Water is amazing. One of Creator’s most amazing creations. We could easily have an entire year of church services orientated around what we can learn about Creator, our world, and ourselves just through water. So simple and so sacred. So vulnerable and so wild. As everyday as a thing could be — and literally transcendent, as water continuously ascends into the sky as we’re told Jesus did, promising to return shortly — and palpably and visibly making good on that claim on the regular. (Probably a little too much on the regular in this bio region and this season.)
Water is amazing. My friend teaches at a local outdoor preschool. They teach the kids to engage with nature, with creation. The past few weeks they’ve been having a little debate about what language to use about how the kids interact with creation. They’ve used discovery. But they are leaning away from that, as it dishonors the life and depth of the natural world. Just like Columbus did not discover the Americas; and just like, this Thanksgiving, we remember that the pilgrims did not discover this land mass we call the US; and just like we remember, each Sunday, that we certainly did not discover the Duwamish land we are worshipping on today. No, creation is not discovered. Similarly they are leaning away from the word “explore” for the same reasons.
Encounter is a word they are sitting with. The natural world is wild and wonderful and always at work around us. We don’t discover or explore it. We simply slow down enough to encounter it. Like the difference between a quick text interaction with a person who may as well be your Alexa or Siri to solve a problem… and a long drawn-out cup of coffee or tea where we slow down and listen and encounter another human being. They encounter the created world. They encounter water.
(Sidenote: How exciting is the future when these preschoolers who were taught to encounter creation get to lead us? Be ready to listen when their voices begin to speak. In fact, find a preschooler now and practice listening to their generation. They will be wild in a wonderful way!)
Anyway, back to water. If you encounter water, it is amazing. There is so much to learn. It is a sacred helper, friend, mentor, and teacher that Creator has given us.
On thing that water does very well is get low.
Waters that fall in the mountains drive themselves into the valleys. And there are found the still waters that nourish crops and animals. Water knows how to get low and for this reason the valleys are fertile. On her journey to get low, water pulls friends along with her. Nutrients (ok, and runnoff now that we’ve put our broken thumbprints on the face of the earth) but nutrients, like the followers of Christ, join water on her journey to get low.
And so there are peaceful waters in the valley.
I am a huge Saint Patrick nerd. Like, in high school when other kids were — I don’t even know what we were supposed to be doing? Hanging out at the mall? Playing video games? I don’t know…because I was reading books and articles and dissertations on Saint Patrick. The kicker: I’m not even Irish. A bit Scottish. A good deal Polish. Not Irish. But this was what I did with high school: Study Saint Patrick. You all called a weirdo to be your pastor.
Anyway, as I studied Saint Patrick, I read his journals. When he was a slave in Ireland, formerly an atheist, he found himself drawn to God by the depth of fear he felt — in the valleys. Literal valleys. He was enslaved as a shepherd. He had to accompany the sheep to the still waters and greener grasses and that meant valleys. The thing about water is that it knows how to get low. And so the valleys are low, as the mountains and rolling Irish hills stand towering above them. The high places that water always leaves are excellent places for predators, thieves, murderers to hide. To watch. To wait. And then attack. Patrick spoke of utter fear in the valleys. Vulnerability. And not the wonderful vulnerability of your heart being known by another. Vulnerability of being on display for the predatory world to see.
Because water is good at getting low — and predators are not — the valleys are a dangerous place.
This month we’ve been singing “Peace in the Valley” for our communion chant. It’s a song popularized by a rich white man — Elvis, you may have heard of him. From Elvis, peace in the valley sounds like: “I need a vacation in the wilderness. Maybe camping. Maybe glamping, with some electric hook ups and a hot shower. But I need a little rest in the valley.” We’re headed to Oregon for Thanksgiving where we won’t work and grandparents will help with the kids. I could sing: “There will be peace in the Willamette valley for me-e-e Thursday…”
But this song we’ve been singing, that was popularized by Elvis, was not written either by or for a rich white man. It was written by the son of a Black preacher for Mahalia Jackson. In a 1977 interview, Thomas Dorsey, author of “Peace in the Valley,” shared that he suffered from some very intense anxiety as his Christian upbringing pulled him one way and his music pulled him another way. He felt torn apart by the divide between who Christian institutions told him to be and who he knew he was. Anyone feel that? And he had a nervous breakdown because of it.
From that spiritual valley of anxiety and pain, he became a member of a little Baptist church and began writing most of their music.
He says that one day, as Adolph Hitler was sending troops into the valleys of Europe and the whole world seemed to be swallowed by a mirror of his own inner anxiety, he was on a train in rural Indiana and he saw sheep grazing in the valley. He encountered those sheep the way preschoolers in Jefferson Park are taught to encounter water. He let himself get lost in their world and he found himself asking: “What is wrong with humanity? Why can’t we find and make peace like those sheep?” And Dorsey says that it is from those thoughts that “Peace in the Valley” came into being.
Written for a woman deeply involved in the struggle for equality and equity in a troubled world, “Peace in the Valley” is a plea for what seems to be impossible. Peace in the Valley is a plea for God’s kin-dom of love and justice.
And while Jesus always said Kingdom with a g and never said kin-dom, I feel 100% certain Christ is about a kin-dom because Christ is One with the Creator who gave us the water that does not flow to the top of the mountain but to the valleys. Christ knows how to get low. So there is no king in Christ’s world. There is instead equality. Unity. Equity. There is peace in the valley because in Christ’s holy kin-dom, all of us siblings here on this planet — human siblings and non-human siblings — follow Christ’s lead and get low.
The very first hymn written about Jesus, as recorded in Paul’s letter to a little church in Philippi says: “Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!”
Christ, like water, knows how to get low.
Today is a day we call “Christ the King” Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year before we come back around to Advent. In Advent we wait for the new king to be born. So this is sort of a prequel to Advent. This is a chance to reflect on who this newborn King is. This is a chance to celebrate the grandeur of Christ before we place him vulnerably in a cradle.
We read a passage this morning where Zechariah sings of the greatness God has promised. Zechariah sings about a man called John who grows up to be a odd duck, living on the outskirts of town, preceding all the hipsters now eating cricket protein, in his diet of locust and honey. He speaks of a man called John who grows up to call down kings and, in doing so, puts himself on their hit list. He speaks of a man named John who is also known as the Baptist, who spent so much of his time standing in water and inviting folks to come and also stand in that water. To get low like the water and then to get even lower than the water as they are baptized in it.
And Zechariah tells us this sacred madman will lead us. He will guide us in the way of peace.
He will get low and invite us to get low and in doing so, he will guide us in the way of peace.
This is Christ the King Sunday. But really, it’s Christ the Kin Sunday. This is where we slow down and — we don’t discover or explore — but we encounter God’s anointed one. Where we encounter Christ. And we find that he is not King, but Kin. He is not high, but low. He does not horde, but shares. He does not rule, but woos. And as the ancient hymn tells us, he does not see “being in very nature God” as something to grasp, but to surrender in order to immerse himself in human kinship — even if that kinship will cost him everything.
Christ the King is no King at all. He is Christ the Kin. And he calls us all into the valley. Where, like water and like sheep, we can find peace.
But, dear siblings, there can only be peace in the valley when those who find their power in the mountains, in the high places — in the white cis-hetero patriarchy — in classism — in global classism — in abelism — in self righteousness — in insulating ourselves from the dangers of the world around us — in American exceptionalism — in Liberal self-righteousness — in the distraction of social media and streaming videos (you all, Disney+ has like a lifetime of anesthetizing fun that I honestly can’t wait to surrender to… did you see baby Yoda?) — but this is a digression and a distraction, leading away from what I was saying and where Christ is leading.
Whatever our safe mountain is, that insulates us and allows us to be a part of the preying class — the preying-with-an-e class rather than the praying-with-an-a class — the vulnerable valley class, the united-in-our-shared-kinship class…
There can only be peace in the valley when the mountains are abandoned. When we follow our great teacher, water, as she tries to show us how to get low. To bring ourselves and all the riches we have in us and around us to a flat and level feasting table in the valley.
Water is amazing, dear siblings. Christ the Kin is amazing, dear siblings. It’s the kin-dom of liberating love and justice and it empties the mountains. Empties the high places where predators find their safety. Turns predator into kin.
The Kin-dom of God, that gets low in the valley to prepare a feast of equality, equity, mutuality, and love, is amazing, dear siblings.
And when we abandon the mountains that make us feel safe — safe, but not at peace — then. then. then there will be peace in the valley for Thomas Dorsey and Mahalia Jackson and Tamir Rice and immigrant children and trans folk, whose murders were mourned in this building on Wednesday night, and particularly trans women of color, and even for the non-human world — for the mountains themselves which are being annihilated in search of fuel for our frenetic world…
When we encounter water, encounter Christ, and learn how to get low; when there is peace in the valley for all people and all created things; then, oh yes, there will be peace in the valley for me, and for you, and for all.
Watch this water. Encounter this water at this table as we encounter Christ at this table. Let us learn how to get low and make peace in the valley. Amen.