Reaching to the Heart of Faith – Tom Mundahl reflects on the church’s response to climate change.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Although in our care for creation we seek a sense of “the common,” a sensitive and hospitable relationship with all that God has made, the actual situation is quite different. Norman Wirzba captures it all too accurately: “It is no accident that having privatized the idea of salvation and then postponed its fulfillment to another time and place, professedly religious individuals have no difficulty abusing the earth and other people for their own ends. This life, supposedly, can be sacrificed for another” (Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age Oxford: 2003, p. 20). Today’s readings squarely confront this challenge. They move us beyond the ‘wound’ of privatization as Jesus, the servant of creation, continues to break private boundaries, freeing us to see over the walls we have erected.
We see this immediately in the First Lesson from Isaiah. In this text, closer to the tradition of Second Isaiah, freedom for exiles in Babylon is intimately connected with the healing of the blind, the mute, and the lame (Isaiah 35:5-6). What’s more, this act of liberation reverberates into the natural world as “waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:6b). Freedom is cut from a whole cloth: a “new exodus” from Babylon joins metaphors of personal healing with the renewal of creation.
This congruent wholeness is echoed in our reading from James. Again, no privatization of religious life as mere interior reality can be tolerated. To live a life of faith is to keep the “royal law: “Loving God and your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8). Once more, we hear the call to move beyond “partiality” (reminding us of Peter’s vision Acts 10:34), a move which strikes at the heart of a religion of purity.
Instead of seeking private purity, the author calls readers to share common gifts of food and clothing, and, by extension, all the gifts of creation “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, if one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2. 15:17). This search for consistency of confessed faith and responsible action surely underlies the call by Tim Gorringe and others to challenge God’s people to see inaction on climate change as a matter of status confessionis, a matter reaching to the heart of faith, parallel with concerns about apartheid a quarter century ago.
This assault on the boundaries is kept up in our Gospel reading from Mark. Our text represents an echo of the earlier double healing of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with gynecological problems, but this time concerns two Gentiles, indicating a broadening of the scope of “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). At first, it appears that Jesus’ travel north and west to the region of Tyre is simply to get away from the constant press of the crowds. “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (Mark 7:24).
But even the best of hideouts sometimes fail. Not only did Jesus fail to escape notice, but a mother of a daughter in need of exorcism found him, barged into the house, fell at his feet and began asking for help. Jesus’ initial response—“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27) – not only reflects a prevailing view of Gentiles held by prevailing Jewish culture (even called ‘dogs”), but it may also stem from the shock of being found out at the beginning of a hoped for retreat.
Yet, the Syro-phoenician woman reflects an assertiveness much like that of the woman with the twelve-year flow of blood (Mark 5:27f) and responds, “Sir, even the dogs (small dogs—perhaps “puppies” would be a better translation) under the table eat the children’s crumbs” Jesus’ response is simple: “Because of your words, the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 8:29). As Ched Myers suggests, she had won the debate! (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988, p. 204). Bread, the sustenance of life which includes healing, is available not only to the daughter of the leader of the synagogue, but to all. It is not the private possession of one people. Suddenly the definition of “children” has been blown wide open!
This broadening of the scope of Jesus’ ministry continues as Jesus returns home via the region of Decapolis, ten cities of mixed cultural and religious background. Here Jesus is again confronted with a request for healing as friends present a deaf mute. Once more, the purity code is run over, for Jesus uses saliva as a healing medium, saliva that is considered as defiling as human excrement (Myers, p. 205). But Jesus reverses the contagion and the deaf mute has speech and hearing restored.
As this incident is concluded with reference to Isaiah 35:6-7, “he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” the power of this healing presence is demonstrated. Jesus “orders them to tell no one” (Mark 7:36), but the more that was demanded, the more energetically they shared their amazement. The crowd “gets it,” so much so that a “lid cannot be put on it.” This seems to contrast with Jesus’ disciples who, as we will see, have trouble both hearing and speaking with a similar energy when the details of Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem are described (Mark 8:27-38).
This cannot help but remind us of the relative silence and ineffectiveness of the church as an advocate for public policy reducing gases causing climate change as called for even in the ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice”, 1993, (Section IV, E, 2). This is why stronger measures, such as the call to make this inaction a status confessionis are so important.
Crucial to moving beyond our ineffectiveness is recovering a sense of priesthood, remembering our responsibility to offer up creation’s praise to God in sacramental action [Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, (Louisville and London: Westminster, John Knox, 2008), p. 105)]. Not only will this free us to join all creation in praise of God, but perhaps also being more “priestly” will enable us to broaden the scope of understanding beyond the human, much as Jesus destroyed “private walls” of religious ethnicity to bring wholeness to the Syro-phoenician family and the deaf mute.
As Southgate suggests: “What God alone could do, has done, once for all, was to suffer death for the transformation of the world, to bear in Christ the pain of creation and of human sin. But our lives can side with that sacrifice in ways both ingenious and costly. If we were to grow into the fullness of our life under God we might be able to realize a further call—a call to participate more actively in the healing of a wild nature that may be seen both as “very good” and as (through the will of the same God who made it) ‘groaning in travail.’ In doing so we would be acting in the image of the God that we see, in the life of the earthly Jesus, always moved to compassion by the need for healing” (Southgate, p. 115).
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.
Lutheran Church of the Reformation
St. Louis Park, MN