Ending Our Exile from Creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on owning the responsibilities of our priesthood.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)
Finally we can begin to see our garden beds. Even though we have been able to celebrate a Minnesota winter in all of its beauty and challenge, after four months of snow we cannot help but experience a sense of exile from the rich smell of warming humus in garden beds and the ever-surprising growth of seeds into food and flowers. But that exile is also apparent as we begin to comprehend what it means to enter the Anthropocene Epoch where the relative predictability of life on earth has begun to disappear as a result of humans dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is in addition to human resource use that has increased to the point where scholars at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, CA, have estimated that for all humankind to live at the level of Americans, four planets would be necessary! (www.footprintnetwork.org)
Lent is certainly the season to face the arrogance of human “overshoot” and, reflecting on the re-creating mercy of God, to repent by turning our policies, practices and expectations around to learn how to live fruitfully and justly in balance with this blue planet. Like the people of Judah who were captured by the Babylonians, one of the most powerful and advanced cultures of its time, we have been enslaved by a set of axioms for living that cannot be sustained, nor should they. So it is a gift on this last Sunday in Lent to begin with a prophet of exile, Jeremiah, who may help us begin to see glimmers of freedom.
Jeremiah had no difficulty detecting human arrogance. Dragged kicking and screaming into his vocation, he not only exposed the culture’s contempt for truth, but experienced it directly in rejection. Given his faithfulness in delivering God’s message of judgment in both symbolic actions and words, we are surprised suddenly to come upon the “Book of Consolation,” one of the most profound statements of hope in the Jewish scriptures. This new word promises that the LORD will bring the exiles home in nothing less than a second Exodus (Jeremiah 30:3).
As this return to the land of promise begins, Jeremiah describes their future as a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12-14).
That image of a “watered garden” is important for understanding this familiar text. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). It seems that in the face of Judah’s arrogance it was necessary for the leaders to return once more to the wilderness, even if that wilderness was the alien culture of Babylon. Hear Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: the people who have survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2). Only in this “wilderness experience” where dependence is total can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) be seen as gift, not merely the results of human effort.
Just as the return to a fertile land is now seen as something granted, so also is the restored harmony between God and people now experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).
Not only does this provide a new basis of forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony throughout the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the rubble. Even fields that had served as burial places for the fallen will once more become fertile gardens (cf. Jeremiah 31:40, John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 283). Quite clearly, “covenant restoration” includes not just humankind, but spills over to the land as well.
Even though the notion of Jesus as “high priest” seems strange during a year when we immerse ourselves in Mark’s Gospel with numerous uses of John, Hebrews holds a secure place in the canon and in piety. The purpose of this metaphor seems to be to establish Jesus’ identity as both the one who brings healing to creation and completes the Jewish system of sacrifice. The “high priest” according to the anonymous author is chosen and “put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1), one who mediates between God and humankind.
But Jesus is the final high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10). Much speculation surrounds the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, much of it coming from Qumran referred to in various scrolls. Apparently, the author’s strategy here is to bolster Jesus’ authority with reference to one greater than Abraham, “who blessed him who had received the promises” (Hebrews 7:6) and outranks all other priests (Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 66-67). Ultimately, because Jesus sacrificed his own blood, he has “opened for us a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).
While Hebrews can seem arcane, we are also reminded that the very notion of “priesthood” is something we share with all Christians through baptism. As Luther wrote in the Address to the German Nobility (1520), “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.” Even though all baptized Christians are called to serve as priests—mediators between God, sisters and brothers, and the creation—not all are called to pastoral ministry. While Protestants have generally seen “the priesthood of all believers” as a critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy, we have all too rarely seen priesthood as an empowering vocation.
Orthodox perspectives help us here. “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly role (not necessarily a priest leading worship) does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on Earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place, but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1) so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as blessing” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207). Our shared priesthood in seeking eco-justice, then, expresses our prayer and action toward ending our arrogant exile from creation, insuring the wholeness and peace that is Sabbath delight.
Timing is everything. Gardeners know that planting cannot be hurried— the soil must be fed with rich compost and its temperature must have warmed to proper germination levels. In much the same way, “Jesus’ hour” comes only when “certain Greeks” ask to see him (John 12:20), signaling that now with the addition of “other sheep” (John 10:16) the flock is complete. Now is the time for planting: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Jesus’ “parable” takes for granted ancient beliefs that with the loss of their original form seeds ceased to be what they were and died. Even though we understand the growth process differently, the image still conveys power. As James P. Mackey writes, “Every transformation in the universal process of evolutionary creativity involves a death of existing forms or a de-formation . . . (But what is this but) . . . the inevitable negative pole of the positive force of creative evolution that forever brings new or renewed forms into being” (quoted in Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162). As Wendell Berry observes as he works in his hillside woodlots, “where the creation is yet fully alive and continuous and self-enriching, whatever dies enters directly into the life of the living . . . ” (“An Entrance to the Woods,” Recollected Essays 1965-1980, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 240)
Berry’s view of transition in forests reminds us that even theologically, death is a self-offering movement in which an individual gives himself or herself to another for the expansion of life. As Wirzba suggests, “Rather than viewing life as a possession, one inspired by Christ understands that life is a gift to be received and given again . . . . All attempts to secure life from within or to withhold oneself from the offering that is the movement of life, will amount to life’s loss” (Wirzba, p. 112). This is why Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). Real life is expenditure.
This explains why Dostoevsky uses John 12:24 as the epigraph for his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this earthy theological thriller we meet two religious protagonists: the Elder Zosima and Alyosha Karamozov, a novice monk. Zosima serves as starets (spiritual advisor) to the monks and to the multitude who come to him for advice and counsel. But he has not only lived inside cloister walls. Earlier he had been a dashing military officer, playing cards and challenging brother officers to duels. In fact, it was as he prepared for a duel that suddenly he was granted a vision of the unity and holiness of creation, a vision which sent him to the monastery. This tempering of piety with worldly experience serves as the basis of his holiness and humility. It is with the same humility that his life ends: suddenly he felt a pain in his chest, “silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully, gave up his soul to God” (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 6, Ch.3, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 324).
The expectation is that because of Zosima’s unusual holiness, his body will not exhibit the odor of decay. To the delight of his monastic rivals, not only does the stench begin, but it seems to be especially pronounced. Young Alyosha is crushed. Does this mean that his mentor was nothing but a fraud? In his shock he finally returns to stand watch near Zosima’s bier where Father Paissy reads aloud from the scriptures. It is when Alyosha hears the account of the Wedding at Cana read aloud that he experiences once again Zosima’s voice celebrating the richness of new wine. Suddenly Alyosha runs out of the chapel and when he reaches the forest, like Zosima, he falls down and embraces the earth weeping tears of joy. As Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life” (Ibid., Bk. 7, Ch. 4, p. 363). By falling to the earth as the seed that has died, as he leaves the monastery he becomes part of a new community caring for the whole creation.
Dostoevsky here teaches that self-offering is not a waste leading nowhere. As Wirzba claims, “The giving of oneself, instead, leads to life as it really ought to be: ‘those who hate their life in the world’ (v. 25)—that is, those who realize that individual life is not a possession or an idol to be guarded and worshipped at all costs, those who categorically reject the isolating project of self-glorification, but instead willingly give themselves over for the good of others—‘will keep it for eternal life’ (v. 25)” (Wirzba, p. 114). Working for eco-justice with all one’s life may not be a good career choice, but it is an integral calling among the priesthood of all believers.
The high point of our gospel text occurs when Jesus describes being lifted up from the earth and “drawing all to myself” (John 12:32). Yes, the preferred NRSV reading is “all people,” but “all things” conforms more closely to 3:35 and 13:3, “all things have been given.” Why not, then, simply use “all” to avoid anthropocentrism and emphasize the creation interests of the Gospel. As Daly-Denton argues, “So to think of panta (“all”) being given into Jesus’ hands is to think of ‘all things’ being entrusted to the disciples as well. Their mission is to do the creating and sustaining ‘works of God’ (John 6:28), as modeled by the Good Shepherd, even to the point of putting their life on the line as he did” (Daly-Denton, p. 166).
Because of the ecological situation we find ourselves in, it would be helpful to hear a confirming voice from heaven as did the festival crowd in our narrative (John 12:29-30). We may ask whether “the ruler of this world has been driven out” (John 12:31) as we admit that the wanton use of our freedom and technological power has led us to the brink of ruin and left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is unresponsive to “human interests.” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37) Is our fate simply as Philip Sherrard has described: “There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourself to it. That is the punishment.” (The Eclipse of Man and Nature, Stockbridge: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 71-72)
Every Sunday, even the Sundays of Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection. That does not mean that Christians are naively optimistic about the prospects we face. We would be fools to expect that a new technology or the sudden appearance of a new leader will solve the problems we confront. But as we come down to earth and plant the seeds of small gardens, teach children where carrots come from, and help sisters and brothers to see that eco-justice is central to our “priesthood,” we find hope. The one who sends Jeremiah to tear down our falsity and the Christ to draw all to him on the cross will certainly puncture every assumption of our arrogant culture—including our own personal favorites. Yet that same Creator will give us the courage to own our responsibilities, begin to mitigate climate damage, and work to find a place in the choir for all of God’s creatures.
Saint Paul, MN
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.