Sunday August 14-20 in Year A (Carr23)

An Outsider’s Wit and a Grafting God: Playing for a ChangeAmy Carr reflects on honesty and play as eco-justice resources.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 14 – 20, Year A (2023, 2026)
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
Psalm 67
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20], 21-28

All sorts of worries about God’s ways with us tumble together in this week’s passages. God doesn’t seem to be going about being God in ways that benefit either creatures or God’s glory. And God responds with complaints about us in return. It is a mutual bickering that airs warranted concerns about the well-being of people and the land, with a sturdy vision animating all the shouts from the heart about what ought to be. Listening across these passages, in the ricochet of worries we can hear not only a steady drumbeat of witness to what flourishing should sound like, but also a testimony to the kinds of conversion of perspective that enable the seeds of well-being to take root and grow.

The tools for creative care of our world that I gleaned from this Sunday’s scripture readings include uncompromising honesty, playfulness, rest, and leaning into the mystery while letting cognitive dissonance shake up what we thought we knew.

In Psalm 67, the psalmist pleads with God to show kindness, so that we can bear witness to the rest of the world in a persuasive way. The world needs proof of God’s justice showing up concretely! Only then will more people be moved to praise God. This comes out with more sass in Today’s English Version translation:

“God, be merciful to us and bless us; look on us with kindness, so that the whole world may know your will; so that all nations may know your salvation.

“May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you!

“May the nations be glad and sing for joy, because you judge the peoples with justice and guide every nation on earth” (Psalm 67:1-4).

The psalmist names two specific divine blessings that warrant praise: when people experience justice (“equity,” as the NRSV puts it), and when “the land has produced its harvest” (Psalm 67:6). The subtext is clear: God ought not to expect joyous gratitude from humans when we do not experience mercy, a reliably just society, or when the land itself fails us by not providing enough food to eat. Our vulnerability to suffering means we lay all creaturely needs before God for attentive care.

When we turn the psalm sideways and look at its petitions, we see another subtext at play: a protest against any attempt by human beings to claim that it is God who authorizes inequity among people or exploitation of the land. No such God would be worthy of human praise.

Our psalmist names the vision of things plainly: divine mercy is tangible where people and the land are both securely flourishing.

In Isaiah 56, God seems worried about us, about our tendency to fall away from vigilance in keeping justice: “Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come and my deliverance be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1). Once again, we have an acknowledgement that things are not as well as we expect. But here God is the one complaining and prodding indirectly, by calling us to participate in well-making in a surprising way: by connecting the dots among keeping the Sabbath, practicing justice, and widening our scope of concern beyond those who are just like ourselves.

God first speaks a word of good news for God-seeking outcasts within Israel (like the eunuchs; Isaiah 56:3-5), then to those outside of Israel (those who are “foreigners;” Isaiah 56:3, 6-8). As Gentile outsiders now drawn into covenant through Christ, how can we now extend our own generation’s gaze outward with an eye on the earth as a whole?

“Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:8).

God has a heart for those who long to belong to the shared ritual life of the Israelites, but keep noticing the barriers to their full inclusion. So YHWH says through Isaiah that a eunuch should not think of themself as “just a dry tree,” nor should the foreigner say, “The LORD will surely separate me from [God’s] people” (Isaiah 56:3). All who minister to the LORD, who keep God’s Sabbaths and hold fast to the covenant (Isaiah 56:3-6)—they too shall also find a place on God’s “holy mountain” (Isaiah 56:7).

Here the non-human environment is the setting for celebratory belonging: the one worried about being a dry tree can set up roots on God’s holy mountain itself. But every creature struggling to survive, individually and as a species, praises God for the gift of existence. In the May 2023 Lutherans Restoring Creation Connections Call, Lisa Dahill spoke of our having a sense of accountability to future generations, asking what they might say—in gratitude or mourning—about our decisions today, in our own lifetimes. Like the eunuchs and foreigners in Isaiah 56, future generations of every species long to belong—to life before God and one another.

The Indigenous organization Great Plains Action Society recently ritualized this kind of vaster recognition in a Walk for River Rights. Crossing a bridge across the Mississippi River that connects the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa, the activists called for “granting legal rights to natural entities like forest and rivers.” This would mean including them in the legal covenant of belonging to our nation.

Perhaps by look around when we pause to practice Sabbath rest, we can better cultivate a far-seeing perspective that notices those who don’t fit into our usual routines of attention. If in our own Sabbath moments we pay attention to how non-human creatures celebrate with joy—like the eunuchs and foreigners enjoying the Sabbath of God’s people—we can foster the steady consciousness that expands our sense of kinship to include creation, in its current and future manifestations.

