Category Archives: Lectionary Commentaries

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

Sunday October 16-22 in Year C

God’s presence and blessing are the source of our care for creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on Jacob wrestling with God and the Parable of the Unjust Judge

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 16-22, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4: 5
Luke 18:1-8 

Caring for God’s creation is both a fascinating and a frustrating calling. It is fascinating because of the wealth of experiences it brings. I was awestruck at seeing a “hummingbird moth” drinking from the flowers in our alley garden, flowers that grow on a strip of land that only persistent composting has made viable. Yet, we all have cried, “How long, O Lord,” in frustration over the reaction of our so-called “advanced civilization” to climate change. And, we know how difficult it is to persuade our sisters and brothers in faith that creation care is constitutive of our common identity. Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to learn “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

Our road to understanding begins with Jacob, a character whose resume is full of deep frustration and worry, most of it self-inflicted. Now Jacob is on the road home—back to  the land of promise, back to meet his brother, Esau, whom he has ‘shafted’ more than once. While Jacob has made a variety of plans to make this meeting go as well as possible, at bottom he realizes—for the first time—that it all depends on God. And so Jacob prays with great intensity, a prayer in which he both shares his fear that Esau may kill him, yet casts his trust on the God of promise, who has said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number” (Genesis 32:11-12).

Having entrusted everything to this God, Jacob’s night is filled with wrestling. Brueggemann suggests that much of the power of this story rests in the uncertain identity of the stranger. “To be too certain would reduce the dread intended in the telling . . . . The power of the stranger is as much in his inscrutability as in his strength” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p. 267). Yet, given the desperation of Jacob’s prayer, it is most plausible that the hidden one is Yahweh.

While the score of this wrestling match is not available, the outcome is significant. Jacob will not let his adversary go without a blessing. At first, all Jacob receives is a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.” In response, Jacob wants to hear the name of this magisterial opponent. This time, he does receive a blessing, something he has been hungering after. “Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel.” (Brueggemann, p. 269)

We see this power in action in the Joseph Saga (Genesis 37-50), where, in spite of the evil intention of brothers, Joseph provides food for a significant Mediterranean population and ensures the continuation of the community of blessing, Israel. Surely, the power of that blessing is available to Israel—”old” and “new”—to care for God’s creation.

Edgar Krentz suggests that the curious parable of “The Unjust Judge,” this week’s Gospel reading, is Jesus’ version of Jacob’s wrestling with God (New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 236). If that is so, certainly the “wrestlers” and the issues dealt with are quite different.  For, no longer is it the trickster Jacob contending with a numinous combatant in a nearly equal contest. Now, it is a relatively powerless widow seeking justice from a shameless judge. Her best power resource seems to be dogged persistence. In fact, she is so determined that the judge fears that she may ‘blacken his eye’ (Luke 18:5).

The logic of this parable seems to be: if even a shameless judge will give in to this kind of pressure, how much more will God grant justice. Because the parable is framed as a response to those who were tempted to “lose heart” (Luke 18:1), this persistence is commended as a model of faith for the new community. Just as tricky Jacob bore the blessing as the forerunner of Israel, so this tireless widow models the faith of those making the ‘New Exodus’ journey.

Central to the identity of communities formed by the one who blesses is the care of those who have no one to stand up for themselves—widows, orphans, and Earth. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson claims, “Doing justice for widows becomes shorthand for covenantal loyalty among the prophets” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 269). This is crucial in Luke’s gospel because his eschatological discourse (17:22-37) makes it clear that “the kingdom he (Jesus) proclaims is not yet the end-time” (Johnson, p. 273). Therefore, the durable and resilient faith modeled by this widow in Jesus’ parable will be absolutely necessary.

Perhaps this provides a clue to the final verse of the parable asking, will the Son of Man find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8). We could translate this poignant question to mean: Will this one find ‘widows’ pressing shameless judges for justice? Will this one find faithful people protesting mountaintop removal in West Virginia? Will those seeking divestment of funds supporting destructive oil companies be found actively pressing their case? Will teachers sharing the wonders of creation with children and teaching them to garden be found?

This begins to sound like the exhortation provided in our reading from 2 Timothy: “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Timothy 4:2). But this persistence must have a basis, or it becomes little more than ‘trying harder,’ or the mantra of the “Little Blue Engine”—“I think I can.”

Ultimately, it must go back to the notion of blessing, like the blessing given to Jacob and the blessing given to the new community formed around the Risen One. We saw in this blessing to Jacob that ” something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel” (Brueggemann, p. 269). “Israel is not formed by success or shrewdness or land, but by an assault from God. Perhaps it is grace, but it is not the kind usually imagined. Jacob is not consulted about his new identity” (Brueggemann, p. 269). Much the same could be said about baptism. It is a gift; it is also a task to be lived out, “walking in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4b)

What is the source of the widow’s persistence, the determination of the blessed Nancy Lund, the late member of Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN, to drive the thirty miles to a Twin Cities area farm and buy 200 dozen brown eggs every week for ten years to donate to the local food shelf and help local agriculture? Or the resolve of Stan Cox of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, to seek ways to cool people without refrigerating vast internal spaces and warming the planet? (see Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool , New York: New Press, 2012). Is it not a sense of blessing that comes from “something of the power of God” entrusted even to us? 

 As we continue to “wrestle” with a new understanding of what God calls us to in caring for creation and each other (as if they could be separated!), it is this sense of presence and blessing ( “Go in peace. Serve the Lord!”) that will drive us on the way together.

 

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

 

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

 

Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) in Year C

A reformation that recognizes God’s presence in all creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 3:19-28

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Reformation Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

What can we preach faithfully on Reformation Sunday? Should we attempt to recapture the theologically correct “side” from old arguments in a post-denominational age? Ecumenical agreements, especially those on justification with the Roman Catholic communion (1999), must mean something! Or, might there be a way of learning from an ever-fresh Word what might be the meaning today of Paul’s cry, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)?

This reality is echoed just as dramatically by Luther’s characterization of sin as cor curvatum in sei—”the heart turned in upon itself.” The results are not pretty. By elevating ourselves, we project fear and anxiety upon “the other.” Whether this “other” is the competing village, nation, racial group, gender, sexual preference, class, the results have been violent and destructive.  People of faith have been called to “sniff out ”the underlying pride and arrogance both in ourselves and in our groups.

But we have failed miserably at seeing the contempt we humans have shown for the vast chorus of non-human creation! Dealing with the results of this contempt will constitute our calling for the remainder of our lives. By adding “human species arrogance” to our definition of sin, we take a step toward refreshing the meaning of Reformation. We may even discover elements of this perspective “already there” in our texts.

The results of this arrogance were clearly visible to Jeremiah. As a prophet, called ‘kicking and screaming’ to deliver God’s ‘word’ to the people, he not only exposed this contempt; he experienced it. Yet, in the chronicle of his work, we suddenly come to a “Book of Consolation,” a statement of hope and reassurance even for those who live as refugees in Babylon. That word promises that the LORD will even bring the people back to the land of promise (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this second Exodus begins, Jeremiah describes a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty:

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, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again (Jeremiah 31:12-14).

Perhaps the image of “a watered garden” is important for understanding the well-known text we consider this week. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). But, in order to begin this ‘building’ process, apparently it is necessary for the people to have returned once more to the wilderness, this time the ‘wilderness’ of Babylon. As Jeremiah conveys, “Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2). Only in this “wilderness experience,” where dependency is total, can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) become a gift of God and not simply the results of human effort.

Just as the return to the land and its fertility is seen as something granted, so also the congruence between God and people now can be experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).

Not only does this provide a new basis for forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony with the land, where not only will the city of Jerusalem be rebuilt and renewed, but even the fields that have served only as burial places for the dead will become fertile sources of food, “sacred to the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:40, see John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1965, p. 283). Clearly, when there is “new covenant” restoration, it includes not only humankind, but the whole of creation.

This broad perspective is also there in the reading from Romans, a reading which has become a kind of “Lutheran mantra” for Reformation Sunday. Paul restates his theme (Romans 1:17-18) with the dramatic “But now, apart from the law, the justice (righteousness) of God has been disclosed, and is attested to by the law and prophets, the justice (righteousness) of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). The very forcefulness of this verse should convince us, as Kasemann argues, “As surely as justification loses its reality unless it happens to the individual, just so surely it cannot remain an eschatological event unless it is the Creator’s grasping of his (sic) world and not of the individual alone” (E. Kasemann, Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 93).

That this “grasping of the world” as a gift of God to be cared for and shared is necessary is made clear by the powerful description of human brokenness that follows: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift . . . .” (Romans 3:22b-24a).  Therefore, there is no room for claiming ‘special privileges,’ or, in Paul’s language, “boasting.” This is not only true of claims of religious groups—Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—it is also the case when considering the relationship between humankind and ‘otherkind.’ No, it is not that ‘otherkind’ has sinned, but surely non-human creation suffers from the results of human arrogance, especially through climate change. The ‘Christ event’ and its continuation through new creation ‘grasps’ all together.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson has described the results of contemporary “boasting” spot on.

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will be yours to exploit (Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Random House, 1972, p. 472),

“But now” (Romans 3:21) the new “justice–justification” brought in the Christ event frees us to see us ourselves as a partner species with all that is created with a special calling to comprehend and care (with great humility).

This Reformation “freedom” is at the core of our familiar Gospel reading. However, John only reveals this freedom by contrast. In this case, contrast is provided by “the Jews.” While there is extensive scholarly debate about who “the Jews” might be, it is clear that it does not mean all Jewish people of the time. That would have included Jesus and the disciples! It seems this incendiary term, “the Jews,” refers to hereditary Temple authorities. Their rejection and persecution of Jesus and his followers can be understood, then, as stemming from the fact that his teaching and healing lacks the pedigree and approval of the Temple elite (New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, Third Edition, 2001, NT p. 147).

Because “the Jews” see their ‘place at the table’ ascribed by heredity and its perquisites, they do not “continue in my (Jesus’) word.” This denies them the gift of freedom, “freedom of the household.” The sheer exasperation of this new kind of affiliation based on “continuing in the word,” leads this group to the conclusion that Jesus must be “possessed” (John 8:52), and to launch an attempt to stone him summarily (John 8:59). Perhaps, as has been suggested, this conflict refers historically to the expulsion of “Jesus’-believing-Jews” from the synagogue.

Real freedom comes from “remaining in Jesus’ word” and opens the “freedom of the household” to all who believe, regardless of pedigree. While the contribution of Luther’s Reformation to the history of the new community is crucial and should never be forgotten, this “relational freedom” today needs to be re-imagined.

First, this sense of “boasting,” or claiming “special privileges” because of religious heredity—even Lutheran—must be seen for what it is, and what Jesus calls it: evil (John  8:44). It is time to remember that homo sapiens is but one created species in the earth-household. Our uniqueness lies, as suggested earlier, only in a specific calling to love and care for each other—including the whole creation. As Dostoevsky in his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, suggested “each is responsible to all for all” (New York: Modern Library, 1964, p. 317). It is both the “gift” and the “task” of being a daughter or son in the “household off faith” and “household earth.” It is what the Reformation tradition calls “the priesthood of all believers.”

This is freedom, even if it sounds like endless labor. It is a vocation that recognizes with Luther that God is present in all of creation, finitum capax infiniti, the finite bears the infinite. Not only does this stance move beyond “species arrogance,” it leads to reverence for all that is. As Larry Rasmussen has it:

The meaning of finitum capax infiniti is simple enough: God is pegged to earth. So if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth. The infinite and transcendent are dimensions of what is intensely at hand. Don’t look “up”     for God, look around. The finite is all there is, because all that is, is there. This is earthbound theology (Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, p. 273).

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

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

Sunday November 13-19 in Year C

Preaching the End of the World in the Face of the End of the World – Leah Schade reflects on Malachi 4:1-2a and Luke 21:5-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for November 13-19, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

For preachers, eschatological themes are anticipated with nearly as much enthusiasm as dental check-ups. “The end of the world . . . again,” quipped one pastor at a pericope study I once attended as we tackled once more the images of the end-times that proliferate in the last Sundays of Pentecost and the first Sundays of Advent. This sarcasm perhaps masks a deeper unease about the real fears alluded to in passages such as Malachi 4:1-2 and Luke 21:5-19, whose warnings of impending cosmic upheavals ricochet sharply off contemporary headlines about war, natural disasters, and strange “signs” that warn of dire days ahead. Add to this the disconcerting news about species extinctions, the climate crisis, football-field-lengths of forests disappearing by the hour, and extreme forms of energy extraction, and the task of preaching “good news” in the face of seemingly imminent ecological doom can feel overwhelming to pastor and congregation alike.

Catherine Keller describes the problem this way:

[W]arnings of social, economic, ecological, or nuclear disaster have become so numbingly normal that they do not have the desired effect on most of us, who retreat all the more frantically into private pursuits . . . . How can we sustain resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph? That is, how can we acknowledge the apocalyptic dimensions of the late-modern situation in which we find ourselves entrenched without either clinging to some millennial hope of steady progress or then, flipping, disappointed, back to pessimism? (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. P. 14).

Especially for the preacher, the dual temptations to either legalistically preach about “saving the earth” or to irresponsibly encourage waiting passively for a messianic solution can lead to an “apocalyptic either/or logic—if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it. Either salvation or damnation” (Keller p. 14). The task of the preacher will be to avoid such a false dichotomy.

The reality is that in many ways creation is, in fact, already in the eschaton. This is especially true for the strip-mined mountains, decimated forests, and other devastated areas of Earth for whom “the end” has already happened. The preacher working from an eco-hermeneutical reading of these texts might introduce the “readership” of Earth and Earth’s other-than-human creatures. Because, in fact, the “end of the world” has already come to pass for countless species whose history has come to an end at the hands of human beings. Doomsday has come and gone for the North American Passenger Pigeon, Australian Toolache Wallaby, Indian Arunchal Hopea Tree, and St. Helena Olive, not to mention untold numbers of plant and animal species whose final dying members passed into oblivion unnoticed and unmourned by human eyes. And what of the impending end-of-days for the hundreds of plant and animal species currently facing threatened or immanent extinction? How nice that human beings have the luxury to debate their worth, value, and fate, quibbling about biblical and philosophical semantics as these species languish in prisons of shrinking habitat, poisoned waters, and diminishing food supplies. We have ghettoized creation, delineating by way of concrete and metal boundaries where greenery, fur, and feathers can and cannot live, blocking them into increasingly shrinking habitats that isolate and cramp them in their once vast and free-ranging bioscapes.

A sermon that preaches both “law” about our ecological crisis, as well as “gospel” that proclaims God’s grace in the midst of our failures, finds a way to do three things. First, the sermon will honor the intrinsic value of God’s Creation. Second, the sermon will realistically state the ecological dilemma in which we find ourselves today. Third, the sermon will be clear about what God is doing to bring about a transformation towards life, even in these tumultuous, death-drenched days.

The prophetic words of Malachi and Jesus are strikingly appropriate for our contemporary time. As our planet continues to be encased with the fumes of burning fossil fuels, the day has surely arrived when Earth is “burning like an oven.” The difference between Malachi’s prophecy and the situation today is that it is not yet the arrogant and evildoers who are stubble. Rather, it is the poor, marginalized and disempowered. Nevertheless, the prophet is clear that there will be consequences even for those who believe their wealth and privilege will protect them from the evil they commit. Further, the prophecy is also clear that those who have respect for God—and God’s Creation, we might add—will experience the sun not as a burning punishment, but as healing warmth. This will be especially true if our efforts to curb consumption, conserve energy and resources, and develop non-fossil-fuel forms of energy begin to slow the effects of global warming. Thus, we are given hope that our work in faith-based environmental activism will have real effects for society and the planet.

This is not to say that our work in eco-advocacy will go unopposed. Jesus warned that those who do the work of resisting the powers might very well be opposed by people in their own family and possibly be arrested and persecuted. Here one can bring to mind some examples of Christian and other faith-based environmentalists who have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience against corporations and governments who insist on polluting and desecrating Earth and human communities. UCC minister Rev. Jim Artel [http://www.ucc.org/news/ucc-conference-minister.html] and Rabbi Arthur Waskow [http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2013/03/photo-80-yr-old-rabbi-arthur-waskow-arrested-at-white-house-xl-protest-2601032.html] have both been arrested in protests against the Canadian tar sands XL pipeline and its threat to land, water and the climate. Yet Jesus’ words compel us to continue our work and to trust that His power is with us:18”But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Endurance is what is needed in this long-term struggle to protect and advocate for Earth and “the least of these” within our planet’s fragile atmosphere. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians echo Jesus’ words: 13”Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

It is in Psalm 98 where the preacher can find the vision to sustain us during these soul-wearying struggles. “The ends of the earth” (v. 3) already know that God’s victory against the death-wielding systems is assured and are singing a song of joy for what is to come. The sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands herald the work of God filling the earth with Her presence. We, too, are invited to add our voices to Creation’s chorus and bring our instruments of peace to the biotic orchestra.

[Note:  Worship planners may want to have the congregation sing the hymn “Earth and All Kin,” based on the well-known “Earth and All Stars,” in response to creation’s call and God’s call to “sing a new song.” [http://ecopreacher.blogspot.com/2013/09/hymn-earth-and-all-kin.html]

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

All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2019) in Year C

Sin is our refusal to be the responsible consciousness of creation.Tom Mundahl reflects on expanding our understanding of the Communion of Saints.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for All Saints Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

On a recent Halloween evening, my wife Anne and I found ourselves on the #21 bus traveling from Minneapolis to our home in St. Paul. We were not surprised by seeing children in costumes, but were amazed at their sheer number! We soon learned that this wave of ‘Captain Jack Sparrows,’ princesses, and beasts was headed to the light rail station, where they would transfer to reach the Mall of America, one of our great national ‘temples of consumption.’ There they would revel in the generosity of merchants enjoying the biggest Halloween party in the area.

While our task is not to comprehend the strange juxtaposition between All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day (Sunday), those of us in the northern hemisphere understandably relate the end of the growing season with deaths that have occurred within the faith community. As beneficial as this may be to honor our grief, we have failed to make a connection between our sense of the Communion of Saints and the even greater Communion of All Creation. Perhaps our readings will help us find this thread.

Our First Reading from Daniel contains a vision worthy of Halloween horror. As the structure of the book is transformed from a series of ‘hero tales’ (ch. 1-6) to apocalyptic revelation, we are met by a series of animal figures representing historical kingdoms that threaten both the political survival of Judea and the piety of the people. While these animal figures call to mind the history of international politics between the Babylonian Exile and the time of writing (perhaps 167 B.C.E.), the real focus of Daniel’s apocalyptic material is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian ruler, whose Hellenization program jeopardizes faith.

What is most important for us may be the beginning of Daniel’s night vision, a specter that opens with “the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea….” (Daniel 7:2b). While this may recall certain elements of Babylonian creation myth, the outcome is clear. Just as the original creation is good, so these foul “beasts from the sea” cannot ultimately destroy God’s people. As they assume historical incarnation, the beasts show “feet of clay” (see W. Sibley Towner, Daniel, Atlanta: John Knox, 1984, pp. 94-95).

Yes, they can cause a brand of “chaos” reminiscent of the first creation narrative in Genesis, but God’s ever-renewing creation can be trusted. Despite the terror, the gift of understanding given to Daniel suggests that the “the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18) will not succumb (Norman Porteous, Daniel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964, p. 112). Even if it seems that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is “devouring the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), the rule that ultimately will prevail “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). “All saints” can trust in the reliability of the God who renews creation and faith communities, who does not allow them to be destroyed even in the face of the greatest threats.

While the challenge to the author of this ‘circular letter’ we call Ephesians was more of internal unity than external threat, the epistle continues to maintain a cosmic view. In fact, the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles suggests a universality that can only be expanded in scope. Yet, the letter supports this new unity by suggesting that, in some sense, this new creation community lives as if all were fulfilled. The shared experience of the Spirit, the “pledge of inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14), is an already accomplished fact. As Martin suggests, “the victory of Christ, both present and future, is presented as a fait accompli” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Atlanta: John Knox, 1991, p. 23).

This sense of ‘already’ is buttressed by the conclusion of today’s reading with verses from what appears to be a liturgical text (Ephesians 1:20-23). Again, Martin suggests that in its worship the future is brought into the present as a “liturgical reality” (Martin, p. 23). This not only reminds us of the sense of always worshiping in the presence of the Great Communion of Saints, but also points toward an understanding of “the church, which is his body” , , , as “. . . the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 2:23).

This sense of “the fullness of the body” reminds us of the work of Sallie McFague, who has been inspired, in part by Ephesians, to develop an ecological theology based on seeing the Earth as “God’s body” (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, p. 32). However, the membership of this “body” is now extended to include all of creation. This “body” is threatened now, not only by the “beasts” of history as by also by an inadequate understanding of sin.

McFague suggests: “It is obvious, then, what sin is in this metaphor of the world as God’s body: it is refusal to be part of the body, the special part we are as imago dei . . . . Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives: it is the desire to set oneself apart from others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the cosmos” (McFague, Models of God, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 77).

Celebrating the interdependent fullness of new creation on All Saints Sunday surely points us toward the “Sermon on the Plain,” our gospel reading. While the audience is formally the disciple group, the proximity of great crowds and multitudes (Luke 6:17- 18) who had come to hear removes all limits. And it is a very important set of teachings. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The literary prototype for both sermons is provided by the delivery of the Torah to the people by Moses” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 110). Surely this fits with the New Exodus theme adopted by Luke (9:31) and emphasized in these comments.

We hear this theme especially in the “blessings” that form the “new creation” community. But we have heard them before in Luke. Certainly the concern for the poor and hungry has been outlined in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53) as well as in Jesus’ “inaugural sermon” in Nazareth, where, reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus announced his agenda as beginning with “bringing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a).

Here we see that “the fullness that fills all in all” in Ephesians 2:23 becomes much more concrete. As suggested by the Magnificat, the hungry are filled, but “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:21, 25). As many have suggested, Jesus brings a reversal of current fortunes in creating this new community of faith.

This newly-formed community is governed by new norms as well. Gone is the notion of reciprocity, where goods of equal value are exchanged in calculating social commerce. Instead, the watchword is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Not only does this create a consistency between community formation (not based on merit, but mercy) and community preservation; it also allows for the eventual integration of all into this new community.

That is, to be truly new, this community has to demonstrate more than the replacement of the rich by those who were poor, who now will have the opportunity to become the new wealthy. By calling for transformative love of enemies, reconciliation between ‘classes’ becomes more than possible. Or, to put it another way: this is the only way beyond the historical alternation of elites that has usually taken place with “revolutions.”

This movement beyond prudential reciprocity is also evident in the teaching on what we might call ‘economics.’ “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)  This moves trust from the commercial marketplace to the provision of ‘daily bread’ as divine gift. What’s more, it moves toward a need-based world-view that is demonstrated in Acts 2:44-47. This may be, as Frederick Danker suggests, an implementation of the Jubilee announced by Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19; Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 143).

All this is summarized in “the golden rule,” a norm that exposes the weakness of reciprocity. Moving beyond mere reciprocity requires the gift of faith found in a secure sense of belonging to the new creation community. As Johnson suggests, “do as you want done” is not even enough. Rather, the standard is better described as “do as God would do” (Johnson, p. 112). For this is the ultimate source of the forgiving love of enemies, sending rain on the just and unjust, and the provision of daily bread regardless of credit rating. This is the source of a compassion that spills beyond the merely human to a realization that our common creatureliness leads us to embrace all that God has made and to learn from this earthy and diverse richness.

If Luke invites all of God’s people and the whole creation on this New Exodus journey, then, as Gordan Lathrop suggests, “the Risen Lord is still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but also still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians—like the stranger in the Emmaus account . . . ” (The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). One cannot doubt that this presence in our current assemblies also expands the notion of the Great Communion of Saints to becoming the Communion of All Creation.

How might we envision this Communion of All Creation on All Saints Sunday? Perhaps we would be wise to begin with poets, like Denise Levertov, who are on the frontiers of this understanding. Listen to the second stanza of her poem, “We Come Into Animal Presence.” (Denise Levertov, The Life Around Us, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 34)

                              What is the joy? That no animal

                              falters, but knows what it must do?

                              That the snake has no blemish,

                              that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings

                              in white star-silence? The llama

                              rests in dignity, the armadillo

                              has some intentions to pursue in the palm-forest.

                              Those who were sacred have remained so,

                              holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence

                              of bronze, only the sight that saw it

                              faltered and turned from it.

                              An old joy returns in holy presence.

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

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

Sunday October 9 – 15 in Year C

What it means to be servants of creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on 2 Kings 5 and Luke 17:11-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 9-15, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

As we began this series of short comments several weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke guides us on a ‘New Exodus journey’ (Luke 9:31), a journey that features a ‘new Miriam,’ Mary, who begins her trek with a simple statement of faith: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While we have no evidence that this Miriam danced, her song, the Magnificat, still echoes as a New Exodus manifesto: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly . . . .” (Luke 1:52).

Mary gives birth to a child, born of the earth, wrapped in earth’s cloth, and laid in a manger of earthen material. Yet, this lowly infant, a servant of creation, is attested by the elderly Simeon to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This week’s readings will demonstrate just this power of servanthood to break through the boundaries that divide to provide new hope for all creation.

At first, General Naaman, who has won significant victory over Israel in the field, seems a most unlikely candidate for healing that breaks down boundaries. Yet, as part of his war plunder, Naaman had acquired a Jewish female servant who had compassion for the skin disease (leprosy) suffered by her master. The young servant girl lamented to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5: 3). Hearing this, and grasping at the hope it presented, Naaman went to his ‘master,’ the king, who agreed to send a letter of request along with an unimaginably great ‘healing fee’ to his counterpart, the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4-5).

But the king of Israel wondered if this request was a diplomatic ruse that may lead to further conflict. Nevertheless, when Elijah learned of the request, he replied simply, “Let him (Naaman) come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And Naaman did come, arriving with his retinue at Elisha’s house. But he did not see Elisha himself, only a messenger who advised Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (2 Kings 5:10)

Naaman was angry that Elisha did not attend to someone of his rank personally. What’s more, he was offended by the thought that this healing could not take place in the far more impressive rivers of Syria. He made plans to leave in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12). Fortunately for Naaman, his servants calmed him down, suggesting, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”(2 Kings 5:13).

Naaman reconsidered.  He went down to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Renewed, Naaman returned with his company to Elisha and confessed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” Now, the mighty Naaman was a servant! He saw himself as part of the “network of servanthood” that had accomplished his healing. Even though he wanted to share his joy with a large gift to Elisha, as one called to bring God’s healing word as a servant, Elisha refused it (2 Kings 5:16). Naaman had only one more request: that he be given two mule-loads of Israeli earth, to ‘ground’ himself in his new servanthood (2 Kings 5:17).

The power of such a network of servanthood to break down old barriers is at work in this week’s Gospel reading as well. At first glance, our pericope seems to be a healing story with a bonus lesson on giving thanks. Of course, it is both of these. Ten lepers, forced to live outside the village by religious law, keeping their distance cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13). Jesus responds by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they enter the village to seek ‘certificates of cleansing’ from the priests, a kind of New Exodus, they are all made clean (Luke 17:14). Luke continues the story by describing one who returned praising God with a loud voice. Only as he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him, do we read “And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).

But this story is much more than it appears to be. Following Jesus’ instruction about servanthood, it is significant that the lepers correctly address Jesus as “Master.” This correct address reminds the disciples that they were all as outcast as the lepers. Not only can they expect no thanks for their servanthood (Luke 17:9), like the Samaritan leper, they are called to thank the one who has saved them. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The ‘faith that saves’ of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith given them. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 262).

And, it is ‘arrogating to themselves the status of master,’ or, as Frederic Danker puts it, “self-aggrandizement that is maintained at the expense of others” (Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 291) that blocks breakthroughs experiencing the breadth of the new creation Jesus inaugurates. Certainly, this kind of breakthrough is symbolized by Luke’s dramatic mentioning of the seemingly incidental fact, “And he was a Samaritan,” only after the former leper returned to give thanks and find a community home (Luke 17:16. This was undoubtedly a Samaritan who knew his role as servant.

Yet, this should be no surprise. When the, New Exodus company began their journey toward Jerusalem, they reacted strongly to being rebuffed by a Samaritan village and asked their Master if they should, like Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16), call down fire from heaven. “But he (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). This rebuke is made all the sharper in the very next chapter of Luke’s narrative, where Jesus tells the story of the ‘Good’ Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we recall that when Jesus began his formal ministry in Nazareth, in his ‘inaugural sermon’ he included a telling reference to Naaman, who was healed despite his status as a foreigner (Luke 4:27). The cost, of course, was an attempt to “hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4: 29), a portent of things to come.

It is Jesus, the Master become servant of creation, who breaks barriers and frees those who come after to move beyond contemporary boundaries to creation care. Reading through his new book, Oil and Honey (New York: Holt, 2013) one cannot help being moved by the servanthood of Bill McKibben. Not only is his orientation to working to care for creation global—helping to found 350.org to confront climate change and leading the largest U.S. civil disobedience action in this century to at least delay the Keystone XL pipeline; he completes this servant-calling by involvement with the local economy in the area surrounding his home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

This involvement began when McKibben was asked to teach a class on “Local Food Production” at Middlebury College in 2001. While there were not many resources available then, he seemed to come across the name Kirk Webster in article after article in the Small Farmer’s Journal, writings primarily focusing on beekeeping. Desperately searching for resource people to speak to the class, McKibben discovered that Webster lived in “the next town over” (McKibben, p. 2). Webster not only presented to the class, but he and McKibben developed a growing friendship.

