The Sermons of the author of "A Cathedral Soul"
The Ferry

An approximation of that same talk given in 1985.


Of all the sermons I've been privileged to preach over the years, I have one particular favorite: The Ferry. The idea or the heart of that talk came to me as I was reading a sermon on the subject by the late, great Dr. McCartney of First Presbyterian in Pittsburgh. Long since I have forgotten exactly what it was he said all of those years ago but the excitement of reading something so close to my own heart of hearts shall never escape me as long as I have breath.

The year was 1985 and we had not yet suffered from the disastrous flood of that same year. I recall that it was early Autumn when I preached it and I believe that I had the joy of proclaiming that message in both the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches of my home town, Greensboro, Pennsylvania. It was preached at possibly the most hopeful juncture of my preaching career.

So much was different then: my mother and my wife's dad were still alive and with us. So many have since departed this life that I have the melancholy of knowing that few still are alive who heard it preached. How sobering such a thought.

The text was the same as Dr. McCartney's, a rather obscure and unpromising passage from II Samuel. And yet, for all of that, it was an inspiration to me and, I hope to think, to all who heard it. I am not in possession of the original outlines for this talk even though I vowed to myself that this talk would be preserved either in my sermon books or on an audio tape. Neither happened and the outline is long since lost. Nevertheless I shall write it here and trust the Lord to move me in the right direction as we ferry across this Jordan to Home.

From an old English print

Ferring horses across a river: one of many images drawn from Bewick's Tyneside childhood
  My father running the Greensboro Ferry across the Monongahela River probably back in the late 1940's

2nd. Samuel 19:18
And there went over
a ferry boat to carry
over the king's house-
hold, and to do what
he thought good.

And Shimei the
son of Gera fell
down before the king,
as he was come over

The Old Testament lesson is taken from the 19th chapter of the 2nd Book of Samuel: (select the link to see the full text of 2 Samuel 19)

"And there went over a ferry boat to carry the king's household, and to do what he thought good."

Friends, we've most of us grown up in this river-town. For more years than some might want to admit, we have lived by the old emerald green Monongahela ... some of us have made our living from its commerce, many of us have swam in it -- and at some risk to both our lives and limbs. We have all heard the wailing of the fire house whistle and learned later that some youngster had drowned in it.

Yet all and all she is a good and pleasant lady. She lives side by side with Greensboro and her peace and calm seems to set the style of things in just the quiet and serene fashion we like around here. To live by the river, what a delight that! I have long wanted to do so, now I do and the coming and going of the diesel boats with their heavy cargoes of coal have become as familiar to me as the ticking of the clock, the rising and the setting of the sun over these green, green hills of home.

One sound we no longer hear from the river is that unique sound that could never ever be mistaken by any ear that heard it: the clanging and the pump, pump, pump of the little ferry that used to take us to the other side, to New Geneva and to the railroad stop. That's all gone now, long since we have had to travel to one or another of the bridges far distant from this town. We miss the ferry, we miss the ferrymen, we miss the gliding across the river and the breeze that always blew about down there. And, of course, I miss my dad ... the biggest thrill of my babyhood was my father running that ferry and taking us back and forth across the splashing water. It was even more fun when a paddle wheel (another sadly extinct species) had just passed by and we road the waves. But these are different times, we all are pretty much forced to have cars whether we want them or not. Happily most has turned out for the better, the coal miners are paid decently these days so we are no longer what we never realized we were, poor.

Imagine the stories that old ferry could have told us. Of men crossing the river to catch the train for camp and war, of women taking their children to catch the train and get the little ones pictures taken, and of those who day in, day out said hello and good-bye ... some would cross over never to return this way, some would cross over wondering what life might yet hold for them, all would cross over either to or from this dear old town. And so the rhythms of life and death and birth have come and gone as so many souls have crossed that old river ... An ordinary thing I suppose, but oh the stories that might be told by this rusted old ferry.

The ancient ferry that crossed the Jordan River had carried the king away and into battle, it had seen the strife of civil war and the freight of soldiers and horsemen for these many years. And now the chief rebel is gone and King David cries out, "Absalom! Absalom!" It is always difficult to have loved so dearly that son who in time would only return heart-break and dark plottings. David's departure with all of his court and his army would always haunt him for what sense can it make when the heir apparent is the worst kind of a fool? It was not the only tragedy of this man's life and take hope dear ones, David who shouldered his heart-break was until the end a man after God's own heart. Love covers a multitude of sins.

It was a melancholy and deeply brooding King David who crossed the Jordan River. Despite all of Absalom's treachery against his father, David could only recall how how deeply he had loved this son. The generals were ordered by their monarch to not harm Absalom, to follow at a respectful distance. It was a new insanity in warfare, you may fight but not win for it is my boy who leads the rebels. Now Absalom is dead, hung by his own hair as he raced amongst the trees upon his steed. The King is irreconcilable but the nation demands him to be what he must be, the King and none other. Oh, I wonder how burdensome it must be to have "Long live the King" shouted at you day and night when you only want rest and quiet, when you only want to be a mortal.

Crossing over Jordan with his people hadn't the joy of a returning victor in it. Victory is of such stuff that cannot warm a father's heart nor console him in his grief. Victory is all parade and all hollow if you are not loved. The crowd and the laurels all wither and die, their echoes are cruel when youth has deserted the leader and life has become a burden rather than a blessing. There is this saying from the theater, probably from Will Shakespeare, "Play the man!" And that is what duty calls us to long after the adulation of the mob, the applause of the audience, the flattery of the court, the plottings of the traitors.

Many feared David's return. Some had allied themselves to Absalom's treachery playing that game of chance which tempts men to defy Heaven itself. Many were aggrieved: would David now make all things right, would David now bring back justice? So many expectations and so short a time to cross a river and meet them all head-on. Wouldn't a million Goliaths be better than this? What giants of greed and evil hide behind the facade of many a supposed friend? Is it not better to have at it with evil and wickedness that can be seen than to cross a river and to re-gain a kingdom filled with its secret treacheries?

David's return was one filled with forgiveness and nobility. There had been enough blood shed, all the blood in all of the battles of all of the world could never bring peace ... only forgiveness could. And thus his Highness lived to be a very old man who was in love with Love. His God was his all and could he yet do so he would dance before the Ark of the Covenant with devout abandon. He had faced his Goliaths, his Absaloms, and his own adultery with Bathsheeba ... and yet for it all the man who crossed the Jordan was yet the boy who sang to the Lord and tended the sheep near Bethlehem. Oh what messes we can make of our lives, what rivers we must cross and re-cross hoping beyond hope that at last we shall find contentment and some consolation.

In mythology we learn that the soul must cross the River Styx in order to arrive at the land of the dead, Hades. There is a ferryman there and he will cross you over with but one price, your only life. That coin which we spend so freely, so carelessly we at last must pay to Death. What shall await us? What Absaloms shall we weep over before this life departs us? And will there be peace on the other side if we learn to hate too deeply on this side of it. But with the King, our Savior, we shall leave this moment in the sun behind us and awaken where there is no need of the sun for Christ is the Light of paradise.

He has been despised, forsaken by those He loved. He has gone homeless without so much as a pillow upon which to rest His sacred head. His family, His troops, all of them have suffered and yet all of them have cast their care upon this One whose suffering and death alone will save us. When we get down to the Jordan will we, as the song has it, "lay down our burdens, down by the riverside"? Will we boldly, finely face that last crossing and there be heard to say not "Absalom! Absaolom" but rahter "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus, my Lord and my God!" For here is not an Absalom but the very Son of God, the King of Kings ... the Son of David and He will never leave us nor forsake us. Not once will He order us to retreat, to surrender our souls to this present Age. No, He will always be the One who will say most firmly, most distinctly, "Follow Me!" "My sheep know My voice and they follow!

That Jordan awaits us. The ferryman soon approaches. The foggy banks grow chill and drear and we are at a loss to save ourselves from the inevitable. "Lead kindly Light, amdist the encircling gloom, Lead Thou me Home." Amen

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