They said, “You have a blue guitar.
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
are changed upon the blue guitar.”
Wallace Stevens’ “Man with the Blue Guitar” insists that reality bends in unexpected ways for unexpected reasons. There are two worlds to be played – one on the blue guitar, and one not.
Today’s readings “play” the world in a blue guitar sort of a way. “Things as they are… are changed.” At her installation as Bishop of the Diocese of Cuba two Sundays ago, Bishop Griselda Delgado told of her arrival in the town of Itabo, as rector of the Parish of St. Mary the Virgin. The roof of the church was collapsing, and the walls seemed about to fall outward. There was no seating – most of the church was littered with rubble. There had been no priest there for many years. There were, however, some women who kept the linens washed and the candles lit. And there was a man, a gardener, who tended a small flower garden. Those women and that man wanted to be ready when “things as they are” were changed. They did their patient, faithful, and in many ways pointless work because they trusted that things would be different, and because they were determined that they would be ready.
When the disciples of John come to Jesus in today’s Gospel, they ask if Jesus is the one. “Or are we to wait for another?” Apparently John wants to know. So Jesus calls up an ancient tune, once played by the prophet Isaiah. “Go tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” That is to say, “I have the blue guitar. I am the blue guitar.”
To the people in exile, God promised through Isaiah that the desert would blossom, that streams would flow in it, the deaf would hear, the blind see, and the lame would leap like a deer. All this that could not happen would happen. It would happen because God is an active and powerful participant in the story of the world. And where would it all happen? “In the desert.” In a few words, Isaiah changes the desert from a place of despair to a place of hope. If you want to get on the road home, he says to the exiles, you have to start in the desert.
When we’re in the desert, and we often enough are, it’s hard to think about it as a destination of choice. Like Jesus, we may find ourselves invited to escape the desert hunger, to deny the power of God and settle for whatever scraps of power fall from the table of the adversary, to demand that God act now. But Isaiah reminds us that the desert is the right place to be, and that its hunger somehow transforms us. And Matthew tells us that it was the Spirit who led (Mark says “drove”, and surely that’s more what it feels like) into the wilderness.
Our lives are lived between two gardens. In the first, Eden, our ancestors rebelled against their calling to be stewards. They wanted sovereign possession. They wanted to replace God. In the second, Gethsemane, our brother takes up with courage and compassion the work that will redeem the wilderness our ancestors called into being. The creating Word, God’s second person, relinquishes sovereign possession of his very body in that second garden, gives himself utterly to the desert, and “things as they are… are changed”.