Webster had been involved in beekeeping for years, but had never been able to accumulate enough money to buy a place of his own. Even though Webster had developed techniques to deal with “colony collapse disorder” without resorting to toxic chemicals and was well-known in the world of apiarists, this did not translate into capital funds. McKibben, who had achieved some financial independence through his writings, made him an offer: “What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes” (McKibben, p. 6).

Webster agreed to this “too good to refuse” offer and began the building process with the hope of passing on his skills to apprentices over what he hoped would be twenty more years of work. While McKibben could not be called an ‘apprentice,’ it is clear that he has worked with Webster when he is able in order to deepen his understanding of the beekeeping process crucial for the pollination of at least one-third of all that grows. In doing this, he has modeled the connection between servanthood in one’s home and on our home planet, a servanthood designed to break down the boundaries between humankind and the rest of creation so that we can see all that God has made as a gift and learn to restrain ourselves so that less than one-quarter of the carbon-based fuel available is ever burned (McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012)

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

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

Sunday October 2-8 in Year C

Care for creation and wait in patience. – Tom Mundahl reflects on Habakkuk 2:1-4 and Luke 17:5-10

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for October 2-8, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

For more than fifteen years we have grown “Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories.” But earlier this year, we wondered what had happened to this vining purple perennial? Was it the cool, damp spring? Was the thin soil next to our alley driveway finally depleted, despite our attempts to amend it? Where were these flowers that had greeted us every morning for so many years?

We should not have given in to despair quite so easily. After all, were not these seeds that Baptist John Ott had brought from Bavaria more than a century ago, the very seeds that had sent Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, IA, on a forty-year journey of seed preservation? For, in late June, they were back—the vivid flowers opening to the sun as they have for centuries. We needed what Henry David Thoreau called “Faith in a Seed” (cf. Thoreau, Faith in a Seed, ed. Bradley P. Dean, Washington D.C., Island Press, 1993, p. 207).

Just as in gardening, so in the remainder of life: God’s people are called to a life of faith and trust. As we conclude the church year, we face texts that balance the challenges of life against trust in God’s justice, a movement that culminates on Christ the King Sunday. Whether we reflect on accelerating climate change or the actual use of chemical weapons in Syria, even people of faith may wonder whether this trust is well-placed.

This certainly was the perspective of Habakkuk, the seventh century prophet, a contemporary of Jeremiah. Our First Reading is comprised of cuttings from two dialogues between the prophet and God. The issue is simple: Habakkuk cannot understand why God permits the Babylonians (here called Chaldeans, see 1:6) to occupy Judea. As a prophet, Habakkuk must wonder if there is a word that can be shared with the people.

That word is provided to this “watchman” (2:1) in the famous section from Habakkuk 2:

Write the vision: make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right within them, but the righteous live by their faith (vv. 2-4).

While it may seem difficult to see the ‘forest’ of history among the ‘trees’ of current events, things are moving God’s way. Whether the instructions are to send runners throughout the land sharing this prophetic word, or to write it so large that even someone “running by” cannot miss it (cf. Edgar Krentz, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Fortress, 2001, p. 216), what is most crucial is that, even in the midst of this chaos, there is a word that can be trusted, that can be “waited for” (Habakkuk 2: 3). Can we “wait” in regard to care of creation issues that we face?

One might glean similar counsel of patience engaging with our reading from 2 Timothy. Yet, this pastoral letter, providing advice to church leaders in the early second century CE, both calls for an adherence to “sound teaching” (1:13) and also urges leaders beyond a “spirit of cowardice” to embrace “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (1:7). While there seems still to be some level of eschatological expectation (“that day” is referenced, 1:12), the very notion of a “pastoral epistle” seems to indicate that ministry advice and oversight for the long run are needed. That may remind us today that leadership for” the long haul” must include care of creation as a central tenet.

Much the same could be said of our Gospel reading. After a series of parables critical of wealth and the dependence of the religious elite on “mammon,” suddenly the focus returns to the disciple community. Luke’s Jesus reminds disciples that not all conflicts will be with religious opponents. In fact, it is impossible to avoid “occasions for stumbling” (Luke 17:1), similar conflicts, within the new community. They are called to respond to these with endless forgiveness.

Because this is a ‘heavy teaching,’ it is no wonder that disciples ask, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). At first, we hear a Jesus who seems to be offering the kind of ‘miracle-working faith’ that is described in Matthew 21: 21 and Mark 11: 23. But I think the key to this text is the word “obey.”

Just as even faith the size of a “mustard seed” (v. 6) in parabolic language could lead to a mulberry tree “planted in the sea,” so also that same increase in faith would lead to something even more important—the obedience of servants. As we recall the arrogance of the rich man who continued to ‘lord it over’ Lazarus even in death (Luke 16:19-31), we see the contrasting style of relation that characterizes the disciple community.

Rather than a cause for panic among anxious disciples, Jesus’ teaching about the inevitability of conflict and the need for forgiveness is not designed to create religious “superstars”; rather, it describes a discipline that is “the absolute minimum for life in the kingdom” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, 1991, p. 261). No longer is the hyperbole centered on miraculous feats of faith (v. 6), but on the action of “worthless slaves,” who do “only what we ought to have done!”( Luke 17:10). Of course, there is nothing “worthless” about this obedience; that is the real miracle. And, in Luke, where Jesus calls disciples to “take up crosses daily” (Luke 9:23), it is obedience for the foreseeable future and beyond.

That is the challenge for people of faith caring for creation—dealing honestly with the urgent need for response to issues like climate change, water resources, and population—while retaining a stance of patient waiting and expectation. Is this possible? What resources might we have to assist us?

Psalm 37 may help us here. On first reading, you may have been reminded of “O Rest in the LORD,” the aria from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “Elijah” (If you ‘Google’ this, you will hear fine YouTube performances). How are we to “rest in the LORD” in the midst of the environmental challenges that threaten creation? Perhaps one response might be a re-appropriation of the Sabbath.

Sabbath assumes a relationship between work and rest. Only it is the reverse of what we often understand. Americans rest in order to work more efficiently. Sabbath theology suggests that we work in order to celebrate the Sabbath. And what is the Sabbath? Is it not the gift of menuha, rest that comes from the last day of creation? (Genesis 2:2-4). And on that day does not humankind share with all that lives the “blessings” of creation? (see Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, pp. 34-41)

Then the words of the psalmist take a deeper meaning: “Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land and enjoy security” (Psalm 37:3). Living in a Sabbath-oriented world may provide both the sense of purpose and energy to “listen to” (a root meaning of “obey”) all creation, to care and serve it, and to wait in patience—even for Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glories.

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

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 

Sunday September 25 – October 1 in Year C

What hope is there unless we address our consumption? – Tom Mundah reflects on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for September 25 – October 1, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31 

This week’s texts all wrestle with the simple question: how is the generosity of creation to be responded to? Or, as Joseph Sittler asks the question: how is creation to be both “used” and “enjoyed?” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth,” in Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, eds., Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 58.) This becomes even more crucial when we see the effects of inequality of wealth on our common call to care for the earth. 

As the Psalter reaches its conclusion with a quartet of doxologies, we are drenched in language praising and celebrating the God who is both creator and savior, who calls creatures both to enjoyment and just use of all that is. We see that theme especially in Psalm 146, where the psalmist connects the God who made heaven and earth to the one who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:6-7). In just a very few words, we see a creator who, in order to achieve the purpose of creation, is hard at work to overturn oppression, the unfair distribution of power, wealth, and resources.

A good share of the heavy-lifting in this ‘saving process’ is done by the prophets, especially Amos. He spares no one among the powerful elite. Whether they rule and administer in the north (Mount Samaria) or the south (Zion), they cannot escape (Amos 6:1). The irony seems to be the total obliviousness to coming catastrophe shown by those who benefit from a system soon to be destroyed by Assyria. Amos’ indictment comes as an ironic public lament: “Alas for those who are at ease . . . , who lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall . . . .” (Amos 6:1a, 40). In their privilege, not only do they take more than their share of resources, but they provide none of the leadership they are called to, especially in the face of impending doom. As Amos puts it, they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:6)

Therefore, the elite will share the experience of Joseph—exile! In fact, says Amos, they will be the very first to be taken, “and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (Amos 6:7b). It makes one wonder how the possession of power and wealth seem to insulate from reality. Is it being surrounded by “toadies” who continually spout what the powerful want to hear and create a “cocoon” of unreality for the powerful whether in Zion, inside the DC Beltway, or in the halls of Microsoft? 

A similar process seems to operate among broader populations in so-called “developed societies” where political and business leaders urge ‘consumers’ (the new identity that has replaced ‘citizenship’) to continue to ride the ‘luxury loungers’ of consumption, because things will continue to go on just as they have been, unless we stop shopping! Is this mania for over-consumption a kind of ‘lotus eating’ addiction that requires treatment? Is it a learned “psychology of previous investment?” (James Howard Kunstler, “Are We Trapped in a Psychology of Previous Investment?” April 16, 2012, biostruct.ca). That is, are we by mental dispositions formed by the massive advertising industry and economic structure so tied to our current “reality” that the thought of change is frightening? In the face of the possibility of change, do we hold on all the more to a ‘lifestyle’ that stresses the planet and gives us little real satisfaction? Or, is it a combination of all of these fired by the old anxiety that moves us to embrace the notion that ‘we are as gods’ and not subject to the limits of creation? In any case, these lead us to the folly of trying to sustain the unsustainable.

These questions become especially acute as we read and consider interpreting the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” Here, Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ parable demonstrates what it means for the mighty to be brought down from the thrones and the lowly lifted up (Luke 1:52). In the figure of the rich man, the warning from the Sermon on the Plain, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation, “ is confirmed (Luke 6:24). Not only do we see the continuing theme of the dangers of wealth explored, suddenly the “arrogance of wealth” emerges like ‘the great white whale’ vaulting out of the sea.

It would be almost impossible to draw a sharper contrast than that between the lives of the anonymous rich man and Lazarus. We meet a man so wealthy that he feasts every day dressed in the very best, while poor Lazarus, suffering from impaired mobility, lies at his gate hoping for anything that fell from the rich man’s table. Not only does his disability with its open sores make him unclean, this ritual impurity is compounded by dogs that lick the wounds. And then they both die.

Lazarus lands in “the bosom of Abraham,” the goal of all the pious, while the rich man is not so fortunate. Yet, the rich man continues his sense of social privilege by asking Father Abraham to have mercy on him and “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames” (Luke 16:24). Father Abraham’s answer suggests that the rich man might have responded to Lazarus’ cries for help and mercy during their lifetimes. 

But still the rich man has the “cheek” to at least send Lazarus, again seen as a ‘no-count lackey,’ to his brothers’ house where they can be warned. Sending someone from the dead might just have the impact needed to bring change. Father Abraham simply replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). This is nothing but a scathing critique of a religion that countenances a wealthy elite pretending to righteousness and ceremonial cleanness while the very basic needs of the ‘Lazaruses’ around are ignored? By telling this story, Luke’s Jesus also puts the Pharisees, characterized as “money lovers” (Luke 16:14), in their places (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke (Collegeville, 1991, p. 256).

This arrogance should sound familiar. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined this for “the Jazz Age” of 1920’s affluence in his fantasy, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories, 1920-1922, The Library of America, 2000, pp. 913–953). College student John T. Unger, from Hades, Missouri, is invited to visit fellow college student, Percy Washington, at his Montana home for the summer. While there, Unger finds that the Washington family is the richest in the world: their opulent family mansion is built on a diamond bigger than New York’s Ritz Hotel! But the Washington family’s wealth is safe only if they remain totally hidden from public view.

Vast wealth has bought this secrecy until the invention of the airplane. Now, the Washingtons are in danger of losing this protection. As the family compound is being bombed, Braddock Washington makes one more try to preserve wealth and status. After having slaves drag the largest diamond anyone has ever seen to the highest point on the family property, Washington cries, “You out there” . . . . ”Oh, you above there.” With horror, it dawns on young John T. Unger what the elder Washington is trying to do. “Braddock Washington was offering a bribe to God” (Fitzgerald, p. 948). As the distribution of wealth in North America becomes more skewed toward the wealthy, more stories like this will emerge.

So, what is a fitting attitude of God’s people toward wealth and resources?  We can learn much from 1 Timothy 6. Riffing off of the familiar assumption that “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5b), the author confronts the cleavages in wealth that likely existed among the faith community. This discourse hinges on the contrast between “contentment”(v. 6) and “love of money” (v. 10), a love that has great power to send people ‘wandering away’ from the life of faith.

How might this work? Arthur McGill suggests that seeking wealth or, “life by possession” accomplishes this by leading the one with wealth, the possessor, to imagine that she/he is “Lord of myself” (Life and Death: An American Theology, Fortress, 1988, p. 55.). What might motivate people to this endless seeking of wealth and things to possess? McGill suggests that “Their fear of death, their fear that their identity will be taken away from them” (McGill, p. 55). This is precisely what this pastoral epistle seeks to counter.

Because the Risen One, Christ Jesus has already made the “good confession” (v. 13) before the Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate, he is “the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords…to him be honor and dominion. Amen.” (vv. 15 -16)  Living in faith, then, means to live by means of the rulership of Jesus, who frees the community to enjoy contentment, literally “self rule.”  This delivers us from the merry-go-round of seeking wealth and things “to possess” and helps us to see that all creation is “gift,” where  all is intended “to do good,” so that the community can be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…so that they make take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:18-19)

This life becomes clearer for us in a conversation between Andrew Blechman of Orion magazine and author, Alan Weisman, whose new book on population, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? will be released later in September. Weisman is very clear that when we discuss population in the U.S. we need always to factor per capita consumption into the equation. As he says, “there is no condom for consumption.” (Orion, September-October 2013, p. 55.)

 For that reason, like Paul, Weisman recommends “contentment,” “self-rule:” “There is no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate.” (Orion, p. 55)  Obviously, there are better reasons to get off our couches than adding to our collection of that which is unneeded. 

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

 

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

 

Sunday September 18 – 24 in Year C

Embracing a gift economy – Tom Mundahl reflects on Luke 16:1-13.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for September 18-24, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

A recent steamy August afternoon found my son and me in a movie theater eager to see Neil Blomkamp’s dystopian film, “Elysium.”  Set in the year 2154, when, despite the efforts of websites like this one, life on planet earth has been degraded to utter bleakness. Nevertheless, there is still a wealthy minority living on the satellite Elysium, who enjoy clean water, air, and ease just nineteen minutes by space freighter away from “plantation earth.” Not only was this film a good escape from the summer heat, it reminded me of the “problem of wealth” offered by this Sunday’s readings.

The theme is first heard from Amos, “the herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), who brings God’s word to those “who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land . . . .” (Amos 8:4). It is echoed by the music of Psalm 113 that praises the LORD “who raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes . . . .” (Psalm 113:7-8).  But it is our Gospel text, the parable of “the Rich Man and the Manager” (Luke 16:1-13) that provides the drama and depth to focus our discussion.

Unlike most traditional interpretations, we begin with the rich man. The problem of wealth is central to this section of Luke. From the ‘solid citizens’ who turn down the invitation to the banquet and are replaced by the ‘poor and outcast’ (Luke 14:18-22), to the parables in Luke 15 that confront the religious establishment’s criticism of Jesus’ habit of dining with these folks (15:1-2), to the parable of “the Rich Man and Lazarus” following today’s passage (Luke 16:19-31), the warning against centering one’s life on wealth is clear (cf. Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol 1. Fortress, 1991 pp. 185-186.) Before there is a problem with a shifty manager, the sheer fact of wealth must be confronted.

The problem of wealth is unveiled by the introduction to the parable. Just as the introduction to the previous parable, “there was a man who had two sons” (15:11), suggests tension, so the simple sentence “there was a rich man who had a manager”(16:1) suggests conflict to come. The fuel for these conflicts is money and property. And, not surprisingly, both the younger son and the manager engage in the same activity of “squandering property” (Luke 15:13, Luke 16:1). If the reaction of the “running father” to the “prodigal” surprises, the ultimate commendation of the manager by the rich master (Luke 16:8) nearly takes our breath away!

What prompts this unexpected response? As the first charges against the manager surface, it is natural that the owner asks for an accounting. At first, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, this ‘audit’ is not necessarily punitive.  It may be more a simple matter of ‘let’s go over the books and see how things stand.’  (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 244)

But this is no simple matter for the manager. Since he knows the difficulty he is in, there is desperation in his mind as he imagines alternatives, until the crisis forces a decision. “I have decided what to do so that when I am dismissed as manager, people will welcome me into their homes” (Luke 16:4). Without delay, he summons his master’s debtors and settles their accounts with deep discounts (Luke 16:6-7).

Amazingly, the master commends him for (what NRSV translates as) his “shrewdness” (phronimus), a word that may also be translated as “prudence.” Whether it is “shrewd cleverness” or “worldly prudence,” it is a quality that “the Parabler” wishes that the new community, “the children of light,” would learn from (Luke 16:8b). Perhaps the reasoning underlying this advice is the importance of using “dishonest wealth” (lit. “unjust mammon”) to make friends who will welcome them. Certainly, in keeping with the Hellenistic notion of “reciprocity of benefit,” the former manager has now formed bonds of obligation with those receiving discounts, who will now be expected to open their homes to him.  (Johnson, p. 244)

But the rich master’s commendation suggests a move beyond reciprocity, simple ‘deal making.’ Perhaps an alternative translation to “shrewdness” is “appropriateness.” This sudden burst of discounting unveils the structure of economic activity and its basis in real human relationships. It discloses to the rich man the interdependence of the flow of economic activity and gives him a way out from the idolatrous weight of endlessly seeking wealth, mammon, a Semitic word meaning “that in which one fully trusts.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, III. Oxford: 2001, New Testament, p. 128, n. 9)

No wonder this parable is completed with words suggesting the authority of a ‘dominical saying:’ “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes [perhaps better: ‘a community that lasts’]” (Luke 16:9). Suddenly the realm of economics is ‘normed’ by friendship (“make friends for yourself”). What kind of an economics might that be?

Clearly, Luke believes that possessions can be used for good, especially when, instead of being kept out of circulation by wealthy greed (lit. mammon) they flow into a pattern of bargaining kept in check by friendship, a force even more powerful than the reciprocity sought by the manager.

Johnson is partially right in holding that “The crisis character of the story is essential. It is the manager’s ability to respond to the crisis, literally a “visitation of his Lord,” which is the point of the story, the reason for the master’s admiration, and the example for the disciples. His cleverness consists in continuing to disperse possessions . . . . (author’s emphasis, Johnson, 247). By reducing the amounts owed, a new kind of economic activity is foreshadowed. But the rich master also learns from the manager’s action, for he is the one who “commends” the shifty steward.  And it is this master who begins to see it as a way beyond the shackles of “mammon,” a new way of being.

This new vision of economic relations as a dispersal of possessions or a circulation of gifts surely fits into Luke’s “new exodus” theme. It is a process that will ‘lift up the lowly’ (cf. Luke 1:52) and characterize the new community (cf. Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-35). In his important work, The Gift (New York: Vintage, 1983), Lewis Hyde describes what can happen when trade relations are re-imagined.  Hyde describes anthropologist Lorna Marshall’s work with a band of Bushmen in South Africa in the early 1950’s. Upon leaving after several years of work, she gave each woman in the band enough cowrie shells for a short necklace, one large brown shell and twenty smaller gray ones. When Marshall returned a year later, there were very few cowrie shells to be seen among the women in the band where they had been given. Marshall was dumfounded to notice that because of the flow of gift-giving “they appeared, not as whole necklaces, but in ones and twos in people’s ornaments to the edges of the region” (quoted in Hyde, p. 74).

Certainly this moves beyond economy as we understand it. Yet this notion of living generously with possessions is clearly in harmony with the teachings following the parable (Luke 16:10-13)  Perhaps most important—if not chilling—for North Americans is the final pronouncement: “You cannot serve God and wealth [“mammon”] (Luke 16:13). Johnson puts an exclamation point on this saying in his translation by retaining “mammon” and capitalizing it to remind us that Mammon certainly retains godlike power—especially in our culture.

Transforming culture is, of course, what this parable is about. It is crucial that the parable itself ends with the notion of being welcomed into “eternal homes” (lit. “tents”, skene, another reference to the New Exodus experience (Luke 16: 9). Because of what has happened in Jerusalem with cross and resurrection, God’s people are secure in their pilgrim existence and free to live by gift.  This cultural change toward a “gift economy” has enormous implications for earth care. Seeing what we use in our lives not as possessions to control but as gifts to be shared could not be more important.

Blomkamp’s “Elysium” affirms this. While oppressed Earth dwellers long for the “good life” enjoyed by the 1% on Elysium, the film’s hero, Max, (Matt Damon) still carries a medallion given to him by a Roman Catholic sister, his former teacher. As the film reaches its climax with Max expending his life to find a way to use Elysium’s medical technology to heal the leukemia of the daughter of a childhood friend and, as a result, opening access to the 99% who have been excluded, the dying Max opens the medallion. What he sees is no iconic image of a saint; it is a photo of the beautiful Earth taken from Elysium.

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

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

 

 

 

Season of Creation 2019: Sunday September 29 in Year C (Universe Sunday)

There is one Wisdom, one Beauty, one Mind that flows through the universe. – Leah Schade reflects on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation

Readings for Fourth Sunday (Universe), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Proverbs 8:22-31
Psalm 148
Colossians 1:15-20
John 6:41-51

The passages for this Sunday can provide a platform where science and mysticism can come together. Erich Jantsch, in his book The Self-Organizing Universe (Pergamon; 1st edition, 1980), said that God is the mind of the universe—the self-organizing principal of cohesion and organization that evolves as the universe evolves. It is the mind in all things, in the fire, in the ecosystem, in the amoeba, in the galaxies, and in us.

The passages in the scripture readings echo this concept of the wisdom/mind of the universe. The creation story in Proverbs and Colossians is a cosmic story that goes back to the very beginning of the universe. Remember Big Bang theory taught in science class? That supernova had a life, death, and resurrection, in that it birthed the elements of the universe as it exploded. Its death brought new life—helium, hydrogen, the beginning of galaxies. This means that Nature itself contains this imprint of the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is in every place, in every creature. That’s the revelatory power of Nature.

The image of the Cosmic Christ stresses that Christ’s lordship is an eternal presence through time and space encompassing all of Creation in the ultimate fulfillment and consummation of God’s will for the cosmos. Joseph Sittler’s interpretation contains seeds of an early ecofeminism, in that he identifies nature as “God’s sister”:

We must not fail to see the nature and size of this issue that Paul confronts and encloses in this vast Christology. In propositional form it is simply this: 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 God’s home, God’s definite place, the theatre of God’s selfhood, in cooperation with God’s neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature, God’s sister (Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity:  Redemption within Creation,” in World Council of Churches Meeting. New Delhi, India: 1961, reprinted 1985, p. 3).

While the ontological implications of such a relationship between God and nature (i.e., if they are siblings, who is their parent?) are worth exploration at another time, what the preacher may wish to highlight is the way in which Sittler expands a salvific Christology to be inclusive of nature.

The matter might be put another way: the address of Christian thought is most weak precisely where human ache is most strong. We have had, and have, a christology of the moral soul, a christology of history, affirmations so huge as to fill the space marked out by ontological questions. But we do not have, at least not in such effective force as to have engaged the thought of the common life, a daring, penetrating, life-affirming christology of nature. The theological magnificence of cosmic christology lies, for the most part, still tightly folded in the Church’s innermost heart and memory. Its power is nascent among us all in our several styles of teaching, preaching, worship; its waiting potency is available for release in kerygmatic theology, in moral theology, in liturgical theology, in sacramental theology (Sittler, p. 9).

With this in mind, a sermon for this Sunday should take its time with Proverbs and Psalm 148 to trace the contours of the story of the Cosmos’ and Earth’s ancient, primordial history in order to provide the memory of God’s steadfastness and love through the unfathomable reaches of time.

Wisdom again is found at the heart of this poem in Proverbs, explaining her origins as being with Yahweh at the very beginning of creation, intimately forming every aspect of earth, water, plants and animals. As Dianne Bergant observes: “From the pathways of human society, she transports her hearers to the primordial arena of creation.” (Dianne Bergant, Israel’s Wisdom Literature : A Liberation-Critical Reading. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 83). The preacher may even want to expand the lectionary reading to the end of the poem, where Wisdom beckons people to follow her. “It seems Wisdom goes out into the marketplace in order to invite the simple into her home” (Bergant, p. 84). Bergant sees an interesting connection here “between the insights garnered in the marketplace and the very structures of creation. This leads one to conclude that the various kinds of wisdom delineated above are not so much separate realities as they are different aspects of the same reality” (Bergant, p. 84). Thus the marketplace, which tends to see itself as independent and apart from, lording over, and in control of creation, is, in reality, completely reliant on Creation, and thus Wisdom, for its very existence.

What implications does this have for the Church in its task of public theology? If the Church follows Wisdom’s lead, we will also locate ourselves at the busiest corners and crossroads where the public gathers for business and social meetings. The Church will issue invitations on behalf of Wisdom to become disciples of her teachings. And the Church will not mince words about the consequences of turning away from her instruction. The Church will invite disciples of Wisdom to enter her house, her oikos, the very Creation-home itself. This is where they will learn from her the most profound and life-giving teachings.

The Gospel text from John illustrates the sensuous particularity of Sophia-Christ’s teachings. “The Bread of Life” motif is one that is so tangible, so earthy, so incarnational. A children’s sermon could unveil a loaf of freshly baked bread and ask the young ones to smell it and share what memories are evoked for them. Grandma’s kitchen, a favorite corner bakery, an aunt’s house at the holidays, all remind us that love is often expressed by the labor of our hands meant for the hunger of our mouths and bodies.

Nowhere is this more real than at the Eucharist, where the cosmic and the particular come together. Think of the doxology we sing or speak at the time of Holy Communion. Doxa means glory, radiance, beauty—it is a cosmic word; it is the radiance that permeates all things. Hildegard of Bingham says that there is no creature that does not have a radiance—tiny single-celled sea creature, an elephant, a redwood, a baby. Even the atoms of the universe contains photons—radiance, light rays! The glory of God, the radiance of the Cosmic Christ is, literally, in all things!

Every person is a unique expression of that radiance—there is no one else in the history of the universe who was you, or is you, or ever will be you. You, too, are the Alpha and the Omega. You are the first and last you. And there is but one Wisdom, one Beauty, one Mind that flows through it all.

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

Season of Creation 2019: Sunday September 22 in Year C (Storm Sunday)

Finding the peace of God amidst storms, we are called to wake up and face up to the storms we have created.  Leah Schade reflects on the third Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation

Readings for the Third Sunday (Storm), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Job 28:20-27
Psalm 29
1 Corinthians 1:21-31
Luke 8:22-25

When I was a child I looked forward to thunderstorms. At the first rumble of thunder and crack of lightning, my father would call my three siblings and me out to the porch swing where we all cuddled under the blanket and sang the songs he taught us. As the rain came down in sheets, bathing the green yard, we were bathed in the warmth of a father’s love singing “Down in the Valley.” There was a feeling of peace in the midst of the storm.

The writer of Psalm 29 seems to have a similar positive experience with storms. While there is certainly awe of those mighty energies of nature that can break trees and cause the wilderness to shake, there is also a feeling of comfort hearing the voice of God over the waters. The psalmist recognizes that nature gives testimony to God’s ultimate power over the forces of nature. In the temple of Earth, all say, “Glory!”—both humankind and other-kind.

Insurance agencies and power company crews have a less positive view of these energies of nature. Interestingly, when major weather events happen they are called “acts of God.”  But the attitude is not necessarily one of reverence. When those broken trees fall on houses and cars, snapping lines strung between poles and cutting off electricity, very few are saying “Glory.” More likely they are cursing or lamenting the destruction left behind.

Something has happened to the quality and quantity of storms in the last few decades, however, that has fundamentally changed the nature of these weather events.  In an interview with Bill Moyers on climate change, scientist Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, described the situation: “2011 was an all-time record year in the United States, for example. We had 14 individual climate and weather related disasters that each cost this country more than $1 billion. That was an all-time record, blew away previous records. And in 2012 we had events ranging from the summer-like days in January in Chicago with people out on the beach, clearly not a normal occurrence, an unusually warm spring, record setting searing temperatures across much of the lower 48, one of the worst droughts that America has ever experienced, a whole succession of extreme weather events.” (http://billmoyers.com/segment/anthony-leiserowitz-on-making-people-care-about-climate-change/)

Are these really “acts of God”?  Or should they be described as “acts of human-induced climate change”? How easy it is for some to wave away these new climate realities as just “part of the natural cycle of the earth.” But the refusal to recognize that climate change is caused by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels that leads to greenhouse emissions that warm the planet and cause untold counts of destruction and suffering is actually a form of evil. Ecotheologian Cynthia Moe-Lobeda calls it “systemic evil” that enlists the “over-consuming class” of society in its never-ending greed for more, at the cost of untold suffering of billions across the planet (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil:  Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Fortress Press, MN, 2013).

So what is the voice of the Lord saying today, in the midst of these catastrophic weather events and the climate crisis?  Where is Wisdom-Sophia when we need her most?  At a time when our little boat of Planet Earth is more threatened than it has ever been – by a storm of our own making—it appears that someone is blithely asleep on the deck below.

The reading from Job reminds us that God’s wisdom is sometimes hidden. There is a mystery, a profound unknownness to the inner workings of God’s mind, so to speak. And, according to verse 28, the way to access that wisdom is through fear of the Lord and departing from evil. The Hebrew word for fear in this passage is yi’rah, meaning fear, reverence and respect. The problem with the corporations who profit so mightily from our addiction to fossil fuels is that they have no fear of the Lord. In fact, they think of themselves as gods, and, indeed, appear to have the power to affect wind and water just as much as God.

The preacher of today’s readings may want to give the congregation an example of someone or some entity departing from evil because they finally “get it,” grasping the import of their decisions and actions. Moe-Lobeda’s book gives excellent examples of individuals and groups of citizens who are, in a sense, waking up to the reality of the state of our planet. They are realizing the way in which our purchases and choices of energy sources are connected with the storms and droughts that ravage our communities and lives. They are rousing from sleep, as it were, and finally taking up the work of rebuking those economic systems that cause the raging wind and waves. Perhaps that is one way to understand the story of Jesus being roused from sleep to calm the storm. It may be that his actions were a kind of parable: “The kingdom of God is like waking from sleep to confront the storm.”

Verse 24 of the First Corinthians passage reminds us that we are called. In what way do we understand our calling as Christians to stand up together to confront the storm of systemic evil and call for another way to live? It can feel intimidating to stand up to the mighty Goliaths of industry who laugh at our tiny, insignificant voices. To paraphrase verse 26, many in the environmental movement are neither powerful nor of noble birth. Aside from the handful of celebrities who lend their name-recognition to the cause, the majority of those who work in the environmental movement are ordinary citizens, many of whom had never been politically active, but now are compelled to do something to respond to threats to their children’s and community’s air, water, land and public health. And those individuals are often despised and publicly derided by bloggers and pundits directly or indirectly paid through polluting corporations. Yet we have faith that the actions of those who are “low” will “reduce to nothing things that are.” And as Christians, we proclaim this action as initiated by God and ultimately giving glory to God.

The good news for me as a Christian environmental activist who is storm-weary from skirmishes ranging from confronting fracking to standing up to a proposed tire burner in my community, is that ultimately the powers that think themselves greater than God will fall just as easily as the waves and wind before the hand of Jesus. Internally, the storms that rage in me are just as answerable to the command of Jesus. With one cry to the Master, the wild waves and wind always calm themselves in his presence, and, once again, I experience peace in the midst of the storms.

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

Season of Creation 2019: Sunday September 15 in Year C (Animal Sunday)

Wisdom leads us to change our relationships with our animal brothers and sisters in God’s creation.  Leah Schade reflects on the second Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation

Readings for the Second Sunday (Animal), Season of Creation, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022) 

Job 39:1-8, 26-30
Psalm 104:14-23
1 Corinthians 1:10-23
Luke 12:22-31

Once again, wisdom is the byword for these passages in Scripture that open a conversation about what humans consider worth knowing and valuing in the world, especially regarding animals. These texts would be ideal for a Blessing the Animals Sunday where the congregation can be invited to bring their pets, farm animals, or pictures of their favorite creatures to the service. Consider having a soundtrack of animal noises in the background during the prelude or at key parts of the service, invoking the presence of our other-kind sisters and brothers in God’s Creation.

Both the passages in Job and Psalm 104 engage in a positive theology of nature wherein animals are not just passive receptors of God’s grace, but actively doing God’s work with their very existence. The processes of their life in the ecosystems God established testify to an enduring truth: God’s work never fails. What does fail, however, is human willingness to recognize the intrinsic value of the animals and plants who share our home on Earth. Too often animals are seen as nothing but our servants, entertainment, subjects of scientific experimentation, or food sources.

I once toured a “factory farm” that included warehouses of hundreds of turkey poults wandering motherless and shivering across sterile, hay-strewn concrete floors.  Outside were acres of large pens packed so tightly with young turkeys they could barely turn around, the scene reminiscent of dismal German concentration camps. When I asked the farmer whether it bothered him to see the turkeys in such a state, I received a blank look. These turkeys were nothing more than a cash crop for him, no different than the rows of genetically-modified corn stalks in his fields. He was not an evil man by any means, and in fact was a faithful member of a local church. But I had to wonder about the emotional disconnect the enabled him to ignore, deny, or otherwise not register the suffering of these animals in his care.

And then I had to wonder at my own emotional disconnect when I next went to the grocery store and picked up the sterile, plastic-wrapped package of turkey meat hanging from the thin metal prong in the refrigerated aisle. Which of the young turkeys huddled in the warehouse would I now feed to my children? All of a sudden, meat-buying became uncomfortable because of what I had come to know about the turkeys.

“Consider,” urges Jesus in Luke 12:22-31. It is Katanoeo, in Greek.  It means “perceive, remark, observe, understand, fix one’s eyes and attention on.” In Job 39, God asks the man if he “knows” about the animals in the world around him. It is Yada in Hebrew.  It means to “know, learn to know, use one’s mind, to be acquainted with.” The function of Wisdom in this week’s readings, then, is to help us to perceive God’s Creation in a way that is not self-serving, but self-decentering.  Preachers of these texts might consider sharing their own story of a time when they came to a point of uncomfortable awareness of the suffering their own purchasing decisions made when it comes to animals. Examples abound: seeing a YouTube video of chickens with their beaks cut off in tight cages; pictures of deformed dogs from “puppy mills” gone awry in the business of supplying pets; the conversation with the vegan who confronts us with their ethical reasons for refusing to eat meat.

The role of the Church in the twenty-first century, according to Thomas Berry, is to help shape a future that is based on human-Earth relations. “The future of the other two relations [human-divine and inter-human] depends upon this third relation, our human capacity to recognize our place in the structure of the universe and to fulfill our role within this setting” [Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2009), 46-7]. Berry states that our “ultimate concern” must be “the integrity of the universe upon which the human depends in such an absolute manner” (p. 48). Berry coined the term “Ecozoic Era” to describe the period he would like to see emerge when humans “would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner. We need to establish ourselves in a single integral community including all component members of planet Earth” (48-49).

This can only happen, says Berry, when humans come to see their place and role in the universe as completely dependent on the habitats, flora, and fauna of Earth, all of which have intrinsic value not dependent on human needs or wants. Accepting this limited role is the first, and most difficult, step that humans must take. The next step for healing the damaged planet is based on an operating principle of creating continuity between the human and the non-human in every aspect of human life, from institutions and professions to programs and activities. If these two steps are taken, Berry sees hope for humanity’s and the planet’s survival.

Of course, the world will see this kind of animal-ethics-activism by people of faith as “foolishness,” as Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians reminds us. The meat-processing corporations that profit obscenely from our addiction to meat would much rather have our Blessing the Animals service end with petting the pets and returning home for Sunday dinner complete with hormone-injected roast beef. Likewise, those in our congregations whose livings depend on our subjugation and consumption of animals for their livelihood will not take kindly to a heavy-handed “law” sermon that leaves the congregation with feelings of guilt for their sins against animals with no recourse to the Gospel.

So what would God’s grace look like for human and animal in this sermon? For me, it came from a vegetarian friend who once gave me an option between giving up meat and completely throwing up my hands in frustrated despair at my own meat-aholism. “Just try one day a week without eating meat,” she suggested. A meat Sabbath! A day of rest for my body from having to process protein.  A day to eat lower on the food chain. A day when one animal will not have to die in order for me to live.

Wisdom spoke through my friend that day, I recalled, as I stood before the plastic-wrapped turkey on the metal prong.  I pulled my cart away, and turned back to the produce aisle.

 

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

Season of Creation 2019: Sunday September 8 in Year C (Ocean Sunday)

Wisdom teaches that what God has gathered up in Christ, we humans should make healthy, free from toxins, cleaned of trash, and restored to abundance. Leah Schade reflects on the first Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation  

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

Job 38:1-18
Psalm 104:1-9, 24-26
Ephesians 1:3-10
Luke 5:1-11

As we begin a sermon series on Wisdom as the force of creativity behind Creation and the energy that enables the human and other-than-human members of the Earth community to fulfill their roles, it will be helpful to provide the congregation with a framework within which to understand the concept of Wisdom.  Elizabeth Johnson’s work in She Who Is and Women, Earth and Creator Spirit is one possibility for such a framework.  She suggests that Sophia, the female personification of Holy Wisdom, can and should be the lens through which the Trinity is viewed, as well as the language through which we speak and hear about God.  Thus she coins the terms “Spirit-Sophia,” “Jesus-Sophia,” and “Mother-Sophia” as an alternative Trinitarian formulation, which places Wisdom/Sophia not in a subordinate position, but as the controlling metaphor.

Johnson believes that the power of the Woman Wisdom image may enable contemporary women and other oppressed and marginalized members of the human community to move beyond the restrictions of patriarchal circumscriptions and realize their power to effect change for themselves, Earth, and their children.  According to Johnson, the Church is the most obvious candidate for modeling what it means to answer Wisdom’s call to undergo transformative attention to those most vulnerable, including the species, habitats, and human beings most threatened by oppression, and to take responsibility for the health and respectful treatment of all Creation.

Applying this Sophia/Wisdom framework to the readings for this Sunday yields interesting points of entry for preaching.  For example, Psalm 104:24 states that “in wisdom” (hokmah in Hebrew) God created the earth.  Johnson reminds us that not only is the grammatical gender of the word for wisdom feminine in Hebrew, but “the biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other women’s roles.  In every instance, Wisdom symbolizes transcendent power pervading and ordering the world, both nature and human beings, interacting with them all to lure them onto the path of life,” (Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, p. 51).

Wisdom, then, has many roles to play in God’s ongoing Creation, working alongside Jesus and the Holy Spirit to enliven, restore, teach and bring justice to our world.  In the reading from Luke, for example, we see an example of the way in which elements of Earth become Jesus’ teaching partner.  When Jesus tells Peter to let down his net into the lake of Gennesaret, Peter protests, saying in effect that their entire fishing trip had yielded nothing to that point—so what difference would it make now?  Yet when Peter acquiesces and follows Jesus’ command, the amount of fish in the net is so large they need the nearby boats to come haul it in. The waters and the fish play an important didactic role in teaching Peter and the others that God’s power and abundance never cease to surprise us, gracing us beyond all expectations.

But the reality that also needs to be stated in a sermon is that if Peter should let down his nets in open waters today, most likely his haul would be significantly compromised.  Overfishing would result in smaller and fewer fish.  And the nets would be heavy, not from aquatic life but from a disgusting array of trash, poisons, and toxic waste.  Simply enter the words “trash in the ocean” on http://images.google.com/ to see (and perhaps show the congregation during the sermon?) pictures of floating islands of trash both on the surface and below the water.  Human waste chokes and poisons marine life in ways that cause immense suffering that most of us never see, nor want to face.

Jesus’ teaching on the Gennesaret Sea is not just a metaphor for how the Kingdom of God will manifest itself.  That teachable moment has important significance for this particular time of ecological destruction, because it shows us that the very illustration that Jesus uses—the basic, natural and life-giving phenomenon of fish thriving in a healthy aquatic ecosystem—that very process is under threat of annihilation.  This is a troubling, but accurate reframing of the Gennesaret fishing expedition for today’s world.  Admittedly, it will be difficult for a congregation to hear.

But just as Jesus’ teaching ministry in first century Palestine was meant to shake people up and get them thinking about things in a new way so that they could hear the Gospel clearly, so must our teaching and preaching today include the Good News.  We hear so many examples of what human beings are doing to desecrate the Earth, it is important for us—especially as Christians who proclaim a theology of the cross that reminds us that God shows up in the last place you would think to look—to proclaim the Good News about what God is doing to restore the oceans, seas, rivers and streams, especially as they connect to the human and other-than-human lives around and within them.

In Job 38:1-18, we notice that the words “knowledge,” “know,” “comprehend” and “understanding” are prominent in God’s questions to Job.  Realizing how little we truly know and understand about Creation helps to humble the arrogance and hubris of the human. Part of our calling as Creation-Care-Christians is to devote ourselves to learning about the ecosystems that sustain us. Congregations can host speakers and fairs that highlight local watersheds, lead trash clean-up events through local waterways, and write letters asking legislators and corporations to propose and support better waste management practices and policies.

The Christological statement of faith made by Paul in Ephesians 1:3-10 tells us that it is specifically through Jesus Christ that wisdom (Sophia in Greek) and insight (phroneisis in Greek) help us to understand the mysteries that once were closed to us.  And what is it that we are being enabled to comprehend?  It is that God is “gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth,” (v. 10).  Our preaching can echo this proclamation that Christ continues to gather up all things into himself.  And we humans can continue the good work of seeing that what is gathered up is healthy, free from toxins, cleaned of trash, and restored to abundance.

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

 

Sunday September 11 – 17 in Year C

We are called to exercise the “priestly task” of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation. Tom Mundahl reflects on Exodus 32:7-14 and Luke 15

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  

Readings for September 11-17, Year C: (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

As we enter the last ‘trimester’ of Ordinary Time, our Common Lectionary readings continue to point God’s people toward creation care. This is particularly true as we take up once more Luke’s theme of New Exodus. Not only is this theme stated explicitly in the Transfiguration, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah converse about Jesus’ “exodus” (NRSV, “departure”) to take place in Jerusalem (9:31); it is suggested throughout the Gospel.

For example, Luke presents us with another “Song of Miriam,” the Magnificat, this time not to accompany dancing on the far shore of the Reed Sea, but singing in response to Elizabeth’s acknowledgment of the importance of this child, whose birth will not only shower creation with mercy, but “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55).  What’s more, the very same (and rare) verb denoting the power of the Most High “overshadowing” this young woman, who becomes the faithful partner in birthing new creation, is repeated as the disciples on the mountain of Transfiguration are “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High impelling them toward participation in this New Exodus breaking in Jerusalem (Luke 9:34). This “overshadowing” also suggests the wind, fire, and verbal–interpretative fireworks that “create” and energize the new community in witness to God’s transformative action (Acts 2:1-21).

Even the first Exodus needs to be more broadly interpreted as much more than redemption history. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “. . . it is the Creator God who redeems Israel from Egypt. . . . . What God does in redemption is in the service of endangered life goals in and for the creation” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13). Fretheim demonstrates that the Exodus narrative provides “cosmic purpose” behind God’s call of Israel in a setting of “creational need” to overcome the anti-life nature of Pharaoh’s power. This creation power once more roots  God’s people, who have come through the sea, on “dry land,” an image of new creation trumping power-mad chaos.

The purpose of this Exodus is creation-wide.  Israel is called to be a “nation of priests” –not as a sign of status and authority—but, just as a priest mediates hope and mercy to the community, Israel is to provide these for all of God’s creation. That is, the story of Israel –God’s people—is not an end in itself, but is told and enacted on behalf of all in the most inclusive sense (Fretheim, p. 14).

The breadth of this intention for the whole of creation is demonstrated dramatically at just what seems the moment of greatest crisis in the Exodus journey –the fashioning of “gods” in the form of a golden calf. Our reading depicts the one called LORD as being so disgusted that he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely . . . .” (Exodus 32:7). In fact, the Holy One is so incensed that, finally, the request is simply to be “let alone” (Exodus 32:10).

But Moses will not let this God alone. Instead, Moses acts as “priest” interceding for his people. He mounts a broad appeal to God’s reasonableness and reputation: Why give the Egyptians more ammunition with which to laugh at this so-called “god” who brought people out to the wilderness just to kill them off? (Exodus 32:12).  Even more importantly, Moses appeals to God’s own promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) (Exodus 32:13). Clearly, if there was a divine change of mind, this Holy One would appear no more reliable than the “calf builders” (Fretheim, p. 286).

“And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). While this is a “change of mind,” a “turning” of decision, it is far from what we might understand as “repentance of sin.” Instead, “divine repentance is the reversal of a direction taken or a decision made. But God does repent of evil (ra’). Evil has reference to anything in life that makes for less than total well-being . . . .” (Fretheim, 286).

Responding to Moses’ priestly intercession, God moves beyond the people’s calf-building perversity in order to fulfill promises made that ultimately will bring about “salvation–healing” for all, including  creation. As Fretheim reminds us, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all” (Fretheim, p. 287).

Crucial to this intention is the calling of this Exodus people to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As Norman Wirzba reminds us: “At the most fundamental level, to be a priest of the world means that one is committed to receiving the world as a gift from God, and then seeing in the sharing of these gifts their most proper use. To be a priest (whether as a community or an individual) is to place oneself at the intersection of God’s sacrificial love and the sacrifices of creation’s many members as food and nurture” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: 2011, p. 205).

This is just what the Judean religious elite Jesus confronts has failed to do. And the leaders’ failure emphatically reminds us of the stubborn people for whom Moses intercedes. Luke writes, “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2). It is no surprise that this language echoes that of the Exodus people grumbling (LXX) about their lack of water to drink. (Exodus 17:3)

But here the “grumbling” is about Jesus’ welcoming all—even sinners—to the new creation community. In his teaching, Jesus demonstrates “priestly behavior.” Instead of condemning those called to live out a “priestly role”—interceding for and teaching the people—Jesus “intercedes” for them by sharing parables that free them to see the world in a new way so they may fulfill their priestly calling.

The three parallel stories told in Luke 15 not only contrast finding and losing, they provide the antidote to “grumbling” in celebration. The shepherd, the woman, and the Father all call those around them to “rejoice with me” (Luke 15: 6, 9, 32). Why celebrate? Because what was lost has been found. And, as both of the parables in our section make clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

This is precisely the function of priestly leadership: not only to intercede for the “lost,” but to make it clear that they are welcome to take their place at the table of celebration (Luke 14:12-14). This breadth of invitation also reminds us that, having been found and nourished, we are all called to the “priestly task” of interceding and caring for creation.

Restoring the wholeness of creation and community is the purpose of the Most High who “overshadows” young Mary. This happens by toppling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:35, 1: 46-55). It is the purpose of the inner circle of disciples being “overshadowed” by the divine presence at the Transfiguration, namely, to serve as witnesses to a New Exodus in Jerusalem whose consequences are cosmic (Luke 9:34). This is much more than a matter of putting the “lowly” on the elite thrones; God’s people are “elevated” by receiving the creational gift of a new calling—to care for all that God has made.

While reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse in preparation for a book discussion group, I was taken by his description of the seemingly intractable challenges of dealing with the environmental ravages caused by a declining mining industry in Montana. Diamond cites a spokesperson for a large smelting company, ASARCO, who could not understand how the firm could be held responsible for all the damage it had caused. “Isn’t this the modus operandi of American capitalism? Business leaders are more likely to be accountants or attorneys than members of the clergy”  (Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005, p. 37).

If there are a few clergy among those reading this, you know the implication: clergy, as ineffectual as we might be, are the only ones who are tasked with struggling with the “the values” that might raise questions about corporate behavior. While this is the calling of all God’s people, at least this representative of the copper industry challenges “clergy” to perform their priestly roles.  If “clergy” is rooted in the Greek kleros, a term carrying the sense of “being assigned to a task,” then perhaps we need to actually exercise that ‘priestly task’ of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation on the way to other “goals.”

Late in the summer of 2013, a Bloomberg News On-line Report indicated that in the past year Las Vegas had once more become the center of a new “real estate bubble.” The intensity of this boom in housing and other building is indicated by the fact that 60% of the recent purchases have been cash transactions!  (Kathleen Howley, “Bubbles Bloom Anew in Desert as Buyers Wager on Las Vegas,” Bloomberg.com, August 20, 2013)

At precisely the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that continued drought has forced a reduction in water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, the Las Vegas Valley’s major water source. In fact, if there is no change in drought conditions, especially with winter snows that fill the Colorado River, by 2015, the water supply will have to be curtailed (Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review–Journal, online, August 16, 2013).

What is the “assigned task” to God’s priestly people? Is it to lead the “grumbling” at the lack of water? (Exodus 17:3). Or, is it to focus on the life-giving preciousness of water in worship, learning, service, and action, leading to new ways of using water and, perhaps, to new patterns of settling our bioregions? Another “New Exodus” in the desert!

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

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