Tag Archives: 2013

The Second Sunday of Easter in Year C

Celebrate the New World Order brought about by the resurrection of Jesus

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Acts 5: 27-32
Psalm 118: 14-29
Revelation 1: 4-8
John 20: 19-31

Neither a single day nor even a week is sufficient to contain the good news of resurrection that spills over into the renewal of creation and sparks new energy for creation care.  As we continue our encounter with Easter season texts, the themes of “new Exodus” and “new creation” will resonate and find surprising echoes.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows continued tension between the messianic community and the religious establishment.  No sooner are the apostles arrested and jailed than they are delivered when “an angel of the Lord opened prison doors and brought them out” so that they could continue their ‘subversive teaching’ (Acts 5: 19-21)

This smaller ‘Exodus’ from prison only leads to community leaders being dragged before the Sanhedrin where they are explicitly charged with violating the officials’ injunction not to teach in the name of the Risen One. “Yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (Acts 5: 28). Peter and the apostles reply in a manner as bold as Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29/this echoes Socrates’ response to the leaders of Athens in The Apology).

Peter follows this bold assertion with a homily that accomplishes just what the religious leaders accuse him of. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30). Not only does Peter refer here to Deuteronomy 21: 22-23, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree,” but he provides an opening for us to see the “tree” as far more than an instrument of curse, but as a renewed tree of life.

This theme is found on the Exodus journey where looking at the tree-pole adorned with serpents becomes a homeopathic ‘cure’ for punishment occasioned by grumbling (Numbers 21: 8-9). This transformation continues in the Apocalypse, our second reading throughout this season. As we will see in greater detail, John of Patmos envisions the “tree of life” (Revelation 2: 7, 22: 2, 14, 19) as central to the hope of his audience who, living under pressure, are enjoined to see the resurrection so broadly it leads to a new city built around a “tree of life.”

Not only is this true of the scriptures, but early Christian art found in churches from San Clemente in Rome (Barbara Rossing, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Fortress, p. 16) to San Vitale in Ravenna feature the “tree of life” as a sign of resurrection life becoming “new creation.” Finally, Larry Rasmussen reminds us that “the tree of life” provides important meaning in a variety of traditions beyond the boundaries of Christianity, from the Buddhist and Jewish streams of faith to that of the Ogallala Sioux.  (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Orbis, 1996, pp. 195-207)

While our second reading from Revelation formally might be considered a ‘circular apocalyptic narrative of hope’ intended only for the seven major churches of Asia Minor, the intent of its ‘author’ seems to be broader. Like most important Christian writings, the transmission did not stop within major churches; they provided a “distribution point” for passing writings on to the smaller worship communities in their regions. Not only does this dramatic narrative begin performatively by providing “grace” and “peace” to all of its hearers, but it goes on to place their life circumstances and struggles within the wide scope of “him who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:4). The  reading ends just as definitively, reminding the hearer that, despite current resistance from the Roman Empire to this new culture of hope, God continues to be “the Alpha and the Omega….who is, who was, and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8).

John writes to celebrate the ‘new world order’ brought in by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is, ultimately, “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). Clearly, the legitimacy of Roman rule is at an end. Resurrection has resulted in the elevation of the audience to kingdom status, but with the calling to be “priests serving his (the Risen One’s) God and Father.”

While the content of this priestly task is not specified, we cannot help but appreciate the Orthodox perspective which connects the “priesthood” of all the faithful and care of God’s creation. As Norman Wirzba suggests: “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly rule does today is to “lift our hearts” to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident” (Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207).

This is absolutely contrary to what happens in our consumer culture where creation becomes commodity—a never-ending stream of products that are always being ‘grabbed’ rather than offered to God in thanks. Priestly “lifting up” and “offering” insists that we learn the art of the ascetic life, cultivating an inner detachment that uses and enjoys creation’s gifts without needing to “possess” them. They are, after all, gifts of  God.

Being the “priesthood of believers,” then, entails a relationship with creation and one another based on intrinsic valuation, not the simple “bean-counting” of Gross Domestic Product. Just as the Apocalypse was likely read (serially?) in  the assembly, so those gathered were and still are called to live eucharistically in all arenas of life, a life where the value of child care and shoe repair become an extension of worship, living in peace and serving  the Lord.

Our Gospel reading portrays a post-resurrection gathering where the explosive arrival of the Risen Jesus simultaneously affirms the materiality of the resurrection body while describing its incomprehensible capacity to penetrate locked doors. Yet, the concern here seems to be not the nature of “the resurrection body,” but keeping intact the membership of the discipleship community, especially not losing Thomas, “the Twin,” a follower who seems to be “of two minds.” Although the Risen Christ offers empirical examination of “the forensic evidence,” that very offer quells any doubts and preserves the wholeness of the community. (John 20: 27-28)

More significant for those concerned with God’s creation may be the profound act of Jesus’ breathing on the fearful disciples. Not only does this amount to a Johannine Pentecost, but it brings to mind the second creation account in Genesis (Genesis 2:7). That is, we can hardly miss Jesus’ action as extending God’s own breathing into the soil (adamah) creating the first human being (adam). While in John’s Gospel, God speaks the world into existence (John 1:1), the one who is “Word made flesh” (John 1: 14) works community-making and “new creation” in a more incarnate-fleshly way—by breathing (Wirzba, p. 146).

This breathy inspiriting also recalls Psalm 104: 29-30: “when you send forth your breath they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” As New Testament scholar Ernst Kasemann has suggested, the new community portrayed by John is enlivened by the “ever-new experience of the first day of creation” (quoted in Rossing, p. 21). And, it is no surprise that this happens on “the first day of the week” (John 20: 19), the Eighth Day, the day of new creation. Perhaps this is what the Psalmist has in mind when he/she writes: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (Psalm 118: 24)

Tom Mundahl      Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN 55416                     tmundahl@gmail.com

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

 

 

 

 

The Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Sunday in Year C

We are called to re-member what affirms our membership in a newly whole and holy creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Resurrection of Our Lord/ Easter Day

Acts 10: 34-43
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15: 19-26
Luke 24: 1-12

In, with, and under the increased volume of familiar hymns sung to trumpet accompaniment, texts for The Resurrection of Our Lord/ Easter Day resonate with world-changing yet sturdy hope. This celebration of the “first fruits” of new creation even guides our hope and intensifies our commitment to creation-care rooted in God’s surprisingly “steadfast love” (Psalm 118: 1-2).

We begin with the initial offering in a series of “first lessons” from the Acts of the Apostles, a demonstration project modeling the new community based on new creation. Peter experiences a vision of a ‘large sheet’ coming down, lowered on four corners. “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10: 12). When a voice is heard saying, “ Get up, Peter, kill and eat,” he is perplexed by this command to dietary uncleanness until he is summoned to the home of the Gentile centurion Cornelius.

Our reading begins with Peter’s synthesis of this pair of puzzling events. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10: 35). Peter’s vision challenges him to revise his dietary discipline because it has been used as a basis for exclusion. The instruction to “kill and eat” makes it clear that the very notion of “uncleanness” cannot be continued. As Wirzba suggests, “God is also instructing Peter to be hospitable to Cornelius and welcome him in. If all foods are permissible, then hospitality extends to everyone” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: 2011, p. 171).

It is not insignificant that Peter’s vision is filled with created beings that have been considered unclean. As this new community struggles to understand and live out the New Exodus that Jesus brings (Luke 9: 31), we see a widening spiral of inclusion whose reach extends even beyond Gentile representatives of the Roman Empire, like Cornelius. This “membership” must also extend to the whole created world! The biblical vision seems always to include the web of creation, a whole creation that is celebrated on the first Sabbath, “the crown of creation.” And if the Sabbath is the “crown of creation,” there is no doubt that the festivities include not only the species Peter sees rambling on his four-cornered sheet, but all creation–as suggested in elaboration of the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20: 8-11 and Deuteronomy 5: 12-15). As we shall see as the Season of Easter continues, this vision of “the membership of all creation” is realized most fully in the New City envisioned by John of Patmos, a marvel of town planning full of rivers, trees, and beautiful minerals.

The notion of “membership’ is also crucial as we wrestle with our Second Lesson from First Corinthians. Paul stretches language to its very limits as he struggles to comprehend the resurrection event. As we reflect on this text, it is important for us to shift the focus away from “this life” (1 Corinthians 15:19) and its implied partner, “the life to come,” to “old life” contrasting with “new life” flowing from the resurrection. This fits more readily with the Adam-Christ typology that Paul presents (1 Corinthians 15: 20-22).

When we consider the scope of “membership” coming from the new life stemming from the resurrection event, we see that the death brought by the first Adam reflects an isolating denial of “joint membership” in God’s creation. This refusal of “membership” constitutes what Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann calls “the Original Sin,” a sin against welcoming and sharing in the diversity of the creation community (quoted in Wirzba, Food and Faith, p. 113). Paul’s vivid language about destroying the “powers,” including the “last enemy,” describes the removal of all that would create barriers for realizing a wholly inclusive Beloved Community.

Surprisingly, at first glance, the beginning of Luke’s resurrection narrative (Luke 24: 1-12) appears to narrow the scope of this “membership.” The two “men” in dazzling clothes” (Luke 24: 4) seem to transport us back to the Transfiguration, where only an “inner circle” of disciples (Luke 9: 28-36) were faced with the task of responding to this great mystery, where Jesus, Moses and Elijah speak about a New Exodus to be accomplished in Jerusalem. As Peter continues to offer his suggestion to capture the moment, they are “overshadowed” and “enveloped” by the nimbus—presence of God and commanded to listen to the Servant, the Royal One (Luke 9: 34).

Just as Mary was “overshadowed” by the presence spilling over into the incarnation of the Son of the Most High (Luke 1: 35), so now the New Exodus spoken of by Jesus and his  “companions” in the brightness on the mountain spills over into the new creation of resurrection life. Clearly, the faithful women had forgotten the stories of this experience. To spur them to recollection, the angelic figures ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).  While in our preaching we could “tee off” on this theme, berating a culture that has “majored” in consumerism (“seeking life among dead “stuff”), the purpose of the questions is to open the attendant women to hearing what follows: “He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24: 5b).

Following the creedal rehearsal of Jesus’ passion predictions, Luke tells us, “Then they remembered his words . . . .” (Luke 24:8).  This memory that is powerful enough to knit together the wounds that savaged this “dismembered” community now leads to action. Anticipating the Emmaus disciples who recognize the Risen One in the breaking of bread and immediately return with all speed to Jerusalem (Luke 24:33), they “change directions” and find the eleven and share the good news of their experience (Luke 24: 9).

Even though the women are accused of inventing “an idle tale,” the power of the resurrection event moves in an ever-widening spiral in Luke-Acts from the faithful women, to the Emmaus walkers, to the call to spread this to all nations beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24; 47). Eyes, scriptures, and minds are opened so that the “membership” that goes beyond cultural differences—and even beyond species divides—can expand.

Perhaps widening the scope of “membership” to include all creation seems audacious. Yet, as Christopher Southgate suggests, Suffice it to say that if the Cross and Resurrection inaugurate a great era of redemption of the nonhuman creation leading to the eschaton, as seems to be the implication of Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10, then the impact of the Christ-event must be an objective one [author: i.e. it is not dependent upon response nor limited to humans]. (The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster, John Knox, 2008, p. 76)

As we are reminded by the Johannine tradition, incarnation and resurrection amount to no less than another creation, a new creation (cf. John 1). Just as the faithful women remembered Jesus’ words, so we are called to re-member something that affirms our membership in a newly whole and holy creation.

Tom Mundahl. Lutheran Church of the Reformation. St. Louis Park, MN tmundahl@gmail.com

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            Lutheran Church of the ReformationSt. Louis Park, MN                                                                      tmundahl@gmail.com

 

 

 

Palm/Passion Sunday in Year C (Saler)

The Spirit of Life Pulsates Through Death: Passion and Ecology
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
Palm/Passion Sunday
Luke 19:28-40 or John 12:12-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14 – 23:56 or Luke 23:1-49

One of the biggest dangers that those who preach about ecological matters face is sentimentality. It is tempting to try and evoke love for nature by appealing to serene mountain landscapes, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, or the peacefulness of a hike through the forest. When we appeal to “nature” in sermons, that temptation is particularly palpable.

The temptation to sentimentalize nature, however, should be resisted. The main reason for this has to do with simple credibility. As Annie Dillard, perhaps the greatest American writer of the twentieth century, has chronicled vividly in such classics as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm, nature is the site of activity that immediately shreds any “cute and cuddly” sanitized postcard images of nature. Parasitism, “eat and be eaten,” brutal reproductive habits, and seeming chaos are as much the order of nature as are beautiful sunsets and charming animals–in fact, you cannot have the latter without the former. To sentimentalize nature is to miss this fundamental truth: nature is arranged so that death and beauty go hand and hand.

And perhaps Palm/Passion Sunday, the Sunday in which many churches go from waving verdant green palms to meditating on the barren place of the skull, when the rich wine of the last supper gives way to the gall of the cross—perhaps this is the space in the church year when that message might resonate most strongly. It is of course the case that Christians throughout history have had variegated and conflicting opinions about Jesus’ death: was it necessary? Was it part of God’s plan? Does it atone for sin, and, if so, how? Consensus on the specific nature of the atonement (that is, a specific “atonement theory”) has never been mandated by Christian orthodoxy. But what does run through various theories, images, and meditations on the cross of Christ is this fundamental datum: the life that the God of Jesus Christ chooses to give is a life interwoven with the realities of death. Easter might overcome the passion, but it does not eliminate it.

But the reverse is true. If life is shot through with death, then the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ passion is the church’s testimony to a hurting world that what appear to be spaces of death (Golgotha, a sealed tomb) are shot through with life. The places of human failure are the sites of the Spirit’s triumph.

Sentimentality is the enemy of truly Christian action. If Christians over-sentimentalize Jesus, and thus trivialize the faith, then Christian action in the world will be too airy and fragile to stand up to the hard realities of a time in which Caesars and Pilates still reign, in which individuals and whole peoples are crucified by violence of all sorts, and even the best-intentioned work on behalf of the poor and marginalized is inextricable from the limitations imposed by unjust systems. Similarly, to sentimentalize nature is to miss the fact that the very environment which Joseph Sittler once called “the placenta of human self-consciousness” is a place shot through with that which might terrify us. Whitewashed fiction is no solid ground on which to take a stand for that which we love.

Any Christian action in the world will have to take the world as it is—which means that that action must be grounded in hope that may seem as impossible in our day as hope must have seemed at the foot of the cross. And as the terrors of our natural environment move from the sort of “natural” dangers such as predators and parasites to the more humanly crafted threats of global climate change, pollution, and loss of species, we will need to act with the hope that, just as it did two thousand years ago, God’s spirit of life with pulse through the reality of death—such that death is not the final word.

For 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

 

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Caring for the Dying Creation is an act of Hope in Resurrection

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

This week’s readings present a series of evocative images that reside at the intersection between death (anointing spices) and the hint of new life—thus bringing to a new level of intensity and interplay between the reality of death and Christian hope in resurrection that characterizes Lent as a whole.

As it happens, I recently had occasion to meditate on the intersection of mortality and hope when it comes to how we engage in acts of care for creation. In this article, published in The Cresset, I try and make the case that every act of care—in all aspects of life—is, in fact, care for the dying.

Recognition of this fact, far from causing despair, should invite us into a deeper understanding of how radical the call to fidelity in God’s promises is, and how it is in the very acts of giving up the future into God’s hands that we find ourselves empowered to work for God’s future now.

Such is the blessed paradox of Christian action: the more we hold to promises that are beyond our capacity to bring about through our own works, the more we are invited by God’s Spirit into the gift of engaging in the very works that are foretastes of creation’s redemption.

I invite you to reflect on the article (courtesy of The Cresset) as my commentary on this week’s texts:

http://thecresset.org/2013/Lent/Saler_L2013.html

Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Our human systems of self-reliance prevent us from using the gift of creation well.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C

Joshua 5:9-12
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-32

One of the most insidious aspects of being caught up in systems of injustice is that we as individuals find ourselves culpable for wrongdoing even if we have not made the conscious decision to perpetuate sin. I might be going about my day engaged in activities that seem perfectly benign, and indeed beneficial: going to work, maintaining my household, engaging in recreation and travel with friends. But each of those activities, in the North American context at least, is implicated in larger webs of real and potential injustice. My salary at my workplace allows me to live, like virtually all North Americans, at a level wherein my basic needs are more than taken care of, even as much of the world’s population goes without adequate food and shelter.  My recreational activities, praiseworthy as they might otherwise be, testify to my complicity in the ongoing consumption of natural resources at an unsustainable rate.

While Martin Luther’s “low” theological anthropology and estimation of natural human capacities, particularly as reflected in the severity of his late-Augustinian doctrine of original sin, is often criticized for being too pessimistic or even irrelevant to contemporary concerns, it is worth noting that the notion of original sin does name a kind of pathos by which we realize that even best aspects of who we are and what we do are inextricable from injustice and its effects. The bare fact that there is virtually no action that we can take—including spending our time working for environmental justice—that does not benefit from/participate in disordered and unsustainable systems evokes the inevitability  of sin in our lives—and perhaps also brings forth the cry for deliverance.

The Joshua reading for this week is ecologically interesting in that it marks the transition of the Israelites from dependence upon the miraculous appearance of manna during their peregrination in the desert to agriculture—once they have successfully brought forth produce from the land, the manna is no longer necessary. This is, in many respects, a praiseworthy achievement, and of a piece with the Israelites taking possession of the land that God has promised them.

However, there is something striking about the fact that the Israelites’ agricultural achievement is marked by a transition away from being fed by the sheer gratuity (not to mention improbability) of God’s manna. Part of what is at play here is a tension that goes back to the stories of humanity transitioning away from the garden in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, Adam and Eve clearly trespass God’s commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they are expelled from the garden as a result; in the aforementioned Augustinian/Lutheran tradition of “original sin,” this transgression has generally been seen as the root of subsequent human depravity.

On the other hand, within both rabbinical and later Western Enlightenment contexts (as well as in some early Christian church fathers, such as Irenaeus), this move away from the garden was often read as a depiction of the “maturing” of humanity, with all of the promise and peril such maturing holds [cf. Robert Saler, “The Transformation of Reason in Genesis 2-3: Two Options for Theological Interpretation,” Currents in Theology and Mission Vol. 36, No. 4 (August 2009)]. Like a child that is weaned from absolute dependence upon its parents for food, and a young adult who moves from her parents’ home, the Israelites reaching a point of relative self-reliance for providing their own food carries its own sort of potential for both sin and blessedness.

I say “relative,” because—as the rest of Israelite history as recorded in the Old Testament vividly depicts—it is precisely when Israel “forgets” its dependence upon God’s continued mercy and providence that the nation slides into its characteristic evils—idolatry, injustice towards the orphan and the widow, rapacious practices towards the vulnerable. To receive self-sustenance as a right arrogated rather than a gift given is a cornerstone in the construction of sinful systems.

This theme—the perils of self-sustenance—reverberates through the familiar account of the so-called “prodigal son.” In this story, the son’s most significant learning is not his own inability to provide wisely for himself by prematurely spending his inheritance money. Rather, the most significant thing that he discovers is his father’s ongoing willingness to practice sheer gratuity—forgiveness, seemingly excessive celebration, and welcome beyond shame. To the extent that the “father” in the story does indeed signify God, then the message becomes clear—recognizing the ongoing “giftedness” of what we have received is the foundation of right use. Joseph Sittler puts the matter well in his famous sermon “The Care of the Earth:” “Abuse is use without grace . . . . If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth” in The Care of the Earth, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004).

We as humans will build systems of self-reliance, and those systems will both bless and harm. There is inevitability to this, and the preacher should not sugar-coat it. However, preaching on these texts also presents an opportunity for the preacher to invite the congregation into delight for the sheer gratuity of the gifts that God gives us—in our lives, in church, and in creation itself. And cultivation of such delight in the minds and hearts of the congregation may become the occasion by which new possibilities for right use of these gifts occur.

Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

Let Repentance Linger. By refusing to rush to easy consolation, the preacher creates space for authentic encounter with God’s call for change.
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
The Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

Isaiah 55:1-13
1 Corinthians 10:1-17
Luke 13:1-9

The philosopher and storyteller Peter Rollins has, in the last few years, become a popular author and lecturer in the United States and Europe. A thinker associated with the postmodern phenomenon of the “emergent church,” he also provides leadership to the Ikon community, an ecclesial gathering of Christians and others who meet in bars to engage in nontraditional liturgical experiences, often centered around a theme. His book How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), describes the power of worship experiences that do not follow set rubrics, but rather create space for authentic struggle with theological questions. Worship, and preaching, can operate in such a way as to keep certain questions alive and vital.

In preaching about Jesus’ parable of the fig tree from an ecological perspective, the preacher this week is confronted with a rather daunting set of facts—which leads to a potentially intimidating opportunity for keeping disturbing questions alive in worship. The facts are these: in all of the readings for this week, God’s mercy is described by utilizing images of the fecundity of nature (clean water, bread, wine, milk, and fruit). As with the readings last week, the physical “fruits” of nature signify spiritual goods – grace, mercy, spiritual sustenance against testing. The logic animating in these readings depends upon nature’s fruition (finite as it may be) to convey reliably the message of God’s infinite fecundity and love. Spiritual riches are signified by nature’s functioning as it should.

In these past few years, our planet—and especially the poorest among us, such as farmers in Third World contexts—has begun to see the effects of global climate change take hold. “Global Weirding” has already begun to create irregularities in weather and growing patterns. Barring a major change in carbon emissions and other climate-altering activities on the part of humans, we can expect that these irregularities will grow worse, with increasingly dire human consequences. For instance, for a convicting examination of the relationship between hunger and global climate change in Nicaragua, see the video “As long as the Earth endures,” available at http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Congregational-Resources/Caring-For-Creation.aspx

Lutheran theology emphasizes the primacy of God’s grace, including in matters related to care for creation. However, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously warned, such grace can become “cheap” if it is dispensed and received lightly, without acknowledgement of the gravity of sin and its effects. Part of what is useful about Rollins and the Ikon community’s work is that is demonstrates that there is a sort of liturgical hunger on the part of Christians and non-Christians alike to participate in communal experiences that do not rush to answers too quickly, that do not foreclose the intensity of wrestling with sin, doubt, and nagging questions by asserting their being “solved” by grace.

So the intimidating liturgical opportunity before the preacher this week is the chance to invite the congregation to wrestle honestly with this question: if the Bible signifies the love and presence of God through images of nature’s fecundity, and if human actions are bringing about a state of affairs in which nature will be increasingly less able to bear its fruit in a manner hospitable to human flourishing, then what will it mean for us to live in a world in which the most natural signifiers of the presence of God’s love are gone? What will be the spiritual cost of ecological devastation? Might it be that we, unlike the Biblical writers, will not be able to look to what John Calvin could call “the theater of God’s glory” (nature) in order to see assurances of God’s presence with us?

Lutherans may not be able to go as far as theologians such as Mark Wallace, who make God so immanent within nature that “to commit ecocide is to commit deicide” (cf. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit, New York: Continuum, 1996). We believe that God’s Spirit transcends the material world such that there is indeed divine hope that exists beyond human destruction. However, just as Nietzsche’s “death of God” referred, not to the death of an actual deity, but rather the death of a certain way of humanity signifying meaning and worth to itself, so too the destruction of the natural world can result in the evacuation of meaning for humans. Destruction of our natural environment threatens our ability to experience the world as meaningful, and to experience God as grace-ful. As theologians such as Joseph Sittler, Bill McKibben, and Leonardo Boff have reminded us, the biblical message is that environmental health and existential meaning are inextricably linked.

The Lenten season is a time when the church has liturgical permission to linger with its questions, its doubts, its laments, without feeling the pressure to rush prematurely to closure and consolation. The image of the fig tree that no longer produces fruit because of what WE have done is a haunting indictment, not only of our crimes against ecological health, but our violation of nature as God’s gracious “mask” signifying the endurance of mercy instead of judgment (cf. Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006). The barren tree is an image of judgment, but like all biblical images of judgment it is also a call to metanoia, as Jesus himself makes clear in vs. 5.

Each preacher will have to decide, in her own context, when her congregation needs to hear the word of judgment and when it needs to hear the still-present word of God’s mercy. But Lent is a time to let the images linger—the barren tree, the antibiotic-tainted milk, the wine used to deaden the senses instead of enliven them. If the preacher creates liturgical space to let these images linger and to let the congregation wrestle with the weight of what we have wrought, then such spaces may unexpectedly become sites of the Spirit’s own redemptive work. Refusal of cheap consolation may be the occasion for genuine repentance, and the surprising mercy that accompanies it. Such is Lenten hope, embodied.

Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

The Season of Lent in Year C (2016)

By Dennis Ormseth

The Third Sunday in Lent in Year C

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8  (1)
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

The report of Pilate’s brutal act against some Galileans with which this Sunday’s gospel reading opens serves to emphasize once again how dangerous the context of Jesus’ mission is. Last Sunday it was a warning about Herod’s threat to kill Jesus; now it is Pilate’s mixing the blood of Galileans he had murdered with their sacrifices.  Luke Timothy Johnson notes that for Luke’s reader . . .these death notices serve as a reminder that the Prophet himself is heading inexorably toward the city where such terrible things are likely to happen, a reminder that will be made even more explicit in 13:31-35 [last Sunday’s gospel reading]. The fact that this is the second time the name Pilate occurs in the story (after 3:1), and that he is now identified as a murderer of Galileans can scarcely be accidental (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991,  p. 211).

Again the report can be understood as an attempt to intimidate Jesus; he is, after all, a Galilean, whose rising popularity portends trouble for the governor. So it is not surprising that Jesus is provoked to respond. His approach is unexpected, however: he asks how those bringing the report understand its meaning: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” (Luke 13:2). As Johnson explains, the view that “disaster is taken as a punishment for sin” is a matter of common “popular piety,” based on promises of Deuteronomy 28-30 and reflected elsewhere in Luke and John. While as Johnson notes, “Jesus does not dispute the equation but simply questions whether they were more egregious sinners than others” (Johnson, p. 211), it is nonetheless the logic of that equation that is his point of concern.

And there is more to the exchange. While the identity of Jesus’ interlocutors is uncertain, the cultural dynamics here are provocative. Jesus proposes they consider another disaster: Eighteen persons, in this instance Jerusalemites, were killed by a tower that fell near the pool of Siloam in the vicinity of the temple. Were they “worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (13:4). Does the equation between sin and punishment not apply equally, Jesus appears to suggest, between Galilee and Jerusalem? Or would they be more likely to hold this view with respect to people from Galilee, than if they were inhabitants of Jerusalem? Ched Myers points out that Galilee was “regarded with contempt and suspicion by most southern Jews” because it was “surrounded by Hellenistic cities, populated heavily by gentiles, predominantly poor, and geopolitically cut off from Judea by Samaria” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man:  A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p.128). Would his audience apply the logic that says the victims in Galilee “got what they deserved” at the hands of the Roman governor, but not to those who suffered an “act of God” in Jerusalem?

