River of Joy
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
18 November 2007
"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God."
Have you heard the story of those people from that place they call Oklahoma? It's a pretty interesting place. They've got dense forests and wide open plains, prairies with rolling hills and wide, lazy rivers, ancient mountains, rugged canyons and tall mesas, a few swamps, and even salt plains and sand dunes and alabaster caverns. A land carved by a primeval sea, the upward thrust of the earth, and the power of the wind and the rain.
Ten thousand years ago there were people here. Hunters of bison. Nomads. They'd trap the herds in gullies and leave the bones as a reminder of their prowess. One of these people, up there in what is now Harper County, took one of these bison skulls from an old kill and painted a red lightning bolt on it and placed the skull on the ground to serve as a talisman, drawing more bison to the hunting grounds. And that skull, with its red lightning bolt, is the oldest known piece of art in the United States.
Not bad for a "brand new state." A centennial? Pshaw. We've got ten thousand years.
For thousands of those years people roamed this land, hunting the bison, camping in the canyons and along the rivers, sometimes building cities that were part of ancient trading cultures. The first Europeans hardly left a mark in their explorations.
A disputed land, owned by great powers who never saw its beautiful landscapes, fought over on battlefields and in palaces of statecraft far removed from its open prairies. Caught up in the struggle to expand – America!, Mexico!, Texas!
And, so, it became a place of journeys, a place of suffering, a place of surprises. A story of promise and hope.
"though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult."
The new nation had a plan for these indigenous people, Indians they called them. Let's make them civilized. Let's teach them to read and write, to become Christians, but, most importantly, to buy and sell. Mostly sell. And by civilization, of course, we mean abandon your own and assimilate with ours. Either that, or get out of the way.
Because it ultimately wasn't enough to become civilized. Civilization failed, so we'll have to remove. And keep removing. Tribe after tribe, nation after nation. People and cultures displaced, again and again. Exodus after exodus. Exile after exile. By the Illinois and the Arkansas and the Canadian we sat down and there we wept when we remembered. On the blackjacks we hung up our flutes. How could we sing one of the songs of [Note: did not use native names because they would be unfamiliar to most of the audience and would not convey the point] Georgia, of Florida, of Ohio, of Indiana, of New Mexico, of the Dakotas. How could we sing our songs in a foreign land?
One November day, on the banks of the Washita, we settled in for winter camp, under the protection of Black Kettle, a peace chief who carried the flag of the United States and the medal given him by President Lincoln. One cold November dawn we were aroused by a band, playing a jaunty tune, that merely presaged the gunshots and screams to follow.
And the people came. On their long journeys west to promised land. In search of streets of gold and the land flowing with milk and honey. And they crisscrossed with herds of cattle, blazing trails that fed the hungry masses in new cities up north.
And they came to stay. On that April morning the energy filled the crowd waiting (and those who didn't wait) for that cannon shot. New beginning. New hope. A new life in this land of promise.
More and more came. German farmers, Czech immigrants, freed slaves. A huge population of South East Asians. Latin Americans, Persians, Hindus, and Arabs.
"the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of it; it shall not be moved."
With vigor they settled and planted and built. Farms and towns and cities sprang up. Literally overnight there were merchants, doctors, hospitals, and banks. Soon to follow were universities, museums, orchestras, and parks. All arising through hard work.
And soon they discovered how rich the land was. Land that overflowed with its riches – literally. For example, one cold March morning, Wild Mary started spewing her black gold for eleven days, all over Oklahoma City, covering her with over 200,000 barrels of oil (which comes to about twenty-two million dollars on today's market!)
But its richest resource was its people. Artists and businessmen, musicians and authors, evangelists and astronauts who transformed the culture with their frontier values.
Here is the home of the world's greatest athlete. Here the people gather in their temples of sport to celebrate prowess and skill.
"The nations are in an uproar, the kingdom's totter; God utters his voice, the earth melts."
Yet this land of new beginnings, this land of prosperity, became an unfulfilled promise for many.
For the natives who lost their land and their share in the plenty.
For the blacks who came and settled their own towns and built their own cities and produced great musicians, artists, and authors, only to see it burn in the worst race riot our nation has known.
For the political dreamers who thought this land would bring justice and equality for the common man. This state elected over 175 socialists to local and state office in 1914. Frustration was great enough by August 1917 that rebellion broke out in Seminole County, intent on overthrowing the government. We went from being the reddest state in the Union to now being one of the reddest states in the Union, but not the same shade of red. A dream, whether good or bad, of many, that went unfulfilled.
For the poor whites, those heirs of settlers, who like something out of the biblical story were thrown off of their land by drought, mortgages, and mechanization and headed West to a land they thought was a new Eden.
In Job God's voice thundered forth from the whirlwind. And for those in Snyder in 1905, Woodward in 47, Tinker Field in 48, Blackwell in 55, or Moore in 99 who saw their homes, businesses, and loved ones destroyed by the awful wind, it must have seemed that they too were enduring the trials of Job.
And of course April 19, 1995, a day none of us will ever forget.
Yes, not all was promise and plenty.
After all, remember fifty years ago, as we were celebrating fifty years of statehood, on that Black Saturday, the Irish came to town.
"Come behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire."
Ours is a paradoxical history. Rich natural resources that turn against human civilization in tornadoes, droughts, and floods. A multicultural place, where racism has and remains an issue. A place that was founded to be a new society with new freedom and more equality and more hope for the common man, all dreams that have been frustrated along the way.
Our Oklahoma story allows us to connect so easily with the biblical story, because our story shares so many themes – land, exodus, exile, race, economic justice, suffering, and celebration. Ours is a story of journey, suffering, and surprises. A story of promise and a story of hope.
Where does the promise and the hope remain in all the paradoxes of our history?
As I drove through Western Oklahoma two weeks ago, I couldn't help but see this as still a land of opportunity. We may be ten thousand years old, but we are still so young. We have empty land, untapped resources, and creative people who have yet to really demonstrate the full glories of the Oklahoma spirit.
Stanley Hauerwas says you can know that Christianity is true because it produced Dorothy Day. Taking the same analysis to Oklahoma this week, I thought, you know that we've done something right because of someone like Clara Looper. Filled with a sense of justice and a passion for equality, this woman began the national movement of sit-ins protesting for the civil rights of African-Americans. Right here. And it wasn't easy. It took incredible courage and hard work. And she still hasn't stopped fighting for civil rights causes. Now the area around the Oklahoma State Capitol is named the "Clara Looper Corridor." Every time we see that marker, we should see it as a sign of hope.
The universe bends toward justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said. And I have faith that the Oklahoma story bends that way as well. That the promise in which we were conceived is working its way out through the difficult birth pangs known as life.
Psalm 46 is a reminder that no matter what is going on in life, that God's will is working itself out. It doesn't come suddenly or easily. There will always be conflict as God's dream for the world encounters the forces of opposition. But to those forces of opposition God thunders forth,
"Be still, and know that I am God!"
I have always mistaken this to be a call for silent, pious contemplation. Silent contemplation is a good thing, but this week as I studied this passage, the commentary pointed out that this verse was not about our individual spiritual practices. This was God's cry to the forces that oppose God's will. This is God's answer to the warring nations, the chaotic nature described earlier in this Psalm. God calls the powers-that-be to come and behold God's power and then God shouts, "Be still, and know that I am God!" Like Jesus calming the storm, God is calming the storms of human history. The powers of this world must ultimately acknowledge the sovereignty of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace.
Today I want us to see our Oklahoma story as part of the larger story of God's work in this world. That calls us individually to examine how our story – the Scott, Bill, Diana, Susan, David, Archie, Garland, Donna, etc. story is part of God's story.
One way to begin is by being still -- by opening ourselves to God working in and through us. We do that through prayer, bible study, meditation, and worship.
The next thing is to practice gratitude. There is no greater antidote for the bitterness, fear, and anxiety that threaten our well-being than adopting an attitude of gratitude. Every day we have more things to be thankful for than we could ever realize. But intentionally taking the time to be thankful toward other people and toward God will transform us spiritually and emotionally.
As you open yourself to God and practice gratitude, then the Spirit will lead you to participate in God's on-going work. What is your calling? How can you serve God? How can you show God's grace, compassion, and liberation to other people?
I'm convinced that the Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City is part of God's work in this time to draw the Oklahoma story forward. We not only preach hope, we are ourselves a sign of hope. That this ministry of radical, inclusive welcome exists is a sign that God's reign of justice and peace is that one step closer to realization.
I don't participate in the ministry of this church just because it's my job or just because I find personal pleasure in it. I intentionally came home to this church because I wanted to work to make Oklahoma a better place. Because I saw this work as a crucial part of God's work in the world. In other words, I wanted my story to be a part of God's story.
And your participation in the life and ministry of this congregation is also your share in that on-going story. You are a part of God's work in the world, bringing liberation and hope to a state and people who need to hear that message. In this stewardship season, I ask you to pray about how your support for this congregation enables it to continue to grow its ministry and touch more people with God's message.
Prayer, gratitude, participation lead to joy. Joy doesn't come from everything going perfectly in our lives. Joy doesn't rely on us being healthy, rich, and beautiful. Joy comes from a content spirit. One who knows that no matter the ups and downs in life, God abides. "O let me ne'er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet." "The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one."
What does it mean to say that God abides, that God's reign is forever? That God is our mighty fortress, and that this is our Heavenly Parent's world?
It means that God's dream of justice and peace will be realized. This is our hope. And through conviction it becomes our faith. And from these joy arises.
And we get that hope, that faith by prayer, gratitude, and participation. Because these make our story part of God's on-going story.
"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of it; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns."