A Great Unraveling? – Tom Mundahl reflects on God remembering.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year A (2023, 2026)
Genesis 29:15-28 (semicontinuous reading)
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
We routinely call the Sundays after Pentecost the Time of the Church or Ordinary Time. This summer is no “ordinary time.” Just this last week the Post-Carbon Institute at Oregon State issued a report called “The Great Unraveling.” Comprehensive in scope, this document describes the interrelated challenges affecting every spheres of the earth system. Not only do we face a rapidly cascading climate catastrophe with increasing temperatures, drought, wildfire and flooding, but food availability is diminished for all living things because of desiccated soil and decline of bees, birds and other pollinators. Not surprisingly, the result too often is death, climate refugees, and increasing attraction to authoritarian governments. These responses“feed back” into the earth system to worsen the situation.
The image of “unraveling” is both uncomfortable and apt. But it is metaphor that should not be unfamiliar to those who wrestle with the biblical story. For example, as the Genesis Prehistory comes to an end with the tale of Noah, we see a divine “full tilt” reaction to humankind’s self-absorbed refusal to celebrate sabbath harmony. Borrowing ancient Assyrian stories of cosmic flood, the author nearly leaves us wondering whether there is a future for creation. Then comes a spectacular plot turn: “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).
Even though it seems that creation has been dismembered, things aren’t as they appear. Walter Brueggemann puts it best: “But the gospel of this God is that he (sic) remembers. The only thing the waters of chaos and death do not cut through is the commitment of God to creation. His remembering is an act of gracious engagement….” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Louisville: John Knox, 1983, p. 86). Remembering is more than recall. Here it results in new promise never again to act destructively and carries with it the energy for Noah and the life he sails with to become a “seed pod” for new growth. If, as many suggest, this narrative comes from the Exilic period, this story becomes even more powerful (Brueggemann, pp. 86-88).
That “God remembers” pops up again after our First Lesson, a somewhat comic tale describing. Jacob’s love for and courtship of Rachel. Not only is he forced to take Leah as wife first, but even after putting in time to “earn” Rachel’s hand, the issue of fertility arises. In this culture what good are divine promises without descendants? Again, God remembers, hearing Rachel’s plight with the result that Joseph is born (Genesis 30:22). The promise continues.
The Noah legend and Jacob’s part in the family saga all depend on the Holy One remembering. Barring that, these stories suggest that creation would unravel and the promise of a family of faith would be less than a pious hope. God here is the gracious deus ex machina who bails us out of hopeless predicaments. Because we live in the time of great unraveling and “polycrisis,” can we not hope for the same?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought not. In the face of a Nazi regime which denied the integrity of God’s creation, human and more than human, he claimed, “Nobody bails us out, including God. …To turn to God in a time of greatly expanded human powers is a moral cop-out. It sidesteps or deflects human responsibility.“ (Larry L. Rasmussen, The Planet You Inherit, Minneapolis: Broadleaf Books, 2022, pp. 104-105). If this is true, where do we discover what is needed to respond to the unraveling we can no longer deny?
While Paul did not experience ecological unraveling on a scale we see today, he knew the essential cause—life “according to the flesh.” No, this is not “holy talk” from late night AM radio; it is living for oneself, for one’s corporate or political interest, seeing others and the remainder of what has been created simply as means to my ends—usually wealth, power, prestige, or security. It is to “play it safe” my way. It is to imagine that we can substitute technology for nature and, just in case we do ruin the planet, rocket off to Mars (the trans- humanist vision).
That the apostle knew unraveling is revealed in his repeated use of “groan” (stenazo, Gk.) in chapter 8 (vss. 22, 23, 26). Even the familiar phrase, “sighs too deep for words,” (v. 26), literally is “groans that cannot be expressed.” This is a powerful affirmation of singing the blues. As Kasemann writes, “Paul knew he was in solidarity with unredeemed creation (read: oppressed creation) as it joined humankind in crying out for freedom” (Ernst Kasemann,Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1980, p. 238). To Rome’s residents the Empire may have seemed permanent and unassailable. But “afflicted faith trusts in the love of Christ against all appearances” (Kasemann, p. 251).
This faith is always a gift of the Spirit (Luther, Small Catechism, Article 3, Apostles’ Creed). We join the chorus of groans as we hear news of insect declines, drop in bird population and the horror of PFAS that has penetrated living beings to the cellular level. But we also trust that the Spirit still works to break down barriers between people and even between humans and non-human creation. As Mark Wallace claims, “The Spirit is the power for convivial unity between all beings through her erasure of the culturally constructed boundaries that separate human and nonhuman life forms. But what is now needed is the practical application of the Spirit’s identity as the vinculum caritatis to the crisis situation at hand….” (Mark Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 2002, p. 168).
Vinculum caritatis, or the “vine of love,” is Augustine’s metaphor for the Spirit’s web that both gives shape to the Trinity and opens it to creation, giving it shape and purpose. So as Paul moves from groans seeking freedom to the stunning end of this week’s pericope, this strong relationship is seen as foundational —even when things appear to be unraveling. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39). This strong vine holds.
In a time of unraveling when in the past few days we have seen the highest mean temperatures ever recorded on the planet, the work of the Spirit opposing the dismemberment around us is essential. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Spirit is at work to “re-member” — bring together in mending, repair, and healing what the Lakota call “all my relations,” creation.
Today’s gospel reading begins with the crowd still on the beach, hoping that what they hear will bring direction to their lives and anchor a new kind of community. Once again Jesus tells a parable of the kingdom that invites allegorical flexibility in interpretation. This empire of God (contra Caesar) is like a mustard seed —the smallest of seeds— that was sown. Almost impossibly, it is “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:32).
Not only does this image echo the language of the great creation psalm (104: 12), it assures those on the water’s edge that what appears as insignificant will grow and even provide a home for a new and healthy community (Frederick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988, pp. 120-121). Even though they may wonder if risking connection with this amorphous crowd may unravel their lives further, they are not forgotten.
But now Jesus makes a major move, “Then he left the crowds and went (back) into the house”
(Matthew 13:36… if only those who cut texts would look at plot!). Not only does this change of locale provide textual space for teaching the closest disciples privately, it also serves as an opportunity for Jesus to reorient “the household of faith” toward the “treasure” (Matthew 13: 44) that is most precious.
Jesus is clear about this. “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is old and what is new” (Matthew 13:52). Not only were scribes (Jesus’ opponents in Matthew 12:38) tasked with maintaining accurate torah scrolls, many became respected interpreters based on their deep familiarity with the text. Here Jesus tasks his student-disciples with learning and sharing a message so new it requires a total clearing out of the storehouse, throwing out much that is useless or worse (Elaine Wainright, Matthew, The Earth Bible Commentary. Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 2017, p. 145). While this does not require burning down the house, the one whom Matthew calls Emmanuel, the incarnate and active remembering of God, directs an extensive refurbishing to prevent future unraveling of faith.
As we reflect on those on the lakeshore hoping to find new community, the renovation of the household of faith, we cannot avoid sensing a strong sense of familiarity. Are we not also in a liminal-edge situation? As the Post-Carbon Institute’s report , The Great Unraveling, suggests (p. 32), we as a society face an “in between” state — between the ending of cultures of endless growth and the groping beginning of a culture learning from the earth how to live good but simpler lives. Ironically, that is much the same position mainline congregations find themselves in. As it is increasingly difficult for local congregations to afford to maintain buildings and pay for professional clergy packages, what are the options? Does fear of continued decline continue to convince leaders not to “rock the boat?’ Or does shared faith provide the courage to see clearly, speak honestly, and act with courage?
Perhaps the most fitting responses are similar. Just as Gaia requires us as a society to exercise global care by living locally (“where our feet are!”), so faith communities may have to shed expensive facilities and share space and leaders (some of whom emerge from their communities) moving beyond denominational silos. This does not mean abandoning good worship, art, and music; it means sharing them more widely. While structural prescriptions are beyond the scope of lectionary commentary, we know the Spirit’s vine of love does not depend on our old expectations (see Curtis White, Living in a World that Can’t Be Fixed. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2020). But we also know full well that unless we admit our predicament, we simply continue the great unraveling. This is no ordinary time.
When a favorite wool sweater begins to unravel, we mend it to enjoy additional years of warmth from a garment which was once the coat of a living sheep. Yes, it takes skill that few have but many can learn. When a guitar needs a neck adjustment, we find a skilled luthier to help make it sing again. When drought comes—as it does all too often with the climate catastrophe—we learn from neighbors how to do simple drip irrigation which uses much less water and is is better for vegetables and flowers so they can produce food and beauty. When we simply throw away an old appliance that simply needs a frayed cord repaired instead of inviting a “handy” neighbor in for coffee and a little lesson in simple fixes, we lose an opportunity both to get together and learn a simple skill.
Congregational communities are called to join with others in neighborhoods, towns, and cities to reverse the unraveling we experience. This necessarily involves dealing with zoning ordinances, environmental regulations, realtors’ associations and city councils. This must be repeated at county, state, national and international levels. But be warned: the higher we climb on the mending ladder, the more resistance of lobbying money and power will be encountered.
When we encounter this resistance, the community of faith is not without resources. God remembers and counters our dismemberment and unraveling with the strong presence of the Spirit’s vinculum caritatis, strong vine of love. Strong enough to mend.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2023.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN