Category Archives: Worship

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Ormseth)

Empowered in God’s love for the creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Micah 6 and the beatitudes of Matthew 5.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A ( 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:2).   The prophet’s evocation of mountains and “enduring foundations of the earth” in the opening verses of our first reading this Sunday invites consideration of the texts for the day as material for the quest for what Larry Rasmussen calls an “Earth-honoring Faith.” (Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). With his metaphor of a trial in which God contends with God’s people, the prophet couples testimony concerning God’s works on behalf of Israel to the judgment of the mountains and the earth’s very foundations.  The significance of this linkage of God’s testimony and the mountains’ judgment lies deeper than mere rhetorical device, however.  The passage is one of three texts that Walter Brueggemann cites in an exposition of Jahweh’s “righteousnesses.” Following Paul Ricoeur, Brueggeman argues that the “matrix of trial-witness-testimony” provides a powerful perspective on the theology of the Hebrew bible.  Memories of past events are “all now regarded as acts of transformation wrought by Yahweh on behalf of Israel, all making it possible for Israel to have a chance of well-being in the world” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp.131-32).  In its worship of Jahweh, Brueggemann writes,

“Israel engaged the great memories of its core testimony in which the God of Israel’s most elemental testimony is taken with definitional seriousness in the present.  That core testimony includes both Yahweh as the One who intrudes into Israel’s public experience in dramatic ways, and Yahweh as the One who sanctions and maintains Israel’s life-giving home of creation” (p. 679).

Here is faith, then, that honors the earth, even as it honors Earth’s Creator.  It is worth noting that according to Micah’s oracle, such well-being is not merely a matter of acquiring great wealth.  The cultic sacrifice of “thousand of rams’ and ten thousands of rivers of oil,”  which would presuppose such wealth, is not what God seeks from God’s people.  What God requires, and not just of Israel, but of all humans (“O mortal,” adam,) is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8).  “It belongs to the character of the human creature, ” Brueggemann concludes with respect to the relationship of humans to the creation, that humanness means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defining, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Jahweh for justice and holiness.

The practice of holiness concerns the disciplined awareness that life is to be ordered with the profound acknowledgment that the core of reality lies outside self and is not given over to human control. . . . The practice of justice, in concrete ways, is the enactment of Yahweh’s sedaqah, whereby the cosmos can be ordered for life, and whereby the human community can be kept viable and generative.

Accordingly, the verbs in Genesis 1 and 2 which authorize humans to “have dominion” over creation “suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures” (Brueggemann, p. 460-61).

Thus the prophet’s oracle does indeed adumbrate an “Earth-honoring faith”, a faith, in Rasmussen’s definition, that “is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” And it is the mountains of the prophet’s metaphor that carry this meaning. While the specific mountains which the prophet might have had in mind perhaps include only those from the great narrative of God’s works (the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Moriah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and prominently here in Micah, Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, “up from Egypt”) what renders them trustworthy judges of both human and divine affairs is not limited to such associations. It is in their universal nature that mountains transcend the plain where life is normally lived, and they endure through all generations as well. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols”, so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint, as Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008p. 114).

Indeed, when approached from the viewpoint of contemporary ecology, “making space” in nature is an essential aspect of what mountains “do.”  A mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some aspects to the entire globe.  The measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them, for example, contribute to their understanding of the dynamics of global climate change. Thus to those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the possibilities of well being, in Rasmussen’s phrase,  of “the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.”

Does the mountain which Jesus’ ascends to teach his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel bear such significance?  The linkage of these texts in the lectionary suggests this possibility, and in Warren Carter’s view, the Evangelist appears to recognize this significance of the mountains as well. As Carter notes, the mountain is “a location invested with multiple meanings” in the Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is in fact a mountain oriented affair: after feeding five thousand Jesus retreats “up the mountain by himself to pray” (14:23);  having passed along the Sea of Galilee, he again ascends “the mountain” where he heals “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others’ and again feeds a great crowd, this time four thousand (15:29-39); it is “up a high mountain” that Jesus leads Peter, James and John where he “was transfigured before them” (17:1); he initiates the events of his final confrontation with authorities from “the Mount of Olives” (21:1 and 24:3); and it is from “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, that he commissions their great outreach “to all nations” (28:16-20).

Mountains thus signal dimensions of justice, mercy, holiness and universality in Jesus ministry.  Just previous to this ascent to teach, Carter emphasizes, from the mountain “the devil offered Jesus ‘all the kingdoms/empires of the world’,” and by contrast, “on this mountain, Jesus will manifest God’s reign/empire.”  As Jesus recapitulates Moses’ and Israel’s experience, escaping from Egypt (2:15), passing through water (3:13-17), encountering temptation (4:1-11),”  That Jesus now goes “up the mountain” to teach his disciples thus alerts us to the significance of the event: Jesus is to deliver a new law that will be as important for life in the coming kingdom of God as the law given to Moses was for the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter their promised land. Jesus’ followers will appropriately remember this teaching as “the Sermon on the Mount.”

If “the mountain” which Jesus ascends carries the significance of Micah’s “mountains,” as we have suggested, can we hope that the teaching he offers would also provide support for an “Earth-honoring faith?”  We of course cannot expect the teaching to directly address aspects of the environmental crisis of our day;  we seek rather to “interrogate” this particular “past tradition of spirituality,” as Rasmussen puts it, in a reexamination of the “’normative gaze’ that frames and guides feeling and thought alike” (Rasmussen, p. 45).”  Does the teaching “alert us to past pitfalls?”  Does it “illumine our responsibility, offer wellsprings of hope, and generate renewable moral/spiritiual energy for hard seasons ahead?” (Rasmussen, p. 81).

In order to carry out this “interrogation” with respect to not only this Sunday’s Gospel, but those of the following three Sundays which also belong to the Sermon on the Mount, and then the “summit” of the Sunday of the Transfiguration, it will be helpful first to draw out more broadly what Rasmussen means by “Earth-honoring faith” for our time.In his chapter on “The Faith We Seek,” he draws these several insights from the Christian theological tradition, represented preeminently here by Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and Reinhold Niebuhr: such a faith, he writes, not only savors life, but seeks to save life.  It sees in a “redeemed Earth as paradise” an alternative to the false paradise offered by human empires. It regards as fundamental to “common Earthly good” the “’minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.”  Such faith grants “moral citizenship” to all God’s creatures, as key to addressing our denial of empathy for them.  It acknowledges the “species pride and arrogance” of humans that denies the “profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures.” It sees that the great imbalances of power in society correlate strongly with the destruction of nature, as one group seeks to exploit nature for the resources to dominate over others. Often more covert than overt, the exercise of such power “nurtures self-delusion” on the part of those who wield it.  Such faith thus recognizes in democracy both the means of checking on “the ever-present imperial impulses in human nature,” but also a source of the delusion of innocence which fails to recognize that imperialism, as it flows from disproportions of power.  It will see in “our present Earth/human relationship” . . the modern/eco-modern version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all:  the ethic of master and slaves,” “applied now to other-than-human nature.  As it grasps the core reality that “the Earth belongs to all and all belongs to Earth, which belongs to God,” it will “rightly name the injuries of nature at our hands ‘sin’ and the abuse of power” Matthew will also report that Jesus “went up the mountain” six times, referring to Mt. Zion (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 129-30). (Rasmussen, pp. 80-104). Finally,

Earth-honoring faith lives by grace.  Life is a gift and a sacred trust.  We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it.  It bears its own power, an energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life creates the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus we can ask: Does Jesus’ teaching constitute support for such justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for all creatures? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator?

Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) . . . Beatitudes are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Our question, then, is does that favor reflect an awareness of the implications of those circumstances and behaviors, beyond the human, for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and the Earth which it represents?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (Carter, p. 131).  We recognize here the imbalance of concentrated power, which renders “spiritless” those who suffer such deprivations. The issue here is one of totally negative expectations regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or community. This is a condition experienced by people who are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates which the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is, significantly with respect to our concern for care of creation, the condition often experienced in our culture by people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so entirely futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so relentlessly. The powerful appear so thoroughly indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely controlled by their own self-interests. The judgment articulated by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (Carter, p. 132).

Will God intervene? Jesus promises not only that God will, but that God is intervening: the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is now theirs. The deficit of spirit is made up with the presence of God in the very company of Jesus’ in which they participate. The hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because in their very struggles God is in the process of liberating them.  Indeed, even as they mourn what they have lost to “the destructive impact of imperial powers,” they are lifted out of an oppression that is seen to be against God’s gracious will, and thus should be greatly and deeply mourned. Their mourning is in fact a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. They mourn because they love, and have suffered the loss of what they love. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, comforts them in their mourning.

While these first two beatitudes thus respond to the spiritual deficit experienced by mourning humans, the next one addresses more squarely their embodied situation in creation, and suggests a course of action to address and remedy their loss. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence, or more precisely in Rasmussen’s careful phrase,  they act to foster that “minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.” The behavior of “the meek” is an implicitly but nevertheless profoundly “ecological” way of being in community. It is the human analog to the manifold space-creating ecology of the mountain. Indeed, it is what God does in creation. The blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, ‘this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically. “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1).” “humans are to nurture it (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

So also, accordingly, blessed are those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence in the community of creation characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)–they “will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions are consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also in relation to non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” as God inhabits these righteous relationships. And, finally, blessed are the makers of peace: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity”; nor, for that matter, the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped by neither ethnicity nor species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of the triune God.

Which brings us to the final two beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). Jesus returns here to the power struggle identified in the first two beatitudes, that of encountering the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in these beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back” warns Carter. But the reward of those persecuted on account of Jesus is, again,  “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” that is, in God’s presence, God’s own righteous response to the faithfulness that such action exhibits. The reviled participate in the “completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire” (Carter, p. 136).  These last two beatitudes thus clearly anticipate Jesus’ own persecution and death, in which, as our second reading from I Corinthians reminds us, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,”  divine “foolishness” that is “wiser than human wisdom,” and holy “weakness” that is “stronger than human strength,”  are manifest in “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”   It is in this power that the restoration of all creation will be accomplished; and to share in this power is to be empowered in God’s love for the creation.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Mundahl)

When we turn around, we receive the unanimous approval of the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the Earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on what God asks of us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

This week’s texts do nothing less than turn the world upside down. Their power stems from the gracious outpouring we call creation: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it . . . .” (Psalm 24:1). For God to create is to open a place in the triune life for others, to offer hospitality in a circle dance of community which has no boundaries.

We can see the profound respect for creation in our First Lesson from Micah. Here, this late eighth-century prophet acts as “process server” delivering the indictment of a divine lawsuit (rib) to the people of Jerusalem. And “who” acts as the “Greek chorus” or “jury” witnessing this bill of particulars? The LORD, as prosecuting attorney, tries this case before the mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth (Micah 6:1-2).

This is a “jury” that cannot be bought. Here are witnesses that cannot be tampered with. Understandably, in a court this open and honest, Jerusalem cannot avoid responsibility for the centralization of land ownership (Micah 2:2) and judicial corruption described as “tearing the skin off my people” (Micah 3:2). No wonder the people cry in despair: “With what should I come before the LORD . . . ?” (Micah 6:6).

Naturally they suggest all sorts of ways in which they can placate the court without changing basic attitudes—low bowing, burnt offerings, offering of yearling calves, or even first-born children (Micah 6:6-7).

These suggestions are at once too manipulative and too simple. The prophet puts it plainly in a way that summarizes a century of prophetic faithfulness and creativity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Although there is nothing new about these words (e.g. “kindness” is hesed, covenant loyalty and care) except their beautiful crystallization of faith, moving from a culturally approved set of norms to practicing justice changes everything! It defines repentance: turning around and getting a new mind. When that happens, the approval of mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth is unanimous!

Paul’s message to the community in Corinth calls for a reorientation similar in scope. After his “indictment” for falling into factionalism, he offers a primer describing the very basis of the life of those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This foundation is not the cunning of human judgment.

In fact, it is self-interested human judgment which has gotten in the way of unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as an authority that can pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47). Like the religious elite Micah confronted, Paul calls his audience to “give it up,” to relinquish expecting God to meet their standards!

Paul strips away the illusory power of human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting people, institutions, and governments up as ‘ultimate authorities,’ that has led to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For “our standards and criteria” are always partial and can never include the whole of creation. They always benefit only “us”—however that “us” is construed.

But there is another way, according to Paul, a way beyond the self-concern of people, communities, or institutions. This is demonstrated by the obedient One whose concern for renewing creation was not limited even by self-preservation. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (standards and criteria), and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious opponents responded to the threatening newness he brings with all they had—specifically, the cross. A recent “botched” execution by “lethal injection” in Ohio took nearly half an hour and caused the victim of this torture to gasp several times. Crucifixion involved a much longer public humiliation before death—from many hours to several days. It was the most persuasive argument Pax Romana had that no one should defy the powers that be. Yet, Paul’s message is that this act of violence failed miserably. The compassionate and just God triumphed over those powers. As Richard Hays suggests: “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge.” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Now Paul turns to his audience and asks them to consider their calling. None of them were called because they met adequate divine standards and criteria. That makes it clear that, using the logic of the cross, despite their membership in this motley assembly and their checkered histories, they have been made part of a new and unified community. It is nothing to “boast about!” For that reason, self-assertion or factional promotion have no place. Like the sheer graciousness of creation, belonging to this new community that lives by standards considered “foolish” by the kingdoms of the world is a gift. A gift full of promise and consequences.

These consequences become clearer in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes. Now, Jesus, whom Matthew has introduced over his prologue as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), the “one who is more powerful” (Matthew 3:11), the Beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and, later, one who brings the new counter empire, “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17), climbs the mountain to teach. In Micah, the hills and mountains served as witnesses to the trial of God’s people (Micah 6:1-2). In Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-11), the tempter offered Jesus control over “all the kingdoms of the world” with the proviso that Jesus worship the one making the offer (Matthew 4:10). Here the mountain continues to serve as a major character drawing both teacher and learners away from the demands of daily life in order to allow Jesus to act as composer whose “first movement” sounds the major themes that will shape this new community infecting all that Pax Romana stands for.

Beatitudes are not unique to the Sermon on the Mount. They go beyond describing personal qualities and emotions (“happy are…”) to declaring God’s favor for specific human behaviors and often declare “God’s future transformation or reversal of present dismal circumstances”  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 130). What’s more, “They . . . mark out features of a faithful and favored or blessed and honorable group.  They constitute, affirm, and challenge a community’s distinctive identity and practices” (Carter).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), then, becomes a thematic melody coursing through this entire “Sermon.” They are ones who are literally poor, ill, marginalized and outcast. They are victims of the power structure, much like the fishermen called to be the first disciples, whose trade was hampered at every turn by Roman regulations. They certainly do not set standards or criteria for acceptance in their worlds! Their very “spirits” are suppressed by the Roman Imperial System, and are poorly served by much of Jerusalem’s religious elite. Yet, they are named “blessed” because now that the status quo is fading; “theirs is” the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty and hopelessness are ending. “The beatitude blesses the ending of current imperial structures through God’s action” (Carter, p. 132).

The consequences of God’s action in bringing a “new order and community” are vividly described in the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). While “meekness” has been caricatured as passive incompetence  and laughable mildness, it actually suggests a combination of courage and patient hope that trumps all the attention-getting antics of the power elite. Perhaps more appropriate translations would be “humble,” with its connection to humus or “kind” with its suggestion of commonality and its relationship to hesed, covenant consideration for all (cf. Micah 6:8, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1989, p. 236). “To be meek is to renounce retribution and to live faithfully and expectantly” (Carter, p. 133). Perhaps Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 describes the power of this humble meekness best.

“Humility” fits well because “the humble meek” are promised that “they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)  “God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth. The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships, will end” (Carter). Why? The earth and all its creatures belong to God.  With this new “humble empire” it will be nurtured and cared for. Certainly the sabbatical and jubilee traditions suggest ways forward.

But even though the promise is sure, this is not the end of struggle. The final beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” makes that clear (Matthew 5:11). That has always been the fate of the prophets (Matthew 5:12). But as disciples called to be “fishers for people” (Matthew 4:19), that is, those who follow in the tradition of the prophets shining a light on injustice and corruption that the powerful want concealed, they can this expect in this “not yet” time no less.

Recently, the President of the United States spoke to the concern of NSA surveillance, an issue that would surely not have been addressed had not Edward Snowden focused a huge beam of light on the scope of U.S. information gathering and its implications. During this Epiphany season, all those who live in the concrete hope of the Beatitudes are called to “let their lights shine” so that the creation damage that we do, and often are complicit in, is uncovered. We do this in confidence that the “criteria and standards” that have allowed Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia, to avoid responsible care of toxic materials will disappear, and that a new and humble world, community, and neighborhood will emerge spearheaded by God’s people.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Schade)

“Needing New Nets: Fishing for People in a Creation-Crisis Age”Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 4:12-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Sardines! Carp!  Comb-fish!  Biny-fish!  Every kind of fish!  This is what James and John should have been hauling in from the Sea of Galilee.  Their boat should have been full of fish, wriggling and slapping their tails, flipping and flopping, a mass of glassy eyes and shiny scales.  But what Jesus found was an empty boat and two men trying to mend their torn nets.

Let me give you a little background on what it was like to fish with these nets.  The fishermen most likely worked at night, which means they used something called a trammel net, which was actually composed of three nets.  A trammel net had two large mesh walls about five feet high with a finer net in between. The boat went out at night into deep waters where there are no rocks so that the nets would not be torn. One end of the net was let down into the sea, then the boat made a circle creating a sort of tub in the water. The net gathered in every kind of fish, as they were unable to escape through the three layers of netting.

Sometimes the boats worked in pairs so that the teams could drag in the net and its contents (hopefully a large number of fish), back to the shore. This would go on several times during the night until exhaustion set in or the sun came up, whichever came first.  But when Jesus came to this spot along the shore on this particular morning, he found James and John not out at sea, but sitting there empty of fish.

Why is the boat grounded on the shore?  Because, the text tells us, the fishermen were mending their nets.  They should have been out hauling in their fifth or sixth catch of fish, or at least settling down to extricate the sale-able fish from the throw-aways.  But no.  The fishermen in this boat obviously have caught nothing but nothing.  They’d given up.  Nothing left to do but wash and repair the nets and let them out to dry in the sun.

The invitation from Jesus appears to come at just the right time for them.  Certainly they puzzled as much as we do at his cryptic words about “fishing for people.” But he obviously got their attention, because they followed him.  And in their ministry with him they came to learn what it means to reach out for people who are hurting, to heal children, women and men who were ill or dying, and to transform entire communities with God’s radical love of reconciliation.

Read in the age of the Anthropocene, this text takes on a different and more ominous tone.  If Jesus were to come upon fishermen with empty nets today, the reasons for their lack of fish would be cause for great alarm.  Overfishing, climate change causing ocean acidification, and pollution are threatening all life in the ocean.  And the kind of “fishing for people” needed today takes on a different kind of urgency.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, “Fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices are pushing many fish stocks to the point of collapse.  More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities, which lead to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies” (http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing).

As for ocean acidification due to climate change, fish populations have suffered as coral reefs are destroyed.  “Bleaching,” coastal over-pollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened.  In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years, (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View,” Time, April 14, 2014).

Pollution is another strain on fish populations.  Did you know that approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash per year enters the ocean?  From plastics to oil spills; from leaking pipes to deliberate discharge of industrial waste; from agricultural run-off to fertilizer from our yards – all these and more are causing incredible stress to our oceans and our food supply from these waters.  What they eat – we eat, with the toxins increasing exponentially up the food chain to humans.  (See http://www.noaa.gov/resource-collections/ocean-pollution for more information as well as lesson plans for solutions.)

Given this reality about empty nets, the kind of “fishing for people” we need now is engaging people in the work of caring for God’s Creation.  And for this, we’re going to need a trammel net, understand.  It’s going to have to be wide, and we’re going to have to cast it all around in a great big circle and let it sink deep.  And we’re going to need three layers of net so that we can catch people effectively.

One layer of our net is service to our communities.  Our churches need to understand what environmental issues are happening in our communities and offer to help.  Perhaps there is a local waterway that needs cleaned of trash.  Perhaps there is an abandoned lot that could be transformed into a community garden.  Maybe a dangerous incinerator is being proposed for your neighborhood and the group fighting against it needs a place to meet.  Whatever the need is, work with the people of your local community.  Listen to them, get to know who they are, invite local environmental groups to talk about their work. Go deep with them so that they will see the church as an ally in their work and a valuable member of the local community.  Any effort we make upstream will have tremendous impact downstream and in our oceans.

Another layer is sound biblical teaching.  This is the fine mesh in between.  Help people learn about the ways in which the Bible speaks about caring for Creation. Donate The Green Bible for the church library.  Offer a Bible study on care-of-Creation issues (see “Adult Forum and Bible Study” under the Education tab at the Lutherans Restoring Creation website for ideas).  If you are a pastor, commit to preaching about care-of-Creation issues (for ideas, visit www.creationcrisispreaching.com), including ecojustice concerns in the churches prayers, and designing worship services that help people make the connection between the sacraments of baptism and communion and the necessity for clean land, air and water.  Consider a book study of Ben Stewart’s A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology for ways to help people connect liturgy, Creation, and the Christian life (https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/productgroup/674/A-Watered-Garden-Christian-Worship-and-Earth-Ecology).  Or Mark Wallace’s Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future for examples of faith communities that are doing the theological and scriptural work that leads to advocacy and action on behalf of God’s Creation (http://fortresspress.com/product/green-christianity-five-ways-sustainable-future).

The third layer of our trammel net is love – love for God’s Creation.  Help people fall in love with the world God has created.  Take the children outside and help them learn the names of the plants growing on the church grounds.  Lead a field trip to a local nature area guided by a trained naturalist.  Plan a camping retreat for families.  Worship outside, and even on the shore of an ocean if possible, to help this biblical text and others come alive for people.  God’s Creation has incredible power to minister to people and heal them in mind, body and soul.  Give people opportunities to connect with the natural world and let God take it from there.

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Mundahl)

Christian care for creation will address chemical spills. – Tom Mundahl reflects on mending torn nets, community, and creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

It was not long ago that we heard the more extended Christmas version of Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . .” (Isaiah 9:2a). As we have moved through the season of Christmas and entered Epiphany, we have followed the journey of the one named Emmanuel back to Egypt, where, like Moses, he escapes the slaughter of innocent children. After his “exodus” from Egypt and return to Palestine, we have marveled at his obedience in “going through the waters” of baptism by John, a baptism which led him to forty days in the wilderness (reminding us of Moses’ 40 years of exile in Midian), where Jesus demonstrates the power of this obedience. Now, as he relocates in Capernaum, he prepares to unleash this light in teaching, proclamation, and healing. (Matthew 4:23)

The startling power of this eruption of light is best described in Jesus’ words, “Repent—get a new mindset, change your ways—for the Empire of God is drawing near” (Matthew 4:17, Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 119). This new order begins to be actualized in the calling of the first group of disciples, recruits chosen not from among a privileged elite trained for leadership, but from the fishing trade. News of a new ‘order of things’ must have been welcome to these fishermen, who had struggled for years to pay heavy license fees to Roman minions simply to retain the privilege of putting themselves at the mercy of the elements as they sought to provide food for their neighbors (Carter, p. 121). Even though fisherman were accounted the very lowest status among free workers, they become the core of the community that will serve as an alternative to the Pax Romana.

They are now called with the familiar words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Likely, there are few phrases more misunderstood than “fishing for people.” While we automatically assume that the reference is to traditional evangelism, “fishing for people” has a quite different biblical history, especially in prophetic literature.

Eighth century prophet, Amos, delivers words of warning to God’s people in Samaria because of their neglect of the poor and needy. “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2). Jeremiah writes to warn the people of Judah not to imagine that they will escape Babylon. “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them . . .” (Jeremiah 16:16). Far from the “saving of souls,” “fishing for people” seems to carry the meaning of uncovering that which is concealed, just as fish seem to be concealed in the water until they are netted or hooked. This is surely one result of “great light.”

All that has served to ‘cover up’ massive injustice in this Roman-Judean politico-economic system will be stripped bare. The corruption of the temple-based religious system will not be spared. As Ched Myers suggests: “The point here is that following Jesus requires not just the assent of the heart, but a fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom the personal and the political are one” (Mark, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 1988, p. 132). “Fishing for people,” then, is using the light to uncover that which oppresses and to illuminate the possibilities from this new community for “mending” and “healing” (Matthew 4:21, 23).

It is as James and John are “mending” the fishing nets with their father that Jesus calls them. Not only was mending the nets a constant necessity for fisher folk; it is a powerful image for care of creation. Feminist theologian Letty M. Russell has consistently spoken of the need to uphold this biblical critical principle of the mending of “God’s world house.” She relates: “I first heard this simple expression of eschatological hope from Krister Stendahl, who said that theology is worrying about what God is worrying about when God gets up in the morning: the mending of creation” (Letty M. Russell, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1987, p. 71).

Recently, people in nine West Virginia counties, located on the banks of the Elk River, have been threatened by a highly-toxic chemical spill which has temporarily poisoned the local water supply. People of faith, called to be “fishers,” certainly have the responsibility to provide emergency help and temporary assistance to those affected.  But, as the “crisis” and journalistic attention recedes, there is an even more important responsibility to shine the light of attention on the long-term impact of this situation. Why were there no inspections of the massive Freedom Industries facility from 1991 until 2010, when nearby residents complained about foul odors, which called attention to the plant? What are the long-term consequences of exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) to humans and all of God’s creatures? That is, can “fish” even live in this river? And why do we not use the “precautionary principle” which holds that a chemical must be proven safe before use, instead of relying on vague “risk assessment” criteria? Finally, what other chemicals are stored by Freedom at that site? And what is the condition of storage tanks and the risks of spills?

It is only after the “tears” in the net of “God’s world house” (Russell) are examined that they can be effectively mended. But when they are mended—and through the very process—the light of hope will shine to provide the vision to imagine new options in “making a living” in a way that mends and honors creation. Then the healing that is part of this new “empire of peace”will be experienced.

But this process is not easy for any community. As we wrestle with Paul’s first letter to the new community in Corinth, we see how easily unity can be dissolved. Paul apparently writes before it is too late. As Conzelman suggests: “The split into groups has not yet led to the dissolution of the community; they still celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, and Paul can address the letter to the whole community” ( Conzelman, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 32).

That address follows the salutation (vv. 1-3) and the thanksgiving (vv. 4-9) with an appeal “that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10 b). It may be surprising that the Greek verb “be united” is the very same word Matthew employed for “mending” nets, namely, katartizo. Clearly, there is mending needed in this community. Factions have developed around important leaders. Members look to those who have baptized them as special benefactors, a result that moves down the path toward schism. Even those who claim “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12) “must have been claiming Christ in an exclusivistic way” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 23).

Paul does not counsel faction members to stop bickering because it is inexpedient or looks bad; he points to the center of their faith, Jesus Christ, the bringer of new creation, as the common ground of unity. This source of unity will be tested further, because it is clear that Paul earlier failed to deal with problematic status distinctions and economic inequality, issues that reared their ugly head around the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Hays, p. 24).

One can imagine similar congregational conflict emerging over responses to the chemical spill in the Charleston, W. Va. area. Some may call for serious investigation of Freedom Industries and suggest a new economic basis for the area. Others in the congregation, fearful of losing jobs during a weak economic recovery, may insist that the church “stick to religion” and not be involved in matters involving “mending creation.” Following Paul’s template is the only way to a unity that still may be difficult to achieve. But if church leaders have planned worship that encourages creation care and have modeled environmental stewardship in action, there may be the beginning of a consensus. But that consensus still must be based on what unites us at the deepest level. As the “prologue” to the ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” (1993), states it:

Christian concern for the environment is shaped by the Word of God spoken in creation, the Love of God hanging on a cross, the Breath of God daily renewing the face of the earth.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14-20) in Year A (Mundahl)

We Are Home.Tom Mundahl reflects on the community of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

 Readings for the Second Sunday in Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

As we considered the prologue to John’s Gospel in our comments for Christmas 2, it was suggested that its communal nature not be forgotten. The evangelist makes it clear that this new divine venture is profoundly social: “the Word became flesh and lived among us;” “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). We claimed that because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation, in part, by forming a new community of faith.

The assigned reading from John not only continues the baptismal theme, it describes the beginnings of this new community. The very newness of this movement is made embarrassingly clear by the response of two of John the Baptist’s disciples. After hearing John testify to the significance of Jesus for the second time in as many days, these disciples take their teacher at his word “and followed Jesus” (John 1:37). When Jesus saw them following, he uttered his first direct speech in this Gospel: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).

Just as Jesus’ first words in Matthew revealed the obedience which shapes that evangelist’s understanding of new community, so this short phrase uncovers an important theme in John’s Gospel. The simple question, “What are you seeking?” underlines the basic need of humankind to turn to God. That is, human beings need to “dwell” or “abide” with God in order to escape the terrors of insecurity, always looking for something or someone that is trustworthy (Raymond Brown, John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 78). If humans constantly seek a community to belong to, a secure home, a “nest,” we may reflect “otherkind” more than we would admit.

And in this reflection, we may conclude one of the most important outcomes of faith is to learn to be at home. This should not surprise us. The author of Colossians describes Jesus this way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, visible and invisible . . . ” (Colossians 1:15 -16a).

Perhaps, then, to answer the question “What are you seeking, or looking for?” we need to be disarmingly honest and respond: “We are looking for a community to identify with, a community that can be part of making it possible for “all things in heaven and on earth” to be “at home” (see Shannon Jung, We Are Home: A Spirituality of the Environment, New York: Paulist, 1993, pp. 54-69)

But it is only when we are “at home” in God’s creation that we are free and secure enough to open our doors and make our ‘walls’ into windows. This is certainly the strategy of the community described in our reading from Second Isaiah. Even if many of its most important leaders remain in exile, the prophet delivers a startling message. Going home is not enough. The impact of this new word extends beyond traditional borders, from “coastlands” to “peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1).

This places the prophet squarely in the center of the post-exilic debate between those who would build the walls high to prevent outside cultural influence (Ezra and Nehemiah) and those whose notion of God could not be so limited (Jonah and Ruth). This text makes it clear that Second Isaiah stands with those who would not limit the aspiration of this people only to becoming a “safe” and “pure” religious enclave.

But this is not only the prophet’s view; it is the word of the LORD, a word that “called” this people to servanthood before birth (Isaiah 49:1b). This is no half-cocked, vague internationalism, but divine purpose that has been determined beforehand (that is, before the foundation of Israel and/or the birth of the prophet). Since a sharp distinction between individual and community is alien to Second Isaiah’s thought, we can only conclude that the servant Israel (49:3), or the prophetic word bearer who becomes the “heart of Israel,” bears this task given in much the same language as the prophetic call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5).

Despite the language of lament with which people-prophet respond to this extraordinary universal charge (49:4), the call stands. Once more we have what amounts to a “messenger formula” directed to the whole people: “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant . . . . ”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of the Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6).

This task of being a “light to the nations” is invested in a complaining, rather unreliable people. By going beyond parochial limitations, however, even this bunch “glorifies God” (49:3). And this seems to be, according to Isaiah, the way to build a strong community, by sharing the LORD’s “cause” (mispat) with the nations of the world. (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 129).

This “scandal of universality” is completely understandable, however, when we recall that it “stems from the inseparability of creation and redemption in the thought world of Second Isaiah.  Since the compass of God’s redemptive activity is the entire created world and its scope is the restoration of all that exists to wholeness, the nations are included in God’s plan” (Hanson, p. 130). And, of course, so is the whole of creation!

What makes a strong community of faith today? How are God’s people to be “at home” in creation? There are certainly those who would argue that getting ‘dirty hands’ from anything other than what we narrowly construe as “religious activity” is the only safe path. But that certainly is not the direction these Epiphany texts send us.  This is not the way to reflect light for the world.

A local congregation I know well works very hard on caring for one another within the context of responsible worship and fine music. But hearing God’s word and sharing the meal in weekly assembly has strengthened this community to open its doors. Not only has it welcomed everyone regardless of background, race, or sexual orientation, it has given its land over to 24 community gardens, a restored prairie, and maintaining an urban micro-forest. This has created new friends in the neighborhood and helped to restore creation.

But the gifts of this community have not stopped there. Surprising connections have been made with Circle of Empowerment in southwestern Nicaragua, a health and education “ministry” that promotes bottom-up development. Whether it is financial sponsorship of students in the seven-village school, purchasing a new “used” bus to transport these students to school, or building a medical clinic, this has been a crucial part of “building community” in this small congregation. The more that has been given away, the stronger this congregation has become!

Or, the more “at home” with itself a community can be, the freer it is to share. And the freer it is to share, the more “at-homeness” it will experience. Wendell Berry calls this “the cultivation of a sympathetic or affectionate mind” (“Two Minds,” Citizenship Papers, Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003, pp. 90-91). This “mind” differs from the “economic mind” in that “it refuses to reduce reality to the scope of what we think we know; it fears the mistake of carelessness more than it fears error; it seeks to understand things in terms of interdependent wholeness rather than isolated parts; it appreciates that a cultural landscape must grow up in faithful alignment with the natural landscape that sustains and inspires it . . . .”(Berry)

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Mundahl)

Gentle justice for people and creation:  Tom Mundahl reflects on Jesus’ baptism and the first Servant Song of Isaiah.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34 -43
Matthew 3:13-17

As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are reminded of the power of baptismal liturgy. As those called by the Spirit and trusting the grace of God gather around the font, the presiding minister invites the candidates and sponsors to affirm the responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these gifts of responsibility is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, p. 228). These words help us to understand that the gift of baptism is also a task, that “only those who obey believe” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 76).

Perhaps it is confusing as to why “the more powerful one” (Matthew 2:11) needs to be baptized by John the Baptist, who has freely admitted his inferiority. It certainly seemed to be incomprehensible to John, who “would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). In response, we hear Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Because this is the first direct speech in this Gospel from the one called Emmanuel, the words must have jumped out at readers and hearers. From the beginning, Matthew’s Jesus defines himself as the obedient one. He does this to “fulfill” all righteousness or justice. And what does this “fulfillment” mean but to “actualize” that justice through obedience in the midst of the community (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, pp. 178-179).

Far from isolating Jesus from the discipleship community, his baptism unites them in the service of a “meta-legal” righteousness that is integral to the call to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Next to the title Emmanuel, which serves as an inclusion for Christological identity (1:23 and 28:20), it is the obedient “Son, the Beloved” who gives shape to Matthew’s story. Jesus’ identity consists not so much in pre-existence or in miraculous conception; rather, in Matthew, that identity is found in unique obedience (Luz, p. 180).

This obedience, then, colors the shape of the community. Members will share in this new life (“be called children of God”—Matthew 5:9) when they “actualize” justice through peacemaking or, even care for God’s creation.  The opening of the heavens not only responded to the cry of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . ” (63:15), but demonstrated that here is a greater prophet (“a more powerful one”) than Moses or John, one whose New Exodus moves far beyond a mere parting of the seas. Now all that separates humankind from Creator and creation is torn away. This freedom is now to be lived in the “simple” obedience of everyday life.

How this freedom is lived is also suggested by the unfolding of Matthew’s baptismal narrative. As Jesus comes through the waters, the heavens opened, and the Spirit descends, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). While Mark (with Luke following) reports the voice as saying, “You are my Beloved Son . . . ,” Matthew uses the third person. Clearly, the voice does not speak for the benefit of the Son, but to John the Baptist (and all who might follow him), as well as to the crowds (which surely include the Christian community).

However, the meaning remains the same: here is one who is both royal figure (Psalm 2:7) and servant (Isaiah 42:1). For the community, this implies that living in free obedience is both a royal privilege and test of servanthood. It reminds us also of the richness of our first reading, the text that introduces this notion of servanthood.

It may be wise at the outset to assume that many layers of meaning are unleashed by this “Servant Song.”  Westermann suggests that our understanding is impeded by the question, “Who is this servant of God?” Instead, more helpful is retaining a sense of mystery by focusing on how the identity of the servant is formed and what the servant is called to do (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 93). In much the same way, Hanson suggests that these servant passages fire the imagination of the community in exile so that a new self-understanding and life response is called forth (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p.41)

If the identity of the servant cannot be pinned down, the servant’s task is clearer. This one is called “to bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1b). This very task has become “an invitation to reflect on the responsibility of all those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and recognize the dependence of all creation on God’s order of justice” (Hanson). When this “order of justice” is ignored, the result is chaos and oppression affecting both human history and the natural world. When Indonesian agricultural land traditionally farmed by small holders is expropriated in favor of large corporate plantations for the production of palm oil, not only are farm families displaced, but massive tree cutting causes soil erosion and removes vegetation capable of absorbing carbon.

But the servant brings forth this justice in a gentle, careful way.“He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3). This non-violent approach is the path to “faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3b). With this approach, the “end” does not justify the “means.” Instead, justice and peace are not only the goal; justice and peace are also the way. As Hanson suggests, “To live consistently in the service of the justice of God is to pattern one’s life on the nature of God. Only in this way is a mortal empowered faithfully to bring forth justice” (Hanson, p. 46).

This is the way to bring “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6b-7). Perhaps it is the deep connection with creation (Isaiah 42:5) that gives Second Isaiah a view of justice as light, light which cannot be contained by political or parochial religious boundaries. This Servant Song, then, is a description of the kind of “servant” that all who are chosen and obedient to God are challenged to become. It is a helpful template for living our baptismal life.

Fred Kirschenmann has lived baptismal obedience through connecting farming and faith. As Director of the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Farming at Iowa State University, he also took over management of his North Dakota family farm of more than a thousand acres. While neighbors warned him that moving to organic agriculture would result in lower yields, Kirschenmann persisted, knowing that in the long run it was the right thing. Imagine his surprise when, after five years, crop yields began to increase as the naturally enriched soil became more fertile (Interview with Peter Pearsall, www.yesmagazine.org  February 22, 2013).

Kirschenmann acknowledges the pressure to become more “efficient” through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-modified seeds. Yet, he also knows that the best chance for people throughout the Earth to achieve food justice is with a decentralized farming culture that invites people to stay on the land and learn “local ways” of regenerative agriculture. And, there are surprising benefits of more traditional farming. At first, typical, relatively compacted farm soil will absorb a half-inch of rainfall per hour. But after five years of organic care, that same soil may absorb up to eight inches of rainfall per hour. That soil not only can handle drought better, but sends less runoff, including toxic chemicals, through the Mississippi watershed to the Gulf of Mexico (Pearsall interview). That is obedient gentle justice for the nations.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                                 tmundahl@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Schade)

Inauguration by Water – The Baptism of Jesus:  Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

On this Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and the gift of baptism itself. As Jesus emerges from the Jordan River after being immersed by the prophet John, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, NRSV). The words echo those heard in Isaiah, who foretold a divinely-appointed servant: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations,” (Isaiah 42:1).

Jesus chooses to begin his ministry on the banks of the Jordan River seeking baptism from John. Water is central to Jesus’ ministry. He is, in a sense, inaugurated in the water and by the water. As our country prepares for a different kind of inauguration in the coming weeks—one that is marked with ascension to the highest political office in the United States, and, perhaps, the world—it’s worth noting the stark contrast between these two different scenes.

The presidential inauguration is the epitome of worldly power, with the one assuming the office standing high on a platform on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. Thousands of people will flock to Washington D.C. while the event is televised to millions around the world. The ceremony bestows the authority of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government on this one individual. Military, judicial, economic and cultural dominance are just some of the aspects of power enjoyed by the one sworn in at this inauguration.

In contrast, Jesus’ inauguration to his earthly ministry took place in an out-of-the-way place, a wilderness.  Jesus was not on a high platform, but went down into the water, letting himself be washed by the river. People were gathered at that place as well, though the numbers were certainly less than a hundred.  John’s message of baptism was about repentance and aligning with God’s purposes of justice, righteousness, ethical integrity, and courage in the face of evil. For Jesus to submit to this baptism meant that he was eschewing the worldly trappings of power and dominance. The test of this decision to follow God’s way will immediately follow when Jesus faces temptations in the place of wildness and danger.  Such tests require introspection, self-reflection, and a willingness to face down the demons.  One hopes and prays for the incoming president and the nation as he approaches his own tests of character.

For Christians, the tests of character that come with being baptized have important ramifications because they are linked to both the Matthew and Isaiah passages. It’s worth noting that for the Israelite people, the call to be God’s servant wasn’t necessarily for one person—it was for their whole nation. God empowers people to do the work of building the peaceable kingdom; it’s a divine transference of power. This is a commissioning.  God is telling the people: I have given you as a covenant—you are a sign of the covenant. You are blessed in order to be a blessing.

As Christians, can we as a baptized community of faith be a people who do this? Can we be blessed by our baptism to be a blessing to others? And can we be a blessing for the very water with which we were baptized?

Just consider the gift of water itself for a minute. Water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. But of all the water on the earth, potable water for human use is only about .3% of the world’s water and is found in groundwater aquifers, rivers, and freshwater lakes.

In North America we take this gift of water for granted. We can enter any house, virtually any building, turn on a faucet, and clean water comes pouring out for us. In countries without access to clean water, people (usually women and girls) walk for hours a day back and forth from a water source, carrying heavy jugs, being careful not to spill a single precious drop. At the same time, industries, fossil fuel extraction and human pollution endanger the very waters that give us life. Chemical run-off, discarded pharmaceuticals, fracking, and fertilizers are just a few of the issues that threaten the health and safety of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and oceans.

One of the most ubiquitous symbols of our disrespect for water is, ironically, bottled water. We spend millions of dollars for water bottled in places where the natives don’t have access to the water we’re taking from them. We shell out a dollar for a bottle of water when we could simply put it in a reusable cup or bottle. According to the “Ban the Bottle” website, about 38 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators each year. “Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation. The energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes. Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.3,” (https://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/).

Perhaps what is most frightening is the potential of future wars over water. With populations exploding and water scarcity increasing, there have already been conflicts over water resources in Bolivia, California, Mozambique, and yes, even over the Jordan River. Between climate disruption leading to drought and decades of gross mismanagement of water resources, a regional crises over water resources will become more frequent and potentially violent. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable people who will suffer the most.

In the midst of this suffering, Psalm 29 declares: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” This voice of God is the same one that called upon the people of Israel to do justice, righteousness, in the Isaiah text. It’s the same voice that commissioned Jesus to his ministry of righteousness. And each of us in our baptisms is called by God’s voice to establish justice and righteousness in the earth. We have important work to do on behalf of the water.

Our baptisms conferred on us the duties and responsibilities that being a servant of God entails. We are to protect those who are vulnerable – like the fragile ecosystems—a “bruised reeds,” if you will (Isaiah 42:3). We are to open the eyes of the blind, share the truth about environmental degradation with those ignorant of the ramifications. We are to confront those in power who wantonly abuse water and speak courageous truth in order to establish ecological justice. The coastlands do indeed wait for God’s teaching—they wait for us to learn how to care for them. And we are to teach—on the coastlands, on boats, on mountains, in houses, and anywhere else people are gathered.

The God who is described in verse 5 of the Isaiah text, the God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it—this God entrusts it all to us, and we are commissioned to care for it. Isaiah is clear:  God will not hurt the weak. If we are servants of God, we will not hurt the weak either. We will bring justice to all the earth—even to Earth itself.

Because when we do justice for Earth, it has a flow-through effect for the entire human community, and particularly for the poor and those living in the most fragile of circumstances. People in rich countries use 10 times more water than those in poor ones. The connection between poverty and poor environmental conditions can be seen throughout the United States and the world. It is those who have no resources who cannot afford to move, much less fight against industrial pollution, landfills, and toxic dumping sites, often right in their neighborhoods. Two-fifths of the world’s people already face serious water shortages, and water-borne diseases fill half its hospital beds.

As one person put it in a BBC online commentary: “If water is life, we must learn to treat it not as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder or as an entitlement to the privileged, but as an essential component of human existence. We must learn not only the methods and habits of sharing equitably, but also the technologies and values of protecting the environment that makes fresh water available to us.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm)

I said earlier that John’s baptism was about repentance and being a servant of God. If we’re going to take that seriously, then each of us, and each of our congregations, needs to change our habits in order to do at least some small part in establishing justice for the Earth. Perhaps on Inauguration Day, your congregation can undertake a different ceremony—an Affirmation of Baptism where each person recommits themselves to the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ.

Maybe your church can look at ways to educate your congregation and community about water conservation and water justice issues. Plan a water clean-up for a local stream, river, or ocean front. Encourage youth to make a donation to the Walk4Water (http://elca.org/walk4water) campaign that was begun at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. To date, over $1 million in gifts have created healthier families and stronger economies through projects that provide clean drinking water through spring boxes and boreholes, support for irrigation systems, education about sanitation in rural villages.

Or perhaps you can encourage people to “give up the bottle” (water bottle) for Lent and use water pitchers in their homes, and reusable bottles at work, at school, and on the sports field. It won’t change the world overnight. But it will be one small drop freed from the bottle. And it may be part of God’s ripple effect that spreads out over all the Earth.  Amen.

Source:

Kirby, Alex, “Why world’s taps are running dry” BBC News Online, June 20, 2003; Accessed Dec. 29, 2016.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm

 

Epiphany of Our Lord in Years A, B, and C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Epiphany of Our Lord.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

The narrative of the church’s lectionary seems disordered. Last Sunday we considered Jesus in his childhood; with this Sunday’s story of the visit of the “wise men from the East;” however, we return to Jesus’ birth. For the congregation, this return will no doubt serve to complete “the story of Christmas”: as the Christmas trees are removed from the sanctuary, the last of the cookies are consumed, and gifts shelved in appropriate places, Christmas is “over.” In the introduction to a commentary on “The Season of Epiphany,” however, John McClure insightfully corrects this common perception, quoting  Ann Weems’ poem, “It is Not Over”:

It is not over,
this birthing.

There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

“The lectionary texts from Epiphany to the Transfiguration,” McClure observes, “shout emphatically, ‘It is not over!’” With these texts, McClure suggests, “ the church celebrates the manifestation or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus as Savior.”  (New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004, ed. by Harold W. Rast. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; p. 65). It is particularly noteworthy, then, that this first narrative of manifestation is comprehensive in scope, including within the orbit of that salvation  as it does both “the nations” and the cosmos. Christmas is indeed not “over”: we have just begun to spell out its significance for care of all creation.

Raymond E. Brown sums up the meaning of the story of the magi this way: “In the persons of the magi, Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York:  Doubleday, 1993; p. 199). With modest revision of Brown’s thesis, we propose that precisely because of their birthright of the revelation of God in nature, Matthew’s Gentile Christians would appreciate that the Scriptures of the Jews in fact promise the salvation, not only of Gentiles, but also of the cosmos which was indeed their means to knowledge of God. Their homage of Jesus as savior, we want to suggest, was an appropriate response to their discovery of what they saw as wisdom regarding the cosmos and its future in the plan of God.

The texts assembled by the church for this first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany set out resources for this discovery. The story of the visit of the wise men narrates the fulfillment of the promise from Isaiah 60, that in the midst of “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,” as the lesson reads, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:2).It is expected, then, that the coming of the Savior will be attended by cosmic signs such as the star of Bethlehem. More importantly, as part of the working out of the plan “of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), his coming will also lead to cosmic reconciliation, according to the plan which “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Prophet and psalmist join in describing aspects of this reconciliation in affirmations that portend what we would today consider ecological justice and sustainability, as well as social justice. His coming will cause hearts to “thrill and rejoice” because “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (60:5), and in Psalm 72:

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.<
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading).

With the Apostle Paul, the church is commissioned to bear “this wisdom of God in its rich variety” to all, even to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

What at the outset of this comment seemed a disordered sequence of texts is actually very well ordered with respect to our concern for care of creation. Last Sunday, we learned of Jesus “growth in wisdom” and explored the meaning of that growth with respect to his experience of God as creator; this Sunday, in turn, we are given a mandate to not only to explore more fully the content of that wisdom, but also to advocate for it publicly, in contention with “spiritual forces of evil” that are hostile to God (Ephesians 6:12; cf. McClure, p. 71.) We return briefly, therefore, to Larry Rasmussen’s argument for wisdom as “the biblical eco-theology and ethic,” as an illustration of what this mandate might mean for us in a time of global ecological crisis.

Rasmussen locates examples of wisdom in a great variety of genre, from didactic sayings to treatises that “grapple with life’s most difficult or perplexing circumstances–disease, calamity, boom and bust, the drama of good and evil,” along with “prayers, meditations, parables, and passages that invite a return visit over and again;” practices such as Sabbath-keeping and writing poetry also give expression to principles of wisdom. A more “ambitious and far-reaching” example of “wisdom-in-the-making” that directly addresses the global ecological crisis, however, is the Earth Charter.

After the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, a Charter Commission launched what turned out to be “the most inclusive process ever associated with an international declaration, with grassroots participation by communities and associations of all kinds across all sectors of society.” While not a formal treaty, the Charter “seeks universal recognition and international backing as a ‘soft-law’ document, morally binding upon those who subscribe to it.” Generated with “high levels of participation cutting across all sectors of society, with a determined effort to include historically underrepresented voices, two aspects of the charter in particular “command the attention of religious ethics:  the Charter’s high levels of representation and agency in the effort to realize the ancient dream of an Earth ethic; and its moral universe, with respect for the full community of life and its diversity as foundational.”

Central to the Earth Charter is a vision of sustainable community that accords well with the expectations for social and ecological justice proposed in this Sunday’s texts. According to the charter, sustainable community is the effort to preserve or create all together or in part: greater economic sell-sufficiency locally and regionally, with a view to the bio-regions themselves as basic to human organization; agriculture appropriate to a region and in the hands of local owners and workers using local knowledge and crop varieties, with the ability to save their own seeds and treat their own plants and soils with their own products; the preservation of local and regional traditions, language and cultures and a resistance to global homogenization of culture and values; a revival of religious life and a sense of the sacred, in place of a way of life that leaches the sacred from the everyday and reduces life to the utilitarian; the repair of the moral fiber of society on some terms other than sovereign consumerism; resistance to the full-scale commodification of things, including knowledge; the internalization of costs to the local, regional, and global environment in the price of goods; and the protection of ecosystems and the cultivation of Earth, in the language of the Charter, as ‘a sacred trust held in common.’ (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 347)

The Charter qualifies as genuine wisdom, Rasmussen contends, because it is “attentive to questions that global capitalism, even as sustainable development, rarely asks: What are the essential bonds of human community and culture, as well as the bonds with the more-than-human world? What is the meaning of such primal bonds for a healthy, concrete way of life; what are cultural wealth and biological wealth and what wisdom do we need to sustain them in the places people live with the rest of life’s community?” (Rasmussen, p. 348).

“Wisdom,” Rasmussen concludes, “has found a home here.” Has God, we might well ask, thrown a new star in our sky? And will the church pay proper homage to it, and follow it?

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

The “great gathering” of Earth community encompasses the material world of God’s good creation. – Tom Mundahl reflects on our use of the gifts of God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A (2013/4, 2016/7, 2019/20, 2022/23)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

Gathering is at the heart of our celebration of the Christmas season. Not only do we gather for worship to wonder at the incarnation, we gather often with groups of friends and family. What’s more, Christmas is a time both to give and “gather” creation’s gifts, whether the beauty of a tree, a long ski through the woods, or the giving and receiving of food, drink, and presents.

If I ever forgot the importance of Christmas presents to the gathering, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. As a result, we engage in a more mundane sort of “gathering:” attempting to save wrapping paper and bows for reuse, and, finally, gathering up the new “stuff” that we mostly don’t need and have to find room for.

By now, you have guessed that these comments will focus on the “gatherings” revealed by this week’s readings. Surprisingly, we will find that this variety of ways of coming together suggest an intensification of care for God’s creation.

This theme cannot be missed in our reading from Jeremiah. In this chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of Jeremiah’s authentic work (Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, Volume 21, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), the prophet delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8) and “lead them back.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

This new Exodus-gathering takes place with what appears to be altered terms of relationship.  No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or on the work of the temple.  Now it appears that what is primary is gathering the exiles from their diaspora and restoring them to the land. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 186)

That gathering once more in this land is at the center of this return is emphasized by the images of natural abundance we find in this passage.

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again (Jeremiah 31:12).

This celebration of gathering reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and lamb—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this creation care is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock” (Jeremiah 31:10).

Therefore, this new gathering will also bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies.  As the familiar canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Today’s Psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once more, the song is occasioned by restoration from exile in Babylon. As is the case with many Christmas carols, it uses a particular act of grace—deliverance from Babylon in this case—as an occasion for an even more wide-ranging expression of God’s relationship with all creation. The one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2) is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of the stars” (v. 4).

Because of this gracious activity, the community responds with psalms, carols, and hymns. Among the most telling evidence supporting Robert Putnam’s research with its conclusion that U.S. citizens are much less involved in community associations (cf. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) is the decline of singing, especially among younger males. While it can be almost impossible to persuade many Americans to sing, in African worship or at an Italian wedding, it is almost impossible to stop the singing.

During this season of gathering to sing familiar carols and bringing them to nursing homes and to the home-bound, we also need to hear the good news of this season in relation to the song of the Earth. As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 7).

Following a conventional salutation, our reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content certainly has been transformed to contain strong trinitarian elements (v. 3, v. 5, v. 13). This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14) strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism –“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is a “gathering” that effects  “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). Baptism gives non-Jews a share of this blessing.

This ever-expanding scope of election and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (v. 9) “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the work of Irenaeus and Wingren—is described by Martin.

The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is “to sum up,” to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find . . . its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians,
Colossians, and Philemon
, Atlanta: John Knox, p. 17).

Martin continues by describing this goal as much like the movement toward an “omega point” described by de Chardin (Martin, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend “God’s plan” in a helpful way? For us, it is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means something like “rules for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s ‘rule’ for “the earth household” is connected with gathering all together. This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond Jew and Greek, past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6: 12), to include all creatures (the whole creation) in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

As we gather to hear the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (and it should be read as a whole, not dissected!), we continue the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this prologue is likely “crafted” after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20)  Because it is a song from the community, the emphasis on response is unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us . . . .” (John 1:14a, cf. Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131).

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. This will free us to return to the creation theme the prologue begins with. Because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation (“All things came into being through him” v.3) in part, by forming a community of faith. And, because this community of faith is rooted in creation and a Word become flesh who draws “all to himself” (John 12:32), we can celebrate the very “fleshiness” of all that is.

Perhaps this means a festive Twelfth Night celebration by the community or with friends, where extra presents that have no room in house or apartment are collected to be shared with agencies that know who can use them. Yet, in no way should this be seen as a denial of the “material” or “fleshy” side of this season.

In fact, we may learn from a British group promoting what they call a “new materialism.” Noticing that religious “put downs” of materialism are not helpful for all of us who live in a “material world,” they have developed a “New Materialist Manifesto” that suggests: liking ”stuff “is a healthy way of enjoying the material world, but it requires lasting relationships with material objects that should be fewer and better—designed to last no less than 10 years. Appreciation of “material” is enhanced when things acquired are purchased with knowledge—who makes them, where they are made, and under what conditions (Factory conditions in Bangladesh?). These material “goods” need to be “loved” –maintained, repaired, or mended, and then repurposed. Finally, this may move us to “reskilling,” where we learn to make, repair, or repurpose “stuff.” And, as we find we need less, we may become freer to share (Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, available through: www.breadprintandroses.orgwww.therealpress.co.uk; or www.schumachercollege.org).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                                     tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                         tmundahl@gmail.com

Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:  either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) in Year A

Faithfulness and Creativity: Robert Saler reflects on the example of Saint Joseph.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent continue the theme of God’s grace rupturing our quotidian ways of being in the world, and the ways in which the coming of Christ provides a new angle on God’s revelation. This way of framing the matter is important: while Christians affirm that God’s revelation was and is uniquely disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the entire plausibility of the gospels’ narrative framework depends upon Israelite religiosity. This is particularly true in the story of Joseph: while Christians regard Joseph as a hero of the faith for abiding by God’s plan, the entire theological underpinning of Joseph’s encounter with the angel depends upon the rich tradition of Israelite encounter with the divine.

Striking for our purposes, though, is what we might call Joseph’s creative and even “faithful” disobedience to the Hebrew Bible. Much has been made of the fact that Joseph, having discovered seemingly indisputable evidence of his wife’s infidelity to him, could have exposed her to shame, legal punishment, and even death as revenge against her; instead, he chooses simply to end the betrothal without compromising her integrity. This, in and of itself, is an action of what Peter Rollins might call faithful infidelity to the law—by refusing to abide by the letter of the law, Joseph embodies its spirit. Too much Lutheran preaching has occluded the fact that the “law” as the nation of Israel encountered it was in fact a gift of grace from God, a gift that fashioned God’s people and bestowed upon them an identity in a world in which they would be perpetual underdogs. Joseph, by his action, embodies a kind of virtuosic inhabiting of that spirit of grace, but does so precisely by going against his rights under the “law.”

The notion that God’s grace is a kind of deconstructive force that undermines the letter of the law in order to disclose the fundamentally benevolent and life-giving structures of God’s interaction with the world is, of course, a foundational Lutheran premise. Grace does not cancel the law, but it operates in a kind of faithful infidelity to it in order to save sinners. If the law condemns sinners to death, then grace—bestowed by the same God who gives the law—removes the law’s penalty in order to demonstrate God’s redemptive love for what God has made.

A theological maxim that undergirds much of what happens at this site, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is that Christian theology is in need of a “new Reformation,” one that will gradually but permanently shift the center of Christian theology away from understandings of the faith that breed apathy or even hostility towards creation to those that highlight earth-honoring and care for creation as essential aspects of Christian vocation. Those of us who work within that maxim do not view that theological work as entailing the introduction of unprecedented novelties into Christian discourse, as if earth-honoring faith requires a wholesale abandonment of what has come before. Instead, we look to the richness of the tradition in order to discern the paths not taken, the potential conceptual resources, and the places within the core of the faith that can support an earth-friendly practice of Christianity. This lack of fidelity to the tradition as it has been conventionally lived out in many Christian circles is, in fact, a way of honoring what is best about the tradition.

Similarly, the task of preaching Advent hope is not a matter of introducing wholesale rupture into the lives of those listening; rather, it is an invitation to all of us to review where we have been and what God has done for us with fresh eyes, and to consider whether the call of newness that comes with Advent is a call to be creatively unfaithful to that which has held us back from life abundant. All of us have lived lives in which the Spirit of life and our own resistance to grace have intertwined and determined our course; thus, the homiletical opportunity to create a space of honoring what has been life-giving about the past, even as we “betray” those assumptions that have held us back from the life that God would have us receive, is a genuine gift of the preacher.

To live faithfully as Christians in a time of ecological danger will require creatively betraying the assumptions under which many of us were raised. It will require the confidence that comes when we realize that the same God who disclosed the shape of grace in Jesus Christ continues to work deeply within the structures of creation, redeeming that which God has made. And it will, most of all, require the sort of love that wages all on the notion that God’s justice is superior to (and more merciful than) our justice and that seeks to remain faithful to that wager against all odds. Inviting the congregation into that wager of love is a powerful Advent opportunity for Christ’s body on this day.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Saler)

Improvisation — A Christian Stance of Hopefulness:  Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

At my seminary, I am currently facilitating an Augustine reading group. The group is taking the entire year to work our way through his magnum opus The City of God, purely for fun and edification. This 5th century text features Augustine engaging polemically with the educated pagans of his day, those who blamed Christians for the 410 sack of Rome by the Visgoth army and who advocated for a return to the worship of the Roman pantheon of deities.

I am a longtime lover of Augustine, and there is much about his critiques of the paganism of his day with which I resonate. However, in books 6 and 7 of the text, when he decries the arbitrariness of the placement of gods within the Roman pantheon, an interesting contrast emerges that I think separates his time from ours rather decisively.

In my view, part of Augustine’s mockery of paganism is that so much of it seems improvised to him: gods and men serve certain functions at a particular period of time, and are rewarded/used by being placed then in the pantheon in some position that correlates with their usefulness. By implicit contrast, then, Augustine presents Christian truth as something that is established from the foundation of the world and therefore is always already prior to human intervention (thus echoing Paul’s arguments that he was “handing on” only what had been given to him).

However, in between Augustine’s time and ours, those of us who are Christian have come to understand that the Christian imagination has always involved improvisation and the development of its key themes as those themes have moved across radically diverse epochs and cultures. Part of the genius of 19th century theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was to recognize that doctrine is in a constant state of development, and that all living things must continually be developing and changing in order to stay vibrant. Pure stasis, argued theologians from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Henry Newman, is death.

The early texts of Advent are clearly eschatological in focus. And thinking through how Christians who care about creation might understand the “end(s)” of the world is a worthy preaching task for this season. However, it is also the case that Advent invites the congregation to imagine how God continues to improvise throughout the biblical narrative, and indeed throughout the world as we experience it. The Isaiah reading invites us to imagine swords beaten into plowshares. Meanwhile, the reading from Matthew draws its pathos and power from the sheer unpredictability inherent in the end times: what is to come will be genuinely new, and preparedness is essential.

Genuine improvisation is not pure novelty; at its best (as in jazz, for example), it is rooted in tradition. The story of God’s salvific work towards all creation was given to Israel, and (despite a shameful history of anti-Judaism) the Christian tradition at its best has affirmed that it is a continuation of that same fundamental story as it is grafted onto Israel’s history. Similarly, Advent preaching must resist the temptation to frame the in-breaking of God’s kingdom as pure novelty. Not only is that idea not plausible, it also misses profound dimensions of the Christian witness—the deep resonance between the Holy Spirit’s ongoing improvisatory work in creation, the Biblical narratives’ tales of a God who shapes and is shaped by the actions of God’s people, and the shape of Christian hope for the future.

Innovation as eschatology, too, helps to bring out the resonance between the fact of the Earth’s suffering and the slightly menacing overtones of the Matthew reading (since many scholars think that what Jesus is describing is not God snatching people away, but rather imperial forces). The Earth is subject to injustice and degradation, and God’s redemptive improvisation must deal with this as well. We see from the “weak force” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection how God chooses to work salvifically within the structures of injustice in our world.

Advent is a time, then, to preach about this hope with unsentimental but genuinely biblical confidence in how God’s Spirit continues to do its work throughout creation. The effective preacher will name the deep sense of unease we have as we are surrounded by the effects of what Augustine called libido domini—the imperial lust to conquer, a lust present in our politics and in our souls. However, this will be the occasion for the preacher also to name God’s refusal to let our degradation of what God has made be the final word in creation’s story, and for the preached word to give God’s people new eyes to see how that Spirit is “making all things new.”

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) in Year A

Expanding the Imagination with Vision: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 35.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The Isaiah text for this week is another Advent reading that offers a unique eschatological perspective—one that might be labeled as a utopia were it not centered in the midst of the ongoing struggle for salvific wholeness experienced by God’s people Israel. The reading contains imagery that is deeply tied to the notion of renewed creation. Much like Isaiah 11’s invocation of the lion lying down with the lamb, here a refreshed and renewed creation is depicted as having its barren and dry places inundated with life-giving water, its habitats kept safe from flesh-eating predators, and (as implied by the language of “everlasting joy”) even the power of death being removed from the creation.

This imagery of creation’s eschatological renewal has been deeply formative in both the Christian and Jewish imagination. Indeed, to the extent that studying early Christian writers is helpful for understanding how the gospel might have impacted those who were hearing it in its early stages, it is striking how often these images recur in patristic writings. As Paul Santmire notes, the church father Irenaeus (130-200) is particularly notable in this regard. As Santmire puts it:

Irenaeus does not assume a dialectic of human salvation and the whole creation, as Origen and many later theologians were to do. He does not envision any kind of pretemporal drama in eternity, where the elect are chosen (thesis); next a scene in time, the creation of the whole world for the sake of providing a place wherein the human creatures or rational spirits already chosen might be saved (antithesis); and then, finally a scene of reconciliation, where the human creatures or rational spirits are enabled to return to God again (synthesis). Rather, Irenaeus begins with the temporal beginning of the creation, as we have seen, and envisions one act of God, one divine economy, aimed at bringing the entire creation of a new status to a final fulfillment through the Word and Spirit” (Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Fortress 1985).

In his text Against Heresies, Ireaneus picks up on Isaiah’s imagery as he imagines the eschatological fulfillment of creation’s blessedness:

The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the Kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon rising from the dead, when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth.

He even envisioned a situation in which predatory animals would no longer have to hunt each other for food, having returned to a state akin to vegetarianism.

Similar imagery is offered by the patristic writer Lactantius (~260-317) in his text Divine Institutes:

Then, there will be taken away from the world those darknesses with which the sky is obscured and blocked from sight, and the moon will receive the brightness of the sun, nor will it be diminished anymore. The sun, however, will become seven times brighter than it now is. The earth, in truth, will disclose its fecundity and will produce the richest crops of its own accord. Mountain rocks will ooze with honey, wines will flow down through the streams, and rivers will overflow with milk. The world itself will rejoice and the nature of all things will be glad, since the dominion and evil and impiety and crime will have been broken and cut off from it. Beasts will not feed on blood during this time nor birds on prey, but all things will be quiet and at rest. Lions and calves will stand together at the manger to feed; the wolf will not steal the sheep; the dog will not hunt; hawks and eagles will not do harm; a child will play with snakes.

What might these ancient images have to do with contemporary preaching during Advent? The twentieth-century French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry once remarked, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In a time when so much preaching towards care for creation (as in other important matters) can easily cross the line into mere moral exhortation (or, even worse, scolding), a rich homiletical challenge for today’s preacher—heir to Irenaeus and Lactantius—would be to imagine what sort of vision of fulfilled creation might stir the imaginations of congregations today, and how that vision might inspire creative action towards ecological justice today. Would imagining a world in which coal-burning plants were no more? Where the rich and the poor no longer have to be cast in the roles of ecological enemies? Where species can be appreciated in all their diversity without nagging fears of extinction?

When the preacher engages the Christian eschatological imagination in such fashion, the congregation is left open to surprise as to what actions such an imagination might give rise to, this Advent and beyond. As Jesus himself indicates in the Matthew text for this Sunday, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world produces effects beyond what the world might have imagined previously; so it is that the church, Christ’s body on earth, might exceed all expectations (even its own) for what God’s spirit calls and equips it to do.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Santmire)

Why bother with Advent?  Paul Santmire reflects on the start of the Advent season and offers a sermon example.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Paul Santmire in 2016)

Readings for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

The season of Advent in North America is all-too often swallowed up by the so-called “Christmas spirit.”  Pastors know well the pressures from congregational members to sing Christmas hymns as soon as possible.  Never mind the fact that Christmas decorations already have been up for sale in Home Depot since the end of August.  Why bother with Advent?

Most pastors also know well that the biblical meanings of Christmas only make sense when they’re interpreted in terms of the rich texts of Advent.  Christmas, biblically interpreted, is countercultural.  The countercultural pilgrimage of Advent prepares the way for such understandings.  It’s not enough, in other words, for the people of faith to realize that “Jesus is the reason for the Season” of Christmas.  They need to understand that the biblical Jesus stands over against every human season, both in judgment and in promise.  Advent, rightly preached and enacted, will help the faithful claim that understanding as their own.

Karl Barth was wont to talk about “the strange new world of the Bible.”  What if the presiding pastor were to say, in introducing the themes of Advent:  “You’re not going to ‘get’ our Advent texts, at least not the way you might want to.  I sometimes have trouble understanding them myself.  Listen to them as if they were beamed here from some hitherto totally unknown planet in some strange language.  Advent texts refer to difficult ideas, like ‘the end of the world,’ which some Christians think they know all about, but which in fact are obscure to the point of being unintelligible.  On the other hand, what if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is urgently concerned to speak to you through these very texts?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 is a kind of free-floating text, only loosely related to its context.  Likewise for Micah 4:1-3, which is roughly identical with the text from Isaiah.  The words we have in Isaiah appear to reflect a kind of communal affirmation of faith, analogous, in Christian practice, to use of the Apostles Creed.  Why did that prophetic text have that kind of traditional place of honor in the memories and celebrations of the ancient People of God?  Its countercultural witness to a coming world of universal peace seems to be almost too much to believe in a world of constant warfare, with which the ancient People of God were well-acquainted.
Psalm 122 picks up many of the same themes of universal peace, flowing from Jerusalem.  Note the play of words with the name of the city, shalom or “peace.”  In terms of the history of religions, moreover, the city of Jerusalem for the Hebrew mind is a kind of umbilical center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth, the Divine and the mundane worlds are joined with unique intensity.

Romans 13:11-14 discloses the eschatological mind-set that permeates the faith of the Apostle Paul, a mindset that is sometimes forgotten as interpreters, especially Lutherans, focus on the Pauline theme of justification by faith (Romans 1:17).  But for Paul, the two are inseparable.  The Pauline vision comprehends the whole history of God with the creation, not just the pro me of justifying faith.
Matthew 24:36-44 may be the single most difficult biblical text to preach on in North America today.  Countless millions – including many members of mainline churches – have read the many popular novels in the Left Behind series, the idea being that the day is at hand when a few believers will be “raptured” up to heaven by God, saving them from the total destruction that God is allegedly about to wreak on the whole world.  For New Testament faith, on the contrary, the heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2), leading to a new heavens and a new earth.  Jesus’ language here is figurative throughout, not literal.  It’s intended to shock the hearer into a new way of hearing and understanding (cf. “Keep awake”), akin to his puzzling reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:22-25)

Sample Sermon:  Let it Dawn on You Today

Text:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-13)

St. Paul’s words to the early Christian Church at Rome strike me with a certain terror.  Because I’m a night person.
Are you a morning person?  Or are you a night person?  If you’re a morning person, let me tell you what it’s like to be a night person.  It’ll be good for your spiritual health.  If you’re a night person, like me, then I imagine you’ll be glad to empathize with me, every step of the way.

I.
First, and you morning people may find this difficult to believe, it take a lot of energy to wake up.

My wife’s a morning person.  It took her many years into our marriage to realize that it didn’t make any sense for her to say anything of significance to me first thing in the morning.  You know, she pops right up, and starts talking to me about my “honey-do” list.  And I respond obediently, “uh-huh, uh-huh.”  Two hours later she discovers that I don’t have a bird of an idea what she said to me.

Sin is like that.  It takes a lot of spiritual energy to wake up.  So you’re a smoker.  You know that smoking’s a kind of suicidal behavior.  You know that the Lord doesn’t want you to kill yourself.  You’re going to stop sometime, you know.  But it never really dawns on you that now’s the time to wake up.

So you’re a cheater, at times.  Maybe it’s on your exams at school.  Maybe it’s cutting corners at work.  Maybe it’s on your spouse, real or imagined.  Maybe it’s on your income tax, hugely or just in detail here or there.  You fill in the blank.

Mostly you don’t get caught.  But the whole thing troubles you.  What’s more, you know that once you get into the habit of cheating one thing can lead to another.  And that could be catastrophic for you or for others.  If you’re a surgeon, the sleep you cheat on at night could lead you to amputate the wrong leg the next day or to fall asleep at the wheel on a high speed family outing.

Then there’s voting, in particular, and political action, more generally.  If press reports are to be believed, a majority of the U.S. electorate is now disgusted by the tenor and even the substance of our recent elections.  You may well be tempted to throw in the towel of politics, as if nothing political matters any more.  But the truth of the matter is that everything political matters today, perhaps more than ever.  What about the biblical vision of a just peace for all peoples and indeed for the whole creation?!  You heard it again in our readings today.  But if many Christians let themselves go groggy or even fall asleep on the political superhighways of our society, what’s to become of the promise of peace on earth, good will to all?

II.
That’s why we night people need alarms.  Sometimes I set two alarms, one on the bed table, one across the room.  Because I don’t trust myself.  I’m likely to turn off the alarm next to me, roll over, and go back to sleep.  Now as a bona fide night person, I hate those alarm clocks.  But all the more so, I know how much I need them.

Did you ever think that God is setting off dozens of alarms all around you?

Everybody these days is “in” to spirituality.  Go to your local big box book store and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books on spirituality.  So you stand there, like a deer at night staring at the headlights, wondering how you can possibly read enough of those books to be the kind of spiritual person you want to be.

In the meantime, God is setting off alarms all over the place.  Your physician tells you that you’d better quit smoking or you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re fifty.  Your teacher at school quietly takes you aside and tells you that moral integrity is more important than straight A’s, so you might consider writing your own papers and not getting them on line.  Your secretary tells you that she’s leaving, because the environment you wink at in your office is so abusive that she can’t take it anymore.  Then your pastor tells you that, notwithstanding all the toxicity of the last election, Jesus calls you to get back into the political struggle in behalf of the poor and the oppressed and indeed the whole Earth, that Jesus wants you to plunge in, not drop out.

Some people wonder where God is in their lives.  If that’s you, you could start by listening to all the alarms that’re going off all around you, every day.  “It is the hour for you to awake from sleep,” says Paul.

III.
But I can assure you.  There is hope, even for bona fide night people like me.

Let me tell you what characteristically happens to me on Sunday mornings.  Both my alarms go off.  During the dark winter mornings that we have in Advent, I stumble around in the twilight to get ready.  I rummage through the paper to see what happened the day before.  I say a quick prayer.  I gulp down some coffee.  And off I go.

Now and again, it happens.  I’m driving along West Market Street heading downtown, in the dawn twilight.  And then I happen to see the first rays of the sun.  On occasion, this is my vision.  At the top of the last hill down into the city, I look across the way and I see the sun coming up, right behind this church!  What a marvelous sight!

Did it ever dawn on you?  Did it ever dawn on you that if you were at the right place, at the right time, you could see that this world of sin and death and disappointment and political toxicity is in fact God’s world, where God’s struggling to overcome all the darkness?  Did it ever dawn on you that this commonplace society of sinners here on Sunday mornings who are struggling to believe in the midst of the darkness of this world:  that here’s a reliable place for you to see the Light of God?

That’s the way it’s been for me all my life.  However much I’ve stumbled around in the darkness, the Light of Christ has already been there for me, beginning with the mysteries and the ministries of the Church of Christ.  That doesn’t mean that the darkness is going to go away.  That means that you have seen the Light, baby.  Actually, in the person of a baby.  But I don’t want to get ahead of myself – because this is Advent, when what I need to be working on first and foremost is waking up, not figuring out how to hold an infant in my arms.

IV.
Let me tell you a story.  Happens to be a true story.

When I first started preaching and teaching about God’s love for the whole creation, not just humans, I felt very much alone.  In those days, back in the early nineteen-sixties, most of the Church’s preachers and teachers had other axes to grind.  Only a very few, like the great Lutheran theologian of nature, Joseph Sittler, even cared about such things.  Meanwhile, a few of us were indeed convinced that God so loved the world that God gave the Beloved, God’s only Son, so that the world might be saved through Him.

Similar developments were unfolding in a number of Christian churches.  By now the spiritual vision of God loving the whole world – every creature! – has taken over the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world.  Pope Francis’ justly celebrated encyclical Laudato Si’, is the most visible of these developments, but only one among many.

In Lutheran circles, a growing grassroots ecojustice network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is being used by God to transform Lutheran minds and hearts throughout our church.  A new generation of Lutheran theologians, too, dedicated to Earth ministry and to the poor of the Earth, is now calling on our congregations to participate in a new Eco-Reformation – the title of their recently published theological manifesto, which will hopefully inspire new conversations and new commitments in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Once upon a time, when I was working through my days of depressed theological slumber about these theology and ecology matters, I never could have anticipated what has happened in our churches in the current generation.  But now it’s dawned on me!  God has not forsaken his churches!  I just had to wake up and see!  I also had to wait – but that’s another Advent theme for another day.

V.

It’s not easy being a night person, as I say.  Sometime it takes a long time to wake up and see the light!  But I can tell you, on the basis of my own experience, that sometimes, when you do get around to waking up, after you’ve heard the alarms, the experience of the dawning Light can be remarkable, even overwhelming, right in the midst of the darkness of this world of sin and death.

Hear this Word of the Lord, therefore.  Let it dawn on you this day:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”  Amen.

Christ the King Sunday (November 24, 2019) in Year C

It is the cosmic vulnerability that we have to honor if we want to worship the true king, the Cosmic Christ. – Leah Schade reflects on the readings for Christ the King Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday after Pentecost), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King Sunday has always been a difficult holy day for me to appreciate. I have never been comfortable with the kind of language we use on this day. There is something about using words like “throne,” “scepter,” “footstool,” and “exalted” that strike me as being very patristic and hierarchical. I have learned that I am not the only one who struggles with this kind of imagery. One of my Confirmation students once asked a question in her sermon outline: “If God is our King and reigns over us, could he ever take over or become a dictator? Does God control us?”

What a big question from a 7th grader! Even our children are sensitive to the patriarchal baggage in our liturgical language. Just consider this word “Lord” we use. It comes from the English feudal system, “lording over” someone—it’s a loaded word that carries with it a lot of negative baggage. But the Greek word for “lord” is kyrios, and refers to something much bigger than an earthly kingdom. The passage from Colossians is a statement of faith that God is the lord over the entire universe.

The Cosmic Christ archetype in all its fullness and diversity is about the mystery of life, death and resurrection in the universe. And Christians are not the only ones who have this motif. The wisdom traditions of other faiths have similar archetypes: the Buddha nature, the Jewish Messiah, the Tao, the Dance of Shiva. Not that there aren’t distinctions between these concepts, nor should we collapse them into one Christianized conglomerate of mystery.

Rather, as the mystic Meister Eckhardt said, God is a great underground river of flowing, rushing, living water of wisdom that no one can stop and no one can dam up. There are wells going down to that river. There is a Buddhist well, a Native American well, a Wiccan well, a Muslim well, a Christian well. We have to be willing to go down into that well, make the journey, descend into the depths, and use the mystic tradition within our context to get us to that River of Wisdom common to all traditions. As Thomas Aquinas says, “All truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit.”

And this is all fine and good, but it still does not address the young student’s original question—what is to keep this Divine Power from becoming abusive, dominating, all-consuming. This is where the Cosmic Christ archetype becomes so important—because the Cosmic Christ is not just about Divine Glory. It is about suffering as well. Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick and in prison, we are doing this to him! He is directly identifying with the brokenness and vulnerability of this world, of our human society. So the Cosmic Christ is not just about the light in all things, it is about the wounds in all things, says Matthew Fox.

It is important to help people understand that coming to church and being a Christian is not just about being comforted and pious. It is about encountering the Cosmic Christ in those places where injustice is happening, in those places where domination and death are happening. When the soldiers mock Jesus, demanding, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they are alluding to the question that all the powers and principalities are asking. It’s the question we’re all asking. We want to know—who is lord of the universe? Is it the land developers and the corporate executives? They are certainly acting like they are. Is it the military machine or the heads of Wall Street? We certainly act like they are.

But what Jeremiah is saying is that, no—the Shepherd is the one who looks out for and protects those most vulnerable. Sheep are some of the most vulnerable animals, which is why they are so often used as a symbol for the nation of Israel. And it is always the vulnerable sheep who are slain by imperialism, by war, by domestic abuse, by any form of arrogance and domination. It is always the lambs, those most vulnerable, who suffer when some other entity or person take it upon themselves to say that they are the ruler of the universe. It is the sheep we have to guard and protect in ourselves—it is the cosmic vulnerability that we have to honor if we want to worship the true king, the Cosmic Christ.

That’s why we cannot sing about the “feast of victory for our God,” without also remembering that at Good Friday, we sing about the “sacred head now wounded.” The crucifixion story is about how Christ became yet another victim of state-sanctioned murder, and the sun became dark and the whole earth shook. It is a cosmic experience! The temple curtain is rent in two. It is an ancient Jewish teaching that when a just person is killed unjustly, the whole earth trembles. Expanding the concept of “person” to our Earth-kin, when another species becomes extinct, the whole universe is rent in two. When a woman is raped in a refugee camp, the whole universe shudders. When a child is shot on the streets of Philadelphia, the entire cosmos shakes. God suffers and dies every time another crucifixion happens in our world.

But after the dust settles and the gravestone is in place, and the only sound is the weeping in the garden we recall the words of Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.” In the midst of suffering, that is when the Risen Christ appears. Notice that after the resurrection, no one says, “we have seen Jesus.” They say, “We have seen the Lord.” The Lord has risen. The Cosmic Christ is very much alive and gathers in all those who have suffered and died as well, including the woman in the refugee camp, the child in Philadelphia, and the last bird of the species.

Christ the King Sunday is truly Cosmic Christ Sunday. The birth of the Earth; the suffering of Earth; the renewal and resurrection of Earth all happen within and through the Cosmic Christ—this radiant, vulnerable, suffering, resurrected one. The Cosmic Christ is who we trust, the One who we worship.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

What’s Next for the Reformation?

The following are excerpts from an article calling for ongoing reformation that embraces case for creation.

What’s next for the Reformation?
As a living tradition, it could guide our care for the Earth

By: Larry Rasmussen and Michael Watson

The Lutheran, November 2006 issue

When history is written, we may well discover that the most important event of the 20th century was not two World Wars, the Cold War, the fall of state socialism or the triumph of global capitalism. Rather, the signature event was what was done to the Earth across the whole community of life—biosphere, human society and atmosphere. . . .

Yet we are slow to stir. Consider James Gustave Spaeth’s letter to The New York Times (Feb. 24) in response to an article, “Glaciers Flow to Sea at a Faster Pace, Study Says.” Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Conn., Spaeth wrote:

“The world we have known is history. A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit global average warming is already raising sea levels, strengthening hurricanes, disrupting ecosystems, threatening parks and protected areas, causing droughts and heat waves, melting the Arctic and glaciers everywhere, and killing thousands of people a year. …

“Yet there are several more degrees coming in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. … It is easy to feel like a character in a bad science fiction novel running down the street shouting, ‘Don’t you see it!’ while life goes on, business as usual. …

“Climate change is the biggest thing to happen here on earth in thousands of years, with incalculable environmental, social and economic costs.

“But there is no march on Washington; students are not in the streets; consumers are not rejecting their destructive lifestyles; Congress is not passing far-reaching legislation; the president is not on television explaining the threat to the country; Exxon is not quaking in its boots; and entire segments of evening news pass without mention of the climate emergency. …

“Instead, 129 new coal-fired plants are being developed in the United States alone, and so on. … There are many of us caught in this story. We must find another soon.”

What is “this story” we’re “caught in”? And how do we get to the other story we “must find … soon”? Will the churches of the Reformation aid in finding this other story?

Perhaps those future historians revisiting the 20th century will say the 21st century saw the ecological reformation of the churches. Perhaps they will write that Earth-honoring religious practice found real traction and thousands of congregations became serious centers of creation care. Perhaps this is what is next for the Reformation, itself, as a living tradition. The legacy of Martin Luther can guide us. . . .

An anti-Earth story

. . . . The story we’re caught in is one in which we don’t see ourselves as creatures of the Earth for the Earth. Creation seems little more than a stage, with resources and props. If that is so and how we live is wrongheaded, how do we inhabit an Earth-honoring story? One reply is the Lutheran Reformation itself—as passed along by Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Joseph Sittler.

Luther re-embeds us in creation as God’s good creatures of this Earth for this Earth. This contribution to a more viable story arises from his careful study of Scripture. Luther notices the prominence of adamah in the original Hebrew text of Genesis. Adamah literally means “from the earth.” Adam, the human earth creature, is created from adamah (topsoil). So are all the other creatures of Earth. All are kin, all are siblings of creation, all are adamah.

Likewise, all receive the same breath of life (ruach). They share the same animating spirit, they receive the same gracious gift of life, and they die the same death all creatures do. . . .

The ground cries out

. . . . Luther’s navigation of the Hebrew play of adam and adamah is available to English speakers as well. “Human” is from humus, rich topsoil! Our roots are thus properly “humble,” sunk in the soil. That is worthy of more “humor” than we often admit and enjoy, given the kind of “blasphemous strutting” of which Sittler speaks. We deny our earthiness, our creatureliness and think of ourselves, as a species, more highly than we ought, thereby committing the primal sin, “hubris.”

These linguistic connections still tell an Earth-embedded story we need to appropriate anew. Our language won’t be Luther’s alone, to be sure. It will also be the language of science: We share, with all else, a fierce communion of DNA, genes and the vigorous branching of the great Tree of Life. But the insight is Luther’s, and the tree is the same tree—the Tree of Life in the center of Eden and along the banks of crystalline waters that flow from the throne of God in the New Jerusalem of redeemed Earth (Revelation 22:21-22). . . .

Fidelity to God

For Bonhoeffer, . . . fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to Earth. This is in keeping with our essential nature as adamah, as well as God’s nature as utterly incarnate. “Darwin and Feuerbach themselves could not speak more strongly than Genesis” in recognizing we are “a piece of earth” and that our “bond with the Earth belongs to (our) essential being.

. . . . In other contexts, Bonhoeffer added the persistent Lutheran theme of God’s utterly incarnate presence and power “in, with, and under” all things creaturely. He frequently quoted a 17th century German theologian, Friedrich Oetinger: “The end of God’s own ways is bodiliness.”

. . . . Rather than nationalistic nature romanticism, Bonhoeffer’s subject was “Earth and its distress”—broken Earth, degraded Earth, “fallen” or “cursed” Earth, Earth after Cain, Earth at the foot of the cross.

Bonhoeffer, following Luther, thus anchors us in Earth as true Earth creatures attuned with every sense to “the whole of earthly life” and “God’s promises” for all of it (the phrases from a prison letter of July 1944). But this perspective, while essential, doesn’t go far enough.

. . . . what Bonhoeffer has done for a Reformation-based, Earth-honoring story is incorporate a race/class/culture-and-nature analysis, what he, in prison, called the clarifying and purging insights of “the view from below” (in contrast with views fashioned from the social privilege he also knew). The Christian’s Song of Songs is “Earth and its distress,” all of it.

Following a Christ of nature

Theologian Joseph Sittler will be remembered as the first Lutheran “ecologian.” In 1954 he vowed “as a son of Earth [to] know no rest” until Earth’s voices were gathered up “into a deeper and fuller understanding of [Christian] faith.” Earth’s voices have about them “the shine of the holy.” From 1954 on, Sittler taught a Lutheran theology in which the arc of redemption matched the arc of creation itself.

His famous address to the World Council of Churches in 1961 called for a “daring, penetrating, life-affirming Christology of nature.” Until we follow such a Christ of nature, Sittler said, the powers of grace won’t be loosed upon Earth “to diagnose, judge, and heal the ways of humans as they blasphemously strut about this hurt and threatened world as if they owned it.”

“Loosing the powers of grace” as Earth creatures for Earth is the great work of reformation of this and the next generation, to move inch-by-inch from a cumulatively destructive presence of human beings on the planet to a mutually enhancing relationship between humankind and the rest of God’s good Earth. . . .

© 2006 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers. The Lutheran is the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

American Lutherans Engage Ecological Theology

American Lutherans Engage Ecological Theology: The First Chapter, 1962-2012, And Its Legacy1

by Paul Santmire

Ecological theology is a relatively new movement in the world of christian thought and practice and therefore is neither widely understood nor easily defined, even by those who are variously involved in the movement.2  But however one might understand this theological trend, this much we know.  From the outset, particularly in the United States, Lutherans have been deeply involved.  One might even argue that american Lutherans have played a central role in the cultivation of this new field, both at the reflective, theological level and in the wider dimensions of church life, especially by the production of two theologically substantive social teaching statements (1972, 1993) and by the emergence of a host of practical ministries in lutheran circles that have embodied and, in some sense, tested the viability of the theological reflection and the social teaching statements.3

To be sure, as Hegel famously observed, the owl of Minerva does not take to flight until the dusk has come.  Which is to suggest that it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify the meaning of any historical era until its trends have run their course.  It is much too early, I am suggesting, to draw any kind of satisfactory conclusions about where ecological theology as a whole – now a global, ecumenical phenomenon – is going and what its influence might be, much less to assess the significance of american lutheran contributions to the field along the way.  This paper, therefore, must necessarily have a modest scope.

So I will restrict myself to historical impressions, rather than trying to develop any kind of historical argument.  More particularly, I will explore the story of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology as one who has had a hand, here and there, in shaping the first chapter of that engagement, for better or for worse.4  Indeed, as far as I can determine, my 1970 study, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, was one of the first books on the american scene in ecological theology and the first book of its kind written by a Lutheran.5  This, of course, makes it all the more difficult for me to see the forest for the trees.  But this is what I think I know.  The first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology was not written by a committee, nor by any kind of “theological school” comprised of teacher or teachers and disciples.  This chapter was written by a number of often isolated individuals who happened to have shared some theological and contextual assumptions and who were variously moved, some more self-consciously than others, by the challenge of fostering what a number of us thought of from the start as an ecological reformation of christianity.6

I will endeavor, then, to identify some trends in this first chapter in the story of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology, assess the significance of those trends as best I can, and then call attention to some areas that require or even cry out for, further discussion and field-testing, especially in the ranks of those Lutherans, and others, who care about ecological theology and related ethical issues.  I do this with the hope that these musings will then be of some value to those who are already engaged in making contributions to the second chapter of this critically important theological movement in american Lutheranism and in the life of the church more generally.

Do note that this paper is entirely about that first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology.  This paper has six sections, all of which pertain to this first chapter, in one way or another.  The second chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology begins today, as scholars and practitioners chart their courses toward the future, presupposing their learnings from the first chapter, positive or negative.  This is an essay, in other words, that seeks to describe what was, in order to facilitate and, hopefully, to strengthen the work of those who already are involved, or who would like to be involved, in writing the second chapter of the story I am telling here.

The beginning of the first chapter of the story I have in mind, in terms of historical significance, can be precisely dated.7  In 1961, a then little known american lutheran theologian, Joseph Sittler, stepped to the podium of the World Council of Churches Assembly in New Delhi and delivered an address calling for a christology of nature.  In retrospect that address can only be considered to have been a theological tour de force (so recognized widely today, by Juergen Moltmann, for example), although at the time many members of the then reigning theological guilds appeared to have had little or no awareness of what the import of Sittler’s prophetic presentation actually was and therefore tended to downplay its significance to the point of insignificance or even derision.  Sittler’s address was published a year later, which I will take as our point of departure.8

If 1962 is a clearly fixed point at which to begin these explorations, the end point of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology is much more difficult to identify.  We meet Minerva’s owl once again.  It is not easy to make judgments about the trends in which one is immersed.  With total and perhaps entertaining arbitrariness, therefore, I will simply say this.  The end of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology is provided by the body of writings and practical ecclesial initiatives produced by a cadre of american lutheran theologians and practitioners who, as of 2012, either have died or who are in or very near retirement.  Which gives us fifty years of theological engagement which to survey in the course of these musings, a daunting task in itself.

Autobiographical Reflections: Encountering the Lutheran Mainstream

I begin with some autobiographical reflections, in order to highlight the milieu in which those of us who were interested in an ecological reformation of christianity initially worked and continued to work for some time.  Today there is widespread awareness of the extent, if not the depth, of our global ecojustice crisis.  Today is a time, more particularly, when the christian churches and their leaders around the world – Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, and ecumenical – have become highly visible advocates of ecojustice and when written works in ecological theology have proliferated virtually to the point of infinity.9

Those who live and work in this context may find it difficult even to imagine the theological situation faced by some of us who first addressed the challenge of an ecological reformation of christianity in the sixties and seventies of the last century.  We knew that something momentous was unfolding in the world around us and we felt called upon to address the then emerging crisis theologically, but most of us also felt very much alone – and without viable theological resources with which to work.

When, for example, in 1963, I first broached the possibility of doing a doctoral dissertation on the theology of nature with my then recently assigned advisor at Harvard Divinity School, Gordon Kaufman, he told me that “theologians are no longer interested in nature.”  I remember those words vividly.  Some years later, to be sure, Kaufman would do an about-face on this issue, and would become a highly vocal champion of the theology of nature.10  But his 1963 comment to me typified the theological assumptions prevalent in those years in seminaries and graduate programs in theology, as well as in the preaching and teaching of the churches at the grass roots, at least according to the anecdotal evidence that I was able to accrue.

The theology we had inherited circa 1963 was self-consciously anthropocentric or, in Karl Barth’s memorable language, “theo-anthropocentric.”  Its chief concern was God and humanity, often to the disinterest in or even to the total abandonment of the wider world of nature.11  With the exception of only a few theological projects, such as Paul Tillich’s12 or Joseph Sittler’s,13 dogmatic or systematic theology at that time was thoroughly theo-anthropocentric.14  Biblical studies, dominated by the self-consciously existential New Testament interpretation of Rudolf Bultmann and his followers, and by the over-against-nature Old Testament hermeneutics of G. Ernest Wright and the Albright school, were also generally theo-anthropocentric.  Christian ethics, whether domesticated in the form of personal, contextual ethics or more publicly responsible in the forms of the ethics of technology or politics, was likewise mainly theo-anthropocentric.

We should not forget that there were profound contextual reasons behind this trend.  It was not simply a matter, as it is sometimes portrayed, of anthropocentric arrogance, predicated perhaps on western imperialistic pretensions.  It was that in significant ways, but it was also an expression of soul-shaking revulsion against the National Socialist ideology in Germany, and the “German Christian” movement in particular.  The Nazis and their theologizing ideologues were, in their own demonic ways, champions of the theology of nature!  Their ideology of Blut und Boden presupposed a heroic, amoral fascination with nature red in tooth and claw and a social darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest.  Not for nothing, then, did Barth sound his resounding Nein to Emil Brunner’s proposal for a very modest, reconfigured “natural theology.”

That kind of theological revulsion against the Blut und Boden ideology as a matter of course also shaped the american theological world  – including, perhaps above all, the hearts and minds of Lutherans – where the story of the Confessing Church and the resistance-theology of Bonhoeffer understandably had come to preoccupy theologians and practitioners.  All this was predicated on the rejection-story of any theology even thematically associated with nature.

For a whole range of reasons, then, the larger world of nature was rarely considered in its own right in what might be called mainstream american theological circles circa 1963.  Nature was viewed mainly as the stage for human history and as the world of resources given to humans by God for the sake of human well-being and human justice.  And things did not quickly change in this respect, certainly not in the teaching in mainstream denominational seminaries and graduate schools of theology, as far as I could determine at the time, notwithstanding the fact that manifestos like Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring15 in 1962, the ecological critique of christian thought and practice by the historian Lynn White, Jr.16 in 1967, and the first, much hailed Club of Rome Report, The Limits to Growth,17 in 1972 were widely being discussed in the media and in academic circles generally.

The global cultural context had begun to change radically.  No longer was the issue before the church the challenge of nature understood in terms of Blut und Boden.  The issue was fast becoming the desecration and ongoing destruction of nature, our earthly home, primarily by the principalities and powers of western imperial aspirations.  A range of american theologians, however, a number of lutherans among them, were slow to realize that that change was underway.

Fast forward some years now to 1984, to a period when ecology had emerged as a public issue of considerable proportions.  The tenth anniversary of the first Earth Day had been celebrated in 1980.  Ecology had become a public cause celebre.  Juergen Moltmann was giving his 1984-85 Gifford Lectures, God and Creation: An Ecological Theology of Creation.18  Nineteen-eighty-four was also the year when a major, two-volume lutheran summary and synthesis of major christian teachings, Christian Dogmatics, appeared in the U.S.19  Its title suggested that it may well have been intended to provide an american lutheran alternative to Barth’s multi-volumed, reformed Church Dogmatics. Written by a number of the leading lights of american lutheran theology in that era, Carl Braaten, Gerhard Forde, Philip Hefner, Robert Jenson, Hans Schwarz, and Paul Sponheim, that massive 1190 page work was in many ways historically well-informed and systematically coherent, notwithstanding the fact that it had been forged by many hands.

The word “ecology,” however, did not appear in the index of the Christian Dogmatics.  I do not want to make too much of this bland fact (actually, I have noticed that the word ecology does appear in these volumes at least three times).  Nor do I want to exaggerate the fact that Joseph Sittler is referred to only twice and in passing.  Not every theologian of note could find a place in such a comprehensive project.  Further, themes pertaining to the world of nature did emerge here and there in those two volumes, as in Hefner’s exposition of the meaning of creation, Jenson’s description of the beauties of the creation (under the rubric of the works of the Spirit), and Schwarz’s inclusion of nature in his discussion of eschatology.

Still, coming where I had come from autobiographically, as one who had to fight to do a – critical – dissertation on Karl Barth’s theology of nature, as a student of Tillich for six years who had fallen under the spell of his nature-mysticism, as one who had developed what was to become a life-long fascination with the story and the theology of Bonhoeffer, and as one who was excited by Sittler’s 1961 New Delhi address, early on I concluded that that 1984 Christian Dogmatics was deeply indebted to the theo-anthropocentric tradition of theological reflection exemplified by Barth, and had not been fundamentally responsive to the issues raised by Sittler in 1961 and thereafter.  For sure, the Christian Dogmatics was not written, in part or in whole, in order to foment an ecological reformation of Christianity.

Such, apparently, was the shape of mainstream lutheran academic theology during the second half of the last century.  No wonder that lutherans committed to ecological theology in those days had to invest enormous energies even to be heard in official lutheran theological circles.  But numbers of lutheran theologians and practitioners did work energetically and imaginatively in the field of ecological theology during the last fifty years and did leave a legacy, I believe, which is worth reclaiming – critically, to be sure – by those Lutherans and others who now are beginning or even well into their work in this field in the twenty-first century.

The Paradigm-Shift From Theo-anthropocentrism To Theo-cosmocentrism

To take some steps toward identifying the legacy of that first chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology, 1962-2012, I now want to invoke a construct that some might find tiresome:  Thomas Kuhn’s highly valuable, in my view, but perhaps overly popularized idea of a paradigm shift.20  Beginning with Sittler’s 1961 address and followed by a range of works over the ensuing fifty years, a number of lutheran theologians and practitioners – call this a minority witness or the lutheran theological sidestream – began to take for granted a theological paradigm shift, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes consciously, from theo-anthropocentrism to theo-cosmocentrism, if I may introduce this neologism here for the sake of clarity.

What was the character of that paradigm shift, from theo-anthropocentrism to theo-cosmocentrism?  I want to identify that shift here, as clearly and as briefly as I can.  For those who thought in terms of the first, the theo-anthropocentric paradigm, the chief objects of theological reflection are God and humanity, with the natural world often identified as the stage God puts in place to make possible God’s history with humanity (Emil Brunner actually proposed this metaphor in so many words).  The accent for this paradigm also tends to be on the divine transcendence of nature, since God and humanity are the primary objects of theological reflection, with the natural world emerging into the picture only in a secondary, often instrumental fashion.  Likewise, the accent tends to be on human transcendence of the world of nature, for the same reason.

The ethos that typically accompanies this paradigm ranges from total neglect of or even scorn for the natural world (fostering theoretical or practical expressions of gnostic traditions) to emphatic and energetic commitment to the “wise use” or the “responsible stewardship” of the natural world for the sake of supporting God’s primary purposes with humanity.  This ethos is typically underwritten, in biblical terms, by the received translation of Genesis 2:15, according to which God places Adam in the garden of Eden in order “to till and to keep it.”  Human justice and ecojustice issues more generally are then worked out in the framework of this theo-anthropocentric ethos, often in terms of the construct of responsible stewardship.

For the second, the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, the chief objects of theological reflection are God and the whole created world (the latter sometimes called “nature” in the traditional, comprehensive theological sense, including therewith what in common parlance today we call “the natural world”).  The accent here tends to be on the divine immanence in nature, since God is, as it were, equally near to all things, the human creature not being privileged in this respect.  The accent here also tends to be on human immanence in nature.  Humans, according to this way of thinking, are fully and irrevocably imbedded in nature, notwithstanding the fact, variously expressed, that humans, even as they are essentially interconnected with all other creatures, nevertheless have a divinely bestowed vocation that in some sense differentiates them from all other creatures, just as all other creatures also have divinely bestowed characteristics that in some sense differentiate them from one another, in the one created world of “nature” (Joseph Sittler) or the one created earth-community (Larry Rasmussen).

The ethos given with this theo-cosmocentric paradigm is typically one that accents the kinship of all creatures and, in particular, human caring or even love for all creatures, however differentiated these creatures may be from one another.21  The language of human communion and cooperation with nature (or with the earth or the cosmos) is also sometimes used.  This ethos has come to be underwritten biblically, with increasing frequency, in terms of a fresh translation of Genesis 2:15, according to which God places Adam in the garden of Eden in order “to serve and protect it,” no longer “to till and to keep it.”  Human justice and ecojustice issues are then worked out in the framework of this theo-cosmocentric ethos.  But the enormously popular protestant construct of stewardship tends to fall to the wayside, in the context of this second paradigm, in favor of kinship categories such as caring or loving, communion or cooperation.

In a paper like this, I will not be able to delve into all the works by lutherans that show evidence of having claimed that new paradigm as their own, 1962-2012.  But I will mention several of them, and highlight two in particular:  the contributions of Sittler and, most recently, Larry Rasmussen.  I will also consider, briefly, how the two lutheran social teaching statements, to which I have already referred, also presuppose the new theo-cosmocentric paradigm, as do a variety of practical ecclesial initiatives in lutheran circles.

The Case of Joseph Sittler: The Lutheran Sidestream Comes Into View

While Joseph Sittler’s ecological theology burst upon the public theological world in 1961 and the following year when it was published, he himself had been working on such themes for some time.  Thus in a 1954 essay, “A Theology for Earth,” he identified two ways that humans had characteristically related to the world of nature in the past: (1) subsuming nature under human life and, (2) the exact opposite, subsuming human life under nature.(S 27)  In contrast, said Sittler (using the sexist language and categories many of us employed in those days), “Christian theology, obedient to the biblical account of nature, has asserted a third possible relationship:  that man ought to stand alongside nature as her cherishing brother, for she too is God’s creation and bears God’s image.” (S 28) Sittler then called attention to Psalm 104, a doxolological parallel to the Genesis 1 creation account, and – as ecological theology began to unfold as a field in its own right – a text that was to become a key biblical rallying point for many:

Here [in Psalm 104] is a holy naturalism, a matrix of grace in which all things derive significance from their origin, and all things find fulfilment in praise.  Man and nature live out their distinct but related lives in a complex that recalls the divine intention as that intention is symbolically related on the first page of the Bible.  Man is placed, you will recall, in the garden of earth.  This garden he is to tend as God’s other creation – not to use as a godless warehouse or to rape as a tyrant. (S 28f)

Sittler concluded that essay, suggestively, anticipating his 1961 New Delhi address, and even foreshadowing conclusions that have been drawn by others in recent second-chapter discussions, concerning what is now sometimes called “a deep Incarnation”:

The Incarnation has commonly received only that light which can be reflected backward upon it from Calvary.  While, to be sure, these events cannot be separated without the impoverishment of the majesty of the history of redemption, it is nevertheless proper to suggest that our theological tendency to declare them only in their concerted meaning at the point of fusion tends to disqualify us to listen to the ontological-revelational overtones of the Incarnation. (S 31 it. his)

Already in 1954, then, Sittler had put in place the scope, if not all the content, of a theology that was predicated on the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, a theology of God and the whole creation and an ethos of human kinship with nature.  Notable also was his inclination to shape that theology, not solely or even primarily or in terms of a theology of creation and its frequently, although not always, invoked stewardship ethic, but primarily in terms of a christological vision.  This christological focal point would then allow him, with texts like Philippians 2:5ff. in mind, along side of Colossians 1:15ff., to envision an ethos of service to nature, framed by the vision of the servanthood of Christ.

Lifting up the claims of Colossians 1:15ff., in particular, then, Sittler forcefully set in place the theo-cosmocentric paradigm in his 1961 New Delhi address, with a vivid picture of what was to become his signature christological vision:

A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.  For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his home, his definitive place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor and in caring relationship with nature, his sister. (S 40)

In Sittler’s view, christians in the modern period lost the power of this robust faith in cosmic redemption, because they allowed the Enlightenment worldview to reign unchallenged.  “A bit of God died,” he said, “with each new natural conquest.” (S 43) The claims of human autonomy ruled the day.  The realm of grace retreated.

But the reign of human autonomy, in this respect, according to Sittler, has left us and our world bankrupt.  The relationship of humanity with its God-given home, nature, is now in profound crisis in every culture around the globe.  So, Sittler concluded, presciently, drawing on imagery from Colossians,  “the root-pathos of our time is the struggle by the peoples of the world in many and various ways to find some principle, order, or power which shall be strong enough to contain the raging ‘…thrones, dominions, principalities’ which restrict and ravage human life.” (S 45)

In this situation of global crisis, Sittler then announced that for Christians “the way forward is from christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.” (S 48) Hence Christians, in Sittler’s view, should not be driven, first and foremost, by the thought of our global crisis, but rather by the reality of God’s grace, established cosmically in Jesus Christ, according to the witness of the Bible as a whole, of which the vision of Colossians 1:15ff. is but one stellar example, in Sittler’s view:

For it was said in the beginning that God beheld all things and declared them good, so it was uttered by an angel in the apocalypse of John, ‘…ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God:  and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, saying, Hurt not the earth neither the sea, nor the trees…’ (Revelation 7:2-3 KJV)  The care of the earth, the realm of nature as a theater of grace, the ordering of the thick material procedures that make available to or deprive men of bread and peace – these are christological obediences before they are practical necessities. (S 48)

Nine years later, in 1970, in an essay entitled “Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” (S 76-86) Sittler drew out implications of this vision for the christian ethos.  To this end, he forcefully announced the theme “the integrity of nature,” one of the bedrock notions of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.  Sittler did this in response to Jesus’ saying, as Sittler believed it should have been translated, not “Consider,” but “Behold the lilies of the field.” (Matthew 6:28):

The word “behold” lies upon that which is beheld with a kind of tenderness which suggests that things in themselves have their own wondrous authenticity and integrity.  I am called upon in such a saying not simply to ‘look’ at a nonself but to ‘regard’ things with a kind of spiritual honoring of the immaculate integrity of things which are not myself. (S 80) 

Sittler argued that “this way of regarding things is an issue that the religious community must attend to before it gets to the more obvious moral, much less the procedural and pedagogical problems.” (S 80) This means, he says, bringing into question the notion that humans in their historical experience and in their selfhood as individuals are so set apart from the rest of God’s creation that they can deal with it in olympian arrogance.  We are in fact siblings of the whole creation, he concludes, and called therefore to care for the creation.  Which means, finally, in Sittler’s view, “that ecology, that is, the actuality of the relational as constitutive of all our lives, is the only theater vast enough for a modern playing out of the doctrine of grace.” (S 85)

Sittler would then develop this core of theological reflections in a variety of directions in ensuing years.  The literature on his work is thankfully growing.22  But this overview of his thought is sufficient here, in order to show how creatively and how vibrantly he claimed the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as his own, as early as 1954 and then with his grand public statement in 1961 and in his 1970 article.

Others In The Lutheran Sidestream

Before I conclude this portion of my discussion with a review of Larry Rasmussen’s thought, however, I want to mention in passing several other theologians who, in my view, also made contributions to the first chapter of the american lutheran engagement with ecological theology and whose works, more particularly, show, I believe, that their authors also had – consciously or unconsciously – presupposed the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as their own.  Further research and reflection about this theme may indeed show that many others – biblical scholars, ethicists, and practitioners, as well teachers and historians of doctrine – along with those who I am citing here, also had adopted the same kind of thinking.

But the short list I have chosen at this point should suggest at least this much:  that adoption of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm was a visible and viable trend, albeit not the dominant trend, in lutheran life and thought during the last fifty years.  Moving with the currents shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, in other words, was not just the hallmark practice of two widely known theologians, Sittler and Rasmussen, but of many others.  I will also highlight, in this connection, two major lutheran social teaching statements from this period and other practical ecclesial initiatives, since they also show the breadth of lutheran theological commitment in these years to what I have been calling the ecological reformation of Christianity.

The lutheran theologians I have in mind at this point, in addition to Sittler and then Rasmussen, have worked in many, sometimes overlapping fields, but all are, to various degrees, dependent on the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.  Philip Hefner23 has focused much energies on explorations in theological anthropology, particularly as that field intersects at many points with the findings of the natural sciences, above all in his 1993 study, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion.24  Hefner understands human beings to be thoroughly immersed in nature, especially in its evolutionary history, although distinct from other creatures in important ways.  For Hefner, even though his chief interest is in the human being as created, co-creator, the primary objects of theological reflection are thus God and the cosmos, which is understood to be an intricately interconnected, ecological whole.25  Behind all this, for Hefner, is the biblical vision of God’s history with nature, announced in scripture by the story of God’s covenant with Noah and by the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.26  Seen from any angle, then, Hefner’s thought is fundamentally shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.

Ted Peters has likewise been extensively interested in the interface – for him, the “consonance” – between science and theology.  In this context, he, like Hefner, as a matter of course developed a keen interest in ecological theology and environmental justice over the years.  He publicly entered the discussion of the environmental crisis in 1980 with theological themes that he would later bring to completion in a number of major works:  his vision of the eschatological fulcrum of theology, his view of God’s consummating future as encompassing the whole of cosmic history, not just human history, his understanding of the church’s vocation as a proleptic community, called to embody the cosmic promise of God’s future, here and now, insofar as that is possible in a broken world, and his eagerness to engage secular thought, both in its popular and its most sophisticated expressions.27

By 1992, Peters’ theological eschatology had come into full view, as what is perhaps his most important work, God – the World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era, shows.28  Peters’ vision of God, from beginning to ending, comprehends the whole cosmos and, above all, the cosmos’ eschatological future, not just God’s history with humankind.  God creates and brings all things to fulfillment from that future.  God also initiates the consummation of the whole creation by sending Jesus Christ to the here and now, says Peters.  Jesus is thus the first embodiment or the prolepsis of the eschatological Peaceable Kingdom.  Through Jesus, in turn, in Peters’ view, God then calls together a community of the end-times to love the lost and to care for nature.29  At its most fundamental level, then, Peters’s thought presupposes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, eschatologically elucidated, to be sure.

Terence Freitheim has been one of several biblical scholars in the ecumenical community who have fostered a figure-ground reversal in Old Testament studies in recent years.30  For this new reading of the Old Testament, the theology of creation, in general, and the theology of nature, more particularly, is now the primary framework for biblical interpretation, rather than the theology of human redemption, as it was for the preceding generation of biblical scholars, such as the aforementioned work of G. Ernest Wright.  Freitheim’s magisterial 2005 study, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation,31 indicates the fruitfulness of a biblical scholarship that presupposes, consciously or unconsciously, the paradigm of theo-cosmocentrism.  Fretheim shows, again and again, how the theologies woven into the Old Testament understand creation as one world, with which God has a history, and not as some alleged stage for God’s history with humankind.  More particularly, Fretheim documents how Genesis 1:26-28, the notorious dominion text, is not to be read as an excuse for domination, as that construct is often understood, and how Genesis 2:15 is rightly to be read in terms of Adam’s serving and protecting the earth.32  Fretheim’s exegetical investigations thus, in effect, read the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as a fundamental datum of Old Testament theology.

In liturgical studies, a field that has often been self-consciously theo-anthropocentric in character, Gordon Lathrop has interpreted the classical christian liturgy as deeply embedded in God’s good earth and indeed in the whole cosmos of God, both in the liturgy’s various current formations and as profoundly shaped by eschatological hope.  Lathrop’s pioneering 2003 study, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology,33 shows how the formative ritual of the christian community is developed not only as embedded in the earth and in the greater cosmos, but as a praxis that shapes the christian life to be a life of caring for the whole creation, not just for other humans.  To this end, Lathrop emphasizes the liturgy as rooted in local, natural places and as maximizing gratitude for the material gifts of God, such as water.  Lathrop’s work is also noteworthy because it is shaped throughout by a theology of the cross, interpreted suggestively in terms of the earth and the cosmos.  Lathrop’s achievement is perhaps all the more remarkable, because he takes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as a datum, which, for him, requires no defense, as the subtitle of his major work, “a Liturgical Cosmology,” indicates.

I mention, lastly, at the end of this listing, my own work in historical studies in the theology of nature, particularly my 2000 outline of classical christian attitudes toward nature, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology.34  I followed a method of motif-research in that work, and identified two major motifs in the history of christian thought about nature, the spiritual and the ecological (or what I elsewhere called the theology of ascent and the theology of descent).  Those motifs are more or less expressions of the two paradigms that I am discussing in this paper, the theo-anthropocentric and the theo-cosmocentric.  This method allowed me to adduce and to discuss a number of representative classical theologians,35 whose thought was shaped by the ecological motif.  Ireneaus, the later Augustine, St. Francis, and Luther and Calvin, can helpfully serve, I argued, as conversation partners with those working in the field of ecological theology today.  From this perspective, ecological theology in our era is not something totally new under the sun in the history of christian thought.  Something like the theo-cosmocentric paradigm has been presupposed by a major christian theological trajectory since the second century.

Practical Ministries In The Lutheran Sidestream – Now Mainstreamed?

While such a list of theologians, in addition to Sittler and, presently, Rasmussen, shows that the lutheran sidestream of ecological theology is a historical trend of note during the last fifty years in the U.S. – that this theological sidestream had, as it were, its own kind of discernable and moving currents – there were also more mainstream expressions of ecological theology in lutheran life and thought during the same period, readily visible, I believe, for all who have eyes to see.  First I want to call attention to two lutheran social teaching statements and the supporting theological interpretation of the first.36

The 1972 statement by the Lutheran Church in America was called “The Human Crisis in Ecology,” as was the theological guidebook that was circulated church-wide with the statement during the approval process.37  Of special interest for my purposes here is the central theological chapter of the guidebook, “The World as Community.”  Not only did that chapter speak of God and the whole creation, nature included, as a community, it also highlighted what it called “the integrity of nature.”38  Moreover, both the guidebook and the statement itself favored the language of caring, rather than stewardship language (that term was used once in the statement) in their references to the human-nature relationship when it is as it should be.  Both the guide and the statement also stressed the importance of social justice in response to all ecological concerns.39

The 1993 social teaching statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice,” was, in my judgment, a much sharper and richer document.40  Its biblical foundations were more clearly identified and its analysis of the then current crisis was much more extensive.  Its ethical discourse was at once much more comprehensive and much more sophisticated.  But like the 1972 statement and guide, the 1993 statement also projected a vision of God’s universal history with the whole creation, of the human creature as immersed essentially in that history and embedded in nature, and of human caring for nature – not stewardship over nature (this terminology does not appear in the1993 statement) – as the proper theological framework for interpreting what the human relationship with nature is intended by God to be.  The ethic toward nature that the statement recommended was also global and focused on the just claims of the poor and the oppressed around the world.  And it affirmed nature’s own standing as a participant in God’s history with the whole creation.

In retrospect, in my judgment, both the1972 statement and guide, and the 1993 statement were paradigmatically shaped by theo-cosmocentric assumptions.  Accordingly, the ethos proposed in both cases was predicated on kinship imagery, rather than on management imagery.  And social justice imperatives were remarkably well-integrated into both the substance and the recommendations in both 1972 and 1993.  How much, however, these materials, widely circulated in lutheran circles as they were, led to appropriate behavioral changes in grassroots lutheran communities or to organized ecclesial pressure in behalf of substantive theological, liturgical, social, and political change for the better in public arenas is an entirely different matter.  But better to have tried and perhaps to have failed, than not to have tried at all.

It did appear to me at the time, and it still appears to me, that the theological impetus that produced these social teaching statements and that first supporting theological document was sustained and developed, along the way, by a number of grassroots theological initiatives in lutheran circles.  I have in mind especially the emergence of the website “The Web of Creation,” sparked by the New Testament scholar, David Rhoads, and the Lutherans Restoring Creation movement, also fostered by Rhoads, a venture that championed the establishment of “Green Congregations,” “Green Synods,” and “Green Seminaries” in the world of american Lutheranism, all in conjunction with a variety of programs and groups focused on ecological issues in lutheran colleges, universities, and campus ministries.  From this movement, moreover, again at Rhoads’ initiative, also arose a proposal for an experimental liturgical lectionary, for a portion of the church year, focusing on ecological theology and ecojustice issues.41  Rhoads edited a volume of “Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet,” too.42

Not to be overlooked, either, has been the marked impact the social teaching statements have had in the context of lutheran liturgical life.  As a longstanding “consumer” of such services in those years, I often recognized the language and the theology mandated by the social teaching statements in a variety of church publications intended for parish clergy.  The prayers made available to congregations through the lutheran bulletin-service, “Celebrate,” regularly included thoughtful references to nature and ecojustice concerns during in this period.  Likewise for suggested eucharistic prayers in the new 2006 hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, along with a number of new hymns that reflected creation and ecojustice themes.43

The church-wide adoption of those social teaching statements and the implicit sanctioning of the accompanying theological document of the first, along with the ensuing church-wide practical initiatives, some of which I have catalogued here, were not, I believe, a result of some popular fancy, a thought that I have heard from critics over the years.  Did all this happen on the basis of a cultural frenzy that came to expression in Earth Day celebrations in those years, which then flowed over into the life of the church, particularly into the world of the laity, prompting them to call on their churches to address ecological issues?  Yes – and no.  The enthusiasm for “environmental issues” generated by the widespread cultural impact of trends collectively known as the Ecology Movement in the U.S. surely prepared the way for the church-wide actions in 1972 and 1993 and for ensuing practical ecclesial initiatives.  But the church-wide support for those statements would not have happened, I am convinced, on the basis of extensive anecdotal evidence, without the practical support of a widespread church ministry that flourished in those years in lutheran circles, the outdoor ministry movement.

I like to think of that movement as an alternative system of theological education in that era of american lutheran history.  In those years, scores of “church camps” flourished and served large, even huge, numbers of laity of many ages and many clergy as well, in every corner of the lutheran church in the U.S.  While there were undoubtedly numerous false starts in those settings, theologically speaking, for example a certain overly-innocent cozying up to Native American traditions or a facile romanticizing of nature, especially wild nature, in a Thoreauvian mode, serious theological reflection about nature and the global ecojustice crisis was also underway in many of those outdoor ministries during the last fifty years, sometimes self-directed, sometimes dependent on published works that could, willy nilly, be plucked from the Lutheran ecological sidestream that I have been discussing.44

Prima inter pares, perhaps, among all the lutheran outdoor ministries in this era, from the perspective of ecological theology, was Holden Village in Washington state.  A former mining town (with much polluted soil), nestled deep in the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains, Holden Village has fostered serious theological engagement with ecological issues for many years and has, thereby, been a source of theological renewal for many lutherans all over the U.S., above all in ecological theology.  There, significantly, theological specialists such as Larry Rasmussen and a wide variety of grass roots church leaders, experienced in the struggles for ecojustice, have been teachers, off and on, for many years.

In my judgment, which I cannot document at this point, the often-unheralded work of countless lutheran outdoor ministries, like Holden Village, prepared the theological way in the lutheran churches in America for the popular church-wide adoption of the aforementioned 1972 and 1993 social teaching statements and the 1972 supporting theological document, and for serious-minded follow-up initiatives such as Lutherans Restoring Creation.  In this practical respect, if not in others in the last fifty years, lutheran theological engagement with ecological theology appears to have been mainstreamed.

The Case of Larry Rasmussen:  New Currents in the Lutheran Sidestream

Larry Rasmussen, alongside Sittler, is the second and the last theologian I want to feature here in my discussion of the first chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological issues.  I read Rasmussen as a lutheran theologian-ethicist, notwithstanding the fact that he has written publicly as an “ethical monotheist.”45  In my view, all along he has presupposed the kind of rejuvenated lutheran faith and praxis proposed by Bonhoeffer’s “secret discipline of faith” and Bonhoeffer’s view of “a world come of age.” 46

Not for nothing does the theology of the cross emerge organically in the flow of Rasmussen’s exposition in his major, prize-winning 1997 study, Earth Community Earth Ethics.47  Not for nothing, as well, did he chose to write from the context of communities of creative ecojustice formation, especially those, such as a variety of christian communities, which have considered themselves to have been eschatologically shaped by the biblical vison of the coming Peaceable Kingdom, announced by Jesus.  Not for nothing, likewise, has Rasmussen celebrated Luther’s often misunderstood vision of the divine immanence, of God “in, with, and under” the whole cosmos.  For Rasmussen, above all, in historic lutheran fashion, everything depends on grace, and then faith.48  Everything, in Rasmussen’s view, particularly the biophysical matrix in which we all live and which lives in us, is a divine gift.  Everything, in this sense, for Rasmussen is sacramental.  On the other hand, Rasmussen gives shape to that vision not in the familiar and evocative christological terms of a Joseph Sittler, but with his own, to me, compelling pneumatalogical and sacramental musings, terms that some Lutherans might, perhaps ironically, find to be new and therefore not immediately accessible.49     It is of particular interest to me in this context, that one of the frequent criticisms that was directed against the works of Joseph Sittler was that, in a sense, he quoted poetry too much, and that he did not identify the foundations of his theological argument with sufficient clarity.  Could it be the case that there is something about thinking under the influence of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm that requires us to plumb meanings from the arts and the sciences, as well as from the normative theological tradition?  Still, in my view, Rasmussen moves freely within that lutheran theological sidestream that I have been highlighting, presupposing throughout in his writings the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.50

Rasmussen’s thought can be approached from many different angles, as a recent Festschrift in his honor revealed.51  I will concentrate here on those elements of his theology which disclose his particular expression of paradigmatic theo-cosmocentrism.  All that Rasmussen writes in Earth depends on his analysis of the current global ecojustice crisis, which he describes vividly in cultural, social, and scientific terms, yet with an underlying theological cantus firmus.  His search, he says, is “for an earth cosmology and an earth ethic, carried out in the recognition that nature and earth compose a single community.  Whether we like it or not, it’s life together now or not at all.  Earth faith and earth community – this is humanity’s next journey.” (R19) Rasmussen insists that we are concerned here with one community, indeed, “not of culture and nature, or history and nature, but of culture and history in and as nature.” (R32) This is the kind of vision of the one created world that the theo-cosmocentric paradigm fosters.52 This is the vision of the one created world, which as a whole has its own integrity and each part of which also has its only integrity. (R98)

Rasmussen develops his argument in Earth with a kind of inductive sensibility, rather than beginning, say, as Sittler did, by exploring and explicating the meaning of key christian symbols. Rasmussen’s point of departure is the world as all can in principle know it, seen globally and through the eyes of numerous cultures.  This is the global context in which the theological cantus firmus can be heard, he believes.  People of all cultures cannot resist speaking of religious concerns, and dreaming dreams and seeing visions.  “Whatever the wishes of the cultured despisers of religion,” Rasmussen comments, “as a species we yearn to see things whole and sacred.  We insist on telling a cosmic narrative and locating ourselves somewhere in it.” (R178)

In this global religious context, in Rasmussen’s view, “the peoples of the Book,” Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, hewed a bold line from the beginning that Rasmussen wants to commend, “a certain focus and concentration on community and social justice as a God-given vocation.” (R183) Rasmussen thus wants to commend these particular religious traditions, which have kept faith and justice-ethics in the closest possible relationship.  But not at the expense of a vibrant faith itself.  So he argues that “an evolutionary sacramentalist cosmology offers the richest conceptual resources for addressing earth’s distress,” on the one hand, but that that cosmology must be “infused with a profound earth asceticism and married to prophetic efforts aimed at ‘the liberation of life: from the cell to the community’ [Charles Birch, John Cobb],” on the other. (R247)

Seamlessly, then, Rasmussen moves from his general discussion of the human need for a cosmic narrative, which need religions address, and from his commendation of religions of the book, in particular, for their accent on communities of social justice, to explore the ambiguities and the promise of the christian tradition more particularly.  First, regarding the ambiguities of the christian tradition:  Rasmussen presents a nuanced critique of the classical christian accent on contempt for the world (contemptus mundi).  Yes, wealthy Christians, in particular, must be overcome by a new ascetic spirit, he says.  But all too often, in Rasmussen’s view, the attitude of contempt has more generally paved the way for rapacious patterns of hostility against the poor, women, and the whole earth, as well.  Even in our own era, he says,  “neither existentialism, neoorthodoxy, liberalism, common church practice, nor society at large in the North Atlantic world has a cosmology worthy of the name in many influential circles.”(R191)

In this connection, Rasmussen mounts an extensive and insightful critique of the familiar american christian fascination with stewardship.(R230ff.).  He illustrates these dynamics with a revealing account of his own efforts, which ultimately failed, to influence the 1991 Canberra meeting of the World Council of Churches to move beyond stewardship theology. (R227f.)  Such a theology, in Rasmussen’s view, will inevitably prove itself to have been counter-productive.  It all too easily goes with the flow of our freewheeling industrial society.  On the contrary, he believes, what is needed now is for christians, and adherents of other religions and ways of life, too, to claim or reclaim “those symbols that effect a ‘reenchantment of the world’ [Max Weber] that edges out the deadly cosmology of mindless and valueless nature worked over by ghostly human freedom in all too much of modernity.” (R194)

What can a christian faith – or the faith of many “christianities,” as Rasmussen prefers to say – do to respond to this situation which requires a new and enchanted global cosmology, which can heal the earth and transform the christian life?  Something radically new is required, Rasmussen announces, as he quotes the cry of the Korean theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung, on the floor at the Canberra meeting, with reference to the then emerging voices of the so-called Two-Thirds World: “We are new wine.  You will not put us in old wineskins.” (R233) Rasmussen then tries to suggest some directions, perhaps not yet fully developed proposals, for further theological reflection.

To this end, he reaches deeply into the currents of the lutheran tradition, as an exercise in critical, but creative theological ressourcement.  He explores Luther’s rich theological immanentalism, in particular.  Luther presents us, in Rasmussen’s view, with a cosmos – not just human history – charged with the presence of God.(R272f.)  The whole cosmos is God’s, intimately, powerfully, and pervasively, in Luther’s view.  Luther further accents the solidarity of humankind with otherkind, with the animals, in particular.  Tutored by Luther, in a word, the universe can once again be enchanted for us.  And we can care for nature in solidarity with all the creatures of nature.  This is Rasmussen, in his own voice now, summarizing that aspect of Luther’s vision:

[Luther’s] finitum capax infiniti – the finite bears the infinite – is grassroots earth theology.  It is earthbound and limited.  That is God’s way, among us.  The body, nature, is the end of God’s path.  God is not a separate item, even a very large one, on an inventory of the universe, but the universe itself is God’s “body”….  God is not totally encompassed by the creaturely, but the creaturely is the one and only place we know the divine fullness in the manner appropriate to our own fullness.  Experiencing the gracious God means, then, falling in love with earth and sticking around, staying home, imagining God in the way we can as the kind of creatures we are.  The only viable earth faith is thus a biospiritual one.  Earth ethics is a matter of turning and returning to our senses.  The totality of nature is the theater of grace.  The love of God, like any genuine love, is tactile. (R280f.)53

The second major theme from Luther’s theology that Rasmussen commends to us to consider as we seek to identify a new cosmology appropriate to our own times of global crisis is Luther’s passionately affirmed theology of the cross. (R282f) This means for Rasmussen, to begin with, drawing on Luther’s own images, that This Jesus is wholly of earth.  He is not a fleeting docetic visitor, nor a ghostly bearer of gnostic truth, but really mortal flesh and blood from the countryside.  Joseph tickles his bare belly button and covers his bare bottom; Mary puts his hungry mouth to her bare breast. (R283)

It also means, for Rasmussen, a dual reference, to the universe as whole and to the meaning of this one particular person, Jesus:

Yes, God is the ultimate life-source of the entire universe, its creator, sustainer, redeemer; and this God is disclosed in the cosmos as a whole.  But, in the manner appropriate to human experience and knowing, this life-source is disclosed most compellingly in Jesus.  This Jesus is the incandescence of God in human form. (R282)

And this Jesus, born in and of the earth, is then made known by the formation of a people whose mission is to display redeemed creation as a just community.  “Such is the pattern for both the formation of Israel and the ‘People of the Way’ of Jesus (Acts 4:32-35),” Rasmussen explains.  “This is Luther’s argument for Jesus as the masked clue to the revelation of the Ineffable One.  A humanly experienced historical event opens onto an apprehension of all reality.” (R283)

But Rasmussen believes that perhaps Luther’s most profound contribution to aid us in our quest for a new and vital cosmology is Luther’s sometimes misunderstood view of the suffering of Christ.  “What is discovered via Jesus,” Rasmussen says of Luther’s perspective, “is this: only that which has undergone all can overcome all.  In this sense, cross and resurrection ethics is an utterly practical necessity.  Suffering, in its many expressions among its many creatures, will not be redemptively addressed apart from some manner and degree of angry, compassionate entry into its reality, some empowerment from the inside out, some experience of suffering as both a burden and a burden to be thrown off, some deep awareness of it as unhealed but not unhealable. (R286)

Rasmussen observes that lutheran cross and resurrection theology is thus curiously optimistic.  It has seen the worst and discovered a mighty power for life.  And this leads to a profound ethic of compassion and solidarity that “seeks out the places of oppressive suffering in order to overcome suffering’s demonic, or disintegrative, manifestations….  Its quest is not for victims but for the empowerment needed to negate the negations that generate victims….  It insists that environmental justice is also social justice and that all efforts to save the planet begin with hearing the cry of the people and the cry of the earth together.” (R291)

     Rasmussen has many other things to say in explicating his vision of an earth ethics for a earth community, both in Earth and in his other writings.  But we have seen enough at this point to permit this judgment, that this lutheran theologian and ethicist has dreamed dreams and seen visions of God and the whole creation, surely not just God and human history, in a way that makes it possible for us to see, if we are so inclined, the whole world as reenchanted with the presence of God and also God’s incandescent and compassionate self-disclosure in that person of the earth, Jesus and his cross, with Jesus thus pioneering the way of suffering love for the whole creation as it groans in travail.  In that vision, in Rasmussen’s terms, we may also see an ethos of deep caring for every creature transfigured into the struggles of justice, again, for every creature, especially for those who suffer and are oppressed, a struggle to be claimed by that community of ecojustice that has received the name of that very Jesus for the sake of the whole world.

Lutheran Engagement with Ecological Theology, 1962-2012, in Retrospect

     May I say at this point that this lutheran sidestream that we have been considering has indeed strong currents?  From 1962 to 2012, lutheran engagement with ecological theology has proven to be commensurate with the scope of a world in crisis and with the challenge of fostering an ecological reformation of christianity because, in varying ways, it has presupposed the theological paradigm of theo-cosmocentrism.  This has been particularly true of the contributions of Joseph Sittler and Larry Rasmussen.  But others have played vital roles in this respect, too, as have church-wide social teaching statements and other practical ministries.  But today is the ending of that first chapter, I am suggesting in this paper.  What are we to make of that first chapter in retrospect, then, insofar as we can manage to find some critical distance to allow us at least to raise some questions?  Should this beginning have a future?  And if so, what should it be?

     One question immediately come to mind.  This has to do with a certain pronounced theological diversity, even within this lutheran sidestream.  Each figure I have considered has moved within the currents of ecological theology.  But each has also had his own characteristic sense of direction, sometimes sharply different from the others:   christology (Sittler), anthropology (Hefner), eschatology (Peters), biblical studies (Fretheim), liturgical studies (Lathrop), historical studies (myself), and ethics (Rasmussen).   And those engaged in the practical initiatives I have touched on in this paper on occasion, if not always, have seemed to speak with many tongues, too. How will those who are now writing or who will hopefully soon be writing the second chapter of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology respond to what might seem to be, in some respects, that theological glossolalia of chapter one?  Might it be possible to have a more unified lutheran voice – perhaps even a systematic lutheran voice – addressing all these issues?  On the other hand, perhaps the problem is that the diversity has not been great enough.

     This question points to the challenge of hearing other voices, as the second chapter is being written.  The figures I have discussed in this paper, you will have noticed, all are men.  Yes, they all have been sensitive to a variety of issues that transcend their social location.  But this situation must change.  And, as a matter of fact, as the second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology is now being written, that situation apparently is changing, whether fast enough and extensively enough, however, is another question.  How far away is the day when we all will be able to join in public accolades for a lutheran Rosemary Radford Ruether, a lutheran Sallie McFague, or a lutheran Elizabeth Johnson?

     Related to this issue is the question of contributions to ecological theology, both academically and practically, from global lutheran communities.  The figures I have discussed in this paper all are relatively affluent american academics.  How are we american lutherans to hear other lutheran voices – not to speak of ecumenical voices and the testimonies of other religious traditions – from the front lines of the global churches, addressing ecological issues?  I remain enchanted, in this respect, with the fruits of Larry Rasmussen’s sabbatical adventure of a few years ago, when he visited grass-roots, ecologically engaged christian communities in Zimbabwe, Scotland, Alaska, and the Philippines.

     Perhaps a single revealing case for us all to ponder in this respect is the situation of the lutheran congregation in Shrishmaref, Alaska.  These are lutherans who belong to a people which has lived in that area for countless generations.  But now their ancestral home is about to be washed away by rising waters driven by global warming.  Their voices and others like theirs must be heard and given a place in the unfolding second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology.  That process, it seems to me, is already underway.  But can it be sustained and expanded?

     Is it time, in this respect, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to begin working on a new social teaching statement in the context of this our global emergency and our world of incredibly rich cultural and religious diversity?  Hopefully such a statement would clearly address, in particular, what Rasmussen has called environmental apartheid, at home as well as abroad.  This convocation, with its focus on sustainability issues, which are global issues and which are local issues, which are everyone’s issues, certainly seems to be a critical moment in the writing of the second chapter to which I have been referring.  Perhaps this gathering could give impetus to the birthing of a new kind of church-wide deliberation about ecological and ecojustice issues.

    Finally, from the global to the parochial, a personal plea for renewed attention, as the second chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology is being written, to historical investigations in the theology of nature, both studies of scripture and post-biblical christian traditions.54  We do not want to stumble, due to lack of knowledge, into the pitfalls of the christian past.  Nor do we want to overlook the riches of the christian past.  We need all the help we can get.

Epilogue: From Lutheran Minimalism to Lutheran Maximalism in a Time of Global Crisis

     Which brings me at the very end to a single historical issue that must be addressed, in my view, if the lutheran ecological sidestream I have been discussing in this paper is ever to be fully mainstreamed, and thus be in a position to impact the crisis of our times head on, as Luther impacted the crisis of his times head on.  This, then, is my question, at the end of these explorations.  Are lutheran theologians and practitioners fully equipped today to foment – or to keep fomenting – an ecological reformation of Christianity and to do so with a sense of urgency?

     This is how I propose to respond to this question briefly, by raising another.  I know that the following question may sound regressive or parochial or even quaint to some, but I believe that it goes to the heart of the matter for those who approach ecological theology as lutherans in these times.  How do we Lutherans read Luther?  I have explored this question at length in other settings.55  Here I simply want to outline an answer and then sharpen it, in conclusion.

     There are minimalist and a maximalist readings of Luther.  The first, in all likelihood, if not inevitably, makes it all too easy for lutherans to think primarily in terms of the theo-anthropocentric paradigm.  The second, in all likelihood, if not inevitably, makes it easy for lutherans to think in terms of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm.

     This is lutheran minimalism. You focus on those theological constructs that drove Luther’s reforming zeal at the outset:  faith over against works; justification over against sanctification; the theology of the cross over against the theology of glory; the hearing of faith over against the seeing of speculation; the revealed God in word and sacraments over against the God contemplated in nature; the hidden God over against the God who is encountered in, with, and under all things; the Christ who is given for me over against the Christ who is given for the world; the Spirit of God who calls me to faith over against the Spirit of God who hovers creatively over the whole cosmos; and the book of scripture over against the book of nature.  To that end, you will turn again and again to engage the Luther who wrestled with Romans 1:17ff. and who wrote the Heidelberg Disputation.  Lutheran minimalism clings passionately to those moments in Luther’s life and thought that were his breakthrough moments to the reassuring and powerful and liberating gospel of the forgiveness of sins.

     If that is how you read Luther, mainly in terms of his breakthrough moments, then, it seems self-evident to me, your own theology and spirituality and discipleship will in all likelihood, if not inevitably, end up being thoroughly shaped by the theo-anthropocentric paradigm.  Because all those existentially traumatic and spiritually powerful breakthrough moments have to do with God and you. Or, more generally: with God and humanity.  Accordingly, you will receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as given for you.

     And in the spirit of Luther, perhaps one of the greatest polemicists in the history of christian theology, you may be moved to take your stand against anyone who says, in a manner Kierkegaard would also have abhorred, both/and.  No, you cannot have it both ways, both faith and works; both cross and glory; both hearing and seeing; both word/sacrament and creation; both the book of scripture and the book of nature; both the Spirit who brings Christ to you and the Spirit who brings Christ to the whole cosmos.  You must have it the one lutheran way, so-called.  That is the spirit of lutheran minimalism in its most contentious form.

     On the other hand, would it not be possible to be a lutheran maximalist?  To begin with, you would, of course, affirm those lutheran breakthrough moments and never for a moment let them slip through your hands.  But you would also explore the paradoxical promise of having it both ways:  faith and works; justification and sanctification; the theology of the cross and a theology of eschatological glory; the hearing of faith and the seeing of inspired contemplation; the revealed God in word and sacraments and the God encountered in, with, and under nature; the immediately present Christ, given for me, in word and sacrament, and the immediately present Christ in all things, given for the whole world; the Spirit of God who calls me to faith and the Spirit of God who hovers creatively over the whole creation; and the book of scripture and the book of nature.

     And you would read and ponder not only Luther’s commentary on Romans 1:17ff., but also his thoughts about one of his other favorite texts, Ephesians 4:10, pertaining to Christ: “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.”56  You would, likewise, read not only Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, but also his sacramental reflections about God, in, with, and under all things, in his conversations with Zwingli, and his commentary on John 1, concerning the cosmic Christ, and on Genesis 1 and 2 about God’s gracious giving in the whole creation and God’s gift of solidarity with the animals to Adam in Genesis 2.  You would understand the gospel not just as the forgiveness of sins, but, in Luther’s own words in the Small Catechism, as the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  You would receive the bread and wine in the Eucharist as given for you and for the world.

