Sunday July 10-16 in Year A (Mundahl23)

A Time of Blessing? Tom Mundahl reflects on entering into the experience of negation with hope.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10-16, Year A (2023, 2026)
Genesis 25:19-34 (semicontinuous reading)
Psalm 119:105-112 (semicontinuous reading)
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

A few years ago my wife and I were browsing in a bookstore when a smiling young woman with a serious looking recorder approached us.  Her request was simple. “During National Poetry Month we are asking folks to choose and read their favorite poem.”  That was not difficult for me.  Immediately I thought of James Wright’s short poem describing stopping off a highway to rest near Rochester, MN, where the poet sees two ponies grazing in a grassy pasture.

As sociable animals,  the ponies welcome the company. “They ripple intensely, they can hardly contain their happiness that we have come.”  One of them even walks over to nuzzle the hand of her visitor.  The poet’s ecstasy at this animal hospitality explodes into the last line of this poem. “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom” (James Wright, “The Blessing,” in Donald Hall, ed., Contemporary American Poetry. London: Penguin Books, 1962, p. 169). No wonder Wright calls this poem. “The Blessing.”

Although it is out of interpretive fashion, “blessing” is key to understanding the biblical narrative. As Claus Westermann writes, “From the beginning to the end of the biblical story, God’s two ways of dealing with mankind (sic) —deliverance and blessing— are found together” (Claus Westermann,  Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978, p.18). Whether it is the gift of manna, the land, or the incarnation, blessing is fundamental. Deliverance, the “mighty acts of God,” and the “victory motif”would mean little without the generative processes of germination, birth, growth, and maturation that constitute history.  Ironically these are the very processes put at risk by environmental degradation and the climate crisis. This week’s readings all relate to blessing and may assist us in understanding and responding to our predicament.

Because this week’s first reading is from Genesis, one does not have to look far to comprehend the power of blessing. The first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) describes blessing in the creation of living creatures (Genesis 1:22), human creatures (Genesis 1:28), and , most importantly, the sabbath (Genesis 2:3).  The seventh day creation of rest is crucial since this celebration of interdependence, harmony, and delight extends blessing to everything that has been made in its essential and aesthetically pleasing goodness. This beauty is found most intensely not in the creator’s exercise of power, but in making room for other life just as the human one is called to eschew grasping in order to care for the garden.

But blessing extends beyond Genesis’ prehistory (Genesis ch. 1-11) to the family saga beginning with Abram and Sarai and concluding with Joseph. Once more an infertile couple is spared cultural shame by the birth of twins, Esau and Jacob.  Not only does this birth maintain the promise to Abram and Sarai, but it defies the order of primogeniture where the first-born son inherits the land as a matter of birthright.

This is made unforgettably vivid in this text (Genesis 25:29-34 ) as the famished Esau exchanges his birthright for a hearty bowl of porridge.  As Brueggemann suggests, “The contrast is between deferred and immediate blessing” (Walter Brueggeman, Genesis. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p. 219).  While it is easy to conclude that Jacob is nothing but a “con artist” waiting for just this opportunity, perhaps it is more helpful to say that a theology of blessing takes the long view.  Esau’s falling for short-term satisfaction reminds us of nothing so much of being seduced by the sirens of grasping for immediate wealth, power, and so-called economic growth at the expense of caring for the garden.

I saw this mania for instant gratification up close and personal in one of the community gardens offered to neighbors at the last parish I served as pastor. As I prepared to go home at the end of a workday, I saw a middle-aged man spraying something all over a garden bed that I noticed had not been planted. My alarm increased when I saw he was soaking the garden plot with it Roundup (glyphosate), claiming it was necessary to “kill the weeds.” Not only is Roundup considered carcinogenic and banned in the EU, but it sterilizes the soil of microbial and insect life crucial for plant growth. But he wanted an “instant garden,” having neither appreciation for the years of composting of that garden plot nor the desire to learn from creation the freely available gift of microbial blessing that is soil (Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021, p.74).

That we have not learned the riches that come from patient waiting has put our planet in jeopardy. As student of indigenous culture, Robert Bringhurst reminds us, “stories which survive in over a hundred Native North American languages tell us over and over again that they didn’t aspire to run the world or tame it. Their stories remind us that the land has a mind of its own…and cannot tolerate human domination” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die—Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Regina: University of Regina, 2018, pp. 8-9).

Among these stories is the Anishinaabe legend of the Windigo a ravenous being who stalks the people in the winter seeking to gobble up resources of food, cattle, and game stored for the season. This monster is said to sport arms like tree trunks and feet like snowshoes for easy winter travel. And travel it must, for the gluttony of the ice-hearted  Windigo is never satisfied (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2015, pp. 304-305). Of course, these tales serve to “Build resistance against the insidious germ of taking too much” (Wall Kimmerer, p. 307). The strength of the commons is the key to life. Instant gratification and turning daily bread into a commodity must be opposed and exposed.

