Summary: A great people learn to balance foolish pride and destructive shame, and learn to be themselves rather than selecting the worst habits of the majority. Cling to what has supported the African-American for years.
Those who have planned our observance of Black History Month this year selected the theme, "New Currents, Ancient Rivers". Many of you will recognize that the words, "Ancient Rivers" are drawn from a well-known poem by Langston Hughes.
The phrase "New Currents, Ancient Rivers" suggests to me that while we are celebrating history and heritage, we also need to be sensitive to the issues that are still around and have never gone away. Certain issues, certain concerns may be expressing themselves in new ways, but they are really the same old issues, the same old concerns. They may be new currents, but they flow out of ancient rivers.
More than that, I recognized that in the Bible, certain rivers figure into the history of salvation. Significant things happened in association with certain rivers. In the Bible, there are key incidents happening "down by the riverside". And so I’ve tried to bring these elements together -- Black History Month, the theme ’’New Currents, Ancient Rivers", the notion that old problems are still with us, and the Biblical image of the river -- I’ve tried to bring all of these elements together for today and for the other Sundays this month when I am to preach.
Three rivers in the Scriptures suggested themselves to me. Each has its own special relevance, as you will discover. Today, the River Euphrates, that great river that forms a part of the fertile crescent, what has been called the "Cradle of Civilization"; two weeks from today, the River Jordan, crossed in a day of adventure by Joshua and entered in a day of· new venture by Jesus; and three weeks from today, the River Nile, nourished by the heart of Africa and providing both the location of oppression and the source from which God would draw a rescuer named Moses.
Three rivers, three sets of issues; but three times when the grace of God poured out like an ever-flowing stream.
Now there is always something awkward about my involvement as a preacher in Black History Month. It may feel uncomfortable for me to be the one addressing certain matters. I do not share that history. All I can say is that I am trying to be sensitive to what you may feel, and that I cannot compromise my responsibility to share God’s word. But if at any time something l may say or do hurts you, makes you feel wounded, I hope you’ll just come to me personally about it. I do want to hear and I do want to respond.
Today, then, will you hear these lines from the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and following them a reading from the 13th chapter of the prophecy of Jeremiah:
I’ve known rivers;
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers; Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston Hughes has begun, "I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young." The great river Euphrates is mentioned frequently in the Bible. It is named in Genesis as one of the rivers of Eden. It is cited in the First Book of Kings as the extent of Solomon’s empire. And the strangest mention of all comes in the prophecy of Jeremiah, because the Lord tells Jeremiah to travel all the way up to the river Euphrates, in what today is the nation of Iraq, and to act out a message. The eloquent prophet Jeremiah, who can certainly preach with words, is now also to act out a parable. He goes to the river Euphrates and teaches us something powerful:
Jeremiah 13: 1-11
Let me summarize this incident for you. Jeremiah is first told to go and buy a new linen cloth •• the translation we are using calls it a loincloth, others call it a girdle or a sash. It was an article of clothing worn around the waist and hips. It was a belt, but a whole lot more than a belt. This sash, or loincloth, was something a man in Biblical times could use to dress up his otherwise drab costume. And, to a degree, it could become a badge, it could be a status symbol.
I guess it might be a little like a necktie is today. Neckties are the most useless articles of clothing you can imagine. You don’t need one to hold your shirt together. You don’t have to have one in order to protect your privacy. Why do we wear neckties? Well, they do brighten up our otherwise drab appearance -- honestly, gentlemen, what are we doing in all this black and dark brown, while our wives and daughters wear every color under the rainbow? Neckties are the only chance we men have to shine; and did you know this? Neckties make a statement! Anybody here still have a yellow tie with polka dots all over it? Well, that made a statement a few years ago. It was supposed to be a power tie. Today, I think you are supposed to have a handpainted thing with twists and swirls on it? It is a fashion that makes a statement. Some might call it a foolish fashion, but it makes a statement.