     Lutheran theological maximalism thus provides us with a way of thinking that can readily be shaped by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, which comprehends all things (ta panta).  From this angle of vision, everything counts, not just God and humanity, certainly not just God and me.  Embracing this theological maximalism will allow us, in turn, even encourage us, I believe, to find new and more forceful ways to address the distress of a creation groaning in travail, whether it be a polluted wetland, a low income neighborhood where people of color live, whose children have inordinately high asthma rates, the unprecedented extremes of weather in coastal or wilderness areas, or the ultimate demise of our universe as it accelerates itself toward a colossal heat-death.  And lutheran theological maximalism, shaped, again, by the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as it readily can be, offers us the impetus we need, I also believe, rightly to celebrate the goodness of the whole creation, the miracles of a grain of wheat, the wonders of a child’s caress, the glories of coastal and wilderness vistas, and the infinite mysteries of the resplendent heavens above and all around us.57

     This is not to suggest that lutheran theological maximalism is the whole gospel truth for our times.  We Lutherans still have much theological work and much deep soul-searching to do with our two kingdoms ethical heritage, for example.  All the more so, time may not be on our side, if our modus operandi continues to be the often cautious and sometimes self-protecting processes of our scholarly discourse, the measured social teaching statements we produce, after three years of study and hearings, and the modest congregational mission initiatives to which many of us have grown accustomed.

     Let’s assume, then, that that theological maximalism is what we Lutherans need, at this the end of the first chapter of lutheran engagement with ecological theology.  The following question still is unescapable: is not the time – the kairos – at hand, perhaps as it never has been before, to translate that theological maximalism into public theological praxis and to do that with all the spiritual passion and moral urgency that our times require?58  Given the global emergency of the ecojustice crisis that we face today, enormously more pronounced than it was fifty years ago, when some of us first began to explore what an ecological reformation of Christianity might mean, must not we Lutherans now reclaim not only the full breadth of Luther’s theology, as lutheran maximalists, but also the apocalyptic sensibility which drove Luther’s reforming zeal?

     Luther was willing to confront Pope and Emperor in the name of the gospel truth.  He was willing to sacrifice all that had hitherto been of existential import to him in the furtherance of that cause.  Is not the time at hand for those of us who treasure lutheran theology, now in its maximalist expressions, to confront the principalities and powers of our own world with the same kind of apocalyptic intensity?  Has this not become for us a time of passionate public witness and resolute communal action, a status confession is, as Luther’s time was for him?59

1   A paper prepared for the Convocation of the Association of Teaching Theologians, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, at Columbus, Ohio, August 13-15, 2012.  The proceedings of the Convocation are to be published by Lutheran Universtiy Press, Minneapolis.

2   One of the best recent attempts to do this is Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

3   The focus on lutheran engagement with ecological theology in this paper is by no means intended to suggest, even implicitly, that Lutherans were the only ones during this period who were so engaged.  The development of ecological theology as a whole, from its very beginnings, was ecumenical in character.  Lutherans and Presbyterians, for example, worked closely together, from time to time, to identify an approach to this challenge.  The Presbyterians also produced a substantive social teaching statement and a valuable theological guide of their own.  The American Baptists, too, issued a statement on the environmental crisis in these early years.   The Methodists, in turn, pioneered research and reflection about what they called (among the first, if not the first, groups anywhere to publicly identify this phenomenon), “environmental racism.”  The Methodist, John Cobb, was an early and forceful voice in ecological theology, likewise (see his Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology [Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1972]).  Above all, perhaps, the theological influence of those who might very cautiously be called the catholic ecofeminists, Mary Daly (later ex-Catholic, indeed ex-Christian), Rosemary Ruether, and Elizabeth Johnson, was enormous.  Any complete story of ecological theology in this era would have to tell their stories and identify their impact.  But sometimes it can be instructive to undertake this kind of vertical historical study of a single communion.  When parallel vertical studies of the engagement of other christian communions with ecological theology then become available, our grasp of the field as a whole from a horizontal, ecumenical perspective will hopefully be strengthened.

4  See H. Paul Santmire, “Ecology, Justice, Liturgy: A Theological Autobiography,” Dialog 48:3 (2009), 267-78,

5   H. Paul Santmire, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1970).

6   In 1974, I and the staff of the Boston Industrial Mission organized a conference at Wellesley College with the topic  “An Ecological Reformation of Christianity?”  This was a theme that suggested itself to numerous Protestants in this period.  Cf. especially James A Nash, “Toward and Ecological Reformation of Christianity,” Interpretation 50:1 (1996), 5-15.

7   I am passing by Paul Tillich.  While I and others regard Tillich as a bona fide lutheran theologian, Tillich himself, even as he recognized his indebtedness to Luther, in particular, and to Protestantism, in general, did not regard himself as a lutheran theologian, nor was he widely regarded as such by many (other) lutheran theologians and practitioners in his time.  Nevertheless, in my view, Tillich’s essay “Nature and Sacrament,” in The Protestant Era, tr. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), can be viewed as an important first step toward an authentically lutheran ecological theology in the U.S., historically speaking.

8   Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity,” Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler, ed. Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 38-50.  For convenience’s sake I will hereafter cite this volume in the text as “S” followed by the page number e.g. (S 38-50).

9   It made sense in the mid-nineties for Peter E. Bakkin, Joan Gibb Engel, and J. Robert Engel to produce what was more or less a complete bibliography of english works in ecological theology, Ecology, Justice, and Faith: A Critical Guide to the Literature (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995).  It would not make sense to produce such a printed work today, since it would be out of date before it made its way into readers’ hands.  Even some on-line bibliographical record of such works might not be all that helpful, since it would be difficult to keep up with the global sweep of such publications.

10  Gordon Kaufman announced this about-face in his article, “The Concept of Nature: A Problem for Theology,” Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972), 337-66.

11   On Barth, see my study The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985), chapter 8.  This material is a summary of the findings of my doctoral dissertation, Karl Barth’s Theology of Nature: A Historical and Critical Study(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1966) [unpublished].

12   For Tillich, see Michael F. Drummy, Being and Earth: Paul Tillich’s Theology of Nature (New York: University Press of America, 2000).

13   More on Sittler presently.

14   An important exception to this rule is the group of theologians whom I have elsewhere called “reconstructionists,” thinkers who generally held that the classical christian tradition is ecologically bankrupt and who therefore concluded that christian theology must be reconstructed from the ground up.  Representative of this trend were the process thinker, John Cobb (see Is It Too Late?), and the ecofeminist, Rosemary Radford Ruether (see New Woman New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation [New York: Seabury Press, 1975]).  For the categorization of ecological theologians as “apologists,” “revisionists,” and “reconstructionists,” see my book Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of ChristianTheology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 6-10.

15   Rachel Carlson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

16   Lynn White, Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155:10 (March 1967), 1203-4.

17   Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972).

18   Juergen Moltmann, God and Creation: An Ecological Theology of Creation, tr. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press, 1985).

19   Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds. Chistian Dogmatics, 2 vols.(Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1984).

20   Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

21   One of the better books on ecological ethics in these years, written by a Methodist, presupposes the theo-cosmocentric paradigm; and it explores the theme of love explicitly: James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon, 199l).

 

22   For an entry into this literature, see the introduction and the conclusion by Peter W. Bakken and Steven Bouma-Prediger, respectively, to Grace and the short bibliography in that volume, p. 237.

23   Hefner, as I have noted, was one of the authors of the Christian Dogmatics, a work that I have associated in this paper with theo-anthropocentrism.  If I am right about that judgment, Hefner’s place in that volume would have to be considered ambiguous, since, in my judgment, Hefner’s own thought is theo-cosmocentric.

24   Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

25   In the following discussion of the doctrine of creation, Hefner essentially gives us a sketch of the theo-cosmocentric paradigm, without using such language: “The doctrine of creation not only serves as an essential framework on which the soteriological statements of faith depend for their credibility and meaning.  It is also one of the chief resources for overcoming what has come to be known, perhaps exaggeratedly, as the ‘unitarianism of the second article.’  The object of concern in this phrase is a reduction of christian theology to soteriology, which falsifies the christian faith because it cuts off the larger connectedness between redemption in Christ and the panorama of God’s intentions and actions from creation to consummation.  Such a reduction also thereby cuts the link between redemption and the physical world, society, and world history.  If theology does not overcome this tendency, it finds it difficult to relate the faith to such issues as ecological concerns, our vocation in society, and the manifestation of God’s Spirit in the world’s history.”(Philip Hefner, “The Creation,” in Christian Dogmatics, I, 272.)

26   Consider this elegant theological testimony by Hefner, “Nature’s History as Our History: A Proposal for Spirituality,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter T. Hessel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 182f.: “[The Noah story] occurs as the second reading within the ritual of the Easter Vigil.  As such, the rainbow covenant with Noah is connected to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The meaning is unavoidable: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an event within a continuum of events in which God has been active, and the continuum includes the history of nature.  Here God affirms a covenant with every living thing and with the earth itself, in full recognition that in light of the evil that is in the human heart, this sets up a lovers’ triangle.  In that triangle, consisting of God, humans, and all of the earth’s other biological and physical systems, humans could find themselves outside the chainlink of the covenant with nature.  God will never again permit that covenant to be breached in favor of humans at the expense of the earth….  The rainbow covenant predicates God as a higher advocate for nonhuman nature.

“The proposals for organizing our consciousness contained in these packets of poetic, mythic information articulate themselves with forcefulness.  They point outward in projecting possibilities for human involvement in community with the rest of nature that can make both for the wholeness of the Creator’s covenant shalom and also for the terror that accompanies the destruction of that wholeness.  Shalom comes when we consider that our calling to be: sibling to the geese and the spider; eye, tongue, and heart to sweet earth; covenant partner with earth and its birds, cattle and every beast.”

27   Ted Peters, Fear, Faith, and the Future: Affirming Christian Hope in the Face of Doomsday Prophecies (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980).

28    Ted Peters, God – the World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a Postmodern Era (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).  For a more succinct treatment of the underlying themes of his thought, cf. Ted Peters, Science, Theology, and Ethics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003), chap. 4:  “God as the Future of Cosmic Creativity.”

29   Cf. Peters, God – the World’s Future, p. xii (it. his): “The exhilarating impact of the gospel is that it evokes in us the life of beatitude.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus describes the life of beatitude as living a blessed life today in light of the coming of God’s kingdom tomorrow….  In the life of beatitude the Holy Spirit collapses time, so to speak, so that believers can. share ahead of time in the oneness of all things that is yet to come….  Amid the viciousness of devouring competition, one can envision the lion lying down with the lamb.  Amid the desert of portending mass destruction, one can glimpse the river of life flowing from the throne of God.  Amid the wanton lack of care for the beings and things of this world, one can feel the heart beat with the rhythms of the divine love that pervades and promises wholeness throughout creation.”

30   In addition to Fretheim’s work, two of the most important studies in this area are Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); and William P. Brown, The Ethos of Cosmos: the Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

31   Terence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2005).

32   Fretheim, God and the World, 48–56.

33   Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).  My own work in liturgical ecology, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), is dependent on Lathrop’s argument in significant ways.

34  See note 11 above.

35  One of the several limitations of this book is that I did not attempt to review the classical mystical traditions of christian life and thought regarding nature, a context in which many women theologians flourished.

36   A more complete treatment of lutheran social statements in this era would also review a 1970 statement on the environment by the American Lutheran Church(ALC).  I am not considering that statement in this paper for two reasons:  first, to keep my own discussion within reasonable limits; second, because the LCA statement was accompanied by a study guide, which set forth underlying theological understandings explicitly.  The ALC statement is available in the archives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: https://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/ELCA-Archives/Archival-Documents/Predecessor-Body-Statements/American-Lutheran-Church/The-Environment-Crisis.aspx

37   The Human Crisis in Ecology, ed. Franklin L. Jensen, Cedric W. Tilberg (Philadelphia: Board of Social Ministry, Lutheran Church in America, 1972).

38   Full disclosure:  I wrote that chapter (and another) and also helped – as a member of an interdisciplinary team, including Joseph Sittler – to draft the statement itself.  Sittler wrote the concluding chapter.

39   A further popular publication came out of the working group that produced the 1972 statement, co-written by the chair of the group, who was an academic biologist, and myself:  Paul E. Lutz, H. Paul Santmire, Ecological Renewal, ed. William H. Lazareth (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972).

40   Full disclosure: I also helped to draft this statement, as one member of a gifted interdisciplinary team.

41   The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, ed. Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2011).  Cf. also the related lectionary aid written from the perspective of the science and theology dialogue, George L. Murphy, Lavonne Althaus, Russell Willis, Cosmic Witness: Commentaries on Science and Technology Themes (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 1996).

42  David Rhoads, ed. Earth and World: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet (New York: Continuum, 2007).

43  Cf., for example, the hymn “Touch the Earth Lightly,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 739, stanzas 1 & 2:  “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care:  gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.  We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live, we who would foster clouds of disaster – God of our planet, forestall and forgive!”

44   Anecdotally, in those years my book, Brother Earth, was widely read by leaders in outdoor ministry; and I was regularly asked to consult about educational materials in outdoor ministry.  I even wrote some of those materials myself, see, for example, H. Paul Santmire, “Introduction to the Theme,” Creation: Called to Freedom.  Outdoors Ministry Curriculum (Chicago: Division for Congregational Life, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1990), 1-10.

45   Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997), xiii.  For convenience’s sake, I will hereafter cite this work in the text and the notes as “R” followed by a page number, e.g. (R10.)

46   For Rasmussen’s relationship to Bonhoeffer, cf. John DeGruchy, “A Concrete Ethic of the Cross: Interpreting Bonhoeffer’s Ethics in North American’s Backyard,” in Fidelity to Earth: A Festschrift in Honor of Larry Rasmussen, ed. Daniel T. Spencer, James Martin-Schram, Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 58:1-2 (2004), 33-45. 1-201.

47   See note 45 above..

48  See (R349-354).

49   And not only Lutherans.  Consider this response to Rasmussen’s opus magnus by Charles R. Pinches, chair of the theology department at the Jesuit-run University of Scranton, in the Christian Century, August 12-19, 1998, p. 756: “[O]ne… feels the nagging tension [in Rasmussen’s book] between explicitly theological categories and those of the environmental crisis and deep ecology.  In Rasmussen’s case, however, this is not because theological concepts are radically revised [as is done by the advocates of deep ecology] but because theology is not the primary language of the book.  While Rasmussen does a bit of theology here and there, the book lacks a theological structure.  He never decides to consider systematically or historically what Christian theology has to say about ecology, the earth, or even creation.  As a result, there is no theological context into which the reader can place the book’s otherwise quite interesting reflections about our environmental troubles.”  Which is damning, I suppose, by faint praise.

 

50   I do not want to push the question about Rasmussen’s lutheran credentials too far. On the one hand, who cares?  The theological/ethical challenge before us in today’s world is too great for such parochial-sounding questions.  On the other hand, I care, since I am instancing him and his work under the rubric of american lutheran engagement with ecological theology.  So it has been necessary for me too say something about this question, in order not to say nothing, especially given the character of what might be called Rasmussen’s post-lutheran Lutheranism.  If anyone would like to pursue this question further, I refer him or her to one of Rasmussen’s former students, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Christian Ethics Toward Earth-Honoring Faiths,” Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review, 146: “Larry’s deeply critical, appreciative, and reconstructive relationship with Lutheran traditions, in which he stands, demonstrates his approach to tradition.  His Earth ethic and call for eco-Reformation are notably Lutheran…. [He] finds riches in central Lutheran theological themes; and ‘thinks creatively with’ Luther, Bonhoeffer, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Sittler and other Lutheran theologians to retrieve and reconstruct less recognized resources proffered by their work.”

51   See note 46 above.

52   Cf. (Rxii): “The world around us is also within.  We are an expression of it; it is an expression of us.”

53   I disagree with Rasmussen’s interpretation of Luther at this point.  Nowhere that I am aware of did Luther suggest that the world is God’s “body.”  For a discussion of this, and related, issues in Luther-interpretation, see my essay “Creation and Salvation according to Martin Luther,” in Ernst. M. Conradie, ed. Creation and Salavation, I:  A Mosaic of Selected Classic Christian Theologies (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2012), 183-187.  On the other hand, in every other respect, I believe, particularly with regard to Luther’s rich theology of the divine immanence, Rasmussen presents a balanced and instructive interpretation of Luther’s thought.

54   My study, The Travail of Nature, was intended to be exploratory in character, more an effort to raise questions than to provide answers.  I fully anticipated in 1985 that a wave of historical studies in the christian theology of nature would follow, with the result that my book would quickly be put on the shelf.  But sadly, in my view, except for a few notable exceptions, scholars have for some reason not been generally interested in exploring the history of christian thought about nature in great detail.  Two of those notable exceptions are the study of Tillich by Michael Drummy (see note 12 above) and the exposition of Calvin’s thought by Susan E. Schreiner, The Theatre of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991).  Also cf. the previously referred to collection of essays edited by Ernst. M. Conradie, Creation and Salavation.  Scholarly study of the theology of nature in the Old and New Testaments, however, has expanded geometrically in recent years.  The trove of these riches, however, is too large to describe here.

55  See, for example, H. Paul Santmire, “Healing the Protestant Mind: Beyond the Theology of Human Dominion,” in After Nature’s Revolt: Eco-Justice and Theology, ed. Dieter T. Hessel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 57-78.  On Luther’s thought about creation, in particular, see H. Paul Santmire, “Creation and Salvation according to Martin Luther: Creation as the Good and Integral Background,” in Creation and Salvation, I.

56  For an attempt to explicate Luther’s “cosmic christology,” see H. Paul Santmire, “Toward a Cosmic Christology: A Kerygmatic Proposal,” Theology and Science 9:3 (August 2011), 287-306.  Also, see the study by the lutheran theologian/physicist George Murphy, The Cosmos in Light of the Cross (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 2003).

57   This lutheran maximalism, at home with the theo-cosmocentric paradigm as it typically is, it appears to me, could also have a sharp public impact, over against the dominant cultural trends of our times, which are so thoroughly shaped by “the information revolution.”  The presuppositions of that revolution are radically anthropocentric, even gnostic, not cosmo-centric.  The information revolution is predicated on the assumption that there is a technological fix to serve any human desire, nature to the contrary notwithstanding.  Nature, in this perspective, is the mere object or the toolbox for the satisfaction of human “needs.”  Nature has no standing, no integrity, no voice of its own.  For an illuminating description of this current culture of power over nature, see Larry Rasmussen, “Next Journey: Sustainability for Six Billion and More,” in Ethics for a Small Planet: New Horizons on Population, Consumption, and Ecology, ed. Daniel C. Maguire and Larry L. Rasmussen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), especially 102f.

58   This is not the place to describe the extent and the depth of the global crisis before us.  From many scientific and prophetic voices that might be amplified here, consider only one, the widely-respected Oberlin environmentalist, David W. Orr, Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse, paperback edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), xii-xiii.: “The capacity and apparent willingness of humankind to destabilize the climate conditions that made civilization possible is the issue of our time; all others pale by comparison.  Beyond some unknown threshold of irreversible and irrevocable changes driven by carbon cycle feedbacks, climate destabilization will lead to a war of all against all, a brutal scramble for food, water, dry land, and safety….  Sheer survival will outweigh every other consideration of decency, order, and mutual sympathy.  Climate destabilization will amplify other problems caused by population growth, global poverty, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the potential impact of high consequence events that have long-term global consequences….”

59   I am aware that the expression status confession is is ambiguous, both historically and theologically.  For a thoughtful exploration of this ambiguity, see Eugene Teselle, “How Do We Recognize a Status Confession is?,” Theology Today 45:1(1988), 71-78.  The expression is rooted deeply in lutheran history, from mid-sixteenth century intra-lutheran theological debates in Germany, through the german church struggle of 1933, to the 1977 declaration of the Lutheran World Federation that apartheid is a heresy.  Minimally, the idea is this, in Teselle’s words, that “to declare a status confession is is to say that the time has run out, that toleration has reached its limits, that a line must be drawn.  It is to say that the time is ‘an evil time’ (Amos 5:13), but one in which we may no longer keep a prudent silence.” (78)  Given the severity of the global crisis (see note 58 above), does the church today have any other option than, in the name of God’s love for the whole creation, especially for the downtrodden of the earth, to publicly and zealously speak the truth to power, and to its own members, with a willingness to put its own body at risk?  Isn’t the burden of proof on the shoulders of those Christians, particularly Lutherans, who would maintain that ours is not a time of status confession is?