All-Encompassing, Hopeful, and Embodied Faith
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday August 7-13, Year A (2020, 2023)
1 Kings 19:9-18
It’s no secret that the United States’ narrative of individualism and self-sufficiency has and is devastating our environment and many communities who are underrepresented in systems of power. Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda encourages an alternative way of understanding oneself and one’s spirituality which runs counter to these individualistic narratives that oppress our neighbors and God’s creation. Moe-Lobeda names this lens “Critical Mystical Vision,” which includes seeing “what is going on,” “what could be,” and “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 113-114, Kindle). Moe-Lobeda planting her ethic in this ground of critically acknowledging one’s experience, seeing new pathways to take for the journey ahead, and God’s continued guidance towards that longed-for state of affairs of dynamic relationality offers hope for the journey and energy towards making it a reality (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, 120 Kindle). By continuing to develop the portrait of God actively abiding within us through creation, we are provided perspectives and practices which cultivate inspiring hope. This hope grounded in faith acknowledges despair and pain and seeks to do something about it, moving the parishes we serve and beyond towards a more communal worldview and brighter tomorrows.
1 Kings 19:9-19: Embodied Faith in the Sheer Silence
The Kings reading for August 9th begins this week’s expansion of this Western-influenced perspective of God. This exploration of Elijah’s story follows Elijah’s lone prophetic witness against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, which resulted in the LORD being revealed boldly to the community as the giver of water and fire, primary elements of sustenance and life (1 Kings 18:17-46). While this demonstrated God’s sovereignty as greater than the perceived power of Baal affirmed by members of the Israelite community and leadership at the time, Elijah also unsettled the status quo in the process, leading him to flee after Jezebel threatened his life (1 Kings 19:1-8). We enter into the 9th verse of chapter 19 with Elijah spending the night in seclusion within a cave in Mount Horeb, the site where God had cared for the Israelites with water from a stone and provided guidance in the form of a new covenant from a fire (Exodus 17:6; Deuteronomy 4:9-15).
God reaches out to Elijah, asking him why he is there. Elijah responds, explaining that he has continued to answer his call, and even so the present oppressive system continues to exploit the agrarian culture at the time for their own gain and idolatrous practices, thus breaking the covenant with God for the Israelite people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Gale A. Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53: The Ministries of the Prophets Elijah and Micaiah” in Fortress Press Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., Matthew J. M. Coomber, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, David A. Sánchez, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, Kindle). By breaking this covenant and exploiting the agrarian culture at the time, they also “[deprive] the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” as these vulnerable populations especially relied upon gleaning practices in the fields, as outlined in Deuteronomy as well (Deuteronomy 26:12-13, 27:19; Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53,” Kindle). Elijah’s response to God feels drenched in the question of “Why?”—Why does this pain and suffering continue to happen, and why do my neighbors and your people continue to suffer as the covenant continues to remain unacknowledged and they seek to take my life? Elijah shares his story and experience with hopes that the status quo may be changed and seeks guidance about how to make that happen. How often do we find ourselves asking these questions too, especially when like it feels as though justice is nowhere to be found and God does not seem close by?
In their first exchange, God commands Elijah to go outside the cave and listen, “for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). We recall here that when Moses experienced God passing him by, he too was encouraged to stay by himself inside the cleft of a rock or a cavern (Exodus 33:20-23). At that moment, the very same signs that accompanied God’s presence listed in Isaiah 29:5-6 occur outside the cave, including a whirlwind so strong that it split the mountains, an earthquake, and then a fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). However, the writer(s) of 1 Kings reports that the LORD was not present in those spaces, and that after the fire there was “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:13 NRSV). Elijah seems to have discerned that God’s presence was not communicated via the classic mediums for the divine to be revealed. Upon hearing the silence, however, Elijah responds to God’s invitation to leave the cave and experience the LORD passing by. Upon arriving at the entrance of the cave, God asks again what Elijah is doing at Mount Horeb. Elijah repeats his response, and this time the writer(s) reports that Elijah discerns how God will restore justice to the land, namely in the means they understood at the time, which was by putting righteous leaders back into leadership positions.
So, what changed between these two sets of questions and responses? God reveals Godself and the will of God in a vehicle that is atypical to how God has been most clearly revealed in the past to God’s people. The prophet Elijah thus receives a broader lens that God’s movement is not limited only to the more easily perceptible movements of nature or in bold displays of divine intervention. Instead, even in the absolute stillness of the air, God is still moving and is still present with God’s people—hearing the cry of the oppressed, stirring people’s hearts towards ensuring justice for the sake of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, and unsettling oppressive systems which seek to silence the voices of prophets who are speaking truth to power. God’s presence is not limited only to the mediums themselves, but it is communicated into us through such means. Whether it be within the cave, within the clouds, within the fire, within the water, within the stillness—God also stirs within us, towards our very innermost selves, to remind us of God’s abiding presence. God’s presence does not just linger there either. God’s presence communicated through these creative means revealed to Elijah the means for how justice would be offered in his time. God’s revelation to Elijah appears to have encouraged him to continue the work he has been called to do, as in the very next verse he goes forth to anoint Elisha, thus continuing the process of unsettling and dismantling the oppressive political system at the time.
The 1 Kings passage invites readers to reflect over two questions: How do you see God moving in this world and within you, and how are you going to respond? On the road of activism, silence can sometimes be viewed as a scary wall, indicating that one’s actions they once believed were in line with their vocation are actually running off track or are not making a difference. The question people in this position may encounter next is “What comes next?” This seems to be a root of the response Elijah offered to God’s question: “What are you doing here?” Through Elijah’s encounter with God in and through nature, he seems to have found an expanded perspective that is grounded in his continued faith and results in new directions to explore. While we treasure the narratives where God is moving in big and bold ways because they are exciting and often deliver the justice we long for on a daily basis, we are invited to expand our lens like Elijah so we may remember that milestone moments are not the only places where God is active. God is also present and moving in those moments which seem like anything other than momentous; we see here that God can use the stillness, the space we inhabit, the things we perceive and experience each as leaping off points to move us, and in the process reveals God’s will of compassion and justice. So, once the LORD passes by you in this way, what will you do next?
Psalm 85:8-13 and Romans 10:5-15 – God Revealed and Moving, Within and Beyond Ourselves
The readings for this week from Psalm 85 and Romans 10 offer more rich imagery which help us better engage Moe-Lobeda’s third aspect of Critical Mystical Vision: “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, Kindle). The psalm reading this week carries on the theme found in 1 Kings 19:9-18 of listening for God, who “…will speak peace to [God’s] people, to [God’s] faithful, to those who turn to [God] in their hearts” (Psalm 85:8 NRSV). This conception of God includes the idea that God’s glory (another term often associated with God’s abiding presence) dwells in our land, which the writer perceives as causing love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace to also be gifted to the world by extension. What hopeful imagery associated with the fruits of listening and discerning God’s active presence amongst us! The writer perceives the world as being infused with the Spirit of life, and by extension finds hope in God’s presence.
In Psalm 85:11, we are treated to another set of rich imagery: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” It first casts an expansive view of the extent of God’s presence, as God’s presence is associated with both parts of the binary of up and down. This sentiment in Psalm 85:11 resonates with the ideas shared in the opening verses of the Romans reading, which encourages readers to not pin Christ’s presence to one place by assuming the righteousness associated with faith is found in one precise direction or space. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). The English translation offered by the NRSV here makes sense but misses out on just how connected the word is to God’s people, as the “on your lips and in your heart” literally translated from the Greek is “in your mouth (stoma) and in your heart.” The Greek presents God’s presence here as being very much internalized here. This internalized focus presents yet another dynamic portrait of God’s abiding presence within us while also including how God offers faith to us right where we are and that the righteousness of God saturates the very air we breathe. These images resonate with the comforting sentiment that our justifying, reconciling, and renewing faith itself is “sparked” by God, which orients the life we live in response (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4.73-74, 110-116 in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 132, 138-139). Yet again we see how God oftentimes reveals God’s movement within us through these external means and empowers us to live in an awe-inspired and hope-filled manner if we remain tuned into God’s embracing movements.
