Sunday July 17-23 in Year A (Mundahl23)

Home Tom Mundahl reflects on the way toward hope.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year A (2023, 2026)
Genesis 28:10-19a (semicontinuous reading)
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

As my wife and I were talking the other evening we were surprised when we remembered that nearly all of our foreign trips —Russia, Italy, Turkey—were made in late September or very early October.  It did not take long to solve the mystery.  Of course…we are gardeners and needed to stay home until most of the vegetables were harvested. That often made getting away even sweeter.

We are fortunate to enjoy a small home (Elm Cottage), which provides so many opportunities for growing things, reading and writing, connecting with our neighbors and the larger world. But many are homeless, political refugees including those fleeing wars in Sudan and Ukraine, or environmental refugees. Jacob, too, was  homeless and on the run. Finally, he came to a place where no one would find him, a place so obscure he could rest.

But even in this “no-place” he was not alone.  For as he slept, his head cushioned by a stone, he had a vivid dream.  In this “no-place” he dreamed that divine messengers were coming down a “ramp” connecting his campsite with God. This experience “shatters the presumed world of Jacob.  He assumes he travels alone with his only purpose being survival” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. Louisville: John Knox, 1982, p. 243).

Even more shattering was the promise to this fugitive from one that can only be the Holy One: “Know that I am with you and will keep you….” (Genesis 28:15).  With this guarantee of protection the promise that this non-place will be Jacob’s and that all the old promises he had heard from his family would be kept through him now became real.  This would be a home for the people of Jacob.  No wonder he responded by building a shrine, Bethel, later a center of community worship.

Jacob goes from being a nowhere man to one who knows that God is with him even in this “god-forsaken place,” and that the old promises are alive and well and actually running through him of all people. This theme runs through the biblical narrative.  Matthew does not hesitate to call Jesus Emmanuel, that is, “God is with us.” In exile, John of Patmos affirmed “the home of God is among mortals….” (Revelation 21:3).

Pope Francis echoes this in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home. The honesty and constructive hope provided by this very readable document are stunning. He writes, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (Pope Francis, Laudato Si’. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2015, p. 19). In the same vein, by using the earth’s atmosphere as a carbon sewer, humankind has spawned fires across the globe producing Air Quality Index scores that threaten (484 in New York City and 150 in the Upper Midwest). This extreme climate pollution threatens all life—not just so-called Homo sapiens sapiens.

To be at home in creation means to be a terrestrial, one who is attached to the soil.  As Bruno Latour suggests, “the soil allows us to attach; the world allows detachment….” (Bruno Latour, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. New York: Polity, 2018, p. 93). That is, one must be someplace, have a rooted membership before one can develop a genuine global view.  Jacob’s Bethel experience was necessary before appropriating the breadth of the covenant (Genesis 12:1-3). And, in the course of this theophany he acquired a home.

Obviously this is not the spirituality of Albert E. Brumley’s, “I’ll Fly Away.” One becomes an “earthling,” a creature by being placed in ecosystems and neighborhoods and tending to our places, whether  high-rise apartment, suburban development or farm. Here we are enabled to celebrate the interdependence of creation which is the goal and purpose of life, to celebrate an authentic sabbath

Surprisingly, Paul’s argument turns out to be much the same. Because baptism sets humankind on the path of new life, nothing created can be overlooked. There is no sense that creation is “fallen.”  Instead, non-human creation has been ravaged by “living according to the flesh,” focus on seeing the earth as a collection of “resources” to be extracted, appropriated and, too often wasted or exhausted into the atmosphere. That is, the creation is “subjected to futility” (Romans 8:19), unable to achieve its purpose in the dance of interdependence (David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul.  Waco: Baylor University Press, 2008, p. 77).

Like a woman giving birth, creation is groaning in anticipation of liberation (Romans 8:24). This is far beyond anything a Caesar could ever provide (remember: this is a letter to the Romans!) . What is true for humans is true for all; both share in a future propelling us ahead, a future of what is often described as “glory” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, pp. 81-82).

And what might such a religiously- loaded word mean in the context of God’s creation?  As Moltmann writes, “Ever since ancient times, the future of creation has been called ‘the kingdom of glory’…and its consummation will be to become the home and dwelling place of God’s glory” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation. New York: Harper, 1985, p. 5). And this is all adumbrated by sabbath, “the feast of creation.”

Sabbath denotes that creation was not complete on the sixth day. Instead God finished work on the seventh day by the creation of menuha, usually translated as “rest” (Genesis 2:2). But this is far more than religious prohibition or “vegging out;” it is time to enjoy and appreciate the wholeness and integrity of creation.  Because it is also “God’s rest,” the scope of sabbath is unlimited (Moltmann, p. 279). Rather than focusing on the American obsession with “doing,” it focuses on the joy of “being.” This requires time. Sabbath is so central that the week’s six days of work are completed in order to celebrate sabbath. It is not a “day off,” but a “day on “ to anticipate the freedom of the children of God, which includes the whole creation. It is a day to revel in being at home on earth.

Sabbath is a time that liberates work from the purposeless chasing after wealth and consumption beyond needs. It is a time of reflection that helps us to see what needs to be done on behalf of creation (Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repair of creation”). For Christians who celebrate sabbath on Sunday it is “the first day of new creation.”

Those who left the “house” to follow Jesus to the lakeshore must have wondered about this new angle on what the community of faith might be. After all, hadn’t he been accused of violating one of the chief pillars of tradition, the sabbath, as he and his disciples snacked on heads of grain as they walked along (Matthew 12:1-2)?  In response,  Jesus had the temerity to justify his actions with a story about sacrosanct King David claiming, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (Matthew 12:8). Even worse, on the sabbath he restored function to one with an injured hand in the synagogue.  No wonder Jesus and his followers were not welcome in the house of traditionalism.

As the crowds listened to parables mysteriously describing what this new community might be, they heard what we call the parable of “the wheat and the weeds.”  On the face of it this story recounts a common problem facing farmers: what do you do with weeds? Scholars argue that this problem was made more serious by the fact that the weeds —zizania or darnel—looked much like wheat, so in weeding wheat would be lost (Elaine Wainwright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew – The Earth Bible Commentary. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 134). To complicate matters further, darnel was commonly used as a fuel in first-century Palestine, perhaps even in community bread ovens (Frederick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1988, p. 80).

Given this background, how might those standing on the beach hungering to belong to a new community have heard this parable? Since this is a “parable of the kingdom” already inviting allegorical interpretation, would those “outside the house” on the lakeshore see themselves as despised weeds?  If so, Jesus reminds them that “weeds” have an important function in the community.  Or, is it Jesus’ warning to them not to return the contempt they have received?  After all, the “last shall be first and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). But who is “first” and who is “last?”  We see how dangerous playing God is.

But when we look at this from a sabbath point of view these distinctions disappear.  Sabbath is the celebration of rest in light of the interdependence of all things.  To us it is a call to stop picking and creating “winners” and “losers” in human society. But in an age of climate catastrophe and species extinction it is also a call to listen to the more than human.  As Jenny Odell suggests in her work on what some call “the age of distraction,” I suggest that we withdraw our attention (from slavery to screens and devices) and use it instead to restore the biological and cultural ecosystems where we forge meaningful identities, both individual and collective” (Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing — Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2020, p. xxii).

Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer reinforces this as she writes about “species loneliness.” “I am trying to imagine what it would be like not knowing the names of the plants and animals around you….I think it  would be a little scary and disorienting — like being in a foreign city where you can’t read the street signs” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 2013, p. 208).  The human dominance creating this loneliness certainly violates the intention of creation as nurtured in sabbath observance.

But this is not easy.  Norman Wirzba admits, “Suffering from solicitation overload, people succumb to attention exhaustion. In what business people call the attention economy, the most marketable entity is not a consumer product but a consumer’s attention” (Norman Wirzba: Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2022, p. 69). Jesus’ parable reminds us that those “in the house” by making “tradition” into a dividing wall that requires immediate weeding have lost the gracious intention of their very identity.

To whom do we give power to determine how we see the world?  Or does the pervasiveness of the technosphere make even asking that question pointless? What are the motives of neo-liberal capitalism?   The massive advertising and marketing “industries?” “Can people nurture the world that nurtures them if they do not have the attentive capacities to sense places and communities as media of blessing” (Wirzba, p. 70).

Jacob’s experience at Bethel not only convinced him that God was with him in this alien place, but turned him from relying on his cleverness as darkness brought dramatic sleep. so that he could attend to his identity and calling as embodied in covenant promise. At Bethel he learned the blessing of sabbath rest. Paul provides hope to the recipients of his letter, assuring them that in the face of political pressure there is a reality stronger than Caesar that is in the process of renewing creation, rescuing persons and the more than human from greedy lives without real purpose. Yes, living toward justice for all is a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1ff.), but it is the way of making earth holy and home, a center of sabbath blessing.  Finally, as the 2023 community of faith stands listening with those on the lakeshore, we are freed from judging (throwing others out of the household) so that our attention may be directed to prayer and service, blessed by sabbath rest and intentional “homemaking” (the original meaning of “economics”).

This requires facing the darkness of our lives and socio-economic structures squarely. It also is the way toward hope.  For nearly thirty years, Wendell Berry has been struggling with these issues in his weekly “Sabbath poems.” In one of these he suggests that it is time to consider relinquishing a bright arrogance that by our own cleverness all will be made right.  Instead, as he completes his poem, he suggests:

Leave word and argument, be dark and still,
And come into the joy of healing shade.
Rest from your work.  Be still and dark until

You grow as unopposing, unafraid
As the young trees, without thought or belief;
Until the shadow Sabbath light has made

Shudders, breaks open, shines in every leaf.
(Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1998, p. 31)

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