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Preaching on Creation: Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2) in Year B (Ormseth18)

In Christ’s Resurrection the Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on creation acting on behalf of its Creator.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

In the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, creation speaks and acts on behalf of its Creator, as well as for itself. In the Gospel, a vine speaks about its place in the vineyard: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5). And in the first reading, the wilderness provides water for a thirsty, spiritual traveler (Acts 8:37). No, this is not the way we usually read these narratives. The words, we know, are from Jesus, and the wilderness enters the story of the Ethiopian eunuch by virtue of his route home. But consider what this reading from the perspective of the participating creation does for our sense of the relationship between humankind and otherkind, of what nature does for us, rather than what we do with nature. A vine captures for us it’s essential place in relationship between the owner of the vineyard and those who enjoy its fruit, and how that relationship involves care of the plant. There will be no fruit without that vine and its caretaker. And a pond by the wilderness way provides what the wayfarer needs to receive, in order to know that he is already “at home” in God’s creation.

This reading is strange to us in part because we don’t usually think of nature as an active participant in our experience. Animals are, to a limited extent, perhaps, but not plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests otherwise, and illustrates with a distant relative of the vine, the pecan trees that provided crucial nourishment for her people on the prairie of Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” The elders knew from “the old times” that “the plants and animals have their own council, and a common language.” The communication of the trees was especially important to them because they somehow knew when conditions were worst, and the hungry people needed their fruit. The trees are tuned to the cycle of fat squirrel population, increasing numbers of hungry hawks and foxes, and then a quiet landscape that signals “a good time to make some nuts;” then “all across the landscape, out come the pecan flowers poised to become a bumper crop again.” The feast to famine, “boom and bust” of what is known as “mast fruiting” was remarkable for its coordination: “if one tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove, not one grove in the forest, but every grove, all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective . . . All flourishing is mutual” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 2013, pp. 14-16).

The explanation for this phenomenon is elusive, Kimmerer notes, but the elders were perhaps close to the truth: “the trees are talking to each other.” In actuality, she explains, it is likely that trees communicate “via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning.” Under attack by insects, for instance, “an upwind tree sends out a distress call, . . the downwind trees catch the drift, sensing those few molecules of alarm, the whiff of danger. This gives them time to manufacture defensive chemicals . . . . Trees appear to be talking about mutual defense.” The pecan trees, in particular, show a capacity for “concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees” and “ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive.” The synchrony of the mast fruiting of the pecan trees happens, according to one theory, “not through the air, but underground,” by means of “subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots” and “form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected.” As a “kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time.” The moral insight: “They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.” And humans can easily enter this circle: “Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy [who collects the nuts]—all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.” As Kimmerer comments,

“. . . how generously they shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live. But in the giving their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity . . . . We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels” (Kimmerer, pp. 20-21).

Or not. When her people ignored the collective wisdom of the trees and accepted the offer of the federal government to own property as individuals, within a generation two thirds of their lands had been forfeited, as the new citizens found they could not pay taxes due, or sold their allotment when “offered a keg of whiskey and a lot of money, ‘fair and square’” (Kimmerer, pp. 18-19). Two generations later, “after removal, after allotment, after the boarding schools, after diaspora,” her family returns to Oklahoma and “what is left of [her] grandfather’s allotment.” They dance on the old powwow grounds near the pecan groves along the river. But the meaning of the trees has been largely reduced to metaphor:

The synchrony of our Gathering is determined by our leaders, but more importantly, there is something like a mycorrhizal network that unites us, an unseen connection of history and family and responsibility to both our ancestors and our children. As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.

Still, there is restorative power in the metaphor. It is “a mast year” for her family, Kimmerer writes;

“We are all here at the Gathering, thick on the ground, like seeds for the future. Like an embryo provisioned and protected inside layers of stony shell, we have survived the lean years and flower together. I go walking in the pecan grove, perhaps the very place where my grandfather stuffed his pant legs full [of pecan nuts]. He would be surprised to find us all here, dancing the circle, remembering pecans” (Kimmerer, p. 21).

We note the similarity of the narratives here, nut tree and vine: the one, much later than other, a vehicle of “scientific insight,” countermanding a cultural bias against a communicative nature, in favor of the transfer of native, life-sustaining wisdom; the other, a narrative brought to light, perhaps, by the sustained observation of Palestinian peasants, guided by the Spirit of God into prophetic witness. Background for this understanding is found, of course, in the Hebrew Bible. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” of great heritage. Already in Exodus 15:17 it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” And in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 255). And as Raymond Brown notes, it is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree,” he suggests, “frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here.” A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man, Brown observes, was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples who regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72).

Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the vine for the relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciples, so fully amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is thus a contested reading, claimed by rival parties. The concern for the truth of the vine (“I am the true vine,” John 15:1) accordingly involves a much larger frame of reference than is commonly generated in pastoral reflection on the text. There is contention here between rival political movements, some of which have engaged in violence to defend their cause. Whether or not John here wishes to contrast Jesus and the church as the true vine as over against the false vine of Israel’s religious or political leadership need not concern us here; the more important point is that, with the vine as symbol for Israel of Jahweh’s gracious presence with respect to Israel’s existence in the land in the context of imperial domination, Jesus’ words lay claim to the metaphor for his followers’ relationship to the creation, without any recourse to any sort of human domination over it whatsoever: the true vine is the reality of right relationship—Creator, people, and creation taken together, for the sake of the fruitfulness of the creation.

The Spirit of Creation speaks clearly in both Gospel and Hebrew Scripture: God intends that the vineyard produce good fruit. Indeed, Brueggemann notes, failing that, “Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard:” “I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it”( Isaiah 5:6). This combination of generosity and destructive judgment is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the re-giving of the land after exile.” The metaphor thus expresses

“. . . both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine. The vineyard must be productive, yielding in obedience the fruit intended by the planting” (Brueggemann, p. 257).

The principle holds: as with the people of Israel, so also with the church; those who abide in Jesus as he abides in them “bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

The metaphor of the vine is, accordingly, rich in implication for the church’s vocation in relationship to the creation. We, too, share in a circle of reciprocity. The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine: on this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” But a related truth, of course, is that vine can no more than the trees live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. The relationship of vine and branch is thus part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser, or the gardener, the vineyard in which the vine is planted, and its sustaining environs. Jesus, according to John’s account, is not unmindful of this larger frame of reference: on the contrary, could he be “the true vine” if “the vinegrower,” who brings all these elements together, is not his “Father”? Spirit of life, spirit of creation, prompting Jesus, John, and their community, to take note of the wisdom of relationships in what we referred to as the “Great Economy” in last week’s commentary, and to spread a good word about the relationship of love that pervades all creation. The creation is alive with the presence of one who feeds both body and spirit, fruit of the love of God, fruit of the vine of the earth.

For us, too, then, the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” such as the broken relationship between people and Earth characteristic of our time of ecological crisis. It is for us, too, that the Spirit of Creation is enlisting the wisdom of the vine to restore for us a healthy earth. What more appropriate communication could the Spirit bring to us than one couched in the richly green metaphor of the vine and its branches? It beautifully expresses the needed mutuality of nature and Spirit, and the cooperation required for that restoration.

Readers may object that there is no explicit reference to the land anywhere in John 15:1-8. Might this not mean that only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the Christian community? The rooting of the vine, then, might not need to concern us. We would argue that, on the contrary, with the Creator who is part of the metaphor, comes the land now writ large to encompass all creation, which the Creator provides. As we have sought to show in our comments on the texts for the previous four Sundays, the Resurrection of Jesus is an event that involves not only all humanity, but the creation in which humanity exists. One needs, we propose, to think holistically about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil, it needs to be rooted. No less than the absence of the vine grower, displacement of the vine from the soil of the vineyard would in fact entail the elimination of the very possibility of life for the vine. Given the context of the Gospel’s composition, the claim that Jesus is the true vine retains for the future of his community the Hebrew heritage of the land, although now not limited to the specific land of Israel. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the religious context of the Gospel’s author, Jesus the true vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation, “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And if God, so also God’s people raised in Christ to participate in the vine.

Jesus’s use of the metaphor of the vine does presuppose the active presence of the Yahweh the Vinedresser/Gardener. And so necessarily will the church’s interpretation of the metaphor. But is our insistence on that presupposition, in part for the sake of inclusion of the reality the Earth in the narrative, at cross purposes in our cultural context with achieving a hearing for the healing of the earth and the preservation of its real soil? In his recent work, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton suggests so. In what he calls “An Enlightenment Fable,” Hamilton thinks through the consequences of “the death of God” in which humankind, relieved of

“. . . the individual preoccupation with salvation and damnation, was at the same time born into the role of master of its own destiny. And the essential question became whether it would make worlds that defy the constraints of the Earth or make worlds in which nature flourishes too, that is, worlds in which humankind takes responsibility for the Earth’s healthy evolution” (Hamilton, pp122-23).

Now “those for whom God lived on would have to act etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no God.” Our destiny could no longer “be read from holy books but from our own understanding of the world and its history.” “No longer a spiritual journey,” the

“. . . path to realizing our destiny had become an intellectual and physical one, building on the “epistemic distance” opened up by the scientific worldview. Ultimately, however, it was a power struggle between contending social forces, the forces of neglect—power-hunger, greed, growth fetishism, hedonism, and psychological weaknesses—against the forces of care: self-restraint, respect for the natural world, love of one’s children, and the desire for civilization to flourish.”

Nature’s disenchantment and God’s withdrawal initiated the development of “a new justification for human existence”: “the struggle to learn how to live collectively on the Earth and within its limits is the way, the opportunity for humankind to find its place in the cosmos” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Polity Press: Malden, MA, 2017, pp. 122-125).

For Hamilton, the advent of the Anthropocene is a moment of great peril: “human beings have yet to realize that freedom can no longer operate independently of necessity, and so continue to act as Moderns, free to play out their agency on a compliant Earth.” What might rescue us, he proposes, is a new understanding of human freedom as a possibility that “always resided in nature and once manifested must be bound to it, networked into nature.” “[K]nowing freedom’s source within nature-as-a-whole comes with a heavy responsibility, to protect and enhance nature, to live within its limits as we make new worlds.” We have then become “the key” to nature-as-a-whole: “In that case, our activities in bringing on a new epoch in the geohistory of the planet should not be regarded only as an ethical lapse, with no function in the unfolding of nature-as-a-whole; they tell us something fundamental about the nature of the whole and the arc of its narrative” (Hamilton, pp. 140-41). In this view, Hamilton writes,

“. . . the coming of age was not an accident, or an event triggered by a few intrepid men, or the inexorable evolution of a process in train for millennia. Our coming of age was the manifestation of the agency latent in nature-as-a-whole, when humans, alone in a disenchanted world from which the gods had withdrawn, were ceded the opportunity to earn the right to “inherit the Earth. The concentration of agency in humans is not without meaning; freedom with Earth-changing power put us in the position where we had to decide how humans could flourish without destroying the Earth” (Hamilton, p. 144).

“[B]eyond all purely human-oriented aspirations must be the cultivation of our relationship with the planet to the enduring benefit of both.” Now, the “duty to care for the Earth is the meaningful goal as well as the prudent one.” All along the question has been our relationship with nature, conflicted or consonant, “that would prove decisive“ (Hamilton, pp. 144-45):

“And so, after the death of God, respect for the integrity of the Earth can grow only from the sense of gratitude for the gift of freedom and an acute awareness of its dangers. Such an orientation arises not from obligations to other humans (as in all conventional ethics), which is to say, not from the realm of freedom as such; it arises out of an understanding of freedom emerging from nature-as-a-whole” (Hamilton, p. 149).

Accordingly, the evaluation of the use of our freedom is no longer so much a question of good and evil in our interaction with humans, as it is a matter of care and neglect of the earth. In the latter option, it is no longer merely the benign neglect of an ill-informed humanity, but the “wanton,” “reckless and self-indulgent” neglect of not attending to the consequences no longer unknown and unintended, but rather based on knowledge that “enables us to see, with amazing if far-from-perfect clarity, how the physical world works” (Hamilton, p. 151).

In summary, as to the question of whether belief in God as Creator helps foster the care of the Earth in the Anthropocene, Hamilton’s argument compels us, he argues, to

“. . . confront the most difficult truth—in the Anthropocene we have no ethical resources to draw on. The cupboard is bare. For all of their worthiness, appeals to “responsibility” have no heft, no ontological substance. Where once we could fear and love God and truly believe in him and his saving power, now we can only fear Gaia. But Gaia is no messiah, which leaves self-preservation as the only motive, a negative motive that seems much too weak. Unless, that is, we can become beings guided by a new cosmological sense rooted in the profound significance of humankind in the arc of the Earth” (Hamilton, pp. 155-56).

Is there a possibility, he asks finally, of the emergence of “new human beings who embody another future, who allow themselves to be appropriated by the next future, who are willing to think eschatologically—that is, to think the end of the world of techno-industrial appropriation in an era of trial and struggle, to accept that the Enlightenment did not banish all darkness and that the lamp of Reason shines too dimly to guide us through the night falling over us?” (Hamilton, pp. 156).

Our answer is yes, there is. It is the possibility inherent in the belief in the God raised Jesus from the dean, in an event that involved not only all humanity, all creation. It is the possibility embedded in the belief in the God who enters the narrative not only as “heavenly Father,” but also as Spirit of Creation. It is, once again, God encountered as Mark Wallace describes her, as the Spirit who abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable, the Spirit who inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) that is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, and speaks to us through Jesus’ word about the true vine, but also, independently, through the story of the pecan tree. Said differently, it is the eternal God who, as Elizabeth Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” As Bishop Ambrose of Milan put it, “in Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose,” which marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos (Adapted from our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, based on Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136; and from Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

From the point of view of creation, which is where we began this comment, this outlook would seem both natural and hopeful, contrary to Hamilton’s skepticism. As evidence for this, consider our second reading, which as we suggested presents creation not only speaking, but also acting on behalf of its Creator. As the story goes, an Ethiopian eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, although cultic rules would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who teaches him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” this exchange of good news already illustrates the liberation of the experience of God’s love from the temple and its governing authorities, which makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all the earth—as the gift of God’s love in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus we appropriately sing in today’s psalm, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).

But the clincher is that the creation itself joins in agreement and acts to raise the Ethiopian into new life. Noticing the water alongside the wilderness road, the Ethiopian observes, “look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And the answer being obviously “nothing,” thanks to the wilderness, he was baptized right there, and was from then on at home with God in God’s creation. The Spirit of Creation, comes, passes by, and goes on across the earth, so that the holy vine grows wherever the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. It happens for the good of humanity, but also the greater good of all the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Preaching on Creation: Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 25) in Year B (Ormseth18)

All Creation Is Raised Up Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Great Economy of the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

A none-too-wise seminarian once remarked that he didn’t think he would use the metaphor of the shepherd in his work with confirmands, in as much as in his experience few of them knew what a shepherd did, and if they happened to know, they wouldn’t appreciate being compared to sheep who needed herding. Sheep were for them just very stupid animals. Granted the importance of taking context into consideration in preaching, the metaphor is probably still too valuable as comfort at the hospital bedside or the funeral home to abandon it, at least for older people and those who do have rural roots. Which is a good thing for preaching care of creation, actually, because the metaphor in fact has special value, as a means of linking not only such youth and their urban families, but us all, to the earth. The metaphor is intimately connected to images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. In the 23rd Psalm, for instance the pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, Arthur Walker-Jones suggests, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” Accordingly, he urges, the metaphor

“. . . could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).”

Walker-Jones’ point is well-taken, of course, but the condition he seeks to remedy needs to be considered more fully to take full advantage of the metaphor. Indeed, that very separation between humanity and nature is the more important issue raised by the readings this Sunday in the season of Easter.

The difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand, as John has it, is that the latter “does not own the sheep”, and “does not care for the sheep.” Those two assertions draw our discussion into the realm of economics. The relationship of the hired hand to the sheep is a matter of self-interested self-preservation: when it serves his interests, he is happy to receive his wage for tending them; when on the contrary, it goes against his interests, as when the wolf threatens, he runs. And so the metaphor discloses the lamentable condition that is close to the heart of the environmental crisis of our world. The sheep, as we commonly encounter them, are part of our human economy. As “hired hands” we know them as such, and perhaps only as such. The reality is that the way the hired hand relates to the sheep is pretty much the way we in our society relate to nature in its entirety. We don’t really know it, and we don’t take time and effort to get to know it, except in so far as we have special interest and occasion to do so as part of our quest for our own economic well-being. Consequently, in terms of a Senegalese environmentalist’s maxim, nature won’t really be for us something that we genuinely love: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (Baba Dioum, quoted from “Toolkit: Our Watershed Moment,” available for free download from Minneapolis Area Synod EcoFaith Network). We are, in this perspective, far and away the “hired hands” whose main interest in the sheep is a good supply of lamb chops to eat or wool to keep us warm, when we force them to render up their lives for us.

There is another economy at play in this narrative, however, one with significantly different principles. Like the human economy, this one, which Wendel Berry in his masterful essay “Two Economies” calls the “Great Economy,” which “includes principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” But these principles and patterns differ markedly: including all things, everything in the Great Economy is “both joined to it and everything else that is in it.” Its scope, in other words, is universal: “[B]oth known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility” (Wendell Berry, Home Economics, North Point Press: Berkeley, California, 1987, pp. 56-57). Because it includes everything, Berry observes, this Great Economy actually can’t be fully known by humans, which means that “humans can live in the Great Economy only with great uneasiness, subject to powers and laws that they can understand only in part” (Berry, p. 57). By necessity, they cannot choose not to live in it, although they “may choose to act as if they do not.” If humans do “choose to live in the Great Economy on its terms, then they must live in harmony with it, maintaining it in trust and learning to consider the lives of the wild creatures” which it also includes (Berry, p. 58). This inclusivity is temporal as well as spatial; “we cannot foresee an end to it: The same basic stuff is going to be sifting from one form to another, so far as we know, forever” (p. 59).

Both of these two economies concern values, but the values are derived differently: we participate in the “little human economy” by virtue of “factual knowledge, calculation, and manipulation; our participation in the Great Economy also requires those things, but requires as well humility, sympathy, forbearance, generosity, imagination” (p.60-61). And while the human economy “can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, it cannot make value,” which originates only in the Great Economy. Indeed, “when humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.” Recognizing that the values of the human economy are in this sense secondary, it must also be managed so as to “make continuously available those values that are primary or given, the secondary values having mainly to do with husbandry and trusteeship. A little economy is obliged to receive them gratefully and to use them in such a way as not to diminish them” (p. 61-62). Indeed, in a passage that leads to an observation crucial for restorative action, Berry remarks that,

“. . . a little economy may be said to be good insofar as it perceives the excellence of these benefits and husbands and preserves them. It is by holding up this standard of goodness that we can best see what is wrong with the industrial economy. For the industrial economy does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as ‘raw material’ to be transformed mechanically into something else. What it cannot use, it characteristically describes as ‘useless,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘random,’ or ‘wild,’ and gives it some such name as ‘chaos,’ ‘disorder,’ or ‘waste’—and thus ruins it or cheapens it in preparation for eventual use (Berry, pp. 64-65).”

Like the hired hand of the metaphor, we abandon such goods to the wolves that shadow our industry and commerce.

The remedy of this absence of care comes when we acknowledge the existence of the Great Economy, and we are astonished and frightened to see how completely the industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy. The “invariable mode” of the industrial economy’s relation “both to nature and to human culture, we see, is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” In relationship to land, for instance, the industrial economy “removes natural fertility and human workmanship,” reducing the land “to abstract marketable quantities of length and width.” We would like to make our control of “the forces of nature” complete, without any limits on human capacity to employ them. We assume that such control and such freedom are our “rights,” which seems to ensure that our means of control (of nature and of all else that we see as alien) will be violent . . . . Nuclear holocaust, if it comes, will be the final detonation of an explosive economy (Berry, pp. 68-69).

Seeing the human economy “as the only economy,” we regard its errors as political failures, and we continue to talk only about “recovery.” When we think of the little human economy in relation to the Great Economy, on the other hand, we “begin to understand our errors for what they are and to see the qualitative meanings of our quantitative measures,” and the “industrial wastes and losses not as ‘trade-offs’ or ‘necessary risks’ but as costs that, like all costs, are chargeable to somebody, sometime” (Berry, p. 71). This changes everything in our reading of the economy:

We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption, which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a “side” that we can join nor are there such “sides” within it. Thus, it is not the “sum of its parts” but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole” (Berry, pp. 72-73).

In the “membership of the Great Economy everything signifies; whatever we do counts. If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys. We can presume that we are outside the membership that includes us, but that presumption only damages the membership—and ourselves, of course, along with it” (Berry, pp.74-75).

The Good Shepherd, it can now be recognized, is truly and fully at home in the Great Economy. For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The reading of Psalm 23 underscores this insight. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61).

The “good” or model shepherd thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his] own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The Great Economy clearly participates in the divine economy of the Trinity, grounded in God’s active love for God’s people. We’ve already heard about this economy this Easter Season, as we took note of it in our comment on the readings for the Second and Third Sundays. It is the economy of “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” in the words of M. Douglas Meeks, which was manifest in the sharing of goods in the early Christian community (Acts 4:32-34). It is the economy in which

. . . God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113-14). It is the economy of love reflected in the great summation of the gospel in the second lesson, “we know love by this, that Jesus lays down his life—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17).

It also relates to the economy of the Triune God as described both by Mark Wallace in his Fragments of the Spirit and by Elizabeth Johnson in her Ask the Beasts, which we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. As Wallace observed, “Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136). It is filled by this Spirit that Peter addressed those authorities of the temple who objected to “a good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:8-9). And as Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization, Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

Here in the Easter Season we in fact might well identify the Great Economy with the Economy of the Resurrection in which all creation is raised up. In this Economy, the separation of humanity from nature is overcome, and if we trust our metaphorical imagination, we can learn to see in moments of revelatory import signs of death and resurrection that are built into the creation. Berry’s favorite example is topsoil: We cannot speak of topsoil, he writes,

“. . . indeed we cannot know what it is, without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it . . . For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: It is making life out of death . . . . A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.”

Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus wonderfully involves all creation. And no less wonderfully, there is also the mystery of the sheep who are so much at home in the creation that they virtually disappear into it: a small flock of ewes, Berry has observed,

“. . . fitted properly into a farm’s pattern, virtually disappears into the farm and does it good, just as it virtually disappears into the time and energy economy of a farm family and does it good. And, properly fitted into the farm’s pattern, the small flock virtually disappears from the debit side of the farm’s accounts but shows up plainly on the credit side. This ‘disappearance’ is possible, not to the extent that the farm is a human artifact, a belonging of the human economy, but to the extent that it remains, by its obedience to natural principle, a belonging of the Great Economy” (Berry, p. 64).

Not bad for “stupid animals.” We humans should do so well.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. In the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, p. 208).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Dennis Ormseth reflects on community, trinity, and unity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

We continue our exploration of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith occasioned by the observance of Easter and their relationship to practices of care for creation. In the comment for Resurrection of Our Lord, we saw that the Resurrection of Jesus reveals the eschatological presence of God in the community of Jesus’ disciples, as that community brings to the world the message of the God’s victory over the death. Jesus’ resurrection is, in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, a “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ,” in which all creation is eventually to be drawn by God away from destruction and toward salvation “on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” Distinguishing marks of this presence are the non-violent character of relationships in the community, in conformity with the nonviolent practice of their crucified Lord, and the fellowship meal in which those relationships are celebrated.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter encourage us to amplify the significance of those marks, again with special significance for care of creation. The non-violent character of the community is secured in these texts, as in the Easter narrative of Mark, by the affirmation of continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Lord. While Mark provides for that continuity by having the disciples sent back to Galilee, in John’s narrative, composed significantly later and more fully developed theologically, Jesus himself appears to the disciples, first without Thomas and then with Thomas; when they see the marks of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side, they know that this is the crucified Jesus. He then addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, breaths upon them the Holy Spirit, and commissions them by the power of the Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. The continuity of the resurrected Jesus with the crucified Jesus serves to restore the community they experienced prior to his crucifixion. But with the additional acts of breathing upon them and the blessing of peace, Jesus also anticipates a transition in the community from those disciples who see the crucified and resurrected Jesus and thus believe, to those who have faith only by virtue of the presence of God as the Spirit brings the community to life in an ongoing new creation.

The encounter is intended to be understood as an eschatological moment of new creation. This set of messianic practices constitutes the means for creating community with and amongst the disciples, not just in the moment of this encounter, but enduring into the future. Going forward, the breath, the blessing of peace, and the commission will sustain the formation of communities in which Jesus is worshipped, as in the praise of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” As Raymond Brown notes, in John 20:17, it was

“. . . promised that after Jesus’ ascension God would become a Father to the disciples who would be begotten by the Spirit, and also would in a special way become the God of a people bound to him by a new covenant. The words that Thomas speaks to Jesus are the voice of this people ratifying the covenant that the Father has made in Jesus. As Hosea 2: 25 (23) promised, a people that was formerly not a people has now said, “you are my God.” This confession has been combined with the baptismal profession “Jesus is Lord,” a profession that can be made only when the Spirit has been poured out (I Corinthians 12:3)” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), New York: Doubleday, 1970, p.1035).

Thus the members of the community of the crucified and resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to similarly reconcile others, are gathered in the presence of their Creator. Brown called particular attention to this creational emphasis, as he notes, “for John this is the high point of the post-resurrectional activity of Jesus.” He comments:

“Before Jesus says, ‘Receive a holy Spirit,” he breathes on his disciples. The Greek verb emphysan, “to breath,” echoes LXX of Genesis 2:7, the creation scene, where we are told: The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The verb is used again in Wisdom 15:11, which rephrases the creation account: “The One who fashioned him and . . . breathed into him a living spirit.” Symbolically, then, John is proclaiming that, just as in the first creation God breathed a living spirit into man, so now in the moment of the new creation Jesus breathes his own Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life” (Brown, p. 1037).

That Yahweh the Creator is present to the community is made more explicit in the second half of the reading, in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas. As Thomas moves from disbelief to belief, he confesses his faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is, in Brown’s view,

“. . . the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel. In Chapter I the first disciples gave many titles to Jesus . . , and we have heard still others throughout the ministry: Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, King of Israel, Son of God. In the post-resurrectional appearances Jesus has been hailed as the Lord by Magdalene and by the disciples as a group. But it is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh.”

This confession, Brown emphasizes, is not a dogmatic assertion, but rather an act of worship. “It is a response of praise to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus . . . . Thomas speaks the doxology on behalf of the Christian community” (Brown, pp. 1046-7).

Such praise, it is important to note, entails a characteristic reorientation to the creation of the Creator. As Brown notes, the peace and joy noted in John 20:20 are for John, as for Jewish thought generally, “marks of the eschatological period when God’s intervention would have brought about harmony in human life and in the world. John sees this period realized as Jesus returns to pour forth his Spirit upon men” (Brown, p. 1035). Appropriately, this vision is then also manifest in the first lesson for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in the face of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully Ben Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that

“. . . no one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness . . . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003:  Easter through Pentecost, pp. 17-18).

The community now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace” which was fostered by the meal they shared, when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ maintained in strong measure the sense of living fully in God’s presence previously expected by the Hebrew community in its life centered in temple worship.

The distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned here indeed represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world as it should be. As M. Douglas Meeks describes it in his book God the Economist, this new economy is grounded securely in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 leads to different forms of property . . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikia relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property that is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

“God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated.  The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.”

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving.  The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).

In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the followers of Jesus have become like those Hebrews of whom the Psalmist sings, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”(Psalm 133:1). They do indeed “dwell together in unity,” the blessing of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3b).  It is striking that a scriptural basis for a trinitarian foundation for this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday. The gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciples, in which the presence of Yahweh the creator is newly communicated. And in the second lesson from 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might accordingly move readily to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property. Care of creation begins at home, where the church dwells together in unity, not only amongst themselves, but in community both with God and with all God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Holy Week in Year B (Jorgenson18)

Root from Dry Ground – Kiara Jorgenson reflects on the themes of water in the Holy Week texts.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Years A, B, and C 

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10], 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Maundy Thursday

In, with, and under—those are the prepositions we Lutherans use to describe the sacramental. God’s presence is in, with, and under the elements—the Lamb of Exodus 12, the wine and bread of 1 Corinthians 11, and the water of John 13. The presence of God is sacred, of course, but per the Greek concept itself, μυστήριον, the sacraments are also a mystery.

When teaching and preaching on the Sacraments we often focus on the mystery of Christ’s presence, the historical, ever-relevant theological debate surrounding finitum non capax infiniti, namely, whether the finite is capable of bearing the infinite. Indeed, those of us preparing students to take their first communion on Maundy Thursday have likely addressed this in some way or another. What, we may rhetorically ask as of such 8-year olds, is actually happening when you take the bread and drink of the juice?

However, in our efforts to understand how God shows Godself vis à vis finite means, we pay little attention to how the earthly, elemental things of life prove necessary in any and all quests to encounter God. Knowledge of God, limited though it may be, is always obtained through the embodied, the sensorial—the stuff of creation. In this sense, it isn’t so much that we Christians have respective theological doctrines such as creation and redemption (or to use the Apostle’s Creed as a model: 1st Article/2nd Article distinctions), but more so that all Christian theology is fundamentally earthbound and creaturely.

In Exodus 12 the Israelites require a lamb to participate in the enactment of God’s protection, just as they require the lamb in the perpetual observance of the Passover. The lamb is not merely a symbol, it is the means through which God is known. Likewise, the water of John 13 is integral to Christ’s model of sacrificial love for its clear symbolic connection to baptism and for its palpable role in preparing one to be spiritually washed. The necessity of water is emphasized in Christ’s own anointing in John 12, wherein He like all monarchs of the day must be cleaned by the elements prior to assuming his reign as King.

The lamb, the water, the bread, and the wine have an integrity of their own. They exist not for theological reasons, but in spite of them. And yet, human encounter of the Divine is dependent upon one’s relationship with earth, water, creature, fruit, and grain. Our very bodies are indeed porous; we breathe in the air around us, we drink the water available to us. The world inscribes itself in us. We hyper-dependent humans are therefore called to relationships of integrity, a matter that brings new light to the penitential nature of Maundy Thursday.

Good Friday

Elemental themes loom large in the Good Friday texts as well. As is well known, the Isaiah text explicitly links Christ to the lamb—the One afflicted by our infirmity and hence cut off from life. Harkening to the root of Jesse, Christ is also compared to a young plant that with utter resilience grows mightily in a dry and barren land. Lacking in majesty, this plant reveals life in hidden ways. Here again, the power of or powerful absence of water begs our attention.

The famous messianic psalm underscores this theme. The oppressed one is “poured out like water” its “mouth dried up like a potsherd,” tongue sticking to the jaws (Psalm 2214-15). And yet, as our present-day anthropocenic circumstances demonstrate, human bodies number a mere fraction of today’s oppressed bodies. To this end, what might it look like to read the subject of this psalm as Earth itself? Who then are the “dogs,” the gloating ones dividing and taking for one’s own?

The presence of water carries forth in the Hebrews text and Gospel reading, although in John its presence in these chapters seems to take on a different meaning. In his thirst Christ is not offered the pure water so mentioned by the author of Hebrews. Instead, he is offered sour wine, a far cry from the fine wine Jesus created of water at the wedding in Cana wherein his ministry commenced. And we are told that when pierced in the side water flowed with the blood, a sign that according to ancient physiology would have indicated imminent death. So, whereas earlier in the Gospel water flowing from the Christ’s belly indicated life (John 7:37-39), here it assures death. Had water alone flowed from Jesus’ abdomen, ancients would have perceived Christ to be “a blessed immortal,” not unlike the God’s of Alexander’s day (see Plutarch, Moralia 180E; 341B). But the presence of water with the blood paradoxically presents divine power through human death. Again, the elemental proves necessary in a true encounter with creaturely Christ.