In this exchange, we are suggesting, Jesus’ questions expose a cultural dualism that is being reinforced by religious conviction. If bad things happen to bad people, aren’t the unfortunate casualties of the tower’s collapse in Jerusalem as bad as those sinful Galileans? Put in these terms, we recognize a behavioral phenomenon familiar in our own culture. There is “the wrong side of the tracks,” where good people are afraid to go because a “different kind of people” live there, and bad things are likely happen to them. Disasters such as hurricanes or poisoned water supply are not taken with the seriousness given to similar events in the more privileged, white neighborhoods of the city. And recent attention to police actions shows that the rate and pattern of arrests differ in parts of a community, depending on its racial makeup, while people of Muslim faith or black skin fear for the safety of their children, who are vulnerable targets for social, racial and religious prejudice.

Luke’s interest in this question (these reports and their association with the following parable are unique to Luke) is not merely theoretical, of course. The threat raised by the report is real, and how the deaths are to be interpreted bears on how Jesus’ own death in Jerusalem will be understood. This issue is no less lively for the contemporary reader. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shows in his recent book on religious violence, Not in God’s Name, that such dualism can be the first step into a social process which leads to violence. Dualism, he writes, “is what happens when cognitive dissonance becomes unbearable, when the world as it is, is simply too unlike the world as we believed it ought to be” (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015, p. 48). “Under extreme circumstances” such dualism can become pathological:

It is a form of cognitive breakdown, an inability to face the complexities of the world, the ambivalences of human character, the caprices of history and the ultimate unknowability of God. It leads to regressive behaviour and has been responsible for some of the worst crimes in history: those committed during the Crusades, the pogroms, the witch-hunts, the mass murders in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. But when it catches fire among larger populations, it is a prelude to tragedy of world historic proportions.

When coupled with religion, he explains, this pathological dualism does three things:

It makes you dehumanize and demonize your enemies. It leads you to see yourself as a victim.  And it allows you to commit altruistic evil, killing in the name of the God of life, hating in the name of the God of love, and practicing cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

It is a virus that attacks the moral sense. Dehumanization destroys empathy and sympathy. It shuts down the emotions that prevent us from doing harm. Victimhood neglects moral responsibility. It leads people to say: It wasn’t our fault, it was theirs. Altruistic evil recruits good people to a bad cause. It turns ordinary human beings into murderers in the name of high ideals (Sacks, p. 54).

In Sacks’s view, the danger of this phenomenon is demonstrated most clearly, albeit in a non-religious form, by Nazism in prewar and wartime Germany (Sacks, pp. 55 – 65).

The phenomenon of dualism has in fact been a significant issue for the church since its founding. Sacks maintains that generally “the mainstream Church and the Synagogue” have rightly resisted various major forms of it such as Manichaenism and Gnosticism (Sacks, p. 53). It is nevertheless concerning that in spite of the Apostle Paul’s insistence that in “Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, no male and female” (Galatians 3:28), we cannot hear his counsel to the congregation at Corinth in this Sunday’s second reading without sensing how close he comes to expressing one. Of the Israelites in the desert, he notes, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” He characterizes their punishment “as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did” (I Corinthians 10:5-6). Considering the long and fateful history of Christian anti-semitism, it seems possible that the tradition carries a virulent seed of dualistic pathology, with  texts like this and the suggestion from last Sunday’s gospel that the Jews’ rejection of Jesus results in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, providing a scriptural basis (See Sacks’ brief summary of this history, pp.73-86). And indeed, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, the death reports in this gospel text function similarly: “Luke has Jesus respond to these reports of death in the city in classic prophetic style: they are turned to warning examples for his listeners” (Johnson, p.213). What, then, keeps his warning from fostering a dualism of his own?

Jesus’ response to the expression of this incipient dualism is accordingly immensely significant. We note Jesus emphatic, repeated “No!” to his own questions. As Johnson rightly holds, Jesus insists that the people who died, whether Galilean or Jerusalemite, were not more deserving of death than others. “One cannot argue from sudden and violent death to the enormity of sin” (Johnson, p. 213).  In as much as all are sinful, the incipient dualism reflected in the reports is rejected. But from that truth proceeds a different calculation, one reflected in the development of Luke’s narrative. If all are bound together in their sin, all together must repent in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of their sin. As Bernard Brandon Scott points out, the placement of pantes (“all”) between the two verbs “repent” and “perish” in the Greek text makes it the subject of both verbs (Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parable of Jesus. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1989, p. 335). At the same time, however, it is important to note that for Luke the focus of Jesus’ call for repentance is not the projected sins by which the parties might differ, but rather to what his audience holds in common, their relationship to God. For, as Johnson notes, “The repentance called for by the prophet Jesus, of course, is not simply a turning from sin but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom” (Johnson, p. 213).

The parable of the fig tree provides further understanding of the significance of Jesus’ resistance to this dualism. The parable is a play in two acts, Bernard Brandon Scott  suggests. In the first act, the tree, which is a symbol for what (following Terry Fretheim’ distinction mentioned last week) we can call the “creational blessings” of God, is barren (For Fretheim’s distinction between creational and constitutive blessing, which we will use here, see the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Lent. Cf. Scott, p. 332). Three years beyond the first three years when it is regarded as unclean being more than adequate to test the fruitfulness of a newly planted fig tree, the landowner orders the vinedresser to destroy it. The “point is clear,” Scott notes: “The passage of three years indicates that the fig tree is hopelessly infertile.” “So, as the master says, why should it continue to waste good ground?” The rhetorical “pattern of coming, seeking, and not finding is repeated twice, once by the narrator and once in direct speech. A strong drum beat builds up to the imperative ‘Cut it down!’” (Scott, p. 336).

The calculation of the landowner in this first act is thus narrowly economic; time to collect produce is strictly marked and limited. That changes in act two, which in Scott’s view, “presents a counterresponse to the owner’s proposal.” The threat to the tree’s life—that is, to the creational blessings of God on the land—is resisted by the vinedresser: “The vine dresser wants to care for the tree one more year, to fertilize it with dung.” Here the calculation is horticultural, even ecological; the time is extended, allowing for the tree’s own process to bring it to productivity. As Scott points out, the vinedresser’s expectation is one of hope in the face of barrenness. The contrast is one familiar to readers of the Hebrew Bible, he suggests, although cast more often in terms of infertile women like Sarah and Rachel, as we were reminded in last Sunday’s readings (Scott, p. 338).

Thus the parable serves to reframe the previous encounter with reports of sudden and disastrous death. In the first act, the landowner is himself at least an incipient dualist, sorting out good and bad fig trees. We can imagine that he no doubt feels cheated by this tree that bears no fruit, frustrating his sense of control and damaging his prospects for wealth. He is accordingly more than ready to rip it out. The vinedresser, on the other hand, has his personal investment in the care of the tree over several years to consider; he may not know for sure whether it can become a healthy producer, but he has hope, and therefore is willing to work with it, bringing manure to till around it and feed it. He is, that is to say, no dualist, but a servant of the tree who “tills and keeps” it (Genesis 2:15).

Now if the parable is to be understood in terms of the coming of God in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, then the first act is about a God who rules in strict fidelity to the calculation of economic efficiency; and the second act is about a God who attends to his creation with ecological sensibility and care. Which God would we welcome? The first reading from Isaiah deepens the contrast, making the decision easier for us: God is there imaged as the uneconomical God who invites “everyone who thirsts” to “come to the waters” and without money, buy wine, milk and good food. The offer is especially meaningful in our context, with recent reports of racially and socially discriminatory actions on the part of governmental agencies in Flint Michigan. This is the God who gives David to the people in “an everlasting covenant” as a witness, a leader and a commander for the peoples, on account of whom “nations that do not know you shall run to you” (Isaiah 55:3-5).

We would therefore have the God of the second act, of course, the one who brings constitutive blessings to the land  (in the form of manure!), those which are mediated through the elect and are so essential for the best life possible for everyone. Doesn’t the psalm we sing on this Sunday commit us to the God who satisfies thirst, “as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Only we don’t really get to choose, of course.  As both acts make up the whole of the play, and the landowner is the same in both acts, there is only one God. We don’t get to be dualists with respect to our God, any more than we can be dualists with respect to the sinfulness of our communities. God is both the discerning landowner who judges good and evil in the creation and who, with the vinedresser, restores the tree to life. Again we see the strength of the Genesis narrative of creation: God is both the priestly author of order and value, and the one who creates from the soil. Nor do we get to choose Jesus over the God who creates, a question long settled in the controversy over Manichaeanism. Instead, with the team of landowner and vinedresser, we get a God who is both creator, with passionate concern for God’s good creation, and the servant of that creation, who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty if it helps restore the creation to life.

The readings for this Sunday thus draw us into an awareness of the real danger of the dualisms we allow to persist in our culture and in our faith. When coupled with religious convictions regarding our righteousness, we can be on the way to a situation in which a feeling of victimization gives rise to the demand to take, or at least severely limit, the life of dehumanized, “sinful” others. The parable shows us another way: with sustained, down-to-earth care, the tree that was deemed worthless can be restored to life in the community. It is probably significant that Jesus’ choice of the fig tree, long a fixture in the Biblical imagination, is itself an ecologically important metaphor. His audience would of course know what he was talking about; fig trees were part of the landscape and everyone was aware of their importance. That probably doesn’t hold for the church’s audience for telling this story today; so the planting of a tree this spring in the congregation’s garden, accompanied by lessons for all ages on tree horticulture and the need to get one’s hands dirty with “dung,” would be very meaningful and effective. And best of all, it could serve as an especially good opportunity to invite one’s multicultural neighbors to visibly participate, giving public witness to our determination to resist the dualistic propaganda which surrounds us. Who knows, but what they might be able to instruct us, in how to both care for the tree of life and to avoid dualism in society.

Suggested hymn of the day:  ELW 334 Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery, including special v. 3

Prayer petition: God of all creation, yours is the tree of life from which we are all fed; yours is the river of waters that sustains it in life. You are patient beyond measure in the face of our failure to care for your creation. Give us wisdom to reform our habit of excusing our irresponsibility by blaming others, and draw us into the good work of your Servant in restoring it to health and fecundity.  Lord in your mercy . . .

Second Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Look for God downward, deep into the soil of the “crucified Christ”
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
The Second Sunday in Lent in Year C

Genesis 15:1-18
Philippians 3:14 – 4:1
Luke 13:31-35

The readings for this Sunday hinge on two of the most powerful biblical motifs for citizenship in the Christian canon. The vision experienced by Abram in Genesis is that of “the land”—the geographic stability that gives God’s people Israel not only a place to live and flourish, but also an identity. Meanwhile, the Philippians text presents what appears to be a contrast to this rootedness by describing the Christian’s “citizenship in heaven,” even to the point that “earthly things” are seemingly dismissed.

And indeed, Christian exegetes have played up this contrast throughout Christian history—often with perilous results. The notion that, while the Israelites were tied to a physical “land,” Christians must yearn for a higher, more “spiritual” land (a notion often filtered through Augustine’s discussion of the earthly vs. heavenly “cities” in his City of God) became a staple of medieval exegesis, with its fourfold method of literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical interpretations of scriptural texts. In this schema, the literal or “physical” sense of the text often was considered to be the lowest and least profound, while the anagogical sense (generally related to a spiritualized eschatology) was the most sublime. For instance, exegesis treating “Jerusalem” as a literal geographic location was insufficiently pious for most Christian exegesis; interpreting it instead as “heaven” was the more sophisticated option. The notion that Christians’ loyalty was to a disembodied heavenly ideal and NOT the Earth in its fecund physicality thus was buttressed by Platonic exegetical strategies that linked the “letter” of the text with matter and the “spirit” of the text with ethereal and incorporeal verities.

Lutherans bear a special burden for the ill effects of this history. Many of Martin Luther’s later, polemical writings against the Jews of 16th century Germany (writings which have been repudiated by the ELCA) accused Jewish exegetes of being insufficiently sophisticated precisely along these lines—that is, he accused them of holding on to “physical” readings of Hebrew Biblical texts instead of spiritualizing them along Christian lines (cf. Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-46, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). It is thus particularly incumbent upon contemporary Lutherans to appreciate this historical fact: when the physicality of Biblical imagery—including that of “land”—is denigrated, this often becomes legitimation for violence.

In this Lenten season, we can take this insight and realize that understanding Christian “citizenship in heaven” as somehow disembodied from Earth, as separated from “the land” that God has given to all citizens of Earth, is indeed the first step towards legitimating the violence that threatens us all today. Ecological degradation is in fact a form of violence—not only against animals, trees, and non-human ecosystems, but also against those poorest human populations that suffer most immediately from the impact of pollution and global climate change. For this reason alone, Christian preachers should avoid the temptation to further the contrast between “citizenship of the land” and “citizenship in heaven” in their preaching.

But the value of good exegesis is not simply a matter of promoting the right praxis–it’s also about identifying the right source of hope. As Barbara Rossing has pointed out in her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), the eschatological vision of Revelation is one in which “heaven” and the earth in all of its physicality merge—the fullness of the kingdom is the redemption of the earth AS earth. Meanwhile, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has argued forcefully throughout his writings that Christian should not entertain any notion of salvation that does not take as primary Paul’s vision (in Romans) of Gentile Christians being grafted by grace onto the tree of Israel. The boldness of the Christian claim is that, in Christ, we Gentiles are inheritors of the promises given to God’s people Israel. “Land” is our future and present hope.

To have as one’s eschatological orientation (encompassing both the present and the future) “citizenship in heaven” should, therefore, make us MORE attuned to Earth as the site of God’s redemption. Exegeting scripture—and preaching Christian loyalty to “the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15)—should direct our eyes, not upwards to an incorporeal heaven, but down deep into the soil of God’s beloved land, the land promised to Abram and granted to us by grace through faith.

