"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Demanding Water

          I was half-listening to the radio while cooking supper, and I began to catch bits of an argument, as petulant, accusing voices swirled around my ears. Political commentators, the voice of the people, were arguing passionately about the causes of, and solutions to, the present economic downturn. The various voices quite clearly did not agree on anything, but there was a tense undertone of fear in all of them, a desperate, urgent tension that sliced through my daydreams like a knife. Having just studied Exodus 17 that afternoon, I thought for a moment that I was back in the desert with the children of Israel. In the voices of the commentators, I could just hear the Israelite leaders’ analyses of their desperate situation, as their complaints were thrown around in the assembly: “We are in a dry, desolate wilderness, and there is no water to drink. Babies are crying miserably, throats are parched, valuable livestock hang their heads in the hot sun, and the land that was supposed to be flowing with milk and honey, is as dry as a bone, dusty and barren, our path littered with sharp stones. We are supposed to be God’s chosen people; God has led us to freedom, gloriously destroying all of our enemies on the way. Freedom is supposed to mean prosperity, a sweet and easy life, where the milk flows into our open mouths and the honey drips smoothly down our throats. How can this be?”
When things are going well, when we are feeling blessed, when we are crossing the Red Sea in triumph, we wave our banners and puff ourselves up with the assurance that God is with us. We are more like our Calvinist forebears than we would like to think, subconsciously believing that God’s Elect are the ones who are flourishing. Jacques Fontaine, my Huguenot great …. grandfather, wrote and published his memoirs, in which he describes his flight from 17th-century France and the establishment of his new life in England and Ireland. His manuscript carefully notes each turn of his good fortune, each business deal successfully concluded, each bigger and better home, each successfully educated child, as a sign of God’s presence with him and his family. At the same time, he rubs his hands together in glee as he notes the economic disasters befalling France, the famines and wars and devaluation of the currency, as signs of God’s abandonment of his native land and of its rulers.
When we are the ones who are lost in the wilderness (and such a time comes to us all, small and great) this kind of theology of the Elect backfires on us, and our pride and confidence turn to dust in our thirsty throats, as we blame God and one another for our misfortune. In the midst of desert-like hardship, we have eyes mainly for ourselves. “Why did you bring us up from Egypt to kill me and my children and my livestock with thirst?” says the original Hebrew text in our reading. If this is freedom, we want to go back into bondage, where the problems were at least familiar ones.
We are like the Ancient Israelites, roaming between bondage and perfect freedom. Like the children of Israel, we move by stages from Massah, or Testing, to Meribah, or Strife and Contention. The consequent murmuring and accusing along the way surprise none of us. The truly important question is to discern what we are most thirsty for, in the wildernesses in which we travel in our troubled postmodern times. Listening to the radio, it might sound as if we thirst merely for cheap gasoline for our cars to drink, or for health care, or for economic security. But I think that underneath, we have a deeper, even more desperate thirst. The prophet Amos describes it: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
In a world of information overload, of words on the page and words over the airwaves and words through the Internet, we thirst for the one True Word that will make sense of all the rest. We run hither and yon, desperately seeking, frantically longing for a meaningful word from God, desiring to rest in the certainty of God’s Word. “One word, just one sure word, O God, where I can curl up and hide,” we beg. “Just one word that will direct my steps through the shifting sands.” Our thirst for meaning has even driven us from our comfortable homes into church on a Sunday morning. Could it be that we sometimes remain thirsty even in church? That here, where we are supposed to hear God’s Word, we sometimes hear only each other? Here, where we are supposed to find soul-quenching purpose for our lives, we are left quarreling in the midst of a drought? Here, where we are supposed to be comforted, our fears remain, nagging at us during the Psalm, creeping in during the Prayers.
When we are thirsty, says Jesus, we need to ask for Living Water, for the water that will “become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” I was interested to read this week that, in our haste to wag our fingers at the morals of the Samaritan woman, we are missing identifying with her misery. She is a woman who, like us, is wandering in the wilderness. She could be a grief-stricken widow five times over, perhaps, or a woman cast aside for not being able to bear children. She must be seeking escape from a meaningless life of drudgery and loss, as she plods day in and day out to the well for water under the hot, noonday sun, scorned by villagers who are afraid that her bad luck might rub off on them. Yet Jesus comes to her and offers to quench her thirst—not her thirst for water, but her thirst for meaning and love. The “living,” flowing water that Jesus offers leads to eternal life—not just to unending life, stretched out over time, but to fullness and depth of life in each moment—to meaningful and joyful life. Water, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, symbolized revelation or teaching. God’s water was understood as a symbol for God’s Word, the Torah or Teaching of God. For Jews, the Law was the Living Water that quenched our human thirst with God’s wisdom and truth.[1] For John, Jesus replaces the Law as the source of Living Water. It is Jesus who shows us what God is like; it is Jesus who comes to us as God’s Word, who shows us what God’s strange Wisdom looks like. God doesn’t just give us Living Water to gaze at from afar, however. We don’t just read about God’s Water in Scripture. God fills us with that water. When we drink, it becomes within us a spring of life-giving water that cannot be stopped. It dances and flows with the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to us, filling us and overflowing from our hearts out into the world.
The Good News is that God’s Word has come to us in the flesh, in deeds of healing, in the strange grace of the Cross. We can even touch it in the bread and wine, and in the water of baptism. Yet, do we ask for a drink? Or are we too bogged down in our own misery, too filled with hopelessness under the hot sun? Or are we are afraid of Living Water, water that cannot be controlled or contained? Do we prefer the calm of the stagnant water in our own cisterns, water that won’t change us or challenge us or turn our worlds upside down with the power of the Spirit? I know that I would much rather circle and pace around a cool, blue swimming pool trying to devise ways to pull up from the bottom a bottle clearly marked as Truth, than I would take a drink from a cup of bubbling, foaming liquid handed to me by a scruffy-looking stranger with nail-marks in his hands. Yet, for Living Water to flow in and through me, I must drink-- and pass the cup and the invitation lovingly on to you, my fellow wilderness traveler.

[1] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (The Anchor Bible, 2008), 178.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Anne Vouga                                                                                                     St. Thomas
Lent 2, Year A                                                                                                 Ps. 121; Jn 3:1-17
March 19-20, 2011

          You may have heard Karl Barth’s famous quote that a preacher should prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but this week, that has been difficult to do. We have beautifully comforting readings in Psalm 121 and in the famous proclamation of God’s love for the world in John 3:16. But the images going through my mind this week, in the light of the headlines screaming about the “Crisis in Japan,” were of the people whose whole towns had been suddenly swept away by the sea. I kept picturing them lifting up their eyes to the hills, begging for help from God. How would they hear the words of our psalmist that “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; it is he who shall keep you safe”?  And then, when I read John’s metaphor about the wind blowing where it chooses, “but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes,” the immediate image that went through my mind was not of the Holy Spirit, but of invisible clouds of radiation, the unseen, uncontrollable menace wafting into homes and schools. How does the Good News of Scripture speak to a crisis of such haunting magnitude?
          Sister Joan Chittister writes that crisis “is the junction of the ordinary and the cataclysmic, the place in life where change comes with a vengeance.”[1] Crisis is a turning point, a moment or series of moments out of which we cannot emerge unchanged. We have all dealt with the quiet desperation of personal crisis, such as life-changing illness, divorce, job loss, or the death of a loved one—but the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan symbolize and magnify traumatic change for us. The earth breaking into pieces beneath our feet, the sea pouring onto fields and towns at 100 miles per hour, a ferocious meltdown of atomic forces beyond our control—these are visible crises played out for the whole world to see. Japan, for better or for worse, will never be the same. And the world stands in witness to this violent, unwanted transformation. Crisis frightens us because it forces us to act and to change. As Bishop Westcott wrote, “’As we wake or sleep, we grow strong or we grow weak … and at last some crisis shows us what we have become.’”[2]      
          God does not shield us from crisis, nor do I believe that God subjects us to crisis as correction or punishment. What today’s Psalm tells us, however, is that God “keeps” us in the midst of crisis, that no matter how change shatters us, the transformed self that emerges will be the same beloved self that has always been the “apple of God’s eye.” While that might sound like puny consolation to someone who has just had his heart torn out, those of us watching the present crisis in Japan from afar are still whole enough to reflect on what it means to belong to God. Over and over again in Psalm 121, the Psalmist repeats that God “keeps” us, that God “watches over” us. In the same way that your parents’ love sustained you as a young child, creating and shaping the sense of self that you will keep all the rest of your life, God’s love shapes each of us, “watching” us, “keeping” us, surrounding and molding us. As we know from those tragic news reports from foreign orphanages, a baby who is unloved, untouched, left alone in a crib, will shrivel up and die, at least on the inside. As the Russian linguist Bakhtin writes, “’I myself cannot be the author of my own value, just as I cannot lift myself by my own hair.’”[3] The Good News of Psalm 121 is that our souls can never shrivel and die, because God’s unfailing love gives us our self-worth, our priceless value. Crisis might bring change and pain—and even death of this physical body—but God will not cease to preserve and keep us, as the beloved individuals that we are. Of course, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson points out this confusion that we have between the body and the self. When Jesus talks about spiritual birth into the new life of God’s Kingdom, poor Nicodemus scratches his head over how someone could be physically born two times. The “life” that matters for God, however, is not the life that begins as we come into the world from our mothers’ wombs, but it is life as a child of God, life lived in the depth and breadth of God’s hands. We are who we are because of God’s love for us, and that is the one thing that will never change.
          “How do we know for sure that God loves us?” you might ask. It certainly doesn’t look like God loves us sometimes, when we look around at our lives in this dangerous and messed-up world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … so that the world might be saved through him.” St. John tells us in our Gospel that Jesus, lifted up on the Cross, is the sign of God’s love for us. I was interested to be reminded this week that, for John, “the world” is a negative term, referring to those who turn against Jesus and God.[4] The Cross is therefore a sign of God’s love for all people, even for those who hide from God. Even more strangely, Jesus is not just “lifted up” on the Cross so that we can all see him better, but Jesus is “lifted up” on the Cross in the sense of being exalted.[5] For John, Jesus is glorified not only in his Resurrection but also in his crucifixion--the very shame and weakness of the crucifixion show forth the Glory of God. In the Cross, then, crisis itself is glorified—crisis becomes not the undoing of the world but the saving of it. Not only is the Cross a time of crisis for Jesus, but it becomes a sign of our supreme crisis as well: it indeed “shows us what we have become.”
In verse 19, right after our Gospel passage, John writes, “And this is the judgment [or in Greek, the “crisis,”] that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” God’s love, poured out abundantly, yet illogically, upon the dark world, puts us all before a painful and inevitable decision: to embrace that love and the kind of lives that it implies, or to turn away from it. As preacher David Lose writes: “God's love -- surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved -- is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not. In the face of that kind of love, we will likely either yield to God's love or run away screaming, for no one can remain neutral to such extravagance.”[6]
          Humor me by imagining something strange and perhaps unsettling for a moment: Imagine God’s love—God’s unfailing and sustaining love—to be like the invisible fog of radiation spewing from that broken nuclear power plant in Japan. Think about its unstoppable yet hidden power. Picture it blowing where it will, completely free of human control. Imagine the mutations that its presence brings, the painful changes that it must wreak on all of the wicked ways of the world. Instead of bubbling deep within concrete towers, though, imagine this strange Love stirring and leaking from a broken man on a Cross. In that man, at regular intervals, it explodes like a ticking time-bomb out into the world, transforming life as we know it, covering us with joy, surely, yet stripping away all of the dark places in which we like to hide. We do not know when the final explosion will occur. As a worker beneath that seething Cross, will you stay on through the crisis? Like the 50-some brave employees who remained behind at the reactors in Japan, risking their lives when everyone else fled, will you brave transformation by remaining to do the work of love that you have been given by the Crucified One? For such is the crisis placed before each of us who set our eyes upon the Cross Raised High.

[1] Joan Chittister and Rowan Williams, Uncommon Gratitude (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 136.
[2] Ibid., 138.
[3] Patricia K. Tull, “Preaching Psalms,” Chapter 1, unpublished manuscript, 5.
[4] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke, John (vol. IX), 552.

[5] Ibid.
[6] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=4&alt=1.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Story to Break Your Heart

       Do you remember the instant in which you first knew that you would die? I was about nine or ten years old, and sitting in the bathtub. I don’t know what triggered the moment of morbid reflection—I was perfectly healthy—but I clearly remember the sight of my skinny little leg bones under the water and the crinkled, water-logged skin on my hands, and the rising and falling of breath in my chest, and the horrible, unthinkable thought that exploded without warning into my mind: “There will come a time when I will be no more. And there is nothing that I can do to prevent that day.” Suddenly, a tiny bit of the carefree nonchalance of childhood vanished down the bathtub drain for me. Seventeenth-century Roman Catholic priest Jacques Bossuet masterfully expresses the horrified wonder that we all feel at the fragility of our existence: “How insignificant we are …. Only the length of time of my life makes me different than that which never was … I come into life with the law that I must leave it, I come to act out my role, I come to show myself to others; afterwards, I must disappear.”[1] Indeed, we are but dust, and to dust we shall each return.
          On Ash Wednesday, we repent of our sins at the same time that we remember that we are but dust. Death and sin: the two chains that bind us human beings, the two chains from which we are set free only in Christ’s resurrection. Ash Wednesday invites us to begin the Lenten season of repentance by looking our mortality and our imperfection squarely in the face.“Why dwell on sin and death?” you might ask. “It is painful and depressing. What good does it do me to sit around for 40 days with a broken heart?”
          Poet Mary Oliver hints at an answer in her poem, “Lead.” She begins, “Here is a story/ to break your heart./ Are you willing?” She tells the story of a group of wintering loons that fly into her neighborhood only to die, gracefully, one by one, from some mysterious environmental poison. Appreciating life even in their tragic death, they cry out, “in the long, sweet savoring of … life/ which, if you have heard it, you know is a sacred thing.” After singing, the loon, “speckled/ and iridescent and with a plan/ to fly home/ to some hidden lake,/ was dead on the shore.” Oliver then concludes in her wise way, “I tell you this/ to break your heart,/ by which I mean only/ that it break open and never close again/ to the rest of the world.” Our hearts must break not so that we may be crushed, but so that we may be filled with the Love that is around us.
          Often, it is our very horror of death that prevents us from living the full and loving lives that God intends for us to live in this world. While loons and other animals can go about joyfully living and dying, unaware of their inevitable death and the tragedy of it, we human beings become frozen with the knowledge of our own finitude. The death that we fear and the death that we mete out to others in violence hold sway over everything that we do.[2] Our fear of death makes us want to control others, through power or violence; it drives us to attempt to keep death away by accumulating possessions or control; it eats away at our hope for the future; it encourages us to think that the body and the material world are evil, or meaningless. I even wonder if it is our discomfort with death that makes us reluctant to talk about sin, since the two are so subconsciously intertwined. Perhaps we think that if we don’t talk about sin, then we won’t have to talk about death, either. If we don’t think about our own moral weakness, then we don’t have to think about the weakness of our bodies. But whether we talk about them or not, our terrified awareness of sin and death keep us in bondage to sin and death, and prevents us from truly turning our hearts to the Love of God that is all around us.
          The answer to our human predicament, of course, is that Christ came to break our hearts open, once and for all. Christ came to die for love, to make us dwell in love. Descended into Hell, Christ, in an ancient Greek Holy Saturday homily, calls out to Adam and Eve, saying, “I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together, we form only one person and cannot be separated.”[3]
Since Creation is permeated with the love of God, and we are knit together with Christ, it is our Anglican belief that the will can be transformed through patient Christian practice and piety: through prayer, the reading of Scripture, the Eucharist, through being Christ’s hands and feet in the world. But for practice and piety not to remain a dangerously ineffectual outward show, we must also allow the reality of sin and death to break our hearts open. If, in facing the inevitability of our death, our hearts have been broken open, God can seep into them through love, acting upon our minds through faith, and quietly bending our wills through grace, until we are filled with the hope that allows us, like Jesus, to act in love ourselves. By letting our hearts be broken, we open ourselves to God, to life, and to the rest of creation. This Lent, are you willing to listen to “a story to break your heart?” Are we willing to look mortality squarely in the face, to confess the depth of our sin and our need of repentance, and to watch faithfully as God’s own heart is broken in the passion of God’s Son?
          “Here is a story to break your heart. Are you willing?”

