Sunday September 11-17 in Year B (Mundahl12)

“This is what love looks like!”Tom Mundahl reflects on resisting global climate change.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 11-17, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

In his thoughtful commentary on Second Isaiah, Paul Hanson asks: “How can one reach a people seemingly hell-bent on their own destruction?” (Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995, p. 138). As relevant as this question must have been for the exiled community in Babylon, how much more crucial it is for us as we face the “exile” of global ecological disaster. Isaiah’s suggestion that we set our “faces like flint” (Isaiah 50:7) to continue our vocation to care for creation could not be more timely.

This sense of call is at the center of our First Reading drawn from the Third Servant Song. Because the exiles have a difficult time admitting their responsibility for their plight, no longer do we hear of promises of “streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:6). Now the LORD God, who with full-blown courtroom imagery is trying the people for their sins, reminds them that “I make the rivers a desert and the fish stink for lack of water” (Isaiah 50:2b). This threat is all in the service of making the people “face the facts.” They have forged their own chains of exile.

In the meantime, it is no easy matter to carry out a prophetic calling. Even though Isaiah has been touched by the Spirit at his call (Isaiah 42:1-4), he faces dramatic opposition. This opposition seems to be more than verbal: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my faith from insult and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6). What motivates this persecution? As Paul Hanson suggests, exiles began to project blame onto the Holy One: “Yahweh has broken the covenant promises by casting us off, selling us to our enemies!” (Hanson, p. 136). For Isaiah to suggest otherwise marked him for punishment.

But the prophet is able to retain his sense of vocation even in the face of this abuse. “The LORD God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens—wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” (Isaiah 50:4). This provides the prophet-servant with the strength to continue to tell the truth until the exiles begin to face that truth, a first step toward healing. This is the goal that makes the pain of carrying out his prophetic call bearable. And it is precisely this goal that separates Isaiah from the all-too-powerful religious tradition of masochism. He suffers in order to free his people from their self-deception (see Dorothy Soelle, Suffering, trans. E. Kalin, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, pp. 9-32). By his own affliction the prophet-servant can give his listeners a two-fold promise: when you embrace the truth, your tormentors will “wear out like a garment” (Isaiah 50:9a) and the just Judge will free them (Hanson, p. 141). As the prophet-servant sings of the new way in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3-4), echoed by John the Baptist (Mark 1:3), we are reminded of the struggles among our contemporaries to find a “way” through the wilderness of a culture bent on its own destruction. Whether it is the “way” of civil disobedience demonstrated in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2011 by Bill McKibben, James Hansen, and many from the faith community in opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline; or the difficult work of Wes Jackson’s Kansas-based Land Institute reaching for a no-till agriculture; or even the risky example of Tim DeChristopher, who without resources outbid gas companies in leasing Utah public lands to prevent their exploitation, the path is full of danger and those who walk it need the kind of support Isaiah experienced. At the end of his address to the judge who sentenced him to two years in federal prison, DeChristopher simply said, “this is what love looks like.” (Terry Tempest Williams, “What Love Looks Like,” Orion Magazine, January/February 2012).

The theme of a new and daunting way is carried through in Mark’s dramatic account of the First Passion Prediction. Jesus and his disciples have now journeyed to the northernmost edge of historic Israelite territory, the villages of Caesarea Philippi, an area that offered a great variety of attractions for the religious tourist—a grotto sacred to Pan, sites associated with worship of the Baalim and a temple built in honor of Augustus. (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988, p. 241).

But they are not there as connoisseurs of religious sites; this is no comparative religion seminar. Yet, Jesus does allow for the admission of public opinion in his private polling questions: “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). While the assorted answers about popular opinion have not progressed beyond speculations indicated at Herod’s banquet (Mark 6:14-29), Peter’s response to the second query is right on the money: “You are the messiah.” (Mark 8:29).

Except that Jesus immediately identifies himself as “the Son of Man, who must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). What could this “Son of Man” be about, and how might he differ from traditional views of the messiah? Perhaps Myers is right in suggesting that “the Son of Man” or “the Human One” described in Daniel represents “true human government as opposed to the “beasts” in the visions” (Myers, p. 243). For Peter to protest “the passion way” is to side with the beasts, to become “Satan.” It is to set the mind on the way of power and control (the human things), not the healing of creation (the divine things) (Mark 8:33). That is the way of a people hell-bent on destruction.

It has been long thought that in a democratic culture, reason will prevail and all parties will transcend their private interests to achieve the common good. While this vision is attractive, the events of the past decades raise serious questions. Or, some have suggested that the interplay of private market forces will lead to an equilibrium that will, at least, create a balance that may be acceptable and produce the best approximation of a shared interest that can be reached.

Neither of these “visions” seems consistent with the vision of true human government established by “the Son of Man,” “the Human One.” He breaks down boundaries of oppression, welcomes those considered defiled, and creates a kind of “Sabbath economy” exemplified by feedings in the wilderness. But those who follow are in for the same treatment he received: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This is no mere fatalism. As Myers suggests, confrontation with the powers that seem hell-bent on destruction is “political inevitability” (Myers, p. 244).

In his essay in Rolling Stone (“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, August 2, 2012), Bill McKibben names the powers that threaten creation—the major oil companies, both private and national. They claim a total of 2,795 gigatons in proven oil reserves. If more than 565 gigatons are burned, ”the planet will crater” (McKibben, p. 5). To prevent this, McKibben calls for a renewed movement demanding divestment of oil company stock by colleges, churches, and everyone of conscience. Even this is a long shot, considering the political power of these corporations globally. Yet, it played a part in defeating apartheid more than twenty years ago. Yes, confrontation with these companies is a political inevitability. Like Isaiah, we will need to set our faces like flint (Isaiah 50: 7) as we live our baptismal calling.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
St. Louis Park, MN