Category Archives: Lectionary Commentaries

The Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

Wisdom is the careful husbanding of resources for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures.

By Dennis Ormseth

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

 

The story of the wedding at Cana, the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, is a major puzzle for many of its interpreters. John McClure, for example, finds it “one of the most mysterious and ambiguous stories in the entire Bible.” From its opening notation of time, “on the third day,” (“patently unclear”) to its triumphant conclusion—“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”—McClure finds the story confusing and baffling: “It is hard to see how saving a wedding party, even by means of a miracle, can be interpreted as having ‘revealed his [Jesus’] glory, something that in John’s Gospel is almost entirely reserved for Jesus’ passion and resurrection.” Perhaps, he opines, mystery is the point: “Jesus simply does not fit in neatly as an invited guest in the ordinary rountines and rituals of our lives. We can only approach this Jesus with awe and wonder, and with complete openness to what he can and will do in our lives” (John S. MClure, “Second Sunday after Epiphany,”  New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004:  Advent Through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003: pp. 87-89). 

Raymond Brown shares at least some of McClure’s puzzlement: “Theological themes and innuendo so dominate the Cana narrative,” Brown observes, “that it is very difficult to reconstruct a convincing picture of what is thought to have happened and the motivation of the dramatis personae.” Brown nevertheless attempts to rescue the narrative’s historical  and theological plausibility by urging his reader to consider that, like the other miracles of Jesus, this one answers “an unexpected physical need that in the particular circumstance cannot be satisfied by natural means,” and does so, in a modest and discrete way “untypical of the atmosphere of the Hellenistic wonders.” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII). New York: Doubleday, 1966; p.101-02). Theologically, this “first sign had the same purpose that all the subseqent signs will have, namely, revelation about the person of Jesus.” Scholarly preoccupation with the replacement of the water for Jewish purification, changing water to wine, the great abundace of wine, Mary’s intercession, the reaction of the headwaiter, can easily distract us from the primary focus “as in all Johannine stories, on Jesus as the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world” (Brown, pp. 103-04). 

To McClure’s question, “How did the wedding in Cana reveal the glory of Jesus?” Brown would answer: “Messianic replacement and abundance.” These are major themes of the Gospel, Brown notes: “the replacement of Jewish institutions and religious views” is a  leading theme of Chapters 2-4; in chapters 5 through 10, Jesus’s “actions and discourses” often serve to replace the motifs of Jewish feasts. So here also: for the reader of the Gospel, replacement of water for the rites of purification by choicest wine is a sign of who Jesus is, namely, the one sent by the Father who is now the only way to the Father.” Mary’s statement, “They have no wine,” is thus plausibly both an observation concerning the embarrasing shortage, but also “a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purification, much in the vein of Mark vii 1-24” (Brown, p. 104). For the disciples who could not yet have seen this replacement, on the other hand, there were signs they would have known and recognized as messianic: the wedding feast and the choice wine are Old Testament symbols of “messianic times and the new dispensation.” That Jesus gives people wine in abundance fits particularly well with the image of ‘dining at Wisdom’s table:’”  “drinking her wine” is a symbol of accepting her message—and so now also his; so also  the headwaiter’s question about the source of the new wine is likely a reference to the ignorance of the source of Wisdom voiced in Job 28:12-20. The narrative that begins “on the third day” after the calling of the disciples in John 1 thus appropriately ends with the declaration of their “belief.” Jesus’ abrupt refusal of Mary’s request, similarly, can be explained in terms of his need to show that “his signs must reflect his Father’s sovereignty, and not any human, or family agency,” while still reserving for her a role in the “hour” of his passion (Brown, pp. 106-09).

While Brown’s argument serves to lend both plausibility and meaning to the wedding narrative, a caution lodged against such views by McClure is well taken. “Ultimately,” he writes, “we cannot reduce this story to the framework of our own needs. Something huge is being pointed to in this story, in between its lines, in and through the ambiguity and mystery that keeps it from reducing to one or two esaily preachable ‘points’’’ (McClure, p. 89).  Indeed, Brown’s argument succeeds at high cost to the value of this Sunday’s readings for advancing concern for care of creation. In the first place, its emphasis on an action that supernaturally alters nature to meet physical need, appears to legitimate violaton of nature’s integrity; to make of the miracle a demonstration of messiahship goes against the spirit of Jesus’ refusal in his temptation to exploit such miracles for his own power and position (see our comment on the temptation story, First Sunday of Lent Year B).

But secondly and more importantly, Brown’s explanation by way of “messianic replacement” raises anew the problem we considered in our commentary on the readings of the lection for year B. Yes, we discovered, the story of Jesus is about the displacement (a better term) of the presence of God from the Temple and its associated rituals onto Jesus of Nazareth. Does this displacement then entail, we asked, the abandonment of the whole orientation to creation that the Temple represented for the Hebrew community? On the contrary, we argued, the displacement is accompanied by a thorough reorientation to creation that successfully appropriates the great affirmations of the Hebrew tradition regarding God’s love of all creation, particularly with the New Testament narratives concerning food and meals (See our comments in this series on Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in the readings for the Seventh through the Thirteenth Sundays after Pentecost in Lectionary Year B). Indeed, we set out in the season of Advent to consider whether the readings for year C authorize an extension of this reorientation to the whole earth now in a time of global ecological crisis (See our comment on First Sunday of Advent, Year C). 

In the light of this quest, Brown’s characterization of the “replacement” rings alarm bells for us: “All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts” he writes, “lose meaning in his [Jesus] presence” (Brown, p. 104). In his concern to demonstrate the historical credibility of the narrative, Brown has, quite characteristically, we think, reduced the rich, messianic symbols of marraige and abundant wine to links in his chain of argument for Jesus’ messiahship. We will argue that in the company of the other readings for this Sunday, the story of the wedding in Cana serves, on the contrary, to recapitulate that displacement of the presence of God from the Temple onto Jesus and the reorientation to the creation that accompanies it;  it does this with an alternatve deployment of the themes and details of the narrative that McClure finds ambiguous and Brown “rescues” from ambiguity. Put differently, our reading of the narrative shows not only that  Jesus is “the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world,” but  what the salvation he brings means for all creation.

Attention is naturally drawn in our scientifically-minded age to the miracle of turning water into wine. However, the selection of Isaiah 62:1-5,  as our first reading suggests, that focus is detrimental to the consideration of the setting of the miracle, the wedding itself, as the more appropriate framework for interpreting the story. The wedding is indeed puzzling, provocatively so. We aren’t told whose wedding it is; the bridegroom appears only late in the story, and then only to receive the comment of the headwaiter. One may presume that this was a local family or village affair. It is interesting, however, that Jesus’ entire following is present, his disciples as well as his mother, even though the disciples have only very newly been called by Jesus to follow him (three days earlier!). This is obviously a very open, community affair. Furthermore, the presence of his mother is noteworthy in itself; she appears in the Gospel only here and at the foot of the cross at the end of the story, when Jesus’ “hour” has indeed come. Her appearance, that is to suggest, is more than incidental to the announcement of the shortage of wine. Jesus’ response to his mother is also curious. His “woman” hints that this “mother of Jesus” is much more than simply Mary of Nazareth. As Brown points out, she resembles in many respects the “mysterious, symbolic figure of ‘a woman’ who is a key figure in the drama of salvation” in Revelation 12, and whom, it is generally held, “is a symbol of the people of God.” The drama of this woman, Brown notes, spans the two Testaments: as Israel, she brings forth the Messiah who cannot be defeated by the serpent” of Genesis 3; and “as the Church, she continues on earth after the Ascension, persecuted but protecting her children” (Brown, p. 108). The wedding in Cana, this suggests, is a very big wedding, indeed, one for which the great quantity of wine would not at all be extravagant, but hopefully just enough! 

It is such a wedding, that is to say, as the one promised in the prophet Isaiah’s grand metaphor of salvation from our first lesson:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

   and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

and your land shall be married.  (Isaiah 62: 4)

The possibility that a village wedding may have been the basis for this story can perhaps not be dismissed, it is true, but it seems that John intends here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to make of it one of the great stories of his Gospel. So listen up, all you dear family and friends of Earth: along with Jesus’ mother and his disiciples, we are gathered here for the  marriage of Jahweh  and “your”–dare we say “our”—land: a land that by God’s own promise shall be forsaken no more, a land whose desolation is healed, a land that delights its creator (builder; v.  5). So this Sunday we might well press the question customarily addressed to the assembly in the service of marriage, “Will all of you, by God’s grace, uphold and care for Jahweh and Earth in their life together?” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 287). And the congregation of course responds, “We will.”

We suggest the more inclusive “our” here not to claim ownership, of course, but rather to emphasize  the “whole earth”  significance of the promise of Isaiah’s text, according to Walter Breuggemann’s interpretation. The passage, he argues, belongs to “the most expansive horizon of Israel’s testimony concerning the transactional quality of Yahweh’s life. Yahweh takes creation—the whole known, visible world—to be Yahweh’s partner” (Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 528). Belonging to “the extravagant poetry of Isaiah 60-62” which gives voice to “the new possibility of Israel after exile,” the verses of our lesson “concern the restoration of the fecundity of creation.” The term “married (b’ulah) appeals to the oldest traditions known to Israel concerning fertility,” language that speaks about the the restoration of the processes of blessing in creation, whereby Israel is to flourish. . . Thus the God who presided over the devastation of creation is the God who now has the power and the will to cause creation, for the benefit of Israel, to function fully.  All the causes and motivations for the nullification of exile are now forgiven and forgotten (cf. Isa 54:7-8).  The World begins again! (Brueggeman, p. 548).

The marraige thus represents the dream of lovers of creation, both then and now. The marriage envisioned here, McClure observes, “is not just a new ‘falling in love.’ Rather, this marriage is a social and political act, the assertion of God’s power for justice. God has heard the cries of the abused and suffering Israel and will now intervene to restore her honor in the face of her abusers” (McClure, p. 85). But it is not only Israel that will be married. This passage from Isaiah 62 is surpassed in stating “the capacity for the recovery of creation” only by Isaiah 65:17-25, which vouchsafes that “the newness of creation touches every aspect and phase of life:” whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and made whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world. . . not only Israel, not only the entire human community, but all of creation, so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘’All will be well and all will be well.’”  (Brueggemann, p. 549; the phrase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).

Yahweh’s resolve to new creation, Brueggemann concludes, is to “overcome all forsakeness and abandonment known in Israel and in the world. When creation is abandoned by Yahweh, it readily reverts to chaos. Here it is in Yahweh’s resolve, and in Yahweh’s very character, not to abandon, but to embrace” (Brueggemann, p. 551).

The voice of the psalmist for this Sunday basically concurs, if not quite so fullsomely or extravagently:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

      your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

      your judgments are like the great deep;

You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

      All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:5-7)

And this, of course, accounts for the abundance of the wine at the wedding feast: 

They feast on the abundance of your house,

      and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

      in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)

All will indeed be well, it would seem: even the date on the calendar for this wedding is righteous, here at the beginning of Epiphany, the season of light!  And as for it being the “third day,” astute readers might observe that it bodes well for the fertility of this partnership that it was on the third day of creation, according to Genesis 1:9-13, that God caused the dry land to appear amidst the waters under the sky, called it Earth, and invited it to “put forth vegetation: plants yelding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”

Nevertheless, all is in fact not well. Other elements of the narrative of the wedding in Cana now come into play: “They have no wine.” What kind of problem is it that they have no wine? Setting aside “physical need” as not the heart of the matter, surely the embarrassment for the hosts looms larger over the possibility of losing face and insulting the honor of their guests. What sort of failure does it point to?  Economic insufficiency, managerial incompetance, or the mistake of just inviting too many people? Have the early guests already selfishly consumed far more than their proper share? Or was it that year’s drought that explains the insufficiency? 

Although modern experience of the damage we humans do makes us daily more aware of the aweful possibilies for  human-caused desolation of the earth and destruction of its generative capacity, we can only speculate as to the precise cause of the failure in Cana; and the real problem that Mary identifies is in any case actually much more immediate:  ithout wine, the wedding celebration comes to an abrupt and very embarrassing end! In that respect, however, it is worth recalling here that, as we have noted above, in some sense the wedding feast at Cana is Wisdom’s feast. As Brown points out, Proverbs 9:5 “describes how Wisdom prepares a banquet for men, inviting them to eat of her bread and drink of her wine  (Brown, pp. 106-07). Brown connects the choice wine in the story of the wedding at Cana to the disciples’ belief in Jesus (although nothing is actually said of the disciple’ s imbibing).  But if this is indeed Wisdom’s feast, isn’t the lack of wine also in some sense her problem ? Isn’t the lack of wine which Jesus remedies actually metaphor for lack of wisdom?

We have already seen in our comments for the First Sunday of Christmas and the Epiphany of Our Lord the signficance of wisdom for the lectionary’s narrative in year C. Jesus is recognized early on in this narrative as a teacher of wisdom; interestingly enough, that takes place according to the Gospel of Luke in the context of his very first visit as a boy to the temple, “his Father’s house.” The lectionary’s narrative has also already provided opportunity to explore the ethical relevance of wisdom for care of creation, such as is present, in Larry Rasmussen’s view, in the Earth Charter. We will return to that ethical dimension in a moment, but here our interest is drawn back to the experience of wisdom in the temple. In addition to the ethical dimension of wisdom in creation, there is also the important dimension of worship.

Additional background from Walter Brueggemann concerning the nature of wisdom is required here. As we have already noted, the wedding of Yahweh and Earth symbolizes the fruitfulness of the land. This is what creation is about, Brueggemann noted: 

This act of ordering [in creation] is an act of sovereignty on the largest scale, whereby Yahweh’s good intention for life imposes a will on destructive, recalcitrant forces and energies.   The outcome, according to Israel’s testimony, is a place of fruitfulness, abundance, productivity, extravagance–all terms summed up in the word blessing. Thus in Gen 1:28, at the center of that first great chapter, Yahweh asserts, in a mood of authorization:

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

It is Yahweh’s will for this newly ordered world that it should be fruitful, invested with “the power of fertility.” Yahweh has authorized in the world the inscrutable force of generosity, so that the earth can sustain all its members, and so that the earth has within itself the capacity for sustenance, nurture, and regeneration (Brueggemann, p. 529).

As the Psalm for the day has already reminded us, humans have no monopoly on this capacity for generosity: “every genus and species of creation can ‘bring forth,’ according to its kind.” But humans do have special responsibility with respect to the ongoing excercize of this capacity: “creation requires of human persons, the ones given dominion, that they practice wisdom. (Brueggemann, p. 531). 

The importance of this expectation cannot be emphasized too strongly. Human wisdom, as Brueggemann summarizes it, is the critical, reflective, discerning reception of Yahweh’s gift of generosity. That gift is not for self-indulgence, exploitation, acquisitiveness, or satiation. It is for careful husbanding, so that resources should be used for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures. Wisdom is the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the “wisdom of things,” which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it (Brueggeman, p. 532).

And when wisdom on the part of the human community is lacking? What then? How does the community address the threat “where those shapes and interconnection” of the world are “violated or disregarded,” and “trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure”? How then should that lack be remedied ? To return to the wedding story, how should the lack of Wisdom’s wine be remedied?

For Israel, Bueggemann argues, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced “is public worship. Indeed, he insists, a proper reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a shows that “creation is an ‘enactment,’ done in worship, in order to resist the negation of the world of exile.” In addition, instructions  given by Yahweh to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle,  “consist in seven speeches, matching the seven days of creation and culminating, like Gen 2:1-4a, in the provision for the Sabbath.” Consequently, creation should not be “understood as a theory or an an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” The parallel between creation and tablernacle (later, the temple) “suggests that while creation may be an experience of the world, in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman suggests, permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living. Thus creation, in such a context, has concerete and immediate pastoral implications (Brueggeman, pp. 533-34).

But what if the possibility of such regenerative worship should be closed off? It is essential for the understanding of Mary’s observation about the lack of wine that early readers of the Gospel would have been very much mindful of the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. There will be no more wine of Wisdom flowing to the people from the temple in Jerusalem. In the reader’s world and so perhaps also on the level of the meta-narrative of the marriage of heaven and earth, that is the awful possibility confronting the people of Jerusalem.  Again the first lesson is highly instructive: it was “for Zions’ sake” that Yahweh “would not keep silent” and “for Jerusalem’s sake” that Yahweh “will not rest until her vindicaton shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). If there “is no wine,” does it mean that the prophecy is nullified? Could it mean that in fact there is no real wedding between Yahweh and Earth to celebrate? Is the land again vulnerable to destruction and desolation? As concerns the narrative of the Gospel, that  has not yet taken place. The account of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple follows immediately after the Wedding of Cana, however, including John’s deliberate substitution of  the “temple of his [Jesus’] body” for the great temple when Jesus offers his opponents the sign,”Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). Thus, in both narratives, the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the temple, Jesus points ahead to his “hour” when the significance of the new supply of wine will be made clear. What the steward remarks on so naively is true: Jesus is the “good wine” that Yahweh the bridegroom of the Earth has saved for last!

In time to come, Jesus “hour,” Jesus will be acknowledged as source of all Wisdom and worshipped as the manifestation on Earth of God’s glory. That time is anticipated here in the story of the wedding at Cana, and it is in this sense that he “revealed his glory.” But will the church that so worships and indeed drinks of Wisdom’s wine in the Eucharist know itself in this age of Earth’s ecological degradation as celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, which overcomes Earth’s forsakenness and desolation under the domination of humans? Larry Rasmussen speaks of the need in our time for a new moral vision, to provide “the basic storyline for the morality we live by, or seek to live by.” A possible alternative to the industrial civilization of the American empire, he suggests, is the ancient Christian vision of what might today be called “ecological civilization.” Participants in this vision knew themselves to be responsible for maintaining in their own place a community based on the principles of wisdom that they hoped to see installed across the whole inhabitated earth. “This ancient unitary vision,” Rasmussen writes, accords with the seamlessness, or integrity, of creation in the Hebrew Bible. . . . Creation is the abode, the dwelling place, of God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining Spirit; the transcendent God is “home” here, as are humans and all life. Early theologians even referred to the way by which creation is upheld and redeemed as the “economy of God” (oikonomia tou Theo). . . . The same seamlessness, or integrity, continues with the conviction that this vast cosmos is a shared home. All are born to belonging, and all—human beings and otherkind—are co-inhabitants who live into one another’s lives and die into one another’s deaths in a complex set of relationships that sustain (or degrade) the life of creatures and the land (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 147-48.

First Corinthians 12:1-11, our second lesson for this Sunday, Rasmussen notes, is an expression of this vision. Housekhold dwellers, oikeioi, are tasked “to build the community and share the gifts of the Spirit for the common good.” What would it take to bring this vision to our life today? It  would require making “Earth’s human economy . . . compatible with Ecumenical and Ecological Earth:”

The aim of economic life would need to shift from maximizing the production of goods and services to a three-part agenda of production, relatively equitable distribution, and ecological regenerativity. All economic activity would need to operate within the ecological limits of the planet and in the face of its hot and crowded condition. “Eco-nomics” replaces economic and ecology by joining both. . . . The new eco-nomic paradigm would reject growth and high consumption as the mark of mature economies. This does not preclude growth as good; it only says that growth must be ecologically sustainable as well as regenerative, for the long term. It must reduce rather than increase the wealth and income gaps within and between nations and regions, a formidable challenge in that climate change will exacerbate these inequalities. . . . The new economic paradign would also reject freedom as unrestrained political and market individualism and cultivate freedom as thriving in community in ways that contribute to personal well-being and the common good, including the goods of the commons  (soil, air, water, energy) (Rasmussen, pp,149-50.)

More timely than ever, in Rasmussens view,  this “oikos conception of Earth” recognizes that “to renew the face of the Earth (Psalm 104) as the work of the divine economy is the shared human calling” (Rasmussen, p. 150). It would truly be, we might add, the marriage of heaven and earth, and there would be no shortage of wine!

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

 

 

The Epiphany of Our Lord in Year C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community.

By Dennis Ormseth

Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

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

It is not over,

   this birthing.

There are always newer skies

                            into which

                                    God can throw stars.

                        When we begin to think

                            that we can predict the Advent of God,

                            that we can box the Christ

                                    in a stable in Bethlehem,

                             that’s just the time

                                    that God will be born

                             in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

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

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

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

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,

            give deliverance to the needy,

            and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,

            and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 

May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

In his days may righteousness flourish

            and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 

May he have dominion from sea to sea,

            and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .

May all kings fall down before him,

            all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,

            the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

                                   (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading). 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Second Sunday After Epiphany in Year C

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

By Tom Mundahl

Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

As we continue the Season of Epiphany our festivity does not abate. This week’s readings point us toward an even greater focus on celebration. Perhaps an appropriate theme for our worship and preaching is suggested by the antiphonal verse for the appointed psalm: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8). Despite the power of self-interest and deceit described in 36:1-4, God’s steadfast love (hesed) carries the day (Psalm 36:5-10). And it is clear that this abundance is not limited to those who have mastered temple liturgy: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7b).

In fact, the scope is even wider: humans and animals “may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36: 6, 7). This abundance of steadfast care has its source “in the fountain of life” so bright that “in your light we see light.” The creator is the one who makes the very notion of epiphany—the manifestation of God’s glory and steadfast love– possible.  Not surprisingly, the language (“the river of delights,” v. 8) points us to Eden and creation itself. (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 157) No wonder feasting is central.

This week’s reading from Isaiah (62:1-5) reminds its audience of festive joy in an oblique way. If Third-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) confronts the problem of a community that has returned from exile and is sagging in its efforts at rebuilding and renewing core religious practices, we are reminded that the prophetic poetry of the earlier Isaiah is still in play. Feasting and celebration are clearly integral to the community’s new beginning. For example, Second Isaiah alerts the freed exiles, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion!  Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, holy city” (Isaiah 52:1). The prophet continues, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! . . . for your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” (Isaiah 54:1, 3)  “For your maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name . . . .” (Isaiah 54:5). As a result, the prophet calls all to a festive celebration: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, and eat” (Isaiah 55:1) (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, pp. 148-150).

Clearly the message of this week’s reading from Isaiah depends and builds on the power of this earlier tradition to support a community engaged in the tough work of rebuilding. Remember who you are: “My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”  (Isaiah 62:4-5)  No longer, suggests the prophet, will foreigners drink your bread and wine. That is surely reason for the feasting described with such energy in the final chapter of Isaiah. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

As we consider this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians (12:1-11), we hear a cautionary note seemingly unsuitable for festivity. Yet, Paul’s critique of a community infected by competition among spiritual superstars, where adepts boast of their spiritual gifts, is a necessary corrective leading to the restoration of wholeness. This competitive spirituality destroys any possibility of community cohesion.

To counter this dangerous tendency, Paul contrasts charismata (gifts of the Spirit) with pneumatika (alleged manifestations of the Spirit)) that create community tension. In a beautiful example of primitive functional trinitarianism, Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

For Paul it is not a matter of achievement and recognition, but service resulting in the common good. This is no simple totalitarian unity; it is based on the amazing diversity of gifts (charismata) distributed by the Spirit. As Hays writes, “Paul is emphasizing the importance of diversity in the church. The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds expression in an explosion of variegated forms” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 210).

As we learn more about the mutual interdependence of the faith community, we cannot help but think of the ecological mutuality of the wider creation. One is reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of the natural community as he develops a “land ethic.” Leopold writes: “ . . . quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” (A Sand County Almanac, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1966, p. 262)

This suggests that the Pauline notion of community must be extended to the non-human world since . . .humans are undoubtedly and inalienably dependent not only on each other but also on a whole range of other organisms. It has become increasingly evident that these networks of interdependence include not just our intestinal flora, the crops we might grow, and the animals we might keep, but relationships at great distances. To breathe we depend upon photosynthesis for our oxygen, to eat protein we are dependent ultimately  on the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, but far less obviously, for example, we are dependent also on the recycling of atmospheric sulfur  by marine algae.” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 212)

This interdependence based on a life of self-offering that uses the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the commons—human and biotic—frees us for festivity. Ironically, as we look farther ahead to Lent, it is also the basis for fasting. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “People should feast so they do not forget the grace and blessing of the world. People should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God. In short, we feast to glorify God and we fast so we do not glorify ourselves” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 137). This is “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

We see this common good boldly affirmed in John’s narrative of the Wedding at Cana. It may be as Raymond Brown suggests that provision of wine was one of the obligations shared by guests at a Jewish wedding. Since Jesus and his followers had totally failed in this requirement, Jesus’ mother’s chiding may be understandable (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966, p. 102).

While the narrator does not share Jesus’ mother’s reaction when the water for purification becomes the choicest wine in prodigious quantity, we are able to share the joyful surprise of the steward of the marriage feast: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). The celebration of new creation in the Word made flesh (John 1:14) goes beyond calculation and represents a first step (“sign”) in the evangelist’s project to reveal Jesus replacing the Temple as the center of worship and meaning. (Brown, p. 104)

The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was so taken by this Johannine story that he devoted a chapter to it in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. As the Elder Zossima lies on his bier during the monastery’s period of mourning, the monks are shocked that his body has begun to evidence the stench of decay, something not expected from such a holy man. Novice monk, Alyosha Karamazov, is initially in despair. But as he returns to the funeral vigil he hears Father Paissy reading scripture, this time the story of the Marriage at Cana. Suddenly Alyosha’s heart lifts as he understands, “Ah that miracle, that lovely miracle! Not grief, but human joy Christ visited when he worked that first miracle, he helped bring joy . . . . He loves us, loves our joy . . . .” And how many times had the Elder taught just this? (The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 360).

Young Alyosha now recalls that his mentor had shocked him by revealing that Alyosha’s calling was to bring joy by serving as a monk in the world. Suddenly all became clear. As he embraced his new vocation, he left the monastery and ran into the forest, joyfully falling to his knees to embrace the earth with its fecundity and decay. Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life . . . . Three days later, he left the monastery, which was also in accord with the words of his late elder, who had called him to ‘sojourn in the world’” (Pevear and Volokhonsky, p. 363).

In a sermon given on this text at St. Andrews University, Richard Bauckham claims that this sign reminds us that salvation is more than healing; it is also enlivening. He goes on: “To live life more fully is to love all life, to care for all living beings against the threats to life: against poverty, sickness, enmity, death” (St. Salvator’s Chapel, January 15, 1995). Kierkegaard’s scathing critique of the church allegedly included this aphorism: “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” But Jesus’ enlivening sign remains and points toward the source of all life and celebration.

This theme of joyful festivity is picked up by Pope Frances in Laudato Si’. In the context of reflecting on being at home in creation, he suggests that the integrity of the ecosystem needs to be reflected in home and community. “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 225). Perhaps this may move us to a more festive embrace of the Earth!

Hymn suggestions:

            Gathering: “Rise, shine, you people”  ELW 665

            Hymn of the Day: “Jesus, Come! For We Invite You” ELW 312

            Sending: “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve”  ELW 551

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you enlivened the celebration at Cana with the gift of wine. Teach us to love one another and all that you have made so that this shared joy may be of the richest vintage.

God, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.

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

The First Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

Series C (2015-2016)

By Tom Mundahl

INTRODUCTION TO EPIPHANY

If the purpose of the Church Year is to organize community storytelling and worship, what ‘tale’ do we share during the Season of Epiphany? Just as Advent anticipates the light of the Coming One, and Christmas celebrates the brightness of the incarnation, so during Epiphany we marvel at the dynamic brightness of this light bringing peace, healing, and festivity to God’s earth. It is no surprise that this season has provided an opportunity for the church to focus on a mission, which, like light, cannot be contained, but shines across all boundaries.

But surely the theme for this season must be more than “going out.” For is not the purpose of mission to provide assurance that because the Word “dwells among us” (John 1: 14), we can be at home in God’s creation. This surprising view can be seen in two of the readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord.

The First Lesson for the Epiphany of Our Lord (Isaiah 60: 1-6) describes not only the return of exiles to Jerusalem, but a homecoming for all people (vv. 3-4) characterized by great abundance including offerings of “gold and frankincense” (v. 6) to proclaim God’s praise. This theme is echoed in the familiar gospel reading describing the coming of the Magi (Matthew 2: 1-12).  What is often forgotten is that the Magi have come to the Bethlehem home of Joseph and Mary, in Matthew the birth home of Jesus. Even though Matthew will soon describe their flight to Egypt and resettling in Nazareth, the fact remains that Bethlehem, with all its Davidic resonance, is home.

This contrasts with the homelessness we see around us. For months newscasts have shown the harrowing journey made by refugees from Syria and other conflict zones desperately seeking a stable European home. As winter approaches, officials of American urban centers once more admit there are not nearly enough shelters for the homeless—especially women with children. This has all been complicated by the fear of “the other” that has infected the U.S. political campaign, where candidate Donald Trump proposes to ignore this search for a safe home by building walls and banning new Muslim immigrants.

If this basic form of homelessness is not enough, there is another mode that infects our culture. Wendell Berry suggests that because of the pervasiveness of media and consumer culture, “…your children will be subjected almost from the cradle to an overwhelming insinuation that all worth experiencing is somewhere else and that all worth having must be bought” (“Family Work” in The Gift of Good Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 156). This sense that little good comes from home, family, and neighboring surroundings is examined by Jay Griffiths, who  describes the historical enclosure of lands in the British Isles as metaphorically applying to contemporary children, who because of our “mean world syndrome” are no longer able to “range freely” but are too often “enclosed” in their rooms, entertained by screens, and allowed only the “freedom” of the school, the mall, or adult-supervised activities (Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, London: Penguin, 2013).

It is ironic that the very tools invented to make the world more home-like (technology) now threaten that sense of comfortable dwelling. Philosopher Albert Borgmann suggests that we experience an “inversion”—the very opposite of what humankind intended. “Whereas in the mythic experience the erection of a sanctuary established a cosmos and habitat (home) in the chaos of the wilderness, the wilderness now appears as a sacred place in the disorientation and distraction of the encompassing technology” (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984, p. 190). Epiphany readings will show us a way through this “inversion” to see the transforming power of “deep incarnation” to make creation new and engender a common home for all living things.

As he introduces the notion of “deep incarnation,” Niels Henrik Gregersen of the University of Copenhagen wrestles with Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518) concluding that while Luther used this document to savage the legalism stemming from scholasticism, he did not deny that God could and should be experienced and enjoyed in nature. Gregersen cites Luther’s comment: “Our house, home, field, garden and everything is full of Bible, because God through his wonderful eyes, touches our senses, and shines right through our hearts.” Drawing on Luther’s embrace of creation, Gregersen concludes: “…the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as a radical or ‘deep’ incarnation, that is an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence, and system of nature” (“The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” dialog: A Journal of Theology, 40, 3, Fall 2001, pp. 195, 205).

Our Epiphany texts will affirm this deep incarnation with its embrace of creation. Through stories of Jesus immersed in the waters of baptism, the provision of homemaking hospitality of the best vintage, the pain of realizing that “messiahs can’t go home again,” and rejection of mountaintop glory in favor of descending into the depths of actual life, we see a way of emptying oneself so that all that exists may be filled. One of the lessons from these stories is an affirmation of what Celtic thinkers  called the hospitality of the earth (Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1997, p. 6). This reminds us that while Pope Frances calls for “care of our common home,” in Laudato Si’, God’s creation cares for us as well.

The Baptism of Our Lord

Isaiah 43: 1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8: 14-17

Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

One cannot appreciate the power of “but now” in Isaiah 43:1 until the context in the previous chapter is examined. Just as the new and tenuous Paris Agreement on climate change depends upon an admission of human responsibility for rapid climate change, so the prophet makes it very clear that the exile is the responsibility of faithless Judah. The result is a people utterly homeless: “. . . all of them trapped in holes and hidden in prisons: they have become a prey with no one to rescue, a spoil with no one who says, ‘Restore!’” (Isaiah 42: 22).

Not quite. For Isaiah announces a new chapter in the story of God’s dealing with creation. And “creation” is the watchword here, serving as an inclusio beginning and ending our passage. As the exiles are promised a “new exodus” and return to their home, the initial promise is that no natural forces will impede them. As Claus Westermann suggests, “Verse 2 promises Israel safe conduct on her journey. No force of nature, no hostile element, is to be able to do her any harm as she travels . . . . Water and fire stand for dangers from any element, as in Ps. 66: 12” (Isaiah 40-66), Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969, p. 118).

But these images of fire and water may bear additional meaning beyond threatening forces of nature. Paul D. Hanson suggests that fire and water are immediately familiar to ancient peoples as tools of ordeal, “that is, the ancient practice of casting the accused into the river or the fire to determine guilt or innocence.” (Isaiah 40-66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 63). Now this most common of methods of ferreting out guilt are removed. God’s promise, “I will be with you,” (43:2), the promise of Immanuel, trumps these well-deserved threats. Only the removal of these threats will allow the exiles truly to be at home.

Clearly, the metaphor of ordeal cannot be simply relegated to a “barbaric” past. The suffering of Syrian refugees in flight from gross civil disorder that likely has partial origin in the last decade’s drought may not be unrelated to human carbon pollution. A rapid increase in asthma suffered by urban children in the U.S. is nothing compared with the yet undisclosed health effects of Chinese air pollution. Imagine seeing a family’s only child failing to thrive because of the by-products of so-called progress.

Unfortunately, it is not sufficient to announce “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43: 4) hoping that these pollutants threatening all life will go away. However, the words “Do not fear, I am with you” (Isaiah 43: 5) free us not only to be at home in this creation, but empower and encourage us to take the steps necessary to tend creation. Surprisingly, it is even possible that out of the evil that has been done and “something new can emerge” (Pope Frances, Laudato Si, 81).

Especially important in our shared responsibility to serve and tend creation is to avoid “abstract environmentalism,” the mirror image of the scientific abstraction partially responsible for our predicament. We are called to remember that “the history of our friendship with God is always linked to particular places which take on an intensely personal meaning.” (Laudato Si, 84)  Only when we learn to know the trees, soil types, the birds, pollinators, and the culture of our locale can we fall in love with God’s creation. Perhaps this is why the one we call Immanuel said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” To be at home is to pay loving and affectionate attention to the gifts of creation.

This week’s gospel reading sends us into the crowds gathered by the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Not only does John put the damper on a messianic title for himself, at the time of Jesus baptism—narrated almost incidentally in participial form—his arrest (Luke 3: 20) frees the narrator to allow the Baptist virtually to disappear. Before this happens, he makes it clear that while he baptizes with water, “He (Jesus) will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16b). This promise will not be fulfilled until the Day of Pentecost so powerfully described in Acts 2.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is ignited by the descent of the Spirit “in bodily form like a dove” (v. 22) as Jesus is baptized. This “incarnation” of the Spirit is crucial in moving the narrative forward in Luke’s Gospel. (The importance of the Spirit for baptism is, of course, the issue in the Second Lesson, Acts 8: 14-17). The power of the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4:1). As he addresses the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus announces that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” In fact, the descent of the Spirit is precisely the event in which God “anointed” Jesus (“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”) and empowered him. (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1991, p. 58)

That this descent of the Spirit amounts to something like a new creation is underscored by Luke Timothy Johnson when he suggests, “Rather than seeking the meaning of the dove in biblical precedents, the reader may do better by observing the structural similarity between this scene and that of the annunciation (1: 35) and the angelic song (2:14) in the infancy account” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 71) All this “hovering” with the “opening of the heavens” cannot help but put one in mind of the Spirit hovering over the waters in the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:2).

This newness is attested to by the genealogy and early chapters following our text which answer the questions: Who is Jesus?  He is God’s son (3: 21-28). What sort of son is he? An obedient son (Luke 4: 1-13).  Finally, what kind of messiah might he be? A prophetic messiah (4: 14-30). Johnson argues that the baptism and genealogy should be read together because they make an integrated statement about Jesus’ identity, an identity traceable to Adam. (Johnson, p. 70)

By identifying with creation in the waters of baptism, Jesus’ incarnation is deepened. As Celia Deane-Drummond suggests, “Theologically, therefore, deep incarnation can be understood to act at the boundary of creation and new creation, where Christ enters into human, evolutionary, and ecological history in a profound way so that through the living presence of the Holy Spirit that history is changed in the direction of God’s purposes for the universe after the pattern of Christ.”(“The Wisdom of Fools? A Theo-Dramatic Interpretation of Deep Incarnation,” in Gregersen, ed., Incarnation–On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015, p. 198)  She goes on to describe “sacramental presence” as one way for creatures to participate in this path toward transformation.

Baptismal practice must be in view as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. As we gather around the font to initiate and welcome into the community through water and word, the presiding minister invites candidates and sponsors to affirm the new responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006, p. 228). It is the presence of the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” (ELW, 104) which frees the baptized to move beyond one’s self-concern and care for the whole creation.

Just as baptism is celebrated in our home congregation, so we begin care of the earth there. Earlier educational media about transforming the congregation into a “creation awareness community” is just as relevant today as it was thirty years ago when first introduced. In fact, the concept of subsidiarity, used extensively in Laudato Si’ suggests that the home and home parish are the primary teachers of eco-justice. Subsidiarity—meeting issues at the lowest level appropriate—does not end there. Whether it is a neighborhood “transition movement,” a city council resolution, a county, state, or national action, this transforming energy makes itself felt where necessary. Even in the international sphere, the power of the Spirit works through word and water to initiate actions preserving and caring for our “common home.”

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering –”We Know That Christ is Raised”–ELW 449

            Hymn of the Day — “Crashing Waters at Creation” — ELW 455

            Sending — “Let All Things Now Living” — ELW 881

Prayer Petition for Prayers of Intercession (Please use the appointed Prayer of the Day)

Gracious Trinity, by the fire of your Spirit you transform your people into earth servants.  Free us from the confining boundaries of unlimited growth and waste of the gifts of creation so that we may experience the joy of the whole earth community.  Creator, in your mercy; hear our prayer.

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

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C

With Jesus’ appearance, space and time are opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year C

Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b-55

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

The setting of the oikumene found in the readings for the First Sunday of Advent prompted us to ask after the hope that the Christian gospel might offer a world caught up in the global ecological crisis of climate chaos. In spite of the “flattened earth” and “ax lying at the roots of the trees” imagery of the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, we have found ample encouragement for care of creation in the lectionary for these first three Sundays. As we wrote,

We are thus once again put on notice that Christ’s coming into our world entails a 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. People of faith will be oriented anew to the cosmos of which we are members as the creation of God that moves toward completion and even perfection, not on the basis of its own inherent powers, but by virtue of the will of its creator (Comment on First Sunday of Advent).

Even if this means confronting severe ecological crisis on a global scale, these readings confirm, the theological affirmations of these texts are a match for the challenge: The Most High of the Lukan narrative is the sovereign creator of all who brings into being “light and life, darkness and woe,” from above, but who also “from below, from the ground up,” transforms “the desolate land into a veritable garden paradise” (Comment on Second Sunday of Advent). Although John the Baptist’s call for repentance and reformation of behavior explicitly addresses only issues of social justice, his warning about the coming judgment in terms of the “ax lying at the roots of the trees” opens up the text to provide a basis for addressing the ecological crisis in our time with similarly appropriate responses to the degradation of habitat and atmosphere across the earth.

More powerfully, his announcement of the coming near of the Lord employs the metaphor of the farmer who comes with winnowing fork in hand, one who enlists the cosmic forces of water, wind, and fire for the restoration of the earth. “The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered, and all the earth awaits the day when ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Comment on the Third Sunday of Advent). So the readings for the first three Sundays of the Advent season do indeed look forward with great joy to the restoration and completion of God’s creation; They enlist us in actions toward that goal which are grounded in faith in God as the creator of all, and in the One who is coming near to us in the midst of the crisis of the world.

In the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, this good news is recapitulated in the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary, and especially in Mary’s Magnificat. As they meet, Elizabeth becomes a spirit-filled interpreter of signs of the new creation: “the child leaped in her womb” and, filled with the Holy Spirit, she identifies Mary as “mother of my Lord.” The verb “leaped,” Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “suggests an eschatological recognition (Ps 113:4 [lXX] and Mal 4:2)”; Elizabeth understands that the child’s leap is an expression of “eschatological ‘gladness (agalliasis)’ promised by the angel to greet John’s birth (1:14).” With her response, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:47), Mary joins and enlarges on Elizabeth’s pronouncement of joy: Mary’s child is the promised “savior.” As Johnson writes,

In the Magnificat, Mary’s praise for what God had done to her personally widens out to include what God does for “all who fear him” in every age, including what God is doing for Israel by the birth of its Messiah. . . . One cannot avoid the sense that Mary is here made the representative if not the personification of Israel. The mercy shown her reflects and exemplifies the mercy shown to the people . . . . We notice as well that the epithets applied to God in the song are attributes as well of the son she is carrying. God is called “Lord” and “Savior” and “holy.” So Jesus has already been called “holy” (1:34), and “lord” (1:430, and will shortly be termed “savior” as well (2:11). As with name so with function: God reverses human status and perception: in a downward movement, he scatters the arrogant, pulls down the mighty, sends the rich away empty. But God also, in an upward movement, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry, and takes the hand of Israel. (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; pp. 41-42).

Nowhere in this recital of expectations is there an explicit mention of care of creation as response to ecological crisis, of course. The crisis of the oikumene is rather conceived in terms of the conceit of those who seek domination over others. As David Tiede writes,

In direct contrast to the mercy which God shows to those who fear him from generation to generation, God scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God does not deal with appearances, but “knows the heart” of all humanity without respect to status, as does also the Messiah (see Luke 11:17). Thus, as in Gen. 6:5 where God “saw . . . the wickedness of man . . . and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” leading to the flood, so now the coming of Jesus will mean, in Simeon’s words “that [secret] thoughts out of many hearts witll be revealed” (2:35). (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishng House, 1988; p. 56).

All things human do therefore fall within the reach of this salvation. The salvation Mary envisions is in this sense all-encompassing. As Tiede writes:

No dimension of human life or culture will lie beyond the lordship of this Messiah. All systems, ideologies, and social structures may be judged by this new standard of divine justice and mercy—which does not mean that Jesus’ reign will simply displace all the social, political, or economic systems of the world, at least not yet. But their claim to ultimacy of ‘divine right’ and their ability to justify the rights and privileges of all their subjects have been challenged by the prophetic word of Mary’s son (Tiede, pp. 56-7).

The place of the proud at the center of the oikumene will be taken by the “servant” (Isaiah 41:8) who fulfills God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:7; 18:18; and 22:17).

That the promised salvation does nontheless embrace all creation remains for this narrative an inference to be drawn from the collected affirmations of these texts, the most significant of which are the assignment of titles to her child as one who belongs to God, and, with a nod in the direction of our two lessons, the “facts on the ground” of Mary’s pregnancy (Micah 5:3-4) and the “body you have prepared for me” in her womb (Hebrews:10:5). We therefore return to the statement with which we closed the comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in year B of the lectionary

Mary’s faith and obedience calls for a radical re-orientation to the finite creation as capable of bearing infinity (finitum capax infiniti) from all those who identify with Mary. Larry Rasmussen states the significance of this re-orientation this way:

“God is in the facts themselves,” said Bonhoeffer, asserting his conviction that God is amidst the living events of nature and history. His favorite quotation from F. C. Oetinger said much the same: “The end of the ways of God is bodiliness.” 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 (Earth Community Earth Ethics, p. 272-73).

Put differently in words that reflect Augustine’s understanding that our bodies are “the dirt we carry,” the dust of the earth from which all living creatures are made, Jesus included, reflects God’s glory, and calls for appropriately infinite respect.

The church came in due time to confess Mary as theotokos, “God bearer.” She understood herself to be Servant of the Lord (Luke 1:38). Those who care for creation will celebrate her service to the Servant of Creation, who in his suffering on the cross served God by loving the earth and all its creatures as God loves them. (For an extensive development of this theme, see our comments on the lectionary for Year A). And we will share in her calling. Indeed, isn’t this the reason for our joy this season and all seasons: At some moment, our waiting for God turns wondrously into the awareness that with Mary we are bearing God into the world?


As mother and child are one, so are church and its savior one, having been gathered, being blessed and broken, in order to be shared with all the creation. In that moment, Mary’s soul “magnifies the Lord,” and so do ours. In that moment, Mary’s spirit “rejoices in God [her] Savior,” and so does ours, for Mary’s spirit and ours are joined in one and the same Spirit of the Lord, who is coming into the world. Whether as holy child laid in a manger at Christmas time, suffering servant laid into a tomb on Good Friday, or the Lord who returns in judgment and restoration in the fullness of our time, with Mary we welcome this Jesus as one who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty, in order that space and time might be opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is.


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

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year A

The Psalms of Christmas: Let All Creation Praise

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Nativity of our Lord

1. Introduction

2. Christmas Eve

3. Christmas Day

1. 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 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.

Creatures’ praise: they reflect in their existence the being that is God.

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.”

Nature’s praise is a symphony orchestra.

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.

2. Christmas Eve
Psalm 96

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“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)

All Earth makes magnificent music

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. 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 praise? There is an expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.’

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Third Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reason for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. The Magnificat, we suggested, is “good news for the earth,” in that “she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.” 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).

 

 

Roman peace is destruction and devastation.

The treacherous character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that 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).

Creation awaits true peace, the Prince of Peace.

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 do make for a grand chorus!


3. Christmas Day
Psalm 97 or 98

Isaiah 62:6-12 or Isaiah 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

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth

“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?

The earth is expecting peace with righteousness.

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 (62:8-90). 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.

Earth rejoices because God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably.

So as we anticipated from Mary’s response to the Annunciation, 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). With her we are in her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of 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.

Christmas Eve, Year C (Schade)

“And on Earth – Peace: A Christmas Eve Eco-Reflection”
Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015)

Christmas Eve in Year C
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

In the scripture readings on this holy night, the word peace is repeated often. Isaiah heralds the coming of the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:7). The angels proclaim “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). But what does it mean to preach peace when so much of our world is in the midst of just the opposite—war, violence, strife, abuse, and oppression? How can we sing “peace on earth” when even the Earth itself seems engaged in a battle with us, or, rather, humanity battles against Earth?

In August of 2016, Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New Republic entitled “A World at War” explaining the ways in which climate change is a war that is attacking our human society at every level. The climate war is “a world war aimed at us all,” he said. “And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict—except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planet-wide occupation that follows.” He said that the only hope was to mobilize ourselves like we did for WWII.1

McKibben’s article was intended to be a kind of “call to arms” for citizens to rally for the climate movement. His hope has not been realized. In the two years that followed McKibben’s article, the highest level of elected leaders in the U.S. all deny the existence of climate change and have undone countless environmental regulations while pulling our country out of the Paris Climate Accords. In the meantime, the hurricanes in August and September of 2017 were like “climate bombs”—the largest, most devastating superstorms ever experienced in this country, dropping within weeks of each other. And more “bombs” have hit us this year in different places around the planet.

Here’s what I’m starting to realize.  The Great War metaphor is wrong. The problem with the WWII comparison is that the metaphor positions us as “the good guys” who swept in and took care of those evil Nazis and the Empire of Japan. But those of us who live a life of privilege in the West and North are not the good guys this time. We’ve been insisting that we can have our way with the planet while others must bear the brunt of the cost. The United States has been at the forefront of launching the eco-holocaust. We have muscled our way across the Earth, digging, drilling, fracking, pipelining, and toxifying water, land, air, and human health along the way.

It appears, however, that Earth is rising up and fighting back. When I look at pictures of the charred remains of the California fires, I cannot help but recall pictures I’ve seen of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I believe the planet is sending us a direct message:  surrender and accept the terms of peace. So I wonder what it would mean to live in peace with Earth on this holy night?

It was into a world ravaged by human hubris and power that Jesus was born. While human civilization was not threatened by anthropogenic climate disruption as it is now, the Roman Empire had imposed its heavy-handed imperial rule over every people it conquered. The military machine muscled its way across the land, digging and mining, logging vast forests, diverting waterways through its aqueducts, and subjecting its conquered peoples to exorbitant taxes that kept them poor, disempowered, and under the constant threat of military violence.

What they did not know is that the Earth itself was rising up and responding to God’s call. The origin story in Luke shows us that the seeds for a moral uprising were embedded into humanity’s story from the beginning. In Luke 3:23-38, Jesus’ ancestors are traced all the way back to Adam. Adam was himself a child of Earth. From the very soil, God created the first humans, fashioning them out of clay and breath. Yes, they and their progeny sinned and broke the covenant God made with them again and again. But the prophets knew that God was also working within this flawed humanity to bring about a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Through the generations, this promise sustained people in their most difficult times. Isaiah reminded the Israelites living in exile far away from their sacred land: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined” (9:2).

The story of this light shining in darkness is what we tell on this holy night. We tell it with shepherds, but not in some pretty, romantic, bucolic hymn. We tell it with a full-throated song of resistance to the powers that subjugate them and all workers of the field and mines and assembly lines and classrooms whose work is disregarded, dismissed and disrespected.

We also tell this story with a man (a descendent of Adam) and his pregnant wife (a descendent of Eve) who must make a journey to be counted by the Roman census. They are counted in order to be taxed, their lives under strict governmental control. Yet she carries within her womb a child who will bring freedom to his people, to all people, to all the Earth. “For God so loved the world,” not just the human part of the world, but the whole world (John 3:16a).

This child will grow up among the lilies of the field and observing the birds of the air. And as a rabbi, he will call on them as his teaching partners (Luke 12:24-34). They will try to get through to us that a life spent chasing unnecessary material possessions is not only silly but violates the lilies and birds themselves as they choke on our trash and plastic and die from our pesticides.
This child will grow up watching Roman boys trained by the state to become ruthless soldiers—soldiers like the ones who killed the Hebrew boys his age, hoping to end his life (Matthew 2:16-18). All in the service of an empire that has no problem sacrificing the bodies of soldiers and citizens alike to protect the wealth of the ruling class. As a rabbi, he will teach his followers about the futility of this wealth not just for the way it manipulates those soldiers, but because of the terror it imposes on the planet and its peoples. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:24-25).

In other words, we must surrender to a higher calling of humility, obedience to the dictates of God’s Creation, and radical focus on rebuilding a just and equitable society and economic infrastructure focusing on “the least of these”—those who have suffered under our oppressive reign.

The Bible shows us that even a suffering Earth raises its voice in lament and protest (Genesis 4:10), in judgement (Psalm 50:1-6), and in praise of our Creator. Psalm 96:1 addresses Earth not as an object, but as a subject capable of singing to God. “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the Earth.”

So as we sing a lullaby to Baby Jesus—“sleep in heavenly peace,” and our holiday cards are adorned with fancy scripts reading “Peace on Earth,” what would it mean for peace to be not just on Earth, as if it were just a stage for the human salvation drama, but actually within Earth? What would it mean for us to be partners with Earth in bringing about this peace?

Can we imagine the heavens being glad because air pollution has ceased? Can we imagine the seas roaring with life because the plastics and garbage have been removed? Can we see fields exulting because they are protected from “development” in the form of shopping malls or oil and gas rigs? What would it look like for the remaining trees of the Amazon rainforests to sing for joy, knowing that they are being preserved?

This holy night, our song must be more than sweet lullabies and romantic hymns. Our song must be one of protest and resistance proclaiming that Christ’s birth is bringing righteousness to all the world. So, yes, let us indeed raise our voices with Creation: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:11-12). Sing with the angels of heaven a song of peace on Earth and with Earth and with all those who live in a place of deep darkness.
Where the smell of ashes still choke the air, sing of peace.
Where the flood waters overcome the boundaries set by God, sing of peace.
Where water runs with poison from lead or fracking fluids, sing of peace.
Where bulldozers rip ancient trees from their roots, sing of peace.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.—Isaiah 9:6-7

I think of the children who even now are fighting to sue our government to stop climate change, using the power of the law to truly preserve life on this planet—to bring peace.

I think of the Indigenous children who stood up at Standing Rock to claim the sacredness of their land and resist the construction of a pipeline filled with filthy, explosive oil. They did this to bring peace.

I think of the young elected leaders in our country who are challenging their elders to create legislation that curbs greenhouse gas emissions and implements a plan to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The do this to bring peace.

I think of former child soldiers who, like their Roman counterparts millennia ago, were trained to kill and torture as pawns for the military and wealthy, ruling class, but now are learning the ways of peace.

I think of my own children sitting in science classrooms where they are learning how science works, and why it matters, and how it can be used to understand our world and make informed choices about how we live and work, how we generate electricity, how we structure our economy. They, too, are learning the ways of peace.

When I think of these children, I listen hard to the words of the angel: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

That Christ child was a sign unto us that the Earth itself is rising up and responding to God’s call. These children today who are resisting and protesting and learning and organizing and legislating are signs unto us that Earth is continuing the rise up and respond to God’s call. Earth is yielding the seeds for a moral uprising that were embedded into humanity’s story from the beginning.

Yes, we have sinned and broken God’s covenant with us again and again. But the prophets knew that God is also working within this flawed humanity so that this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Mother/Father, Prince of Peace will work in us and through us. In this most cursed of generations, we must cling to this promise that sustained people in their most difficult times. We, too, are living in self-imposed exile far from the sacred land. We are a people who walk in darkness, but we are being shown a great light. We live in a land of deep darkness, but upon us light is still shining.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth,
in Earth,
with Earth –
peace among those whom God favors!”

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019

by Tom Mundahl

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

As we approach the last Sunday in Advent and lean toward the Festival of the Incarnation, we marvel at Luke’s creativity in presenting the parallel births of John and Jesus in both prose and lyric song. Although it may be the case that the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis were among a growing collection of early hymns, their use by the evangelist is entirely original (see Gordon W. Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 122).

Perhaps the most important function of these songs is to express amazement and wonder at the birth of two children destined to renew their people, a wonder that overflows to the whole creation. Luke makes the force of the births crystal clear by situating them during the regimes of Herod and Caesar Augustus (Luke 1:5, 2:1). These political leaders wield power with the lifeless language of decrees and tax bills. In contrast, Brueggemann suggests: “There is no way to begin this new narrative except by a new song in the mouths of angels. The very idiom of lyric means the penetration of closed royal prose. The beginning is with a song that stands in conflict with the decree. All the old history is by decree, but the new history begins another way” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).

Not only does Luke here honor the Greco-Roman mode of enlivening historical narrative with the energy of speech in the style of Thucydides or Lucian, but employing “lyric hymnody” to celebrate divine action, he moves far beyond setting forth an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) to “bring to fruition” (Luke 1:1, alternative translation of “fulfillment”) new life among the hearers of the story. Just as the root meaning of the word “poetry” is “to create or make,” so all captured by this narrative are enlivened and share in the remaking of creation.

While there is no doubting the significance of the Davidic pedigree (Micah 5:2-5a), nor the utter newness in atonement the author of Hebrews shares (Hebrews 10: 5-10), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary and Elizabeth. The annunciation, the visitation, and the Magnificat reveal the power and the mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov write of Mary, whose courage is confirmed by Elizabeth:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(The Collected Poems of Denise
Levertov, New York: New Directions,
2013, pp. 836-837)

As we have seen from Luke’s narration of the parallel births, he clearly favors Mary and Elizabeth. Despite his priestly credentials, Zechariah finds the promise that his elderly wife will bear a son ridiculous. His question, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) is the last we hear from him until John is named. By contrast, even though Mary is “much perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by Gabriel’s stunning words, she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Wisely, she discerns Gabriel’s clue and travels to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary could receive no greater confirmation than Elizabeth’s rich blessings: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42), and “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Like 1:45). Blessing is always intimately linked with creation (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, pp. 40-42).

And yet, we should not underestimate blessed Mary’s perplexity and the richness of the dialogue with the messenger that follows. We hear Mary’s confusion in the simple question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”(Luke 1:34b) Gabriel’s response goes far beyond obstetrics. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” (Luke 1:35) That this is an enterprise of deep meaning is made evident in the “overshadowing” (episkiatzo) of the Most High. This sense of the looming, creative presence occurs as God’s very being fills the “tent of meeting” as the Exodus (a critical theme for Luke) continues (Exodus 40: 34-35, LXX). It recurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34—Exodus again)), where a similar presence “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions of marking the occasion with “wilderness booths” all the more ridiculous. Even more primal is the “wind from God” that “overshadows” the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2, LXX). How could we conclude that the coming birth is anything less than a “new creation” leading to “exodus freedom?”

This birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transfigures the earth household. The evidence is clearly heard in Mary’s response to the angelic messenger. Instead of being named “Queen Consort” of the divine, Mary entitles herself “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This theme of reversal will explode in the Magnificat inspired by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The boldness of Mary’s song comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (Brueggemann, p. 141). Gabriel makes this clear by repeating the words to Abram and Sarai under the oaks of Mamre: “For nothing will be impossible for God” (Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37).

Electric as it is, even lyric poetry like the Magnificat exhibits structural elements. The poem moves from singing of the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49) to a wider statement of God’s mercy to all who are reverent (1:50), to a vivid description of the reversal of the poor and arrogant (1:51-53, concluding with a reminder that this all fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants that will overflow into the future (1:54-55). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern emerging “from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” ”he has looked,” ”has done great things,” ”shown strength with his arm,” ”has scattered,” “has brought down,” ”has lifted up,” ”has filled,” ”has sent the rich away,” and “has helped” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

But this narrative strategy does not compromise the free nature of this lyrical event. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order. As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (Brueggemann, p. 104).

The wonder of all this is underscored by the use of the word formerly translated as “behold” (idou) three times in Gabriel’s “annunciation” (vv. 31, 36, and 38). The first two uses, by Gabriel, are translated by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid archaic language of “excessive holiness” is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore the necessary authority of Gabriel and help us recover a sense of the mysterium tremendum with its riveting awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford,1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls. Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, claiming that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological—an ontology of creation community—that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler continues: “To ‘behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (Sittler, p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It is in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have despoiled it” (Ross, p. 12).

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold (“Here am I,” NRSV), I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While this is not so bad, with a deep performative meaning, it remains to poll the poets to determine the richer. And this is crucial, for as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, “obedience follows imagination” (quoted in Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989, p. 85). The search for ecojustice today requires a massive infusion of imagination, far more than the threat of more fires, hurricanes, and heat can provide. But then it cannot have been easy to face up to the task of becoming theotokos, the Mother of God—especially as a very young woman. William Butler Yeats helps us to begin to share the immensity of this calling in his poem, “The Mother of God,” which ends with this lament:

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains
This fallen star my milk sustains.
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones.
And bids my hair stand up?
(The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,
New York: Macmillan, 1956, p.244)

Even as we join Mary in lament—in our case frustration over the struggle for ecojustice—during this Advent season, we remember Gabriel’s words, “For nothing will be impossible with
God” (Luke 1:37).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

Third Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C — 2018-2019
The Third Sunday in Advent

by Tom Mundahl 

Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Isaiah 12: 2-6
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

By tradition, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday, a day to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the celebration of Christmas, the twelve-day Feast of the Incarnation. While the designation Gaudete stems from this week’s Second Lesson, Philippians 4:4-7, Gaudete in Domino semper, “rejoice in the Lord always,” the remaining readings hardly neglect joyful hope.

Despite the people of Judah concluding that “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12b), the prophet envisions a new day where a remnant “shall do no wrong and utter no lies” (3:13). Then the carnival of celebration envisioned in our reading will erupt, a celebration of singing based on the unshakeable faith that “the LORD, your God, is in your midst” ( 3:17) and, in fact, is joining the party. It is a time when even the lame and outcast will lose their shame and be at home (3:19-20).

Much the same can be said of the “songs of Isaiah” (Isaiah 12: 1-6). No matter how uncertain the international political system might be, God is trustworthy. When the community takes that to heart, it is always appropriate to sing these two short verses reminiscent of the songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21). These songs are so powerful that they continue to be used as worship acclamations. There are few more powerful texts than: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12: 2).

As good as it is to “rejoice,” we know that the new day has not arrived as we wonder how to respond to the worldwide refugee crisis, cholera in Yemen, mass shootings in the U.S., and the newly-released Fourth National Climate Assessment. It is no surprise that with high confidence this assessment predicts more floods, higher temperatures, more wildfires, reduced crop yields, transportation difficulties, and the appearance of previously rare diseases (www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23). Because the current administration released this report on so-called “Black Friday” (better celebrated as “Buy Nothing Day”), the hope was that it would be buried in this frenzy of consumption. Certainly it is not the kind of news that should spark community celebration.

But then neither should being in prison. Yet that is precisely the venue from which Paul urges the Philippian community to “rejoice.” He is not alone in projecting hope in the midst of a situation which could only be called desperate. As Brueggemann suggests, the prophetic imagination bearing hope often emerges from the unlikeliest places: from a birth to an elderly couple and a young, unmarried woman, from a wilderness retreat enjoyed by thousands with seemingly no food, from capital punishment using brutal crucifixion, or from a Roman prison (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 102).

Perhaps this is because in all of these cases that which is seen as “ordinary and proper” (especially when backed up by imperial coercive power) is not ultimate. Paul makes this clear in Philippians when he urges hearers to be “minded,“ not by an Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” but as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….” (Philippians 2:6-7a). He continues this line of thought by providing assurance that it is the peace of God beyond understanding which will “stand guard” (froreo) over the hearts and minds of the faithful. No longer is it a centurion, as Paul saw daily in prison, who provides for the security of the community; now the Pax Romana is replaced by the Pax Christi, a peace extended to the whole creation.

This search for peace and safety is at the center as Luke’s narrative of the ministry of John the Baptist continues. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). Security can never be found by leaving one’s city or village for a mere splash in the Jordan River. John’s baptism entails repentance and bearing fruits worthy of a new outlook on life. This is especially true in the face of the temptation to join Lot’s wife in looking back to embrace what seems like a safe past.

John sees through this tactic. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor….’”(Luke 3: 8). As the Baptist uncovers this dodge, we see the sharp contrast between what John prepares the people to look ahead for and relying solely on pedigree—even from Abraham. An important clue is the word “begin” (archomai). Luke’s entire narrative moves God’s story forward, beginning with the communities of Abraham-Sarah and Moses-Miriam, but extending to all people and living creatures (Luke 2:32). No wonder John’s mission of preparation and baptism for repentance takes for granted congruence between cleansing water and bearing good fruit. Anything less neglects the coming future and needs to feel the axe; it is good only for burning (Luke 3: 9).

Much the same is true of current so-called “populist” movements that hearken back to a non-existent past when everyone had a good job, there was little crime, no environmental challenge, all went to church, and the dizzying assortment of “others” had not demanded a place at the table. Because this “past” can never be re-created, it is used primarily as a vague source of values aimed at choking off immigration, eliminating equal rights, and elevating an “ancestral group” on behalf of which authoritarians seek to rule. This backward looking ideology never bears good fruit as it spreads racism, sexism, homophobia, and neglects eco-justice. It makes nothing “great again,” but powerfully draws attention and energy away from responding to real needs.

What then is this “good fruit” that meets Luke’s intention in creating his “orderly account?” (Luke 1:1). Which is exactly what the crowds asked John the Baptist: “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). Whether it is a matter of sharing clothing and food or exercising the power to collect taxes or serve in the military, the answer is the same: live out an “ethics of the Magnificat.” As Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Like the provision of daily bread, all is gift—whether the harvest of wheat or the call to service. These gifts of creation become fruitful when they are shared as freely as they are received.

It is no surprise that John’s presence and teaching led people to “rejoice” that they had found the Messiah. John will have none of this. While he provides a water bath, the more powerful coming one will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), a clear reference to the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Once again we are reminded of the Exodus, where the spirit-wind parted the seas, while the people were led by a pillar of fire. This new exodus will go through the very gates of death to open not only the scriptures (Luke 24:27, 32, 45) and the eyes of the disappointed couple (Luke 24: 31), but also open the whole creation to reconciliation-shalom (Luke 24:47). Baptism into the death and resurrection of this coming one (Romans 6:1-11) means a life of fruitful working toward ecojustice in opposition to the forces of greed that continue to destroy creation, described as “chaff” slated for a good burning (Luke 3:17b).

This powerful and gracious opening of the Earth to reconciliation (Luke 24: 47) is echoed in baptismal liturgies. Candidates for baptism, parents, and sponsors are empowered to fulfill these central responsibilities: to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God has made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 228). As we engage in pre-baptismal education and proclaim reconciliation, we are called to remember that our lives are formed to care for the whole creation.

Advent provides a fruitful time of opportunity for this message. While there is pressure to engage in endless shopping to find the most pleasing gifts, to load the calendar with a round of parties, card writing, and all the rest, the community of faith offers counter-cultural freedom to carve out time and space to focus on what is most important. While Christmas is hardly “Jesus’ birthday,” the phrase “Whose Birthday Is It?” had some real usefulness. Now broaden that to learn how to prepare for celebrating the Trinity dwelling with us—and we have something worth “rejoicing” in.

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

Second Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019
By Tom Mundahl
First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

The season of Advent quietly opens the door to a new church year as assemblies focus on the coming of God. Not only do we celebrate the incarnation so beautifully narrated by Luke, we celebrate the continuous coming in creation, community, word and sacrament. Finally, we look forward to the mysterious advent that Moltmann calls “the sabbath of eternal joy” (The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 338).

As we reflect on Advent readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, we will hear texts concerned with both the future and the incarnation, texts that are woven together by deep confidence in the presence of a Word that empowers our lives and gives us endurance to struggle for ecojustice.

Each week during this dramatic season we must ask the question voiced by film director David Mamet: “Where do we put the camera” (David Mamet, On Directing Film, New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 10)? This week’s Gospel text, which will be our focus, suggests that we position our “cameras” as best we can facing what can only be called a threatening future. Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm: “This fiery summer has given us a glimpse of what climate change will look like.” She proceeds to describe not only all-too-common blazes in the western U.S., but also to remind us of deadly fires ranging from Greece to Sweden’s Arctic Circle (Kolbert, The New Yorker, September 10, 2018, p. 36). Then, in early October, the IPCC reported that a 2.0 degree allowable rise in temperature sanctioned by the Paris Accords of 2015 must be reduced to 1.5 degrees C. Eric Solheim of the UN Climate Programme said of this new report, “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 9, 2018, pp. 1 and 10).

The reality of living in a new climate regime (labeled “anthropocene” by Earth systems scientists) intensifies our stance toward the future. Because of the Earth’s response to human release of greenhouse gases, we are learning that “in the anthropocene we may say that the present is drenched with the future…the unsettling presence of things to come” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 132). To double down on this, Bruno Latour suggests, “we have to position ourselves as though we were at the end of time” (Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 213).

Perhaps we can slacken the tension by taking a biblical cue offered by Latour. It comes from Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community: “Those who mourn should live as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7: 30-31, Latour). Not only does this orient us toward the future, but it reminds us that the end/purpose of our lives is to be about the down-to-earth task of worship, learning, and serving one another and the whole creation in expectation of renewal.

This new advent also calls our attention to Luke’s Gospel. Unique in sharing his methodology, the author proposes to undertake an investigation to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so that worshipping communities will hear reliable truth. This new “history” reckons with “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b). Michael Trainor suggests that the verb translated as “fulfilled,” plerophoreo, might be better translated as “brought to fruition” (as it is translated more than 70 times in LXX), reflecting divine action to bear renewal for the Earth household (About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield Press, 2015, p. 65). That creational fruitfulness is central to Luke is underscored by his genealogy, beginning with “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38), not with Abraham as Matthew has it (Matthew 1:2). Creation, then, orders Luke’s Gospel.

As Luke orders the story of divine fruitfulness, concern for the future is unavoidable. Because this gospel stems from the post-temple era (after 70 CE) use of material from Mark’s “little apocalypse” is unique. No longer do we envision the elect being gathered in by angels (Mark 13: 27). Now the consequences of the coming parousia will be felt throughout the earth (oikoumene) (Luke 21:26, 35). What is more, this universal renewal of the fruitfulness of life is to be met not with fear but with eager joy: “raise up your heads” (Luke 21: 28) to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21: 36).

Just as Luke shapes the Markan tradition for the needs of his own audience, so must we interpret ‘sun, moon, and stars” (Luke 21: 25) in a manner more comprehensible to us. Influenced by the poetics of T. S. Eliot, Michael Trainor suggests that the meaning of a poem or verse is not fixed by the author’s milieu. “Its meaning continues and expands beyond the writer’s lifetime…and is the fruit of interrelated texts—earlier generational insights, cultural factors that influence the writer, the social world of the text’s original audience, previous texts and traditions, and the world which the interpreter brings to the text” (Trainor, p. 46).

While it is not the intention of this writer to literalize the metaphorical power of apocalyptic, the current despoiling of creation cannot help but influence our understanding. The sun and moon seen through the polluted air of Shanghai or San Francisco (or even the Twin Cities when choked by smoke from Canadian wildfires) offer a clear sign of threat. The distress caused in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. by the “roaring of the sea” (Luke 21:25) during major storms fills living creatures with “foreboding about what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26). Advent of 2018 must still promise the Coming One—if only he can be seen through the cloud deck (Luke 21:27). Yet this is not a time of paralysis for the faith community. Instead, the call is to straighten up in confidence because of the divine commitment to creation, the same commitment shared by all seeking ecojustice.

Luke also transforms the “parable of the fig tree” (Luke 21: 29-33). Now we are invited to consider “the fig tree and all the trees” (v. 29). Because the fig tree is a common symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10), by referencing all trees the author signals an audience beyond the Jewish (or Jewish-Christian?) community. It is no longer that the Messiah is near, “at the very gates” (Mark 13: 29b), but that the more universalized “kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21: 31) and provides confidence in the integrity of creation.

This insight provides help in uncovering the meaning of this difficult concluding sentence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21: 33). While current cultural forms and exploitation are transient, when we remember that divine speech (dabar) is the very basis of creation, we claim without reservation that removal of creation from God’s care would be impossible (Trainor, p. 258). Luke remains very down-to-earth.

It is these very mundane issues that comprise the final part of our text, all distinctly Lukan. Because Luke continues to call believers to attend to creation and evidence of needs, paying prayerful attention is crucial. As always (a word appropriate to Luke’s longer time horizon), there are temptations dulling this careful awareness. “Be on guard,” Luke warns, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….” (Luke 21: 34).

No doubt there have always been diversions that get in the way of faithful responsibility. But no time in history has provided the distractions available in the present age. Neil Postman has captured the power of communications technology to divert in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), now a generation old. While information technology can be a powerful tool of change (witness this website), there is no doubt that, as Postman argues, in the US the real danger to civic culture is not only the hard-nosed authoritarianism (think of immigration and prison policies) depicted by George Orwell in 1984, but the pleasure-driven polity painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a culture based on consumption, drug use, and self-absorption.

While the militarization of police forces and increasing surveillance technology do smack of Orwell, the mania of consumerism, advertising, and easy credit, especially this time of year, begin to resemble a hedonocracy. Naturally these have all infected the church where “entertainment-based worship” and messages promoting “adjustment” to this kind of culture are rampant. Recognizing this, Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Postman, p.121).

Perhaps the most significant form that “dissipation” takes today is the refusal to take climate change seriously. How do we explain this? Is it because of lack of scientific understanding, the likelihood that homo sapiens is hard-wired by our evolution for short-term thinking, a psychology of previous investment that ill fits us for major change, increased urbanization with decreasing contact with the natural world, the lobbying of wealthy carbon companies, or sinful selfishness—the heart curved in upon itself? Likely all of these play a significant role.

French theologian and philosopher, Bruno Latour, asks that we dig deeper. While Lutherans have just last year celebrated one of the catalytic events of the Reformation, Luther’s October 31, 1517 call to debate the nature of church authority, we often ignore the tragedy of a century of European warfare sparked by this movement. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), parties exhausted by war sought a basis for order beyond divisive claims of religious truth. What emerged was a firm agreement to respect the principal cuius regio, cuius religio first promulgated as part of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This meant that religion now was less a search for truth and free to be used as an ideological support for the new mercantilism aimed at adding to the wealth and military power of the state, vast acquisition of natural resources from colonial conquest, the new science, and, eventually, the all-powerful market to allocate wealth (Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 90).

In effect, states immanentized religious forces, giving a spiritual patina to the economic behemoths and empires that resulted. Although Karl Marx was wrong in many ways, he was dead right in his analysis of the ideological use of Christianity, a new gnosticism that gave divine authority to anything the Belgians did in the Congo or the English inflicted on child workers in what Blake called “the Satanic mills” (see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, chapters V and VI). Ironically, this ideological use of religion was precisely what was at the basis of Luther’s revolt—exposing the mis-use of the free Word of God as an “institutional mascot.”

Because human regimes were so confident of their arrogant divinely-approved goals, it was and is unthinkable that anything so mundane as the Earth system and its carbon-stuffed atmosphere should get in the way. The very notion that the earth could demonstrate agency, reacting to being treated like a cesspool, is unthinkable (Latour, p. 207). Is not the will of the Holy One that those created in the “image” of God produce and consume endlessly? To play on a well-known verse, “What use is it to save your soul, if it means losing the world? “ Even if it is God’s good creation.

Clearly, we are at a point where we have to listen to Luke and take the notion of “end time” seriously once more. Late in his life, Karl Barth wrote, “We do not know what Nature, what the cosmos in which we have lived and still live now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and the heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then” (quoted in Hamilton, p. 133). Unfortunately, laments Hamilton, “we can indeed make out, through the haze of residual uncertainty, the future’s broad contours under the influence of this new human power” (Hamilton, p. 133).

As the shape of this anthropocene apocalypse becomes clearer, we are discovering where the cameras must be aimed: toward a people looking for freedom from all that “amuses us to death” and instead learning to live down-to-earth lives that focus on “where we are” (our home neighborhood) and “who we are” (servants of creation). This happens when we are alert at all times and pray that we have the strength not to flee our call to seek ecojustice.

By not fleeing, we embrace one of the richest themes in scripture: dwelling. “To dwell” means to make a commitment to a place, its people (neighbors), and its very humus. Even in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the call to share the good news with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47-48), the purpose is to provide a home for all in this fruitful earth. This means that the greatest Advent surprise—echoing the Bethlehem birth—is John’s vision that at the fulfillment of all things we will:

See, the home of God is among humans (all that lives)
God will dwell with them…. (Revelation 21:3)

Not surprisingly, John’s apocalypse ends with the watchword for Advent: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

 

 

 

First Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019
By Tom Mundahl
First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

The season of Advent quietly opens the door to a new church year as assemblies focus on the coming of God. Not only do we celebrate the incarnation so beautifully narrated by Luke, we celebrate the continuous coming in creation, community, word and sacrament. Finally, we look forward to the mysterious advent that Moltmann calls “the sabbath of eternal joy” (The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 338).

As we reflect on Advent readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, we will hear texts concerned with both the future and the incarnation, texts that are woven together by deep confidence in the presence of a Word that empowers our lives and gives us endurance to struggle for ecojustice.

Each week during this dramatic season we must ask the question voiced by film director David Mamet: “Where do we put the camera” (David Mamet, On Directing Film, New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 10)? This week’s Gospel text, which will be our focus, suggests that we position our “cameras” as best we can facing what can only be called a threatening future. Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm: “This fiery summer has given us a glimpse of what climate change will look like.” She proceeds to describe not only all-too-common blazes in the western U.S., but also to remind us of deadly fires ranging from Greece to Sweden’s Arctic Circle (Kolbert, The New Yorker, September 10, 2018, p. 36). Then, in early October, the IPCC reported that a 2.0 degree allowable rise in temperature sanctioned by the Paris Accords of 2015 must be reduced to 1.5 degrees C. Eric Solheim of the UN Climate Programme said of this new report, “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 9, 2018, pp. 1 and 10).

The reality of living in a new climate regime (labeled “anthropocene” by Earth systems scientists) intensifies our stance toward the future. Because of the Earth’s response to human release of greenhouse gases, we are learning that “in the anthropocene we may say that the present is drenched with the future…the unsettling presence of things to come” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 132). To double down on this, Bruno Latour suggests, “we have to position ourselves as though we were at the end of time” (Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 213).

Perhaps we can slacken the tension by taking a biblical cue offered by Latour. It comes from Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community: “Those who mourn should live as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7: 30-31, Latour). Not only does this orient us toward the future, but it reminds us that the end/purpose of our lives is to be about the down-to-earth task of worship, learning, and serving one another and the whole creation in expectation of renewal.

This new advent also calls our attention to Luke’s Gospel. Unique in sharing his methodology, the author proposes to undertake an investigation to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so that worshipping communities will hear reliable truth. This new “history” reckons with “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b). Michael Trainor suggests that the verb translated as “fulfilled,” plerophoreo, might be better translated as “brought to fruition” (as it is translated more than 70 times in LXX), reflecting divine action to bear renewal for the Earth household (About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield Press, 2015, p. 65). That creational fruitfulness is central to Luke is underscored by his genealogy, beginning with “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38), not with Abraham as Matthew has it (Matthew 1:2). Creation, then, orders Luke’s Gospel.

As Luke orders the story of divine fruitfulness, concern for the future is unavoidable. Because this gospel stems from the post-temple era (after 70 CE) use of material from Mark’s “little apocalypse” is unique. No longer do we envision the elect being gathered in by angels (Mark 13: 27). Now the consequences of the coming parousia will be felt throughout the earth (oikoumene) (Luke 21:26, 35). What is more, this universal renewal of the fruitfulness of life is to be met not with fear but with eager joy: “raise up your heads” (Luke 21: 28) to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21: 36).

Just as Luke shapes the Markan tradition for the needs of his own audience, so must we interpret ‘sun, moon, and stars” (Luke 21: 25) in a manner more comprehensible to us. Influenced by the poetics of T. S. Eliot, Michael Trainor suggests that the meaning of a poem or verse is not fixed by the author’s milieu. “Its meaning continues and expands beyond the writer’s lifetime…and is the fruit of interrelated texts—earlier generational insights, cultural factors that influence the writer, the social world of the text’s original audience, previous texts and traditions, and the world which the interpreter brings to the text” (Trainor, p. 46).

While it is not the intention of this writer to literalize the metaphorical power of apocalyptic, the current despoiling of creation cannot help but influence our understanding. The sun and moon seen through the polluted air of Shanghai or San Francisco (or even the Twin Cities when choked by smoke from Canadian wildfires) offer a clear sign of threat. The distress caused in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. by the “roaring of the sea” (Luke 21:25) during major storms fills living creatures with “foreboding about what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26). Advent of 2018 must still promise the Coming One—if only he can be seen through the cloud deck (Luke 21:27). Yet this is not a time of paralysis for the faith community. Instead, the call is to straighten up in confidence because of the divine commitment to creation, the same commitment shared by all seeking ecojustice.

Luke also transforms the “parable of the fig tree” (Luke 21: 29-33). Now we are invited to consider “the fig tree and all the trees” (v. 29). Because the fig tree is a common symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10), by referencing all trees the author signals an audience beyond the Jewish (or Jewish-Christian?) community. It is no longer that the Messiah is near, “at the very gates” (Mark 13: 29b), but that the more universalized “kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21: 31) and provides confidence in the integrity of creation.

This insight provides help in uncovering the meaning of this difficult concluding sentence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21: 33). While current cultural forms and exploitation are transient, when we remember that divine speech (dabar) is the very basis of creation, we claim without reservation that removal of creation from God’s care would be impossible (Trainor, p. 258). Luke remains very down-to-earth.

It is these very mundane issues that comprise the final part of our text, all distinctly Lukan. Because Luke continues to call believers to attend to creation and evidence of needs, paying prayerful attention is crucial. As always (a word appropriate to Luke’s longer time horizon), there are temptations dulling this careful awareness. “Be on guard,” Luke warns, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….” (Luke 21: 34).

No doubt there have always been diversions that get in the way of faithful responsibility. But no time in history has provided the distractions available in the present age. Neil Postman has captured the power of communications technology to divert in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), now a generation old. While information technology can be a powerful tool of change (witness this website), there is no doubt that, as Postman argues, in the US the real danger to civic culture is not only the hard-nosed authoritarianism (think of immigration and prison policies) depicted by George Orwell in 1984, but the pleasure-driven polity painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a culture based on consumption, drug use, and self-absorption.

While the militarization of police forces and increasing surveillance technology do smack of Orwell, the mania of consumerism, advertising, and easy credit, especially this time of year, begin to resemble a hedonocracy. Naturally these have all infected the church where “entertainment-based worship” and messages promoting “adjustment” to this kind of culture are rampant. Recognizing this, Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Postman, p.121).

Perhaps the most significant form that “dissipation” takes today is the refusal to take climate change seriously. How do we explain this? Is it because of lack of scientific understanding, the likelihood that homo sapiens is hard-wired by our evolution for short-term thinking, a psychology of previous investment that ill fits us for major change, increased urbanization with decreasing contact with the natural world, the lobbying of wealthy carbon companies, or sinful selfishness—the heart curved in upon itself? Likely all of these play a significant role.

French theologian and philosopher, Bruno Latour, asks that we dig deeper. While Lutherans have just last year celebrated one of the catalytic events of the Reformation, Luther’s October 31, 1517 call to debate the nature of church authority, we often ignore the tragedy of a century of European warfare sparked by this movement. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), parties exhausted by war sought a basis for order beyond divisive claims of religious truth. What emerged was a firm agreement to respect the principal cuius regio, cuius religio first promulgated as part of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This meant that religion now was less a search for truth and free to be used as an ideological support for the new mercantilism aimed at adding to the wealth and military power of the state, vast acquisition of natural resources from colonial conquest, the new science, and, eventually, the all-powerful market to allocate wealth (Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 90).

In effect, states immanentized religious forces, giving a spiritual patina to the economic behemoths and empires that resulted. Although Karl Marx was wrong in many ways, he was dead right in his analysis of the ideological use of Christianity, a new gnosticism that gave divine authority to anything the Belgians did in the Congo or the English inflicted on child workers in what Blake called “the Satanic mills” (see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, chapters V and VI). Ironically, this ideological use of religion was precisely what was at the basis of Luther’s revolt—exposing the mis-use of the free Word of God as an “institutional mascot.”

Because human regimes were so confident of their arrogant divinely-approved goals, it was and is unthinkable that anything so mundane as the Earth system and its carbon-stuffed atmosphere should get in the way. The very notion that the earth could demonstrate agency, reacting to being treated like a cesspool, is unthinkable (Latour, p. 207). Is not the will of the Holy One that those created in the “image” of God produce and consume endlessly? To play on a well-known verse, “What use is it to save your soul, if it means losing the world? “ Even if it is God’s good creation.

Clearly, we are at a point where we have to listen to Luke and take the notion of “end time” seriously once more. Late in his life, Karl Barth wrote, “We do not know what Nature, what the cosmos in which we have lived and still live now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and the heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then” (quoted in Hamilton, p. 133). Unfortunately, laments Hamilton, “we can indeed make out, through the haze of residual uncertainty, the future’s broad contours under the influence of this new human power” (Hamilton, p. 133).

As the shape of this anthropocene apocalypse becomes clearer, we are discovering where the cameras must be aimed: toward a people looking for freedom from all that “amuses us to death” and instead learning to live down-to-earth lives that focus on “where we are” (our home neighborhood) and “who we are” (servants of creation). This happens when we are alert at all times and pray that we have the strength not to flee our call to seek ecojustice.

By not fleeing, we embrace one of the richest themes in scripture: dwelling. “To dwell” means to make a commitment to a place, its people (neighbors), and its very humus. Even in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the call to share the good news with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47-48), the purpose is to provide a home for all in this fruitful earth. This means that the greatest Advent surprise—echoing the Bethlehem birth—is John’s vision that at the fulfillment of all things we will:

See, the home of God is among humans (all that lives)
God will dwell with them…. (Revelation 21:3)

Not surprisingly, John’s apocalypse ends with the watchword for Advent: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

 

 

 

Christ the King Sunday, Year B (Ormseth)

The priesthood of all believers means that we are “priests” of all creation.

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Christ the King Sunday in Year B

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

The long awaited king comes “with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail” (Revelation 1:7). With the texts for the Festival Sunday of Christ the King, the church hears a summation of the gospel of the lectionary narrative of Year B, and a matching mandate for its life under his kingship. Summation and mandate together bring our reflections on care of creation in Year B to an appropriate conclusion with reflections on the nature of Christ’s dominion and the human vocation.

The texts celebrate the “kingship” of Christ as “not from this world” (John 18:36). His kingship is instead a gift from “the Ancient One” (Daniel 7:13-14), the “Alpha and the Omega,” “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:4, 8), source and goal of all that is. But if Christ’s kingdom is not “from this world,” we nonetheless celebrate his kingship as belonging within the world: all the nations of the earth do wail on his account; while “coming with the clouds of heaven,” we read that he is “like a human being,” and he is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14); and even the non-human creation, represented here by the seas that symbolize the subdued powers of chaos, join in the praise of the Lord who “has established the world; it shall never be moved” (Psalm 93:1-4). If his kingship is celebrated as eternal—worthy of “glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6), it is also universal, that is to say, inclusive of all things in creation, with respect to both time and space (cf. Colossians 1:19).

Key here for our consideration of care of creation, of course, is the characterization of the nature of this “dominion.” That this concept, much discussed in the context of the environmental crisis, does not legitimize “domination” by those who belong to the kingdom over either the human community or the environment, is an assertion we have had repeated occasion to argue in the course of this series of comments in both year A and year B (See especially the comment on the texts for Name of Jesus Sunday). Christ’s is not a kingship which like those “from this world” can be gained or retained by violence; if it were, Jesus says, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). If this “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) is “the ruler of the kings of the earth,” as the author of the Revelation to John reminds us, he is also “faithful witness” and “the first born of the dead,” three phrases that with remarkable economy, as Frank Senn notes, “extoll and proclaim . . . his earthly mission and heavenly minisry” (i.e. his “death, resurrection, and ascension”) (Frank C. Senn, “Christ the King,” New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 259). Moreover, his work of love, the text from Revelation reminds us, is to free us “from our sins by his blood,” a clear reference to his death on the cross that recalls the sacrificial image with which we have been constantly engaged in the texts of the lectionary here at the end of the year. Jesus has dominion as king, readers of this series of comments will acknowledge, precisely because he is also the high priest who gave his own blood in the sanctuary of the cosmos, in order to open up the way for us through his body into the very presence of God.

This is of decisive import with respect to God’s love of creation and our care of it: as we concluded in our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, in the words of Norman Wirzba, “On the cross Jesus encountered the alienating and violent death of this world and transformed it into the self-offering death that leads to resurrection life . . . . In light of his death and resurrection, creation can be seen as an immense altar upon which the incomprehensible, self-offering love of God is daily made manifest” (see our comment on the readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; the quotation is from Wirzba, Food and Faith, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 125). Futhermore, it is of utmost interest with respect to our role in the care of creation that the author of the Revelation chooses to describe the benefit of Christ’s work for us in terms of priesthood: he has “made us to be a kingdom,” we read, “priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6). Our role in the kingdom—our membership in it—is in the first instance to be understood as one of exercizing priesthood, which leads us into a discussion of the second grand theme concerning care of creation, namely, definition of the role of the human in creation. (Again we can refer our reader to earlier comments, most recently the one for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost).

In our comments on the lectionary for Year A, we showed that an understanding of Jesus as servant of creation correlates with an understanding of the role of humans as servants of creation. We, like he, serve God by serving God’s beloved Earth. Similarly here in Year B, as we have followed to its conclusion the narrative of Jesus’ displacement of the Jerusalem temple as locus where God is present in the world, we have seen the great importance of interpreting his work in terms of the role of high priest; it seems entirely appropriate, accordingly, that in the last set of texts for Year B the image of the priest should also capture the implications of Jesus’ role for our role in relationship to creation. What does it mean, precisely, to consider the human being as priest of creation? And how might that understanding benefit the creation?

Translating the role of the priest in ancient Israel into Christian idiom, Norman Wirzba describes the role of the priest in terms of the “lifting up” of the gifts of bread and wine to God in the Christian Eucharist. As Wirzba writes, following the thought of Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, the priestly role is . . .

to ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1), so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing. As priests we begin to see creation as an altar of God’s offering. The altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves (Wirzba, p. 206).

Moreover, in exercizing this priestly role, the faithful human being extends the reconciling work of Christ in relationship to all creation. “From the beginning, but also to its end,” in this view, “all creation is the expression of a divine intent that all creatures be whole and at peace, enjoying the Sabbath delight that marks God’s attachment to the world.” This intent is frustrated by humankind’s propensity for “making itself rather than God the center of desire and action. People have used their freedom to manipulate the world to serve their own ends rather than glorify God.” Wirzba sums up the consequences for creation this way: “We prefer to take the world, possess it, and consume it. What we do not realize is that this hoarding gesture, a gesture often founded upon a deep insecurity and anxiety within us, compromises and degrades the giving of God that is the life of the world” (Wirzba, p. 209).

Zizioulas further illumines the understanding of the human being as priest by contrasting it to the more common understanding of the human vocation as stewards of creation. The concept of the steward, he insists, is “managerial,” or “economic”— ‘the idea of arranging things according to and for the sake of expediency.” In the concept of the priest, on the other hand, the human being is related to nature not functionally, as the idea of stewardship would suggest, but ontologically: by being the steward of creation the human being relates to nature by what he [sic] does, whereas by being the priest of creation he relates to nature by what he [sic] is. The implications of this distinction are very signficant. In the case of stewardship our attitude to nature is determined by ethics and morality: if we destroy nature we disobey and transgress a certain law, we become immoral and unethical. In the case of priesthood, in destroying nature we simply cease to be, the consequences of ecological sin are not moral but existential. Ecology is in this way a matter of our esse, not of our bene esse. Our ecological concern becomes in this way far more powerful and efficient than in employing the model of stewardship (John D. Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, ed. by Luke Ben Tallon. London: T & T Clark, 2011, p. 139).

This is highly significant, Zizioulas insists, because the ecological crisis is . . .

due not so much to a wrong ethic as to a bad ethos; it is a cultural problem. In our Western culture we did everything to de-sacralise life, to fill our societies with legislators, moralist and thinkers, and undermined the fact that the human being is also, or rather primarily, a liturgical being, faced from the moment of birth with a world that he or she must treat either as a sacred gift or as raw material for exploitation and use.

An entire reorientation of culture to creation accompanies the commitment to priestly action: “As priests rather than stewards we embrace nature instead of managing it, and although this may sound romantic and sentimental, its deeper meaning is . . . ontological, since this ‘embracing’ of nature amounts to our very being, to our existence” (Zizioulas, p. 140).

Finally, from this perspective, an understanding of the role of the human being as priest of creation supports the careful development of creation beyond what it is naturally. Protection of nature, in Zizioulas view, should not be to be contrary to the development of nature, as it often is in much conservationist understanding. As priest of creation, the human being transforms the material world he takes in his hand . . .

into something better than what it is naturally. Nature must be improved through human intervention; it is not to be preserved as it is. In the Eucharist we do not offer to God simply grain or wheat and grapes, but bread and wine, that is, natural elements developed and transformed through the human labour, in our hands. Ecology is not preservation but development (Zizioulas, p. 140).

How does this differ from the human transformation of nature characteristic of the domination of creation by its human “proprietors”? In a priestly approach to nature, the purpose served by development is not primarily or exclusively the satisfaction of human needs, but rather because nature itself stands in need of development through us in order to fulfil its own being and acquire a meaning which it would not otherwise have. In other words, there is a development of nature which treats it as raw material for production and distribution, and there is a development which treats nature as an entity that must be developed for its own sake. In the latter case, although the human being is not passive, simply preserving or sustaining nature, he is developing nature with respect for its, and not his, interests, taking care of its fragility and its “groaning in travail,” to remember Saint Paul’s moving expression in Roman 8 (Zizioulas, p. 140).

In the Lutheran tradition, the priesthood of all believers has come to mean the inclusion and democratization of all members of Christ’s church in proclamation of the gospel, over against the elevation of the professional clergy. The Reformation protest against the Roman practice of sacrifice in the mass, on the other hand, has precluded fuller appreciation of this role for the Christian believer. With the revisioning of the meaning of sacrifice we have developed in this series of comments, it should be possible to enlist the concept not only for the restoration of creation, but also for the fulfillment of creation.

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

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Sassaman)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series B: 2017-2018
By Jeremiah Sassaman

The 25th Sunday after Pentecost in Year B,
All Saint’s Sunday 2018, Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours 2018,
Veteran’s Day, USA 2018
1 Kings 17:8-16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Standing and gazing out over the crowd this morning, as the names of our veterans were read over the loudspeaker, three things were prominent. The trees on the hilltop horizon broadcast a beautiful tapestry of the changing seasons in southeastern Pennsylvania. Flags snap in the crisp breeze. The American flag waves proudly beside a banner encouraging passersby to buy and eat local. Yet it was the feeling in my heart that truly spoke the loudest. In an imperfect world, a troubled nation, and an unsettled mind, I was overjoyed to be alive. Honored to be a citizen of the United States of America, for which the flag stands. Happy to be a human, even though I know that perfection politically, socially and ecologically elude our painfully inadequate and sinful existence. I was proud of what my forebearers have accomplished, knowing that the negatives shall haunt me all the days of my life. Gazing out upon the scenery I found sanctuary on the wind. I was truly in God’s holy temple.

I am unapologetically patriotic and of deep Christian faith. I am an optimistic in the Lord. I accept reality as it is but refuse to surrender to the idea that reality is immutable. We can change ourselves and the world. I pray and strive to ensure that such change is for the betterment of all humanity and all creation. Douglas John Hall describes love as the notion that we are to be “with” one another as the human species, and with nature as is our calling as stewards of the cosmos. We do not lose our individuality in the literal sense, instead embracing the fullness of the other’s being with our own (Hall, Douglas John. The Steward. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990. Pages 207-208). While we may need to adapt our behaviors or refrain from detrimental actions, humans can and must be unabashedly glad to be human. To embrace the individuality of others, we must first embrace ourselves.

St. Martin of Tours, a soldier of the Roman cavalry in Gaul during the first years of the Empire post Edict of Milan, was raised a Christian. He served faithfully in the military until Caesar Julian “the Apostate” took the throne (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Martin-of-Tours , accessed November 3, 2018). Martin recognized that he could not serve Julian and the Empire under his authority, instead standing firm for his true leader and king, Jesus Christ. We remember St. Martin for his willingness to fight for and find sanctuary in Jesus. For knowing when and how to serve God. We can say the same of our veterans here today. We can rejoice and remember those who fell for the betterment of the world. Those who fought on the shores of Normandy to liberate the enslaved and tortured people of God. Those who sought to topple dictators and bring relief to those poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free (Emma Lazarus. “The New Colossus,” 1883). I am happy to be alive in this nation, even if imperfect.

Sanctuary is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories as a church or sacred space where a fugitive was immune from arrest (Glynnis Chantrell, editor. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Page 446). The implication by law was that the “holy” space was legally sacred. While the history of sanctuary laws has changed, the notion remains that some spaces offer protection. For Elijah, that location came in the place of Zarephath. Coping with the need for food and water, Elijah follows the command of God and goes to the town of Zarephath deep in the territory of Baal and his champion Jezebel (Richard Nelson. First and Second Kings. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987. Pages 109-110). Not only did Elijah need that basics of life, he needed protection. In the guise of the widow, God provided not only what Elijah needed; God gave to the widow and her son that which they needed. God gave Elijah sanctuary and rest.

Looking out into the fall foliage, the sense of sanctuary under God’s watchful eye, was palpable. There was a sense that we were safe, because we stood together. The crowd stood silent as flags were retired in the flames of a billowing fire. A hawk screeched its disapproval at the thick smoke in the air, and the smell filled the nostrils of each soul that looked on. We stood together as local folks gathering to remember what we hold onto as a sacred service. We stood in a sanctuary from the world, praying, remembering, and hoping for a greater future, while refusing to neglect the past. The service was sponsored and took place in the midst of a local nursery, with trees and plants of all kinds surrounding the small handful of celebrants. It was a wonderful meshing of creation, love, and respect. It seemed a perfect little slice of our bioregion.

“Bioregionalism is a useful approach to the study of established and emerging links between cultural and ecological diversity” (Peña, Devon. “Los Animalitos,” in Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1998, 53). The approach outlined in the article suggests that as we know ourselves and the other, we can celebrate and respect our differences, while at the same exact time celebrate unity. As an approach to the preservation of ecological diversity, bioregionalism is a much stronger approach when we understand our human diversity as being a blessing for everyone, and not as an entitlement or weapon. Being proud of who I am, where I was born, and the nuances of my biological being give me the power to be equally fascinated by the diversity in the world around me. Or such is the thought.

When we are healthy, the biological diversity around us is healthy. When we love one another, we beat our swords into plowshares, and the whole creation is loved. We find ourselves with one another, and not in opposition to the world. The banner reading “eat and buy local,” does not seek global isolation. Rather it encourages us to celebrate our bioregional greatness as part of a greater whole. How we view and treat ourselves and our own ecosystem home, is a foreshadowing of how we will treat the cosmic reality and the outsider. While in doubt of the claim, the widow of Zarephath none-the-less trusts and provides sanctuary in the form of oil and meal. God blesses the widow in return for her obedience, and God will bless humanity when we give sanctuary to the land and the whole of created life.

Much like the widow at Zarephath, St. Martin of Tours, leaving the service of the cavalry, embraced a ministry of sanctuary. For the broken and sinful saints on the journey of life, Martin sought to provide guidance and nourishment in the Christian faith. Martin, as a young man had encountered God’s love through a beggar in Amiens. Martin drew his sword and tore his cloak in two, to both clothe the beggar and himself. That night he saw, in a vision, the Lord praising Martin for being a mere catechumen, and yet clothing Jesus (https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=81 Accessed November 3, 2018). Saint Martin showed the same willingness to provide for others, even when he himself had little. He joins the widow at Zarephath and the woman of Mark 12:38-44, in trusting and obeying God. These examples of faithful women and men show how respect for the other, regardless of the differences dividing them, empowers and offers sanctuary to all.
Among the lessons for today, a theme runs strongly throughout. Love all and be “with” all humanity and creation. Respect and cherish diversity and unity; our uniqueness as equally as our sameness. Give without the need to ask why, how, or when. Provide sanctuary as it is provided to all who believe and obey the Lord.

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Sassaman)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series B: 2017-2018
By Jeremiah Sassaman

The 24th Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Psalm 119:1-8
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The shema in its fullest authority and the necessary addition of Christ Jesus’s proclamation of the second commandment to, “love your neighbor as yourself,” in Mark’s gospel, form the foundations of Christian faith and life. It can be said that it is these two commandments that give meaning, purpose and direction to all of humanity. These commandments ensure life, liberty and happiness. These commandments are life-giving and life-sustaining. These commandments protect, preserve and provide for the coexistence of humanity within and alongside all of creation.

The people of God have from the beginning, known God as LORD and Creator of all. For the early Israelites, God’s authority and power were evident alone in Himself. While the world is the creation of God, and within the cosmos God’s power and glory could be witnessed or experienced, there was a clear distinction between God and the creation. To avoid the pitfalls of idolatry, God, and God alone, was separate from God’s handiwork (Eichrodt, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament, Volume 2. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1967. Pages 107-109). God created all things and declared them good. As such it can easily be deduced that all things too were created in perfection. The perfection of God, witnessed in God’s creations and creatures, are thus to be equally cherished. Humanity, given lordship over all of creation (in Genesis) as the representative of God, ought then to seek to adhere to the intent of God in His creative act (Von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology. Volume 1. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1962. Pages 146-147).

Now, to be clear, these initial thoughts surround the concept of Creation before the Fall of Adam. Before sin entered the world, the relationship between humanity and the creation was untainted and without death. Humans were alongside all animals in finding their sustenance in the waters and soils of the land. Killing was completely unnecessary and unknown. Pollution and destruction were unknown. There were simply no instances where greed and gluttony would cause the abuse of fellow creatures, their habitations, or sources of life.

With the advent of the knowledge of good and evil in the human consciousness, the relationship between humankind and every other component of the created world became broken. What was, for a time, the perfection of God’s hand was weakened and entered a terminal existence. Life changed. Creation began to groan in travail. Humanity and animals alike no longer ate from the fruits of the soil alone, choosing rather to regularly dine on one another. From a scientific standpoint, we can certainly argue with this biblical account in terms of its authenticity as myth or fact. Evolutionary science directs us to a deeper understanding of the reasons why species exist as herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous. Yet the text itself leads us to ask the question, “Does it matter?” Does it matter if we take the text as literal or solely inspired? Or is there some concept of authority in between? I am by no means an Old Testament scholar. I am aware of the depth of biblical knowledge and interpretive possibilities; by no means a master. So, I pose these questions purely out of a sense of provoking existential thought. Can understanding our role as elements of God’s creation be simplified? Should it be? I am unsure, yet propose the following:

God is LORD alone.
God created all that has been made.
God saw that it was good.
We are part of what God has made.
We are created as lords and stewards of creation as God’s representatives.
Because God created things in perfection and declared them good, and we represent God, humanity thus ought to exert its representational authority according to God’s will and with God’s vision of creation as good.

These thoughts are by no means exhaustive or perfect, as nothing human hands and minds can devise is such. Yet in their simplicity can this line of thought be accurate? If so, humanity has a God-given responsibility to view all of creation as an affirmative witness of God’s awesome and everlasting grace and glory. Creation in its entirety, must be viewed as neighbor, not to be fenced in nor kept at arms-length but embraced and loved. Creation becomes something to commune with, not pillage. Regardless of one’s understanding of the role of humanity, it seems universal that people do not squat where they eat. Thus, pollution and destruction of earth’s non-living creation is equally repulsive to Christian life.

All of God’s creatures as our neighbors fall under Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves. To fully love our neighbors and their existence, we must protect their homes as well. All of creation is our neighborhood. Dr. Kristin Largen suggests that we must see things this way first if we ever hope to love all that God has made, including ourselves as human creatures (Largen, Kristin Johnston. 2017. Neighbors, neighbor-love, and our animal neighbors.” Word & World 37, no. 1: 37-47. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost accessed August 2, 2018). Indeed, caring for the world around us requires a radical rediscovery of our pre-Fall relationships.

Jeremiah Sassaman revsassaman@ptd.net

Reformation Sunday, Year A

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary in Year A

Reformation Sunday, by Dennis Ormseth

Psalm 46
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-37

How can Reformation Sunday be a Care for Creation Sunday?

Historical assessments of the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the orientation to and care of creation in Western culture give us little reason to observe Reformation Sunday with gratitude. The following comment from Michael Northcott’s The Environment and Christian Ethics is representative:

Protestant theologians emphasized more strongly than their medieval forebears both the fallenness of nature, and its consequent fearfulness, and they treated nature as a resource created entirely for human purposes. Through its human use and transformation by Christian people, nature might also be gradually redeemed from the effects of the Fall. Protestants sought to remove any vestige of spiritual power in the natural world, as represented in medieval Catholicism in pilgrimages to sacred places, or in festivals around sacred wells or site of divine activity. They sought to purge the landscape of the sacred, and locate the site of God’s activity entirely in the individual self. The work of salvation involved the movement of the heart and mind towards a state of grace by the inspiration of that gift of faith which, as Luther taught, alone of all God’s gifts in creation, could work for a person’s salvation. This inward and redemptionist shift in Protestant theology produces a doctrine of creation far more instrumentalist and secular than that of the medievals. As George Hendry argues, Luther’s doctrine of creation ‘reduced the whole world of nature to a repository of goods for the service of man.’ (Northcott, p. 52).

We cannot begin to assess the validity of these far ranging judgments here. As we will note below, there are themes in Luther’s theology that run counter to these generalizations. But it is striking to note that the texts appointed for reading on Reformation Sunday do indeed underscore the emphasis on individual spirituality identified by Northcott as the Reformation’s characteristic impulse.

Is Lutheran Theology too individualistic?

A new covenant is to be written “on their hearts” as opposed to the original one “external to the people and written on tablets of stone,” as one commentator characterizes it, making the link to the Lutheran emphasis on law and gospel (John Paul Heil, “Reformation Day,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 245). Psalm 46, on which Luther’s great Reformation hymn is based, reminds us not to fear, because “though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”(46:1-2). John 8:31-36 suggests that salvation is to be understood chiefly as the freeing of an individual from the slavery to sin. And, of course, the classic Reformation text from Romans can easily be read in an exclusively anthropological perspective, for its emphasis on justification by grace made “effective through faith.” Accordingly, with these texts, Reformation Sunday will not likely be observed as a “care of creation” Sunday.

To be sure, alternative readings of these passages are available. The new covenant, for example, is the covenant of kenotic love that brings about a new creation, as we discussed in the comment for last Sunday. So also, if the slavery to sin is properly interpreted in John’s Gospel as slavery to disbelief in God as our creator, then Jesus, the Servant of Creation, frees the church for love of God’s beloved cosmos. And the righteousness of God made available through the faith of Jesus in the Christian community may be interpreted as that power of the Spirit which the Apostle Paul will celebrate as the means to the liberation that a groaning creation waits for in hope (Romans 8:18-23).

Sittler: Creation as the Realm of Grace has been Lost!

Nevertheless, the criticism of the Reformation tradition made by Northcott and others rings true enough that some deliberate effort to change direction would serve the cause of care of creation well this Sunday. What Joseph Sittler said about the development of the Reformation tradition in his famous “Called to Unity” address in 1961 is still largely true:

In the midst of vast changes in man’s relation to nature the sovereignty and scope of grace was, indeed, attested and liberated by the Reformers. But post-Reformation consolidations of their teaching permitted their Christic recovery of all of nature as a realm of grace to slip back into a minor theme . . . For fifteen centuries the Church has declared the power of grace to conquer egocentricity, to expose idolatry, to inform the drama of history with holy meaning. But in our time we have beheld the vision and promises of the Enlightenment come to strange and awesome maturity. The cleavage between grace and nature is complete. Man’s identity as been shrunken to the dimensions of privatude within social determinism. The doctrine of the creation has been made a devout datum of past time (Sittler, ‘Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, ed. by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, pp. 43, 45).

There is much in Paul that works for the redemption of creation

For Sittler, it is the Paul of Romans 8, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1, not Romans 3, that would point the way for future theological reflection adequate to the ecological challenge of our time. Recent contributions to Pauline scholarship have begun to fill out this expectation (See David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, especially Chapter 6, “The Construction of a Pauline Hermeneutical Lens.”)

Rasmussen: Lutheran Themes that resound to the care of creation?

Theological echoes of Sittler’s challenge to the Reformation tradition sound yet, and themes other than “justification by grace through faith” are considered more significant resources “for meeting creation’s travail,” in the phrase of Larry Rasmussen: Luther’s theology of the cross, the theological principle of finitum capax infiniti (the finite and material can bear the infinite divinity of God), and the image of creation as God’s masks, these lend power to a renewal of the tradition that undergirds an understanding of humans as imago dei, those who “love earth fiercely, as God does”  (See Rasmussen’s Earth Community Earth Ethics, pp. 270-94, for a brief exposition of these themes). Yet “grace through faith” nonetheless holds its central place:

Faith is the name of the strong power behind the renewal of moral-spiritual energy. It squarely faces the fact there will never be decisive proof beforehand that life will triumph. Yet it still acts with confidence that the stronger powers in the universe arch in the direction of sustaining life, as they also insist upon justice. World-weariness is combated by a surprising force found amidst earth and its distress. Creation carries its own hidden powers. It supports the confidence of the gospel that a steadfast order exists that bends in the direction of life and gives it meaning (Ibid., p. 352).

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Series B: 2018
by Nick Utphall

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

From top to bottom this week, the lectionary readings seem ready-made for sacrificial substitutionary atonement. This is the view that Jesus died for your sins, that his righteousness is offered as recompense to cover the debt of your sins, a sense of justice that must be retributive, and—most centrally—that a perfect Father demands satisfaction so that you need not be condemned eternally, but since somebody’s gotta pay for it Jesus died vicariously in your place. Built partly on one reading of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father sends the Son expressly for this purpose, and Jesus was so obedient to this command that he suffered even to the point of death on the cross (I would say that’s a misreading, much preferring the sort of perspective that it is about love for humanity, like partially described here from David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146). This substitutionary satisfaction view has become the dominant sense (in American Christianity, at least) of the whole reason for Jesus. It has even become the default understanding, where any other theological perspective is inherently viewed with suspicion.

As a reader of a care for creation commentary, I suspect that you might not fully endorse such an atonement theory. In a model that mainly deals with eternal consequences. Life in this world is mainly relegated to a tally sheet, keeping a record of how well you’ve done or noting that no matter what you’ve done, an eschatologically significant rupture of relationship with God will occur. Given that it deals with and focuses on Jesus’ death, it seems to be a matter for after-life and doesn’t seem to connect much to actual relationships and interactions of our lives on earth now. For that regard, I’d simply guess that most people invested in caring for creation are not as directly concerned with Jesus paying for our sins (Maybe someone could do a survey to find out just how much those two categories mix?).

So what are we to do with these readings, if they seem to scream a perspective of internal, spiritualized ledger sheets? Here’s some of the litany for the week:
Jesus said, “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
He “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5)
He was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)
“It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” and “make his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10)
“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)
Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

So how to confront these readings, or how to hear them in a way that isn’t about Jesus forced to serve as a vicarious satisfaction in substitute for you and your death demanded by a vengefully righteous God? Is there room for care for creation, or is it that all is lost and we must look to heaven (or, perhaps more palatable to us, the new creation yet to come)?

In his review of the alternatives to this dominant atonement theory, Mennonite and nonviolent theologian J. Denny Weaver points out that “In ‘God of the Oppressed,’ James H. Cone, the founder of the black theology movement, pointed out that the dominant Anselmian doctrine posed atonement in terms of an abstract theory that lacked ethical dimensions in the historical arena. Consequently, it allowed white people to claim salvation while accommodating and advocating the violence of racism and slavery”—a criticism also leveled by feminist theologians, among others (“The Nonviolent Atonement,” p 4). This begins to take seriously our human relationships and God’s actions in society, even as we who care for creation insist that this must be broader even than some multiracial and gender-inclusive anthropocentrism.

One way to approach these readings comes from Girardian theologian James Allison, who has posed the question, “Who sacrificed who to whom?” The answer should not be so directly presumed that God insisted on killing Jesus for God’s own sake. Humanity was and remains too steeped in the practice of doing violence to each other. The death of Jesus, in this Girardian view, was a rupture designed to break the perpetual cycle of scapegoating and violence. Allison, who takes seriously the notion and practice of sacrifice, can remind us that this is about life being able to continue on, about God entering the creation and being restored in right relationship. (For some of those historical reflections on sacrifice, where it is clarified that in traditional sacrifice God was sacrificing God-self for the sake of humanity and creation, a “divine movement to set people free,” see this essay: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html.)

In spite of how readily these Bible passages might be enlisted for the purposes of the retributive violent atonement models, it also is readily apparent that the goal is about life. It is not a story of a God whose will is suffering or punishment or death. Rather than terms or pain, notice Isaiah’s efforts for healing, wholeness, prolonged days, and life. One phrase in particular that jumps out is “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). Clearly any of the suffering or pain cannot be seen as right, the afflictions and oppressions cannot be labeled as divinely intended, when that is a perversion of justice. It is when the system is broken that pain and suffering prevail, not by the system God designed and intended and planned.

I’m averse to saying that we have to learn the perfect submission or that our suffering will make us perfect in that way that Hebrews perceives it. But the brutality of Isaiah may make more sense through a perspective of self-sacrifice. It seems vitally significant that suffering is not something that one is told to endure, but that one chooses for oneself. This is not the oppression of groups of people explained away, the abuse done in relationships excused, the subjugation and disregard that takes advantage of others. No one may be told to suffer, to confine them by telling them to learn obedience to that way. Rather, this is chosen. Following Cone’s criticism mentioned above, rather than masters justifying their enslavement of others, this voluntarily takes the place of a servant. This is a slavery opted into for the sake of love and in service of life. With Isaiah, the prophet sees himself as the suffering servant (and is not predicting the fate of another, much less saying what God will do to Jesus).

Here is one explanation from Terence Fretheim: “At the very least, we must say that the suffering of the servant is reflective of the suffering of God; in the giving up of the servant for the world, personal self-sacrifice is seen to define God’s purpose here. But even more, as the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence, we should also say that God, too, experiences what the servant suffers. This consequence is something which God chooses to bring not only upon the servant but also upon [God]self. While God does not die, God experiences in a profound way what death is like in and through the servant. By so participating in the depths of the death-dealing forces of this world, God transforms the world from within; and a new creation thereby begins to be born.” (“The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective,” p164-65)

For this perspective of God’s efforts for life over death, one of the most useful aspects of this Gospel reading is as a corrective to the dominant and domineering readings of Genesis 1 that give license to the abuse of creation. When God offers the instruction for the humans to “have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), dominion has much too frequently been interpreted as permission to do whatever we want. I believe it is helpful to consider the word “dominion.” It ties to the Latin “dominus,” for Lord.

Similarly, the word in Genesis 1:28 in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament includes Kyrie—which we know from “Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.” Although the term Jesus uses is the exact same word (katekyrie) for “lord it over,” we can see that he advocates and leads us into a very different kind of dominion. Though we might be more apt to be “like the nations” (in Jesus’ phrase from Mark 10:42), our own practice of lordship should not be to “lord it over” as tyrants, but should follow the model and example of the one we name as Lord. As disciples of our Lord Jesus, we see that dominion is about service, that greatness is found in being a “slave of all” (10:44). That is more representative of the kind of God we have. God is not one who is so far above us that we must fear threats. God is not so distant from us that we can’t even begin to hope to be so proper and holy that we could gain proximity. Our God comes to strive on our behalf, to offer God’s own self for the sake of our lives and ongoing goodness of creation.

Since this is what it means not just for John and James but also for us to be associated with Jesus, to share his baptism and receive from his cup, then we find our place separate from the “great ones” (with the depictive Greek phrase “megaloi”) who claim authority over others. It almost can feel like a Godzilla, stomping through the city and across a landscape, leaving a wake of destruction, entirely careless for what it has abused. We, instead, are called to serve, even to enter into the suffering Jesus has been describing and is moving toward in Jerusalem.

This is likely what is meant by the term “ransom,” in a paradoxical or ironic way. Similar to Luther’s paired theses in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that a Christian is “totally free master of all, subject to none; and totally bound slave of all, subject to all,” Jesus frees you in order to serve. “The term [‘ransom’] referred to the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” p279). Jesus frees you from slavery to the tyrannical overlords, in order that you may be slave not just to their whims but “slave to all.”

Further, we recognize that sometimes giving life should, indeed, be perceived as in line with God’s will. Parents give up and restrict their opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter will freely risk her own wellbeing, maybe even sacrificing to save others from a burning building. As a dog owner, I know that it means. I’m up in the middle of the night and out for walks in the cold. As a gardener, I’m rubbing sore back muscles and fighting sunburn and swatting mosquitoes so that I can care for those vegetables and flowers. Some labor is referred to as “punishing,” even though we might only be subjecting ourselves to the work. That seems a better and more life-giving view, and more appropriately tied to a God who created and sustains out of love, than one of obedience and being stricken for transgressions.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2018
Reading for Series B: 2018
by Nick Utphall

21st Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

I have a “green letter” edition of the Bible. There’s the more familiar “red letter” versions, where all the words of Jesus appear in a red font (mostly in the Gospels, but also occasionally applied in Revelation or Paul). The green version, however, tries to highlight passages that may be obvious in talking about creation and the environment and our ecological stewardship, verses that tie us in relationships to the world around us.

This week’s Gospel reading not only lacks a green highlighting in this version of the Bible, but seems like it could appear in even a blacker font, reinforcing a lack of connection and emphasizing a separation from nature. “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life,” Jesus boldly but perhaps darkly proclaims (Mark 10:29-30).

I suppose there are many believers and many voices from pulpits who will find in this passage a heavenly removal from Earth. Not only will we escape the terrestrial bonds when we die, but it could seem that in this passage we are told to practice our release already, shunning all we would hold dear or claim is good in life.

Generally, our sense of connection to life on Earth may be most firmly established in exactly the places that Jesus seems to dismiss: familial relationships and agrarian harvest. Thanksgiving and prayers for crops and blessings of weddings are still some of the most common places that our Christian faith is invited into secular culture.

Our bread and butter in creation care has been an easy emphasis on farmers and their dedication to fields that feed; just look at the stewardship section of a hymnal:
“Sing to the Lord of harvest”
“Come, ye thankful people come; raise the song of harvest home”
“Praise and thanksgiving, God, we would offer for…harvest of sown fields, fruits of the orchard, hay from the mown fields, blossom and wood”
“We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land”
“For the fruits of all creation, thanks be to God… For the plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping”
But we might wonder from this Gospel passage if Jesus is singing a different tune.

Again, for a sense of vocation and purpose of earthly life, our roles and relationships in family have been central. The Lutheran Reformation supported those directly and predominantly, with Luther regularly declaring that somebody as spouse or parent was more clearly doing God’s work than one who withdrew into a monastery, and Luther himself ended up a “family man” exactly to embody the point of changing diapers as more godly than cloistered pious prayers. His Small Catechism’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer says that the petition for daily bread includes “farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, [and] upright members of the household.”
But we might wonder from this Gospel passage if the Lord himself was trying to teach us some other way to pray and be remembered into his kingdom.

So what are creation-caring preachers and believers to do?
What to do with a counsel to forsake all our earthly “goods” (as the term would evaluate our possessions)?
If actually trying to sell everything we own, as Jesus counsels the rich young man, wouldn’t we remove ourselves from the economy? And wouldn’t that “eco” of the household there also function to remove us from the “eco” of ecology? Is Jesus suggesting we withdraw from the entire order of this earthly home?

Maybe a first re-entry point is to take Jesus seriously in this reading. A bracket of two phrases may be especially worthwhile in cushioning the shock. To conclude, we can cling to the proclamation that “for God all things are possible” (10:27). And to start, we should not miss verse 21: “Jesus, looking at [the rich man], loved him.” From those two gospel words—of possibility and love—then we can also genuinely receive Jesus’ instruction, not just for the man in the ancient account who had many possessions, but for us ourselves to sell what WE own.

But, first, a side trip through the first reading. The prophet Amos has some strong economic condemnation today, about injustice, sins, and transgressions, “because you trample on the poor” (5:11). Clearly in the view of the prophet and this word of the LORD, “seeking” and “loving” good (5:14 and 15) is a matter of the distribution of wealth.

These strong words, paired with Jesus’ injunction, may lead us to question which side we’re on. Are we like the grieving man who goes away after his many possessions, or are we like Peter and the disciples who have forsaken much? Are we like Amos’s rich people who have built nice houses and picture ourselves enjoying the wine of pleasant vineyards, or are we like the needy people who have suffered extortions and are pushed aside from the places we seek justice?

I find one helpful tool for determining our place is the Global Rich List, a website available here: http://www.globalrichlist.com/. This quick calculator creatively shows that almost all of us as Americans are well-established as the Haves and not as the Have-Nots, the rich and not the poor, the possessed man and not the disciple. I may not be Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or a Rockefeller, but my own clergy salary (not to mention my other benefits and possessions and white privileges and all) puts me in the top tenth of a percent of the wealthiest on the planet, ahead of 99.9% of the other 7 billion people.

Rather than preemptively dismissing Jesus’ mandate to “sell what I own, and give the money to the poor,” I should allow my shock to stand. I should not pretend to depend on my pious thoughts of obeying the commandments and being a diligent churchgoer since my youth. I certainly should not perceive or call myself “good” (Mark 10:18). But I may then better recognize what it is when Amos calls me to seek and to love goodness.

Indeed, rather than this being a call away from the world toward heaven, this is a calling from Jesus to confront honestly my place—and our places—in this world. As long as I am ignorant of my premier standing among the wealthy, then I will be neglecting the good of the poor and the needy at the gate. With awareness of privileged place, that may begin to lead to practicing living more rightly. Doing that isn’t in order to win favor; after all, even with my ignorant or grieving possessiveness, still Jesus loves me. But maybe it will exemplify the new shock that “for God all things are possible.”

With this engagement in the world, the refrain of the Psalm comes to make more sense, as well. The Psalm concludes with the repetition: “Prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!” (90:17). Clearly this is not an escapist spiritualized realm where our handiwork is abominable and condemnable, earthy instead of heavenly. But neither is this the mad method of the so-called prosperity gospel, where blessing means that I will have more than others and become richer, that the prospering of my hands will proceed straight into my own pockets.

When we prosper and our hands are doing God’s work, then that won’t be with a closed-tight grip but with an open-handed release for sharing. If we consider wealth a blessing, then it fits the Abrahamic blessing of Genesis 12:2 that we are blessed in order to be a blessing, to extend the good. We have money in order to share it. We have possessions so that we can release and give them away. This is not a reading about separation from earthly possessions, but from the sense of hoarding them and exclusively claiming them. If we’re beginning to be able to consider that, then that seems like a valuable step, rather than pursuing the ultimate end of what will happen if we don’t sell everything, if we keep home or field or some possessions, if we don’t forsake family.

Turning again to Amos, we may discern rightful wisdom in this practice. We need not hear it only as a threat about giving away or redistributing incomes. When the prophet offers the conditional phrase, “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14), we may understand it not as divine legalism only but as logical economic fact. Our economic order that is built purely on extraction is not sustainable. When we try to claim wealth from other human beings and from mining, clear-cutting, and draining the planet, it not only will cause harm in sweatshops and food deserts amid communities of color, but will come back around to our own downfall. There is only so long we can wall ourselves off from that detriment in gated communities or insulated identities.

In his final Sunday sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. said,

“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not made the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [sic]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters!]. Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured” (see “A Testament of Hope,” p269).

Over against the sibling rivalry of our standard economic struggles, these brotherly words may actually serve as a clarification of Jesus’ word about leaving family, that our view of family and sense of relationships and kindness of kinship need to be significantly broadened, to the human family and our siblings in all creation. As Jesus loved a man with too many possessions, we might also love. Anything else lets our neighbor loom too small and our possessions loom too large, precluding our passage through the eye of the needle.

Lest we still fail to hear gracious invitation and the promise of life in that, here is Ted Jennings on the renunciation of kinship structures and the means of sustaining life, reminding us of the experiences we recognize from those who heed this calling:

“This conforms exactly to the experience of mission, that those who enter into solidarity with the poor and afflicted find that they have hundreds of sisters, and brothers, and mothers . . . . We receive the hospitality of the poor, of those who say, ‘my house is your house’ . . . . Just as manna in the desert cannot become my private property to be stored up in barns, so also that which is offered by the poor to the poor is more than enough, yet is never accumulated or hoarded” (The Insurrection of the Crucified: The ‘Gospel of Mark’ as Theological Manifesto, p165-166).

And though I may not be Jeff Bezos and I may not feel the ability to renounce what I have and live in solidarity with the poor so ascetically as a Mother Teresa, still, when 388 people own fully half of the world’s wealth (as cited in an article on “The Inequality Industry” in The Nation’s October 8/15, 2018 issue), then it becomes clearer where most of us actually stand and where our place is in the struggle for equality and caring for the world’s family. And it is reverberatingly clear why Jesus would call us into such a mutually beneficial kind of living.

Nick Utphall nick@theMCC.net

 

 

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, St. Francis Day, Year B

Creation Care Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
St. Francis Day, Lectionary 27
By Nancy Wright

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

We are given a wonderful series of texts for a St. Francis Day (Oct. 4) celebration. Although there are many themes in these texts, perhaps four might be brought to the attention of parishioners.

First, the role that God assigns human beings to play is highly significant. God challenges humans to call each creature by name. Second, a humble wonder is central to worship and care for Earth. Third, God’s Son sustains all things. And, fourth, the kingdom of God belongs to children. Let us take these in order.

In the understanding of the Hebrew people, to name is to know the essence of a human or other-than-human being. Thus,

“To name” or “to designate” belongs to the ordering of creation; …The bestowal of names initiates the human ordering of creation in Gen. 2:19….This association of the act of naming with creation underlines the fact that the name represents something wholesome and salutary; the knowledge of the name opens up specific human dimensions for communication and for fellowship (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume IV, “Names of God in the OT,” New York: Doubleday, 1992, p. 1002).

Even while mind-bogglingly and newly aware of scientific discoveries about the 13-billion-year-old universe, plate tectonics, cell division, dark matter, and the relatively infinitesimal lifespan of humans on Earth, we have become aware of the planetary role humans now play. As a planetary force, humans now hold the fate of the planet in our hands, determining, for example, how many species become endangered or extinct. The name for this age in which we exert such power is the Anthropocene. It has ushered in the Sixth Great Extinction, this one caused by human beings. Scientists describe five earlier Great Extinction events in Earth’s history, after which new species emerge over millions of years. Elizabeth Kolbert reports that “by the end of this century as many as half of earth’s species will be gone” (Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction,” The New Yorker [May 25, 2009], accessed February 12, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/25/the-sixth-extinction; see also Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015).

Grappling with such power and loss, ethicists use the terms ecocide and biocide to describe human activity that unwittingly runs the story of the creation as told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, backward.

Christians urgently need to reclaim their biblically assigned role of knowing the names of the surrounding animals and plants. We can do so by learning about biodiversity, the intricacies of the web of life, and the names and habits of creatures in our watersheds.

Watershed awareness is a movement within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stimulated by the Resolution Urging Stewardship of the Gift of Water, passed at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly. The resolution urges that congregations learn about their watersheds, lifting up the names of lakes, rivers, and streams in their worship. To learn the names of animals and plants in the watershed can involve fascinating congregational outings, lecture series, water trips, and prayers for the well-being of other-than-human neighbors. Further, such growing awareness should lead to advocacy for care for God’s creation and continued support for the Endangered Species Act, which is under threat from Congressional leaders, often buoyed by short-term corporate considerations that take no account of the health of a bioregion.

Second, a critical antidote to this tremendous knowledge linked with the ability to harm creation is to accelerate an attitude of wonder. Psalm 8 is a beautiful expression, filled with joy and gratitude, of wonder. Wonder and hope together foster courage and energy for the work of creation care. Writing about Psalm 104, but applicable to Psalm 8, Old Testament scholar William P. Brown writes,

As for humankind in this psalm, we are simply one species among many, and that too is a wonder. Creation is a shared habitation, and if there is a perfection or ideal presumed in the psalmist’s world, it is the perfection of biodiversity, the wild and wondrous diversity of life and habitat. By listing various animal species, the psalmist offers a selective sample of the vast Encyclopedia of Life, which continues to be catalogued day by day (www.eol.org) (Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015, p. 68-69).

Congregations can enliven a sense of wonder by preaching about the intricacies of animals and plants and the manifold wonders of life’s expression, by encouraging worship outdoors, by performing outdoor baptisms, and by including the voices of nature in worship (Paul Winter’s whale calls in his music, which I heard in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at a Solstice celebration, will always haunt me).

Third, God’s Son sustains all things. The Cosmic Christ scriptural theology (John 1:1–14, Col. 1:15–20, Heb. 1:2-3), powerfully urges Christians to contemplate Christ’s shown forth in all of creation. In Confirmation class or Sunday school, students hopefully learn that the church is the congregation, not the building (using the hand motions that open out to show the fingers as the people), but reevaluating and reenergizing the church to care for creation engages Christians in understanding that nature co-worships with us (Is. 55:12) and is sacred, infused with Christ’s being. Therefore, does the church include all of creation? (How would hand motions express that wider, creation-centered awareness of church?)

To recognize nature as co-worshipers, or as part of the body of the Cosmic Christ, renders nature as numinous or sacramental. No longer do humans exclusively take up the center of God’s attention. Further, humans no longer see the discontinuity between their life and that of creation in that they perceive all as nourished and sustained by God. If we think of creation as sacred, how many decisions about land use, economic measurements, and transportation would be weighed with different, wider values and hoped-for outcomes that respect the web of life?

Finally, the kingdom of God belongs to children (Mark 2:14). Several points might be made about Jesus’ blessing of children. First, adults are to receive God’s kingdom of love and justice with devotion and trust, as a child is devoted to and trusts a good, loving parent. Second, since children are particularly vulnerable to pollution, war, and other traumas, making the world safe for children is a requirement for Christians. Third, faithful Christians will foster environmental justice. Noteworthy is the Our Children’s Trust Lawsuit, which goes to trial on October 29. Our Children’s Trust “elevates the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for all present and future generations” (https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/mission-statement, accessed September 24, 2018). Justice for #EachGeneration calls for thousands of sermons to be preached in support prior to that date. The website encourages preachers to sign up and learn more.

When Christians help society to move from denial, complacency, and greed to foster a world in which children are cared for to the Seventh Generation, as Native Americans have envisioned, we adults may have achieved wisdom and wonder and innocence enough to claim our inheritance with the children. Then we may enter into Jesus’ kingdom of justice, peace, and sustaining love.

The Rev. Dr. Nancy G. Wright, pastornancy@alcvt.org

Lessons for Year B (Lent – Easter 2018)

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Third Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Second Sunday in Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

Easter Sunday in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in Year B (by Kiara Jorgensen)

Passion Sunday in Year B (by Leah Schade)

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Third Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Second Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The First Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

All Saints Sunday in Year A

The beatitudes address the oppressive conditions of empire—ancient and contemporary!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 

By Dennis Ormseth (Reprinted from 2011)

Readings for:

All Saints Sunday

Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Revelation 7:9-17

1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are the Children of God

The meaning of the festival of All Saints Sunday is aptly expressed in the Prayer of the Day from Evangelical Lutheran Worship:

Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow our blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever (ELW, p. 59).

The first reading from Revelation 7 provides a vision of those who gather with “inexpressible joy” in worship before the throne of God. The second lesson states the basis on which we might hope to be included in their number: the “love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (3:1). And the Gospel for the Day sets out, in the words of Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), a description of what such ‘lives of faith and commitment” might look like, so as to indicate the way we are to follow, and empower us to do so.

Is the lion an enemy or a creature created to praise God?

What might we draw from these readings of relevance to care of creation? Constituting something of a summary vision of the way and goal of Christian life as this collection of texts does, we are glad to see that creation and its care are richly implicated in them. We exclude from this characterization the appointed psalm. An individual lament, Psalm 34 is rather typically anthropological in focus and contrasts the well-being for which the psalmist prays with the “want and hunger” suffered by “young lions.” As Arthur Walker-Jones comments, “This typical imagery and implied narrative imagine a world that continues to influence contemporary constructions for nature. Thus, contemporary society continues to view wild animals as enemies and wilderness as both refuge and threat” (For the significance of this image, see Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality pp. 44-47). Compare this imagery, on the other hand, with the image of the lion associated with the four creatures at the throne of God, discussed below.

Those robed in white and gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb in the text from Revelation 7 represent the saints whom we honor this day, as God honors them eternally. Of them it is said that they will no longer experience suffering in relationship to the rest of creation:

“. . . the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7: 15b-17). 

These images of reconciliation, moreover, are part of John’s great vision of the reign of God, to which v. 11 draws our attention: “And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing . .”  As readers of the Revelation of John are instructed at 4:6-8, the four living creatures are, respectively, one “like a lion,” one “like an ox,” one ‘with a face like a human face,” and the fourth “like a flying eagle.” Thus do creatures both heavenly and earthly join in praising God for the redemption of the saints.

Lions, Oxen, Humans, and Eagles praise God without ceasing

“Is heaven for pelicans?” asks Christopher Southgate in his provocative discussion of “Eschatological Considerations” in his The Groaning of Creation (p. 78ff.). A literalistic response on the basis of this text might be, “no, only lions, oxen, humans and eagles.” The images here are, of course, mythical. Each of the creatures is “six winged.” Though clearly angelic, they nonetheless represent humankind and all the animals created by God (cf. Genesis 1:20-27), perhaps as ‘they existed in God’s mind from all eternity, “to adopt the suggestion of a footnote to the text of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Strikingly, these creatures are all “full of eyes all around and inside;” they are made for seeing the glory of God and giving God praise. “. . . without ceasing” they sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is to come.” Ever watchful, they lead the elders in praise of the one who sits upon the throne, singing “you are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4: 9-11; see the footnotes to Rev. 4:6-11 in NOAB, P. 369NT).

For what reason do these four creatures join in the praise of angels and elders before the throne of God?  Because they see that God has brought the saints out of “the great ordeal.” Or, to respond as the author of 1 John might, they behold those who are now revealed to be children of God and are therefore “like God, for they see God as God is.” Or yet again, to draw insight from Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, they rejoice to see those for whom “the creation waits with eager longing” in “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-21). Or to turn to yet another relevant text, the Gospel for the day, they welcome those who have followed the way that Jesus, the Servant of Creation, showed them in his Sermon on the Mount.

The Beatitudes affirm “God’s favor for certain human actions and situations.”

We draw here from our previous comment on the Sermon, when it was the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The four creatures, the elders, and the angels rejoice together, we want to suggest, because those who came through the great ordeal followed the teachings of Jesus, which constitute justice and which fostered love for the whole of creation. Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2).” Beatitudes, he writes, “are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Accordingly, our question is, in what way are the actions and situations so favored of benefit to all creation?

God blesses those who are crushed in spirit and who grieve their ills.

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (p. 131). The issue here is the overcoming of a totally negative expectation regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or a community. This is a condition experienced by people who, as Carter puts it, are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates that the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is not uncommonly the experience in our culture of people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so totally; and the powerful appear so completely indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely driven by their own self-interest. A judgment expressed by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (p. 132). But God will intervene, Jesus promises: The poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. The fulfillment of the promise given with their creation is guaranteed to come to them, in the eschaton—if not sooner.

The point of the first beatitude bears emphasis by repetition, Carter thinks: “The declaration that the hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because God is in the process of liberating them, is so startling that it is repeated. Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, they are blessed precisely because they mourn “the destructive impact of imperial powers. . . . Oppression is not normative. It should be mourned.” Their mourning is, in fact, a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength it might be.

Inherit the Earth is restoration to land.

With respect to the first two beatitudes, then, the blessings relevant to non-human creatures occur by virtue of the human impact on them, by the circumstances and behaviors of human beings. With the next several beatitudes, on the other hand, the application is rather more direct. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence. Theirs is an implicitly profound ecological behavior; and so the blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, “this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically, for “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1). As stewards, humans are to nurture Earth (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

Being peacemakers is the opposite of Empire—Roman and American

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

Blessed are those who give up their lives in the struggle for justice.

The final two beatitudes return to the struggle identified in the first two, that of meeting and dealing with the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in his beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). What does it mean that God looks with favor on those who give up their lives in the struggle? Their reward, it notes, is “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” They will participate in the completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire,” Carter insists (p. 136). And on All Saints Sunday, we are given to behold the confirmation of this promise.

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