Tag Archives: 2011

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Sunday June 5 – 11 in Year C (Ormseth)

“Generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

The continuity of this Sunday’s gospel with the reading for last Sunday serves to underscore the significance of the affirmations regarding divine authority of Jesus and the healing of creation we presented in last week’s comment. To reiterate: The purpose of these stories of healing and resuscitation is to manifest the presence of God in Jesus, a presence which brings healing not only for the centurion’s servant and the widow’s son, but to the community. “Here self-interest, care for others and “faith” merge in an alliance that transcends barriers of culture and power and promotes the common good of all parties.” Jesus’ resuscitation of the widow of Nain’s son amplifies the recognition of divine authority and leads directly to the acclamation of Jesus as “great prophet” and the glorification of God by all the people. And while the lessons and the psalm for last Sunday provided a basis for developing the significance of these events for the whole community of creation, this Sunday’s lessons and psalm extend and deepen their significance for addressing the current ecological crisis.

It is important to note that in these two encounters, Jesus demonstrates divine power over death. The centurion’s servant was said to be “ill and close to death” (Luke 7:2). The widow’s “only son” was already dead and was being carried out on a bier. As David Tiede observes, the raising of the widow’s son is “one of three Lukan stories of the resuscitation of a dead person (see also 8:40-42, 49-56, Jairus’ daughter; Acts 9;36-43, Tabitha),” which “indicate the evangelist’s conviction that these resuscitations are displays of the authority and power of the kingdom [of God] over death itself (see 12:5).” Moreover, comparison with our first lesson in this regard shows that Jesus’ authority over death is even greater than that of Elijah: he raises ‘the dead by his word alone,” which ‘outdoes Elijah’s or Elisha’s stretching themselves out on the corpse” (David Tiede, Luke.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; pp. 151-52). The God we encounter in Jesus is the God who creates by speaking all things into being.

It is precisely this authority over death of the Creator that explains the appointment of Psalm 30 for this Sunday’s worship. God’s presence in Jesus is thereby acknowledged as the power by which the psalmist is not only shielded from foes (v. 1) and healed (v. 2), but “restored . . . to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (v. 3).” The psalmist has cried out in deep anguish:

What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you?

Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!

   O Lord be my helper” (vv. 9-10.)

The psalmist here represents homo laudans, “the praising human” we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Day of Pentecost, whose vocation according to Psalm 104 is the unceasing praise of the Creator. Like Psalm 104, Psalm 30 significantly shades its praise of God by recognition that “a dark cloud looms on the horizon.” Accordingly, his rescue can “turn mourning into dancing;” Yahweh has “taken off [his] sackcloth and clothed [him] with joy, so that [his] soul may praise God and not be silent.”

Walter Brueggemann interprets the significance of these verses in terms of their address to Yahweh. . . in the life-denying fissure of exile-death-impotence-chaos, to which Yahweh’s partners seem inevitably to come. This affirmation may be one of the distinctive surprises of Yahweh as given in Israel’s testimony. To the extent that the fissure is an outcome of Yahweh’s rejecting rage, or to the extent that it is a result of Yahweh’s loss of power in the face of the counterpower of death, we might expect that a loss to nullity is irreversible.  Thus, “when you’re dead, you’re dead,” “when you’re in exile, you’re in exile.”

But the “unsolicited testimony “of Israel moves through and beyond this. . . irreversibility in two stunning affirmations.  First, Yahweh is inclined toward and attentive to those in the nullity.  Yahweh can be reached, summoned, and remobilized for the sake of life.  Beyond Yahweh’s harsh sovereignty, Yahweh has a soft underside to which appeal can be made.  Israel (and we) are regularly astonished that working in tension with Yahweh’s self-regard is Yahweh’s readiness to be engaged with and exposed for the sake of the partner (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997; p. 557).

And secondly, “the mobilization of Yahweh in the season of nullity characteristically requires an act of initiative on the part of the abandoned partner.” This is what the voice of Psalm 30 is articulating. Breuggemann concludes:

Indeed, Israel’s faith is formed, generated, and articulated, precisely with reference to the fissure, which turns out to be the true place of life for Yahweh’s partner and the place wherein Yahweh’s true character is not only disclosed, but perhaps fully formed. The reality of nullity causes a profound renegotiation of Yahweh’s sovereignty vis-a-vis Yahweh’s pathos-filled fidelity.

Yahweh “is known in Israel to be a God willing and able to enact a radical newness . . . for each of Yahweh’s partners, a newness that the partners cannot work for themselves” (Brueggemann, p. 558).

[Lutheran hearers of the second lesson this Sunday, we may note parenthetically, may recognize this quality of radical newness in the Apostle Paul’s clear disassociation with the church in Jerusalem and his insistence that the gospel of Jesus Christ which liberated him from his former life of opposition was not “from a human source, nor was [he] taught it.” Brueggemann heightens the significance of this quality, furthermore, in noting that “because of this inexplicable, unanticipated newness is the same for all [Israel’s] partners, it is with good reason that H. H. Schmid has concluded that creatio ex nihilo, justification by faith, and resurrection of the dead are synonymous phrases.” These phrases, he insists, “are not isolated dogmatic themes. They are, rather, ways in which Yahweh’s characteristic propensities of generosity are made visible in different contexts with different partners (Brueggemann, p. 558).]

It is precisely with respect to this affirmation of radical newness, according to Brueggeman, that the biblical narrative contrasts sharply with the dominant metanarrative available within contemporary culture for those concerned with addressing the ecological crisis. “Insistence on the reality of brokenness,” Brueggemann insightfully suggests, “flies in the face of the Enlightenment practice of denial. Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form, teaches that with enough reason and resources, brokenness can be avoided.” Within this narrative,

. . . there are no genuinely broken people. When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilt. The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this. When denial is transposed into guilt—into personal failure—the system of denial remains intact and uncriticized, in the way Job’s friends defended “the system.”

       The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics—it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility.

Like the psalmist who said in his prosperity “I shall never be moved,” (30:6), the foundational assumptions of our society cannot be challenged. Alternatively, “the drama of brokenness and restoration, which has Yahweh as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life. The primary alternative now available to us features scarcity, denial, and despair, surely the ingredients of nihilism.” (Brueggemann, p. 562).

This analysis fits all too well with the inability of American society and, increasingly, global industrial society more generally to respond effectively to the multifaceted ecological crisis we face. Denial occurs, in this analysis, on three levels. First and fundamental, we refuse to entertain the possibility of a complete collapse of our relationship with nature, in terms of the destruction of biodiversity and global climate change and its damage to our agricultural systems. But secondly, amongst those who see the dangers, remedies of technological innovation and adaptation are usually considered sufficient to address the problem: strategies and resources, it is assumed, can be developed to forestall major disaster. And thirdly, the needed behavioral change is considered achievable on the basis of corporate self-interest and individual guilt in relationship to that interest; it seems important to assign fault to individuals who resist change, but our corporate complicity in alienation from creation is generally ignored. Change on a societal scale remains beyond our cultural and political reach. In this situation, a Christian congregation at worship in the presence of its risen Lord and placing itself under the authority and within the sacramentally enacted dynamic of his death and resurrection, offers the world the alternative that, in Brueggeman’s apt summary, “like ancient Israel, affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair” Brueggemann, p. 563)

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday May 29 – June 4 in Year C (Ormseth)

Join all the Earth in a new song to the Lord.  

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-9 (3)
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

The encounter in Capernaum portrayed in the Gospel for this Sunday is a model of communal interaction. The Roman centurion has a desperate need for healing of his beloved but ailing servant, on account of which he is willing to seek the help, not only of the elders in the Jewish community whom he has patronized with support for the building of their synagogue, but also of the itinerant teacher who has newly entered the city. The elders support his plea, commending it as a proper return for the “worthy” centurion’s generosity; as David Tiede notes, “Luke depicts this officer as a genuine friend of Israel” (Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 149). Surprisingly, however, the centurion sends additional emissaries, “friends” whose task is to make clear that the centurion did not base his plea on that worthiness. On the contrary, he declares himself as “not worthy” to have Jesus come to him, and proposes instead that Jesus, as a person like himself, “under authority,” need only speak the word and the servant would be made well. Tiede insightfully explains: “The episode now escalates into a story of the ability of someone who deals in authority all the time to discern real authority when he sees it, even if he has only heard about Jesus from afar” (Tiede, p. 150). And just so: Jesus in turn escalates the exchange yet another step, astonishingly praising the centurion for faith the likes of which he has not encountered “even in Israel.”

