular people with whom God entered into covenant.

Much of the Old Testament is the story of what happens within those boundaries:

Within those river boundaries the people worshiped God.

Within those river boundaries prophets called the people to faithfulness.

Within those river boundaries kings ruled God’s people – sometimes those kings ruled justly and faithfully – sometimes not.

Within those river boundaries a people with a particular identity, and with a particular history, and with particular failings, and with particular hopes and fears – that particular people lived as the covenant people of God.

Of course, much of the Old Testament is also the story of what happened to God’s people when they were judged and sent into exile – when God’s people were alienated from the land within those ancient river boundaries – when they lost part of their identity and had to learn to serve and worship God in new ways.

Broadening out a bit, what we want to say is that the story of God with us – is the story of a God who meets his people in their particularity – who meets his people within the boundaries of their very particular lives. The story of God with us is not the story of human escape into some abstract, universal, spiritual, heavenly reality. The story of God with us is not the story of an escape from our lives and particularity. Our hope as the children of God is not that we will one day drift into a blissful spiritual world where our particularity will be left behind and forgotten

In an important sense, the incarnation of Jesus is a refusal of that way of thinking – it’s a refusal of the idea that spirituality takes us out of our particular lives and context. God comes to us as a particular person – God comes as a Jewish man who lived within the traditions of his particular people. God comes as this particular Jesus. And as this Jesus God comes to answer the longings of his people for redemption and peace and justice and joy. God in Christ comes to his people within their particular river boundaries.

But the vision and life of Jesus is an expansive vision and life – for in him the grace and forgiveness of God is extended to each person and community in their particularity – not only that of Israel. The living Christ encounters us in our particularity – the Spirit given by Christ draws close to us in our particularity.

The name of Charles Colson may be a familiar one to you. In fact Charles Colson died in April of last year. He is best known, perhaps, for his association with the Nixon Administration in the United States – he served as special council to Richard Nixon, specializing in political affairs. His role, in part, was to respond to those situations or individuals that might be politically damaging to the president. To give a sense of his character, he was known as Nixon’s hatchet man. In his autobiography he wrote that he was useful to President Nixon because he was “willing to be ruthless in getting things done.”

In 1974, Charles Colson was among the Watergate Seven – he was one of the seven members of the Nixon administration indicted in the Watergate scandal. In the end Colson himself plead guilty to the lesser charge of obstruction of justice in another matter. He spent 7 months in Maxwell Prison in Alabama.

What’s particular interesting about Colson is that around the time of his arrest, he became a Christian. Someone gave him a copy of C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, which helped lead him into Christian faith. Colson joined a prayer breakfast and a fellowship group in the evangelical tradition. And as you can imagine, there was deep skepticism about his conversion in the media – the media could only interpret his conversion as a ploy to reduce his prison sentence. Far from the truth, it turned out.

During his time in prison, Charles Colson became deeply aware of the injustices of the American prison system – he became aware of the rampant failure of that system in terms of rehabilitation. He also became convinced that what prisoners need is a change of heart through encounter with Christ. So the year after his release from prison, in 1976, Colson founded an organization called Prison Fellowship – an organization committed to bringing the healing of Christ and the hope of Christ into prisons, not only in the U.S. now, but around the world. The goal is to change hearts, and to change the women and men who are incarcerated, so that they leave prison living in the way of Christ, rather than going on to become repeat offenders. In fact today Prison Fellowship does work in 124 countries around the world.  Charles Colson always said that when he got out of prison he had no intention of spending the rest of his life in working with prisoners – but in fact that’s what happened.

In 1985 an offshoot organization of Prison Fellowship was established called Justice Fellowship – Justice Fellowship which is bipartisan organization that seeks reform of the American justice system. Among other things, the organization seeks to reverse harsh three strike policies and mandatory sentences. They are working to provide protections and support for those among prison populations suffering from mental illness.

What is the point of sharing Colson’s story? It is because when Christ comes to us, he comes to us in our particularity – he comes to us in the midst of our specific history and brokenness and giftedness – he comes with redemption and healing where we are – he comes into our particular circumstances in order to call us to service.

That Charles Colson became a Christian didn’t simply mean that he would one day go to heaven. That Charles Colson became a Christian didn’t mean that he simply had some spiritual or otherworldly experience.

In the midst of his very real arrest and trial and imprisonment, Colson encountered the forgiveness of Christ. In his particular, personal brokenness, Colson encountered the healing of Christ. And through his experience within a Federal prison, Colson heard the call of Christ to serve those who inhabit those places of alienation and injustice and despair. Within the boundaries of Colson’s particular life, Christ came to him and began to work for renewal – Christ made him a new person within the boundaries of his particular identity.

The lesson that we receive from the narrative of God’s people,

the lesson of Jesus the incarnate one,

the lesson of Charles Colson,

is that God meets each of us in our particularity,

that God teaches each us in our particularity,

that God redeems us in our particularity,

and that God calls us in our particularity.

Christ doesn’t come and demand that we become someone we are not. Christ doesn’t invite us to escape from our particular circumstances into some ill-defined, vague spirituality.

When Christ comes to by his grace, in the power of his Spirit:

My particular pride or violence or bitterness is confronted and refused.

My particular refusal of his truly human way is exposed and overcome.

When Christ comes to us by his grace, in the power of his Spirit:

Our particular pain finds an answer, our grief finds relief.

Our woundedness becomes a source of strength in service to others.

When Christ comes to us by his grace, in the power of his Spirit:

We are strengthened to seek reconciliation in our broken relationships.

We are challenged to use our gifts in service to his justice and goodness.

 Within the river boundaries of our lives – today in Montreal – God comes to us in our particularity – he comes in the person of the risen Jesus – he comes by his Spirit to encounter, challenge, and renew us where we are. Thanks be to God. Amen.




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