In our day, when God’s earth and God’s children cry out for relief from the ecological violence to which we all have been party, the preacher—acting in the prophetic mode embodied by Jesus in the Luke passage—might have to take the risk of confronting directly our Christian tendency to dismiss “earthly things” in favor of the panacea of cheap spiritualism masquerading as eschatological hope. If God is the God of love whom Christians proclaim, and the cross is the shape of God’s salvation in this world, then surely God is at work deep in the soil of the “crucified Earth.” And where God’s cross is at its redemptive work, there also should God’s church be.

 

 

 

Green Reflections on the Epiphany Season in Year C (Rhoads)

Overall Eco-Reflections on the Season of Epiphany in Year C for preaching and devotions.

By David Rhoads

Epiphany is the season of the church year following the season of Christmas. The season of Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus is of course the foundational epiphany in the church year as the manifestation of God in the appearance of the child Jesus. Epiphany follows as a season that demonstrates how the appearance of Jesus in his adult life manifests the power and love of God.

Epiphany as a season extends from the day of Epiphany (celebrating the arrival of the magi), which does not often fall on a Sunday, until the Sunday of the Transfiguration. There are eight Sundays after Epiphany beginning with the Baptism of Jesus and following in the annual calendars until the Sunday before Transfiguration. The season does not always include all eight Sundays of the Epiphany Season.

In order to offer some care for creation reflections on the season of Epiphany in Year C, I will make general observations about the season that includes specific references to the various Gospel lessons occur during this season and some overall reflections about the Gospel of Luke. 

The color white: Light of the world. First, we note that part of the epiphany season makes use of the color white: the day of Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Transfiguration. Among other things, the color white emphasizes light, because the season of Epiphany is a manifestation of God through Jesus. Jesus is “the light of the world,” “the true light that enlightens everyone [which] has come into the world.” This light “shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” In Jesus, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”

The light of our physical world is produced by the sun by day and the moon reflection of the sun and the stars by night. The sun generates light, energy, and heat, all of which make life on earth possible. The true light of the world lies behind this universe of light as the one in whom all things were created. This true light makes life possible in a more profound sense and makes abundant life possible for humans and all creation. Epiphany season represents the way in which the true light of the world, the creator of all things, has become manifest to redeem life and bring life to its fullness.

During the winter months, many of us suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” due to light deprivation and need additional light to overcome sadness, depression, and the loss of energy. In the midst of this geological season of the deprivation of light, Epiphany reminds us that we too may suffer from “Christ deprivation disorder,” that we may lack the light of Christ in our personal lives and in our communal lives together. The celebration of Epiphany enables us to bask in the light of the glory of God manifest in our world in Jesus.

The encounter with the light of the world is not just for some. It is for all. This is “the light to enlighten the gentile nations.” In the Lukan Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus announces his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, and the people are delighted because, as their hometown prophet, he will bring all these benefits to them. But then, Jesus declares that a true prophet does not benefit only his own, but reaches beyond boundaries to the” others.” He gives the examples of a Gentile widow being given food and a Gentile leper being cleansed. The community is enraged by this. But Jesus and his movement will not be deterred. The light of the world will cross all our human boundaries, as happens with Jesus during his lifetime and with the mission of the followers after his death. And now, also, the light of the world is for all of Earth community. This is the boundary we need to open so that we see other animals and plants as our kin and our companions in living a life in which all can thrive together. The light of the world shines on all of the world.

The color green: The flourishing of nature. Second, we note that for the rest of the season of Epiphany, from the second Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before the Transfiguration, the color of the season is green. Green represents the flourishing of the natural world as an expression of the creation. In this regard, it is interesting to see the relationship between light and the greenery of the world, because it is precisely the light of the sun that has created and that nurtures the flora of the world, in particular, the trees, which in turn create food and energy for the sustenance of animal and human life.

Sometimes, the choice of green for the season of Epiphany is connected metaphorically with spiritual growth. In this reflection, we prefer to talk about the lush greenery of the earth at a literal level. This gives us an opportunity to talk about the seamless continuity between the God whose grace brings forth life on this planet and the God of grace whose son brings redemption and new life to the human community and beyond. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other. All of creation represents explicit or implicit epiphanies of God’s reality.

Furthermore, our human relationship with the rest of nature is not just an analogy with spiritual growth. Rather, nature is a major source of our spiritual growth. Many studies have shown that human health and the wholeness are nourished and deepened by a close relationship with the rest of the natural world. We can speak in Epiphany about the ways in which we have degraded and destroyed the life of trees, shrubbery, flowers, vegetables, and other green plants by our human activity. In so doing, we have suppressed the epiphanies of God in the natural world. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about our commitment to restore of this natural world—for ourselves and for God!

In our worship life during the last two millennia, we have focused almost exclusively on nurturing our human relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about God’s relationship with the rest of the created order, our human relationship with the rest of the created order, as well as our human relationship with God in and through the rest of the created order. In this way we will see, as Joseph Sittler has said, that all of “nature is the theater of God’s grace.”

The natural world as vehicles for epiphanies. One of the key ways in which we can celebrate all of creation in the season of Epiphany is to notice the ways in which nature interacts in the Gospel lessons assigned for this season. More could be said about the Old Testament lessons, the psalms, and the epistle lessons for this season. However, let me focus on the Gospel lessons and invite you to apply these observations to the other lessons as well.

  • On Epiphany Day, at the birth of Jesus, the light of a star guides the wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. Here we see how all creation is responding to the new life brought by the appearance of Jesus.
  • On the First Sunday after Epiphany, the day that celebrates Jesus’ baptism, it is an astounding observation that the Holy Spirit, in Luke’s depiction, descends upon Jesus in bodily form as a dove. Here the dove is more than a symbol. Instead, we see a form of incarnation of the spirit in a bird. Might not this understanding of doves having the potential to bear the divine presence lead us to think differently about doves in particular and birds in general? Should this not lead us to preserve endangered birds and foster the flourishing of bird life? Should this not lead us to treat with reverence birds that we irreverently pack together as an economical way to raise food for humans?
  • On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, note how Jesus takes an ordinary element of life, namely water, and transforms it into wine for celebration at a wedding. Cannot we reflect on the notion that in our day we have so defiled water that much of it is undrinkable, let alone being fit to be turned into wine? How much might this appreciation of the value of water lead us to preserve its purity?
  • In the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus refers to the prophets who multiplied grain for the widow of Zaraphath in a time of famine. This act anticipates Jesus’ feeding of crowds in the desert area where there is no food and people are hungry. The arrival of the kingdom manifests an abundance in nature and calls us to share the abundance of food when there is famine and hunger.
  • In the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, we see how a lake produces an abundance of fish in the presence of Jesus. When the disciples have fished all night and caught nothing, Jesus is able to draw from the lake of Galilee such an abundance of fish that the nets threaten to break. Does this not lead us to recognize the ways in which we have so depleted and polluted our rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans that no such abundance is possible? Are we not called by God to nurture and protect our waterways so that marine life will thrive and teem and flourish? Just as humans and other animals are to multiply and fill the earth, so also are fish to multiply and fill the seas with life.
  • Finally, in the Transfiguration, the clothes of Jesus made from natural materials manifest the glory of God by becoming dazzling white. And a cloud overshadows them manifesting the divine presence and the voice of God, leading us to see how every dimension of the natural world is a place for the divine to be manifest.

In all of this, there is an affirmation of creation as good, as part of God’s redemptive world, and as capable of manifesting the glory of God. “The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.” Were we to take this declaration of the psalmist seriously, we would see that God is present and manifest in all of life, not only in the dramatic events surrounding the appearance and activity of Jesus.

We would also see that these dramatic events are not interventions in nature nor are they contrary to nature. Rather they are dramatic expressions of the potential there in the natural world when God is at work in special ways. In the biblical materials, these wondrous events are not referred to as “miracles” contravening the laws of nature but as “acts of power” or “powerful acts of nature.” Far from being supernatural, they are super natural. As such, they affirm the goodness and potential of all creation to thrive in abundance. And they affirm the capability for all of life to be filled with God’s glory.

In addition to these manifestations of God in nature, we also note the various references to nature throughout these Gospel lessons that reflect wisdom drawn from the created order. References to snakes, roots of vipers, trees that produce good fruit, rotten trees, grapes, bramble bushes, and so on reveal that the people depicted in this story live close to nature and find insight and wisdom from their close observation of creation. Again, we are encouraged to draw closer to the rest of God’s creation not only as a source of personal renewal but also as a source of wisdom.

The Earth is filled with God’s glory. This is the affirmation that lies behind the special manifestations of God in Christ. In my own Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther considered that God was present in and through all of creation, from the most beautiful to the most hideous and threatening parts of nature [such as a crucifixion]. As the psalmist has said, there is no place in creation where one can hide from God’s presence. Here is Luther’s astounding affirmation that all the Earth is filled with God’s glory.

God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it.  He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attested clearly and mightily in Holy Scripture….  For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine Majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? …And that the same Majesty is so large that neither this world nor a thousand worlds can encompass it and say: “Behold, there it is!” . . . . His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself, yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it (Luther WA: XXIII,134.34-23:136.36).

To say that God has been and always will be fully present in all things is a life-changing realization. God is embodied in creation. How can we see God in all things? How can we change our perception so that we see Christ not only in the faces of one another but also in the faces of animals and the leaves of plants? How can we see the world around us as valuable for its own sake—apart from our human use of it? Epiphany invites us into relationship with this manifestation of God’s glory.

The point of Epiphany is that we when we experience the glory of God, we will be transformed by it. There are no disinterested observers, because it is precisely those who have eyes to see who experience them. Thus, epiphanies elicit responses, the new purpose in life; a bright star led sages on a pilgrimage; the Spirit as a dove anoints Jesus for mission; the new wine leads Jesus’ disciples to believe in him. Perhaps the experience of Peter in response to the overwhelming catch of fish shows it best. In response, he falls to his knees recognizing his sinfulness and in awe of Jesus. He will never be the same. The biblical stories themselves have taken countless generations into their grasp. Epiphanies are therefore transforming events. The season of the Epiphany allows us to see and be changed.

The nature of the God of epiphanies: Compassion. And what is the nature of this God who is manifested in these epiphanies. The lessons of epiphany from the Gospel of Luke make it very clear that this God is marked most profoundly by compassion. As expressed in Jesus teaching on the seventh Sunday after epiphany, Jesus urges his listeners to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We see this compassion expressed in the ministry and activity of Jesus as marked by his inaugural appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth on the Sabbath. He states:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

      because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,

      and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Throughout the Gospel narrative, Jesus liberates people from the tyrannies of illness, demons, and sin. The centurion’s slave, the widow’s only son, the sinful woman who anoints his feet, the Samaritan who attends to the stricken traveler, the father who welcomes the prodigal son, the tax collector who is was justified, the thief on the cross. There are a host of vulnerable people who populate the society depicted in Luke’s story to whom Jesus brings healing, liberation, forgiveness, and wholeness.

Compassion for the most vulnerable. To encounter God in this story is to meet and be changed by the mercy of God. The compassion of God bends toward the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are despised, the “sinners”, the unclean, the possessed, the outcast, the marginalized, and the lost. To express this mercy is the entire purpose of Jesus. As he says in response to the conversion of Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Epiphany is an opportunity to bask in the light of God’s mercy and the activity of Jesus’s compassion—and to be transformed by.

Now we need to become profoundly aware not only of God’s compassion for suffering humanity but also of God’s compassion for the most vulnerable in all of nature. It is critical that we love the most vulnerable of animals and plants and ecosystems. They are like canaries in the mine. When they become endangered and extinct because of the degraded state of nature at the hands of humans, the people in the mine are at risk too. If we ignore the most vulnerable and think we can ignore the warning of their sacrifice, we do so at our peril and the peril of all Earth community. So God’s glory goes to the most vulnerable as the way to save all. And it will not be enough to care for the Earth just to save humans. We will not do enough. Rather, we will only restore humanity adequately if we follow Luke’s vision and love all creatures for their own sake, out of the compassion of God for all of life.

The call to show compassion.  In the light of God’s reflective glory manifested in Jesus, we see our own failures in compassion. In the Sixth Sunday after epiphany, Jesus pronounces woes on those who have wealth because it has not been shared, on food because it has not been distributed, on power because it has been the source of laughter at the oppressed, and on the love of honor, because it has been the basis for arrogance and the neglect of and disregard for the lowly.

At the same time, in the presence of the compassion of God, we see in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain [in the lesson for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost]how we are called to show compassion to others:

      Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

      If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the most high; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

This is mercy expressed in extravagant and counterintuitive ways. These acts are done with generosity, humility, and empowerment. They  are done in ways that go contrary to our natural instincts. They are done totally apart from what we ourselves might get from it, even what we might get back from it. They are done unilaterally, without depending on others doing it with us or upon favors being returned. They are done because we have seen and experienced the gracious love and compassion of God for us and for the vulnerable around us and we want to extend that compassion in the words and actions of our own lives as well. This is our calling on behalf of all of Earth community. In this way, we too become vehicles for the epiphanies of God’s compassion.

Epiphany leads to Lent. Because the manifestation of God’s compassion leads to a lifting of those who are lowly and outcast in the society, because the message challenges the lifestyle and values of the leaders of the nation, and because Jesus actions call for a dramatic transformation of the political economic and social forces of the society, yet the manifestations of God in Jesus and his followers lead to conflict, opposition, and suffering. We see this foreshadowed in the opening inaugural announcement of the kingdom of God in the synagogue at Nazareth. Those who heard that the compassion of God extends not simply to those who are part of the in-group—the village of Nazareth, the territory of Galilee, the nation of Israel—these people are deeply offended by the fact that the manifestation of God’s glory will extend to a widower and a leper in Gentile territory—Gentile nations outside of Israel, indeed one’s enemies. The villagers of his hometown seek to take Jesus and throw him over the precipice near their village. Clearly the episode foreshadows the ultimate fate of Jesus. Such opposition, rejection, and suffering may also await those who extend the boundaries of our responsibility and our compassion to the larger arena of the natural world.

The Transfiguration leads to the journey toward Jerusalem for Jesus and his followers and a journey in Lent toward Good Friday. The Transfiguration is a response to the interaction between Jesus and his disciples that preceded this event. Jesus had told the disciples that he would be rejected and executed by the leaders of the nation. Speaking on behalf of the disciples, Peter resisted this declaration and opposed the idea that Jesus [or they] would suffer for the kingdom of God. The Transfiguration forms an apt conclusion to the Season of Epiphany. On the one hand, it puts a frame around the season by having God speak to the disciples to affirm the divine identity and mission of Jesus as God had spoken to Jesus in the baptismal event of the First Sunday of epiphany. At the same time, the glorification of Jesus in the Transfiguration affirms for the disciples that the one who would in fact be rejected and executed will also indeed be the one who is ultimately glorified.

And so, our opportunity to bask in the light of the world in the Season of Epiphany now leads us to sober reflection on the consequences of his life and of our discipleship—on behalf of humanity and the entire created order.

 

 

 

The Baptism of Our Lord, The First Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Dennis Ormseth

Creation itself participates when the Spirit descends in bodily form as a dove.

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As with the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B of the Lectionary, the baptism of Jesus in year C reverberates with creational and cosmic accents. In the first lesson, we are reminded that the God who speaks from the opened heaven is one who renews the people God created for Godself, gathering them from the four directions of the earth (Isaiah 43:5-7) and leading them through water and fire. Psalm 29, appointed for all three years, evokes the power of God’s voice “over mighty waters” and the “cedars of Lebanon’” the voice that “flashes forth flames of fire” and “shakes the wilderness,”causing “the oaks to whirl and strip[ping] the forest bare” (29:3-9). With the descent of the Spirit  “the first day” of creation” is again brought to mind, when the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). (See our comments in this series on the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B).

It is the “Holy Spirit descend[ing] in bodily form  like a dove” that most demands our attention here, however. As David Tiede points out, Luke presents Jesus’ baptism as the “acclamation and anointing of the true king of Israel. Luke’s account of Peter’s speech before Cornelius offers the best commentary: ‘beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power’ (Acts 10:37-38). . .The presence of the Holy Spirit is best understood as the authorization of divine kingship.”  As Tiede puts it, “God’s word to Jesus confirms the promise of divine dominion in Israel made to David and his heirs. Jesus is the one of whom God had spoken to David: ‘I will raise up your offspring after you. . . . and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he shall be my son’” (2 Sam. 7:12-16) (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988: p. 94, 95). Luke Timothy Johnson  agrees: compared with the other Gospels, he observes, Luke’s baptismal narrative gives “narrative expression to an essentially interior transformation or confirmation.” The event is structurally very similar to that of the annunciation, he notes: “In the annunciation, the Spirit comes down and the child will be called son of God; furthermore, the power will ‘overshadow” Mary’–the word, we saw, recalled the ‘hovering’ in passages such as Ps 90:4 (LXX). In the angelic song, we find the heavens open, and the declaration of people to people ‘of God’s favor’–the same word used here of Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota; The Liturgical Press, 1991: p. 71).

Why then does Luke place “rather heavy emphasis on the physical manifestation of the Spirit,” as Johnson observes he does? Although Luke omits Mark and Matthew’s “he saw” (Mark 1:10 and Matthew 3:16), he nonetheless emphasizes the physical reality of the “bodily form like a dove” or “physical shape of a dove,” as Johnson prefers to translate the verse. In the baptism, Johnson suggests, “the dove is perhaps ‘the “hovering’ symbol that enables the reader’s imagination to pull these elements into a single focus.” Like the wind and tongues of fire later in Luke’s Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-4),” Johnson concludes, the dove provides “physical manifestation of the Spirit”  (Johnson, pp. 69, 71). In any case, as Tiede notes, the “descent of the Holy Spirit in bodily form has thus become a visible sign confirming Jesus’ identity and role as fulfilling and surpassing God’s rule in Davidic kingship.”

Creation itself thus participates as the God of Creation identifies and claims for Godself the beloved one who will serve God in saving all creation. And although Johnson discounts its significancece as scriptural precedent for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ baptism,  the dove of course also inevitably recalls for us the story of Noah and the ark from Genesis 8. How else might one explain the church’s enduring association of the dove with the Spirit’s redeeming presence on Earth? Warren Carter points out in his commentary on the baptism narrative in Matthew that “since Homer (Odyssey 12.62) the dove has been identified as Zeus’s servant who represents divine presence and love and conveys Zeus’s messages.” Luke’s interest in creating “surpassing” narratives in competition with pagan emperors—an important motif in the birth narrative—might explain his emphasis here on the bodily form of the dove –a real dove, in other words, not just a metaphorical one. But Carter suggests an alternative interpretation: “in contrast to such claims,” he writes, the “dove is linked with the Spirit which empowers Jesus, God’s beloved child, as God’s commissioned agent,” because “God is beginning a whole new world, an alternative way of life, because the present structures of Rome’s empire allied with Israel’s social and religious elite are not what God intends. God will complete God’s salvaton in the yet-future return of Jesus to establish God’s empire in full” (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000: p. 103). Might not Jesus “surpass” David’s kingship, in Luke’s mind, precisely in  laying hold of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” the covenant God established when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16)? Indeed, the repitition this Sunday of a portion of the Advent narrative of John’s the Baptist’s preaching serves to remind us that, for Luke, Jesus is “more powerful” than John precisely in baptizing with the Holy Spirit, and that he comes, as we put it, as a farmer with winnowing fork in hand to enlist wind and fire in preparation of grains for both harvest feast and new planting of seed—as the prophet had written, “the holy seed is [the tree’s] stump” (Isaiah 6:13). Water is already at hand, available from “the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3) and the Jordan river for the baptism of repentance; with the wind and fire brought by this farmer, new earth lies ready to be dug from the threshing floor. The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered and all the earth awaits the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (see my Comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent).

A dove out scouting a new shoot is, we think, very much at home in this evangelist’s imagination.

For 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

 

The Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

The biblical Year of Jubilee authorizes us to establish laws and practices that bring justice and renewal for humans, other creatures, and the land.

Nehemiah 8;1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

The Gospel reading for this Sunday confirms what we have come to expect from our reading of the narratives of Advent, Christmas and especially Epiphany, namely, that Jesus’  mission includes concern for the healing of the Earth. Luke’s relocation  of Jesus’ appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth to the very beginning of Jesus’ work and his inclusion of the citation from Isaiah in the speech of Jesus,  Luke Timothy Johnson writes, make the account “into a programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative.” The passage, he argues, shows unequivocally “what kind of Messiah “ Jesus was to be:  “anointed with the Spirit,” the “servant of the Lord” is, in the words of the prophecy from Isaiah, “to bring good news to the poor . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 79, 81). The last of these purposes is particulary important relative to care of the Earth.

 

“The acceptable year of the Lord,” David Tiede observes, may be “the most telling phrase” in the list. The phrase refers to the “year of Jubilee” commanded in Leviticus 25, a “time of restitution and restoration for all Israel” culminating a series of seven seven-year periods, each involving rest for the land of a year. More a statement of hope than actual practice, the “acceptable year of the Lord” would remain “a religious symbol, projected into an uncertain future when God’s dominion would be revealed to the whole word” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis, Augburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 105). Walter Brueggeman  identifies the connection the symbol makes between agricultural practice and faith as follows:

 

[T]he land itself shall be subject to the sabbatic principle (vv.1-7)—the land shall have periodic rest from cultivation. This may be a wise principle of agriculture, so that the land is not exhausted from overuse. In the total witness of Isarel, however, this practice of Jubilee for the land is to be understood as an acknowledgment of creation, as respect for creation, and as awareness that the land belongs to Yahweh and not to Israel. This remarkable chapter [Leviticus 25] enunciates the practice of the Jubilee year, a celebration of the fiftieth year (after seven sevens), in which there will be a return to one’s property and one’s family—a homecoming—and in which family land that has been forfeited in the normal transactions of business is returned. This is a remarkable provision, for it relativizes all economic transactions for the sake of rootage in the community.

 

At the core here, Brueggeman notes, is a “repeated claim of the governance of Yahweh.” While there is reason to doubt that Israel ever actually implemented this “visionary law  . .on the horizon of Israel,” it is the “culminating assertion of the God of Sinai (who is the God of the Exodus), who intends a very different regimen of social wealth and social power” than is our practice: “the social fabric has the political economy as its instrument, unlike our practice, where the social fabric receives the leftovers of the political economy” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1997; p. 189-90).

 

We are in revolutionary territory with these readings. As John McClure notes, “Paul shows that the Spirit subverts the way that we understand our social relationships (1 Corinthins 12)”: starting with “ground-leveling oneness of the Holy Spirit” he “argued for the diversity of the body of Christ” and then “moves on” to argue for “the profound interdependence of the members of the body,” in which “the ‘weaker’ and commonly regarded as ‘less significant parts of the body’ are, in fact, ‘indispensable’ and worthy of honor and respect (vv.  23-24)” (John S. McClure, “Third Sunday after Epiphany” in New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003; pp. 94). It is a profoundly non hierarchical, relational and, one might argue, ecological, model of community. So also the idea of Jubilee is “nothing short of a revolution in the way that economic relationships are to be conceived.”  It “undermines the ability of a few to accumulate wealth at the expense of others” and “mandates that every fifty years the entire economic system must begin all over again from scratch.” Applied to the world in our time, the “Jubilee plan” would mean that

 

many of the goals of productivity and capital gain have to be checked at the door.  The Jubilee plan requires that the land be permitted to rest, that we live in support of the environment so that it might support us. The Jubilee plan mandates that the wealthy forgive debts that are owed in order to provide a fresh start for those for whom the burden of debt has become debilitating. It requires that the system of exchange that has become a prison-house of debt, envy, and greed loosen its grip on the lives of each one of us so that we might be freed up to discover relationships that are not defined and motivated primarily by the need for monetary gain or success. The Jubilee plan encourages the limitation of growth, earning, accumulation, and speculation.  At the same time, as Maria Harris points out, Jubilee encourages us to take the limits off of literacy, education, and the provision of basic economic needs such as life, liberty, health care, housing, and food. Finally, the Jubilee plan means justice, that we “sort out what belongs to whom and return it” (McClure, p.98; the quotation is from Harris’s Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996; pp 86-87).

 

In contemporary parlance, accordingly, this aspect of Jesus’ teaching supports practices  to promote  both ecologically sustainable agriculture and social and economic justice, bridging one of the great divides in the question for justice in our society (See Larry Rasmussen’s discussion, in his Earth Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 207-19).

 

When is this to be realized? From Jesus’ words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” we infer that it began already that day with his proclamation in the synagogue and that it continues where he is present in the worshipping community. It is important to note that, in Brueggemann’s view, alongside this “trajectory of command” in Israel’s Mosaic tradition represented by Leviticus 25, which is oriented to “theological needs and sensibilities of the economically disadvantaged,” there is a second trajectory, “also derivative from the exclusive claim of Yahweh,” which “reflects the theological sensibilities and needs of those who experience life as profoundly disordered, and who have no doubt (and so testify) that Yahweh has provided concrete disciplines whereby the life-threatening disorder may be overcome.” Whether the “surging chaos on the grand scale of cosmos, the social experience of disorder” such as “the loss of the Jerusalem temple and king and the profound displacement of exile,” or the more personal “disintegration in which life is deeply marked by behavior that is felt to be contaminating, thereby placing everything in jeopardy,” such “massively threatening” disorder is addressed in “public worship, where life may be experienced in order, symmetry, coherence, and propriety” (Brueggemann, p. 191).

 

Expressed in terms of rules for ritual purity, this trajectory became the primary responsiblity of the priesthood, who “wisely and rightly order worship space, time, and activity, whereby worship becomes an environment for a God’given order available nowhere else.” But late in the tradition initiated by Ezra’s reading and interpreting the Torah in community, celebrated in our first lesson this Sunday, the literature of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers itself “became a sacramental vehicle for Israel.” Henceforth, it has provided “a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God.” In an increasingly “hostile, inhospitable envirionment, “what Israel could not discern in the world of events was given in the artistic world of Israel’s sacramental texts” (Brueggeman, p. 590).

 

Jesus, we are told, “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). On the one hand, Luke no doubt makes the point to remind his hearers that Jesus is a pious Jew (Johnson, p. 78); for Jesus himself, on the other hand, we can reasonable assume that he and those who wrote his story were beneficiaries of this process. The regularity of his participation should in any case alert us to the likelihood of his having sufficient confidence in God’s good order  to counteract the threat of the “disordered” cosmos, whatever the particular form of disorder he encountered. With respect to his advocacy for the “acceptable year of the Lord, might it not be true, as McClure provocatively suggests, that “[m]ore and more, Jubilee is looking less like an impractical ideal and more like good common sense, a practical pathway toward repairing the fabric of human relationships on local, national, and global scales” (McClure, p. 98). The idea of Jubilee is strikingly similar to the wisdom Larry Rasmussen uncovers in the Earth Charter, as we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Sunday of the Epiphany (see that comment and Rasmussen, pp.344-48).

 

In this connection, it is important in addition to note that in the Hebrew tradition such threats are also addressed, strikingly, by “’procedures, practices, and agents’ sanctioned by the God of Sinai, by means of which an ordered, reliable, livable life is maintained and guaranteed,” and which do not differ that much in purpose from the rules and regulations of a more scientific age that protect us from such contaminations as are “posed by nuclear waste products that cannot by willed away but must be managed,” or  “toxic waste products such as mercury” that require “careful, legal supervision.” As Brueggeman comments, “It will not do for us to regard this tradition of purity as primitive and therefore obsolete, for the issues are still with us, even when they gather around different sorts of threats” (Brueggemann, p. 192). Global climate chaos now heads the list of concerns.

 

Rules that regulate our relationship to the environment, along with those governing socio-economic relationships, thus find an anchor here in such  ancient provisions that protect from threats both feared and actual, both spiritual and material. Wouldn’t Jesus be an advocate for these as well? If so, can his church do less? The capacity to fashion such rules is, after all, the practical counterpart of the wisdom which represents, as we put it in our comment on last Sunday’s readings,

 

the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the “wisdom of things,” which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it (See our comment on the readings for the Second Dunday after Epiphany; the quotation is from Brueggemann, p. 532).

 

If such rules need today to be informed by ecological science as well as the accumulated experience of the human community in worship, the psalm which accompanies this reading expresses  high  confidence that the cosmos,  along with Torah, is a reliable source of truth (19:1-6). Jesus, teacher of all wisdom that he is, would surely agree.

 

For 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

 

 

 

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The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year C

By Dennis Ormseth

Embodiment is God’s means for the liberation of creation.       

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the climax of the Season of Epiphany. The Season has provided firm and ample grounds for advancing our concern for care of creation. The visit of wise men following the light of a star provides a mandate to explore the mixture of scientific knowledge and practical experience that is ecological wisdom for our time of global environmental crisis, and to advocate for its importance in the face of the despotic powers that seek to secure and extend their powers of domination no matter the cost to creation. The descent of the spirit in the form of a dove encourages us to hope that Jesus’ mission for the kingdom of God represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Noah, the beginning of a “whole new world” with an alternative way of life that supports well-being for every living creature. Jesus’ transformation of water into wine is sign of the coming consummation of the marriage of heaven and Earth, in which God promises that Earth will never be forsaken and left desolate: “whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and make whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world.” The inclusion of the year of Jubilee in the agenda of Jesus’ mission shows that care of creation is intimately joined with social justice and authorizes Jesus’ church to advocate for laws and practices that bring both justice and renewal for humans, other creatures, and the land. What the church can bring to the cause of ecological restoration of the earth beyond the anthropologically centered appeals of most political initiatives is the sustained energy of divine love that “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of God’s beloved creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the Sundays of Epiphany for arguments on these several points).

The great theophany of the Transfiguration lends fresh energy to these affirmations as we enter this week into the Season of Lent. The Gospel of Luke shares the basic structure and meanings of the other synoptic accounts, certain aspects of which serve to underscore the significance of the event for the cause of care of creation. Jesus’ glory is manifest in both his shining face and the dazzling white of his clothing. The clouds of divine immanence “overshadow” the mountaintop, and (special to Luke) then envelop all those gathered there. Thus do mountain, light, and clouds unite in a manifestation of divine presence that shares the power and character of Yahweh’s previous self-manifestation to Israel. Here again, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Yahweh relates as Yahweh chooses, without condition, reservation, qualification, or explanation” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; p. 569). To the theophanies of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel represented by the presence of Moses and Elijah is joined an anticipation of the advent of the Son of Man who “comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels,” in “direct and immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in 9:26-27” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 154). The future of earth is in the hands of the God who created it and who is served by this Jesus, identified here as the Servant of God prophesied by Isaiah, the one who serves God by serving God’s beloved creation (Johnson, p. 156).

The event of the Transfiguration thus sets the course for what follows. The presence of Yahweh previously mediated to the people on Zion, Yahweh’s “holy mountain,” as our Psalmist for this Sunday reminds us (Psalm 99:1, 9), is now fully and forever identified with Jesus. With a subtle but significant modification of his synoptic sources, Luke specifically names the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: it concerns his “departure” or exodus, the way that will lead through suffering and death in Jerusalem. The glory that was mediated by the temple on Zion is now to be mediated through him, precisely on the way of the cross. This transfer, we think it is important to note, is assisted by precisely those aspects of creation which have greatest power to manifest divine presence and authority: mountain, light, and clouds. Thus, does creation add its mystery and awe to this refocusing and redirection of divine presence.

It is, on the other hand, also important to note that none of the parties that are witness to the theophany, neither human nor non-human, are to continue to bear significance in the narrative to come. Peter’s suggestion regarding booths to mark the place of this divine intrusion is emphatically rejected; the mountain, previously unnamed, will be left unmarked. In spite of the glory manifest there, no new tabernacle will be created there to contain and mediate the glory to the people. The presence of God will no longer be identified with a singular, particular place or people (For our discussion of the demotion not only of Zion but also of all mountains as sacred precincts in the narrative of Luke, see our comment in this series on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent). The glory of God is on the move toward the ends of the inhabited world. As the cloud lifts from the mountain top, not only does Jesus stand alone, but his face and clothing no longer shine with divine brilliance. The silence of those who shared in the experience will suffice to keep the event from public knowledge until the resurrection (“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” Luke 9:36).  And as the reading from 2 Corinthians suggests, unlike the theophany of God on Sinai, no fading light will bring into question the power and authority of the now sole mediator of God’s presence. Henceforth, that presence will be completely identified with the Spirit; and unveiled faces will bear testimony to new light, “light that shines out of darkness” (3:18), and “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Death, darkness, and human evil, also all participants in Earth’s community of life, are to be taken up into the narrative of God’s redeeming presence in the creation.

Does this preference for “Spirit” over localized theophany mediated by elements of the creation constitute a denial of material creation’s significance in and for the redeeming work of God? Not so, we think, in view of our confession that the Spirit of God is “the Lord, the giver of life,” as we confess in our statement of faith in the Triune God. The Spirit of God has actually already entered Luke’s narrative, announced early on by the angel Gabriel to Mary as an “overshadowing” “power of the most High,” and, as we have noted above, descending on Jesus in his baptism “in bodily form like a dove” (thus, comments Luke Timothy Johnson, does Luke “by such subtle signals . . connect parts of his story” (Johnson, p. 38). Embodiment in creation is still God’s way to creation’s liberation. Beginning with the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on the First Sunday in Lent, the Spirit will be Jesus’ constant companion on his way to the cross. Indeed, the Spirit will come to have decisive significance in the narrative that will now take us through the Seasons of Lent and Easter to the great explosion of Pentecost that will bear God’s redeeming power out into all creation.

 

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

Must we appeal to “self-interest” in order to love creation as our neighbor?

 Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany completes the narrative of Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, read last Sunday. If the first half of this story contained the “programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative” of Jesus ministry, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, this reading “announces the theme of prophetic rejection that had been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:34. “Jesus declares that no prophet is acceptable in his own country, and his townspeople’s vivid rage and murderous intentions fulfill his prophecy.” While  the “programmatic prophecy” provided strong encouragement for care of creation as represented by the promise of the Jubilee year, this “prophetic rejection” is also highly instructive as to difficulties a congregation might encounters in advancing the cause of creation care today.

Why do his townspeople turn on Jesus? Johnson asks. Their initial response was enthusiastically approving: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth” (4: 22). The exchange that follows transforms them into a murderous mob, which drives Jesus from town and attempts to throw him off a cliff (4:28). What happens, we suggest, is that while initially overjoyed by the fact that Jesus is one of their own (“Is not this Joseph’s son?”), the people are deeply offended by his immediate refusal of the implications of that claim on him. “Doctor, heal yourself” is what they are thinking, he suggests: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Elija and Elisha, he reminds them, both extended the prophetic visitation “to Gentiles—outside the boundaries of the people Israel.” Thus, what the reader of the Gospel has already heard from Simeon is now delivered to Jewish townspeople in the narrative: “the salvation brought by Jesus would extend to all nations” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 81-82).

The dynamics that drive this encounter will be familiar to those engaged in promoting care of creation. The standard appeal for support of an environmental policy is almost always couched in terms of self-interest, on the assumption that sin the political arena, self-interest  is what naturally motivates people. Condition or predictions of ecological disaster are presented with the expectation that rational people will make a positive, self-interested response to eliminate or avoid them. When the danger is clear—smoke in the air, pollution in the lake we have enjoyed swimming and fishing in, for example—we do respond. Action with respect to a more ambiguous and less well-defined threat, such as that from non-point source pollution, on the other hand, is more difficult to motivate. The more diffused the source of the problem, the more self-interest has to include an enlighted interest in the well being of other persons with whom one shares one’s community.  But there are natural limits to the power of this extended appeal. When the appeal involves various economic interests of the community, conflicts naturally arise. And a political leader who insists on policies involving costly remediation that will mostly benefit only unknown strangers can quickly alienate her own constituents.

In light of this difficulty, the secular environmental movement has recognized for some time that religious communities have considerable “social capital” which they would like to tap for their work in environmental advocacy. What they have not always understood well is how such social capital is generated within a religious community. So when congregational leaders are recruited to be an advocate of a given environmental policy, they are understandable wary of potential conflict. Self interest is at play here as well. Some steps are easy. An energy audit for a church building, for example, may save money for the congregation over time. The self-interest of the congregation is clear. But resurfacing the great expanse of asphalt on the church’s parking lot so as to permit runoff to drain into the acquifer is another matter entirely, because the payoff is so remote as to be incalcuable. And advocacy on issues that clearly impact local industry will inevitably raise questions on which members of the congregation will be divided, perhaps sharply. Anthropogenic climate chaos  projected to arrive a generation or two in the future is an easily deferred concern, especially as other more immediate economic demands crowd the political agenda. Even the most popular appeal to the “future of our children and grandchildren” gets weighed negatively on the scale of self-interest in comparison with more immediate concerns such as profit from industrial farming using fertilizers and the funding one needs to educate those very children and grandchildren. If such appeals to communities of faith are to succeed, they need to be based on some other principle than self-interest.

Jesus, it would seem, did not make it clear how much he had the interests of the people in his synagogue on his heart. Hadn’t he more or less deliberately shown them that other communities had at least equal claim on his talents? This one who spoke so graciously as to evoke their hopes for a prominent place in the restored kingdom of God cared more about the people in Capernaum than those in Nazareth! The great expectations which he had so quickly aroused were as quickly dashed.  And in a dry run for the later response of the people of Jerusalem, they angrily drove him out of town and threatened his life: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30).

Might Jesus have handled the situation more adroitly? Couldn’t a well-trained community organizer succeed where Jesus failed, simply by carefully eliciting their self-interest so as to enlighten and perhaps even transform it? Perhaps he could have, but that wasn’t his mission. To do so did not coincide with his interests, or better, with the interests of the one who had consecrated and appointed him, as our first reading maintains, “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Deconstruction of their understanding of themselves as Jesus’ neighbors must precede the building and planting of the new cummunity of God’s kingdom. As the collected readings from the Season of Epiphany have so clearly shown us, his “way” indeed leads “through the midst of them” out beyond Nazareth, beyond Jerusalem even, to encompass the whole inhabited world.

What the advocate for enlighted policy on environmental issues, whether an outsider or insider in relationship to the community of faith, needs to understand about that community is that there is another principle at work in its life. Call it “other-interest,” as opposed to self-interest. Or call it love, as in our second reading from Corinthians 13, that habit of being that is “patient,” “kind,” “not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” which “does not insist on its own way, . . is not irritable or resentful; . .  does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” It does these things because it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of the beloved, in addition to which it also “never ends” (1 Corinthins 13:4-8). Love is all-inclusive with respect to both space and time, some people would say to an impossible extreme, others to an infinity of possibile realizations. It is God’s love, God’s care for all creation, communicated through all creation, to all creation.

In his recent book Earth-Honoring Faith, Larry Rasmussen asserts rightly that the problem with nearly all ethical theories and ethical regimes, both classical and modern, is that they are essentially anthropocentric: values are defined in relationship to the self-interested standard of the human species that is defining the good. Rasmussen calls instead for an ethic that embodies H. Richard Niebuhr’s way of answering the question, “Who is my neighbor I am to love as I love myself?” The neighbor is “the near one and the far one; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in convictions and loyalties. [The neighbor] is man and he is angel and he is animal and inorganic being, all that participates in being.” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith;  Religious Ethics in a New Key.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p.221; the quotation is from The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry:  Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education, p. 38). To “love your neighbor as yourself” is not simply an extension of self-love, as it might appear to be, but rather love of neighbor for the neighbor’s own sake as one beloved by God, which might lead to care of the neighbor’s neighborhood, whether or not one shares immediately and directly in that neighborhood. The genuinely eco-centric ethic that we need for the future, in Rasmussens’s view, is one that instead measures “all our moral and religious impulses by such questions as

Are they Earth-honoring? Do they contribute to Earth’s preservation and restoration? Is life and what it requires the better because of them? Are the parental elements of life accorded their place? Has the shift from ego to ecosphere as the center of moral work been made?  Does it re-form itself around the human vocation of tilling and keeping in such a way as to move into new first works for the age of the Anthropocene.[the epoch characterized by human transformation of the earth].

“Because we are born into a great web of belonging,” Rasmussen explains, “the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference. The ethical method of Earth-honoring fatih thus first asks how the health of the primal elements is secured and then, from there, how the well-being of human life and other life is secured in relation to it. It asks questions of our working moral theory such as these: What individual and collective virtues, what consequences of our decisions and actions, and what fundamental obligations does this web of belonging, this communion, require of us?” (Rasmussen, pp. 220-21).

Further readings in year C of the lectionary will surely provide answers to these questions.

For 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

 

 

The Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

Wisdom is the careful husbanding of resources for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures.

By Dennis Ormseth

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

 

The story of the wedding at Cana, the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, is a major puzzle for many of its interpreters. John McClure, for example, finds it “one of the most mysterious and ambiguous stories in the entire Bible.” From its opening notation of time, “on the third day,” (“patently unclear”) to its triumphant conclusion—“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”—McClure finds the story confusing and baffling: “It is hard to see how saving a wedding party, even by means of a miracle, can be interpreted as having ‘revealed his [Jesus’] glory, something that in John’s Gospel is almost entirely reserved for Jesus’ passion and resurrection.” Perhaps, he opines, mystery is the point: “Jesus simply does not fit in neatly as an invited guest in the ordinary rountines and rituals of our lives. We can only approach this Jesus with awe and wonder, and with complete openness to what he can and will do in our lives” (John S. MClure, “Second Sunday after Epiphany,”  New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004:  Advent Through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003: pp. 87-89). 

Raymond Brown shares at least some of McClure’s puzzlement: “Theological themes and innuendo so dominate the Cana narrative,” Brown observes, “that it is very difficult to reconstruct a convincing picture of what is thought to have happened and the motivation of the dramatis personae.” Brown nevertheless attempts to rescue the narrative’s historical  and theological plausibility by urging his reader to consider that, like the other miracles of Jesus, this one answers “an unexpected physical need that in the particular circumstance cannot be satisfied by natural means,” and does so, in a modest and discrete way “untypical of the atmosphere of the Hellenistic wonders.” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII). New York: Doubleday, 1966; p.101-02). Theologically, this “first sign had the same purpose that all the subseqent signs will have, namely, revelation about the person of Jesus.” Scholarly preoccupation with the replacement of the water for Jewish purification, changing water to wine, the great abundace of wine, Mary’s intercession, the reaction of the headwaiter, can easily distract us from the primary focus “as in all Johannine stories, on Jesus as the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world” (Brown, pp. 103-04). 

To McClure’s question, “How did the wedding in Cana reveal the glory of Jesus?” Brown would answer: “Messianic replacement and abundance.” These are major themes of the Gospel, Brown notes: “the replacement of Jewish institutions and religious views” is a  leading theme of Chapters 2-4; in chapters 5 through 10, Jesus’s “actions and discourses” often serve to replace the motifs of Jewish feasts. So here also: for the reader of the Gospel, replacement of water for the rites of purification by choicest wine is a sign of who Jesus is, namely, the one sent by the Father who is now the only way to the Father.” Mary’s statement, “They have no wine,” is thus plausibly both an observation concerning the embarrasing shortage, but also “a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purification, much in the vein of Mark vii 1-24” (Brown, p. 104). For the disciples who could not yet have seen this replacement, on the other hand, there were signs they would have known and recognized as messianic: the wedding feast and the choice wine are Old Testament symbols of “messianic times and the new dispensation.” That Jesus gives people wine in abundance fits particularly well with the image of ‘dining at Wisdom’s table:’”  “drinking her wine” is a symbol of accepting her message—and so now also his; so also  the headwaiter’s question about the source of the new wine is likely a reference to the ignorance of the source of Wisdom voiced in Job 28:12-20. The narrative that begins “on the third day” after the calling of the disciples in John 1 thus appropriately ends with the declaration of their “belief.” Jesus’ abrupt refusal of Mary’s request, similarly, can be explained in terms of his need to show that “his signs must reflect his Father’s sovereignty, and not any human, or family agency,” while still reserving for her a role in the “hour” of his passion (Brown, pp. 106-09).

While Brown’s argument serves to lend both plausibility and meaning to the wedding narrative, a caution lodged against such views by McClure is well taken. “Ultimately,” he writes, “we cannot reduce this story to the framework of our own needs. Something huge is being pointed to in this story, in between its lines, in and through the ambiguity and mystery that keeps it from reducing to one or two esaily preachable ‘points’’’ (McClure, p. 89).  Indeed, Brown’s argument succeeds at high cost to the value of this Sunday’s readings for advancing concern for care of creation. In the first place, its emphasis on an action that supernaturally alters nature to meet physical need, appears to legitimate violaton of nature’s integrity; to make of the miracle a demonstration of messiahship goes against the spirit of Jesus’ refusal in his temptation to exploit such miracles for his own power and position (see our comment on the temptation story, First Sunday of Lent Year B).

But secondly and more importantly, Brown’s explanation by way of “messianic replacement” raises anew the problem we considered in our commentary on the readings of the lection for year B. Yes, we discovered, the story of Jesus is about the displacement (a better term) of the presence of God from the Temple and its associated rituals onto Jesus of Nazareth. Does this displacement then entail, we asked, the abandonment of the whole orientation to creation that the Temple represented for the Hebrew community? On the contrary, we argued, the displacement is accompanied by a thorough reorientation to creation that successfully appropriates the great affirmations of the Hebrew tradition regarding God’s love of all creation, particularly with the New Testament narratives concerning food and meals (See our comments in this series on Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in the readings for the Seventh through the Thirteenth Sundays after Pentecost in Lectionary Year B). Indeed, we set out in the season of Advent to consider whether the readings for year C authorize an extension of this reorientation to the whole earth now in a time of global ecological crisis (See our comment on First Sunday of Advent, Year C). 

In the light of this quest, Brown’s characterization of the “replacement” rings alarm bells for us: “All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts” he writes, “lose meaning in his [Jesus] presence” (Brown, p. 104). In his concern to demonstrate the historical credibility of the narrative, Brown has, quite characteristically, we think, reduced the rich, messianic symbols of marraige and abundant wine to links in his chain of argument for Jesus’ messiahship. We will argue that in the company of the other readings for this Sunday, the story of the wedding in Cana serves, on the contrary, to recapitulate that displacement of the presence of God from the Temple onto Jesus and the reorientation to the creation that accompanies it;  it does this with an alternatve deployment of the themes and details of the narrative that McClure finds ambiguous and Brown “rescues” from ambiguity. Put differently, our reading of the narrative shows not only that  Jesus is “the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world,” but  what the salvation he brings means for all creation.

Attention is naturally drawn in our scientifically-minded age to the miracle of turning water into wine. However, the selection of Isaiah 62:1-5,  as our first reading suggests, that focus is detrimental to the consideration of the setting of the miracle, the wedding itself, as the more appropriate framework for interpreting the story. The wedding is indeed puzzling, provocatively so. We aren’t told whose wedding it is; the bridegroom appears only late in the story, and then only to receive the comment of the headwaiter. One may presume that this was a local family or village affair. It is interesting, however, that Jesus’ entire following is present, his disciples as well as his mother, even though the disciples have only very newly been called by Jesus to follow him (three days earlier!). This is obviously a very open, community affair. Furthermore, the presence of his mother is noteworthy in itself; she appears in the Gospel only here and at the foot of the cross at the end of the story, when Jesus’ “hour” has indeed come. Her appearance, that is to suggest, is more than incidental to the announcement of the shortage of wine. Jesus’ response to his mother is also curious. His “woman” hints that this “mother of Jesus” is much more than simply Mary of Nazareth. As Brown points out, she resembles in many respects the “mysterious, symbolic figure of ‘a woman’ who is a key figure in the drama of salvation” in Revelation 12, and whom, it is generally held, “is a symbol of the people of God.” The drama of this woman, Brown notes, spans the two Testaments: as Israel, she brings forth the Messiah who cannot be defeated by the serpent” of Genesis 3; and “as the Church, she continues on earth after the Ascension, persecuted but protecting her children” (Brown, p. 108). The wedding in Cana, this suggests, is a very big wedding, indeed, one for which the great quantity of wine would not at all be extravagant, but hopefully just enough! 

It is such a wedding, that is to say, as the one promised in the prophet Isaiah’s grand metaphor of salvation from our first lesson:

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

   and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

and your land shall be married.  (Isaiah 62: 4)

The possibility that a village wedding may have been the basis for this story can perhaps not be dismissed, it is true, but it seems that John intends here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to make of it one of the great stories of his Gospel. So listen up, all you dear family and friends of Earth: along with Jesus’ mother and his disiciples, we are gathered here for the  marriage of Jahweh  and “your”–dare we say “our”—land: a land that by God’s own promise shall be forsaken no more, a land whose desolation is healed, a land that delights its creator (builder; v.  5). So this Sunday we might well press the question customarily addressed to the assembly in the service of marriage, “Will all of you, by God’s grace, uphold and care for Jahweh and Earth in their life together?” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 287). And the congregation of course responds, “We will.”

We suggest the more inclusive “our” here not to claim ownership, of course, but rather to emphasize  the “whole earth”  significance of the promise of Isaiah’s text, according to Walter Breuggemann’s interpretation. The passage, he argues, belongs to “the most expansive horizon of Israel’s testimony concerning the transactional quality of Yahweh’s life. Yahweh takes creation—the whole known, visible world—to be Yahweh’s partner” (Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 528). Belonging to “the extravagant poetry of Isaiah 60-62” which gives voice to “the new possibility of Israel after exile,” the verses of our lesson “concern the restoration of the fecundity of creation.” The term “married (b’ulah) appeals to the oldest traditions known to Israel concerning fertility,” language that speaks about the the restoration of the processes of blessing in creation, whereby Israel is to flourish. . . Thus the God who presided over the devastation of creation is the God who now has the power and the will to cause creation, for the benefit of Israel, to function fully.  All the causes and motivations for the nullification of exile are now forgiven and forgotten (cf. Isa 54:7-8).  The World begins again! (Brueggeman, p. 548).

The marraige thus represents the dream of lovers of creation, both then and now. The marriage envisioned here, McClure observes, “is not just a new ‘falling in love.’ Rather, this marriage is a social and political act, the assertion of God’s power for justice. God has heard the cries of the abused and suffering Israel and will now intervene to restore her honor in the face of her abusers” (McClure, p. 85). But it is not only Israel that will be married. This passage from Isaiah 62 is surpassed in stating “the capacity for the recovery of creation” only by Isaiah 65:17-25, which vouchsafes that “the newness of creation touches every aspect and phase of life:” whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and made whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world. . . not only Israel, not only the entire human community, but all of creation, so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘’All will be well and all will be well.’”  (Brueggemann, p. 549; the phrase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).

Yahweh’s resolve to new creation, Brueggemann concludes, is to “overcome all forsakeness and abandonment known in Israel and in the world. When creation is abandoned by Yahweh, it readily reverts to chaos. Here it is in Yahweh’s resolve, and in Yahweh’s very character, not to abandon, but to embrace” (Brueggemann, p. 551).

The voice of the psalmist for this Sunday basically concurs, if not quite so fullsomely or extravagently:

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,

      your faithfulness to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,

      your judgments are like the great deep;

You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

      All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:5-7)

And this, of course, accounts for the abundance of the wine at the wedding feast: 

They feast on the abundance of your house,

      and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;

      in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)

All will indeed be well, it would seem: even the date on the calendar for this wedding is righteous, here at the beginning of Epiphany, the season of light!  And as for it being the “third day,” astute readers might observe that it bodes well for the fertility of this partnership that it was on the third day of creation, according to Genesis 1:9-13, that God caused the dry land to appear amidst the waters under the sky, called it Earth, and invited it to “put forth vegetation: plants yelding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”

Nevertheless, all is in fact not well. Other elements of the narrative of the wedding in Cana now come into play: “They have no wine.” What kind of problem is it that they have no wine? Setting aside “physical need” as not the heart of the matter, surely the embarrassment for the hosts looms larger over the possibility of losing face and insulting the honor of their guests. What sort of failure does it point to?  Economic insufficiency, managerial incompetance, or the mistake of just inviting too many people? Have the early guests already selfishly consumed far more than their proper share? Or was it that year’s drought that explains the insufficiency? 

Although modern experience of the damage we humans do makes us daily more aware of the aweful possibilies for  human-caused desolation of the earth and destruction of its generative capacity, we can only speculate as to the precise cause of the failure in Cana; and the real problem that Mary identifies is in any case actually much more immediate:  ithout wine, the wedding celebration comes to an abrupt and very embarrassing end! In that respect, however, it is worth recalling here that, as we have noted above, in some sense the wedding feast at Cana is Wisdom’s feast. As Brown points out, Proverbs 9:5 “describes how Wisdom prepares a banquet for men, inviting them to eat of her bread and drink of her wine  (Brown, pp. 106-07). Brown connects the choice wine in the story of the wedding at Cana to the disciples’ belief in Jesus (although nothing is actually said of the disciple’ s imbibing).  But if this is indeed Wisdom’s feast, isn’t the lack of wine also in some sense her problem ? Isn’t the lack of wine which Jesus remedies actually metaphor for lack of wisdom?

We have already seen in our comments for the First Sunday of Christmas and the Epiphany of Our Lord the signficance of wisdom for the lectionary’s narrative in year C. Jesus is recognized early on in this narrative as a teacher of wisdom; interestingly enough, that takes place according to the Gospel of Luke in the context of his very first visit as a boy to the temple, “his Father’s house.” The lectionary’s narrative has also already provided opportunity to explore the ethical relevance of wisdom for care of creation, such as is present, in Larry Rasmussen’s view, in the Earth Charter. We will return to that ethical dimension in a moment, but here our interest is drawn back to the experience of wisdom in the temple. In addition to the ethical dimension of wisdom in creation, there is also the important dimension of worship.

Additional background from Walter Brueggemann concerning the nature of wisdom is required here. As we have already noted, the wedding of Yahweh and Earth symbolizes the fruitfulness of the land. This is what creation is about, Brueggemann noted: 

This act of ordering [in creation] is an act of sovereignty on the largest scale, whereby Yahweh’s good intention for life imposes a will on destructive, recalcitrant forces and energies.   The outcome, according to Israel’s testimony, is a place of fruitfulness, abundance, productivity, extravagance–all terms summed up in the word blessing. Thus in Gen 1:28, at the center of that first great chapter, Yahweh asserts, in a mood of authorization:

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

It is Yahweh’s will for this newly ordered world that it should be fruitful, invested with “the power of fertility.” Yahweh has authorized in the world the inscrutable force of generosity, so that the earth can sustain all its members, and so that the earth has within itself the capacity for sustenance, nurture, and regeneration (Brueggemann, p. 529).

As the Psalm for the day has already reminded us, humans have no monopoly on this capacity for generosity: “every genus and species of creation can ‘bring forth,’ according to its kind.” But humans do have special responsibility with respect to the ongoing excercize of this capacity: “creation requires of human persons, the ones given dominion, that they practice wisdom. (Brueggemann, p. 531). 

The importance of this expectation cannot be emphasized too strongly. Human wisdom, as Brueggemann summarizes it, is the critical, reflective, discerning reception of Yahweh’s gift of generosity. That gift is not for self-indulgence, exploitation, acquisitiveness, or satiation. It is for careful husbanding, so that resources should be used for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures. Wisdom is the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the “wisdom of things,” which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it (Brueggeman, p. 532).

And when wisdom on the part of the human community is lacking? What then? How does the community address the threat “where those shapes and interconnection” of the world are “violated or disregarded,” and “trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure”? How then should that lack be remedied ? To return to the wedding story, how should the lack of Wisdom’s wine be remedied?

For Israel, Bueggemann argues, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced “is public worship. Indeed, he insists, a proper reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a shows that “creation is an ‘enactment,’ done in worship, in order to resist the negation of the world of exile.” In addition, instructions  given by Yahweh to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle,  “consist in seven speeches, matching the seven days of creation and culminating, like Gen 2:1-4a, in the provision for the Sabbath.” Consequently, creation should not be “understood as a theory or an an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” The parallel between creation and tablernacle (later, the temple) “suggests that while creation may be an experience of the world, in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman suggests, permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living. Thus creation, in such a context, has concerete and immediate pastoral implications (Brueggeman, pp. 533-34).

But what if the possibility of such regenerative worship should be closed off? It is essential for the understanding of Mary’s observation about the lack of wine that early readers of the Gospel would have been very much mindful of the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. There will be no more wine of Wisdom flowing to the people from the temple in Jerusalem. In the reader’s world and so perhaps also on the level of the meta-narrative of the marriage of heaven and earth, that is the awful possibility confronting the people of Jerusalem.  Again the first lesson is highly instructive: it was “for Zions’ sake” that Yahweh “would not keep silent” and “for Jerusalem’s sake” that Yahweh “will not rest until her vindicaton shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). If there “is no wine,” does it mean that the prophecy is nullified? Could it mean that in fact there is no real wedding between Yahweh and Earth to celebrate? Is the land again vulnerable to destruction and desolation? As concerns the narrative of the Gospel, that  has not yet taken place. The account of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple follows immediately after the Wedding of Cana, however, including John’s deliberate substitution of  the “temple of his [Jesus’] body” for the great temple when Jesus offers his opponents the sign,”Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). Thus, in both narratives, the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the temple, Jesus points ahead to his “hour” when the significance of the new supply of wine will be made clear. What the steward remarks on so naively is true: Jesus is the “good wine” that Yahweh the bridegroom of the Earth has saved for last!

In time to come, Jesus “hour,” Jesus will be acknowledged as source of all Wisdom and worshipped as the manifestation on Earth of God’s glory. That time is anticipated here in the story of the wedding at Cana, and it is in this sense that he “revealed his glory.” But will the church that so worships and indeed drinks of Wisdom’s wine in the Eucharist know itself in this age of Earth’s ecological degradation as celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, which overcomes Earth’s forsakenness and desolation under the domination of humans? Larry Rasmussen speaks of the need in our time for a new moral vision, to provide “the basic storyline for the morality we live by, or seek to live by.” A possible alternative to the industrial civilization of the American empire, he suggests, is the ancient Christian vision of what might today be called “ecological civilization.” Participants in this vision knew themselves to be responsible for maintaining in their own place a community based on the principles of wisdom that they hoped to see installed across the whole inhabitated earth. “This ancient unitary vision,” Rasmussen writes, accords with the seamlessness, or integrity, of creation in the Hebrew Bible. . . . Creation is the abode, the dwelling place, of God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining Spirit; the transcendent God is “home” here, as are humans and all life. Early theologians even referred to the way by which creation is upheld and redeemed as the “economy of God” (oikonomia tou Theo). . . . The same seamlessness, or integrity, continues with the conviction that this vast cosmos is a shared home. All are born to belonging, and all—human beings and otherkind—are co-inhabitants who live into one another’s lives and die into one another’s deaths in a complex set of relationships that sustain (or degrade) the life of creatures and the land (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 147-48.

First Corinthians 12:1-11, our second lesson for this Sunday, Rasmussen notes, is an expression of this vision. Housekhold dwellers, oikeioi, are tasked “to build the community and share the gifts of the Spirit for the common good.” What would it take to bring this vision to our life today? It  would require making “Earth’s human economy . . . compatible with Ecumenical and Ecological Earth:”

The aim of economic life would need to shift from maximizing the production of goods and services to a three-part agenda of production, relatively equitable distribution, and ecological regenerativity. All economic activity would need to operate within the ecological limits of the planet and in the face of its hot and crowded condition. “Eco-nomics” replaces economic and ecology by joining both. . . . The new eco-nomic paradigm would reject growth and high consumption as the mark of mature economies. This does not preclude growth as good; it only says that growth must be ecologically sustainable as well as regenerative, for the long term. It must reduce rather than increase the wealth and income gaps within and between nations and regions, a formidable challenge in that climate change will exacerbate these inequalities. . . . The new economic paradign would also reject freedom as unrestrained political and market individualism and cultivate freedom as thriving in community in ways that contribute to personal well-being and the common good, including the goods of the commons  (soil, air, water, energy) (Rasmussen, pp,149-50.)

More timely than ever, in Rasmussens view,  this “oikos conception of Earth” recognizes that “to renew the face of the Earth (Psalm 104) as the work of the divine economy is the shared human calling” (Rasmussen, p. 150). It would truly be, we might add, the marriage of heaven and earth, and there would be no shortage of wine!

For 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

 

 

The Epiphany of Our Lord in Year C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community.

By Dennis Ormseth

Epiphany of Our Lord

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The narrative of the church’s lectionary seems disordered. Last Sunday we considered Jesus in his childhood; with this Sunday’s story of the visit of the “wise men from the East;” however, we return to Jesus’ birth. For the congregation, this return will no doubt serve to complete “the story of Christmas”: as the Christmas trees are removed from the sanctuary, the last of the cookies are consumed, and gifts shelved in appropriate places, Christmas is “over.” In the introduction to a commentary on “The Season of Epiphany,” however, John McClure insightfully corrects this common perception, quoting  Ann Weems’ poem, “It is Not Over”:

It is not over,

   this birthing.

There are always newer skies

                            into which

                                    God can throw stars.

                        When we begin to think

                            that we can predict the Advent of God,

                            that we can box the Christ

                                    in a stable in Bethlehem,

                             that’s just the time

                                    that God will be born

                             in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

“The lectionary texts from Epiphany to the Transfiguration,” McClure observes, “shout emphatically, ‘It is not over!’” With these texts, McClure suggests, “ the church celebrates the manifestation or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus as Savior.”  (New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004, ed. by Harold W. Rast. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; p. 65). It is particularly noteworthy, then, that this first narrative of manifestation is comprehensive in scope, including within the orbit of that salvation  as it does both “the nations” and the cosmos. Christmas is indeed not “over”: we have just begun to spell out its significance for care of all creation.

Raymond Brown sums up the meaning of the story of the magi this way:”In the persons of the magi, Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York:  Doubleday, 1993; p. 199). With modest revision of Brown’s thesis, we propose that precisely because of their birthright of the revelation of God in nature, Matthew’s Gentile Christians would appreciate that the Scriptures of the Jews in fact promise the salvation, not only of Gentiles, but also of the cosmos which was indeed their means to knowledge of God. Their homage of Jesus as savior, we want to suggest, was an appropriate response to their discovery of what they saw as wisdom regarding the cosmos and its future in the plan of God.

The texts assembled by the church for this first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany set out resources for this discovery. The story of the visit of the wise men narrates the fulfillment of the promise from Isaiah 60, that in the midst of “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,” as the lesson reads, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:2).It is expected, then, that the coming of the Savior will be attended by cosmic signs such as the star of Bethlehem. More importantly, as part of the working out of the plan “of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), his coming will also lead to cosmic reconciliation, according to the plan which “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Prophet and psalmist join in describing aspects of this reconciliation in affirmations that portend what we would today consider ecological justice and sustainability, as well as social justice. His coming will cause hearts to “thrill and rejoice” because “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (60:5):

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,

            give deliverance to the needy,

            and crush the oppressor.

May he live while the sun endures,

            and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 

May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

In his days may righteousness flourish

            and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 

May he have dominion from sea to sea,

            and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .

May all kings fall down before him,

            all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,

            the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

                                   (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading). 

With the Apostle Paul, the church is commissioned to bear “this wisdom of God in its rich variety” to all, even to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

What at the outset of this comment seemed a disordered sequence of texts is actually very well ordered with respect to our concern for care of creation. Last Sunday, we learned of Jesus “growth in wisdom” and explored the meaning of that growth with respect to his experience of God as creator; this Sunday, in turn, we are given a mandate to not only to explore more fully the content of that wisdom, but also to advocate for it publicly, in contention with “spiritual forces of evil” that are hostile to God (Ephesians 6:12; cf. McClure, p. 71.) We return briefly, therefore, to Larry Rasmussen’s argument for wisdom as “the biblical eco-theology and ethic,” as an illustration of what this mandate might mean for us in a time of global ecological crisis. 

Rasmussen locates examples of wisdom in a great variety of genre, from didactic sayings to treatises that “grapple with life’s most difficult or perplexing circumstances–disease, calamity, boom and bust, the drama of good and evil,” along with “prayers, meditations, parables, and passages that invite a return visit over and again;” practices such as Sabbath-keeping and writing poetry also give expression to principles of wisdom. A more “ambitious and far-reaching” example of “wisdom-in-the-making” that directly addresses the global ecological crisis, however, is the Earth Charter.

After the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, a Charter Commission launched what turned out to be “the most inclusive process ever associated with an international declaration, with grassroots participation by communities and associations of all kinds across all sectors of society.” While not a formal treaty, the Charter “seeks universal recognition and international backing as a ‘soft-law’ document, morally binding upon those who subscribe to it.” Generated with “high levels of participation cutting across all sectors of society, with a determined effort to include historically underrepresented voices, two aspects of the charter in particular “command the attention of religious ethics:  the Charter’s high levels of representation and agency in the effort to realize the ancient dream of an Earth ethic; and its moral universe, with respect for the full community of life and its diversity as foundational.”

Central to the Earth Charter is a vision of sustainable community that accords well with the expectations for social and ecological justice proposed in this Sunday’s texts. According to the charter, sustainable community is the effort to preserve or create all together or in part: greater economic sell-sufficiency locally and regionally, with a view to the bio-regions themselves as basic to human organization; agriculture appropriate to a region and in the hands of local owners and workers using local knowledge and crop varieties, with the ability to save their own seeds and treat their own plants and soils with their own products; the preservation of local and regional traditions, language and cultures and a resistance to global homogenization of culture and values; a revival of religious life and a sense of the sacred, in place of a way of life that leaches the sacred from the everyday and reduces life to the utilitarian; the repair of the moral fiber of society on some terms other than sovereign consumerism; resistance to the full-scale commodification of things, including knowledge; the internalization of costs to the local, regional, and global environment in the price of goods; and the protection of ecosystems and the cultivation of Earth, in the language of the Charter, as ‘a sacred trust held in common.’ (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 347)

The Charter qualifies as genuine wisdom, Rasmussen contends, because it is “attentive to questions that global capitalism, even as sustainable development, rarely asks: What are the essential bonds of human community and culture, as well as the bonds with the more-than-human world? What is the meaning of such primal bonds for a healthy, concrete way of life; what are cultural wealth and biological wealth and what wisdom do we need to sustain them in the places people live with the rest of life’s community?” (Rasmussen, p. 348).

“Wisdom,” Rasmussen concludes, “has found a home here.” Has God, we might well ask, thrown a new star in our sky? And will the church pay proper homage to it, and follow it?

For 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

 

29 Lutherans in PA were empowered with creation justice tools! (2013)

Many voices come together to make big reverberations!

Twenty-nine Lutherans from across Pennsylvania and beyond gathered at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, PA, the last weekend in January, 2013 to become LRC trainers.  They were empowered to return to their synods and congregations with the tools, connections and renewed faith to restore creation.

The workshop utilized the action steps outlined in a collaborative LRC Self-Organizing Kit for congregations wishing to integrate Earth care in all their ministries. Many specific teachings which resonate with Lutheran theology are thoughtfully considered in this document by theologian Rev. David Rhoads. The diversity of backgrounds in the interactive workshop brought richness to discussions both during and after official “class” time. Ages ranged from college students to retired laity. Professional backgrounds included teaching, civil engineering, outdoor ministry, laboratory technicians, and of course, clergy from urban to rural communities.

The workshop was fortunate to have several representatives from the “larger” church’s efforts in advocacy including: Rev. Leah Schade, founder of the Interfaith Sacred Earth Coalition of the Susquehanna Valley (ISEC), Alycia Ashburn, Director of Creation Care Campaign at SojournersRev. Amy E. Reumann and Rev. Paul Lubold from Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa), and Director of the ELCA’s Washington Office, Rev. Andrew Genszler.

The training facilitator, Phoebe Morad, commented: “While many of us feel at times we are just one small voice, this gathering reminds us that we are not alone and that we are called by and supported with our Lutheran faith to carry out this work.”

As a result of this workshop every synod in the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware is now equipped with a team of LRC trainers who are available and eager to share the techniques and insight necessary to integrate care for creation in every aspect of our Christian lives. Each LRC trainer left the workshop with a plan to reach out to interested congregations in their synod and will eventually hold a networking event for the region to continue the ripple effect of this awareness.

Congregations or individuals who are eager to have this training in their congregation or synod, please reach out to Lutherans Restoring Creation!