The Susquehanna River starts in upstate New York, flowing southward, snaking through central Pennsylvania, then finally dashing through northwest Maryland to empty into the head of the Chesapeake Bay. I realize this is alien geography to many of you. Understand that prior to my coming here, my life has been tied up in the River and the Bay. My mother grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York that backed up to the Susquehanna River. I grew up on the Western Shore of the Chesapeake, and moved here from the Eastern Shore. In seminary I lived in the Lower Susquehanna Synod. My wife grew up where the Susquehanna meets the Chesapeake. The River and the Bay are part of me. The River and the Bay are poisoned. When English explorers first arrived in the 1630s, the oyster reefs in the Bay grew so high that they poked out of the water. Today Marylanders import oysters to eat. Blue Crabs, THE Maryland dish, abounded in the 17th century. Now junk in the Susquehanna River causes huge algae blooms that suck the oxygen out of the water and create “dead zones.” The crab population is below sustainable levels. Striped Bass—the Maryland State Fish—can only be eaten safely once a month, and not at all if you’re pregnant. The water in the River and in the Bay is in bad shape.
So of course everyone’s solution is to look out for themselves. Watermen want to keep fishing, crabbing, and dredging. Maryland counties are required to pay a cleanup fee calculated by how much pavement and farmland is in their territory, but developed counties blame the farms and farm counties blame the developed ones. Maryland says that the Bay is polluted because of stuff dumped in upstream, in Pennsylvania and New York. Pennsylvania and New York say you can’t prove stuff flows downstream. Each state and county looks out for its own isolated interests.
Hebrews in Peter’s day were isolated, or at least pressured to be. Dietary and purity laws set them apart from the rest of the world. They could live in a kind of isolation, even though they moved about the Roman Empire with everyone else. What the Hebrews had pulled off was nothing short of remarkable. Despite being exiled to Babylon they had developed an idenity and reestablished themselves. Despite being conquered by Alexander the Great and tyrannized by his successors they had successfully revolted. Despite being conquered by Rome, they had managed what no other subject people had: exemption from paying Imperial Cultic taxes. (Hebrews paid taxes, but they went to their own temple in Jerusalem.) Through it all God was with them, though they debated what that meant. Some followed the Law strictly, while others followed the Law only when grandma was around. Some believed Israel was to be kept pure for its own purposes. Some believed God had in mind a cosmic purpose for Israel. Jesus, at least as the New Testament portrays him, seems to fit the latter group. The book of Acts thus far has described the Hebrews struggling with what this might mean for them.
Today it blows up: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Such behavior breaks our isolation from the Gentiles. They aren’t clean and their food isn’t clean. Every potential food is catalogued in Deuteronomy 14 as either okay or profane, and preparation instructions pepper the Law (including the prohibition of eating blood which is nestled in the heart of the Holiness Code—worship regulations). These laws have been drilled into Peter (and every good Hebrew) the way we have single-family homes, automobiles, and wearing sneakers to gym class drilled into us.
Peter responds to the question. “First, I saw this sheet full of animals and I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ And I made a note of this as it seemed unusual. I said, ‘I don’t eat profane animals.’ And the voice got all righteous with me and was all like, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ After three rounds of this, three guys show up and the Holy Spirit—whom Jesus promised to us and who descended upon us at Pentecost—she says, ‘Go with these guys.’ So I do, and we get to a house. The guy who owns it says, ‘An angel told me you had a message for me.’ Not as weird as the sheet, I’ll grant you, but still noteworthy. So I start talking, and the Holy Spirit falls on him. And I just have to think that after all of this maybe God is up to something a lot bigger than our customs.” And this account carries the day. God seems to want non-Hebrews to get in on this Jesus thing. God seems to want the whole creation united in Jesus.
God loves creation. Apparently this does not go without saying. From the earliest days of the church there were people who believed that the Earth was not something God was going to redeem, maybe not even something that God created, and in some extreme cases, maybe not even really here. There’s a related view that Jesus only seemed to be human but was really some sort of spirit being or optical illusion. And it is easy to understand how this comes to be. The world is a messed up place. I get that in Genesis 1 God makes everything and calls it good, but it goes to pot just about the moment people arrive on the scene. And frankly the creation story does not deal with things like cancer, incurable diseases, addiction, Alzheimer’s and dementia—the fact that plenty goes wrong even without our actively screwing it up. It is easy to assume that God is quite far away from Earth, and that our goal is to get out of here and get wherever God is.
Our Second Reading today is from Revelation, a book popularly understood as a road map for those hoping to escape. Yet a close look at a text like today’s reveals a bewildering commitment from God to Earth. God isn’t tossing out Earth; God is making Earth new. Jerusalem, God’s Earthly dwelling, has been expanded to staggering proportions and decorated like a bride who’s gone overboard on her wedding. Rather than choose a handful of people to favor through history, or choose a handful of people to whisk away to safety before blowing the thing sky high, God has chosen to be everywhere all the time. In order for us to view Christianity as our escape plan, we have to ignore Revelation, we have to ignore Peter’s story, and we have to ignore the death and resurrection of Jesus. God didn’t just become human; when we killed him, he came right back as the same human. “Hey, everybody! I’m still here!”
We are tied to creation because of Jesus. We are tied to the Earth. We are tied to the water. As I am tied to the waters of the Susquehanna and the Chesapeake, we are tied to the water of baptism. For the water of baptism and the water that rains on us and flows around us is the same water. Our status as baptized Christians does not give us an escape plan. There is no escape from baptism. (That’s one of the reasons I splash you at Thanksgiving for Baptism: there is no escape from the water! …It is also fun.) It’s hard to ignore water when it is running down your face. It is hard to ignore Jesus when it is his bathwater that’s beading on your glasses and making the ink on your worship folder run. And Jesus isn’t here with an elaborate escape plan. No, he’s more like, “Have you seen what’s in the water, lately? You can’t eat fish that live in it! Have you checked out how polluted the land is? Plants die if they germinate there. Don’t try to ignore it. Don’t isolate yourselves from my world, now. Don’t be calling my stuff profane. I made that.”
We give thanks for Baptism in Easter. We start worship with it, usually. On Sundays, I splash you. Today, at the 10:45, I’ll splash Brittany and Aliyah exceptionally well. (Then I’ll get them with olive oil just for good measure.) Jesus uses those tactile rites to connect us to the world for which he died and lives. Brittany and Aliyah will not be getting their escape instructions; they’ll be joining us and all the baptized in being tied to this water that gives us a life of stewarding the water, stewarding the land, stewarding whatever critters God tosses in the sheet to show Peter. We’ve watched as Houston flooded this week due to overly aggressive paving. We have something to say about that as Baptized people, and it isn’t just “How can we help?” Closer to home many of us have worked to prevent privatization at the Indiana Dunes. We have something to say about that as Baptized people, and it isn’t the stereotypical church opposition to liquor, cards, and dancing. (Cuz God knows if those things get banned a lot of us are in deep trouble.)
It comes from a God who declares that “the home of God is among mortals,” who promises, “See, I am making all things new,” and who then declares, “It is done!” God has tied us to creation, and in us God begins the work of making it all new.