We can see through these verses images which reflect the ongoing nature of God’s life-giving presence, whether it be within the rhythmic beats of our heart internally or a seed’s continued growth through the dirt. Both of these images are similar in the fact that they represent internal, life-giving processes which make action possible in the future. So too does the faith which springs up from the ground of our very being make possible the work we are called by God to do in this world. Such work is often hard and exhausting, and sometimes can feel as though we are stuck in the dirt; however, when we look out at the large trees and the many blades of grass tenaciously growing up and out in the air, we can see little reminders of God’s creative work in this world continuing every moment, with every breath we breathe, with whatever growth is sustained, and with every heartbeat, as the Word abides in each and every one of those spaces. We can go forth, knowing God has deeply rooted and nourished each of us in the ground from which faithfulness springs through the waters of our baptism and the Word. To use the words from the close of the Romans reading for this week, we are rooted yet are also sent as those beautiful messengers proclaiming God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace for the sake of the broader web of life, of which we too are a part and have been called to tend. The question remains, “How is God stirring you to live out the rooted-in-faith-life you have been freely given by God?”
Matthew 14:22-33 – An Invitation to Trust and Walk Upon the Mysterious Waves
The Gospel reading for this week continues our exploration of how cultivating Moe-Lobeda’s “Critical Mystical Vision” allows us to see the world through a hopeful, spiritually rich lens which informs bold action. This passage takes place in a chapter where Jesus finds out about John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of the corrupt political system run by King Herod, and seeks rest in solitude while in a boat upon the waters. He later returns to the crowds, and in his time with them communicated his compassion by curing the sick and showcasing the abundance of God by multiplying the small amount of food they had for the nourishment of all in attendance. Yet again, we see how God chooses to move through physical means to provide insights about God’s character and movement towards life for all.
After these acts of care and time spent with the community, the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus sent the disciples on a boat to go to the other side to Gennesaret, where Jesus and the disciples yet again engaged deeply with the community and Jesus provided care for them (Matthew 14:34-36). The journey in-between the two shores is our focus for this week, as the disciple’s boat is buffeted by what Bible scholar Douglas R. A. Hare refers to as waves which “tortured” the disciples. Hare minces no words about the dire predicament set before them, and that it is crucial to the narrative that this is when Jesus appears to the disciples, revealing that care and guidance are key aspects of Jesus’ activity as the Messiah (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew. Interpretation: Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. James Luther Mays, Patrick D. Miller Jr., and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds. Louisville: John Knox Press, 169). We see revealed through Jesus that God is caring and present with those amidst the storms of life, encouraging us to look out upon our respective communities for those we may accompany on the journey as well.
As we continue surveying the disciples experience upon the sea, we find the disciples looking out upon the roaring waters after a full night of wrestling with these waves to see a figure moving towards them. The disciples together “cried out in fear,” and immediately Jesus offers words of comfort (Matthew 14:26-27). At this point, Peter alone responds, asking Jesus to invite him on the waters too if his Lord is in fact there. Jesus offers the requested invitation. Peter then steps out upon the waves, begins to walk towards Jesus, and as he recognizes a strong gust of wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. As he sinks, he cries out to Jesus for deliverance, and Jesus immediately reaches out to catch him. Jesus encourages him to hold onto the faith he had which encouraged him to step out onto the water in the first place and then guides him back onto the boat, at which point the storm ceases and the disciples worship Jesus.
Hare’s analysis of this passage uplifts that Peter’s stepping upon the waves is unique to Matthew’s telling of the disciples’ storm experience, suggesting that Peter represents a key representation of “…what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt” (Matthew, 169). Put another way, Peter represents to the reader the life of someone engaging in Critical Mystical Vision. The group on the waves originally saw Jesus as a ghost. Upon hearing the figure on the waves, Peter chose to see things differently, trusting in Jesus’ presence and asking to step out onto the risky waves with him. Now, this does not mean that Peter was ignorant of the surroundings he was in. The fact that he requested that Jesus himself command him upon the tempestuous waters suggests that he was critically aware of the space he was in, yet hoped through his faith that God’s power would be sufficient to carry him on the way (Hare, Matthew, 170). Even when the situation shifted and his faith was shaken by the wind, Peter again cried out in hope that Jesus would hold him up when Peter alone could not. Jesus immediately responded, and upon returning with Peter to the boat, the disciples cried out in worship, claiming Jesus as the Son of God.
And why these immediate turns to praising Jesus? My guess is this is not only because the storm had subsided. Instead, Jesus communicated clearly to these disciples that he is there to continue providing care for them, even when he had perhaps appeared distanced from them when he went away to the mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). Moreover, Peter stepped out in hope, and although the journey took a different path than he perhaps had expected, he encountered Christ. Peter chose to see with hope, and his life and the disciples lives were changed by the experience that followed. Even though he fell into the waters, had he not trusted in his faith and seen the figure only as a specter or something to tempt him, then he likely would not have had the experience which revealed a whole new relational dimension between him and Christ. Their awareness of Christ’s presence and care for them deepened immensely through his accompanying them in the storm and upon the very waters that threatened their boat. This is not to say that Peter saw everything as safe or rosy. It is clear that Peter was abundantly aware of the stormy waves; however, he fixated upon Christ for the first steps into new understanding (Hare, Matthew, 170). Through Peter’s hope and through the storm God revealed new depths to Peter’s faith. Yet again, God moves amidst nature and the discerning heart towards communicating new truths about who God is and who we are called to be in response.
The waves can represent the mysterious, presently-uncharted places for us. As we continue wrestling with how we are to answer our call to love our neighbor amidst this complex world, we find hope in the truth revealed in this passage that Jesus is already ahead of us in those currently mysterious spaces. We experience the tug to move just as Peter was called by Jesus upon the waters. We trust that Christ is with us upon those waves, ready to catch us if we begin to sink. We believe Christ still invites us to live into the faith sparked within us for the sake of those experiencing the pain and fear associated with the tumultuous waves of this life. So, where is Jesus ahead of you, providing hope for the journey ahead and calling you to join him amidst the storms which visit us in this life for the sake of those whose are being engulfed by the waves?
Questions to Ponder and Embody in Hope
Elijah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Peter each saw the world with hope and faith that God was moving and was encouraging them to move as well. They each experienced hardship and saw that the road towards living out their call was one that had obstacles and risks along the way. However, they also saw the dynamic presence of God moving on the road, both within their very bodies and alongside them in God’s creation. Out of this deeper perception and God’s reminder of God’s compassionate presence, they continued to move forward in hope that God’s will might be done through them, not for their own sake, but because they were obligated to do so by our Creator and Sustainer, and because they saw the world needed it. The questions raised by these readings before us then as called and claimed children of God are: What do we perceive? In what ways is God moving within us and within our surroundings? Where are the stormy waves God invites us to walk upon? What will we do in response as we live rooted and fixed upon the faith offered to us by God? We live out of our embodied faith and experience. We reflect on what could be with hope inspired by God’s will of justice, compassion, and dynamic relationality. We continue to step out upon the waters to which we are called, listening for God’s continued presence and guidance, whether it be found on the waves, in the fires, in the wind, in the silence, in our words, or within our very hearts. May we view the world through the “Critical Mystical Vision” Moe-Lobeda describes, trusting that God is renewing us as faith springs up from the ground to which we have been rooted, that God sends us with hope, and that God invites us to embody the insights gained from God’s movement in nature towards our very internal selves for the sake of the world.
Originally written by Andrew Thompson in 2020.