Quenching a Holy Thirst

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm 63:1-8

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 63:1.

In his classic work, Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo discusses at great length the nature of sin. In common parlance, sin is typically thought of in terms of behavior evaluated against laws, rules or community norms. A sin is thus a particular bad act-murder, adultery, theft or improper thoughts. While such conduct is surely sinful, it is the symptom rather than the root cause of humanity’s broken condition. As odd as it may seem, sin is driven by the same engine as righteousness, namely, love. The problem is that human love is disordered. Created to love God and, through that pure love, to love the neighbor and enjoy the world God made, human love is directed toward lesser things, things which often are good in themselves, but lethal when they are allowed to become the object of love which ought to be directed toward God alone. Love of country, love of family and enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labors, all appropriate “loves,” morph into nationalism, tribalism and avarice when they become dominant.

The psalmist’s prayer illustrates the appropriate focus of ultimate desire. The psalmist “thirsts” for God as eagerly as would a traveler passing through a waterless desert. This is right because we are only as good as what we love. It was because God’s reign of love was more real for Jesus than the raw power of Rome and the complicit religious establishment of his own country that he ended up on the cross. Crucifixion is a terrible way for a life to end, but Jesus obviously felt that the kingdom of God was well worth it. So too for disciples of Jesus. They are to be distinguished by a passionate love that is rightly directed toward God and toward one another. For in fact, the command to love God above all else and to love one’s neighbor is actually the same command. There is no way to love God other than to love and serve the neighbor made in God’s image.

While our materialistic culture’s lust for wealth, power and pleasure are significant temptations for a disciple seeking to follow Jesus, the greatest danger lies closer at hand. Those who “thirst” for God are all too vulnerable to deception.  It was, after all, in a sincere belief they were doing God’s bidding that evangelical Christians supported a Florida law that, in effect, prevents elementary school teachers from protecting LGBTA+ children or the children of LGBTA+ families from bullying and intimidation. It is love for God that inspires extremists to strap bombs to themselves and detonate in populated places to kill as many civilians as possible. Love for God drove the Inquisition, the Crusades and the Thirty Years War. Religious people, people who share a zeal for God and a desire to do God’s will, are uniquely susceptible to temptations the religiously indifferent will never know.

ABC News ran a special this week recounting the origin, growth and tragic end of the Heaven’s Gate cult. For those of you who might have been on vacation that week and, like me, exclude during vacation any attention to the daily news, Heaven’s Gate was the name of a cult started in the early 1970s by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lou Nettles. Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian preacher. Like his father, he had a deep sense of vocation and a charismatic personality. Applewhite was talented, intelligent and personable. He seems to have been precisely the sort of person I would have encouraged to consider parish ministry had I met him in my own church. But underneath his confident veneer, Applewhite was struggling with issues of self esteem and sexual identity. Shortly after graduating college, he began hearing voices.

Applewhite became acquainted with Nettles at a particularly low point in his life. She was a nurse, a mother of four children and a fervent believer in UFOs. Together, they began promoting through informational meetings around the country a religion constituting a mix of Christianity, pseudoscience and new age philosophy. In brief, Applewhite and Nettles taught that the human body was merely a “vehicle” for a soul on the verge of the next evolutionary leap from humanity to something much greater. In order to facilitate this transition, members of the cult were called upon to forsake all connections to bodily life, including family relationships, sexual relations, friendships outside the cult community and claims to personal property which was to become the possession of the cult. The beliefs of the cult evolved over the nearly two decades of its existence. In the end, thirty-eight members joined Applewhite in taking their own lives in an effort to make the final evolutionary jump. They were found poisoned to death in a suburban home, clad in homemade spacesuits for their final journey.

It would be slightly comforting, though no less tragic, if the members of Heaven’s Gate had been uneducated, illiterate, mentally ill or people of minimal intelligence. In that case, we could simply prescribe more education, better mental health care and access to accurate information as the solution to events like these. I could also take comfort in knowing that educated and sophisticated persons like me are immune to such nonsense. But, in fact, the members of Heaven’s Gate were mostly college graduates, some of whom even had advanced degrees. They were a lot like me in my twenties: curious, inquisitive, idealistic, eager to become part of something bigger than themselves and to make a difference in the world. So how did these bright, young, promising people get caught up in a movement like Heaven’s Gate? I have been pondering that question these last few days. I am not convinced that I have an answer.

The ABC commentators pointed out that some members’ involvement with Heaven’s Gate came at a point of crisis in their lives, i.e., divorce, loss of a job, death in the family or return from combat, etc. They also pointed out that the early 70s were fraught with social upheaval leading many to seek the comfort of certainty cults typically offer, even at the expense of surrendering their independence of thought and action. I am not sure any of that totally explains the Heaven’s Gate phenomenon. After all, few of us get through life without at least some severe personal stressors and we don’t get drawn into cult life. Moreover, has there ever been a decade without social upheaval? There is more going on here than can be explained away by appeal to ignorance, emotional instability and external social conditions.

The frightening truth is that, in spite of our American belief in individualism, self determination and freedom, we are more like “sheep without a shepherd” than we like to admit. Whether we admit it or not, we are who we are largely because of what has been allowed to shape us. Culture, family, church, professional colleagues, political leaders and peers have made us who we are. We are shaped by entertainment media that convinces us daily through shows like FBI, NCIS and Law and Order, that men[1] with guns, punitive laws and the use of violence are the only means by which we can live in safety. We are shaped by work places that value us in terms of our contribution to the company’s bottom line. We are shaped by news media that dictate to us what the news is, who matters and what does not even merit comment. We see and experience the world through the lens all these forces have made for us. When we think we are making independent decisions, we are using the reference points that have been hardwired into our brains by powers we are incapable of seeing or controlling. Saint Paul would call these “the principalities…the powers…the world rulers of this present darkness…the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12.

One purpose of Lent is to refine our appetites so that we do not “spend []our money for that which is not bread, and []our labor for that which does not satisfy” as the Prophet Isaiah admonishes us. Isaiah 55:2. Lent offers us the opportunity to examine critically our desires to be sure that the God we love is God indeed, that the kingdom we seek really is God’s gentle reign and that the power shaping us truly is the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word and the Sacraments. During this season, we practice fasting within a culture that markets to every imaginable appetite with the gospel of surfeit. We practice generosity over against the capitalist religion of acquisition. We practice confession of sin in a society where concession is a sign of weakness. We practice forgiveness toward enemies under wartime shouts for fighting to the last one standing. We do things that make sense only if God did, in fact, raise Jesus from death.

Lenten discipline is perhaps nowhere more important than among those of us entrusted with the responsibility for ministry. It is no accident that Jesus was assaulted by the devil immediately following his baptismal call. We, of all people, are tempted to invoke God’s authority to get what we want when we want it. We of all people need to recognize the temptation to grab the levers of power, be they governmental or ecclesiastical, and “do whatever it takes” to ensure that right prevails. We should know better than anyone else the temptation to employ the scriptures recklessly and inaccurately to support our own agendas-be they ever so progressive, right and noble. We, more than anyone else, need to be reminded that greatness under God’s reign is humility and service. We, more than anyone else, need to be sure about who is shaping us and certain that we are being sustained by “eat[ing] what is good” (Isaiah 55:2) and that our “thirst” for God is actually being satisfied by God.     

Here is a poem celebrating the discipline of prayer and its sustaining and shaping power directing us to the thirst only One can satisfy.

The Lamps are burning

“The lamps are burning in the synagogue,

in the houses of study, in dark alleys. . . .”

This should be the place.

This is the way

the guide book describes it. Excuse me, sir

can you tell me

where Eli lives, Eli the katzev—

slaughterer of cattle and poultry?

One of my ancestors.

Reb Haskel? Reb Shimin? My grandfathers.

This is the discipline that withstood the siege

of every Jew;

these are the prayer shawls that have proved

stronger than armor.

Let us begin humbly. Not by asking:

Who is This you pray to? Name Him;

define Him. For the answer is:

We do not name Him.

Once out of a savage fear, perhaps;

now out of knowledge—of our ignorance.

Begin then humbly. Not by asking:

Shall I live forever?

Hear again the dear dead greeting me gladly

as they used to

when we were all among the living?

For the answer is:

If you think we differ from all His other creatures,

say only if you like with the Pharisees, our teachers,

those who do not believe in an eternal life

will not have it.

In the morning I arise and match again

my plans against my cash.

I wonder now if the long morning prayers

were an utter waste of an hour

weighing, as they do, hopes and anguish,

and sending the believer out into the street

with the sweet taste of the prayers on his lips.

Today this creditor is at your office;

tomorrow this one in your home;

until the final creditor of all

places his bony hands upon your breast.

Faster!

Dig your heels into the dust!

How good to stop

and look out upon eternity a while.

And daily—at Shahris, Minha, Maariv,

in the morning, afternoon, and evening—

be at ease in Zion.

Source: The Complete Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow Press, 2005). Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976) was an American poet. His multi-volume Testimony: The United States (1885–1915) followed by his Recitative (1934–1979) explored the experiences of immigrants, black people and the urban and rural poor in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His third great poetic work, Holocaust was published in 1975. His lines in this epic poem consist of versified court testimony about Nazi death camps during World War II. Reznikoff was born in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrants fleeing the Russian Empire and its pogroms. He entered the law school of New York University in 1912 and graduated in 1916, but practiced law only briefly. In 1918 he entered officer training school, but did not see active service before the end of World War I. Reznikoff lived and wrote in relative obscurity for most of his life, with his work being either self-published or issued by small independent presses. But in 1971, after endorsements from several distinguished poets, his work began to gain recognition. Reznikoff was awarded the Morton Dauwen Zabel Prize by The National Institute of Arts and Letters. Around this time, he found a new publisher which published the aforementioned works. You can learn more about Charles Reznikoff and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Recent years have seen women increasingly playing the roles of tough cops facing down evil criminals. Maybe that is a good thing. I have to confess, however, my skepticism at the proposition that establishing women as equal to men when it comes to killing people and breaking things amounts to an advance for women.

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