Getting into river is beginning of journey, Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson says

“Even in the beauty of this place, I do come with a heavy heart. You have been ministering to me with your smiles,” said the Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson to the congregation at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday, July 24, morning service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater. 

Her sermon title was “Meet Me at the River,” and the scripture was Mark 1:9-11.

She invited the congregation to dream and imagine the world together, “grounded in the songs of my ancestors, the Negro spirituals. I am aiming to follow the spirit of love and liberation, who is drawing the circle wider and wider until the circle encompasses us all.”

Jordan-Simpson said her heart was heavy, yet hopeful. 

“How can I feel heavy about headlines that scream, yet be hopeful?” she asked. “How can I live in the one who has the world in his hands, like my ancestors who sang that the whole world is in God’s hands? Hope gives us power, God’s power.”

Mark wrote: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Mark’s Gospel is unfancy, she said. Mark skipped the birth and lineage sections about Jesus and went right to the heart of the matter. 

Jordan-Simpson said that she and her mother, who will be 93 this year, have been having the same conversation for the last 50 years. 

Georgia Pressley / staff photographer The Rev. Emma Jordan-Simpson, president of Auburn Seminary, delivers her opening sermon of the week, “Meet Me at the River,” Sunday in the Amphitheater.

Her mother will say, “Well, Mimi, these are the last and evil days. Stay close, get people close to you, love them, do your work, talk to God.”

Her mother called on her birthday and when she hung up, Jordan-Simpson had a different reaction. 

“My heart was in tatters over the rising death count in the mass shootings,” Jordan-Simpson said. “We had not completed the burials from the first before the next happened. And this was just over the ones that made the news and not the ones that were just added to the list.”

She continued, “I grabbed my heart with each news report and asked, ‘Lord, how much more of these screaming headlines will we take?’ What does it mean to live in a land where shooting children does not cause us to come together to save our future? What kind of land is this where we have no agency over our own bodies? Who has a say over my body? It is the same as my great-great-grandmothers who were sold in the marketplace for profit.”

Jordan-Simpson said the Supreme Court had gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and had questioned the right of people to define who they love and build a family with. 

The different reaction Jordan-Simpson had that day, after the phone call with her mother, was to vow not to go numb, not to turn her head, not to avert her eyes, not to stop looking for God in the eyes of her neighbor. 

“I encourage you all to do this, as well,” Jordan-Simpson said to the congregation. 

She continued, “Toxic platitudes and belief are not the will of God. Let us pray for God to keep us all in our bodies, our right minds and not become maladjusted to needless death, our neighbor’s pain or the cries of our children. Let us not get accustomed to burying our future.”

At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the dedication plaque speaks of all those who were hanged and beaten, shot, drowned, burned, or abandoned by the rule of law.

“We remember with hope, for hopelessness is the enemy of justice and faithfulness,” Jordan-Simpson said. “ ‘We shall overcome’ with hope, with faith and courage ‘for the facing of this hour.’ ”

She called the congregation to reflect on the current state of America. 

“Have you heard people say ‘This is not the America I know, this is not who we are as a country’?” Jordan-Simpson asked. “There will be no healing, peace or joy on the horizon if we don’t face the truth. This is the America we have created. It does not have to be the America that will be.”

Jordan-Simpson said if she were translating Mark 1:9 it would not read “in those days,” but “when all hell was breaking loose” when Jesus came from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan. 

What propelled Jesus to go out in the wilderness and declare his allegiance to God? Mark, she said, does not give a clue, but in Luke’s Gospel there is a description of what the world was like.

Luke named the rulers of this time, beginning with the Roman emperor Tiberius, in the 15th year of his reign. Also at the time, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod was the ruler of Galilee, Philip was the ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene, and Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. 

Tiberius believed he was god and secured his rule through violence. 

“John went to the river and chose to give his allegiance to the God of hope and not Caesar,” Jordan-Simpson said.

Pilate got rich on real estate and government contracts. 

“He was not centered on the good of the people, and he secured his fortune by violence,” she said. “Jesus went to the river and chose the God of love.”

Herod was chosen by Rome and used heavy taxation on the poor to get his wealth. 

“He arrested John because he was giving hope to people in their hearts,” Jordan-Simpson said. “Power is always threatened by hope.”

“We have a right to be enraged, but power is not afraid of rage. Warped power is not moved by the caskets of children,” Jordan-Simpson told the congregation. “Power is afraid of our hope, our willingness to gather and see God in each other’s eyes. Power is afraid of what hope drives us to do.”

John was murdered because he gave people hope. When the people responded to John, Herod was threatened. Jesus went to the river to choose God and God responded, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

“People still went to the river. Will you meet me at the river?” Jordan-Simpson asked the congregation. “The river is not the end of the journey; it is the beginning. The river was flowing long before any of us were created. The river is the place where people hear the voice of God. The river is the place where you show up.”

Jordan-Simpson continued, “My ancestors thought of the river as the beginning of the journey of self-liberation. They had escaped the chains and washed the smells of slavery off. They kept stepping in, and there were other people who joined them, other visions of freedom.”

God is in the river, the Spirit is in the river, troubling the waters and calling us to come and join the struggle, she said. 

In his book, There Is a River, historian Vincent Harding wrote that in the face of oppression, people side with God. 

“The river is not just wet water; the river is a people. We are the river,” Jordan-Simpson said. “The work of liberation is not for our own people, but to bring in the world that God designed.”

What would it look like to see God in each other’s eyes? 

“If we make our way toward the river,” she said, “I have a suspicion that the songs of liberation and freedom would sound from all the places and (from all) people wanting to hear the voice of God.”

The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor for Chautauqua, presided. Janet Laude, president of the International Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, read the Scripture. The prelude was Fugue in G major, BWV 577, by Johann Sebastian Bach, played by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist. “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” arranged by Frank Pesci and written by Robert Robinson, was the anthem sung by the Chautauqua Choir. The choir was under the direction of Stafford and accompanied by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The offertory anthem was “Shall We Gather at the River,” music arranged by John Rutter and words by Robert Lowry. Stigall played “Partita on Engelberg,” composed by Michael Burkhardt, for the postlude. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.