A Costly Calling – Tom Mundahl reflects on the courage and action required to be prophetic for creation.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
In 2015 the Twin Cities received the gift of an early spring. Instead of the threat of May snow, by late March the snow had disappeared, making way for warmer days with moderate rains—a gardener’s paradise. Tempted by these nearly too-good-to-be-true conditions, we not only planted spinach, lettuce, and radishes, crops which thrive in cool weather; we decided to plant our squash beds with heirloom Lakota, Kuri, bush butternut, backed up by reliable acorn.
Even though our soil temperature thermometer provided assurance that, yes, the topsoil was ready, we were anxious to see the first signs of germination and emergence. A week passed, then a second, and only at the end of the third did we see our first blue-green set of double leaves rise from the earth. Our frustrations lessened and our faith in seeds was restored.
During this Ordinary Time of the church year, the tension between frustration and looking for small signs of hope seems to be the norm, especially for those seeking to serve creation. Just as lower oil prices reduce incentives for fracking, the sales of relatively inefficient SUV’s and light trucks go through the roof. Given the track record of the international community in crafting firm and responsible climate change agreements, the anticipation of this year’s Paris talks are guarded at best. Like gardeners, we have learned that ‘hope is not a policy.’
This frustration is clearly visible in our readings. Here we meet three ‘prophets’—Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus—charged with what could broadly be called “repair of the world,” tikkun olam. Yet, each one meets significant roadblocks on the way. No wonder the psalm chosen for the day features the cry:
“Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have had more than enough contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123: 3-4).
Perhaps this comes as no surprise to Ezekiel, who is warned of the poisonous atmosphere he will work in as part of the truncated call narrative that comprises our First Lesson. The people of Israel are painted as “a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day” (Ezekiel 2:3).
To persist in the face of their resistance, Ezekiel is given two important tools. The first crystallizes the dramatic “throne vision” the book opens with. It is the gift of the spirit which enables Ezekiel to regain his “footing” after a cinematic experience that would tax even special effects gurus at Lucasfilms (Ezekiel 2:2). Added to the gift of the spirit and empowered by it is the force of the prophetic office itself. The one who calls assures Ezekiel, “I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). That is, as this contemptuous people hears the authorization coming from the traditional “messenger formula,” at the very least “whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know there has been a prophet among them” (Ezekiel 2:5).
Both the institutional and imaginative aspects of Ezekiel’s calling and career are important for people of faith struggling to serve creation. For example, it is crucial that disciplined and faithful voices make the case—especially to the boards of church related institutions—for divesting from stocks held in carbon producing corporations. And the point needs to be made that tired excuses of “fiduciary responsibility” based on a misunderstood “two kingdoms” doctrine are no longer good enough.
But even more important for these decision-makers to hear must be the visionary and imaginative possibilities for reinvesting these funds in alternative energy infrastructure on campuses and in local communities (and not just “showpiece” items like barely- functional wind turbines!). For example, institutions might connect food services to CSA farms or even take part of college farmlands out of rental agreements to teach small-scale organic production. Instead of buying into the subtext behind higher education with its promise of “upward mobility” subtly teaching students to become upscale consumers, required basic science and economics classes could teach “the story of stuff”: where the resources of manufacturing come from, how the energy is sourced, how products are marketed, how they are distributed, and where these high input “goods” land after they are no longer in use. That is, to show the entire cycle of our use of creation, how we fit into it, and how we can change it for the sake of equity and justice.
On first reading, the Second Lesson from 2 Corinthians could not seem more removed from institutional action to care for creation. Paul alludes to himself as an ανθρώπος εν Χριστϖ (a “person in Christ”) who was “caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Corinthians 12:4). But just as Ezekiel’s more detailed “throne vision” spilled over into being called to the institutional role of prophet, so does Paul refuse to boast, but calls attention only to what all may see and hear (2 Corinthians 12:6). In fact, the very event which the church has called Paul’s “conversion” is a prophetic call, where Paul understands himself in the mold of Jeremiah, describing God as the one “who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace . . . so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16, Jeremiah 1:4-5).
As he lived out his call, Paul was confronted by a deep and frustrating challenge—the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Earlier Paul had experienced “the third heaven,” the ultimate in ecstatic transcendence. Now, in desperate symmetry, he appeals three times for the removal of this impediment (2 Corinthians 12:8). The divine response at first seems disappointing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Ernest Best suggests that this, not the vision of a “third heaven,” is the real confirmation of Paul’s calling (2 Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 120). Not only is this paradox communicable in a way that mystical experience is not, but it captures the essence of cross and resurrection. As Paul discovers, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ: for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Reflecting on Paul’s kenotic discovery of faithful living, I cannot help but think of Pete Seeger, who literally “poured out” his voice building community and seeking peace and justice for all creation. When he finally was freed from the ‘blacklist’ in the 1970’s, the first thing he did with new earnings was to build the sloop Clearwater to sail up and down the Hudson River promoting clean water and green communities. I am also reminded of 398 women and men who were arrested in demonstrations held at the White House in 2014 protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline and the tepid climate change policies of the U S Government. This was the largest act of civil disobedience since the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Our texts remind us that being a prophet is a costly calling. Ezekiel relinquishes priestly comfort to serve as a messenger to an audience of “scorpions” (Ezekiel 2:6). Paul gives up the warm glow of visionary beauty for the weakness necessary to share the strength of new creation and cosmic reconciliation. Not surprisingly, we also see Jesus torn away from the mooring of kinship, household, and hometown in order to realize the fullness of the reign of God (Mark 1:14).
This shocking loss of traditional identity occurs as Jesus returns to what should be a source of great comfort—home. As Jesus begins to teach in his home synagogue, he astounds the congregation. How could he teach with this power? Isn’t he the one we know all too well, the one who should be supporting his family as a carpenter, the one who likely is illegitimate? (Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 212).
Jesus concedes the truth of the old proverb, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). But this cutting “ties that bind” also frees him and the disciple community for a new and broader mission where all travel light because in the words of the prophet-apostle Paul, “grace is sufficient.”
As we have seen, each one of this week’s readings has called for a cutting off, a self-emptying, or kenosis that is necessary to continue the prophetic task. Surely serving creation as ανθρώπος εν Χριστϖ involves kenosis. As Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate propose:
“…a paradigm of ethical kenosis might well stand at the heart of an ecological ethics that stands in faithful continuity with the Pauline tradition” (Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 197)
Considering this week’s readings we could perhaps expand this self-emptying to serve the whole of creation (τα παντα) to help make visible the reconciliation that leads to new creation (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).
Southgate suggests that crucial to living out this ethical kenosis are: a kenosis of aspiration or “snatching” (Philippians 2:5-11) which frees the heart set on a future of unlimited having; a kenosis of appetite which admits the idolatrous temptation to consume more than is equitable; and a kenosis of acquisition which focuses life on increasing and curating one’s ‘goods’ instead of sharing and living out of the coming new creation (Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, London: Westminster–John Knox, 2008, pp. 101–103).
This could be seen as part of a new “purity code” based on a repressive via negativa. On the other hand, it seems consistent with the prophetic role, a role that rarely called for cultural cheerleading. This frees us to listen to Pope Francis as his encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” is released. One cannot help but notice that the title comes from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun:” “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs” (vatican. va). Today I give thanks that this creative energy is visible in our garden, especially among the squash plants.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2015.
Saint Paul, MN