In Matthew 15, the worry is about missing out on the healing power of belonging to the Kingdom of God. One vein of that worry might be voiced directly only in a Gentile reader’s mind: why isn’t Jesus including Gentiles among his disciples—even if he does occasionally minister to a Gentile? Jesus’s 12 named apostles represent the new Israel, with its 12 tribes; not one of them is a Gentile (not to mention a woman). In Matthew 15, though, the worry is not expressed at this conceptual level, but as a piercing cry. A Canaanite woman barges in possessed by a Gentile-friendly vision of the Kingdom of God, shouting out her demands to Jesus as annoyingly as a homeless person with schizophrenic delusions might shout to passers-by with complaints that don’t fit their sense of normal reality.

The Canaanite woman steps to center stage just after Jesus has been teaching his disciples that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but what comes out of the mouth, which flows from the heart. What comes out of the Canaanite woman’s mouth is a protest against her daughter’s being in a state of defilement: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon” (Matthew 15:22). Interestingly, what then flows out of Jesus’s own mouth channels an exclusivist vision of the Kingdom of God that Isaiah was prying open: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…. It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:24, 26). The Canaanite woman taps into the spirit of Isaiah when she insists on being included, if only as an after-thought: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters” (Matthew 15:27).

Is Jesus exorcising the Canaanite woman’s daughter, or is she provoking an exorcism in Jesus of a narrow vision of who belongs to the house of Israel? Whether Jesus is play-acting that exclusivist vision for the sake of the audience’s own conversion, or authentically investing first and foremost in the particularity of his calling to the also-marginalized house of Israel, the Canaanite woman kneels with a confidence of her and her daughter’s own belonging, at least enough to ensure their own well-being. Jesus instantly recognizes that what comes out of her heart is purifying: “’Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed from that moment” (Matthew 11:28).

This public performance of need and competing forms of piety has an undertone of play. Jesus quotes a cliché and insults her, and as in an improv comedy act, the Canaanite woman quips back with a superior punchline. It is her mix of purity of heart and creative wit that we might ponder as we listen to this dramatic exchange with environmental questions in mind.

Can we bring to our climate crisis dilemmas a similar mix of honest naming and out-of-the-box thinking that invitationally subverts a vision now too small to fit the circumstances at hand?

One dilemma is that there is usually a trade-off between development that lifts people out of poverty (which increases greenhouse gas emissions) and green energy policies that take investment funds away from anti-poverty efforts: “The need to spend money decarbonizing big developing economies that already offer citizens reasonable services threatens aid budgets which help pay for things like vaccines and schooling in the poorest parts of Africa.” In an effort to avoid “[s]queamishness about weighing costs and benefits—stemming from a well-meaning desire to avoid every injustice,” are we trying to focus simultaneously on the needs of the lost children of Israel, as well as those of the Canaanite children who get the crumbs under the table?

In his 2011 commentary, Dennis Ormseth names well how hard it is to move beyond individual green behavior to collectively address systemic change: “The politics of such cooperation are exceedingly difficult: the issues are increasingly complex and difficult to understand; the impacts are remote or difficult to perceive; they concern future problems more than current ones, and problems that may be felt more immediately by other people in other places rather than close to home; and the problems tend to be chronic rather than acute. The political institutions needed for sustained and effective action are rarely strong enough. Economic needs regularly trump the needs of the environment.” If only we could have a direct person-to-person encounter to find redress and healing!

Having named this challenge plainly is a necessary starting point. From a space of prophetic piety, the Canaanite woman pushed from request into challenging the barriers to her request being met. This sounds like what Jacob Erickson calls a “theopoetics” that draws us from grief to creative problem-solving:

“Most researchers into climate grief will tell you that learning how to grieve a present moment opens up the possibilities of our relational connection…. Grieving means we are thinking about relationality, shared worlds, and communal possibilities human and more-than-human…. That connectivity of spirit may lead to collectively questioning and lamenting power structures or unjust relationships in the world. Questioning may lead to refiguring expectations to ask what the next possible course of action might be….”

“Along that route, the most curious feature of the literature of environmental despair is a persistent emphasis on the importance of play for times of transformation and collective grief….”

“Play is how we grow, open our minds to what is next, and learn to create with what materials we have. Even in moments of dire need, new creation can begin to emerge to help us connect and feel our way out in new imaginative and physical planetary landscapes. Playing and creating joy in the wasteland, making possibilities in the midst of the ruins of dashed hopes is just another name for theology. It seems like a good model for Divine creativity: divinity that grieves and transforms in response to our common life; divinity that cocreates out of playfulness with an unfolding creation still called ‘good.’”[i]

One example of this spirit of transformative play can come in the form of lawsuits by those wanting our children of the future to be released from demonic possession by our toxic choices today. Young people are suing states like Utah, Hawaii, Virginia, and Montana “for not addressing human-caused climate change,” but instead “violating their constitutional right to a healthy environment by promoting fossil fuel energy policies.” In Montana, the “youth plaintiffs in the case, known as Held v. Montana, are asking the state to set a limit on planet-warming emissions.” Whether or not they succeed, they are exercising their theopoetic muscles in collaborative action.

In Romans 11, finally, the worry is about being cast out after having once felt a sense of belonging. Paul tries to make sense of why Jews called by God into covenant are not all perceiving Jesus as the Messiah. The chosen people are not choosing Jesus as their Messiah. What is up with God? Paul opens with raw honesty to this question (voiced back in Romans 9:1-3 and 10:1-4), and feels saturated with a providential answer that he uses agricultural metaphors to communicate.

Those agricultural metaphors appear in a part of Romans 11 that are not part of the lectionary reading per se (in Romans 11:16-24), but they communicate Paul’s intuitions about divine providence as something that can be analogized from human technological innovation: grafting a branch of a wild olive tree into a cultivated olive tree where one of its own branches had been broken off. Here the cultivated tree is God’s covenant with Abraham and his Jewish descendants. The whole cultivated tree—roots and all—belongs to God. The branches broken off from the covenant tree cultivated by God are like Jews who don’t accept that “Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). Gentiles are like the wild branches who, through their baptismal sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, are grafted into the promise-filled covenant tree. Paul reasons that it is God the Grafter who bent open the branches on the cultivated tree in order to make a space for an entirely broken-off wild olive branch. They are then nourished by the roots of the Jewish covenant; they belong by the mercy of the God, not because they have their own covenant that displaces the one God cultivated carefully over so many centuries. But God will graft in all Jews once more, once the Gentiles have finished coming to God:

“I want you to understand this mystery . . . so that you may not claim to be wiser than you are: a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of gentiles have come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26a).

Paul can only make sense of his cognitive dissonance—about his own people not seeing the line of covenantal connection between Abraham and Jesus—by fathoming that it is not in fact a divine dissonance. In seeing a peculiar sort of divinely-orchestrated harmony between the older exclusion of Gentiles from the Jewish covenant and the movement of Jews away from the covenantal wrinkle wrought in Christ, Paul goes so far as to glimpse a universal salvation through a kind of double predestination for all people: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:32). As a tradition among our Reformed siblings puts it: everyone is doubly predestined, first to exclusion (damnation), then to belonging (salvation).

What might Paul’s image of a bending, breaking, grafting God contribute to our own grappling with cognitive dissonance about our species as a whole: our inability to follow our species-wide vocation (in both Genesis 1:26-30 and 2:15) to tend to the earth?

We once thought that, even in the renewal of the eschaton, the earth itself would be all right. Or so I have always imagined, at least. To be sure, our spatial imagery for heaven as a place out beyond the stars indicates we have always recognized that there is more to existence than our particular planet, even before we realized we are a speck in the universe rather than its center. But even knowing our planet is mortal doesn’t stop us from experiencing the kind of climate grief that Sarah Fredericks documents in Environmental Guilt and Shame: Signals of Individual and Collective Responsibility and the Need for Ritual Response (Oxford University Press, 2021).

I hesitate to see divine determination behind the pattern of disobedience that has led us to habitually use the earth’s resources in ways that pollute the land and extinguish entire species and habitats. There seems to be no compensatory mercy for anyone else associated with our actions. Sure, we know that species adapt and that life persists in the cracks and the patches that remain. The cockroaches are resourceful; perhaps they are among the merciful recipients of God’s creative commitment to the life of the planet, incorporated into God’s covenant in ways beyond our reckoning.

My own draw is to tack into Paul’s metaphor of God as an agricultural innovator. Paul was using the distinction between “wild” and “cultivated” as a metaphor for Gentile and Jew, the excluded (brought in) and the included (with the roots intact, if with a branch bent to take in a grafted one). We might enter Paul’s metaphor from another angle: by thinking about ourselves made in God’s own image, here as scientists who invents new technologies to improve and sustain the production of food, as well as other ways of preserving life on earth.

From this perspective, we are participating in God the Grafter’s own innovativeness by problem-solving ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Such ways include making palm oil from yeast to avoid further deforesting tropical regions. Producing yeast through biomechanical or bioengineered rather than agricultural means would minimize CO2. More CO2 is generated by deforestation and palm oil production in Malaysia and Indonesia than by the entire aviation industry! If only more stories of mundane research like this would populate our browser news feeds.

Honestly naming and grappling with the puzzles we have to solve, leaning into the mystery with an innovative spirit that blends inquiry with rest and play—these are among the holy senses of direction that this week’s scripture readings invite us to inhabit.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2023

[i] Jacob J. Erickson, “Grief and New Creation: Theopoetics for a pandemic,” Dialog, 59, no. 2 (June 2020): 74.