Tag Archives: 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 10, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Ocean Coral Illuminates the “Living Stone” of Christ. Leah Schade reflects on 1 Peter 2 and John 14.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” said Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2:4). What does it mean to be a living stone? How can a stone be alive?

In 2014 Time magazine featured an article about a global effort to photo-document and study coral reefs using state-of-the-art technology (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View.” Time, April 14, 2014). According to the article, about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef. Coral is a living organism, even though at first glance it just looks and feels like colorful rock formations.

We might say that coral is like a living stone. “Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy). Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef” (p. 43). The structure is sturdy and yet porous, allowing water to flow through it, absorbing nutrients, housing microscopic life forms. Coral reefs provide habitat, food and spawning grounds for countless species of fish and ocean plants. “In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral” (p. 43).

Seeing images of these coral reefs brings to mind Jesus’ metaphor for the dwelling place of God: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). What better way to think about the infinite hospitality of God than to compare it to a beautiful stretch of coral reef hosting so many different life forms! Psalm 31 also reinforces the imagery of God as a sanctuary of rock, strong and protective—similar to the coral reef that hosts a dazzling array of life-forms. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge . . . Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2-3). The preacher with access to Powerpoint and a screen for worship services may want to project images of coral reefs so that congregants can have these colorful cathedrals in mind as they make the connection between God as sanctuary and rock and Jesus as living stone.

For some churches, May is the month in which they celebrate Volunteer Recognition Sunday. It is a time to recognize the infinite variety of gifts that each of us brings to the church. We might think of the church as a beautiful coral reef, playing host to so many different individuals and families, an entire ecosystem of faith. Each person has something to contribute to the coral reef of the church. And as a spiritual house of living stones, we each are nurtured by this community, this ecosystem of faith.

But like the coral reefs in our planet’s oceans, church ecosystems are sensitive to systemic and environmental conditions. The Time article listed overfishing, coastal overpollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs. Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened. In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years.

A parallel can be seen in the state of our churches as well. The ecosystems of faith that used to thrive in our society are now finding the conditions around us to be increasingly hostile to the life of the church. Secularization, competition for parishioners’ time, the “pollution” of Sabbath-time by commerce, the growth of “the nones” (folks who indicate adherence to “no religion” in surveys), and the perceived irrelevancy of churches and faith to growing numbers of people are all having detrimental effects on our churches.

What many do not realize, however, is just how valuable the church is to society. The same is true for coral reefs which often go unrecognized for just how much they contribute to our food supply, our economies, and even our medical treatments. Similarly, the church throughout history to the present day has been responsible for much good that most people take for granted. Charity toward widows and orphans, hospitals, public education, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the raising of children with strong moral and ethical values, have all had their origins in churches and other houses of worship, and have had a profoundly positive impact on human society over the centuries. Today, churches contribute much to their communities and society in general by addressing poverty and assisting the poor, responding to natural disasters, providing relief to refugees, advocating for society’s most vulnerable citizens, providing counseling and spiritual direction, distributing food and clothing, and providing leadership and resources for justice issues. Too, some of the greatest leaders lifting up and inspiring humanity’s highest ideals have arisen from churches.

The Time article noted that public attention to the plight of coral reefs has suffered because these underwater kingdoms are not easy to see. Very few people ever get to swim amid coral reefs. And there hasn’t been much photo-documentation of these fragile ecosystems. That’s one of the reasons the new 360-degree cameras they are using to photograph the ocean floor are so important (similarly to the way Google Earth has shown us the surface of our planet in astounding ways). Oceanographers have come to recognize the truth of a familiar adage: we will not save what we do not love. Thus they are doing their best to help us fall in love with our coral reefs so that as a human species we will take steps to preserve what is left.

Churches, too, have suffered from lack of visibility and accessibility. Very few people in society come into our churches—swim amid our coral reefs, so to speak. That’s why it’s so important to tell people what goes on in our churches, what great work we do to serve local communities and the larger society. I’ve often mused that churches need to hire publicity directors and public relations experts so that, like the oceanographers who bring these images of the reefs to light, the contributions of our churches can be highlighted in our communities. People will not save what they do not love. We should help people to fall in love with our churches, even if they do not attend them, so that they will come to cherish the incredibly valuable “ecosystems of faith” in our society and communities.

In the sermon, the preacher might show and pass around pieces of coral. Let them feel the strength and texture of the “living stone.” Let them see the tiny holes where the algae live. Let them imagine their church as modelling what God intends for the Peaceable Kingdom—a healthy, beautiful, thriving, protective—and protected—ecosystem that welcomes a stunning diversity of life that benefits the entire ocean of human and planetary life.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Let us live into a vision of sustainability for the whole Earth community. Leah Schade reflects on the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an eco-theological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.

We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.

For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths.

But as the psalmist reminds us, there will be difficult times in life. This psalm does not shy away from that fact. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” What exactly are the rod and staff? A shepherd always carries a long stick to beat away any predators that may attack the sheep. And the staff is the crook, a long hook used to reach out and pull back the sheep that are wandering close to danger. The psalmist is saying that just the sight of the rod and the staff are a comfort to him, assuring him of God’s attentiveness and protection.

Then the imagery of God in the psalm changes from a shepherd to that of a host in a welcoming household. God lays out a banquet before us, even with enemies lurking around. Here the sacrament of communion may be evoked. At the Eucharistic table we come to partake of the bread and the wine. A whole world of worry awaits us beyond the meal. But for this moment of kairos time we’re invited to the banquet of Jesus Christ to feed on the spiritual food of forgiveness.

Then we hear the promise of abundance, oil running down our cheeks, smoothing out the rough spots. Cups are overflowing with goodness and mercy. The community of believers in Acts 2 is a heartening portrayal of this kind of abundance. Wonders and signs are performed by the apostles, rich and poor share resources in common so that there is plenty for all. In what today’s terms might be called a “sustainable community,” no one goes hungry and all are filled with praise of God, so much so that their community grows by the day with people drawn to a way of life that is countercultural and life-giving.

Given the reality of our present situation where the gap between economic classes is so grotesquely huge, and the strain on Earth’s capacity to sustain life is so severe, we may wonder if an Acts 2 community could ever be possible. Theologian Margaret Swedish has pondered this very question, noting that the concept of “sustainability” is actually not enough. “[W]e are still largely ignoring that other elephant in the room—the crisis of ecological overshoot. We need not only to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to save the planet for future generations, but also to consume less, a lot less. And we cannot ask this of the poor” (Margaret Swedish, Living Beyond the End of the World: A Spirituality of Hope, Maryknoll: Orbis, p. 171). She cites Sven Burmeister’s work for guidance:

Burmeister gave us a golden rule for how to approach this challenge: ‘per capita resource use should not exceed the level the globe can sustain for all the world’s people’; [Burmeister, “Can the Twilight of the Gods Be Prevented?” Friday Morning Reflections at the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 1991)] that is, our per capita consumption must shrink to a level that the globe can sustain for all people. But more, far more, per capita consumption in wealthy countries must shrink enough so that the per capita consumption of the poor can rise while keeping consumption overall at a level the globe can sustain (Swedish, p. 85).

Here, then, is another way to think of the rod and staff from Psalm 23. We need God’s rod to beat back the predators of greed, self-centeredness, global financialization, and mindless consumerism. God’s staff is needed to pull us back from the cliff’s edge of global ecological disaster and set us on a path that is life-giving for all Earth’s creatures, including humanity, as well as Earth itself. Says Swedish: “The Earth can heal, if we get out of the way, if we learn to live within the limits of our creation, but the balance will be new, and one of the questions is what of life as we know it will remain in that new balance” (p. 137).