Can the reader be blamed for being puzzled by the course of this exchange? What, exactly, is “such faith”?  Again, Tiede offers a helpful explanation: “The faith of the centurion is a discernment of Jesus’ authority and an implicit trust in it” (Tiede, p. 150). We are moved to ask, then, what precisely is the nature of that authority and why should the centurion, or more to the point, Luke’s readers, including ourselves, place trust in it? Luke’s own answer follows later in the chapter, after a second story of resuscitation: “Fear seized all of them,” he writes, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’  and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” (8: 16). Clearly, the purpose of the story is to manifest the presence of God in Jesus, a presence which brings healing, to be sure, but not only for the centurion’s servant. Here self-interest, care for others, and “faith” merge in an alliance that transcends barriers of culture and power and promotes the common good of all parties.

What significance might this narrative have for care of creation? Besides confirming the above interpretation, the accompanying readings for this Sunday provide a basis for developing that concern. While scholars point to other interpretive antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures such as the resuscitation performed by Elijah and the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha, our first reading suggests the relevance of an alternative framework: Solomon’s prayer of dedication in the temple. He prays that the presence of God be accessible in the temple not only to the people of Israel but to “the foreigner” who “comes from a distant land because of [Yahweh’s] name” (1 Kings 8:41-42). As Walter Brueggemann explains, Solomon claims for Yahweh an incomparability that “begins with reference to ‘heaven above or on earth beneath,’ thus taking in all of creation as witnesses to Yahweh’s enormous power,” but which, with his reference “to covenant and steadfast love,” also emphasizes solidarity (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1997; p. 142). What Solomon prayed for happens in this Sunday’s Gospel narrative, only not in the temple, nor even in Jerusalem. It happens instead in the presence of Jesus, in the Galilean city of Capernaum, bringing together with the Roman centurion both elders of the people and Jesus’ Jewish followers. Read in the assembly on this Second Sunday after Pentecost, moreover, it is a first enactment in the Season of the Spirit of the power of the resurrected Jesus in the community of faith, which by Jesus’ intent now embraces not only all peoples, but also all creation.

Why else should the congregation join “all the earth” in a “new song to the Lord”?, as the psalm for the day invites (96:1)? And how else shall God’s glory be declared “among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples?” (96:3). “Worship the Lord in holy splendor,” the psalmist insists; “tremble before him, all the earth.” And the following verses list out the several members of the community of creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord; for he is coming,

for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

and the people with his truth (96:11-13, not included in the appointed reading).

The psalm thus clarifies what is at stake in the Capernaum exchange. The declaration of “the glory of Yahweh” in the psalm, Walter Brueggeman explains, “refers to the claim and aura of power, authority, and sovereignty that must be established in struggle, exercised in authority, and conceded either by willing adherents or by defeated resisters” (Brueggemann, p. 283). The purpose of the psalm’s. . . narrative recital and liturgical enactment is to make visible and compelling the rightful claim of Yahweh to glory. The temple where Yahweh abides and from which Yahweh enacts glory (=sovereignty) is a place filled with glory. But even in its cultic aspect, we must not spiritualize excessively, for glory has to do with rightful and acknowledged power. . . .

      From this political dimension of glory as the right to wield authority over all rivals, the testimony of Israel takes care to affirm and enhance temple presence as a way in which the presiding power of Yahweh is a constant in Israel (Brueggemann, p. 285; cf. Psalm 29).