And yet, the reality is that communities from high-consuming contexts like the U.S. continue to crucify the Earth, as well as many already-vulnerable human populations, with our insatiable greed, ignorance, and complacency. When it comes to water, we’ve been warned:

“By 2020, 180 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under water stressed conditions.” UN Water Fact Sheet

What might this reality mean for persons’ ongoing experience of God? We preachers must remember that well water and living water, matter and spirit (to use a less-than-helpful longstanding binary), are all part of the same flow. Water for living and living waters depend on one another inextricably. Hence, to lift high the themes of water in these Holy Week texts requires honest discussion on (or at least reference to) contemporary environmental realities and an opportunity to revisit the baptismal promises spoken over us, a willingness to reject sin and choose life.

Originally written by Kiara Jorgenson in 2018.

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth18)

A Meal for All Sorts of Hunger Dennis Ormseth reflects on a broad resurrection vision.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

The centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the life of the church means that the Easter texts provide occasion for an examination of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith and, with attention to the focus of these lectionary comments, their relationship to practices of care for creation. We begin with an examination of the nature of the Resurrection itself, prompted by recent provocative observations made by John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan in a recent article in the Christian Century. The visions of Christ’s resurrection held by the Western and Eastern churches differ significantly, the Crossans observe, and the difference is important for the future of the human species on the earth. Based on wide examination of artwork east and west, the Crossans noticed a pattern:

“The West celebrates the individual resurrection. Christ rises triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone. The guards of the tomb may be shown asleep or awake, but nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Whatever may be implied about humanity’s future by this image of resurrection, it says nothing about humanity’s past . . . . The East, on the other hand, celebrates the universal resurrection. Here Christ also rises triumphantly and magnificently—but he takes all of humanity with him. Iconographically, paintings in the East show Christ grasping the wrist of Adam. By the year 1200, he is shown grasping both Adam and Eve. Anastasis-as-resurrection is the liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ.” Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23-24.

Which vision is correct? The Crossans admit that it is hard to decide on the basis of biblical texts alone. No direct account of the resurrection exists. Weighing the alternatives, an individual resurrection is the more easily imagined occurrence, they agree, and thereby more readily available to support creedal faith. Within biblical Judaism, on the other hand, “resurrection was always corporate, communal, and universal.” And for the Crossans, it counts heavily in favor of the Eastern view that it addresses much more powerfully human life in the public square (Crossan, p. 24).

Their travels and study have convinced the Crossans that “the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence.” Ever “since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago,” they write, “we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replace.” On this trajectory, they ask, “What can save our species from itself?” Of the two visions of resurrection, they suggest, it is the Eastern Anastasis that holds out most hope. In addition to its communal character, the Eastern tradition clearly portrays the risen Jesus as “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected.” Risen Lord though he is, he is also the non-violent Jesus of his crucifixion. “His halo is imprinted with a cross, the gates of death are flattened in cruciform position, he bears wounds on hands and feet, and he carries a processional cross.” This image points to the fact, the Crossans show, that his death by crucifixion was a mode of punishment that Roman rulers imposed on agents of nonviolent resistance. Following this Jesus, his companions would not have engaged in escalatory violence, not even to save him from crucifixion. The vision of Christ’s resurrection in the Eastern church, the Crossans conclude, thus offers the better alternative for our “historical and evolutionary challenge” in the public square:

“The iconographic message is this: only nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilization can divert the human trajectory away from destruction and toward salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world. . . . As human evolution plays out, Christ’s resurrection isn’t just reality-creating metaphor for creedal Christians—it’s for all of humanity” (Crossans, p. 25).

Our location in the Western tradition aside, the selection of texts for The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B calls for proclamation of this vision of a universal resurrection that offers hope for all humankind. And it does so, we argue, not only in the face of the challenge of escalatory violence feared by the Crossans, but also with regard to the threat of global ecological devastation, which in our view is no less threatening to the future of our species, and a solution to it no less essential to their hope for “salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.”

Peter’s sermon to the gentiles gathered in the Caesarean home of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (Acts 10:1) witnessed “to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). Thus Peter’s message also is about an “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected” Christ—again, by the Crossans’ argument, an advocate for nonviolence—who reigns by God’s ordination as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42)—in other words, of all humanity, past and present. And the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25 strengthens this expectation of universal resurrection in the company of a non-violent lord: Yahweh promised a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples, and destruction of the “shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (v. 6-8, emphasis added)—also, clearly a promise of universal rescue from death, if not explicitly by resurrection.

In addition to their shared view of the resurrection as universal and free of violence, these passages are linked in a second way, one which enlarges the scope of the vision to bring all creation into view: each text mentions a meal, shared in the first instance by the disciples “chosen by God as witnesses” to the crucified-and-resurrected Lord, and secondly, the feast of Isaiah’s prophecy. The latter, we suggest, by its association here in the Easter readings, confers eschatological meaning to the former. The feast of Isaiah 25:6-9 is drawn from the Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, as Jon Levenson explains, the background of which “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the powers of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” “Central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” Levenson argues, Yahweh,

“like Baal associated with natural abundance and enhanced vitality, swallows Death, and we have here no hint that this victory will ever be reversed . . . the life-sapping forces will at last be eliminated, . . [W]hat is definitively defeated here is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1988, p. 30).

Levenson further notes that the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh at Isaiah 26:19,“brings about a resurrection” which, while not “exemplifying a doctrine of general resurrection . . . of the sort that was later to become central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” nonetheless projects “a definitive victory of YHWH over Death and . . . the rich and joyous feast he provides to all nations in celebration of his long-awaited triumph” (Levenson, p. 31).

Thus the linkage of the texts before us provides for extension of the scope of salvation envisioned by the message of Jesus’ resurrection, to embrace hope not only for a future, universal non-violent community of all humans, but also for an entire, restored creation within which they live. Easter is indeed an appropriate occasion for us to look forward to “a transformed earth . . . within a transfigured world.”

There are difficulties in the way of this reading of the texts, of course. In the first place, as noted above, neither vision of the resurrection, as described here, is a matter of actual historical reality. The lack of any description of the actual resurrection constitutes an absolute prohibition on speculation as to how the resurrection actually happened, a serious problem for appropriating the story’s power in the public square in our scientific cultural context. The resurrection remains a matter of metaphor and imagination. And surely an assemblage of ancient myth may seem a weak structure on which to base such extravagant hope. But, as the Crossans point out, while the vision of universal resurrection that drove the creative work of Eastern Christian artists and theologians through the centuries is indeed a metaphorical, and not a literal, event, that doesn’t matter, because “—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Crossan and Crossan, p. 24).

Yet again, even as a matter of metaphor, the assembled texts present a more serious complication for constructing a vision of the resurrection that embraces all creation. As Levenson notes, the vision of Isaiah with its defeat of “all life-denying forces, natural and historical,” is in its biblical context embedded in a narrative that ties it to a particular locale: Yahweh hosts the feast “on the mountain,” that is, on Zion, as the living God celebrates unqualified victory upon the temple mount. The temple, as Levenson shows, constitutes the earthly completion of the “great cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3.” In Rabbinic legend,

“the Jerusalem Temple is depicted as the cosmic capstone that prevents the great abyss (tehoma) from rising again to inundate the world and undo the work of creation. In this current of Rabbinic thought, as in the older temple mythos of the Hebrew Bible and its near Eastern antecedents, the point is not simply that the two projects, world building and temple building, are parallel. Rather, they implicate each other, and neither is complete alone. The microcosm is the idealized cosmos, the world contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be, a powerful piece of testimony to God the creator, a palace for the victorious king. To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil. It is that ideal world which is the result of God’s creative labors” (Levenson, p. 99).

A “distinctive note” of these ancient themes reflected in Isaiah 25:6-8, Levenson observes, is an “eschatological urgency” that derives from the dissonance between the world affirmed in temple liturgy and the world experienced in quotidian life. “In the former YHWH reigns in justice, unchallenged, and abundantly favoring his faithful and obedient votaries, whereas in the latter Israel is a small and threatened people, lacking sovereignty and often even the respect of those who hold her fate in their hand, and fidelity to her religion brings no temporal rewards, but many afflictions” (Levenson, p. 32).

The emergent community of Jesus’ followers undoubtedly shared a profound sense of such “eschatological urgency,” squeezed as it was between the hostile authorities that dominated Jewish life in Jerusalem and the legions of the Roman Empire. The difficulty here, of course, is that Zion with its temple is no longer for the followers of Jesus a place to participate in such a liturgy, whatever its relevance to their endangered situation. On the contrary, as the resurrection narrative of the Gospel reading from Mark shows them, Jesus and his followers are going out away from that sacred mountain. Indeed, the young man dressed in white who greets the two Mary’s at the tomb expressly directs them away from Zion: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It is emphatically not part of the resurrection message that the disciples are to remain in Jerusalem: they will not see the risen Jesus there. Nor, we take it, will any later readers of the Gospel.

So what happens here to the cosmological vision of the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that riven from its temple location, the cosmic conflict is no longer relevant to the future of the community of Jesus? Has the non-violent character of the community perhaps succeeded in banishing death from their midst? Not so, in Ched Myers’ view, not at all. In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” As he explains in his Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401) this redirection by the young man dressed in white actually completes the great religious reversal that Mark narrates from the very beginning of his Gospel. The Jerusalem temple was the economic, political, and religious center of the nation; its temple was the center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth were joined. But the story of Jesus begins out away from Jerusalem, at the edge of the wilderness, where God is first encountered in the waters of the Jordan. And as the story of Jesus’ passion develops, the temple is utterly vacated of the divine presence. As Myers observes, there was

“. . . no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; it is not the heavens that are rent (schizo), but the veil of the earthly sanctuary; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.”

Even the body that had taken central place in the narrative of Jesus’ action in Jerusalem, as Jesus offered himself in love to his disciples, even that is now gone—“he is not here” (Myers, p. 406). When the story of Jesus is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: the crucified body is risen from the dead. But also that body is absent from the scene: as Myers observes, in the course of Mark’s narrative not only has Jesus’ body replaced the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life, but now his absent body is in turn displaced by what Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone,” confirming “Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Myers, p. 406).

This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in fact deeply significant for our concern for care of creation. The mission of the crucified-and-risen Lord is to be worked out in the context of everyday life. Strong confirmation of this redirection is given, in fact, by the very figure who brings the message. Tom Mundahl reminded us in his comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent that the young man dressed in white at the tomb in the Gospel of Mark represents more than the eye can at first see. He is the blind man of Mark 10:47, who flees on the night of Jesus passion, abandoning his cloak; we see him again here at the end of the Gospel, newly dressed in the white robe of the Christian neophyte. His name was Bartimaeus, that is, son of Timaeus. Timaeus was a figure in Platonic philosophy who envisioned heaven and earth, as Mundahl summarizes his view, as “a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision.” The formerly blind but now sighted Bar-timaeus represents the Markan rejection of this elitist view in favor of an understanding of how, in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, his followers are to be made newly aware of how radically different the presence of God is envisioned when Jesus is seen “in Galilee.” At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4). In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21) . . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25). Jesus’ teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11:24) . . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid., p. 443).

And it is there in the discipleship practice that the world, “contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be,” is manifest as “powerful testimony to God the creator,” albeit without requiring “a palace for the victorious king.”

In its readings for Easter Sunday, therefore, the church properly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of its belief in the universal resurrection from the dead and its celebration of the pascal feast. And it does so without limitation with respect to the locus of this discipleship practice in the vicinity of the Temple of Zion or, which is perhaps the more important, larger point, any other, similar cosmic and political center. The departure from Jerusalem is not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel’s faith and concern for creation so central to temple practice, then, as rather its appropriation for those followers who return to Galilee and, indeed, for the mission of those followers as they move from there across the Roman world. What happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh’s holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God’s presence from that precinct; but it was also the initiation of a new manifestation of that presence in the community of Jesus’ followers. As Gordon Lathrop puts it, also with reference to the tombside redirection of the two Marys by Bartimaeus, it is now to be understood that

“. . . the actual history and death of Jesus have inaugurated the eschaton of God in this world. God’s acting in justice and mercy for the healing of the created world could therefore be proclaimed in the gathered communities, in the power of the Spirit, by telling there the stories of Jesus and, reinterpreted through him, the very stories of Israel, and by eating there the eschatological feast of his gift . . . . This encounter with the eschaton, with what came to be called ‘the resurrection,’ was taking place in every local assembly, not in Jerusalem alone, or Rome alone, or some other “apostolic headquarter” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 , p.134).

This being so, it is precisely in those assemblies that we might look for the “world as it was meant to be,” not only a human community from which the plague of reciprocal violence is being removed, but also a new creation, a creation being restored because death no longer has dominion there.

If this relocation of the eschatological presence of God removes ties to the temple, it nonetheless imposes all the more strictly the practice of nonviolence. Indeed, domination by any means is excluded. Crucially, it even “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology,” Myers insists, “which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid., p. 408). The risen Christ remains the crucified-and-resurrected Christ of the Gospel tradition. What this means for the proclamation of the resurrection is that the reach of the life-giving and restoring presence of God in the creation can never be stopped short of its cosmic completion. It can never be permanently captured by the powers that control the sacred center of a society by whatever means, violent or otherwise.

In the first instance, therefore, this message will be returned to the original field of activity, Galilee, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem (Myers, p. 406). It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p. 443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent of Africa, and even across Asia. Before long, of course, the material needs of those communities will bring into ever fuller play the full scope of the eschatological realization of God’s restoration of creation, as symbolized earlier in the temple’s eschatology, but now focused on the life of the discipleship community. As with the temple, so with the community. It’s practice and the world of its location belong together; now they are the implicate of each other, as temple and world were before. This is why the inclusion of the eschatolgical meal in the message of Easter is so significant. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

“it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site [the table fellowship] as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus’ “body” (14:22-25) . . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is ‘holy,’ for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid., p. 443).

The meal is, as Myers has it, “for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (16:7).” But the community will not be sustained in any of its places of settlement if it is not also a meal that creates new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in the midst of which it is shared.

Thus the spread of the discipleship practice congruent with the hope of universal resurrection repeatedly draws the community ever more deeply into the public square. If not in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, and eventually in Rome as the center of its Western Empire, the historical and natural conditions of life are taken up into the story of the way of Jesus. If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers find themselves at home, then neither location nor dwelling are finally irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides the plain where Jesus preached and the mountain on which Jesus died and was raised, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, the city but also the wilderness, each of which offers again and again its special kind of participatory membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And when no longer Rome and its many extensions under the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Western church secured its attachment to the sphere of the planet Earth, then in each of its re-centering capitals, and eventually the United States of America, with its strong if merely metaphorical claim to be a New Israel, and a City set on a Hill. With each of these extensions, more and more peoples are drawn into the community of human life in the name of the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus, more and more of Earth is encompassed in the hope of creation’s restoration and completion. And everywhere the meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human. But whenever any such center makes a claim to be the center in which God is uniquely, even supremely present, and defends that claim by violence that destroys the bonds of community and actions that result in the degradation of creation, it is time for the celebration of the feast to be moved once again to the margins, to the life-giving river in the wilderness, to the edge of the cosmos, and from there to move freely back into the midst of life. It is therefore crucial to the future of the human race that those margins, that wilderness, the infinite, limitless space, continue to provide place for the ever renewing manifestation of God.

Are we in such a time? The arguments about American exceptionalism in history may legitimately raise the question. The domination of a protestant Christianity over the civil religion of an American imperial leadership in the public sphere may suggest so. The attempt to exclude or at least limit other than Christian religious practice at that seat of military and economic power may also suggest so. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, when humans dominate all the biological processes of earth, and indeed weaponize the earth against its weaker and more vulnerable communities, both human and non-human, is it not time, if not already too late, to ask, whether our current coalition of religious, economic and political power will ever be able to deliver the fullness of both human and other-than-human life, as promised in resurrection vision of the Eastern church? Surely, it seems not. Very few, if any, of the “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” have been removed from our centers of civilization. It is perhaps not surprising that for most followers of Jesus in this age of the great American Empire, it suffices for them to hope that they are among those who in the resurrection will be delivered, individually, or at best, in community limited by faith, out from this vail of tears. We have been making do with that limited vision of an individual resurrection for too long already. Again, let it be said, in the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, we all rise together, and that includes the communities of non-human life, no less than the human species, or we finally rise not at all.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday of the Passion in Year B (Schade18)

More than Eco-PalmsLeah Schade reflects on ecojustice and Passion Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Mark 11:1-11 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1 – 15:47

On Palm Sunday, thousands of churches will use sustainably-harvested palms in their worship services marking the beginning of Holy Week. It is right and good that more congregations are recognizing the need to exercise environmental responsibility when it comes to liturgical practices. Organizations such as Eco-Palms protect important forests and sustainable livelihoods in the harvesting communities. But let’s not end there. The sermon, too, can incorporate ecojustice themes that highlight the connection between Jesus’ crucifixion and the eco-crucifixion happening today.