Psalm 23 ends with the image of living in God’s house for eternity, making it a favorite for funerals. But it can also be read as “returning” or “coming home” to this very planet which has been the source of abundance throughout the collective life of the human race. A sermon that helps a congregation creatively imagine an Acts 2 community that includes all our Earth-kin can help the hearers live into the eschatological vision of God—“the restoration of soul, the protection from death, the gifts of abundant and unending life, and the meal in God’s presence,” (John Eaton, The Psalms, Continuum: New York, 2005, p. 123). It is the psalm of the sacraments—baptism and communion. It is the psalm of life and death—the dark valley and the house of the Lord. This psalm touches on every important aspect of our lives. And it is the psalm that each of us should know by heart.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Third Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

We need a “conversion to Earth!” Leah Schade reflects on lives being changed.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Hearts burning, eyes opened, lives changed, communities revitalized. These are the outcomes following the aftershocks of Jesus’ resurrection that we read about in today’s lessons. Two followers of Jesus recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of bread after having been instructed by him as a mysterious stranger accompanying them on their walk to Emmaus. Peter’s sermon leads to the conversion of three thousand people to faith in Jesus Christ. In both cases a new start is made with hope for a better way to live and stronger faith in God.

Many environmentalists and eco-theologians speak of a different kind of conversion that is needed today as we witness the global climate and biotic catastrophe that is being wreaked upon  Earth. Thomas Berry, Larry Rasmussen, and Mark Wallace all speak of a “conversion to Earth.” Says Rasmussen when talking of Thomas Berry’s work The Great Work (Harmony Books, New York, 2000):

“[W]e badly need a religious and moral conversion to Earth, not to say cosmos, if ‘ecozoic’ rather than ‘technozoic’ (Berry, p. 55) is to characterize the coming great work. ‘Growing people up’ for a different world, one that assumes Earth as the comprehensive community, is the task, a task which understands that human ethics are derivative from Earth and the ecological imperative, not vice versa” (Larry Rasmussen, “The Great Work Underway,” http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/TheGreatWorkUnderway.html, accessed April 21, 2014).

Would that the conversion to Earth would happen as swiftly as the conversions that occurred in the readings we have for the Third Sunday of Easter! The two disciples’ eyes were immediately opened when Jesus revealed himself at table. And in response to Peter’s sermon to the crowd gathered on the Day of Pentecost, those gathered were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know what they could do in response to the knowledge of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Three thousand persons were baptized and reoriented their lives around the apostles’ teaching as they began building community, and sharing meals and prayers.

Realistically, we know that the chances of our ecologically-oriented sermon converting even one or two hearers to Earth-consciousness may be slim. Yet we are compelled to prophetically speak about God’s incarnating and redeeming our sin-filled world as much as Peter was to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem. The urgency of the need for prophetic and pastoral voices in the pulpit is underscored by nearly daily reports of the worsening ecosystems of our planet—from coral reefs bleaching and dying, to species disappearing, to island nations submerging.

Wallace warns of a “permanent trauma to the divine life itself” through the crucifixion-like ecocide that humans continually inflict upon Earth and its inhabitants (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature, Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, p. 129). His powerful equation of God’s suffering through Jesus on the cross with God’s suffering through the embodied Spirit in Earth is meant to spur “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments.” This conversion persuades us “to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures” (p. 136).

In the passage from 1 Peter, the faithful are urged to “live in reverent fear during the time of [their] exile” (v. 17). In many ways, humanity is living in a time of self-imposed exile within our very planet. And yet Peter reminds his readers that they “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] ancestors” (v. 18). We, too, have inherited futile ways from our ancestors. The way we power our industries and transportation with fossil fuels; the mindless accumulation of goods with no thought to their source, production, or destination after we dispose of them; the way we commodify every aspect of Creation and assess its value only in monetary or capitalized terms: these are all futile ways of living passed down to us that are bringing humanity and the planet to ruination. And like the ransom of which Peter speaks, our lytron, literally, our liberation, cannot be bought with wealth. It is the self-giving, self-emptying love of Jesus Christ that creates the freedom for which we long.

Thus, Peter encourages us to “trust in God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (v. 21). In this way, the work we do in raising awareness, cultivating new attitudes, and reshaping habits is built on trust in the God of the resurrection, even while we are in the midst of ecological crucifixion. Peter continues: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (v. 22). What would it look like to live in obedience to the truth of the ways of God’s Creation, the laws of nature? How would things be different if we respected Earth and all its flora and fauna “deeply from the heart?”

