Category Archives: Preaching Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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

 

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

It is not over,
this birthing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

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

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Christmas Eve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sample Sermon:  Let it Dawn on You Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V.

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

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

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next for the Reformation?

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

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

By: Larry Rasmussen and Michael Watson

The Lutheran, November 2006 issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An anti-Earth story

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

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

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

The ground cries out

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

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

Fidelity to God

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

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

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

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

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

Following a Christ of nature

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

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

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

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

American Lutherans Engage Ecological Theology

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

by Paul Santmire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autobiographical Reflections: Encountering the Lutheran Mainstream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others In The Lutheran Sidestream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Ministries In The Lutheran Sidestream – Now Mainstreamed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13   More on Sittler presently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34  See note 11 above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

47   See note 45 above..

48  See (R349-354).

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

 

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

51   See note 46 above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lutheran Theology of Creation: Foundations for a New Reformation

Reflections on a Lutheran Theology of Creation: Foundations for a New Reformation

By David Rhoads

Published in the Seminary Ridge Review, a periodical of Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary (Fall, 2013). Seminary Ridge Review has an online archive. Print copies of the issue are available.

The article proposes a new Lutheran reformation that rises to the global ecological crises we are facing. This proposal is one expression of many possible ways to respond to the degraded state of God’s creation and what we as Christians need to do to address it. The ideas and views contained here are meant to be preliminary rather than final, generative rather than definitive, and an opening for dialogue rather than an effort to close it down. Whether you agree or disagree with these ideas, my hope is that, as a church, we will respond to the ecological crises with constructive dialogue, transformation, creativity, and action. The lecture I gave at the Gettysburg Conference on “Getting Green Faithfully” was one part of this larger piece. The Seminary Ridge editors graciously invited me to publish the entire essay.[1]

A New Reformation: Introduction

I am proposing that we inaugurate a new reformation. We Lutherans have always considered “perpetual reformation” to be an ongoing dimension of our common life. Nevertheless, what I am proposing is more than mere adjustments in Reformation trajectories. We are facing unprecedented changes in our life on Earth and the times are calling for something much more substantial. If we are to be prepared to face these crises and to address them, some paradigm shift, some foundational transformation of our church, needs to take place.

The ecological crises, particularly the alarming progression of global climate change, are rapidly becoming matters reaching to the heart of faith. Twenty years ago, in the social statement “Caring for Creation,” the ELCA issued a warning for the church to respond to the looming ecological crises and the social justice issues related to them. Now it is time to meet the challenges presented by that document. This is a clarion call for a new re-formation.

The Ecozoic Age

The list of crises we are facing as a planet is long and substantive. To name a few: global climate change; unpredictable weather patterns; increase in frequency and intensity of storms; drought; rampant wildfires due to dry conditions; deforestation; desertification; shifting agricultural conditions; movement of species of plants and animals; loss of species diversity; deterioration in air quality; pollution of fresh water sources and oceans; degradation of soil; rise of seas levels, human overpopulation, and more—all of which produce negative impacts on human life, particularly the most vulnerable people and societies. Every eco-system on Earth is under stress. Earth itself is under stress.

Father Thomas Berry has said that humanity is entering a new era, the Ecozoic Age—an age in which ecological issues will dominate our global life together. He argues that creating a sustainable environmental lifestyle on the planet is the “great work” of our time.[2] It is a work in which all people can participate, a work that all must embrace if human life on this planet is to be sustained. This work will require intention and sacrifice; and it can be joyful. The environment is not a fad. It is not an add-on, not one more issue alongside others. It is not just for those who happen to be interested in this cause. Earth is our home. It involves everyone. It impacts all living things. And we humans, we Christians, we Lutherans, need to step up and embrace dramatic changes in ourselves and in our life together for the sake of Earth—and for the sake of the God we confess to be the creator and preserver of our planet and the whole universe.

Transformation of Society

In this twenty-first century, an adequate human response to the ecological state of the world—by all nations, but especially among industrialized countries—will require a systemic transformation far greater even than the transformation that occurred in the United States and other Allied societies when they rose to the challenge of war in the 1940s. In the United States, for example, the entire economy was re-directed to address the challenge of war. Standard factories were quickly transformed. New industries arose overnight. Goods and resources such as gas and other products were rationed. People grew their own food. Cars were limited. Everyone made sacrifices. The assets of our society were marshaled to rise and meet the challenge.

That is what industrial nations need to do now at national and global levels to address the challenge of the environmental crisis: a transformation to renewable energy, transition to eating local foods, massive reforestation projects, replanting of native species everywhere, cultivation of resources to develop and share new technologies, limits to the use of pesticides and herbicides, prohibition of the clearing of forests and the stripping of land, rationing of energy and water, protection for wetlands and wilderness, among many other things. We need an economic system that settles in and sustains life, all living things, instead of an economy that depends on unlimited resources and unlimited growth. These are systemic changes that also require personal commitments. Whether or not these changes are being made by governments and corporations, we as individuals and communities need to begin to do them now on a voluntary and unilateral basis. We see one such change bubbling up already with the number of local initiatives around food: urban gardening, home gardens, community supported agriculture, restoration of native habitats, humane treatment of animals, eating lower on the food chain, organic farming, soil restoration projects, among others. We need to see a pervasive grassroots groundswell of changes on this issue and many others. We cannot wait for everyone else to go along.

The Christian churches

The church is called to participate in this “great work” and, indeed, to offer leadership. To do so, we need a transformation as great as that required by the society.[3] There are many reasons why Christianity in general has failed to show significant change in attitude towards Earth. Indeed, Christian traditions and practices have contributed significantly to the problems and to the societal ethos that has produced the problems. Nevertheless, in the last two decades, world-wide ecumenical organizations of churches such as the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and others have held many meetings covenanting with member churches to design new ways of developing a relationship with all of God’s creation, to understand afresh how God works in the world of the nature around us, and to build and nurture sustainable Earth-communities. In the United States, the National Partnership for the Environment was formed to foster care for creation among four representative groups: The National Council of Churches, the National Catholic Conference, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the Coalition on Jewish Life and the Environment. Many denominations are stirring, including our own ELCA. Many para-religious groups dealing with the ecological crisis, such as Earth Ministry, Green Faith, and Faith in Place have arisen. Clearly, the environment is an emergent theme in contemporary religious life and mission.

Lutherans

But the ecological challenge will take much more, something radical and comprehensive. There is a lot of care-for-creation activity going on in many places in Lutheran congregations and institutions, along with reflective thinking in all major disciplines in Lutheran academic circles and advocacy in relation to environmental policies.[4] Unfortunately, it is often isolated and scattershot. We need a comprehensive and systemic approach. For the most part, popular theology is not creation-friendly; neither are curricular materials; nor worship; nor the way we care for the building and grounds of our congregations and institutions; nor our models of discipleship, stewardship, or evangelism; nor the core, the ethos, or the identity, nor our denominational and institutional missions. A paradigm shift will involve more than tinkering, more than tweaking, more than a conference here or a hymn there. We need to get it into our marrow. We need to incorporate this into our DNA. Just as we have to think boldly about how to change the society, so we need to think boldly about how to transform the church—in terms of personal and systemic transformation. Creation care and sustainable living need to be as natural and inescapable as loving our neighbor. Our entire church—congregational life and mission, theology, ethics, worship, pastoral care, spiritual practices—need a radical overhaul if we are to care for the life of God’s creation and contribute to our endurance as a species. This calls for fundamental re-formation.

I am convinced that we Lutherans have the resources and the organization necessary to bring us into this new reformation dedicated to a sustainable world. We need to draw on these resources and traditions so that they fulfill their promise for our age. Lutheran theologian and ethicist Larry Rasmussen has noted Romans 8:19 —that the whole creation has been groaning in travail “waiting with eager longing”—and then he has added that creation is “Waiting for the Lutherans.”[5] Let us hope that this is not like waiting for Godot!

Comparison of Reformations

What might a Lutheran eco-reformation look like? And how might it be similar to or different from the first reformation? A Methodist historian, Phillip Watson, identified the sixteenth century reformation as a “Copernican Revolution” in religion.[6] Just as our physical view of the cosmos shifted from being Earth-centered to being sun-centered, so also the first Reformation shifted the conception of salvation from being human-centered to being God-centered, from human efforts to God’s actions of grace in Christ. This was a revolution in basic perception that changed everything in relation to the dominant views and practices of the time. Lutheran Reformation churches had a theological image of God as a God of grace. They were liberated from the bondage of needing to please God. They focused on a servant theology of the cross instead of a triumphalist theology of glory. They read the Bible differently with justification as the internal canon of interpretation. They placed Scripture in the hands of the laity. They worshipped in ways that focused on God’s direct action in worship. They embraced the sacraments as material reality bearing the spiritual reality of Christ. They affirmed the goodness of creation. They reinvented church order around a priesthood of all believers. They saw ethics as a response to grace and characterized in freedom as a vocation to love the neighbor, especially in relation to the poor and the hungry. They understood Christians acting as citizens of two kingdoms. And more.

Now, without losing the foundational fruits of that revolutionary Reformation and by building on them (indeed by shaping them for our current context), we need a new reformation, a new “Copernican Revolution,”—so to speak—from being human-centered to being creation-centered, from being anthropo-centric to being cosmo-centric, from God’s relation to humans alone to God’s relationship with all creation, from the extreme enlightenment individualism of our culture to a quest for the common good of the planet. For most of us, this is as mind-bending a change in perception as the first Reformation was. It will require metanoia (repentance) in the true sense, a mind change and a behavior change—both individually and collectively as a church. Again, this shift is revolutionary. It changes everything. It changes the way we think of ourselves (as mammals embedded in nature); it changes how we see our interrelationship with the world around us (every living creature and every non-living thing connected to everything else); and it changes our image of God as an ongoing creator (working for good in, with, and under everything).

To make this shift, we need theologies that are earth-friendly and creation-centered. We cannot be stuck in the issues of the sixteenth century if we are to address the issues of our time. In a conversation with Lutheran theologian Paul Santmire, he said this: “Just as Luther addressed the signal issue of his time, namely, human salvation, so we need to address the signal issue of our time, namely, the fate of Earth.” To do that, we need a reformation that responds to the Ecozoic Age. Luther responded to the salvation crisis by rediscovering Paul’s concept of justification by grace through faith; now it is our turn to build on this and rise to the current ecological crisis to foreground Lutheran theologies of creation. And just as Luther recovered portions from the Bible and other neglected traditions that the sixteenth century had overlooked, so we can recover from the Bible and from our Lutheran heritage those traditions that address us in our time.

For example, although (as we shall see) Luther had a profound appreciation for material creation, most of his attention was focused on seeing theology through the prism of the second article of the creeds to address his time (salvation of humans). Now, however, we need to see theology through the prism of the first article of the creed as the starting point of Trinitarian theology for our time—on God as creator and on the redemption of creation and on the consummation of creation. Furthermore, we need to read the Bible with a new lens that encompasses creation. In this regard, Santmire also commented that we need an additional canon for interpretation in our time, namely, Rom 8:18-25, with all creation “groaning in travail” and eagerly awaiting “freedom from its bondage to decay”—seen in deep interrelationship with justification by grace (indeed justification and creation are already integrated in the Letter to the Romans!). Without losing anything from justification and appropriating it anew for our time, we are called to reinterpret Scripture in light of this new canon within the canon—and to bring out all the rich resources of Scripture for the task before us.

And this new focus on the signal issue of our time will change everything for us. In order to anticipate the points that follow, let me name some changes we might embrace. We need to learn to worship every week in relationship with creation. We can preach the word of God for all creation. Our ethical reflections need to encompass ecological justice so as to expand our commitment to social justice for the most vulnerable. We can enlarge our circle of compassion by recovering our original vocation from Genesis to “serve and protect” creation. We can understand the theology of the cross to encompass solidarity with suffering creation. We can expand Luther’s two kingdoms to encompass the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom as arenas of God’s activity and our response. In addition to the Book of Scripture, we can also place the revelatory “book of nature,” as Luther called it, in the hands of the laity. We can train clergy to be sages whose wisdom will help to lead us through the changes we will be facing. We can employ our profound view of the sacramental elements of bread and wine as a paradigm for treating all life with reverence. We can see God in every rock and rodent. We can have a spirituality that is earth-centered in the belief that the finite bears the infinite to us. We can reinvent congregational identity and mission to encompass love of creation. We can create communities that are alternatives to consumption and exploitation. We can expand our commitment to the hungry and the marginalized to include endangered species and vulnerable ecosystems. We can have an encompassing mission of ecological justice that hears the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.

In this new reformation, we need to reform ourselves. At the same time, this is a reformation that will unite rather than divide. It is not a confessing movement within the church but a confessing movement in the world along with the whole church. It unifies around a common mission as the church for the world. As such, this reformation will listen to the diverse voices within our Lutheran tradition. And it will be ecumenical. It will also be interfaith, because all religions have salient traditions and resources that can be garnered for crafting new eco-ethics for Earth. Christians, Unitarian Universalists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Taoists, indigenous religions, among others (including secular organizations) together will find common ground (Earth!) in the collective calling to earth-care.[7] We are all in this, and it will take all of us to work together to address our situation. No place for a theology of glory here!

A suggestion: For a moment, bracket life after death

I have a suggestion about how best to imagine a theology of creation. In our current thinking, there is a tendency to take creation for granted and to talk primarily about redemption. In so doing, we detach salvation from creation—we individualize it and spiritualize it. “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven.” By itself, this is not earth-friendly. This life becomes merely a pilgrimage toward our true home in heaven. Lutherans have not generally embraced the popular rapture theology that people will be saved by being snatched out of this world. Nevertheless, in our focus on afterlife, we have sometimes embraced a more subtle form of rapture, namely that we are raptured to heaven at death. Not that this view is wrong, but when taken by itself, it denigrates the creation left behind. Salvation becomes what happens after we die. We leave the world behind. Australian Lutheran biblical scholar and theologian Norman Habel critiques this theology “heavenism.”[8]

However, in Scripture and in our Lutheran tradition, the movement of salvation has not been away from Earth but toward it. I sometimes tell my students that if you think of salvation only as dying and going to heaven, you may pass Jesus coming the other way! That is what in-carnation is about: God becoming human, God coming to dwell with humans, Jesus returning to be with us.

As we recover neglected traditions about creation, we might remember that most of the Old Testament was written without belief in a life after death and without the expectation of an end-time. People believed that salvation occurred in this life, with the community, and with the rest of nature—with individual redemption embedded in the redemption of the people of Israel and in all creation. In the New Testament, there is an affirmation of personal life after death, but always in the context of the community and always with a framework involving the rest of creation. Consider the cosmic dimensions of the vision of the end-time in Mark 13. Or consider Paul’s claim that all creation is waiting to be set free (Rom 8:21). Consider John’s claim that God so loved the world (Jn 3:16). Consider Colossian’s assertion that God was in Christ reconciling all things in heaven and on Earth Col 1:20). Or Revelation’s vision of the future New Jerusalem with God, Christ, humans, and fruitful nature abiding together in peace and justice (Rev 21). Creation is not a stage or a backdrop on which human redemption is carried out. We have screened creation out of much of our reading of the Bible, where the natural order is an integral part of that which God is seeking to redeem and bring to fulfillment.

Given our focus on personal salvation after death, I want to give you this challenge as a way to get us out of the theological boxes we put ourselves in. In order to understand the biblical ideas of creation, redemption, and fulfillment, consider thinking about them apart from individual life after death. Please know that I am not denying life after death, nor am I asking you to think that life after death with God is unimportant. I am simply asking you to bracket life after death for a momentary time in order to see the full potential of creation and redemption in this life. How might the major theological concepts of our faith be understood as related wholly to this created life? Perhaps by looking at things this way we will be more fully able to understand what is meant by redemption in the biblical materials (and, indeed, in the Reformation). At the end of the essay, I will return again to the concept of life after death and suggest how it might fit into a Lutheran theology of creation for this new reformation.

Why must we revolutionize our theology? Both consciously and unconsciously, human attitudes and actions toward nature are formed by religious worldviews and ethics. How we think shapes how we act. If our theology is not earth-friendly, what would lead us to think that our actions and commitments will lead us to care for creation? Perhaps the moral test for theology in our time is this: Does it lead to harm or neglect of Earth community, or does it foster love for creation, leading to decisions that sustain Earth—even to the seventh generation ahead, which many Native Americans use as a measure? We Christians need to become aware of how we think, so as to see the consequences of our thoughts and assumptions. We need to change our thinking about God and about ourselves as humans and about Earth as God’s creation so as to provide a solid foundation for earth-care action. Such change involves a paradigm shift of deep cultural and religious structures. It is re-socialization at a primary level.[9]

What follows is an effort to address theological foundations for a new eco-reformation in relation to the three articles of our Trinitarian faith.

First article: God the ongoing creator of the universe

Christian churches have spent the better part of two centuries focusing on God’s relation with humans and our human relationships with one another. Now we need to focus on God’s relationship with all creation, our relationship with the rest of creation, and our relationship with God in and through creation. In our time, it appears that God is orienting us to creation.

Creation from beginning to end

Foundationally, Lutherans have a very strong theology of creation rooted in an affirmation of the first article of the creed: “I believe in God the . . . creator of heaven and earth.” Unfortunately, we have often seen the realities to which the three articles of the creed point as events that happen sequentially in time rather than as continuous realities. We Lutherans embrace creation as continuous, not as a single event in the past. As such, the whole sweep of salvation is the continuous creative activity of God. Therefore, we need to see theology through the prism of creation—creation as the beginning, middle, and end of God’s activity. The first article of the Creed is the foundation of theology. The second article continues creation as redemption and simultaneously builds on it. Redemption is new creation. The third article continues creation as sanctification and brings it toward fulfillment. The Holy Spirit sustains creation. And eschatology is about consummating creation. All of it represents the ongoing creative activity of God from beginning to end. Ongoing creation is foundational, and our redemption in Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit liberate and empower us humans to be agents in service of creation.

A “Copernican revolution” in our human relationship with nature

The “Copernican revolution” in our relationship with God involves a paradigm shift from being anthropo-centric to being geo-centric or cosmo-centric. This shift implies a radical change in our human relationship with the rest of nature. We need an awakening, a great awakening to the life of nature around us. On a personal and corporate level, many of us are woefully unaware of our interrelationship with the rest of nature, the ecosystems upon which we depend for life and well-being. Therefore, we are systematically degrading air, land, water, and the atmosphere itself—unaware of where the products we use come from or where they go when we discard them. We have to “wake up” to what is all around us and how we are interrelated to it and what we are doing to destroy it. The nature that sustains us is around us, and we do not “see” it. This involves an actual perceptual shift in what we see every day and how we see it.

To awaken to the world around us, we have to re-imagine the world and our relationship in it. We have to see it differently. We have to be in it differently. This is critical, because the ecological crisis is a spiritual problem. Yes, we need all the technological solutions we can muster. However, the ecological problems have resulted from our human alienation and estrangement from creation, and they will not be adequately addressed without a restoration of this relationship. This social and cultural separation from nature after the industrial revolution is a primal wound, an experience of loss and sadness of which we humans are hardly aware. Our life is profoundly diminished by our failure to relate to and interact with nature on a continuous basis. And our relationship with God is greatly diminished in so far as we are estranged from God’s creation. We think we live on Earth, not in it and because of it, as if we were not ourselves animals.

Some years ago, I had an epiphany about this. I was in my apartment in Chicago. It was in the middle of the night. I never sit up when I awaken. And I never talk when I first wake up. I have no idea where this came from as I suddenly woke from sleep. But at 3:20 in the morning I sat bolt up in bed and blurted out: “I’m a mammal!” Well, I knew that. At least I thought I did. But the experience led me to see my true self in a new way. As I pondered this epiphany over and over in the succeeding months, I became acutely aware of how we could strip away all that separates us from nature—houses, buildings, pavement, stores, language, customs and habits, entertainment and social media that so occupy us—take that all away and we are clearly animals, as dependent on Earth as all other animals. And I realized how separated we are from the earth that gave us birth. I woke up to the reality around me. This epiphany happened in February, and it occurred to me that I had gone for at least three months never putting my foot on natural ground—going from house to sidewalk to driveway to car to store to work to wherever and back again, never putting my foot on sod. It was a parable for me of our human estrangement from nature. We have created this artificial world on top of Earth. And we take our relationship to Earth for granted.

The point is that the ecological problems we face are deeper than a fix-it approach. It has fundamentally to do with our relationship with the rest of nature. We need to go “back to Earth” and have a love affair with nature. Larry Rasmussen has commented that “We will not save what we do not love.” In a lecture on the importance of native plants, naturalist Douglas Tallamy said, “If we do not have an emotional connection with Earth, we will not care for it.” This is one of the distinct contributions of religion to environmental concerns. Unless we have cultivated love of and care for creation, unless we see God and God’s grace in creation, we will not as humanity do what needs to be done to develop a just and sustainable life for future generations. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. We have been indifferent to and destructive of the world around us. And now we are called to wake up and reunite our bodies, souls, and spirits with all of God’s creation.

Who we are as humans

This great work of reformation involves changing the perception of who we are as humans and how we are connected to world around us. We are mammals, higher primates. We eat, drink, urinate, and defecate. We sleep and rise, we copulate and reproduce. We are young, we grow old, and we die. We return to the earth, dust. We have come from earth and we are part of earth. Here before me in the fourth row sits our friend here at Gettysburg, John Spangler. It has taken fourteen billion years of the emergence of the entire universe and three billion years of life on the planet to evolve to this precise moment in this place to create you! For each of us, your life in this moment as you are present here has required all of that!

The creation stories in the Bible confirm that we belong to Earth. Adam was made from the dust of the Earth. The name Adam (adam) is the masculine form of the Hebrew word adamah, which literally means “soil” or “arable [farmable] earth.” So Adam is an “earth man” who belongs to the land and who is responsible to the land. Dust we are and to dust we shall return. If instead of transliterating the Adam, we had for the last four centuries translated the name of the first human literally as “Earthman” or “Soilman” or even “Farmer,” our common understanding of human beings and their relationship to Earth might be quite different than it is.

Here is the new “Copernican revolution”: We need to de-center ourselves and see ourselves as one species among many and find a place in this planetary eco-system for all of us to thrive together. We are so anthropocentric. Life has been emerging on Earth for three billion years. And we show up at the last minute and think it’s all about us! It’s like the Carly Simon lyrics: “I bet you think this song is about you, about you.” We think it was all made just for us. Consider that God has been gracing and loving life on Earth for three billion years—the amoebas and the trilobites and the arthropods and, yes, the dinosaurs and the mammoths. Then we emerge. Do we think it is too much for God to expect us to take care of this planet God has loved and nurtured through the ages?

We evolved with all the other living and non-living things. There are no plants without soil. There are no animals without plants. At every point, we have been interdependent with the rest of nature. We share 99% DNA with some other primates. We are kin to every living thing. Not only are we animals in our own right but other animals are “human-like,” as a recent analysis of dolphin behavior led the author to refer to them as “non-human persons.”[10] We have a kinship with to every living thing (or as some Native Americans refer to living and non-living things as “their relations”), and we need to cultivate these relationships. We are all part of a global, diverse gene pool. We evolved as part of a vast web of creation. At every step, we have been totally interrelated. Just in this brief time in this room together for this lecture, we have exchanged millions of cells with each other—touching those around us and breathing the same air. While here we have interacted with the trees and the grass around us. We have depended on the beetles and insects and birds. We are part of a long process of life organizing itself into ever more complex patterns and organisms. Creation is a seamless and changing web of which we are a part.

This is what it has come to—the song of the bird, the slither of the snake, the eye of the eagle, and you! And you are related to everything else. You cannot even define yourself apart from the food you eat, the soil and sunshine that nurtured the food. Jorge Luis Borges wrote: “How can we talk about the tiger without meaning also the deer that the tiger ate, the grass that the deer ate, the soil and sun that nurtured the grass, the solar system that made the sun and earth possible, and so on.”[11] One thing implies and includes everything. Each single moment and event is not possible without the whole sweep of the evolution of Earth and the emergence of flora and fauna in the biota of life—from micro-organisms to llamas and leopards. Everything truly is connected to everything else. Can we see this with our eyes and our minds?

Imagine the teeming life of a wetland: water, hot air, sunshine, fish swarming, dragonflies buzzing, frogs croaking, birds flitting, with reeds—mayflies, water beetles, mosquitoes, spiders, water striders, bulrushes, cattails, duckweed, milkweed, nettles, wild flowers, and more. You can hear the hum of aliveness. The wetland is a living thing with all the participants interacting as one living organism. We humans also are part of a living eco-system, except that it is spread out and we are unaware of it, unaware of how dirt, sunshine, beetles, worms, trees, all contribute. We are unaware of it at the macro-level and the micro-level—that for example, as Annie Dillard wrote: “In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found an average of 1,365 living creatures: including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 29 adult beetles, and various numbers of other creatures. Had an estimate been given of the microscopic population, it might have ranged up to two billion bacteria and many millions fungi, protozoa, and algae—in a mere teaspoon of soil!”[12]

Nor are we conscious of how much life has made us what we are. Here is a poem by Judith Morley that expresses that in a significant way:

By what miracle

does this cracker

made from Kansas wheat,

this cheese ripened from French caves,

this fig, dried and grown near Ephesus,

turn into me?

My eyes,

My hands,

my cells, organs, juices, thoughts?

Am I not then Kansas wheat

and French cheese

and Smyrna figs?

Figs, no doubt, the ancient prophets ate?[13]

This gives new meaning to the expression “We are what we eat.” We are made up of what is around us. You know this. So why do I say it? Because we have a hard time getting it into our heads and hearts. I have had the hardest time convincing my grandchildren that we are animals—we so distinguish ourselves from other animals (although my four year old granddaughter Cazhmere had it right one day when she was trying to embrace our cat, and she said “I want my cousin!”). Take off your clothes and walk around your house naked. Look in the mirror. Run barefoot in the grass and among the trees. We need to do whatever it takes to get us in touch with our natural bodies and our rootedness in Earth.

Deepening our rootedness in Earth

This great awakening to the world around us will involve what Roman Catholic theologian and teacher of spirituality Mary Frohlich has referred to as a “conversion to Earth.”[14] Mary compares our need to change as similar to Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program: we need to overcome our addiction to our destructive personal habits and social systems. We need to acknowledge our helplessness, turn to our higher power, do a fearless moral inventory, make amends to all we have harmed, and spread the conversion to others. We need a love affair with nature, and only a great awakening will do it.

She also compares a conversion to Earth with the same steps we need to make to be in solidarity with the poor, what she calls a “third order level of change.” We begin with personal changes, the first order. These are critical. But then we realize that this will not be enough. So we turn to changing the systems and cultural patterns that contribute to the degradation of Earth, which is the second order. Then we enter a dark night of the soul, in despair that nothing we do may make any difference. And then we work through the despair to a third order of change, to such solidarity in love with creation that we will care for creation whether our efforts will ultimately work or not. In this sphere, we are in such solidarity with Earth that we will not do anything to harm creation or let any harm come to it. “Caring” for creation may not be enough. As ELCA pastor, Peggy Ogden, once remarked to me, “I get it. We care for our cars, but we love our children.” Can we love Earth like our children? Can we love Earth so much that no matter what happens we will protect it. We need to expand the circle of our compassion to embrace love for all Earth community. This is so fundamental as to express it the way Martin Marty once said: Love God, love neighbor, love creation.

So how can we rectify our neglect of creation and the actions we have taken as a species to destroy and degrade the rest of nature? We can begin by looking around—look on trees, grass, plants, and animals around us. Behold things. Discover a sense of place. Re-root ourselves in Earth and return to our sense of kinship with animals and plants. Treat your yard and your seminary/ church yard as an Earth-community. Spend some time everyday taking in the world around you. Come back to Earth.[15] The new reformation calls us to rethink and reorient our relationship with the rest of creation with great intention. We need an APP on our cell phones and ipods to remind us to thank the nearest tree, to breathe the air slowly and feel its grace, to behold the things around us, and know where we are and where we belong. The New Reformation calls us to rethink and reorient our relationship with the rest of creation.

God is in creation

But an even more profound step is required of our relationship with creation. Critical to this foundational shift in our relationship with Earth is the experience of God in and through creation. Luther wrote:

God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it. He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attested clearly and mightily in Holy Scripture…. For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine Majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? …And that the same Majesty is so large that neither this world nor a thousand worlds can encompass it and say: “Behold, there it is!” . . . . His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself, yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it (Luther WA: XXIII,134.34-23:136.36).

Wow! To say that God has been and always will be fully present in all things is a life-changing realization. God is embodied in creation. How can we see God in all things? How can we change our perception so that we see Christ not only in the faces of one another but also in the faces of animals and the leaves of plants? How can we see the world around us as valuable for its own sake—apart from our human use of it?

If God is present in all of nature and seeking to manifest God’s self to us there, then our life is diminished when we fail to relate to nature. As such, it is critical from a theological point of view to restore the human relationship with nature as a place God loves and as a place where we encounter God.

Continuous creation

Luther himself did not view creation as a single event that set the world in motion, after which God detached while creation continued on its own, separate from God. God continues to be present creating. Creation has never stopped. Luther believed that God was continually sustaining creation and that each moment is dependent on the continuing act of creation by God. As a person of his time, Luther likely imagined an ongoing, stable, and unchanging creation. God continues to create by upholding the world and by bringing forth life through birth and seeding. Luther argued that if God withheld his creative presence, the world would collapse.

We now need to translate that view of “continuous creation” in the context of what we know about evolution and the emergence and complexity of life. We need to imagine creation as continually changing, evolving, and sometimes devolving. The whole manner of creating in an evolving universe is a matter of God’s intimate presence forever creating, shaping, and influencing—sustaining the world and working for good in all things. We need to reflect on evolution. Science is one critical way in which we become knowledgeable about God’s creation. We may not be permitted to talk about God the creator in public schools (and rightfully so), but that should not prevent us from talking about evolution in churches!

It is difficult for us to grasp the scope of evolution in time and space. The concept of continuous creation as an ongoing process with the immanence of God leads us to realize that creation is not complete. We have this misconception that Earth was created pretty much as we know it—with the continents, the oceans, the temperatures, the seasons, and so on. As a human species, we have basically lived within a brief window of time in which the features of Earth have remained remarkably stable—no continents shifting, no ice age, no massive disruption by volcanoes or meteors or asteroids hitting Earth. This stability has fostered in us an illusion that it has always been this way and it will always be this way in the future, at least for a very long time to come. However, over billions of years and into the future, Earth continues to change. Therefore, the temperature can change and the continents can shift again and the seasons can be altered by climatic conditions. And we are now entering a period of unprecedented rapid and dramatic changes, caused, in large part, by human activity.

Nevertheless, our affirmation is that God is in all of life creating and working for good in all things. This does not mean that God causes all things that happen or that God has a purpose for everything that happens or that God pulls strings to manipulate events. Rather, God has created the world in freedom and with a critical dimension of separateness. God has limited God’s power so that God’s relation to the world bears some measure of dynamic mutuality, so that creation itself participates in the creative process.

So what is the nature of God’s presence in the world? We know from the biblical materials that God grieves the loss and destruction of life, God suffers when creation suffers, God loves, God resists injustice, God seeks redemption, God heals.[16] In John, Jesus says he is doing the works of the father. And as Paul said, “God is working for good in all things” (Rom 8:28). If we wish to see the nature of God in all things, we need to look at the face of Jesus—a life of healing and giving, a life of solidarity with the poor, a life of suffering for the vulnerable. God is the love that graces all things and holds all things together.

Changing our image or location of God

This whole approach leads to a dramatic shift in our image of God in which we shift the focus of our image of God from being out there to being in here, from space to Earth. We now need to take seriously that God is not only transcendent but also profoundly immanent, that God is not only “up” but also “down” and “around.” We tend to think of God as “up in heaven,” and we lift our head and hands to God in prayer and praise. Incidentally, that posture always puzzled me in light of the spherical shape of the Earth, because up is also down. Nevertheless, the idea of looking “down” and “in” things helps to overcome an unfortunate spirit-matter dualism. When we pray “up” and think of God as “up,” we tend to associate God with the empty sky, with what is airy or wispy rather than what is earthy, as if God’s spirit is transcendent and not also incarnate. We tend to associate God with what is ethereal rather than with what is material. If the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory, then that is where we shall find God. What if we now thought of God as down, as in, with, and under things? What if we saw God in the depths? This is in some sense a reversal of the way we ordinarily locate God.

I give two examples. First, I had a period of time in my devotional life when I prayed in the position of Islam, kneeling in a prostrate position with my forehead to the ground and hands down in submission to God above. This gave me a wonderful experience of my own humility in the presence of God above me. Nevertheless, as I prayed I realized that I was facing down and indeed praying down. I realized that the God is not only the Most High but also the Most Deep God. God is deep in the marrow of things, deep in the ebony blackness of earth, in the depths of the mystery of life. In the words of Paul Tillich’s well-known assertion, “God is the ground of our being.” This is a down-to-earth theology of creation in which we meet and encounter God in deep down things. We believe we meet Christ in others. Why not also in rocks and elm trees and earwigs and roses?

The second example is this: When my wife had cancer, she was overwhelmed by the network of people praying for her from so many different places. And she felt incredibly strengthened by their prayers. She thought of an analogy for her experience. A year before her illness we had visited the Rocky Mountains and taken a tour with a guide. On one hillside, our guide pointed out to us a stand of aspen trees. He noted that aspens do not reproduce through seeds. Rather they grow new trees up from the root system. As such, an aspen stand is really one living thing connected through its root system (the largest living thing in the world). Then he explained that when there is no rain, and the trees on the upper hillside are dry, the trees near a stream of water on the lower part of the mountain send water up through the roots to preserve and nourish the dry trees. Sandy said: “In my drought, I feel like the community through their prayers is sending nourishment to me deep through the root system.” There is a wonderful image for prayer that turns us to God’s presence in all of life: pray downward. God is the root system deep within that will convey our prayers to the needs of others.

So, as Santmire argues, we do not need an ascent theology whereby we look upward to God and aspire to rise above Earth in some spiritual quest to be above the material. Rather, we need a descent theology whereby we see ourselves settling in the good land, where God can be found to dwell.[17]

Because of God’s presence here, everything in life is sacred. That is the Lutheran affirmation. Often we do not see the glory of God in creation. But Luther said that after we have been freed from sinful preoccupation with justifying ourselves, from being curved in on ourselves, we are able to see creation in a whole new way. After we have been liberated by grace from self-centeredness, freed from the need to view all things as commodities for our use, then we are able to see the brightness of God’s presence everywhere. We are able to see creation as it really is, filled with the glory of God. I used to sing the song: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of the earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Now I sing the last line this way: “And the things of the Earth will grow strangely bright, in the light of his glory and grace.” And this vision will change us. After describing a hummingbird hovering before him on a porch where he was sitting, Wendell Berry added: “My mind became beautiful by the sight of it.”[18]

Environmentalists talk about the re-enchantment of nature. Well enough. But I am talking about the re-sacralizing of nature. As we open our eyes and ears to the sacredness of life, we will love Earth for its own sake and also because it blesses us in communion with God through this deep personal connection with life. Then life is experienced as communion—communion with one another, with nature around us, and communion with God.

The affirmation of the sacredness of life reflects Lutheran sacramental theology. The bread and wine of the Eucharist were not just a way to remember Jesus. Nor did the bread and wine need to be transubstantiated or transformed to become the body and blood of Christ. For Luther, Christ is already in, with, and under the material elements in the sacraments of communion and baptism. Lutheran sacramental theology does not imply that God and Christ are present only in the sacraments or that only the elements in the sacraments are sacramental. The point is this: If we can be assured by Christ’s word that Christ is in, with, and under such ordinary elements as grapes and grain and water, then God is indeed in every ordinary thing in life. That makes everything (not Sacraments, but) sacramental. The sacraments confirm the ubiquity of God’s presence, that God is present everywhere. We need to fulfill the promise of this Lutheran sacramental view in practical terms in our relationship with all of nature. We readily embrace the spiritual dimensions of the sacraments. What if we also focused on our relationship with water and grain and grapes in their own right as well as in their capacity to bear Christ to us?

This theological foundation of the sacraments affirms the goodness and value of the created order. It means we can encounter God anywhere and everywhere in life. God created all things and declared them good. Luther believed that matter mattered, that the material world was good, and that God was present in all of nature. He believed that the finite could bear the infinite, that all parts of creation could bear the reality of God. There is no “God forsaken” place—not even Sheol. There is nothing of life that we should de-value. The creation stories in the Bible, the Psalms, the laws of Israel, and many passages from the prophets and the wisdom literature affirm that God values creation for its own sake. Psalm 104, for example, affirms that God created the trees and the grass and the mountain crags and the rain not for humans but for the birds to nest and the cattle to graze and the goats to have a home and the plants to grow.

The intimate presence of God in creation does not mean that God is to be equated with nature and the world. This is not pantheism. The creation is not “divine” by virtue of God’s presence. Creation or nature is not to be worshipped. On the contrary, creation is to worship God. Some Lutheran theologians speak theologically of God’s relation to the world in terms of panentheism (all things “in” God). Others prefer pansyntheism (all things “with” God). But whatever terms we use, our purpose must be this: to find a way to envision God as both immanent in nature and transcendent to nature. This is the paradoxical view that encompasses both realities that defines a Lutheran perspective.

Reverence as basis for use

There is more to our change of perception. The insight that all of life is sacramental is critical for our ethical commitments. If all of life is sacramental, then a posture of reverence will be central to our Christian life. All of life should be treated with reverence. Reverence is not a trait we have cultivated in the West. We look at the rest of nature and we see resources to be tapped, materials to be used, places to be exploited, sites to be developed, and opportunities for human enrichment. The rest of life is treated as if it were made up of lifeless things without mystery and devoid of God’s glory—all there for us to use and abuse freely. What if we began with reverence for all things and then made use only of what we needed? What if we treated animals, plants, and land with respect? Reverence is the right basis for use. If we have the eyes to see God’s glory everywhere, then our appreciation for the sanctity of life will lead us to live in ways that are sustainable for all creation.

Joseph Sittler has said that delight is the right basis for use.[19] If we delight in something, we will not abuse it or misuse it or neglect it. We might also say, then, that reverence is the right basis for use. Consider the long-standing Native American deep regard for nature where there were (and are) rituals designed to give reverence to the buffalo before there was a buffalo hunt or to a tree before cutting it down for a Sun Dance. We could well adapt that approach to our prayers before meals or for any use that we make of the resources of Earth.

I give a personal example. I was participating in the wedding of my nephew Adam. The wedding was in a Roman catholic church in Connecticut. Because I was in the service, I sat to the side of the altar. I had a close up view of the priest as he prepared the elements and completed the communion. I was struck by the way in which he handled the elements with such care and reverence. At the end, he slowly drank the remainder of the wine from the chalice, cleaned and dried it with the linen cloth, then took the communion wafers and placed them carefully into the container to be placed back in their place in the sanctuary. Nothing was lost, nothing was wasted, all was treated with the utmost respect. Suddenly, I thought to myself, “Why do we not treat all food this way? Why do we not show the same reverence for food at all meals?” And so I began a spiritual practice at meals in which I am careful not to put any more on my plate than I will eat and to eat everything on my plate. Nothing wasted. Nothing lost. And I eat slowly so as to savor and enjoy the food I am eating–all to be treated with gratitude and reverence.

I even changed the blessings I spoke over the food. I used to say things like “Let this gift to us be blessed.” Or “Bless this food to our use.” Now I pray for the food itself that potatoes and peas and apples and rice may thrive on this Earth and I express gratitude that I am so fortunate to be able to enjoy them—always remembering those who are not so fortunate. I shifted from my use of this food to a commitment to the food itself, the plants themselves, the animals themselves, and the equitable sharing of all of it. If everything is sacramental, then reverence and care are deeply appropriate.

Worshipping with creation

Now for another level of relationship with creation. One of the most striking things about the biblical understanding of nature is that all creation is enjoined to worship God. Scripture is downright exuberant about the praise of creation. “May the heavens be glad and the Earth rejoice. Let the fields exalt and everything in them, let the trees of the forest sing for joy, let the oceans roar and all that is in them.” (I Chr 16:29-34). “Let the fields exalt!” This means, as John Paarlberg says, that “the very soils beneath our feet are, in their own way, choirs of creatures singing their insect hymns, michrobial chants, and fungal anthems in praise to the God who made them.”[20] This does not mean that each animal and plant and land and sea have special sounds to do that, although that may be part of it. No, it means that these created things praise God by doing and being what they were created to be and by thriving/ relishing in it.

Joseph Sittler has said that when we diminish and degrade the life of forests and fields and seas, we diminish their capacity to praise God. We may not only diminish the capacity of Earth to praise God, but also, by degrading creation, we may be diminishing God’s capacity to delight in creation: “May the Lord rejoice in all his works” (Ps 104:31). If we have a God who suffers with us, as indeed the crucifixion shows that we do, then we may be increasing God’s suffering empathy with Earth by our recklessness and destructive ways. When we delight in creation and care for it, we magnify God’s joy at the flourishing of life.

Hence, our solidarity with the rest of creation does not stop with a sense of kinship with creation or even with our reverence for life. We humans are called not just to thank God for creation but to praise God with creation. Again, this has nothing to do with worshiping creation and everything to do with worshiping as part of creation. Scripture always includes humans among the members of nature who are to praise God. “Let them [all creation] praise the Lord.” (Ps 148:13). “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord” (Ps 150:6). Praying and praising with creation changes our fundamental relationship with creation.

In the sixteenth century Reformation, the key to the transformation in worship was to provide unmediated access to God—no venerated saints, no statues, and no indulgences. Guess what? Today, we are blocking or neglecting access to God in nature by our buildings, by our worship patterns, and by cultural customs that are not earth-friendly. There is little access to God through nature in worship—even an awareness of our own natural bodies worshipping. For twenty centuries, we have spent so much of our liturgy and worship practices focusing on the God-human and human-human relationships that we have neglected the God-creation relationship and the human-creation relationship. The first Reformation put the book of Scripture into the hands of the laity. But Luther also talked about another “book” that revealed God to us, the reality of nature. Our worship provides an opportunity for us to relate to the presence and revelation of God in and through nature. Our most recent Lutheran hymnal does much to incorporate our relationship with nature into worship. We should make use of this resource to its fullest. At the same, we need to worship in ways that make our worship with creation unmistakable. How can we incorporate creation so fully into our services that it permeates every experience of worship?

I had this vision in a dream during sleep one night over a decade ago.

I was in the front row of a cathedral looking at the scene before me during a service of communion. I saw the priest passing bread to the first person kneeling at the communion rail. As I looked, the next figure at the railing was a snake! It was curled at the bottom with its back arching up over the rail and with its head straining forward to receive the grace of Christ. The next figure was another person. Next was a raccoon with paws up on the communion rail leaning forward to receive the grace of Christ. Then I saw a bird perched on the corner of the communion rail eating bread crumbs.

As I finished surveying this scene in my dream, suddenly the side walls of the cathedral fell away and outside was thick foliage of forest and jungle on both sides with all manner of wild animals roaming around. In this moment, it seemed as if the walls of separation had been removed and there was a seamless web of all creation praising God and exalting in the grace of Christ.

From the time I awoke from that dream until this day, I have never experienced worship in the same way again. I now see Earth as the real sanctuary in which we worship, and I see myself invoking and confessing and giving thanks and praising God and making petitions and offering myself in solidarity with all of life. The author of Hebrews says: “Remember [in prayer] those in prison as though you were in prison yourself” (Heb 13:3). Now we can pray for all living things in nature as though we were part of nature ourselves—which indeed we are!

I have a suggestion for how we might frame all worship with creation. Perform four simple liturgical actions in every worship service. First, at the opening, invoke God the creator of all things (name some) and invite the congregation to join the “choir of all creation” in praise of God (naming some, perhaps animals and plants on your church property). Second, in the confession of sins, include at least one statement of our misuse and violation of creation. Third, include at least one petition on behalf of creation in the prayers (be specific and timely). Fourth, include our care-for-creation responsibility in the commission: “Go in peace. Serve the Lord. Remember the poor. Tend the Earth.” All these can be done naturally, with variation and without fanfare. I am convinced this framework will also lead us to notice the rich tradition of references to creation already in our liturgies, hymns, and lectionary lessons. And it may encourage those preaching to incorporate care for creation in the proclamation with and on behalf of creation.[21]

Human role in creation

In a new reformation, how do we rethink vocation and discipleship in relationship with creation? If we are to assume our role as agents of God acting according to the image of God, we will seek to avoid destroying creation, seek to restore life where it is threatened, and work to make life flourish in all its forms. This is a Lutheran theology of creation that fosters love for neighbor and care for all creation.

So what then is our role as humans in creation? From a biblical point of view, we are to exercise responsibility as servants to creation. In the first creation story, God created all and saw that it was good, and then God created humans to take care of Earth. Humans are given dominion, not authorization for domination (Gen 1:26). We have misinterpreted this word “dominion” to mean that humans have a right to dominate and therefore use, abuse, and exploit the rest of creation for our own use. The command to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28) relates to a time when human life was especially fragile in the face of threats from snakes and wild animals. As such, God was giving directions for humans to “subdue,” that is, to be able to restrain that which would bring them harm. The misunderstanding of these terms has had a tragic impact on our common life in the West. It has given us authorization to do just about anything we want to nature, without limits, for human benefit and for human pleasure.

For a contrasting understanding, consider that a ruler who had dominion over Israel would be expected to be a shepherd caring for and protecting those in the realm, not tyrannizing or exploiting but protecting and seeking justice for the vulnerable—the widows and the orphans, the poor and the strangers. As such, “to have dominion over all the creatures” means that humans are agents to care for God’s creation. Biblical examples include resting the animals on the Sabbath (Exod 20:8-10) and mandating that the land should lie fallow every seventh year (Lev 25:1-7). The Noah story also gives a paradigmatic example of the kind of care we are to exercise—making sure species survive and thrive (Gen 7:1-16).

The second creation story tells us how we are to exercise that responsibility—not from a position above, but from below and in solidarity with the earth, just as we seek to serve in solidarity with the poor. “The Lord God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to till [serve] it and to keep [protect] it.” (Gen 2:15). We now know that “To till and to keep” actually means “to serve and to protect.” The word for “till” means “serve” and was used of people who served kings and priests. This mandate completely reverses and upends the misunderstanding of “dominion” as “domination.” Instead of being in a hierarchical position “over” Earth, we are placed in a position of subservience so as to use our power to care for the well-being of all that God has created.

To speak of the paradoxical role of servant kings is foundational to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This mandate to serve Earth is reinforced by the teaching of Jesus who says that our whole ethical posture in life is to be one of service: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. Whoever wants to be most important must be everyone’s slave. For even the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life . . .” (Mk 10:43-45). Although this teaching focuses on relations between humans, it echoes the command “to serve and to protect,” thereby equally representing the approach that humans are to take in relation to all of life. Whoever wants to be great among you is to be least of all and servant of all. That word “all” now includes all of Earth-community.

And not only are we to serve, but we are to “keep” or preserve or protect. In a sense, we are all farmers who care for the land so that we preserve it in a sustainable way for future generations. As we are called by Scripture to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper, so we are called by Scripture “to keep” earth, to be earth keepers, earth protectors. We are called to help the land fulfill its God given role to bring forth plants and animals. In the biblical stories, that is why God created humans in God’s image, to care for creation as agents of God so that the land, all plants, and all animals can flourish! In addition, Luther’s theology of faith active in love can be extended to such service of creation.

Humans as co-creators

We are therefore co-creators with God. The problem is we have been un-doing creation. Given our power and impact as a human species, we now have a special responsibility to undo our undoing. In the last centuries in the West, we have been making a mess of the planet. We could now stand to spend a few hundred years cleaning up after ourselves. We have made a difference in destroying Earth. Now we need to make a difference in restoring Earth.

Some say a role of co-creator is too elevated for humans. It reinforces the arrogance we already demonstrate. It may help simply to refer to the human role as agents of God. I prefer to use the term co-creators. There are four caveats that preserve humility in the notion of being co-creators. First, I suppose if we can be destroyers, we can be creators. Given our influence in creation, we surely are affecting the evolution of the planet. Given that we are already co-creating in evolution, we might as well accept this and become responsible about it so as to exercise responsibility for positive change. Unfortunately, the main way we have taken evolution seriously is in the dynamic of species competition and the “survival of the fittest.” It is ironic that even those who deny material Darwinism today often embrace social and economic Darwinism—with every human and non-human species left to fend for themselves with a few winners and many losers. Now we have to pick up on other dynamics of evolution if we are to survive, such as cooperation as the basis for survival rather than competition, and such as securing the most vulnerable and the most threatened species as a basis to preserve critical diversity.

Second, we can think of ourselves as co-creators as long as we recognize that we are partners in this co-creation with the land itself. In the creation stories, God commanded the land to “bring forth” vegetation, to bring forth creatures (Gen 1:24). Land itself is a co-creator as agent of God. If we are co-creators, so are the plants and animals. Ecologists agree. If not for soil, no plants. If not for plants, no animals. If not for flowers, no insects. If not for insects, no mammals. If not for small animals, no large animals. If not for trees, no oxygen. If not for trees, no ozone layer to protect life from the sun. And on and on. The Earth brings forth life. In addition, ecologists are recently marveling at the self-organizing capacities of life—the capacity of life to expand and connect in ways that increase the diversity and complexity of life. Life itself has incredibly creative and restorative powers to grow and to adapt to changing conditions. We are called to learn these ways and to work as co-creators with creation rather than against it. The Lutheran affirmation that God works through “means of grace” can also support the notion of humans as co-creators.

Third in humility, we need to see how critical the rest of life is for the endurance of our human life. The first rule of ecology is: Everything is connected to everything else. There is a complex and dynamic evolution of these things together and we cannot remove one species in an ecosystem and expect the rest to stay. We humans are playing the building block game where you pile high the blocks and then try to remove one at a time without the whole thing coming down. And humans are not the linchpin here, not the keystone. Beetles are much more critical. No beetles, no life. Trees have done more to create the world than humans. So we are all shaping and influencing. We are authorized by God as co-creators to allow all of creation to fulfill its role as co-creating agents of God.

Finally, part of the humility of our role in creation is to have a sense of limits. In our United States culture, we tend not to believe in limits in personal, social, or economic arenas. “Your world should know no boundaries” says the advertisement for a brokerage firm. “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” we say to our children. “We can use up the world’s resources because human ingenuity will come up with something to fix the problems” say the economists. But this is a cultural chimera. Even the Bible knows the sense of limits in our dominion. Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree in the garden of Eden. Humans are to work six days and stop—with the animals and the land. The Book of Job tells us there are vast areas of creation left untouched by human presence—at least there were.

In this part of the essay, I have devoted an inordinate amount of time and space speaking of God the creator and our role in creation, because this is where our transformation needs to happen. If the new reformation calls for a conversion to Earth, then we need to attend to the changes in thought, perception, and behavior to make this happen. In the end, of course, we really do not know the mysteries of life and we do not know the nature of God. Much is hidden from us. And much is unknown. Nevertheless, we have glimpses. And these glimpses give us the trust that God is with us active with grace that bends toward love and justice.

The Second Article: Redemption as New Creation

In his catechism reflections on the second article, Luther affirms that “Jesus is true God and true man who through his sufferings and death has freed me from sin to live in his kingdom.” For this new reformation, we suggest that redemption should encompass not only the individual but also the restoration and fulfillment of all creation. Redemption is ongoing creation and re-creation. It is new creation. All of a piece. So it is integral to God’s activity to engage in work that offers not only personal salvation but also redeems communities, nations, and the rest of nature.

Redemption is incarnation

Again, this redemptive work is incarnational. John tells us: “The Word became flesh”—an amazing statement. This is the Word that was active in creation. Nothing was created that was not created through the Word. And, in John’s view, creation therefore attests to Christ—light, water, wine, bread, vines and branches, gates, ways, and shepherds. Again, created things (created by the divine) become vehicles for the divine. The critical point about incarnation for the new reformation is that it shows that the movement of God is toward en-fleshment. God moves toward embodiment. This places an enormous affirmation on being human. Some theologies say: God became human so humans can become divine. That is not the thrust of biblical or Lutheran theology. Lutheran theology says: God became human so that humans could be freed to be the human beings we were created to be. God moves toward Earth and affirms creation. The Bible affirms the resurrection of the body. The Bible envisions that Jesus will return and that God will dwell in the midst of God’s people in the new Jerusalem. From creation to redemption to fulfillment, it is a matter of God manifesting and emerging in creation, not taking people out of creation.

With regard to incarnation, it is important to emphasize the full humanity of Jesus. In today’s world, this means seeing Jesus as a human being rooted in and dependent on Earth just as much as any other human being. We have stories in the Bible about Jesus coming down from heaven and Jesus being born of a virgin. The creeds affirm that Jesus was fully divine. However, these stories do not obviate the fact that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was born of a woman. From our modern biological point of view, here is the primary Christological affirmation for the new reformation: Jesus was a mammal. He was a higher primate. He was in the gene pool. Just like all humans. This ringing affirmation speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission and about the potential for life on this planet. If Jesus was fully human in this sense, then Jesus was God en-fleshed in solidarity not only with humans but by extension also with all other creatures and inanimate parts of creation upon which humans are dependent. If he depended on air, water, plants, climate, terrain, soil, sun, and moon, as all humans do, then Jesus was indeed related to all of life, not just to other humans. To say that Jesus was a mammal is perhaps the theological test in our time of the claim that Jesus was fully human. With this affirmation as a starting point, our understanding of God and Jesus changes, broadens, deepens, and is transformed.

Now we can see in a new way what Jesus did. For example, we can see more clearly that the kingdom Jesus inaugurated was not an escape from this world or a kingdom for another world. Rather, it was redemptive of this life. The kingdom of God has arrived here! In his prayer, Jesus prays that the kingdom come on Earth. And it was redemption for humans and for the whole creation as well. When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God had arrived, we see restoration of life—the sick healed, sinners forgiven, demoniacs freed of possession, the lame walking, the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the poor receiving good news preached to them. We see people restored to the wholeness that was possible foso there is no hungerr them as creatures of God. The kingdom of God also includes the capacity for Jesus to lie down with the wild animals without fear, to calm a threatening storm, and to bring forth food in the desert. As such, Jesus is inaugurating and foreshadowing the restoration of all creation. Furthermore, in Revelation, the image of the future when the kingdom will arrive fully is an image of trees bearing fruit throughout the year, water crystal clear and abundantly available to all without cost, and leaves of the trees a healing for the nations (Rev 21). All of this depicts redemption as the restoration of all creation—indeed, “new creation” (Gal 6:16).

Jesus’ life was devoted to restoring creation. In Jesus’ view, God not only counts the number of hairs on our head (Matt 10:30); God also knows the fall of every sparrow. Does not this give us a glimpse through a tiny window into God’s infinite love for all things in life? Can we not incorporate this love of God for all creation into our understanding of the kingdom Jesus was inaugurating?

Not just Jesus’ life and message but also his death was for the restoration of all creation. We have so individualized the meaning of the cross that we have lost its larger vision. “Jesus died for my sins to be forgiven” is a common statement of faith. But if that is all that we affirm about Jesus’ death we have missed its full power. Consider what the author of Colossians writes: “For in him all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:19-20). God is concerned with more than individuals. Jesus’ death breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples and nations (Eph 2:14). Jesus’ death brings reconciliation—peace and justice—among all things in the whole creation. This is the biblical vision we Lutherans need to embrace in our time. As Joseph Sittler argued, only then will our image of God as a God of the universe and our image of Jesus as the cosmic Christ of the universe be large enough to address the size of the problems we face.[22]

Larry Rasmussen tells the story of a congregation in Africa that has the following call and response. The leader says: What did we used to believe? And the people say, “That Jesus died for our sins!” and “And what do we believe now?” the leader continues. And the people say, “That Jesus died for all creation!” This is the ringing acclamation from the biblical materials that we need to make so that we can rise to the challenges of our time. We need this affirmation to see that God and Jesus are committed to this life, that they seek to reconcile all of life, and that they call us to live in ways that restore rather than destroy this creation. If God is in all things “working for good,” then we ought to be doing that also. Rather than doing what we want to do and asking God to bless it, we should be seeking what in the world God is doing and asking how we can be agents of God’s ongoing creative and redemptive activity.

Securing the well-being of the most vulnerable

The kingdom announced by Jesus was about restoring the vulnerable in society—sick, demon possessed, lepers, the unclean, sinners, women, outcasts, poor, and oppressed. The premise of this kingdom work in restoring Israel is that the way to secure the well-being of a society is to welcome and care for the vulnerable and the marginalized. Our theology of the cross reinforces that commitment by showing Jesus and God-in-Jesus identifying in solidarity with society’s outcasts: “He was numbered among transgressors” (Lk 22:37). Now we need to expand this circle of compassion to see that we also care for the most vulnerable in nature—endangered animals, threatened ecosystems, loss of plant diversity. We now know that what may appear to us to be insignificant members of an ecosystem may be the critical member that holds the ecosystem together and on which other species depend. This is a comprehensive creation-care approach to the kingdom of God. Whether human communities or ecosystems, securing the life of the most vulnerable members is not only the way of Jesus; it is the way to secure the whole—society and ecosystem alike

A theology of the cross prevents us from having a romantic view of nature. Nature can be overwhelmingly violent and destructive. Ernest Becker has called Earth one large-scale “compost heap” from all the gnawing and defecation, the rotting and decaying, the death and destruction that has taken place in nature on a massive scale since the onset of life.[23] Nevertheless, our affirmation is this: If God is fully present in such an awful and violent reality as the crucifixion, then God is present and in solidarity in everything that exists, no matter what. We do not need to deny the violent and destructive parts of nature. God is everywhere and in all things seeking redemption and reconciliation.

Justification by grace in the new reformation

Justification by grace is at the core of our identity as Lutherans. In the context of our twentieth-first century world.[24] justification becomes foundational for our actions in support of Earth. Lutherans have tended in the past to think of salvation mainly in terms of the forgiveness of sins. But Luther himself, in the Small Catechism, wrote of a more encompassing redemption as “the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” Also, biblical and theological studies of justification in the past generation, sparked by the Lutheran biblical scholar and bishop Krister Stendahl, have helped to distinguish justification from forgiveness as different models of redemption.[25]

In the justification model, Luther defines sin as being curved in upon ourselves in bondage to religious and cultural standards that we seek to meet in order to justify ourselves. Justification by grace means that we have been set right with God by grace apart from our efforts to meet such laws and standards. Hence, justification by grace is quite radical in approach. Justification by grace accomplishes two things: God by-passes and disempowers standards as a basis for justifying us, and it frees us from our project to justify ourselves.

First, by grace, law is eliminated as a basis for justifying ourselves before God (Gal 3:23-4:7). When Paul talks about a fall from grace, he is not talking about falling into some sinful binge or out of favor with people. Rather, he is talking about reverting to living by law as means to justify ourselves (Gal 5:4). By so doing, we “drop out of grace.” By removing law as a basis for justification, God is not simply removing religious law (in Paul’s case, the Torah and, in Luther’s case, canon law). God is removing all the social, economic, and cultural standards by which societies seek to define people and by which people seek to justify themselves, including, for example, the capital market system of economic achievement. Freely-given grace undercuts and disempowers the systems that bind us, systems that demand allegiance, exclude, oppress, and marginalize—and that lead us to dominate and exploit other people and Earth.

Second, by rendering such systems powerless over us, justification by grace liberates me from my project to justify myself. Here sin is understood as bondage (4:8-11). As long as we engage in a project to justify ourselves, we are curved in upon ourselves. When we are trying to justify ourselves, it is always about us. That is true not only of individuals but also of systems. Larry Rasmussen has suggested that humanity as a whole is curved in upon itself as it uses and misuses Earth in the project to dominate and justify.[26]

However, when the need to justify ourselves and our nation or culture is removed, we no longer need to act out of self-interest. If we are trying to justify ourselves, we love others in so far as they help us in our project to justify ourselves (6:13).[27] If we are already justified by grace, we have no project to do. So we can love others not for our sake, but for their sake. This is how God generates true love and justice that is not based on self-interest. Based on this same freedom, we are also enabled to take the altruistic actions now needed to serve creation.

Once we are justified by grace, everything has to do with relationships. When justification by grace frees us from laws and standards, we are thrown into relationships of love and grace. Justification does not leave us simply with a favorable verdict, as if the main outcome of justification is that God has a favorable attitude of acceptance toward us. It is more than that. Justification is the onset of an intimate relationship. God relates to us by making God’s self accessible to us, and we are liberated to receive it in relationship. God reconciles us to the reality of God, such that we experience grace in an ongoing way. And once we are set in this right relationship with God, then we are set right with ourselves, with others, and with all of creation. Luther saw this in spades. Once we are justified freely by grace, we are freed to live for our neighbor, freed to be a productive citizen, and, now, freed to care for creation.

What does all this remarkable freedom from laws and rules mean for our experience of Earth? Once we are freed from the systems that bind us, we have an open future. There is “new creation!” (1:4; 6:15). New creation is apocalyptic, not in the sense of the end of the world but in the sense of the end of our way of being in the world and the onset of another way. As Paul says, “. . . the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (6:13). And he adds, “The only thing that matters is new creation.” We are freed to experience the world as new creation. We are freed to address new circumstances, freed to imagine, freed to live for a new world.

Paul makes this connection between redemption and a new world even more explicit in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). This is an astounding statement. For any who are in Christ, all of creation is new. The old has passed away. God has made all things new. The whole of the New Testament and Christianity can be seen through the lens of this passage. It is time to claim this affirmation as a clarion call to re-form our church to its possibilities for our day. It is time reclaim justification in our time and to build on the creation traditions in the Bible and in our Lutheran heritage as means to bring our church into a new age. It is time for creation to be new for us!

Our human vocation

As we have said, in this new creation, we are liberated from principalities and powers and we are freed for relationships: new relationships with God, with ourselves, with others, and now with all of nature. What kinds of relationships of love and grace can emerge in our relationship with Earth community?

This new life is spoken of not in terms of living by laws and standards but in terms of vocation. Vocation is God’s call and our response and responsibility. We are freed from a religious vocation to please God and freed for a human calling to love and serve others. In our time, that vocation encompasses a call to care for creation. Justification frees us to recover our “original vocation”—namely, to serve and to protect the Earth (Gen 2:15). We often speak of an “original blessing” that affirms our original goodness as human beings. Now we need to embrace our “original vocation” as earth-keepers, as servants of creation. Christ has redeemed us so that we can join Earth community in restoring creation.

Joseph Sittler once remarked that our most fundamental vocation is not the vocation of a career or a vocation to be a minister or even our vocation to be a Christian. Rather, the true vocation is our “human vocation,” a call to embrace our human vocation to care for our neighbor to care for Earth. Justification frees us for this human vocation. We are freed to be the human beings we were created to be: look after family, be a good citizen, love the neighbor, take special care for the poor—and care for creation We have choices every day to love and serve not only our neighbor but also to love and serve Earth.

This human vocation as earth-keepers is a communal vocation as church. The church is rooted in the proclamation of the Word and in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, because these are the means of grace—the rituals that assure us that we will be rooted in God’s grace in all our human efforts. As we have indicated, the Word and sacraments keep us close to earth and God’s creation through the ordinary elements of Earth as means of grace.

Rooted in grace, we live for others out of grace and gratitude. In this sense, the church exists not for its own sake but for the sake of the world. Earthkeeping is what the Church is called to do in public ministry both as individuals in our homes and in our congregations as Earth healers. The Lutheran church has always been committed to caring for the poor and the elderly, the sick and those who are mentally ill, the strangers and the marginalized, the poor and the oppressed and people of color subject to racism, people with disabilities and people who are victims of disaster, and, especially, the hungry. Think about the extent of our remarkable legacy of care for the vulnerable people of the world. Now we are challenged to widen the circle and deepen the arena to encompass the vulnerable species of animals and plants and eco-systems. This leads us to re-see all of our commitments as a commitment to the vulnerable of Earth community.[28] Earth is not one more item or cause on a list of critical concerns. Rather, Earth is the matrix in which all of these concerns are embedded. Earth is the matrix of risk as well as life and salvation.

Two Kingdoms and more

In traditional Lutheranism, our human vocation is played out in two arenas: the kingdom related to the church and the kingdom related to civil society, including both political and economic structures and activities. These identify both the spheres of God’s activity as well as the arenas of our human response and responsibility. Now, if the church exists for the sake of the world, we understand this to include all creation. So we need to multiply these kingdoms to include the animal kingdom, the plant kingdom, and the mineral kingdom. These also are spheres of God’s activity and arenas of our response and responsibility. This does not mean that they are separate arenas and that care for creation is an addition to our vocation and our stewardship. Rather, the kingdom of God’s whole creation is the encompassing orbit within which we carry out our vocation in all these kingdoms—regions of reality that interweave and overlap in one seamless web of creation. And we do so as servants and agents of the cross, whereby we are in solidarity with the least and most vulnerable human and other-kind in creation.

The ethics and discipleship of our human vocation

Because we are justified by grace, our ethic is based on freedom from laws and rules that bind and enslave and that limit our capacity to respond to new circumstances. While guided by Scripture and wisdom, ours is a radical situational ethic based on relationships of love and grace that are driven by God’s relationship of love for us. We can see this in Paul. We can see this on Luther, for example, in his Freedom of the Christian, as well as in his catechisms where he focuses at the spirit of the commandments. This freedom liberates us to address new problems and changing circumstances in God’s world. We are not limited to playing Bibleland. In fact, the biblical writers themselves created new ethics and new theologies as they faced new audiences and social situations and new circumstances. The Bible authorizes us to do the same. This is also what Luther did in his time. So we do not need to play “Reformationland.” The way to be faithful to the Bible and to Luther is to relate ethical commitments of love to new situations—in the tension between being faithful to our tradition and at the same time open to what we learn about God’s world today and what we can seek to discern that God is doing in the world—so that we can address God’s world in our time. We are authorized to do this. So we are liberated to address new and complex problems, including the environmental state of the world. We do so not as ones who dominate and exploit but as servants to our human and other-kind neighbors. And we do so with love and with grace.

The ethics of the new reformation sees social justice and ecological commitment as one. We need to speak of Earth community, encompassing all of life as a unified whole—human and other creatures, plants, rocks, water, and air. We cannot separate human justice and Earth justice. Our commitment to social justice is doubled by the realization that there is no human justice without clear air and clean water, food for all, and the possibility of an intimate, nurturing relationship with nature. Wars often involve conflict over natural resources, wars often involve the fight over limited territory for ethnic communities, and wars always involve destruction of the natural order. Human justice is Earth care, because humans are integral to Earth. The so-called “environment” is not just a backdrop or a setting in which justice or injustice takes places. The environment, whether human-made or fully natural, is all part of the evolutionary context in which peace and justice play themselves out.

The social justice movement and the environmental movement sometimes have been separate and sometimes at odds with each other. James Cone, the well-known originator of Black Theology, has noted that there is a common view by environmentalists that “Blacks don’t care about the environment” and, at the same time, there is a common view among social justice advocates that “White people care more about the endangered whale and the spotted owl than they do about the survival of young blacks in our nation’s cities.” The truth is, Cone concludes, we need each other because we “are fighting the same enemy—human beings’ domination of each other and nature.”[29]

Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff has made the same argument: “Liberation theology and ecological discourse have something in common . . . . Both discourses have as their starting point a cry: The cry of the poor for life, freedom, and beauty (cf. Exod 3:7) and the cry of the earth (cf. Rom 8:22-23). Both seek liberation of the poor . . . and a liberation of the Earth.”[30] In an effort to see the movements as one, people often speak in terms of ecological justice (or eco-justice), namely, the interrelated and integrated quest for justice for all Earth-community.

Again, an eco-justice ethic involves a radical solidarity with the least. Justification begins by leveling the playing field in principle and at the same time liberating people from self-orientation to make it so in actuality by caring for the poor and the vulberable—not from a position of hierarchy but of mutuality and solidarity with the weakest members! This was true of Paul in Antioch (Gal 2:11-12) and in Galatia (Gal 5:7-12) and in Corinth (1Cor 11:17-34) and in Romans (Rom 14:1-23). He always sided with the weaker members who were being disregarded or dominated by others. This was true also of Luther and his commitment to care for impoverished neighbors. And it is true of our history as Lutherans. Just look at the institutions we support: homes for the aged, orphanages, immigrant services, Lutheran World Relief, disaster relief, hospitals, adoption and counseling services, the anti-hunger initiative, and on and on.

As such, in our quest for eco-justice, we note the need to extend this commitment to vulnerable Earth. We know that the two-thirds world countries suffer the most from ecological degradation, and they have the fewest resources to cope with the consequences. We know that when ecological disasters strike, such as hurricane Katrina, those most vulnerable are affected the most—the elderly, the sick, the poor, people of color. Environmental racism is the discrimination made against people of color when it comes to ecological risk, whether it is factories that emit air pollution or the dumping of toxic waste or compromises about clean water. In every case of racial and class injustice, ecology is a factor.[31] We know now that the very lack of contact with the natural world, such as in inner city neighborhoods, has dire consequences. We also know the tragic parallels between the oppression of women and the degradation of Earth that have led dominant cultures to exploitation and degradation of “nature.”[32]

Exploitation of human beings usually goes hand in hand with exploitation of land, water, and air.[33] Those who despoil the land often also exploit the workers. Those who pollute the land and water with pesticides and herbicides most often also place those who work for them at risk of health. Those who strip-mine and strip forests put workers at risk and lower the quality of life in those geographical areas. Consider the differences between standard commercial coffee and fair trade coffee. Most coffee is produced by a system in which the coffee plants have been grown on plantations in the global South where the land is stripped, crops are made to grow by toxic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; the workers (often including children) are paid below-standard wages; they are subjected to long hours in the sun and exposure to toxins; and there are about five middle-people who get most of the profits. By contrast, fair-trade, organic, shade-grown coffee is produced under very different conditions: trees and shrubs are preserved on the land and their foliage serves as fertilizer; the workers are in a cooperative; they are paid a living wage and work under healthy conditions; and there are few middle-people. The production of most coffee is a common example of exploitation both of the poor and of the Earth. The fair-trade alternative is humane to people and sustainable for nature. We need “fair trade everything”!

Giving Voice to Nature

How can we give voice to the most vulnerable? We do poorly giving the most vulnerable humans a voice in decision-making and in law and policy development. They simply do not have a say in decisions that greatly affect their lives. Because there are no animals or plants to speak and protest with their own voices, they tend to disappear from the process when decisions are made affecting their life and well-being. Therefore, we need to figure out how to give voice to animals, plants, minerals, and the ecosystem. This goes to animal rights and the responsibility to give trees legal standing, and to protect the soil, the air and the waterways from being despoiled. So who will speak for creation? If it is indeed true that “not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight” (Lk 12: 6), who will speak for the sparrow?[34]

How do we give voice to other-kind? Even talk about our concern for the “environment” is anthropocentric. The question is: whose environment? From the point of view of other-kind, we are part of their environment, the environment of animals and plants—and generally we are not a healthy or productive environment for them. Environmental assessments are critical and indispensable. Such assessments explain the potential impact that our decisions will make on the natural world. But how can we make it personal? How can we get their voice?

Several years ago, I taught a course on “Greening Your Congregation.” We used an environmental case study book by James Martin-Schramm.[35] He had case studies about all kinds of ecological dilemmas, from deforestation to blocking salmon runs to putting a Walmart store on a wetlands area. In preparation for each class, we assigned people voices from the case story under consideration—a company representative, a local merchant, a city council member, someone whose job would be affected, an environmentalist, and so on. And we also assigned students to be voices for the natural world—animals and plants in the wetlands, the wetlands itself as an eco-system, the soil that would be degraded, the salmon struggling to spawn upstream, the trees in the decimated forest. Even though we were using our human voices to speak for these natural phenomena, it made an enormous difference to do it this way. The process made it profoundly personal to hear from the salmon and the salamanders and the aspen trees depicting, often with great emotion, the impact our decisions would have upon them. Perhaps in all of our decisions we need to do an environmental assessment that hears the personal “cry of the Earth” by speaking on behalf of all living and non-living things affected by what we do.

If we do not do Earth-justice, we will never adequately be doing human justice. Clearly we are about human justice. That is our priority. But if we think purely from self-interest, the problem is this. If we care about the rest of creation only for the sake of human justice and survival, it may not work. We may need to do what needs to be done for nature in its own right to ensure human survival. Only if we love creation for its own sake, only if we love animals and plants and land and air and water for their own sake, and want them to survive for their sake, will we adequately do what needs to be done also to assure human justice and survival. All creation is in this together. If we are interested in Earth justice only for human justice, we may not get human justice. That is why our justice work is rooted in justification. It is our redemption through justification by grace that frees us from being turned in upon ourselves and empowers us for the altruism necessary to love creation for its own sake.

The Third Article: The Holy Spirit sustains and sanctifies Creation

In his small catechism, Luther says that “The Holy Spirit calls us, enlightens us with his gifts, sanctifies and preserves us in true faith.” For a new reformation in an Ecozoic Age, we Christians can broaden the work of the Holy Spirit to encompass all creation and to inspire our care for creation. Theologically, then, the Holy Spirit is the giver, sustainer, and sanctifier of life. How much more ecological can this be—the Holy Spirit bringing about a renewed and sustained and sacred Earth?

The Spirit gives and renews life

In one sense, the Spirit is the ongoing expression of grace for the Christian life. It is the ongoing expression of justification in relationship. As we have argued, justification is the onset of an intimate relationship. It is reconciliation with the reality of God, such that God’s grace represents God’s self-giving in grace in an ongoing way. In a sense, the creative activity of the Spirit provides continuity between the giftedness of creation and the giftedness of God’s very self. It is the Spirit that inspires and empowers us to love creation as God does.

The Spirit provides the ongoing urge that renews and sustains life in general. I once asked Joseph Sittler if he thought he could identify evidence for the existence of God. He replied that there certainly was no direct evidence. Then he added, “Recently when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant leaked radiation that completely destroyed life around the nuclear plant, several days later there were flowers blooming right next to the facility!” That, he said, represents the implicit urge to life that underlies all things.” We can add that this is the urge underlying life that impels the great diversity of plants and animals to emerge and to organize into greater and greater complex fields of being. I believe we can name this urge to life as the work of the Holy Spirit renewing and sustaining life, all of life.

Furthermore, in this process, the Spirit creates communion and community in diversity. We see this most clearly in the human community. In Acts, the Spirit is given to people of all nations, and they hear the mighty acts of God in their own languages, honoring differences and bridging differences to create unity without conformity (Acts 2:5-11). This reflects the entire movement outward of early Christianity to embrace the incredible diversity of ethnic groups and cultures that spread across the Mediterranean Sea, as Revelation puts it, from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). It is the Holy Spirit coming upon the gentiles that leads early Christians to embrace them and discover unity with them (for example, Acts 10:44-48 and Gal 3:1-5). As such, the Spirit pushes outward to encompass greater diversity, including the diversity of creation.

In the New Testament, the Spirit is given to the community as a whole; individuals experience the Spirit by virtue of being part of the community; and all have gifts that contribute to the well-being of the whole (I Cor 12:1-31). This is similar to the way a sustainable ecosystem works. Just so, the Holy Spirit works in creation to guide humans to see our place in Earth-community so that we recognize the human gifts and the human limitations to cooperate together with the rest of creation so as to be sustainable as creation. In this way, it is the communion of the Holy Spirit that secures the relationship with all creation as a communion of life. In the new reformation, might we not understand that the Spirit is present to all creatures? In this regard, might we not explore the idea that a widened view of Earth community may involve a notion of the “priesthood of all creatures’?

In terms of our human participation in this Earth community, the Spirit is seeking to sanctify us, make us holy, and in so doing lead us to treat all living things as holy, as sanctified. In our relationship with all living things—indeed our priesthood in relation to nature—we will do well if we are guided by the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22). With respect for life, we can be guided by Paul’s dictum in the hymn to love: “Love does not insist on its own way” (13:5).

Walking by the Spirit

In response to the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, we can also bear the spiritual witness as Earth partners in our daily lives. We in the global North can act in solidarity with those who are less fortunate and who use fewer resources. We can recognize, for example, that our living spaces are connected directly to virtually every ecological issue we face. Consider your home: the emissions from furnaces; the food that has been transported from a distance; beef production which contributes more to global warming than do automobiles; the gas and oil in the car in the driveway; the water that comes in and goes out of the house; paper for office and household use; the cleaning products that enter the waste stream; the pesticides and herbicides used on lawn and garden that leech into the watershed; electricity from power plants; the wood and leather in the products purchased; the garbage that goes into landfills; and on and on. We are connected every day to the ecological problems plaguing our world. We can make choices every day that have an impact for good or ill on the well-being of God’s Earth. We can work to restore creation in our own homes!

And we can see this as a spiritual discipline, as integral to the process of becoming holy—deepening sanctification as a response to the work of the Holy Spirit among us and in all creation. We have difficulty connecting Spirit to such Earthcare. Several years ago, I taught a class on “The Future of Creation.” I asked the students to do an exercise in spiritual discipline by finding and practicing as many ways as they could to conserve water in their daily lives. The next week, I asked them to report how it went. Some of them shared a few things they had done, but there was not much enthusiasm for it. I asked, “Why?” The problem, they said, was that “We could not think of conserving water as a spiritual discipline.” I asked them, “What in your minds constitutes a spiritual discipline?” And they said, “Things like prayer, meditation, Bible reading, worshiping, reflection, talking to a friend.” So for them the Spirit was not related to the material. They had difficulty seeing “earthy things” like conserving water as a spiritual discipline. They did not expect to encounter God in caring for the water they used. In subtle ways, they had equated spiritual with ethereal rather than with tangible things around them. But if the whole Earth is filled with God’s glory, our tender loving kindness toward the things of nature that we use on a daily basis can be a source of deep spiritual renewal. These are holy acts. Our incarnational theology helps us to overcoming this dualism of spirit and matter.

This problem is connected with what we described earlier as the opportunity to treat life as sacramental, to show reverence, to exercise restraint and limitation, not to take the world around us for granted. A fellow pastor told me a story about an occasion when he served Native Americans who lived on an impoverished reservation. He went into the desert and visited a family in their humble home. It was hot, and before he left, he asked for a glass of water. He took the glass to the faucet, turned it on and let it run until it got cool, filled the glass, let the water run while he was drinking and then rinsed the glass out, put it down and turned off the faucet. When he turned back from the sink, he saw horrified faces. In less than two minutes, he had used up their family’s ration of water for the entire week. If this morning you took a shower, washed your hair, brushed your teeth, letting the water run, washed the breakfast dishes, and flushed the toilet a few times, it is estimated that you used more than forty-five gallons of water! This calls for spiritual discipline in the care with which we use the resources at our disposal every day.

What if we learned to express reverence intimately for all the things we see and use? And what if we Christians brought these commitments to labor—work places, factories, farms, businesses, organizations, corporations—with which we are affiliated? What if we collectively advocated for Earth-friendly laws and policies in the public realm? What if we in the global North saw it as a spiritual discipline to advocate for changes in systems of politics and policies of corporations that serve to exploit people and nature throughout the world? What if we participated in hands-on efforts to restore degraded habitats? What if it became part of our collective consciousness to avoid certain behaviors and embrace others—simply as part of our life together? Our mission engagement with the world must include the deliberate engineering of salient eco-ethics and radical changes of lifestyle, the commitments and the sacrifices—the new ways of living needed—for a just and sustainable world.

The Spirit as the Source of our life

The Spirit is the source of our love for creation. We need to ask: What will motivate us for this labor of love? What will sustain us for the duration? Will we be motivated by fear? We have reason to be afraid, but fear would not sustain us for long and it certainly will not motivate others. Will we be motivated by guilt or shame? These emotions might lead us to realize our culpability and make some changes, but, again, these would not sustain us for the long haul. We certainly may be motivated by anger and outrage at how much wanton destruction is happening and how little is being done, especially at the corporate and governmental levels. But anger will exhaust us before long and throw us into bitterness and resentment. What about grief at the loss of life as we have known it? Again, this is an appropriate response but certainly not life-sustaining. We may see all these emotions as alarm systems—fear, guilt, shame, anger, grief—all as appropriate signals in a warning system that alerts us that something is very wrong, but not good grounds for making wise decisions or for providing the nurture needed to sustain us.

In the end, we discover the answer with the very God of creation who impels our mission. What can sustain the whole of creation is the presence of the Holy Spirit in all of life. Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to this presence as the “dearest freshness deep down things.”[36] Wendell Berry names it “that fund of grace out by which alone we live.”[37] This reservoir of God’s presence and grace, God’s love for all creation does not quit. And it does nothing but generate more love and grace in life. This is the stream of life that empowers and sustains us for a new reformation.

Eschatology: The fulfillment of creation

Just as Christians have often reconceived our “stories of origin” in light of what we know about our evolving universe, so also we need now to reconceive our “stories of fulfillment” to reflect what we know about our modern world.

Just as we have learned much from the biblical “stories of origin” in Genesis and other passages of the Bible, so also we can learn much from the biblical scenarios of fulfillment. Just as we do not take the creation stories as scientific description, so also we may consider not taking literally the first-century beliefs about Jesus returning on the clouds of heaven or the idea of judgment as a single final event. Either way, we can learn an enormous amount about God’s vision for creation from these hopes and promises that transformed and inspired the early Christians—the expectation of a Christ who returns here to redeem Earth; the hope of all things in heaven and on earth being reconciled in communion; the vision of everything in heaven, on earth, and under the earth praising God in a stirring choir of creation; the image of a renewed heaven and a renewed Earth with peace and justice for the poor and oppressed, every tear wiped away; and a portrait of the Holy City of Jerusalem in which water and the fruits of the earth are in abundance to sustain everyone.

Envisioning a new creation

The key to eschatology is that we use our imagination to conceive a world of peace and justice in creation. To imagine is to envision. If we cannot envision, we just go through the day accepting what is given us. Or we think that creating a sustainable world is a matter of tweaking what we already have, without boldly seeing and seeking a new world, a new creation.[38] Imagine a world in which all energy was renewable energy provided freely by the universe. Imagine the soil and forests restored to sing God’s praises, native plants cultivated everywhere to feed humanity equitably, fresh water rationed so that there was enough for all, the air pure, the water clean, and the land renewed. Imagine a world in which work is safe and meaningful and productive. We can imagine laws and policies and systems in place to foster and promote such a world. And people giving reverence to life and enjoying its beauty and its usefulness as gifts–all of life thriving in harmony. The world would be our sanctuary and God our companion. This is rapture in reverse. Instead of God taking people out of the world, God pitches a tent here, dwelling among us. This would be the ethos of our life together.

Now imagine your congregation as a healing center for creation: Anyone coming to your congregation would instantly see—native trees and shrubs and grass and flowers all around drawing birds and insects and small mammals, a garden and an orchard, a worm compost pile, rain gardens in several places, a meditation area, a gravel parking area, solar panels and a wind turbine, solar-powered outside lights and signage, a bicycle rack, the inside filled with plants that clean the air and give natural beauty to the place, natural light available everywhere, energy saving lights in every outlet, motion sensitive lights in the bathrooms, no-flush urinals, fresh fruit and home baked goods for the coffee hour with fair trade coffee and ceramic cups and plates and cloth napkins, sign-up sheets for habitat restoration projects, plants in the sanctuary and an aquarium, art depicting local scenes of nature, a banner declaring “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” a worship invitation to praise God with all creation, local wine for communion, local flowers on the altar, green cleaning products for the communion plates and cups, and many other things not visible, such as insulation, energy-saving windows, green cleaning products, the absence of herbicides and pesticides, and a high efficiency furnace. We could go on. We need such flagship congregations living out a dramatic vision as means to enable us to be prophetic and pioneering.

Now with these visions in mind, we should take bold steps to make this a reality now! If there is to be a new reformation of our church, we need to be persistent in our determination, pervasive in our efforts, and comprehensive in our vision. We need to talk about this, preach about this, plan about this, and demonstrate it to ourselves and to the world. It needs to be part of our identity, our life together, and our mission, pervading the ethos of our community and our world. And we need to do it unilaterally without waiting for the world to go along first.

In this process, we would see our church property and our yards as little Earth communities. We would name and know the trees and shrubs and flowers and grasses. We would become familiar the birds and insects and small mammals and rodents that share our space. We would see the sacredness of our place. I recently attended a communion service outside. The presiders invited us to remove shoes and socks and feel holy ground beneath us. They invited us to embrace the trees as part of the sign of peace we share with each other—to wish them “peace” and to say “Thank you for all that you do for us.” When communion ended, they scattered the leftover bread across the lawn and poured out the leftover wine, saying “We return you to the Earth from where you came, with gratitude and love”—in effect offering bread and wine to the land. With such worship every week, we would be transformed to live this vision of care and love for God’s beloved creation.

Facing the end of the world

What do we do with apocalyptic expectations of the New Testament? Most early Christians believed that the end of the world as they knew it was imminent and that soon Christ would return for final judgment and salvation. Perhaps, instead of thinking of apocalyptic expectations as otherworldly and irrelevant to our time, we can see it as analogous to our situation. We too are facing a possible end of the world as we humans know it because of drastic changes that may take place in the earth’s environment. Parallels between New Testament apocalyptic expectations and the crises of our own time become obvious and may require of us a radical response.

In the face of a vision of a new world before them, the early Christians did not abandon the present age, nor did they (like we may) expect God to come and clean up their mess. On the contrary, they prepared for the salvation of the new age as a means to enjoy the full blessings of God in the present and as a means to avoid God’s judgment. We are in a similar position. On the one hand, if we are not able to repent and change our destruction of the very ecosystems that sustain human life, the consequences will be a judgment upon us. On the other hand, if we are able to repent, open ourselves to the grace and peace of God, and respond by creating a sustainable life together for future generations on Earth, the results will constitute a transformation that in some sense would represent salvation for all creation.

So, how did the early Christians act in the face of their expectation of the possible end of the world? What can we learn from them? Here are several characteristic behaviors of some early Christians that were shaped by their expectation of the end of the world.

There was a sweeping global vision of what God was doing in the world in raising Jesus from the dead and sending the Holy Spirit to spread holiness and joy throughout the world of nations and nature as new creation.

There was a deep and urgent sense of mission to call individuals and nations to repent and change behavior, illustrated by the life of the Apostle Paul and the mission charges in the Gospels (Mark 13:10; Matthew 28:19-20; Luke 24:47).

Like Jesus, the early Christians were truth-tellers. They fearlessly confronted the destructive powers-that-be and challenged their idolatry and hypocrisy, risking loss, persecution, and death. They also made penetrating analyses both of themselves and of their own culture (such as the Sermon on the Mount and the Letter of James), not just in terms of obvious evil, but also in terms of the dark side of goodness and compromises—transforming and replacing these dynamics with life-giving actions and stories.

Like Jesus, they did prophetic acts. In a sense, their lives were prophetic symbols—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, all prophetic symbols of a new age impinging on the present.

Many early Christians withdrew and dissociated from the behavior and lifestyles of the culture. Mark urged people to break with cultural values and institutions that were destructive (Mk 8:27-10:45) while the author of Revelation admonished people to “withdraw” from participation in the social and economic life of imperial and idolatrous Rome (Rev 18:4).

They not only broke from the cultures around them; they formed alternative communities of the emerging new kingdom of God, apocalyptic pockets of counter-cultural reality such as those reflected in the Gospel of John, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:43-47), and the First Letter of Peter (1 Pet 2:9-10). They had a vision of the future and sought to live it now in the present so as to be a light for the world. Perhaps the greatest mission of the church in our own time is to offer the world alternative communities in congregations that are signs of the kingdom of God amidst a world of commercialism and exploitation.

In all of this, the early Christians were willing to act unilaterally to create a new world without waiting for the leaders of the nation or the rest of the populace to lead the way or even to agree with them.

We can learn from this behavior of the early Christian communities facing what they believed to be the end of the current world order as a means to discover alternative behaviors for our faith communities as we face ultimate choices for avoiding ecological disaster and for creating a new, sustainable life on earth.

Envisioning New Creation

This is the power of eschatology, the capacity to imagine a new world and to enact it in courageous and pioneering ways. The early church announced an apocalyptic sea-change that occurred as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This apocalypse transformation continues today. Contemporary churches, in response to the enormity of the ecological crises we face, are challenged to be “transformed in the renewal of your minds to what is the good and perfect and acceptable will of God” (Rom 8:22-23) for our time—the mission to restore God’s creation and to form a sustainable life for God’s beloved Earth community.

This is what the early Christians had: a vision of a new world, a new creation, not the end of the material world but the end of the destroyers of the world, the end of the old order of domination and exploitation, a world of reverence and peace and justice. They entered this new world and lived it out, enacted it then and there even in the presence of the old order. The story about Luther tells it all. We are not sure if this event happened, but it is nevertheless true. Luther was asked what he would do today if he knew the end of the world would take place tomorrow. Luther replied, “I would plant an apple tree.” That line represents our commitment to this created world, to the value of its very physicality, and to the fruits of our labor in it. That line represents our faith in the activity of God working for good in all things. That line represents our commitment to live into this new world even now. It is a metaphor for all the actions we can take to enter into this new world, enter the kingdom of God. Let us take actions that trust the future and that invest in the future at the same time. Our affirmation of the resurrection of the body offers hope for new life in this world. Resurrection is an affirmation of the life of Jesus and an assurance of a future in God’s hands.

Life after Death

Now back to personal life after death. I have invited you to bracket it temporarily in order to consider God’s commitment to creation. We cannot speculate what personal afterlife is like, but we live in the confidence that “whether we live or die, we are the lord’s” (Rom 14:8). The resurrection assurance of life after death with God offers profound comfort for the innumerable people in this life who have suffered physical and mental illness, poverty, loneliness, oppression, violence, violation, rejection, grief, torturous death, and so many other forms of human misery and tragedy. The promise is that God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. How this will happen, we do not know. But we have enough glimpses of the love of God and the resurrected reality of Jesus to know that it is indeed possible. This is something we all long for and pray for—for ourselves and others.

However, the assurance that our life is in God’s hands is not an opiate that leaves us in a quietist state while we wait for death to come. Rather, the assurance of life after death generates in us the courage to live for love and justice, to risk this life in service to others, and to take bold and sacrificial steps to care for Earth. Grace is the main fruit of the first Reformation, namely that we are freed by God’s eternal love to know that we will be loved eternally. Therefore, we can risk and sacrifice and expend our lives to sustain future generations. Understood this way, life after death does not in any way diminish our commitment to the endurance of God’s creation. Rather, it is the springboard for action on behalf of God’s people in service of God’s beloved creation.

Conclusion: What must we do to have a new reformation?

Our hope is that a profound love of Earth and a deep desire to restore and to protect Earth enters the hearts of all Lutherans and transforms the deep structures of the way we live. Our hope is that the new reformation becomes an integral part of our congregational life. Our hope is that the new reformation is integral to our institutional commitments. Our hope is that we claim as an ELCA denomination that our mission to the vulnerable is a mission to all of Earth community—a comprehensive mission that so pervades our life together that it becomes a renewal of the entire church, a new reformation for our time.

[1] I am very grateful to Paul Santmire, Kurt Hendel, and Sandy Roberts for their reflections on and critique of this essay. Despite their best efforts, the theological misconceptions and lack of clarity contained here belong solely to me.

[2] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999)

[3][3] See five mandates for mission in a new reformation in David Rhoads and Barbara Rossing, “A Beloved Earth Community: Christian Mission in an Ecological Age” in Mission after Christendom: Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) 128-143.

[4] For ELCA eco-justice initiatives and resources, go to http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Congregational-Resources/Caring-For-Creation.aspx and http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Issues/Environment-and-Energy.aspx. More initiatives can be can be found at http://www.lutheransrstoringcreation.org. Note two important conferences in the summer of 2012: The Vocation of a Lutheran College Conference dealt with “A Challenge to Embrace Creation: Lutheran Higher Education, Sustainability, and Stewardship” and The Convocation of Teaching Theologians was held on the subject of “Eco-Lutheranism?”

[5] Larry Rasmussen, “Waiting for the Lutherans” in Currents in Theology and Mission 2009 (37) 86-98.

[6] Philip Watson, Let God be God: An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (New York: AMS Press, 1947).

[7] For an in-depth analysis of different religions and their contribution to earth-care, see the Religions of the World Ecology series edited by Evelyn Tucker and John Grim for Harvard University Press. Visit the Forum on Religion and Ecology at http://www.emergingearthcommunity.org.

[8] See The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary, edited by Norman Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011) 31.

[9] Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966).

[10] Thomas White, In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier (Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 2007).

[11] Jorge Luis Borges, “The God’s Script” in Labyrinths (New York: New Directions, 1962) 171.

[12] Quoted by John Paarlberg in “The Glad Earth Rejoices” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (Continuum: 2007) 226.

[13] Cited in Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, editors, Earth Prayers from around the World (San Francisco: Harpersanfrancisco, 1991) 357.

[14] Mary Frohlich, “Under the Sign of Jonah: Studying Spirituality in a Time of Eco-Systemic Crisis” in Spiritus 9 (2009) 27-45.

[15] Anthony Weston, Back the Earth: Tomorrow’s Environmentalism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

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

[17] Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).

[18] Wendell Berry, Given (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006) 116.

[19] Joseph Sittler, “The Care of the earth” in The Care of the Earth and Other University Sermons (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).

[20] John Paarlberg, “The Glad Earth Rejoices” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (Continuum: 2007) 226.

[21] For resources on care for creation worship throughout the lectionary years and the optional liturgical “Season of Creation,” visit http://www.letallcreationpraise.org.

[22] Joseh Sittler, “Called to Unity” in Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethic, Edited By Peter Bakken and Steven Bouma-Prediger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 38-50.

[23] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973).

[24] For further development of these themes, see David Rhoads and Sandra Roberts, “Justification by Grace: Shame and Acceptance in a County Jail” in The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society, edited by Robert Jewett (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010) 86-102.

[25] Krister Stendahl, “Justification Rather than Forgiveness” in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976) 23-39.

[26] Larry Rasmussen in Earthbound, a six-part DVD series sponsored by SELEC of the ELCA and produced by Seraphim.

[27] An excellent articulation of this point from Paul’s point of view is in Robin Scroggs, Paul for a New Day (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

[28] On ecological ethics, see especially Larry Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1996) and Willis Jenkins, Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[29] James Cone, “Whose Earth is It Anyway?” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (New York: Continuum) 142.

[30] Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997) 104.

[31] Robert Bullard, The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2005.

[32] Rosemary Ruether. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).

[33] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Systemic Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[34] David Rhoads, Who Will Speak for the Sparrow? Eco-Justice Criticism and the New Testament” in Literary Encounters with the Reign of God (T & T Clark, 2003).

[35] James Martin-Schramm, Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Study Approach (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003.

[36] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967) 66.

[37] Wendell Berry, “Original Sin” in Given (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2006) 35.

[38] See Anthony Weston, Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifesto (Gabriola Islands, BC: New Society Publishers, 2012)

Bibliography of Ecology and Faith

Biblical

Bauckham, Richard. The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010).

Bauckham, Richard. Living with Other Creatures: Green Exegesis and Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Bredin, Mark. The Ecology of the New Testament: Creation, Re-Creation, and the Environment (Colorado Spring: Biblical, 2010).

Davis, Ellen. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Earth Bible Series edited by Norman Habel and Vicki Balabanski for Sheffield Academic Press.

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

The Green Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

Habel, Norman and Peter Trudinger, editors. Exploring Ecological Hermeneutics (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008).

Hiebert, Ted. The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009).

Horell, David G. The Bible and the Environment: Towards a Critical Ecological Biblical Theology (London: Equinox, 2010).

Horell, David, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate. Greening Paul: Reading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).

Marlow, Hillary. Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Rhoads, David. “Who Will Speak for the Sparrow: Eco-Justice Criticism of the New Testament” in Literary Encounters with the Kingdom of God: Essays in Honor of Robert Tannehill, edited by Sharon Ringe and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (New York: T & T Clark, 2004) 64-89.

Rossing, Barbara. “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Ecological Vision for Earth’s Future” in Rosemary Radford    Ruether, and Dieter Hessel, editors. Christianity and Ecology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press Center for World Religions, 1999) 205-224.

Simkins, Ronald.  Creator and Creation: Nature in the Worldview of Ancient Israel.  (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994)

Walker-Jones, Arthur. The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality (Minneapolis: Fortress, 209).

Theological

Boff, Leonardo. Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).

Boff, Leonardo. Ecology and Liberation: A New Paradigm (Maryknoll: Orbis1995).

Bouma-Prediger, Steven. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Reuther, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

Cone, James. “Whose Earth is It Anyway?” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads (New York: Continuum, 2007) 113-126.

Edwards, Dennis. Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004).

Hessel, Dieter, editor. Theology for Earth Community: A Field Guide (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1996)

Kidwell, Clara Sue, Homer Noley, George E. “Tink” Tinker. A Native American Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002)

McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).

Mortensen, Viggo. editor. Concern for Creation: Voices on the Theology of Creation (Uppsala: Tro & Tanke, 1995).

Nash, James. Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).

Nash, James A. “Toward an Ecological Reformation of Christianity?” Interpretation 50:1 (1996) 5-15.

Rasmussen, Larry. “Waiting for the Lutherans,” Currents in Theology and Mission 2009 (37) 86-98.

Ruether, Rosemary. Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1992).

Santmire, Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985)

Santmire, Paul. Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

Sittler, Joseph. Evocations of Grace: The Writings of Joseph Sittler on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, edited by Peter Bakken and Steven Bouma-Prediger (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Southgate, Christopher. The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Tillich, Paul. “Nature and Sacrament,” in The Protestant Era. Translated by James Luther Adams (Chicago: Chicago University press, 1948).

Wallace, Mark. Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).

Wallace, Mark. Finding God in the Singing River by Mark Wallace (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

Welker, Michael. Creation and Reality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999).

Ethics

Berry, R. J. editor. Environmental Stewardship: Critical Perspectives—Past and Present (New York: T & T Clark, 2006).

Bullard, Robert, editor. The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2005).

Graham, Mark. Sustainable Agriculture: A Christian Ethic of Gratitude (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2005).

Hessel, Dieter and Rosemary Ruether, editors. Christianity and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Community (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Jenkins, Willis. Ecologies of Grace: Environmental Ethics and Christian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Martin-Schramm, James. Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Study Approach (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2003).

Martin-Schramm, James. Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).

Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia. Healing a Broken World: Globalization and God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002).

Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia. Resisting Systemic Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

Northcott, Michael. Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Northcott, Michael. A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2007)

O’Brien, Kevin J. An Ethics of Biodiversity: Christianity, Ecology, and the Variety of Life (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010).

Rasmussen, Larry. Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996).

Ruether, Rosemary. Women Healing Earth: Third World Women on Ecology, Feminism and Religion (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996).

Weaver, Jace, editor, Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996).

Wirzba, Norman. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Worship and Spirituality

Bingham, Sally, editor. Love God, Heal Earth (Pittsburgh: St. Lynn’s Press, 2009)

Clinebell, Howard. Ecotherapy: Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996).

Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).

Frohlich, Mary. “Under the Sign of Jonah: Studying Spirituality in a Time of Eco-Systemic Crisis,” Spiritus 9 (2009) 27-45.

Habel, Norman, Paul Santmire, and David Rhoads, editors. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).

Holbert, John. Preaching Creation: The Environment and the Pulpit (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011).

Hamilton-Poore, Sam. Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2008).

Lathrop, Gordon. Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

Maathai, Wangari. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

McDuff, Mallory, editor. Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Environment (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society, 2012).

Moseley, Lindsay, editor. Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, edited by Lindsay Moseley (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2008).

Rhoads, David, editor. Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Roberts, Elizabeth and Elias Amidon, editors. Earth Prayers From Around the World (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1991).

Santmire, Paul. Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).

Simpler Life, Compassionate Life: A Christians Perspective (Denver, CO: The Morehouse Group, 1999).

Speerstra, Karen. The Green Devotional: Active Prayers for a Healthy Planet. (San Francisco: Canari Press, 2010).

Stewart, Ben. A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2011).

Taylor, Sarah McFarland, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

Torgersen, Mark. Greening Spaces for Worship and Ministry: Congregations, Their Buildings and Creation Care (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2012).

Wild, Jeff and Peter Bakken. Church on Earth: Grounding Your Ministry in a Sense of Place (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).

Wirzba, Norman. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

The poetry of Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder.

 

Environment

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Random House, 1996).

Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).

Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Columbia University, 2009).

Berry, Thomas and Brian Schwimme, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (New York: HarperCollins, 1992)

Brown, Lester. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008);

Coleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything (New York: Broadway Books, 2009)

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).

Hawken, Paul. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).

Goodenough, Usala. The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford, 1998).

Jones, Van The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

Korten, David. The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006).

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Press, 2008).

McKibben, Bill. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough Planet (New York: Henry Holt, 2010).

Orcutt, Andrea. Restoring Earth, Community, and Soul: Creating the Social, Economic, and Relgious Transformations Required by Global Warming (Evanston: Earth Community Press, 2011).

Suzuki, David. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre: 2007).

Swimme, Brian. The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2004).

Tallamy, Douglas. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain the Wildlife with Native Plants (Portland: Timber Press, 2011).

Wessels, Cletus. Jesus in the New Universe Story (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006).

Weston, Anthony. Back to Earth: Tomorrow’s Environmentalism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

Weston, Anthony. Mobilizing the Green Imagination: An Exuberant Manifest (Gabriola Islands, BC: New Society Publishers, 2012).

Wilson, E.O. The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006).

 

Ecological Primers

Golley, Frank. A Primer for Environmental Literacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

Orr, David. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (Albany: Srtate University of New York Press, 1992).

Slobodkin, Lawrence. A Citizen’s Guide to Ecology (New York: Oxford, 2003).

Dashefski, Steven. Environmental Literacy: Everything You Need to Know about Saving Our Planet, The A-to-Z Guide (New York: Random House, 1993).

Fortey, Richard. Earth: An Intimate History (New York: Random House, 2004).