We begin our Palm Sunday services with our palm fronds and branches lifted high, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” Our voices echo those of the crowds gathered outside of Jerusalem waving branches, spreading their cloaks on the road. They were cheering on the man they hoped would lead them to a glorious military victory over the Roman Empire.

Less than thirty minutes later, we’re all yelling, “Crucify him!” when the dramatic reading of the Passion story calls for us to call out these words. What happened? Why the sudden 180-degree turn? As soon as the crowds in Jerusalem realized that Jesus is a leader of sacrificial peace instead of bloody war, they turn on him. One minute they are chanting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Soon after that, they’re screaming, “Crucify him!”

For some people this sudden move from Palms to Passion is jolting. We feel uncomfortable calling for Jesus’ death. We don’t want to be identified with that crowd. Some Christians and certain churches even avoid the entire Holy Week journey altogether. They have Palm Sunday, alright. But they skip over all the dark, ugly, graphic parts of the story on Good Friday. They go right from palms to Easter lilies. None of that messy stuff in between.

Lutherans call this “cheap grace,” because it requires no change, no response. It provides no means for a change of heart, for a transformed attitude, for a moment of self-awareness, repentance, and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.

But we choose not to ignore the suffering of Jesus. We believe it is vital that we tell all parts of the story and that we recognize ourselves as part of both crowds—the ones who cheer, and the ones who call for crucifixion. Especially as our planet is undergoing an eco-crucifixion, it is imperative that we tell that part of the story as well. The crucifixion of Jesus happened once in history. But the crucifixion of Earth is carried out daily.

Mark I. Wallace, in his book Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005), offers a novel image of Earth as the continually crucified Spirit of God. By seeing the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God, which then becomes embodied in the natural world, he builds on Sallie McFague’s notion of Earth as God’s body. He then shifts the focus to the third person of the Trinity and incorporates the Divine Feminine. He makes the connection to Christ’s crucifixion in this way:

“If God’s body—this small planet that is now under siege by continued global warming, deforestation, the spread of toxins, the chronic loss of habitat—continues to suffer and bleed, then does not God, in some sense real but still unknowable and mysterious to us, also suffer and bleed? . . . If it is the case that when the earth, God’s body, suffers, then God’s Spirit suffers as well, then we can say that the Spirit of God is ‘Christ-like’ or ‘cruciform’ because the Spirit suffers the same violent fate as did Jesus—but now a suffering not confined to a onetime event of the cross, as in the case of Jesus, but a suffering that the Spirit experiences daily through 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” (Wallace, 23-24).

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 (Wallace, 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 spurn “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments” that persuades us “to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures” (Wallace, 136).

So on Palm Sunday, we tell the story of the Passion so that we remember. We tell this story to our children so that they remember. Lest we think ourselves so much more advanced than the rabid crowds in Jerusalem, we must recognize that we are no different today. What was done to Jesus is still done to people and our planet.  Native Americans continue to lose their sacred land sacrificed to the colonization of the oil and gas industry. Communities of color continue to be targeted for polluting industries and toxic landfills.  Island nations such as Puerto Rico are raked by catastrophic storms super-charged by climate change and given little help in recovery. Coral reefs worldwide are bleaching and dying. Billions of populations of plants, fish, and animals have been lost in recent decades in what scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event since life began on this planet. So, yes, the crucifixion of our planet and people is real and ongoing.

There is a hymn sometimes sung during Holy Week entitled, “Ah, Holy Jesus” (Johann Heermann, 1630).

Ah, Holy Jesus . . .
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.
I crucified thee.

On Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we consciously and intentionally remember that we are guilty and have committed eco-crucifixion against people and planet.  The pain of eco-crucifixion is real, and the voices of those who suffer need to be heard. We must speak of this in our worship service so that we do not become numb to the pain and thus apathetic towards our sisters and brothers—because, if we cut ourselves off from their pain, the cycle of violence will only continue.

But there is another reason why we tell this story. We do this to remember what God is doing in response to this crucifixion. Some might say, “Well, yes, God sent Jesus to die for our sins. God allowed Jesus to die in order to make payment for our sins. That’s what God is doing here, right?”

However, I would again argue that this is also “cheap grace,” because this theory of atonement requires no response from us. It provides for no change of heart, or a transformed attitude, or a moment of self-awareness, repentance, and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.

Does God really require the killing of Jesus in order to be satisfied for our sins? No. But humans do. The Jewish and Roman domination systems had to kill Jesus because he was a threat to their power. And we continue to sacrifice lives for the sake of institutional domination, imperial arrogance, economic and territorial greed, and petty pride.

But God answers all of this in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The answer is: this must stop! If God wanted sacrifice, then Jesus would have remained dead. That’s not what happened. Jesus was resurrected. Jesus lives. This means that God does not condone violence committed against God’s Creation. God submits to it, absorbs it, and lives right through it in order to be in solidarity with those who suffer through it. And then God resurrects the condemned one, the betrayed one, the crucified one in order to show that this act of violence is not the last word. We have to believe that God, who has brought us through 14 billion years of time, will not abandon us now. That somehow God is working through even this human-made catastrophe of global climate change, deforestation, massive extinction, and toxic poisoning to find a way for life to push through once again. So I make the choice to believe—and act on my firm belief—that on the other side of the Good Friday of the eco-crucifixion, there is an eco-resurrection.

Stay with the journey to the cross. Don’t turn away from it. It will not be easy. But this is part of God’s plan to transform the worst of humanity into the very best that God intends for God’s people, for our planet, and for our future.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2018.
Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wisdom from Gardening – Tom Mundahl reflects on the seed that dies to bear fruit.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Wisdom and witness from the garden.

The time for studying seed catalogues in the Midwest is nearly over. Now is decision time. What will we grow in our limited space? Even more difficult is choosing seeds. Which varieties of carrots or squash should we try this year? Do we experiment with new, hybrid varieties, or purchase heirloom seeds? Which will work best in our soil conditions and changing climate? These are fascinating but difficult choices for the avid gardener, who, in a few weeks will plant these seeds in the earth “to die.”

Everyone who has ever planted a garden understands the image used in our gospel reading: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (literally, “alone”); but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Without the expenditure of the “life” that is stored in the seed—from genetic material to micro-nutrients—a garden simply will not grow.

Jesus uses this “parable” in response to a request from “some Greeks” who wanted to see him during the at the Passover Festival. While it may seem that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse, responding with a Zen-like koan less than helpful for these Gentile seekers, this short parable points toward the meaning of Jesus’ life and the future of the community enlivened by him.

To live real life is to give life away.

For it is not only gardening advice. With logic much like that used in the first Markan passion prediction (see Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38), Jesus argues that all attempts to find security on one’s own, or to protect oneself from the risks of life together, will lead to unfruitful death (the grain remaining “alone”). This is why Jesus continues: “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). To live real life is to give life away, to “spend” it.

Giving life away may seem like a waste of energy and resources to our culture. But Jesus digs deeper, seeking the very reason for receiving the gift of life. Once again, he puts it in vivid, but difficult words: “ . . . those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is, those who come to see that life is not a possession to be stored in a vault, but shared as needed in community, find that life becomes so rich it takes on a new quality that Jesus refers to as “eternal life.” (John 12:25)

Jesus gives his life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is about to demonstrate with the cross. Resurrection life—the life implied from the very beginning of this gospel—is cruciform to the marrow. Yet, it is the way to the germination of new creation. What would possess one to risk this? Only one who is confident that self-emptying death is not final. Instead, Jesus breaks ground for a “way” that passes even through death into the creation and nurture of a new community celebrating the interdependence of the whole of creation. This is a giving of life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

Wisdom from Dostoevsky: love of Earth and renewing of strength.

This is likely why the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, chose John 12:24 as the epigraph for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Alyosha, has spent months attached to a monastery, mentored by the Elder Zosima. While the novel makes clear that Zosima’s wisdom is focused on life—the precious web of relations between God, people, and the created world, there are those who expect extraordinary miracles that will add to the status of the monastery upon his coming death. The most basic of these expectations is the conviction that, because of the Elder’s holiness, his dead body will not be subject to decay.

When Zosima dies, his body begins to give off “an unmistakable scent.” Many would-be saint-makers begin to scoff at this well-loved teacher. Even Alyosha is crestfallen. Yet, in the midst of his grief and disappointment, he recalls “the Miracle at Cana” (John 2). Alyosha begins to grasp that Zosima has showered him with liveliness comparable to the “best wine” created by Jesus to enliven that wedding party!

As he leaves the monastery carrying this new insight, suddenly:

“The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. . . . He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, 362-63).

There are many ways to embrace God’s creation and to water it with our tears. While these textual comments have focused on Lenten texts, they surely drive toward the Three Days and the celebration of the Great Passover from death to life. As we look forward to baptism(s) at the Vigil, we recall both the renunciation of the powers of destruction in that service and the promise of parents and sponsors to “care for others and the world God made.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Holy Baptism,” p. 228). This makes us ‘fighters,’ too.

The finite bears the infinite.

Of course, this celebration of victory over the power of destruction and evil by the one who “draws all to himself on the cross” (John 12:32) is continued throughout the year in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist. This meal reminds us that what we eat and drink in the midst of the assembly, gathered by the Spirit, and affirming the Risen One, is charged with life that honors all creation (finitum capax infiniti). This meal of radical sharing creates a community whose very reason to be is mutual care–”Go in peace, serve the Lord.”

By our self-denial, we make space for others to flourish.

And this caring mirrors the very act of creation. This is because the Risen One is the embodiment of God’s making space for that which is other, which is essential to creation. This becomes clearer in the even more explicit “self-emptying” we focus on this season (Philippians 2:5-11) As Wirzba reminds us,

“God’s original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God ‘makes room’ for what is not God to be and to flourish. Rowan Williams observes that it is when we practice the self-denial and self-dispossession that mirror God’s life that we are enabled to receive each other and the world as divine gifts rather than personal possessions.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2012, p. 69).

Whether it is caring for our gardens or “fasting” from automobile driving during Lent, this “making space for life” nourishes much like the “seed that dies to bear fruit.”

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Saler15)

Getting Real about the Mortality of the EarthRobert Saler reflects on renouncing control over outcomes.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

We have come to that point in the Lenten season where the preacher is called upon to reflect with the congregation about the reality of death—the death of Christ as illustrated by his familiar yet still-poignant imagery in John 12:24, and also the inevitable reality of death as faced by the all human beings. It is a truism, but it bears repeating: every man, woman, and child hearing preaching this Sunday will face death—some peacefully, others not. Christians, or at least Christian preachers, cannot participate in what Ernest Becker decades ago referred to as America’s pervasive “denial of death.” Honest preaching must be drenched in mortality.

How does this extend to preaching creation care? Several years ago, I wrote a meditation for the literary magazine The Cresset in response to a trend that I tend to find troubling in much environmental discourse, including Christian ecological discourse: the tendency to speak of creation care as if immortality were somehow desirable or even possible—not immortality of the individual, but rather the immortality of the Earth. In my article, I argued instead that it is especially in preaching and theologizing about creation care that we must highlight the mortality of creation—not simply that creation CAN die (a point made often and well by ecologists) but, more radically, that the earth WILL die.

This is why considering every act of care as an act of care for the dying has profound significance for ecological ethics (and indeed, for Christian life as a whole). It is to renounce control over outcomes. It is to refuse to tie the value of an act of care—whether for a child, a tree, or an ocean—to its efficacy in conserving the cared-for thing. It is to celebrate care for its own sake, and for the sake of the possibility that the act of care might be the occasion for the creation of resurrection space. To relinquish “conservation” in favor of “care for the dying” is to acknowledge reality as we know it, but also to honor the hope that the reality that we know might not be “the final word” at all.

The full article, which I hope will be helpful as a preaching resource, is here:
http://thecresset.org/2013/Lent/Saler_L2013.html

As I reflect back on that writing, I have become even more convinced that it is crucial for the homiletical rhetoric of creation care not to lose sight of this powerfully Christian gift of speaking of resurrection and God’s life-giving acts as occurring IN and THROUGH the reality of death, not bypassing it somehow either through silence or, worse, a kind of environmental “theology of glory” (as Luther would put it) that speaks as if we can somehow save the earth through our own acts of ecological righteousness—recycling, political activism, and so on. These works are in fact quite good and necessary, but they cannot without spiritual danger or activist delusion be part of a kind of implicit soteriological schema a) that denies the fact that the earth is as drenched in mortality as we are, and b) that places this false immortality somehow within our control such that we are shamed by the stubborn facts of death. As Luther saw, works-righteousness is its own kind of hell, and this applies as much to ecological works-righteousness as individual schemas.

So, for this Sunday, as the trusted preacher guides her congregation through the process of placing their own mortality in the light of the gospel, it is a marvelous opportunity to expand that mortality out by placing it in ecological context. Too much hope for false immortality defers death by assuming (implicitly or explicitly) that life will somehow “go on” after we die, either in the memory of loved ones (who are themselves, of course, mortal) or in the more abstract form of the species/creation. But as Lutherans, we can be radical in our embrace of mortality knowing that the event of the cross and the empty tomb is not death’s denial but mortality’s deep reckoning. Let this theme be as ecological as others, and the proclamation of the gospel of life may take on existentially richer tones than ever before.

Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Mundahl18)

Ending Our Exile from CreationTom Mundahl reflects on owning the responsibilities of our priesthood.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Finally we can begin to see our garden beds. Even though we have been able to celebrate a Minnesota winter in all of its beauty and challenge, after four months of snow we cannot help but experience a sense of exile from the rich smell of warming humus in garden beds and the ever-surprising growth of seeds into food and flowers. But that exile is also apparent as we begin to comprehend what it means to enter the Anthropocene Epoch where the relative predictability of life on earth has begun to disappear as a result of humans dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is in addition to human resource use that has increased to the point where scholars at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, CA, have estimated that for all humankind to live at the level of Americans, four planets would be necessary! (www.footprintnetwork.org)

Lent is certainly the season to face the arrogance of human “overshoot” and, reflecting on the re-creating mercy of God, to repent by turning our policies, practices and expectations around to learn how to live fruitfully and justly in balance with this blue planet. Like the people of Judah who were captured by the Babylonians, one of the most powerful and advanced cultures of its time, we have been enslaved by a set of axioms for living that cannot be sustained, nor should they. So it is a gift on this last Sunday in Lent to begin with a prophet of exile, Jeremiah, who may help us begin to see glimmers of freedom.

Jeremiah had no difficulty detecting human arrogance. Dragged kicking and screaming into his vocation, he not only exposed the culture’s contempt for truth, but experienced it directly in rejection. Given his faithfulness in delivering God’s message of judgment in both symbolic actions and words, we are surprised suddenly to come upon the “Book of Consolation,” one of the most profound statements of hope in the Jewish scriptures. This new word promises that the LORD will bring the exiles home in nothing less than a second Exodus (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this return to the land of promise begins, Jeremiah describes their future as a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12-14).

That image of a “watered garden” is important for understanding this familiar text. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  It seems that in the face of Judah’s arrogance it was necessary for the leaders to return once more to the wilderness, even if that wilderness was the alien culture of Babylon. Hear Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: the people who have survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).  Only in this “wilderness experience” where dependence is total can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) be seen as gift, not merely the results of human effort.

Just as the return to a fertile land is now seen as something granted, so also is the restored harmony between God and people now experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah,  Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).

Not only does this provide a new basis of forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony throughout the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the rubble. Even fields that had served as burial places for the fallen will once more become fertile gardens (cf. Jeremiah 31:40, John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 283). Quite clearly, “covenant restoration” includes not just humankind, but spills over to the land as well.