A “pivotal and characteristic affirmation” of the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple, reflected in Psalm 96, is to assert and to enact Yahweh’s legitimate governance over the nations and the people of the world (v. 10), and over the “gods of the peoples” (v. 5). This liturgical exclamation asserts the primary claim of this unsolicited testimony; that Yahweh holds sovereign authority over all the nations and that all the nations must come to accept that rule, which is characterized by equity (v. 10), righteousness, and truth (v. 13.) This assertion, critically, is a rejection of any loyalty other nations may give to any other gods and a rejection of any imagined autonomy on the part of any political power. Positively, the assertion promptly brings the nations under the demands and sanctions of Yahweh’s will for justice.

This claim to universal sovereignty, cautions Brueggemann, is “never completely free of socio-economic-political-military interest.” But that does not mean the claim “is reduced to and equated with Israelite interest, for this is, nonetheless, a God who is committed to justice and holiness that are not coterminous with Israel’s political interest. In the process of working out this quandary, moreover, Israel makes important moves beyond its own self-interest” (Brueggemann, p. 493).

The exchange in Capernaum in today’s gospel is an instance of such a move. Acting on the basis of enlightened self-interest, the elders of the community facilitate action that leads to the healing of the centurion’s servant. In so doing, however, they (perhaps unwittingly) subsume that interest under the authority of the God who is sovereign over all nations. This is the authority under which Jesus acts, as was recognized by the centurion in his “unsolicited testimony” to God’s glory manifest in the locality of Capernaum, which brought Jesus’ affirmation of faith. Strikingly, it is also the authority cited by the Apostle Paul , “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities,” when he wrote to the churches of Galatia, albeit now explicitly naming that authority: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever” (Galatians 1:3-5).

Our challenge is this: how can the congregation that confesses itself to be under that same authority and experiencing such liberation “from the present evil age,” so act within its local context to bring healing not just to individuals, but to the communities in which they live, and ultimately, to the whole earth. If, as Norman Wirzba suggests, the aim of our worship “is to reorient our busy, increasingly frantic, lives around the truth of God’s creative and sustaining presence,” thus “returning . . .  ourselves and the creation to the presence of God so that we might enjoy God’s grace,” might not a healing transformation of the community to which the congregation belongs be expected to follow? It is important to stress here that, as in Capernaum, the cooperation that resulted in the healing of the centurion’s servant comes about by way of neither a covert exercise of power nor overt coercion. As Wirzba points out,

. . . the heart of community is expressed in our “mutual serviceableness” to each other. Community is not built up around the fact that all its members share the same vision, as when clubs are formed around political platforms,hobbies, or social causes. In fact, sameness or similarity is not the key factor at all. What matters is that each member be able to serve another and thus help another flourish in ways that it could not if it were alone. Rather than requiring the difference of another to be sacrificed for the sameness of the group, [this] vision encourages the difference of another so that it can be most fully what it is (The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003; p. 175.  Wirzba is discussing the vision of Thomas Traherne, from his Centuries of Meditations).

What the Christian congregation can bring to the larger community is an awareness that communal life is “the dynamic upbuilding and care for difference that is rooted in the sort of love that nurtures and encourages others to flower into the beautiful beings that God intends.  It is the vast interconnection of difference as difference held together by divine love, the mutual serviceableness of one to another” (Wirzba, p. 177).

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, Year A

The Psalms of Christmas: Let All Creation Praise

By Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series B: 2011-2012

Nativity of our Lord

1. Introduction

2. Christmas Eve

3. Christmas Day

1. Introduction. The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share that “all the earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Creatures’ praise: they reflect in their existence the being that is God.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Nature’s praise is a symphony orchestra.

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially. As we shall see, first the good news for earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat,is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

2. Christmas Eve
Psalm 96

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

“O sing to the lord a new song;

sing to the lord, all the earth.

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

All Earth makes magnificent music

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming. We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why praise? There is an expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.’

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Third Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reason for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. The Magnificat, we suggested, is “good news for the earth,” in that “she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new earth, where righteousness is at home.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

 

 

Roman peace is destruction and devastation.

