Being “at home” involves our connection with God and our relationship with the natural world.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl
Reading for Series C: 2012-2013
The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C
Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5
Last week, I watched the Mississippi pour over St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis looking down from the observation deck of the Mill City Museum, an institution celebrating the city’s past as the premier milling center in North America. Recent snow melt had transformed the river, which had been at a near-record low flow last summer, into a mighty force promising downstream flooding.
Despite the wild unpredictability of rivers, cities and towns throughout the world are built on their banks to enjoy water resources, ease of transportation, and the beauty of flowing water—in a word, celebrating the life that comes from water. Even though Psalm 67 does not reference water, without precious rain, the blessing of God that results in the “increase” of the earth could not be experienced (Psalm 67: 6).
We see this ‘water life’ explicitly in our readings from Acts and Revelation. Paul finds himself mysteriously guided to Philippi in the north of Greece, where he and his companions join the Sabbath worship of a group of women on the banks of the river outside the gates of the city (Acts 16: 13). While there, it seems that Paul assumed the seated position of teacher and was so persuasive that several were baptized.
Among the baptized was Lydia, a woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who had built a business in died fabric (“purple goods”). Not only was Lydia moved by Paul’s teaching, but in words reminiscent of the disappointed Emmaus travelers (Luke 24: 12-35), her “heart was opened” (Acts 16: 14) much like the eyes of the Emmaus couple were “opened” (Luke 24: 31). Again, just as the Emmaus travelers had “pressed” the fascinating traveler to stay with them (Acts 16: 15), so here Lydia “presses” Paul and his friends to stay with her. (Luke 24: 29) (see Barbara Rossing, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001 (Fortress, 2001), p. 48). Perhaps this deliberate parallelism underscores the importance of Paul spending his first night in the home of Gentiles as the Spirit continues to “open” doors of understanding and hospitality.
It may be that Lydia’s hospitality aimed at more than provision of lodging. Philippi was a colonial center that had been intentionally populated by Roman officers (the term describing the distribution of local property to officers was “centuriating”) to insure loyalty of this important gold mining center. As Paul and his associates were soon to discover, it did not take much to disturb the pro-Roman equilibrium and earn a jail term! (Acts 16: 16-40).
But most important is the encounter between Paul, Lydia, and the Philippian women. To this day, Lydia is honored as the founder of that historic ‘church.’ As they all “went down to the river to pray,” Paul’s storytelling resulted in many being ‘bathed’ in the waters of baptism underscoring the strong alliance between ‘river water’ and Word necessary to nurture the life of a new, European faith community.
When John of Patmos encounters one of the seven angelic messengers and is carried away to “a great, high mountain” (Revelation 21: 10), it is not to be closer to the heavenly realm, but to gain perspective on God’s earthly locus—the New City. While economy in readings can be a virtue, the omission of so much of what is revealed to John (Revelation 21: 11-27) is unfortunate and may be corrected—especially by a good reader.
But there is no doubt that the version of our text requires us to focus on “the river of the water of life” that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the center of the city (Revelation 22: 1-2). This contrasts explicitly with what John’s audience may have imagined would flow from the throne of the emperor in the center of Rome. Unlike Rome, with its many temples dedicated to a variety of gods that served as ideological support for the state, in this city there is no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21: 22).
Barbara Rossing suggests that the focus on green space and God’s river of life (Revelation 22: 1-5) follows Ezekiel (47: 1, 12) in recreating the Garden of Eden at the heart of this thriving urban landscape (Rossing “Series B: The Spirit Series: Fourth Sunday in Creation: River Sunday,” unpublished paper, p. 9). While Ezekiel imagines the river of life flowing from the temple, here it flows from the throne of God and the Lamb found at the heart of the city. The fruit trees Ezekiel envisions on both banks of “the river” become the “tree of life” (Revelation 22:2), invoking ‘Paradise’ traditions. Not only does the fruit of this tree of life satisfy the hunger of all the faithful (Revelation 2: 7)—overcoming the prohibition of Genesis 3: 22—it offers leaves for the healing of all, the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22: 2/Rossing, p. 10).
It also becomes clear that the arrogant notion of Roma Aeterna (“eternal Rome”) will come to an end. It is God who reigns forever, not the Roman Empire. But God will not be alone in this “reign.” The “servants” who worship God “will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22: 5). Combining this ‘Paradise’ tradition with reign by God’s servants suggests that the failure to “till and keep” the ‘Garden Earth’ (Genesis 3) will be reversed. Clearly, this is something to live toward today.
Most of our rivers today are not “rivers of life.” The Mississippi flows relatively cleanly until it reaches the Twin Cities. Then, prodigious dumping of bacteria, phosphorus, sediment from the Minnesota River, nitrates, and chemicals such as triclosan and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) challenge the health of all life dependent on this mighty waterway (Friends of the Mississippi River, State of the River Report, 2012). Restoring this river that serves as watershed for 41% of the continental U.S. could not be more important.
Equally significant are the movements to ‘uncover’ rivers and streams that have been covered up by excessive urbanization. In Berkeley, CA, several creeks have been “daylighted” to the delight of residents, who now are more likely to comprehend the reality and importance of “watershed” connections (Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, p. 120, 142). These efforts remind us both of the need to restore rivers and the joy waterways can bring to cities as we live toward the New City.
“Nesting” seems to be one of the goals of care for creation. All creatures need a home, and that theme certainly is sounded with clarity in our gospel reading. When asked “how will you reveal yourself to us when you have gone away?” Jesus replies: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14: 23). This, apparently, will be effected by the gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will remind believers of these promises and presence, a reminding that brings this “homemaking presence” with it.
Once more, we see that the goal is not to lift God’s people away from creation, but to make them feel “at home” with the Trinity which dwells in creation. Crucial to being “at home” is this congruence between our connection with God and our relationship with the natural world. When this happens, we not only experience the promised “peace,” but perhaps find the energy to “beat our swords into a plow (or, perhaps a composter) down by the riverside.”
Tom Mundahl Lutheran Church of the Reformation St. Louis Park, MN
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