Berry coined the term “Ecozoic Era” to describe the period he would like to see emerge when humans “would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner.” He states, “We need to establish ourselves in a single integral community including all component members of planet Earth” (Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2009, pp. 48-9). This can only happen, says Berry, when humans come to see their place and role in the universe as completely dependent on the habitats, flora, and fauna of Earth, all of which have intrinsic value not dependent on human needs or wants. Accepting this limited role with limited rights is the first, and most difficult step that humans must take. The next step for healing the damaged planet is based on an operating principle of creating continuity between the human and all other forms of life in every aspect of human life, from its institutions and professions to its programs and activities. If these two steps are taken, Berry sees hope for humanity’s and the planet’s survival.

What is the Church’s role in this Ecozoic era?  Berry sees it as potentially a very compelling one, capable of re-establishing both its internal cohesion and its external relevance for the larger society:

“At this moment of transition the twenty-first-century Church, which has lost a sense of its basic purposes in these past centuries, could restore its efficacy and extend its influence over human affairs. The Church could be a powerful force in bringing about the healing of a distraught Earth. The Church could provide an integrating reinterpretation of our New Story of the universe. In this manner it could renew religion in its primary expression as celebration, as ecstatic delight in existence. This, I propose, is the Great Work to which Christianity is called in these times” (p. 53).

This will entail a new understanding emerging in every aspect of the Church, from its beliefs and disciplines, to its governance and worship. It may begin with something as simple as the breaking of bread at the Eucharistic table. Seeing the connection between Christ’s body and Earth’s body out of which the grain for the bread is sprouted could spark the recognition of our own connection to it all. And then, though we hardly dared hope it, hearts may begin burning, eyes may be opened, lives may be changed, and communities may be revitalized.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Second Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Celebrating the Subversive Life of the Resurrection Leah Schade reflects on the lessons of Holy Humor Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

For a growing number of churches, the Second Sunday of Easter is celebrated as “Holy Humor Sunday.” In the early church, the Sunday after Easter was observed by the faithful as a day of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The custom of Bright Sunday, as it was called, came from the idea of some early church theologians that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Easter was God’s supreme joke played on death—risus paschalis—“the Easter laugh!” On this Sunday people dress in clown outfits, paint their faces, wear underwear on the outside of their clothes, men dress as women (and vice versa), and jugglers and jokesters add to the carnival of joy. As Campbell and Cilliers describe it: “Christian carnivals and other carnivalesque celebrations embody the new age—the new, inverted order—that has broken into the world in Jesus Christ” (Charles L. Campbell and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012, p. 77).

Preaching on this Sunday might interpret Jesus’ breathing on his disciples as the “holy laugh” that brings forgiveness and new life. How good it feels to take in that air, feel it expanding our lungs, and expelling it in a physiological act unique to the human animal—laughing. Further, the image of the divine ruah, or breath of God, could be developed from an ecotheological perspective in terms of the breath of fresh air for which our planet, choking on pollution and climate disruption, longs. Like Ezekiel prophesying to the wind in the Valley of Dry Bones, the very Spirit of God enters into lifeless bodies and revives them. In a great rush the wind blows—the same wind that blew across the waters of creation; the same wind that parted the Red Sea; the same wind that will blow into an upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. This wind—the same wind that was first blown into the lungs of Adam—is blown into the lungs of the disciples bereft and grieving, and today is blown into our atmosphere longing to be set free.

Jesus as Trickster interrupting the reign of evil and death with his ruah-breath of laughter and forgiveness is a powerful image. The figure of the trickster or fool is an archetype in all societies and cultures. Tricksters function differently in various cultures, but Campbell and Cilliers identify three fundamental aspects of the fool’s activity: 1) instigating and sustaining liminality, 2) changing perspective, and 3) calling for discernment (p. 70). Regarding the first, they define liminality as “the experience of being and moving in between spaces and times,” explaining that:

“the folly of the gospel interrupts the presuppositions and myths of the old age and creates a liminal, threshold space at the juncture of the ages—a space in which change (as fundamental transformation) can take place. We have suggested that the Spirit is active in that liminal space to keep believers changing and moving from the old age to the new” (p. 39).

The authors identify Jesus as “the ultimate liminal figure”:

“[C]rossing boundaries, teaching and preaching with intentional ambiguity, and calling people to perceive and live at the threshold of the old age and the new—in the reign of God that is breaking into the world . . . . [Jesus embodies] in his own person the threshold between the human and the divine, between the old age and the new” (p. 103).

Jesus, too, in his role as Trickster enlists the elements of nature and non-human kin to “play.” Wind and wave obey his command (Matthew 8:24-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). Birds and flowers serve as his teaching partners (Luke 12:24-32), as do fig trees (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, Luke 21:29-33), wind and weather (Matthew 5:44-45, Luke 12:54-56, John 3:8). Water sneakily becomes wine in stone jars at the Cana wedding (John 2:1-11), and holds him up when he walks across the sea (Mark 6:48-51, John 6:18-21). Stones cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). Matter is itself in flux as Jesus walks through walls and appears in front of locked doors (John 20:19). In all these cases, Creation surprises and even suspends its “natural” processes for the sake of thwarting the expectations of humanity.

And there is no greater surprise in Creation than that Easter morning which witnessed the reversal of the “natural” process of death—death that came by the unnatural hand of evil. The resurrection is God’s surprise reversal of the Powers that we assume are triumphant and unassailable. When Jesus showed Thomas his scars, Campbell and Cilliers remind us that “Christ carries in his resurrected body the coarse and vulgar joke of crucifixion. The joke, one might say, lives on . . . . [T]hrough the resurrection Christ defeats the final enemy—death—and sets believers free from the fear of death so we might take up the foolish way of the cross” (pp. 34, 35).

Peter is among the first to proclaim the way in which Jesus’ cross and resurrection have interrupted the power of death. In his address to the people gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14a, 22-32), he explains how the resurrection has created a space where we may be liberated from the deadly ways of the past and rejoice with gladness in God’s presence, just as their ancestor David did (Psalm 16:9). David, of course, danced before the Ark of the Covenant, playing the part of the fool, much to the embarrassment of his wife. But his joy could not be contained. On this Holy Humor Sunday, we might even invite the congregation to dance in the aisles, form a conga line, and laugh with unfettered joy!

It is the preacher-as-trickster who can help to birth this proclamation of God’s foolish power through preaching that inhales the ruah of Easter. L. Susan Bond states that “[p]reaching evokes or names the presence of God within the community and the vision of God for creation . . . . The community is a sign to the world, in its mutuality and its work for justice, that God is still alive and reconciling” (L. Susan Bond, Trouble with Jesus, St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 1999, p. 116). We, as preachers in the Christian carnival, as ring-leaders in the circus of silliness, can help the Thomases in our midst to learn that “it is good to be unsettled. It is good to be drawn out of our theological certainties and clear identities into the fluidity and flux of a liminal gospel . . . . [T]he foolish gospel we have encountered is profoundly disruptive and unsettling” (Campell and Cilliers, p. xii).

Thus a sermon can create and encourage holy laughter to create the liminal space so needed in our world of human-made concrete and steel that leaves so little room for nature. John McClure describes such preaching in this way:

“This group of preachers begins with a powerful experience of the resurrection community as it lives over against and out from under the principalities and powers that distort reality and create structures of oppression in the world. By living more and more into its identity as the resurrection community, the church becomes the locus for resisting and contesting the presumed hegemony of these demonic and oppressive powers. These preachers feel deeply that they are part of a countercultural Christian resistance movement (Christ’s body) that is, in no uncertain terms, at war with the structural forces of oppression, violence, and greed in the world.”[1]

The preacher will want to lift up examples of communities and instances that demonstrate living “over against and out from under” the androcentric principalities and powers of the fossil fuel industry industry, corporate fascism, and the prejudices of classism that “distort reality and create structures of oppression” against the people and their surrounding ecosystems. The preacher can provide a model for the church of what it means to live into its “identity as a resurrection community.” The carnivalesque assembly on that Holy Humor Sunday can itself provide a witness. What our motley crews of Christians create is a kind of carnival that turns the tables in a playful, irreverent way in order to empower us for sharing the holy ruah with the world.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

[1] McClure, Other-Wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics, 137.

Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Day) in Year A (Schade)

How does creation participate in this new life? Leah Schade reflects on Christ’s passion and resurrection through an ecological hermeneutic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Easter Day, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:102, 14-24
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 38:1-10

What a wonderful coincidence that the celebration of Easter is the same week as the secular celebration of Earth Day this year. Peter reminded the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house: “Jesus’ commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Thus the preacher might consider taking a cue from St. Francis of Assisi, preacher of sermons to his Brothers and Sisters in Creation, and address the “congregation” of the other-than-human members of God’s Earth-cathedral.[1] The Earth-congregation can be directly addressed and the humans told that they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism would be de-centered from the outset.

Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community could be identified by their role within the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The ecological hermeneutic can be woven throughout the sermon by seeing the events from the nature characters’ points-of-view. They were, in fact, witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and were co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. The voice of the stones echoed the ringing “hosannas” along the road to Jerusalem. The Palm leaves waved from trees and human hands as the donkey’s hooves carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gethsemane. The sun hid its face during the torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And two Trees—both felled in the prime of their lives after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes—were lashed together and forced to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Even the Rocks trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.

By the same token, Creation witnessed the resurrection. Earth essentially took Jesus’ body into herself and birthed him from her womb as the Resurrected One, the earthquake reminiscent of the “labor pangs” Paul mentions in Romans 8:22. Imagine the elements of Creation providing a unique witness to the resurrection, allowing us to see that morning from a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. The description of what they see is echoed by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection:

Only by locating the renewed body within the larger ecologies in which it dwells—of which it is a shifting configural space—do we allow renewed powers of desire and of healing to release themselves into feedback loops large enough to ’embrace’ us, to feed us back to ourselves more animate. . . [T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 179, 180).

Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, could enact a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situate the other-than-human characters as equals in the theo-drama of the Passion and Resurrection.

The sermon might remind Creation of its continued suffering of ecological-crucifixions such as clear-cutting and deforestation, oil and gas drilling, air pollution and children’s asthma, global warming and climate change. Mark Wallace makes the connection between the cruciform Spirit and “the continual debasement of the earth and its inhabitants . . . [T]he Spirit bears the cross of a planet under siege as she lives under the burden of humankind’s ecological sin” (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, pp. 23-4).

But even while recognizing that we are in the midst of “an environmental Good Friday,” the sermon proclaims the Cosmic Christ resurrected and Earth’s creatures as witnesses to the miracle. In this way, the Lutheran concept of Deus Absconditus, the hiddenness of God under the form of opposites, can be invoked and listeners given hope in the midst of the darkest hour of our modern-day Easter vigil. Further, the sermon must emphasize that Christ appears to us and calms our fears: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). At the same time we are given instruction to “go” and announce to the world the one whom we have seen, the miracle of the resurrection that Creation itself announces to us. Concretizations of Earth-renewal and community restoration would be helpful in enabling the congregation to visualize what eco-resurrection might look like. What are examples of the local community “preaching” that Christ’s resurrection is for the whole Earth? Where are waterways being cleaned up, brownfields being reclaimed, churches being revived by their attention to Earth-care, conservation, and investments in renewable energy?

When, like the women on Easter morning, we stand at the tomb of the crucified Earth looking at the enormous stone blocking our way, might we look forward to the Resurrected One surprising us by calling our name and opening our eyes to Creation transformed to new life? Even as we do all we can to resist evil and teach our children to cherish and protect Earth, speak out against eco-injustice, and change hearts, minds, practices and laws, sometimes it seems all we see is Earth’s crucified body crumpled and dead all around us. An ecological homiletic urges us to return again and again to the biblical accounts of the resurrection to recover sacred memory and thus to renew hope.

What can we learn about resurrection from the biblical texts? The key is in how Jesus appeared: the same, yet different; transformed, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be the resurrected Earth, which also bears the scars. Nevertheless, new life will emerge in ways that are sure to surprise us with God’s grace.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/


[1] Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82) [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.