The treacherous character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:

either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Creation awaits true peace, the Prince of Peace.

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel.

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees do make for a grand chorus!


3. Christmas Day
Psalm 97 or 98

Isaiah 62:6-12 or Isaiah 52:7-10

Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)

Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: what exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

The earth is expecting peace with righteousness.

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-90). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196). Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

Earth rejoices because God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably.

So as we anticipated from Mary’s response to the Annunciation, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1: 14). With her we are in her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.) So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Reformation Sunday, Year A

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary in Year A

Reformation Sunday, by Dennis Ormseth

Psalm 46
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-37

How can Reformation Sunday be a Care for Creation Sunday?

Historical assessments of the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the orientation to and care of creation in Western culture give us little reason to observe Reformation Sunday with gratitude. The following comment from Michael Northcott’s The Environment and Christian Ethics is representative:

Protestant theologians emphasized more strongly than their medieval forebears both the fallenness of nature, and its consequent fearfulness, and they treated nature as a resource created entirely for human purposes. Through its human use and transformation by Christian people, nature might also be gradually redeemed from the effects of the Fall. Protestants sought to remove any vestige of spiritual power in the natural world, as represented in medieval Catholicism in pilgrimages to sacred places, or in festivals around sacred wells or site of divine activity. They sought to purge the landscape of the sacred, and locate the site of God’s activity entirely in the individual self. The work of salvation involved the movement of the heart and mind towards a state of grace by the inspiration of that gift of faith which, as Luther taught, alone of all God’s gifts in creation, could work for a person’s salvation. This inward and redemptionist shift in Protestant theology produces a doctrine of creation far more instrumentalist and secular than that of the medievals. As George Hendry argues, Luther’s doctrine of creation ‘reduced the whole world of nature to a repository of goods for the service of man.’ (Northcott, p. 52).

We cannot begin to assess the validity of these far ranging judgments here. As we will note below, there are themes in Luther’s theology that run counter to these generalizations. But it is striking to note that the texts appointed for reading on Reformation Sunday do indeed underscore the emphasis on individual spirituality identified by Northcott as the Reformation’s characteristic impulse.

Is Lutheran Theology too individualistic?

A new covenant is to be written “on their hearts” as opposed to the original one “external to the people and written on tablets of stone,” as one commentator characterizes it, making the link to the Lutheran emphasis on law and gospel (John Paul Heil, “Reformation Day,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 245). Psalm 46, on which Luther’s great Reformation hymn is based, reminds us not to fear, because “though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble”(46:1-2). John 8:31-36 suggests that salvation is to be understood chiefly as the freeing of an individual from the slavery to sin. And, of course, the classic Reformation text from Romans can easily be read in an exclusively anthropological perspective, for its emphasis on justification by grace made “effective through faith.” Accordingly, with these texts, Reformation Sunday will not likely be observed as a “care of creation” Sunday.

To be sure, alternative readings of these passages are available. The new covenant, for example, is the covenant of kenotic love that brings about a new creation, as we discussed in the comment for last Sunday. So also, if the slavery to sin is properly interpreted in John’s Gospel as slavery to disbelief in God as our creator, then Jesus, the Servant of Creation, frees the church for love of God’s beloved cosmos. And the righteousness of God made available through the faith of Jesus in the Christian community may be interpreted as that power of the Spirit which the Apostle Paul will celebrate as the means to the liberation that a groaning creation waits for in hope (Romans 8:18-23).

Sittler: Creation as the Realm of Grace has been Lost!

Nevertheless, the criticism of the Reformation tradition made by Northcott and others rings true enough that some deliberate effort to change direction would serve the cause of care of creation well this Sunday. What Joseph Sittler said about the development of the Reformation tradition in his famous “Called to Unity” address in 1961 is still largely true:

In the midst of vast changes in man’s relation to nature the sovereignty and scope of grace was, indeed, attested and liberated by the Reformers. But post-Reformation consolidations of their teaching permitted their Christic recovery of all of nature as a realm of grace to slip back into a minor theme . . . For fifteen centuries the Church has declared the power of grace to conquer egocentricity, to expose idolatry, to inform the drama of history with holy meaning. But in our time we have beheld the vision and promises of the Enlightenment come to strange and awesome maturity. The cleavage between grace and nature is complete. Man’s identity as been shrunken to the dimensions of privatude within social determinism. The doctrine of the creation has been made a devout datum of past time (Sittler, ‘Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, ed. by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, pp. 43, 45).

There is much in Paul that works for the redemption of creation

For Sittler, it is the Paul of Romans 8, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1, not Romans 3, that would point the way for future theological reflection adequate to the ecological challenge of our time. Recent contributions to Pauline scholarship have begun to fill out this expectation (See David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, especially Chapter 6, “The Construction of a Pauline Hermeneutical Lens.”)

Rasmussen: Lutheran Themes that resound to the care of creation?

Theological echoes of Sittler’s challenge to the Reformation tradition sound yet, and themes other than “justification by grace through faith” are considered more significant resources “for meeting creation’s travail,” in the phrase of Larry Rasmussen: Luther’s theology of the cross, the theological principle of finitum capax infiniti (the finite and material can bear the infinite divinity of God), and the image of creation as God’s masks, these lend power to a renewal of the tradition that undergirds an understanding of humans as imago dei, those who “love earth fiercely, as God does”  (See Rasmussen’s Earth Community Earth Ethics, pp. 270-94, for a brief exposition of these themes). Yet “grace through faith” nonetheless holds its central place:

Faith is the name of the strong power behind the renewal of moral-spiritual energy. It squarely faces the fact there will never be decisive proof beforehand that life will triumph. Yet it still acts with confidence that the stronger powers in the universe arch in the direction of sustaining life, as they also insist upon justice. World-weariness is combated by a surprising force found amidst earth and its distress. Creation carries its own hidden powers. It supports the confidence of the gospel that a steadfast order exists that bends in the direction of life and gives it meaning (Ibid., p. 352).

All Saints Sunday in Year A

The beatitudes address the oppressive conditions of empire—ancient and contemporary!

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 

By Dennis Ormseth (Reprinted from 2011)

Readings for:

All Saints Sunday

Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Revelation 7:9-17

1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

Blessed are the Children of God

The meaning of the festival of All Saints Sunday is aptly expressed in the Prayer of the Day from Evangelical Lutheran Worship:

Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow our blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever (ELW, p. 59).

The first reading from Revelation 7 provides a vision of those who gather with “inexpressible joy” in worship before the throne of God. The second lesson states the basis on which we might hope to be included in their number: the “love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (3:1). And the Gospel for the Day sets out, in the words of Jesus from his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), a description of what such ‘lives of faith and commitment” might look like, so as to indicate the way we are to follow, and empower us to do so.

Is the lion an enemy or a creature created to praise God?

What might we draw from these readings of relevance to care of creation? Constituting something of a summary vision of the way and goal of Christian life as this collection of texts does, we are glad to see that creation and its care are richly implicated in them. We exclude from this characterization the appointed psalm. An individual lament, Psalm 34 is rather typically anthropological in focus and contrasts the well-being for which the psalmist prays with the “want and hunger” suffered by “young lions.” As Arthur Walker-Jones comments, “This typical imagery and implied narrative imagine a world that continues to influence contemporary constructions for nature. Thus, contemporary society continues to view wild animals as enemies and wilderness as both refuge and threat” (For the significance of this image, see Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality pp. 44-47). Compare this imagery, on the other hand, with the image of the lion associated with the four creatures at the throne of God, discussed below.

Those robed in white and gathered around the throne of God and the Lamb in the text from Revelation 7 represent the saints whom we honor this day, as God honors them eternally. Of them it is said that they will no longer experience suffering in relationship to the rest of creation:

“. . . the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7: 15b-17). 

These images of reconciliation, moreover, are part of John’s great vision of the reign of God, to which v. 11 draws our attention: “And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing . .”  As readers of the Revelation of John are instructed at 4:6-8, the four living creatures are, respectively, one “like a lion,” one “like an ox,” one ‘with a face like a human face,” and the fourth “like a flying eagle.” Thus do creatures both heavenly and earthly join in praising God for the redemption of the saints.

Lions, Oxen, Humans, and Eagles praise God without ceasing

“Is heaven for pelicans?” asks Christopher Southgate in his provocative discussion of “Eschatological Considerations” in his The Groaning of Creation (p. 78ff.). A literalistic response on the basis of this text might be, “no, only lions, oxen, humans and eagles.” The images here are, of course, mythical. Each of the creatures is “six winged.” Though clearly angelic, they nonetheless represent humankind and all the animals created by God (cf. Genesis 1:20-27), perhaps as ‘they existed in God’s mind from all eternity, “to adopt the suggestion of a footnote to the text of The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Strikingly, these creatures are all “full of eyes all around and inside;” they are made for seeing the glory of God and giving God praise. “. . . without ceasing” they sing “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is to come.” Ever watchful, they lead the elders in praise of the one who sits upon the throne, singing “you are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4: 9-11; see the footnotes to Rev. 4:6-11 in NOAB, P. 369NT).

For what reason do these four creatures join in the praise of angels and elders before the throne of God?  Because they see that God has brought the saints out of “the great ordeal.” Or, to respond as the author of 1 John might, they behold those who are now revealed to be children of God and are therefore “like God, for they see God as God is.” Or yet again, to draw insight from Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans, they rejoice to see those for whom “the creation waits with eager longing” in “hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:19-21). Or to turn to yet another relevant text, the Gospel for the day, they welcome those who have followed the way that Jesus, the Servant of Creation, showed them in his Sermon on the Mount.

The Beatitudes affirm “God’s favor for certain human actions and situations.”

We draw here from our previous comment on the Sermon, when it was the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany. The four creatures, the elders, and the angels rejoice together, we want to suggest, because those who came through the great ordeal followed the teachings of Jesus, which constitute justice and which fostered love for the whole of creation. Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2).” Beatitudes, he writes, “are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Accordingly, our question is, in what way are the actions and situations so favored of benefit to all creation?

God blesses those who are crushed in spirit and who grieve their ills.

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (p. 131). The issue here is the overcoming of a totally negative expectation regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or a community. This is a condition experienced by people who, as Carter puts it, are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates that the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is not uncommonly the experience in our culture of people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so totally; and the powerful appear so completely indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely driven by their own self-interest. A judgment expressed by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (p. 132). But God will intervene, Jesus promises: The poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. The fulfillment of the promise given with their creation is guaranteed to come to them, in the eschaton—if not sooner.

The point of the first beatitude bears emphasis by repetition, Carter thinks: “The declaration that the hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because God is in the process of liberating them, is so startling that it is repeated. Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, they are blessed precisely because they mourn “the destructive impact of imperial powers. . . . Oppression is not normative. It should be mourned.” Their mourning is, in fact, a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength it might be.

Inherit the Earth is restoration to land.

With respect to the first two beatitudes, then, the blessings relevant to non-human creatures occur by virtue of the human impact on them, by the circumstances and behaviors of human beings. With the next several beatitudes, on the other hand, the application is rather more direct. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence. Theirs is an implicitly profound ecological behavior; and so the blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, “this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically, for “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1). As stewards, humans are to nurture Earth (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

Being peacemakers is the opposite of Empire—Roman and American

So, also, accordingly, those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)—“will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions must be consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has instilled in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” again a promise that necessarily points to an eschatological fulfillment that is open to all creatures. And, finally, the peacemakers—certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity” and certainly not the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped neither by ethnicity nor by species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of both God and Jesus.

Blessed are those who give up their lives in the struggle for justice.

The final two beatitudes return to the struggle identified in the first two, that of meeting and dealing with the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in his beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). What does it mean that God looks with favor on those who give up their lives in the struggle? Their reward, it notes, is “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” They will participate in the completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire,” Carter insists (p. 136). And on All Saints Sunday, we are given to behold the confirmation of this promise.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288