Even though the notion of Jesus as “high priest” seems strange during a year when we immerse ourselves in Mark’s Gospel with numerous uses of John, Hebrews holds a secure place in the canon and in piety. The purpose of this metaphor seems to be to establish Jesus’ identity as both the one who brings healing to creation and completes the Jewish system of sacrifice. The “high priest” according to the anonymous author is chosen and “put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1), one who mediates between God and humankind.

But Jesus is the final high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10). Much speculation surrounds the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, much of it coming from Qumran referred to in various scrolls. Apparently, the author’s strategy here is to bolster Jesus’ authority with reference to one greater than Abraham, “who blessed him who had received the promises” (Hebrews 7:6) and outranks all other priests (Thomas G. Long, HebrewsLouisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 66-67). Ultimately, because Jesus sacrificed his own blood, he has “opened for us a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).

While Hebrews can seem arcane, we are also reminded that the very notion of “priesthood” is something we share with all Christians through baptism. As Luther wrote in the Address to the German Nobility (1520), “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.” Even though all baptized Christians are called to serve as priests—mediators between God, sisters and brothers, and the creation—not all are called to pastoral ministry. While Protestants have generally seen “the priesthood of all believers” as a critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy, we have all too rarely seen priesthood as an empowering vocation.

Orthodox perspectives help us here. “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly role (not necessarily a priest leading worship) does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on Earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place, but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1) so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as blessing” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207). Our shared priesthood in seeking eco-justice, then, expresses our prayer and action toward ending our arrogant exile from creation, insuring the wholeness and peace that is Sabbath delight.

Timing is everything.  Gardeners know that planting cannot be hurried— the soil must be fed with rich compost and its temperature must have warmed to proper germination levels. In much the same way, “Jesus’ hour” comes only when “certain Greeks” ask to see him (John 12:20), signaling that now with the addition of “other sheep” (John 10:16) the flock is complete. Now is the time for planting: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Jesus’ “parable” takes for granted ancient beliefs that with the loss of their original form seeds ceased to be what they were and died. Even though we understand the growth process differently, the image still conveys power. As James P. Mackey writes, “Every transformation in the universal process of evolutionary creativity involves a death of existing forms or a de-formation . . . (But what is this but) . . . the inevitable negative pole of the positive force of creative evolution that forever brings new or renewed forms into being” (quoted in Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162). As Wendell Berry observes as he works in his hillside woodlots, “where the creation is yet fully alive and continuous and self-enriching, whatever dies enters directly into the life of the living . . . ” (“An Entrance to the Woods,” Recollected Essays 1965-1980, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 240)

Berry’s view of transition in forests reminds us that even theologically, death is a self-offering movement in which an individual gives himself or herself to another for the expansion of life. As Wirzba suggests, “Rather than viewing life as a possession, one inspired by Christ understands that life is a gift to be received and given again . . . . All attempts to secure life from within or to withhold oneself from the offering that is the movement of life, will amount to life’s loss” (Wirzba, p. 112). This is why Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). Real life is expenditure.

This explains why Dostoevsky uses John 12:24 as the epigraph for his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this earthy theological thriller we meet two religious protagonists: the Elder Zosima and Alyosha Karamozov, a novice monk. Zosima serves as starets (spiritual advisor) to the monks and to the multitude who come to him for advice and counsel. But he has not only lived inside cloister walls. Earlier he had been a dashing military officer, playing cards and challenging brother officers to duels. In fact, it was as he prepared for a duel that suddenly he was granted a vision of the unity and holiness of creation, a vision which sent him to the monastery. This tempering of piety with worldly experience serves as the basis of his holiness and humility. It is with the same humility that his life ends: suddenly he felt a pain in his chest, “silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully, gave up his soul to God” (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 6, Ch.3, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 324).

The expectation is that because of Zosima’s unusual holiness, his body will not exhibit the odor of decay. To the delight of his monastic rivals, not only does the stench begin, but it seems to be especially pronounced. Young Alyosha is crushed. Does this mean that his mentor was nothing but a fraud? In his shock he finally returns to stand watch near Zosima’s bier where Father Paissy reads aloud from the scriptures. It is when Alyosha hears the account of the Wedding at Cana read aloud that he experiences once again Zosima’s voice celebrating the richness of new wine. Suddenly Alyosha runs out of the chapel and when he reaches the forest, like Zosima, he falls down and embraces the earth weeping tears of joy. As Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life” (Ibid., Bk. 7, Ch. 4, p. 363). By falling to the earth as the seed that has died, as he leaves the monastery he becomes   part of a new community caring for the whole creation.

Dostoevsky here teaches that self-offering is not a waste leading nowhere. As Wirzba claims, “The giving of oneself, instead, leads to life as it really ought to be: ‘those who hate their life in the world’ (v. 25)—that is, those who realize that individual life is not a possession or an idol to be guarded and worshipped at all costs, those who categorically reject the isolating project of self-glorification, but instead willingly give themselves over for the good of others—‘will keep it for eternal life’ (v. 25)” (Wirzba, p. 114). Working for eco-justice with all one’s life may not be a good career choice, but it is an integral calling among the priesthood of all believers.

The high point of our gospel text occurs when Jesus describes being lifted up from the earth and “drawing all to myself” (John 12:32). Yes, the preferred NRSV reading is “all people,” but “all things” conforms more closely to 3:35 and 13:3, “all things have been given.” Why not, then, simply use “all” to avoid anthropocentrism and emphasize the creation interests of the Gospel. As Daly-Denton argues, “So to think of panta (“all”) being given into Jesus’ hands is to think of ‘all things’ being entrusted to the disciples as well. Their mission is to do the creating and sustaining ‘works of God’ (John 6:28), as modeled by the Good Shepherd, even  to the point of putting their life on the line as he did” (Daly-Denton, p. 166).

Because of the ecological situation we find ourselves in, it would be helpful to hear a confirming voice from heaven as did the festival crowd in our narrative (John 12:29-30). We may ask whether “the ruler of this world has been driven out” (John 12:31) as we admit that the wanton use of our freedom and technological power has led us to the brink of ruin and left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is unresponsive to “human interests.” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37)  Is our fate simply as Philip Sherrard has described: “There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourself to it.  That is the punishment.” (The Eclipse of Man and Nature, Stockbridge: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 71-72)

Every Sunday, even the Sundays of Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection. That does not mean that Christians are naively optimistic about the prospects we face. We would be fools to expect that a new technology or the sudden appearance of a new leader will solve the problems we confront. But as we come down to earth and plant the seeds of small gardens, teach children where carrots come from, and help sisters and brothers to see that eco-justice is central to our “priesthood,” we find hope. The one who sends Jeremiah to tear down our falsity and the Christ to draw all to him on the cross will certainly puncture every assumption of our arrogant culture—including our own personal favorites. Yet that same Creator will give us the courage to own our responsibilities, begin to mitigate climate damage, and work to find a place in the choir for all of God’s creatures.

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Loving the Cosmos as God DoesTom Mundahl reflects on repenting of the “windigo” way.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Each Ash Wednesday we make an unusually comprehensive community confession of sin. We confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people,” “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 253). While the starkness of these petitions may strike some as excessive, in light of the state of our planet one may also wonder: how could they be so mild?

Not only are we struggling through the aftermath of the eighteenth U.S. school shooting in the first couple months of 2018, but already residents of the Ohio River watershed are experiencing severe flooding. In my own Twin Cities, residents of the eastern suburbs of St. Paul are wondering if “3-M’s” nearly one billion dollar fine for polluting groundwater with the chemical components of Teflon will be sufficient given the 100 square mile toxic underground “plume” that has developed. And, once more the residents of California are beginning to worry about the low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, one of their most important water sources. Will this year bring more fires, mudslides, and greater stress to farms and city residents alike?

The gravity of issues like this was on the mind of Wake Forest University’s Fred Bahnson as he attended Good Friday services last year. He arrived at worship hoping to have quiet time to reflect on the cross, the state of his life, and the state of the world. What he experienced was quite different. “Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, but more ‘sackcloth and ashes’” (“The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion, Vol. 36, No. 4, Thirty-fifth Anniversary Issue, 2017, p. 85).

To the wandering Israelites described in this week’s First Lesson, “sackcloth and ashes” may not have sounded so bad. Not only was the first generation of leaders dying, the wilderness wanderers continued to be frustrated by continued detours forcing them to rely on Moses’ leadership and a divinely provided menu. It is no wonder that once more the people complained, this time directly to God, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

No longer does “out of Egypt” seem to be a punch line for a freedom dance. Now Egypt seems to represent a time without endless wandering and, despite bondage, a time of relative economic security. In their imaginations, Egypt may have become what Maggie Ross once referred to as “the mall across the Red Sea.” Especially to the second generation of those on this extended trek, stories detailing life in Egypt would likely have become attractive. How easy it was to forget the cultural humiliation and painful work of brick-making for harsh Egyptian masters, slavery which seemed to consume their unique gift to the world (Dennis Olson, Numbers, Louisville: John Knox, 1996, p. 135ff.).

The desperate attraction to the horrors of life in Egypt reminds me of one of most powerful of Algonquin legends—the tradition of the “windigo,”a being who has developed an appetite for food, wealth, and power that can never be satisfied. Not only had the Israelites been victims of this “windigo” power in Egypt, but in many ways, so are we. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how contemporary culture has “spawned a new breed of “windigo” that devours Earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” This mind-set proposes to improve our “quality of life,” but eats us from within. “It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that only nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2013, p. 308).

The consequences for the Israelites attracted to this nostalgic security monster are dire.

Poisonous serpents are deployed that quickly produce a high body count. When the desperate Israelites seek Moses’ help, he prays to the LORD, who commands him to make a bronze casting of a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole, so that, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9). No longer did they long for the storied days of imagined ease brought by the Egyptian “windigo;” now by looking at the very source of death they find healing and restoration of communal trust. It is no surprise that the Johannine evangelist uses this image (John 3:14) to portray the cross, that brutal instrument of Roman torture, as the sign pointing to cosmic renewal of life. God transforms the very instruments of death (serpent/cross) sub contrario, into tools for life.

Much the same can be seen in this week’s Second Lesson from Ephesians, where the author frames the text with the Greek verb peripateo, “to walk,” the source of the English “peripatetic.” This “inclusio” describes contrary ways of life: in v. 2 walking the “windigo” way of death; in v. 10 walking the way of service and care. “Following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) suggests that “human life is under the malign influence of celestial powers thought to rule the universe, akin to ‘the elemental spirits’ of Col. 2:8, 20” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991 p. 26). The result is a warped understanding of life that leads to boasting (v. 9), misplaced confidence in human capacity, and being caught in the maelstrom of “windigo” lust.

The results of this kind of living are familiar to us today. According to Clive Hamilton, “The Great Acceleration began at the end of WW II and inaugurated both globalization and the Anthropocene. The rapid acceleration of economic growth, along with booming consumption and its profligate resource usage and waste, drove human destabilization of the Earth System. The pursuit of the American Dream at the same time brought the Anthropocene nightmare” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 84). That this accelerating, self-augmenting, out-of-control system reminds us of the “windigo” should be no surprise. And, it is certainly not to automobile drivers trapped in nearly identical smog-producing traffic jams in Los Angeles, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, and Addis Ababa.

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians reminds readers of the mercy of God, “who has made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:55). “In effect, God has done for Christians what God has already done for Christ” (Martin, p. 27). This results not in a new status of “holiness,” since it is all done “by grace as a free gift” (Ephesians 2:8), but in an explosion of servant-care. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). This amazing verse pulls no punches: the communal gift of grace flows through us as a way of continuing the renewal of creation and healing. Integral to this new way of walking (the closing of our “inclusio” frame) is building eco-justice.

This week’s lesson from John’s Gospel continues this emphasis on God’s action to heal and renew creation through the Son of Man (John 3:14) and the new community he calls into being (John 3:21). Once more we see a figure lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, but this time the result is not only the healing of those bitten by fiery serpents. Here the result is a new quality of life not only for those who believe, but for the whole creation (John 3:15-16).

Despite the uniqueness of John’s Gospel, Raymond Brown reminds us that the three statements describing Jesus being lifted up (John 3:14, 8: 28, and 12:32-34) function as the equivalent of the three synoptic passion predictions (The Gospel According to John, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 146). While John does not describe a specific response to each of these, the consequences are clear. In our text, even though the Son was “not sent into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), those who have seen and do not believe have already condemned themselves (John 3:18). “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). What is this if not a sense of being trapped in the “windigo” energy of “the virtue of selfishness” which has led to everything from out-of-control ecological devastation to power addiction and genocide? And this does not even begin to measure the energy required to “cover up in the darkness” responsibility for these deeds!

John describes the life of faith as producing even greater energy. But this energy is directed toward “doing the truth” (John 3:21a). Because these deeds come into the light, visible to the entire cosmos, they contain an entirely different kind of generativity. Just as the author of Ephesians refers to “good works which God has prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10), so the works coming from faith-active-in-love are “deeds performed in God” (Arndt, Bauer, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 307). Certainly ecojustice and Earthcare are among them.

The motive force behind “doing the truth” is the “life of new creation”/”eternal life” that comes from the lifting up of the Son of man, the word made flesh. This energy easily surpasses competing powers, including “Eternal Rome.” While Roman ideology claimed divine paternity for Augustus and his successors, who assumed political permanence, the gift of the one lifted up on a Roman cross could be grasped “only by faith” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 78). Still, a “life that bears endless newness” is the audacious claim of the early community, an assertion intensified in his gift of peace “not as the world (here read “Caesar”) gives” (John 14:27).

The center of this text is John 3:16, an echo of the prologue with its allusion to creation—”In the beginning . . . .” (John 1:1). Note well that Jesus does not say, “God loved humankind so much.” The life of the new time is not just for human beings; it envelops the entire Earth, the cosmos. Margaret Daly-Denton calls attention to the rich meaning of “cosmos” with etymological connections to “beauty,” the root of “cosmetic.” In this case, however, the word points to beauty that is rooted deeply within the creation and integral to the harmony of its endless interconnections (Ibid., pp. 78-79).

When we affirm God’s love for the cosmos, broken as it is, we discover surprising depth. What faith sees is seldom simply an object of vision, but even more the unseen reality that brings it into being. As Wirzba writes, “Our gaze at a creature . . . does not stop at the creature’s surface but extends beyond it to its dependence upon and source in a Creator. The Logos through which all things in the world came to be is also the light and life within each thing” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 32). This attitude requires us to live “together with” the whole of creation in a respectful way, or, as John would have it, “living in the light” (John 3:21).

That this is not the way we see the world God loves in our consumer-driven culture is clear. As Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard reveals, “We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves” (Human Image–World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology, Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992, p. 2). In order for us as to serve Earth and build ecojustice for all, we need once more to recognize God’s love in each other and in all that the Creator has made.

Yes, Fred Bahnson is correct in calling for us to put on the “sackcloth and ashes” of grief when we consider what we continue to do to this planet. Our actions are based primarily on how we see the cosmos—as a “mine” of resources to satisfy our endless desires, the “windigo” way from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. While the new-mindedness of Lenten repentance requires action, public policy change, hard work, and all of our energy, it also suggests the need for Lenten time to breathe and remember the depth of God’s love, a memory that may open us once more to be “channels of justice.”

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.

Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.

Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.

It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).

While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).

Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.

Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).

This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.

But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).

Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.

It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.

But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.

Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).

What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).

For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.

Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.

But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.

Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Expend your life for Jesus and the gospel of new creation, and you will save it. – Tom Mundahl reflects on the gospel paradox.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-15
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

While this week’s readings vigorously underline God’s faithful keeping of covenant promises made to Abraham and Sarah, including the strong affirmation in our psalm that this promise is for all (Psalm 22:27), our Gospel lesson challenges us to focus both on what threatens and on what sustains care for creation.

The disciples seek power to dominate. Jesus renounces it.

Once more, Jesus and his entourage are “on the way” on the very “edge.” They find themselves in the region of Caesarea Philippi, an area dominated by a city once named for the Greek god, Pan. With Roman imperial dominance, it has been redubbed “Caesarea Philippi” to honor the dedication of a temple there to Caesar Augustus and to recognize the influence of the Herodian tetrarch, Philip. This history not only suggests a fluid religious past, it also opens the door for a new understanding of “the way.” For as they travel, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question, reminiscent of Moses’ interrogation of the “burning bush:” “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

This is only intensified by the follow-up: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers bluntly, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Our text begins—uncomfortably in medias res (v. 31)—as Jesus unpacks the meaning of “messiahship” as suffering, rejection by the religious elite, and resurrection after three days. Understandably, Peter cannot accept any notion of “messiahship” that includes this kind of treatment. “And Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him” (v. 32). Jesus “returns the favor” by rebuking Peter with real harshness: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).

What could be clearer? A “messiah,” an “anointed king” in the tradition of David, must be a political figure sent to restore Israel’s national identity (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 244). But notice that Jesus will have none of that kind of “messiahship!” Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus describes himself as “the Son of Man,” “the human one.” Just as a “messiah” would be drawn toward statecraft, so the “Son of Man” must suffer and come into conflict with power elites. Jesus describes this conflict “quite openly” (Mark 8:32).

It is this rebuke of Peter and Mark’s Jesus presenting himself as “Son of Man” that is crucial for deepening our responsibility for creation care. We are taken back to last week’s Gospel reading that describes Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan and his encounter with “the wild beasts” (Mark 1.13). When we recall Daniel’s apocalyptic language, it is precisely “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) who comes to deal with the wild “beasts” representing the empires that have plagued that area of the world. To be “Son of Man” is to transcend traditional politics in order to bring new creation and to declaw “the beasts” as political players. But it also reveals the great temptation Jesus has, “to get behind himself”—the temptation of political power.

The temptation to seek power can never be satisfied. It is destroying Earth.

The temptation of seeking power that can never be satisfied is all too familiar. In anticipation of seeing Peter Jackson’s unreleased film version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I have been revisiting Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films from nearly a decade ago. Not only do they hold up well as cinematic versions of Tolkien’s saga, but they also illustrate in the most graphic way the personal and environmental effects of obsession with power. Evil wizard Sauron and his lackey Saruman lust to capture the total power of “the One Ring”–with results that can hardly be imagined, even with special effects.

These are described by one of the most beloved characters, Treebeard, an ent or “tree shepherd.” He describes Saruman as. . .

“plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the smelting fires of Orthanc. Curse him, root and branch!” (Tolkien, The Two Towers, Grafton, 90-91)

The result of this deforestation based on an uncontrollable obsession with power is the kind of waste we have seen with deforestation around the world. It is the kind of “denatured” landscape that is familiar from suburban sprawl and in the massive chemically-fed fields of crop monocultures.

We de-create the world with our power to dominate.

This destruction and attempt to de-create the world in the service of power recognizes that evil is, as Augustine held, a force that leads to nothingness, the deprivation of the goodness of creation, privatio boni. Its ultimate goal seems to be the destruction of all things: creation, relationships, faith, and hope. So, when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” the tempter who sets the mind on human things, not the things of God, there is a blunt recognition that this path to power-focused “messiahship” will have devastating results.

The opposite is to sustain life—to resist fear and pursue kingdom practice at risk of death.

But the other way, the way of sustaining life, seems at the outset ridiculous. It is the way and logic of the cross. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). This is the central paradox of the gospel. The other side of the lust for power is the willingness to punish by death all those who resist this powerful impulse. “By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history’ (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 247).

Embrace a priestly vocation.

Perhaps a more hopeful way of framing this reality is to listen to our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they uphold the priestly vocation. Paul Evdokimov suggests:

“In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as priest of his (sic) whole life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering, a hymn of glory” (quoted in Wirzba, 2012, p. 205).

When we broaden this anthropocentric focus, we see that a “priestly” view of the world comprehends all as gift of God to be celebrated by self-giving interdependence. This interdependence seems to cry for mutual regard and care. And this “priestly function” is not necessarily anthropocentric in practice. To return to Tolkien’s great love and concern for forests, throughout my life, trees have served as “priests” many times. Others may remember mediating comfort provided by dogs and cats, lakes and oceans, or the simple cry of a loon.

But the fact remains that those who resist the impulse for power, economic growth, and unchecked technological development are dealt deadly blows throughout the world. Whenever there is malnutrition in formerly subsistent food cultures that now have become exporters of “food resources,” this has happened. Those members of 350.org who protested the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project in front of the White House found harsh treatment even during their short time in District of Columbia detention facilities. There were no “Letters from the Washington Jail.” Finally, Tim de Christopher, who attempted to disrupt the bidding process for oil and gas leases on public lands, did not receive a mere slap on the hand, but two years of hard time at Herlong Federal Correction Institution in California. (Orion, Jan.-Feb. 2012, p. 41)

Expend your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel of new creation—and you will save it.

For those called to care for creation, our Gospel text describes clearly “the way it is.” There is a clear cost to this path of care and service, but it is the way of life. “For those who want to save their life (by submitting to the way of power obsession) will lose it, and those who lose (or expend) their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel (of new creation) will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Turning Around and Rethinking the “Royal Theology” of Our Time Tom Mundahl reflects on the appeal of kingdom, power, and exceptionalism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

As we move from the Genesis pre-history to God’s forming a new community through Abram and Sarai, the centrality of creation and the vocation to care for the land and make it a home endure. Even though divine action “ruptures” safe worldviews in favor of living by promise, this week’s readings provide courage to continue even when this new community is at odds with power structures.

What is most striking about the Priestly account of the Abrahamic Covenant is that it is given in extemis. The narrator makes it clear that Abram and Sarai are so far beyond the age of child-bearing, that even to speak of posterity is ridiculous. But this Holy One, who is here introduced as El Shaddai, an early appellation that may mean “God with breasts” or “fertile God” ( cf. Genesis 49:25) is true to his name and enlivens hope in this couple with the promise of a child (Genesis 17:16).

This new covenant fulfills creation promises of fruitful multiplication (Genesis 1:28, 9: 1), providing for a future that is clearly dependent upon God’s gracious action and nothing else. “But the point of fruitfulness, of son, of enduring covenant is announced only in v. 8, an affirmation made not to either Adam or Noah, but only to Father Abraham. It is delayed until now, until the new history of Abraham, and it concerns land: ‘And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan.’” Brueggemann goes on to claim, “This is the focal verse of the tradition of promise history.” (Genesis, Louisville, John Knox, 1980, p. 21)

The promise of sons and daughters (a future) only makes sense in light of a land of where they can become a sustaining community (Which makes the omission of v. 8 questionable at best). But in no way can either the land or the progeny be considered “property.” As the Deuteronomist warns the people, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). These words and the Abrahamic Covenant must have been especially powerful to those in Babylon “barren” of land during their nearly half-century of exile.

Seeing children and the land as covenant gift was theologically crucial. As early as the reign of Solomon (970-930 BCE), a “royal theology” had emerged based on Israel’s affluence, as well as their diplomatic and military power. Unfortunately, proponents of “royal theology” began to see the land as property, wealth as something to be enjoyed by the few, and even fellow Israelites as subject to forced labor—all too reminiscent of Egyptian bondage (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, p.24). Not only did this religious decay lead to the emergence of the prophets, but it comes into play in this week’s Gospel reading as Jesus warns Peter to distinguish “human things” from “the things of God” (Mark 8:33). More importantly, the focus of “royal theology” on kingdom building neglects a question that every leader should ask in humility as she/he thinks about amassing power: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14)

The psalmist approaches this question from a better angle: the standpoint of a lowly one (ani, one of the aniwim) lamenting in words familiar from Good Friday, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). It is only in the midst of the worshipping community (v. 22) that this lowly one is empowered once more to reflect divine passion for the earth and its people in the peculiarly appropriate act of praise.  It is worship that stems not from a “royal edict,” but from a celebration of the goodness of a creation, where even “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (v. 26).  Despite the earth’s cycles of living and dying, the LORD ensures the fruitfulness of creation.

This creational generativity is upheld by Paul as he writes to the churches of Rome to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers. Equally important is his hope to extend the mission of the church as far as Spain. To accomplish both of these goals, he holds that “in the shameful cross, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Greco-Roman world and that provided support for the premise of exceptionalism for the Empire” (Robert Jewett, Romans, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 1). No longer can categories of exceptionalism be tolerated (cf. Galatians 3: 27-28).

In this takedown of Roman imperial theology, Paul can find no better model than Abraham. Abraham certainly carried no religious resume to boast of; he and Sarah simply trusted the nearly laughable promises of heirs and land. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but Paul suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world . . .”(Romans 4: 13). This cosmic inheritance drives powerfully to Romans 8, where Paul will claim that the entire world waits with eager longing for “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19), who as Jewett claims “would take responsibility for the polluted world” (Jewett, p. 326). This is a direct effect of the faith God engenders in all—regardless of ethnicity or citizenship—faith that grows from the soil of promise.

That Abraham should inherit the world (Romans 4:13) comes as no surprise since the gift of faith grows out of the gift of creation. Abraham believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17b). Therefore, “if faith is a gift, creation is the greater gift” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 75).

Here Paul reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay “Walking” wrote, “. . . in Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Lewis Hyde, ed., The Essays of Henry David Thoreau, New York: North Point Press, 2002, p. 162). By this he meant that creation has been given the capacity for renewal as part of its being. When that capacity for renewal is blocked,  through drought, through suburbanization, or through climbing earth temperatures, the “world”— human and all else—is threatened.

That threat is visible in the massive attempt of the Roman Empire with its explicit “imperial theology” to control reality in multi-faceted ways, ranging from the over-harvesting of timber throughout the Empire to proclaiming the emperor divine. Paul claims that real life is celebration and care of the gift of creation and promise through faith. In doing so, he tears a hole in the fabric of a system dedicated to maximizing human control.

As we enter the anthropocene epoch, we have begun to realize that the fruit of human attempts to control the natural world have failed and, in many cases, led to a “wildness” that no longer nourishes, but is “out of control.” Take the case of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Dubuque, IA. Since its founding in the late 1790’s, this human settlement on the banks of the Mississippi has tried to control the river with levees, dikes, and a massive flood wall built after the devastating 1965 flood. The many smaller streams and creeks emptying into the river were simply paved over. None of this has worked: the flood wall simply intensifies the speed of water flowing to increase flooding downstream and the city storm sewer system has proven inadequate in coping with underground water flows.

Finally, residents have begun to preserve their city by learning from the “wildness” Thoreau referenced. Just last year, the first of several creeks to be “daylighted” (uncovered) was dedicated, Bee Branch Creek. This creek, along with others in planning stages, not only provides recreation and beauty, but it is important in flood control, especially in efforts to stop frequent flash flooding. In fact, living and working in the Bee Branch Watershed is becoming more attractive because of the beauty of the Creek and the flood prevention it has provided (Connie Cherba, “The Bee Branch Creek is Back,” Big River, Sept,-Oct. 2017, p. 37). As Thoreau might have said, “Learning from the Wild is the preservation of the World.” Faith and trust in creation, not control, is a crucial step in mitigating the disorder of our new age.

Our Gospel reading shows Jesus and the disciples in a place of intense control, Caesarea Philippi, whose villages surrounded the new imperial city in the highlands of northern Israel, formerly a center for the worship of the Baalim and the Greek god Pan. In this area with a long tradition of religious ferment, Jesus asked his students who they thought he was. The first to speak was Peter who answered, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).  Not only did Jesus strongly silence his circle, but he used this as an opportunity for teaching.

What is most striking is that in the first of three “passion predictions” central to this gospel, he calls himself not “the Christ,” but the “Son of Man,” or, as some translate it, “the human one.” Even more surprising is his conviction that “it is necessary that the Son of Man undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise” (8:31).  Shocked, Peter protests and begins to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus rebukes  (the verb, “rebuke” is the same one used to silence demons, 1:25) Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things” (8:32).

Why did Peter react so strongly? Ched Meyers suggests it was because ”according to the understanding of Peter, “Messiah” necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 244). Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man” and his passion predictions “dismantle the dominant theories of power by asserting that all such would-be power is in fact no-power. Thus the passion announcements of Jesus are the decisive dismissal of every self-serving form of power upon which the royal consciousness is based. Just that formula, Son of man must suffer—Son of man/suffer!—is more than the world can tolerate . . . ” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, pp. 96-97).

Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus’ free and open teaching continues with the “crowd” included.  This has often been called a “catechism” for disciples; perhaps we could see it as the vocation of all who believe. The words are familiar and still shocking: they turn the “instinct” of self-preservation and the desire for wealth and glory upside down.  Why? These are the rules for confronting all authoritarian regimes which are ultimately based on fear of death.  The one “with the most stuff when she/he dies” actually wins nothing except the contempt of those who have to deal with “the remaining collection.” In fact, they (we?) have “forfeited our lives” (Mark 8:36b) in favor of standards of economic ease we entrust as life’s “the bottom line.” Real life is dangerous, often counter-cultural, but on the way, as poet W. H. Auden wrote, we are promised “unique adventures” (“For the Time Being,” Collected Poems, New York: Random House, 1976, p. 308).

Jesus unmasks the weakness of the power system.  If one of the definitions of a government is that agency exercising the “‘legitimate’ power of coercive violence,” all is revealed. For the most extreme threat, then, is the power of execution justified as a method of keeping order or, at the least, protecting interests. By being willing to “take up the cross,” the one called to follow contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history (Myers, p. 247). Discerning the legitimacy and proper methods of resistance must be done prayerfully within the context of the Christian community, a community that follows on this “unique adventure.” Yet, we do so in confidence because we have “been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Combining last week’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness  (Mark 1:12-13) and this week’s calling out of Peter as a “satan” for defining Jesus as a power-playing Messiah in the highland villages, we see that Mark’s Gospel does contain a complete temptation story (cf. especially Matthew 4:8-10 and Luke 4:5-8). Just as the Son of Man rejects the way of messianic power, we are called to find real life in serving, including building eco-justice. The “royal theology” of our time is addiction to economic power that requires nothing less than endless growth, maldistribution of growth’s benefits, deregulation of those inconvenient measures to promote safety and health, and the denigration of education and culture. The result is a culture dedicated to intensifying the dangerous impact of the “anthropocene epoch.”

The cost of resistance is high, but this is the season for repentance—turning around and rethinking. Those to whom we preach expect faithfulness and honesty. Control over the natural world has backfired. Our vocation is no longer to be found solely in the realm of “freedom,” but also in the realm of necessity, “because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, pp. 52-53). And yet, is not this duty at the center of Luther’s definition of “Christian freedom: “not only royalty subject to none, but obedient service, subject to all.” (paraphrased from “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works–Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957,vol. 31, p. 344) Today that “all” must include service to a fractious creation.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Coming Down to Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on our vocation to make earth a hospitable household for all.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have been called to interpret them in new ways that speak to the community of faith today. This opportunity is especially afforded by the season of Lent, when not only do we prepare candidates for baptism and ruminate on what it means to live as a resurrection community, but we also take seriously the call to repentance—turning our lives around and developing new mindsets. On Ash Wednesday we are starkly reminded of our mortality as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives: our vocation.

This Lent could not be more timely, because those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by government and corporate leaders dead set on ignoring the most basic climate science, privatizing public lands, and extracting any “natural resource” that could turn a dollar’s profit. What we do to nature we do to people; so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

In recent years,  we have experienced a series of storms and wildfires of nearly unparalleled strength and duration, wreaking environmental damage and costing human life. While the economic costs of these storms is great, the message these events conveys is far more ominous. As Earth system scientists have pointed out, these events reveal a rupture in planetary history requiring us to recognize that we live in a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,” an unprecedented epoch in which human activity is impacting the ongoing course of evolution. It has become clear that the aim of industrial technology to bring the natural world under human supervision has produced quite the opposite effect.  Even though human alteration of the natural world has reached unimagined levels, “we are now more vulnerable to the power of nature in a way we have not known for at least 10,000 years since the last great ice sheets finally retreated. The climate system, in response, is becoming more energetic, bringing more storms, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 45.) In a sense, “Gaia” has become enraged and is fighting back.

It is crucial to make clear that to call this new epoch “the anthropocene” in no way is to make a normative claim for human superiority.  Quite the contrary, it is a descriptive, scientific term attesting to how far our species is affected the planet. If we are to look at our time from the standpoint of value and responsibility, humans are “special” only in our “special responsibility” to recognize where we are and to respond appropriately. As French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests, “Either we deny the evidence of the problem or we look to come down to earth. This choice is what now divides people much more than being politically on the left or right.” (“The New Climate,” Harper’s, May 2017, p.13)

We need the season of Lent to help us “come down to earth,” to retreat to the desert to rediscover our identity and vocation that comes from a renewal of our baptismal calling. We will begin this journey by looking back at the story of Noah, the focus of this week’s First Reading.

The complex narrative of Noah begins with divine disgust at the violence and corruption of those who threaten the good creation (Genesis 6:11-13). The Priestly writers detail the instructions to Noah: build an ark of very specific dimensions and fill it with a male and female of every living thing.  Even though we are given no inkling to what lies ahead for Noah and the creatures, Noah is obedient and prepares for the flood. Echoing other flood stories circulating in the ancient middle east, this flood effectively blots out all of life except for Noah and all the genetic treasure contained in the ark, a “seed pod” for renewing creation.

In the face of this watery dismemberment of creation, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark (Genesis 8:1).” As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “God is no longer angered but grieved.  He is not enraged but saddened. God does not stand over against but “with” his creation. Tellingly, the pain bequeathed to the woman in 3:16 (‘asav) is now felt by God” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.79). The crisis is not so much the flood but the pain that God endures for the sake of a wayward creation, pain transformed into promise in remembrance of the very purpose of creation.

The promise forms the content of this week’s lesson, and if it is a covenant, it is a covenant of promise for the renewal of creation.  Its features are clear: it is a covenant with Noah and his descendants (all humankind) and all living creatures, a covenant that promises never again (Genesis 9:12, 15) shall a flood destroy the earth. This covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, the signature of God’s “unilateral disarmament” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p.18).

Indeed, this qualifies Noah to be the “new Adam.” “He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God” (Brueggemann, p. 80). Not only is he the first to embody faith, but “he is righteous because, like God, he took upon himself the maintenance of all creation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2006, p. 33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah becomes the first planter of a vineyard, one of the richest sources both of fine drink and of a biblical metaphor (Genesis 9:20).

This covenant of promise provides courage and comfort for those who work for ecojustice.  William P. Brown puts it this way: “With the rainbow as its sign, God’s covenant, like the Sabbath, sets an example: it offers a model of human conduct, for only by covenant, by the resolute work of the human community working in consort, can life be sustained amid a new onslaught of destruction, this time wrought by human hands, against the community of creation” (The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 234). Writing in 2010, Brown’s warning was prescient. If the natural world is “fighting back,” what is the place of the rainbow covenant of promise?

As Brueggemann considers the Noah tradition, he reflects: “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain the world, not withstanding the sorry state of humankind. He is God. He takes as his vocation not judgment but the resilient work of affirmation on behalf of the death-creature” (Brueggemann, p. 81). Just as God’s people in the Babylonian exile were not abandoned, so the promise continues its validity. And it is no surprise that much of the Noah narrative comes from this period. But the capacity of humankind to physically alter the very Earth systems underlying earth functioning during the 12,000 years of the Holocene period, when the climate proved stable for what we call “development,” is beyond the imagination of even biblical writers.

How can we continue to model “down to earth” ecojustice in the tradition of Noah when a hole has been torn in the fabric of creation?

The psalmist reminds us that continued trust in the mercy and steadfast love (Psalm 25:6) of the creator is key to living fruitfully in the land. Because the theme of “waiting” is repeated (vv. 3, 5, 21), it is likely this psalm stems, like much of the First Reading, from the time of exile (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 125). The ultimate result hoped for is that the humble who learn the paths of the LORD will “abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land “(Psalm 25:13). As Ellen Davis argues, “For God, earth is mortal—for God, humans are earthy, both earth and its inhabitants are mutually destructive when their relationship with God is severed” (Davis, p. 19). The way past this “shame” and back to their homeland (Psalm 25:2, 3) is active walking in God’s paths (v. 4), another “down to earth” approach to holistic community health, health that includes care for the land.

The Second Lesson from 1 Peter also stems from a time of great pressure, this time on the early community of the Risen One, dispersed as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 1:1-2) throughout the regions of what today comprises Turkey. While the level of persecution is not specific, it is clear that believers have been arrested and required to give an account of their faith (1:6) in a “judgment to begin with the household of God” (4:17).

But this oppression is to be met with confidence: in baptism believers have been “built into a spiritual house” (2: 5) and been transformed into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that . . . proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light “(2:9). With this strong foundation, community members are alerted  to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  reverence” (3:15-16).

What is the basis of this bold courage? The author finds it in the baptismal imagery of Noah and the great flood (Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James and Jude, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 65). He does this to describe Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits responsible for creation’s distress at the time of Noah (3:19-20). And, because Jesus did this, the resurrection community which, like Noah, has gone through the water—this time of baptism—and landed in the ark of the ecclesia now has spiritual power to do the same in a situation where, all too often, informers and secret police agents were eager and ready to pounce (Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 73). Their power has been broken. (Ibid., p. 111)

That is, baptismal creation of the new “household of faith” corresponds to Noah’s planting a vineyard—planting a new kind of community with the resilient confidence to flourish even in the face of oppression (John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 692). That Christ’s work is cosmic in scope and truly trans-historical is made clear by this reading, the central text in the letter which gives a theological basis for the confident hope of the believers’ experiences in the face of persecution. For this text makes it clear that by going through the “baptismal flood,” every Christian is Christianus alter Christus, a second Christ (Ibid.).

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace . . . .” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228) must be emphasized even more energetically.

In their 2014 manifesto, Uncivilization, leaders of the predominantly UK-based Dark Mountain movement focused on countering the headlong destruction of the planet affirm: “We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality (that is, the normative “right” humans have to benefit at the expense of creation), and the myth of our separation from nature” (Uncivilization, Dark Mountain Project, 2014, p. 30). The Christian story, when seen from the standpoint of creation, provides the right alternative, bringing us through the flood to plant new vineyards and nurturing new communities that gives us vision and courage even in the face of an angry Gaia.

We see the power of the Christian story in the very first words of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  In this simple phrase, the author rips an iceberg-size gash in the side of the Roman Empire where “the good news” was the birth of “the most divine Caesar” which is a “new beginning for the world” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 147). As we can see from the text, even though Mark describes Jesus’ entry onto the world stage with less fanfare, he comes as “the stronger one.”

Leaving Galilee for Jordan River, the site of John’s ministry, Jesus’ arrival is almost unnoticed. But he, too, is baptized and as he emerges from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1: 10). Here we see the result of Jesus’ baptism: a new tearing of the heavens. Not only does this satisfy the longing cry from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), but this violent verb of tearing is repeated at the moment of his death, when he “breathes out his spirit” and the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38). Clearly, the one who brings new creation is on the loose, unconfined by humanly-engineered sacred spaces (Donald Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 34).

To educated readers of the Hellenistic world, the notion of a tear in the fabric of the world was shocking. Had they not steeped themselves in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the most-studied Greek text after Homer?  According to the Timaeus, the earth is a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision. Of course, that eliminates those who were blind. Anyone who could not see was incapable of being a philosopher and attaining the good life (Peter Kalkavge, Plato’s Timaeus, Newburyport, MA, Focus Publishing, 2001, (47 b,c), p. 78).

But in Mark’s Gospel, with its massive tear in Timaeus’ perfect world, it is precisely the blind who are able to see most clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ three passion predictions, he encounters a blind man named Bartimaeus. Not only is this a name not found in his culture, it takes very little to realize that symbolically he is bar-Timaeus, the “son” of Timaeus. As Jesus passes bar-Timaeus’ begging corner in Jericho, the beggar shouts out to the embarrassment of the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Somehow this son of Timaeus can “see” that Jesus is Son of David, the expected one. After this cry is repeated, Jesus calls him to get up and approach him. “Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (v. 50).

So is it his “philosopher’s cloak” he is throwing off, or simply his need to beg, as he engages in the ritual performance preceding early Christian baptism? (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, p. 33). Whatever we conclude, Bartimaeus gains his sight and, as a new catechumen-disciple, he “follows Jesus on the way” (v.52). Even though he is blind, he has found the path toward the “best life.”

Mark’s cosmology breaks the cosmological structure of the Timaeus.  Everywhere the Greco-Roman world (including Judea) is full of the blind, the possessed, and the hungry, those demanding a “sign” to validate their religious opinions. It is no wonder (or, is it a great wonder?) that God’s action tears a hole in the fabric of Timaeus assumption that the world is only beautiful, balanced, and perfect. For now even the blind and the centurions on “the other side” can find a sense of belonging. “A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus” (Mark 10:30).

The broad compass of this new beginning is made clear by the voice heard as Jesus emerges from the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The first part of this powerful sentence refers to Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, where the psalmist contrasts the king about to be enthroned with the “kings of the earth (who) set themselves . . . against the LORD and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). This royal one emerging from the water, however, rules not as tyrant, but as a servant, indicated by God’s pleasure in his humility (Isaiah 42:1). While servanthood is often given lip service by royalty, it has never been demonstrated as fully as it has by this newly baptized one, who shreds the job description of all royalty.

And then he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where, as one who seems native to the ragged edges of the official world (e.g. Galilee), he is tested. The tempter is there; and so are the “beasts” perhaps representing the kings and other powers opposing him (Daniel 7). Despite these challenges, not only is he served by the angels, but there seems to be a kind of desert refreshment that propels Jesus on “his way.” As Belden Lane writes, “The place of death in the desert becomes the place of miraculous nourishment and hope, while the place of order and stability of Jerusalem leads only to the chaos of the cross.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 44)

We began this reflection confessing that we humans are responsible for the massively powerful systems that have pushed the climate God’s earth beyond the point of equilibrium, with even more desert being created—the Sahel in Africa and the increasing size of China’s Gobi. This “rupture” requires more serious action than the Paris Accords of 2015 have called for, even though this agreement is a beginning.

What people of faith cannot do is sit back and rest on the graciousness of the Noachic Covenant.  For this covenant only promises that God will never again destroy the earthnot that human beings cannot do so. During this Lenten season of repentance—turning around and being renewed in our thinking—where is hope?

Perhaps hope lies in the fact that the community of faith often discovers new hope at “point zero.” The stable world of the holocene epoch (11,700 years!) may be over, but even in the face of climate change, over-population, and rapid species extinction (Richard Heinberg, “There is No App for That,” Post-Carbon Institute, 2017 (www.postcarbon.org), new ways of coming down to earth and serving creation may be discovered. But even though God often works sub contrario (under the appearance of opposites), bringing new life out of deluge, finding insight and sight in blindness, or puncturing the safety of an old cosmology to usher in new creation, as creatures we have no choice but to own our limitations, mitigate climate damage, and care for this earth as best we can. It is, after all, our home; and our vocation is to make it a hospitable household for all.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

YOUTH: How can YOUR decisions impact your global neighbor?

While the following pledge form was originally poised to the hundreds of Lutheran youth attending the 2018 Gathering in Houston, these questions help people of any age recognize their impact and how many tools their are to make changes of habit that offer fulfilling prayerful actions to every step of their day.  To put the questions in context check out the walk through presentation: Your Day – Your Global Neighborhood.

As you consider the unintended impacts of our daily actions,  commit with hundreds of other youth to try a few things differently. Our collective prayers are being listened to – our collective actions are being felt:

Where are We? From the Microscopic to the Cosmos: Services and Sermons

Over the summer of 2018 Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church in Hingham Massachusetts decided to try something a little different.  After reading several books about the human relationship with creation over the years she wanted share some of these perspectives that may not come up in the typical lectionary cycle. The following are three services and sermons that she has graciously shared with our Lutherans Restoring Creation community. Feel free to use the material, but kindly be sure to credit the original authors as she has done.

Photo Credit - UnSplash - David Sandvik

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation's Easter Message Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022) Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30 Sermon from Pastor Susan ...
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God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

A Service In and For the Forests - Feel free to share this worship service or get ideas - we ...
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Microscopic - Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Microscopic – Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise

Micro-Creation Service Bulletin - Click here - free to share! (wonderful readings, music, etc.) Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House ...
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Creation of the Cosmos: "Of All that is Seen and Unseen"

Creation of the Cosmos: “Of All that is Seen and Unseen”

Creation of Cosmos Service - Feel free to download and share this bulletin.  Please don't forget acknowledgements. Creation: The Universe  ...
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Christmas Eve, Year C (Schade)

“And on Earth – Peace: A Christmas Eve Eco-Reflection”
Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015)

Christmas Eve in Year C
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

In the scripture readings on this holy night, the word peace is repeated often. Isaiah heralds the coming of the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:7). The angels proclaim “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). But what does it mean to preach peace when so much of our world is in the midst of just the opposite—war, violence, strife, abuse, and oppression? How can we sing “peace on earth” when even the Earth itself seems engaged in a battle with us, or, rather, humanity battles against Earth?

In August of 2016, Bill McKibben wrote a piece for the New Republic entitled “A World at War” explaining the ways in which climate change is a war that is attacking our human society at every level. The climate war is “a world war aimed at us all,” he said. “And if we lose, we will be as decimated and helpless as the losers in every conflict—except that this time, there will be no winners, and no end to the planet-wide occupation that follows.” He said that the only hope was to mobilize ourselves like we did for WWII.1

McKibben’s article was intended to be a kind of “call to arms” for citizens to rally for the climate movement. His hope has not been realized. In the two years that followed McKibben’s article, the highest level of elected leaders in the U.S. all deny the existence of climate change and have undone countless environmental regulations while pulling our country out of the Paris Climate Accords. In the meantime, the hurricanes in August and September of 2017 were like “climate bombs”—the largest, most devastating superstorms ever experienced in this country, dropping within weeks of each other. And more “bombs” have hit us this year in different places around the planet.

Here’s what I’m starting to realize.  The Great War metaphor is wrong. The problem with the WWII comparison is that the metaphor positions us as “the good guys” who swept in and took care of those evil Nazis and the Empire of Japan. But those of us who live a life of privilege in the West and North are not the good guys this time. We’ve been insisting that we can have our way with the planet while others must bear the brunt of the cost. The United States has been at the forefront of launching the eco-holocaust. We have muscled our way across the Earth, digging, drilling, fracking, pipelining, and toxifying water, land, air, and human health along the way.

It appears, however, that Earth is rising up and fighting back. When I look at pictures of the charred remains of the California fires, I cannot help but recall pictures I’ve seen of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I believe the planet is sending us a direct message:  surrender and accept the terms of peace. So I wonder what it would mean to live in peace with Earth on this holy night?

It was into a world ravaged by human hubris and power that Jesus was born. While human civilization was not threatened by anthropogenic climate disruption as it is now, the Roman Empire had imposed its heavy-handed imperial rule over every people it conquered. The military machine muscled its way across the land, digging and mining, logging vast forests, diverting waterways through its aqueducts, and subjecting its conquered peoples to exorbitant taxes that kept them poor, disempowered, and under the constant threat of military violence.

What they did not know is that the Earth itself was rising up and responding to God’s call. The origin story in Luke shows us that the seeds for a moral uprising were embedded into humanity’s story from the beginning. In Luke 3:23-38, Jesus’ ancestors are traced all the way back to Adam. Adam was himself a child of Earth. From the very soil, God created the first humans, fashioning them out of clay and breath. Yes, they and their progeny sinned and broke the covenant God made with them again and again. But the prophets knew that God was also working within this flawed humanity to bring about a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Through the generations, this promise sustained people in their most difficult times. Isaiah reminded the Israelites living in exile far away from their sacred land: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined” (9:2).

The story of this light shining in darkness is what we tell on this holy night. We tell it with shepherds, but not in some pretty, romantic, bucolic hymn. We tell it with a full-throated song of resistance to the powers that subjugate them and all workers of the field and mines and assembly lines and classrooms whose work is disregarded, dismissed and disrespected.

We also tell this story with a man (a descendent of Adam) and his pregnant wife (a descendent of Eve) who must make a journey to be counted by the Roman census. They are counted in order to be taxed, their lives under strict governmental control. Yet she carries within her womb a child who will bring freedom to his people, to all people, to all the Earth. “For God so loved the world,” not just the human part of the world, but the whole world (John 3:16a).

This child will grow up among the lilies of the field and observing the birds of the air. And as a rabbi, he will call on them as his teaching partners (Luke 12:24-34). They will try to get through to us that a life spent chasing unnecessary material possessions is not only silly but violates the lilies and birds themselves as they choke on our trash and plastic and die from our pesticides.
This child will grow up watching Roman boys trained by the state to become ruthless soldiers—soldiers like the ones who killed the Hebrew boys his age, hoping to end his life (Matthew 2:16-18). All in the service of an empire that has no problem sacrificing the bodies of soldiers and citizens alike to protect the wealth of the ruling class. As a rabbi, he will teach his followers about the futility of this wealth not just for the way it manipulates those soldiers, but because of the terror it imposes on the planet and its peoples. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:24-25).

In other words, we must surrender to a higher calling of humility, obedience to the dictates of God’s Creation, and radical focus on rebuilding a just and equitable society and economic infrastructure focusing on “the least of these”—those who have suffered under our oppressive reign.

The Bible shows us that even a suffering Earth raises its voice in lament and protest (Genesis 4:10), in judgement (Psalm 50:1-6), and in praise of our Creator. Psalm 96:1 addresses Earth not as an object, but as a subject capable of singing to God. “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the Earth.”

So as we sing a lullaby to Baby Jesus—“sleep in heavenly peace,” and our holiday cards are adorned with fancy scripts reading “Peace on Earth,” what would it mean for peace to be not just on Earth, as if it were just a stage for the human salvation drama, but actually within Earth? What would it mean for us to be partners with Earth in bringing about this peace?

Can we imagine the heavens being glad because air pollution has ceased? Can we imagine the seas roaring with life because the plastics and garbage have been removed? Can we see fields exulting because they are protected from “development” in the form of shopping malls or oil and gas rigs? What would it look like for the remaining trees of the Amazon rainforests to sing for joy, knowing that they are being preserved?

This holy night, our song must be more than sweet lullabies and romantic hymns. Our song must be one of protest and resistance proclaiming that Christ’s birth is bringing righteousness to all the world. So, yes, let us indeed raise our voices with Creation: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy” (Psalm 96:11-12). Sing with the angels of heaven a song of peace on Earth and with Earth and with all those who live in a place of deep darkness.
Where the smell of ashes still choke the air, sing of peace.
Where the flood waters overcome the boundaries set by God, sing of peace.
Where water runs with poison from lead or fracking fluids, sing of peace.
Where bulldozers rip ancient trees from their roots, sing of peace.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.—Isaiah 9:6-7

I think of the children who even now are fighting to sue our government to stop climate change, using the power of the law to truly preserve life on this planet—to bring peace.

I think of the Indigenous children who stood up at Standing Rock to claim the sacredness of their land and resist the construction of a pipeline filled with filthy, explosive oil. They did this to bring peace.

I think of the young elected leaders in our country who are challenging their elders to create legislation that curbs greenhouse gas emissions and implements a plan to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The do this to bring peace.

I think of former child soldiers who, like their Roman counterparts millennia ago, were trained to kill and torture as pawns for the military and wealthy, ruling class, but now are learning the ways of peace.

I think of my own children sitting in science classrooms where they are learning how science works, and why it matters, and how it can be used to understand our world and make informed choices about how we live and work, how we generate electricity, how we structure our economy. They, too, are learning the ways of peace.

When I think of these children, I listen hard to the words of the angel: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

That Christ child was a sign unto us that the Earth itself is rising up and responding to God’s call. These children today who are resisting and protesting and learning and organizing and legislating are signs unto us that Earth is continuing the rise up and respond to God’s call. Earth is yielding the seeds for a moral uprising that were embedded into humanity’s story from the beginning.

Yes, we have sinned and broken God’s covenant with us again and again. But the prophets knew that God is also working within this flawed humanity so that this Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Mother/Father, Prince of Peace will work in us and through us. In this most cursed of generations, we must cling to this promise that sustained people in their most difficult times. We, too, are living in self-imposed exile far from the sacred land. We are a people who walk in darkness, but we are being shown a great light. We live in a land of deep darkness, but upon us light is still shining.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth,
in Earth,
with Earth –
peace among those whom God favors!”

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019

by Tom Mundahl

The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

As we approach the last Sunday in Advent and lean toward the Festival of the Incarnation, we marvel at Luke’s creativity in presenting the parallel births of John and Jesus in both prose and lyric song. Although it may be the case that the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc Dimittis were among a growing collection of early hymns, their use by the evangelist is entirely original (see Gordon W. Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 122).

Perhaps the most important function of these songs is to express amazement and wonder at the birth of two children destined to renew their people, a wonder that overflows to the whole creation. Luke makes the force of the births crystal clear by situating them during the regimes of Herod and Caesar Augustus (Luke 1:5, 2:1). These political leaders wield power with the lifeless language of decrees and tax bills. In contrast, Brueggemann suggests: “There is no way to begin this new narrative except by a new song in the mouths of angels. The very idiom of lyric means the penetration of closed royal prose. The beginning is with a song that stands in conflict with the decree. All the old history is by decree, but the new history begins another way” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).

Not only does Luke here honor the Greco-Roman mode of enlivening historical narrative with the energy of speech in the style of Thucydides or Lucian, but employing “lyric hymnody” to celebrate divine action, he moves far beyond setting forth an “orderly account” (Luke 1:3) to “bring to fruition” (Luke 1:1, alternative translation of “fulfillment”) new life among the hearers of the story. Just as the root meaning of the word “poetry” is “to create or make,” so all captured by this narrative are enlivened and share in the remaking of creation.

While there is no doubting the significance of the Davidic pedigree (Micah 5:2-5a), nor the utter newness in atonement the author of Hebrews shares (Hebrews 10: 5-10), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary and Elizabeth. The annunciation, the visitation, and the Magnificat reveal the power and the mystery of the coming of God. As poet Denise Levertov write of Mary, whose courage is confirmed by Elizabeth:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(The Collected Poems of Denise
Levertov, New York: New Directions,
2013, pp. 836-837)

As we have seen from Luke’s narration of the parallel births, he clearly favors Mary and Elizabeth. Despite his priestly credentials, Zechariah finds the promise that his elderly wife will bear a son ridiculous. His question, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) is the last we hear from him until John is named. By contrast, even though Mary is “much perplexed” (Luke 1:29) by Gabriel’s stunning words, she responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Wisely, she discerns Gabriel’s clue and travels to see her relative Elizabeth. Mary could receive no greater confirmation than Elizabeth’s rich blessings: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42), and “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Like 1:45). Blessing is always intimately linked with creation (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life of the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, pp. 40-42).

And yet, we should not underestimate blessed Mary’s perplexity and the richness of the dialogue with the messenger that follows. We hear Mary’s confusion in the simple question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”(Luke 1:34b) Gabriel’s response goes far beyond obstetrics. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you….” (Luke 1:35) That this is an enterprise of deep meaning is made evident in the “overshadowing” (episkiatzo) of the Most High. This sense of the looming, creative presence occurs as God’s very being fills the “tent of meeting” as the Exodus (a critical theme for Luke) continues (Exodus 40: 34-35, LXX). It recurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34—Exodus again)), where a similar presence “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions of marking the occasion with “wilderness booths” all the more ridiculous. Even more primal is the “wind from God” that “overshadows” the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2, LXX). How could we conclude that the coming birth is anything less than a “new creation” leading to “exodus freedom?”

This birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transfigures the earth household. The evidence is clearly heard in Mary’s response to the angelic messenger. Instead of being named “Queen Consort” of the divine, Mary entitles herself “the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This theme of reversal will explode in the Magnificat inspired by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. The boldness of Mary’s song comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (Brueggemann, p. 141). Gabriel makes this clear by repeating the words to Abram and Sarai under the oaks of Mamre: “For nothing will be impossible for God” (Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37).

Electric as it is, even lyric poetry like the Magnificat exhibits structural elements. The poem moves from singing of the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49) to a wider statement of God’s mercy to all who are reverent (1:50), to a vivid description of the reversal of the poor and arrogant (1:51-53, concluding with a reminder that this all fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants that will overflow into the future (1:54-55). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern emerging “from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” ”he has looked,” ”has done great things,” ”shown strength with his arm,” ”has scattered,” “has brought down,” ”has lifted up,” ”has filled,” ”has sent the rich away,” and “has helped” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

But this narrative strategy does not compromise the free nature of this lyrical event. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order. As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (Brueggemann, p. 104).

The wonder of all this is underscored by the use of the word formerly translated as “behold” (idou) three times in Gabriel’s “annunciation” (vv. 31, 36, and 38). The first two uses, by Gabriel, are translated by NRSV as “and now.” While the desire to avoid archaic language of “excessive holiness” is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak? It may be that returning to “behold” may restore the necessary authority of Gabriel and help us recover a sense of the mysterium tremendum with its riveting awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford,1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls. Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, claiming that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological—an ontology of creation community—that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler continues: “To ‘behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the creation with an intrinsically theological stance” (Sittler, p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It is in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have despoiled it” (Ross, p. 12).

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold (“Here am I,” NRSV), I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While this is not so bad, with a deep performative meaning, it remains to poll the poets to determine the richer. And this is crucial, for as Paul Ricoeur reminds us, “obedience follows imagination” (quoted in Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989, p. 85). The search for ecojustice today requires a massive infusion of imagination, far more than the threat of more fires, hurricanes, and heat can provide. But then it cannot have been easy to face up to the task of becoming theotokos, the Mother of God—especially as a very young woman. William Butler Yeats helps us to begin to share the immensity of this calling in his poem, “The Mother of God,” which ends with this lament:

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains
This fallen star my milk sustains.
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones.
And bids my hair stand up?
(The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,
New York: Macmillan, 1956, p.244)

Even as we join Mary in lament—in our case frustration over the struggle for ecojustice—during this Advent season, we remember Gabriel’s words, “For nothing will be impossible with
God” (Luke 1:37).

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.

Third Sunday in Advent, Year C (Mundahl)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C — 2018-2019
The Third Sunday in Advent

by Tom Mundahl 

Zephaniah 3: 14-20
Isaiah 12: 2-6
Philippians 4: 4-7
Luke 3: 7-18

By tradition, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called Gaudete Sunday, a day to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the celebration of Christmas, the twelve-day Feast of the Incarnation. While the designation Gaudete stems from this week’s Second Lesson, Philippians 4:4-7, Gaudete in Domino semper, “rejoice in the Lord always,” the remaining readings hardly neglect joyful hope.

Despite the people of Judah concluding that “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm” (Zephaniah 1:12b), the prophet envisions a new day where a remnant “shall do no wrong and utter no lies” (3:13). Then the carnival of celebration envisioned in our reading will erupt, a celebration of singing based on the unshakeable faith that “the LORD, your God, is in your midst” ( 3:17) and, in fact, is joining the party. It is a time when even the lame and outcast will lose their shame and be at home (3:19-20).

Much the same can be said of the “songs of Isaiah” (Isaiah 12: 1-6). No matter how uncertain the international political system might be, God is trustworthy. When the community takes that to heart, it is always appropriate to sing these two short verses reminiscent of the songs of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21). These songs are so powerful that they continue to be used as worship acclamations. There are few more powerful texts than: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12: 2).

As good as it is to “rejoice,” we know that the new day has not arrived as we wonder how to respond to the worldwide refugee crisis, cholera in Yemen, mass shootings in the U.S., and the newly-released Fourth National Climate Assessment. It is no surprise that with high confidence this assessment predicts more floods, higher temperatures, more wildfires, reduced crop yields, transportation difficulties, and the appearance of previously rare diseases (www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23). Because the current administration released this report on so-called “Black Friday” (better celebrated as “Buy Nothing Day”), the hope was that it would be buried in this frenzy of consumption. Certainly it is not the kind of news that should spark community celebration.

But then neither should being in prison. Yet that is precisely the venue from which Paul urges the Philippian community to “rejoice.” He is not alone in projecting hope in the midst of a situation which could only be called desperate. As Brueggemann suggests, the prophetic imagination bearing hope often emerges from the unlikeliest places: from a birth to an elderly couple and a young, unmarried woman, from a wilderness retreat enjoyed by thousands with seemingly no food, from capital punishment using brutal crucifixion, or from a Roman prison (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 102).

Perhaps this is because in all of these cases that which is seen as “ordinary and proper” (especially when backed up by imperial coercive power) is not ultimate. Paul makes this clear in Philippians when he urges hearers to be “minded,“ not by an Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness,” but as Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave….” (Philippians 2:6-7a). He continues this line of thought by providing assurance that it is the peace of God beyond understanding which will “stand guard” (froreo) over the hearts and minds of the faithful. No longer is it a centurion, as Paul saw daily in prison, who provides for the security of the community; now the Pax Romana is replaced by the Pax Christi, a peace extended to the whole creation.

This search for peace and safety is at the center as Luke’s narrative of the ministry of John the Baptist continues. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). Security can never be found by leaving one’s city or village for a mere splash in the Jordan River. John’s baptism entails repentance and bearing fruits worthy of a new outlook on life. This is especially true in the face of the temptation to join Lot’s wife in looking back to embrace what seems like a safe past.

John sees through this tactic. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor….’”(Luke 3: 8). As the Baptist uncovers this dodge, we see the sharp contrast between what John prepares the people to look ahead for and relying solely on pedigree—even from Abraham. An important clue is the word “begin” (archomai). Luke’s entire narrative moves God’s story forward, beginning with the communities of Abraham-Sarah and Moses-Miriam, but extending to all people and living creatures (Luke 2:32). No wonder John’s mission of preparation and baptism for repentance takes for granted congruence between cleansing water and bearing good fruit. Anything less neglects the coming future and needs to feel the axe; it is good only for burning (Luke 3: 9).

Much the same is true of current so-called “populist” movements that hearken back to a non-existent past when everyone had a good job, there was little crime, no environmental challenge, all went to church, and the dizzying assortment of “others” had not demanded a place at the table. Because this “past” can never be re-created, it is used primarily as a vague source of values aimed at choking off immigration, eliminating equal rights, and elevating an “ancestral group” on behalf of which authoritarians seek to rule. This backward looking ideology never bears good fruit as it spreads racism, sexism, homophobia, and neglects eco-justice. It makes nothing “great again,” but powerfully draws attention and energy away from responding to real needs.

What then is this “good fruit” that meets Luke’s intention in creating his “orderly account?” (Luke 1:1). Which is exactly what the crowds asked John the Baptist: “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10, 12, 14). Whether it is a matter of sharing clothing and food or exercising the power to collect taxes or serve in the military, the answer is the same: live out an “ethics of the Magnificat.” As Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). Like the provision of daily bread, all is gift—whether the harvest of wheat or the call to service. These gifts of creation become fruitful when they are shared as freely as they are received.

It is no surprise that John’s presence and teaching led people to “rejoice” that they had found the Messiah. John will have none of this. While he provides a water bath, the more powerful coming one will baptize with “the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), a clear reference to the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Once again we are reminded of the Exodus, where the spirit-wind parted the seas, while the people were led by a pillar of fire. This new exodus will go through the very gates of death to open not only the scriptures (Luke 24:27, 32, 45) and the eyes of the disappointed couple (Luke 24: 31), but also open the whole creation to reconciliation-shalom (Luke 24:47). Baptism into the death and resurrection of this coming one (Romans 6:1-11) means a life of fruitful working toward ecojustice in opposition to the forces of greed that continue to destroy creation, described as “chaff” slated for a good burning (Luke 3:17b).

This powerful and gracious opening of the Earth to reconciliation (Luke 24: 47) is echoed in baptismal liturgies. Candidates for baptism, parents, and sponsors are empowered to fulfill these central responsibilities: to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God has made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 228). As we engage in pre-baptismal education and proclaim reconciliation, we are called to remember that our lives are formed to care for the whole creation.

Advent provides a fruitful time of opportunity for this message. While there is pressure to engage in endless shopping to find the most pleasing gifts, to load the calendar with a round of parties, card writing, and all the rest, the community of faith offers counter-cultural freedom to carve out time and space to focus on what is most important. While Christmas is hardly “Jesus’ birthday,” the phrase “Whose Birthday Is It?” had some real usefulness. Now broaden that to learn how to prepare for celebrating the Trinity dwelling with us—and we have something worth “rejoicing” in.

Tom Mundahl tmundahl@gmail.com.