The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori: Let's Go Down to the River

Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. Andrew's in New Orleans, Louisiana

by The Most rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


There's a lot of anxiety around here about oil, and closed fishing grounds, and what's going to happen to the marshes. An awful lot of people are praying over this one - and not just folks who live on this coast. There was a great story in the NYT a few days ago about a Vietnamese immigrant, who's been here for 30 years, and supports his family running a shrimp boat out of Venice. That family was displaced to Missouri after Katrina, but he's still down here fishing. He's wondering how he's going to make his payments - and there are plenty like him, including people running seafood restaurants, and lots of those who have weathered the aftermath of Katrina.

Lydia made her living from the sea, too. The woman who's talked about in that first reading is identified as a seller of purple cloth. The dye for that cloth came from two kinds of Mediterranean snail. The snails produce a clear mucus that turns blue or purple when it's exposed to the sun - probably it protects the snail's gills from sunburn.

Thousands and thousands of snails were required to make a relatively small amount of dye, which is why only the wealthy could afford that purple cloth. There's a reason it's called "royal purple." Lydia turns out to be a fairly wealthy woman, and she's gone down to the river to pray there outside Philippi. She gathers with others who've also gone down to the river to pray, where Paul and Timothy have turned up.

Lydia already knows something about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - she's called a godfearer, even though she's not a full member of the Jewish community. Whatever Paul has to say about Jesus proves engaging and convincing, and she and her household are eventually baptized. There's one more surprising bit about this encounter - Paul and Timothy have gone and joined a women's prayer meeting. Paul and Timothy will talk to just about anybody, even those who "sell sea shells by the seashore." Lydia goes on to offer hospitality to this emerging Christian community in Philippi and becomes one of its leaders.

There's an awful lot of water in the readings this morning. Paul sails several legs across the Mediterranean to get to Philippi, and there's that river in Revelation - the river of the water of life, that flows from the throne of God through the middle of the city. There are fruitful life-giving trees along both sides. John could almost be talking about the Mississippi and New Orleans. There's talk of trying to increase the flow of this river to keep the oil at bay - and may it go on being a river of life rather than death. That river of life is an image for God as the source of all life, and it's also a reminder that creation - the productive natural environment all around us - also reflects God's life-giving character. Abundant life is God's intent for all of us, and for all of creation, and finding abundant life in one place is connected to finding the image of God in human creatures and in all the rest of creation.

We're all eager to find that abundant life - that's why we keep on going down to the river to pray. We're in search of a world of peace and abundance, where no one lives in want or fear. That's what Jesus is getting at when he talks about leaving his disciples in peace, with peace - he's leaving them a gift that drives out fear, abandonment, scarcity, war. Finding that peace in our own hearts comes from knowing how well we are loved - beyond all understanding, beyond imagining, with an everlasting quality that's more than logic will admit - a river of peace, flowing out of the heart of God. Our peace comes from having roots that run down deep into that river of grace and love.

That river out there is a good reminder of that kind of love. It wasn't the river that inundated New Orleans - it was water from downstream, and a whole lot of environmental damage that made those levees necessary. The river has always been a source of life, from the sediment it deposits, providing substrate for marsh plants that help to hold back storm surges from the Gulf, to the fertility it brings to those marshes - the nutrients that foster their service as nurseries for shrimp and fish and oysters. The death in this system comes from poisons and pollutants that cripple or endanger the health of the river. And the death in this system has something to do with the fears of human beings, who want to control all aspects of its life.

Anybody ever gone swimming in that river? Do you know that just putting your face in the water will slow down your heart rate? When our face gets wet, there's an ancient wisdom in our body's response that begins to shut down the fear and ask our bodies to respond with greater peace. It's probably related to the danger of drowning, for panic is definitely not going to get you out of a near-drowning experience. A more measured and peace-filled response just might. What we're here to do this morning has something to do with drowning.

Those who will be baptized this morning are being asked to die to old ways of living, to do so without fear - at least not disabling fear - and to enter into a new realm of possibility, that vision of abundant life offered to all. But this isn't just a spectator sport. All of us are going to be asked if we'll uphold these new Christians in their life in this community. We're all going down to the river to pray, and to stick our faces in the water. We're going to pray together with saints in ages past, around the world, in all sorts of faith communities. Upholding these persons in their life in Christ - and everybody in this room, for the promise is made for us all - upholding someone has a connection to that sense of drowning. Will you help your brothers and sisters stay above the water, will you help them breathe when terror lurks? Will we help each other die to fear, and remember the hope that is within us?

As we go down to the river to stick our faces in, there's an instant when we can see our own reflection, if we're paying attention. Do you see the image of God? Do we see the image of God when we look around here this morning? There's an invitation there, to go ahead and let the image of God reconnect with the great river of love and source of life, and not be afraid. Fear not, we're all borne up by this great river, flowing from the heart of God.

Jesus leaves his peace with us, with this body of his. That peace is meant to be shared, not hoarded. It's there for the healing and rebuilding of all creation. New Orleans has learned quite a lot about that kind of peace in the last few years - and this city has taught the rest of the world something about that peace as well. Fear not. Let's go stick our faces in the water of life.

Let's go down to the river to pray, with anybody we find there - sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, children, elders, white folks, black folks, shrimp fishermen, snail collectors - and bug collectors like Conan.

Sisters, brothers, let's go down

Let's go down, come on down,

All God's people, let's go down

Down in the river to pray,

As I went down to the river to pray,

Studying about that good ol' way

And who shall wear the robe and crown?

Good Lord show me the way.

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]