[1] My own translation, from a Xeroxed sheet from a college French class.
[2] Mark McIntosh,  Divine Teaching, 180-81.
[3] From Patrologia Graeca 43:439-63. Quoted in Carol Zaleski, The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope (Boston, Daughters of St. Paul, 1983), 483-84.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thoughts on Transfiguration

Several Episcopalians have admitted to me this week that they have trouble with the Transfiguration. For us, the Glory of God might come in the form of an empty Cross or by way of a striking piece of art or music, but Jesus glowing in white garments on a mountain, with Moses and Elijah by his side, makes many of us think of an old, overwrought Hollywood movie. For first-century Jewish Christians, though, the dazzling, white-robed figure on the mountain was clearly the Heavenly Presence of God, familiar from Jewish apocalyptic literature. Since Moses and Elijah were both believed to have been taken straight up to heaven by God, by-passing death, their presence here with Jesus confirms his appearance as a heavenly vision, as a direct experience of God. 

Rather than worry about what is for us unfamiliar symbolism, I am drawn to what is indeed all too familiar for me in this passage: Peter's naive suggestion that they build three "dwellings" on the mountain, that they erect three tents, like the tent that carried the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, during the ancient Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness. Confronted with the Holy One, Peter does what we all do--he tries to put the Holy in a box, to confine and tame it and make it fit his understanding. Like Peter, I want to hold onto what I love. I want to know God fully, to hold God's image within my mind and heart, to understand God, even to attempt to possess God. It is difficult to have a relationship with a God who constantly eludes my grasp. I can hold the faces of my friends within my memory; I can describe my human relationships to others; I can share my own self-images in words that make me known. It is disconcerting to love and to worship One whom we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot even fully imagine. How good it feels to build a tent for God, to put God in a proper holy place where we feel that we have some control over all of that Power, or to create a nice, safe haven for our love. Our liturgy and our Scriptures, even our most carefully-wrought theology, can all become lovingly-built dwellings for God. The problem is, of course, that God will not fit in the spiritual dwellings that we create and will eventually seep out of the walls that we have built, silently surrounding us like the cloud surrounded the disciples on the mountain, ordering us to come outside of the walls as well. The voice of the Living God, who calls us "beloved," must be more than the echo of our own voices, coming from the pieces of God that we have managed to box away.

There is a village high in the Swiss Alps called Derborence. At first glance, the pastoral tranquility of the scene is cozy and heart-warming. Goats butt against wooden fences and cowbells ring out from the alpine slopes. Chalets, worn down by wind, sun, and snow, doze on the hillside. In the village cafe, a comfortable odor of hot chocolate and melted Gruyere escapes from the window, along with the homey sound of dishes being placed on shelves. In the serenity of this village, surrounded by the majestic glory of beautiful mountains, I could imagine snuggling up in a comfortable dwelling with my God, a Bible in one hand and a Prayer Book in another, quite pleased with the peace of my soul. That is, of course, until one looks a bit farther out into the distance. Right outside the village, sharp-sided boulders as big as palaces have been thrown down one on top of the other, as far as the eye can see. Pine trees are enmeshed in the boulders and grow crookedly out of the rock, bent every which way like toothpicks thrown into clay. All the way up the mountain, towering overhead, rocks cast sinister shadows on the slopes beneath them, as one looks brokenness straight in the face. As locals and tourists all know, the top of the mountain suddenly fell in one tragic day in the eighteenth century, crushing whole villages in its wake, and the boulders stand today as a memorial to the terrifying and shifting powers of change in the midst of bucolic village life. 

In the icon of the Transfiguration described by Rowan Williams in The Dwelling of the Light, we see Jesus in his bright white robes, standing with Moses and Elijah on either side, but Peter, James, and John are not standing with them. They are instead lying sprawled on their backs quite a ways down the mountain. Like the boulders at Derborence, the disciples look as if they have been physically thrown down from the higher slopes. Peter is covering his face; John crouches on his knees; and James is sliding down the hillside on his face. Of course, the disciples were brought up the mountain in the first place in order to see the power of God plainly manifested in their Teacher, so that when he was later crucified, they would have hope, so that in the dark days to come, they would remember the blinding and miraculous power of God. Freed from the walls with which we enclose it, God's Light, God's Energy, does knock us off of our wobbly feet and shakes our carefully laid foundations like the mountains shook the village of Derborence. Yet God's free and loving whispers also lift us back up again with the strength and wholeness to go on through whatever life brings to us.

Holy God, I have spent my life hastily building dwellings for you. I want to know where to find you, yet I don't want you roaming dangerously free. I don't want to be sent sprawling down the mountain, dignity and control lost forever. Lord, send me the courage to stand unprotected on the mountain, basking in the Light of Grace, hands free of hammer and nails. Amen.