Windigo-like narratives warning of the dangers of immediate gratification are far too rare in our culture.  In his study of literature in the era of the climate catastrophe, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh worries about the scarcity of mainstream novels treating climate issues. He concludes that this can only be explained as a “concealment of the cultural matrix that brought these (the challenges of the climate catastrophe) into being” (Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement—Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016, p. 10).

Our predicament continues, argues Ghosh not only by lack of artistic attention; it is also too often obfuscated by the technical vagueness of governmental reports and even the 2015 Paris Agreement.  The Agreement “is like a shimmering screen set up to conceal implicit bargains, unspoken agreements and big loopholes only visible to those in the know.  It is no secret that various billionaires, corporations and “climate entrepreneurs played an important part in the Paris negotiations” (Ghosh, p. 156).

Ghosh contrasts this “machine speak” with the simple clarity of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015) which calls humankind to care for the earth as home for all (Ghosh, 157). Although written in terms more complex than indigenous folktales, the message is similar: ecojustice is not a matter for instant gratification or short-term corporate or political greed; it depends on learning from creation the meaning of blessing.

But as we recover the importance of blessing, we cannot overlook divine action in history that our Romans text will not let us forget. Earlier in the letter Paul puts it bluntly:  “But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed…through faith in Jesus Christ….” (Romans 3:21). The community appropriates this through baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). This new path in a new community is imparted by the Spirit as attested by this week’s reading from Romans.

But the miracle of increase and growth defining blessing is evident here. The pouring out of the Spirit brings with it surprising excess: “Much more surely then” (Romans 5: 9, 17) and “more than that” (Romans 5: 11). And the very use of water in baptism combined with God’s creative word reminds that what is new is also the “original blessing.”

Our text clearly contrasts two entirely different modes of living—life according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit (Romans 8:5) (Ernst Kasemann, Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 223).  This is nothing less than “pledging” allegiance to two contrasting regimes. Living according to the flesh makes self-interest—security, wealth, status, comfort and power—primary.  Life according to the Spirit brings forgiveness, peace, justice and hope along with inevitable conflict with opposing powers.  To assume that Paul did not have the Roman Empire in mind here would be naive.

Living according to the flesh is central to our culture. Each time we plant Roundup-ready corn seeds which are sterile and contain their own herbicide the resulting assault to natural soil fertility is an act of immediate gratification (crop yields) and an attack on the natural blessing of soil whose rich life must be nurtured.  Similarly, when the US government pretends to support carbon reduction from fossil fuels and, yet, approves drilling for oil in Alaska, the power of the “flesh” begins to give off a foul odor.

Matthew’s “Great Parable Chapter,” the beginning of which comprises our Gospel reading, grows out of conflict with the religious community which accuses him of violating the sabbath by munching on grain as sustenance as he and his retinue walk through grain fields (Matthew 12:1-8). Continuing on through synagogue and a local house, a pressing question becomes: who is a legitimate part of the household of faith?  This membership is no longer biological kinship or residence within a house or even assenting to the going understanding of tradition.In the very presence of his mother and brothers, Jesus points to his followers: “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:49-50).

Matthew is at pains to make clear that leaving the house of constricted tradition and beginning new teaching are not coincidental. In a gospel full of echoes of the Exodus tradition, is this not another trek to the edge of the sea of new departures. Jesus begins to teach in the liminal space of the shore but soon the large crowds, who have left the “house” of kinship security, force him to fulfill his calling from a boat that may presage the “ark” holding a new community and a way through the sea (Edward Hobbs, lecture, St. Olaf Summer Theological Conference, 1984). As we can see, all these gifts of creation—seashore, lake, even boat— are essential to Jesus’ teaching (Elaine Wainright, Matthew—An Earth Bible Commentary. Sheffield: Sheffield Pheonix Press, 2021, p. 131).

Jesus begins his teaching with the Greek idou, formerly translated  (KJV/RSV) as “behold,” but here rendered in the more pedestrian “listen” (Matthew 13:3). Because we have a large crowd who may be risking their religious identity by following Jesus, that first word must carry some weight. “Behold” does that by dispelling the fog of ordinary conversation and alerting listeners who have come to the edge that what they will hear will more than justify the precarity of their position. For “behold” indicates the extraordinary is on the way (Maggie Ross, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding. Biblical Studies Group, 2011, p.11). That the call to pay real attention by “beholding” is crucial is emphasized by Ross: “It was in the context of beholding we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the process of distraction that we have mismanaged it” (Ross, pp. 11-12).

Jesus begins his teaching to this crowd who have fallen over the edge of social respectability to seek a new community. That this new way does not promise immediate gratification becomes evident in what we call the “parable of the sower” (Matthew 13:3-9). For this is a parable about farming, a risky business much like walking a new faith path. The plot is familiar and quite simple.  A farmer begins seasonal planting, and because the seed is broadcast widely, rocky soil, hungry birds, and thin soil seem to yield little. These three challenges are eventually more than overcome by the blessing of good yields: “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8).

This is the way life is. Just as failure is inevitable in agriculture, so the initial enthusiasm coming from joining a new movement too often flames out rapidly without mentoring, study and discipline. Whether it is a garden or committing to organizing a neighborhood repair salon, careful cultivation and learning from one’s “terroir”is essential. Mysteriously, it seems there must be loss in order to see the “blessing” in, with, and under the struggle (Frederick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988, p. 133).

This is certainly true as we continue to care for creation. For those of us who have spent half a lifetime promoting ecojustice the results can seem meagre. We often feel like those who left “the house” of secure tradition only to find themselves on the beach wondering how we can make it across, i.e. preserve the beautiful and resilient marvels of creation that our species seems determined to destroy.

Even when we do make legislative attempts to protect and enhance this greatest of all possible goods—the home of all the life we know—we too often choose the easy fixes (more “immediate gratification”) that are ineffective.  For example, research has shown that the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is biological—relying on tree planting and soil enrichment to absorb it as part of creation’s processes. But the recent Inflation Reduction Act provides more funds for mechanical carbon removal, a less effective and unproven technology that relies on underground pipelines which create all sorts of land disputes (PCI Messenger).

Why choose these?  Simply put, there is far more profit in these unproven quick fixes than in tree planting and soil improvement from regenerative agricultural practices (Post Carbon Institute, Museletter 362

Like those assembled on the lakeshore, anxious to hear convincing words of hope from one leading them toward a new community, we wonder if we will ever get beyond the failed promises of earth’s healing. Certainly a common source of sadness among those of a certain age is the deterioration of the natural world. When I grew up as a boy along the Mississippi River there were no public health warnings limiting the number of fish that could be eaten per year. I was awakened each morning by a chorus of meadowlarks, now reduced markedly in numbers by habitat loss and farm chemicals. We all know solastalgia, the deep sense of grief over environmental decay.

As Jan Zwicky writes, “Members of technocratic cultures worldwide have a lot of mourning to do. ‘Mourning draws on transcendent but representable justice,’ says Gillian Rose, ‘which makes the suffering of immediate experience visible and speakable.’ It returns the soul to its community.” (Bringhurst and Zwicky, p. 66.) But our grief may go farther as it begins to appear that human destruction of creation may be unstoppable.

This conclusion is nothing new in the history of the faith community. When Augustinian friar Martin Luther began his struggle for church reform, he met this problem head-on. In his notes for the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) he wrote, “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seeing through suffering and the cross” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, pp. 40-41).  As Douglas John Hall writes, “What makes Luther’s theology a “theology of the cross” and not a “theology go glory” is that the gospel is not deliverance from the experience of negation so much as it is the permission and command to enter into that experience with hope” (Douglas John Hall, Lighten Our Darkness. Louisville: Westminster Press, 1976, p. 123).

This “experience of negation” was made clear in a recent newspaper report from the Earth Commission, a consortium of “earth system scientists.” “If planet Earth just got an annual checkup, similar to a person’s physical, our doctor would say that the Earth is quite sick right now…and moving in the wrong direction…, ( Minneapolis Star-Tribune, June 1, 2023, A2).

In a similar spirit of bluntness, Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen from the Land Institute warn,

“The implications of these warnings, which so far have gone largely unheeded not only by those in power but also by the dominant culture more generally, are clear.  If we don’t transcend a growth economy, there are hard times ahead. And if we do manage to construct a new economic order, there are hard times ahead.  Hard times are coming for everyone” (An Inconvenient Apocalypse, Notre Dame, 2022, p. 10).

And still in the face of  negation, “What is the case for many humans — those with enough to eat and a roof over their heads — includes great beauty: the natural world, works of the human spirit and imagination, the love we feel for others and the love they feel for us. To wallow in despair that the natural world is dying is to fail to be aware that it is still, in many ways, very much alive. It is also to fail to understand that in precipitating drastic climate change and a sixth mass extinction, industrialized humans are not destroying everything. Being will be here. Beauty will be here” (Bringhurst and Zwicky, p. 51).

Humankind has put God’s earth in a tough position. It looks like the rocky soil, the lack of humus, and the pests are prevailing. But as a community called to “till and keep” and learn from creation’s garden, we do not give up. We plant and harvest, we work for responsible policy at local, regional, national, and global level. We disabuse ourselves of quick and easy solutions that provide immediate gratification. Nevertheless, blessing and beauty will surprise us.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2023.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN