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Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Thinking about the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our desert struggle in the time of climate crisis.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more forcefully during Advent than the promise of comfort.  We are moved by Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Many of us will invite congregations to echo that message with Olearius’ hymn, “ Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, No. 256). Whether that message will hit home among so many of us who are already quite comfortable is a question that must be asked.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind (it remains a great danger), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a small, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable, New York: Horizon Press, 1962. In this volume, Kahn went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and asked: How would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that openly discussing this horror was dangerous, not only did this work change military strategy, it likely moved major nuclear powers to begin negotiations to reduce arsenals.

To God’s people exiled to Babylon, comfort and freedom were just as “unthinkable.” They were as unimaginable to those experiencing loss of homeland and sense of comfort that comes with it, as those voting on November 4, 2014 could imagine strong political decisions responding to climate change. Yet, the unthinkable prophetic word went out from Isaiah: Captives will be free to return home!

Sounding a new message of freedom and renewal of cultural life is the strategy of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet begins with a series of strong verbs designed to get the hearers back into motion—not an easy task. For it is likely that, even before the captivity, the leaders of Judea had become resigned to living under a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What is most needed is what is most unacceptable –an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophet Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

In such a situation, life-goals are often reduced to just getting by, mere survival. This makes for a culture vulnerable to takeover and manipulation since it is dying from the inside. In many ways, it is not different from contemporary US culture where dreams and imagination seem to have shriveled. The capacity to grapple with large issues seems atrophied. “When we try to define the holding action that defines the sickness, the aging, the marriages, and the jobs of very many people, we find that we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary” (Brueggemann, p. 63).

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is simply managing lowered expectations acceptable; God is operating in a new way. And that is why the first word to the prophet is: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” It is a word of forgiveness so powerful it carries with it a New Exodus. Now all questions about being abandoned by the Holy One are at an end. A new and clear “enthronement formula”—”say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40: 9-10)—now becomes the source of courage and imagination (Brueggemann, p. 72).

All of this from a prophet who clearly admits very little self-generated vision. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-10), he admits his imaginative poverty. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .” (Isaiah 40:6-8a).  Westermann reminds us that . . .

“The exiles’ greatest temptation –and the prophet speaks as one of their number was precisely to be resigned to thinking of them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that perished: all flesh is grass” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p.41).

But there is something that trumps this fatalism: “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b). This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with the final verses, a doxology describing the joy of all creation in the return of the exiles.

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Only God’s creative word is an adequate basis for this New Exodus. To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation would guarantee only anxiety. It is the necessary answer to Isaiah’s query: “What shall I proclaim?” It frees the community to trust in a divine presence that not only “comes with might” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10 -11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why Mark turns to Isaiah’s song of hope as he pens “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the “eschatological historical monograph” we call the Gospel of Mark. (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 18)

This simple beginning immediately subverts the Roman imperial order where “good news” was the reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the Son of God” only made matters worse. Not only was this a jealously-guarded imperial title  applied to an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, he had been executed as a brigand by the emperor’s colonial administrator.  Another exercise in “thinking the unthinkable” (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p.61). Yet this powerful beginning is no less than another “enthronement formula!”

Following this announcement, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the appearance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple reference to Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a conflation including references to Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way . . . ” (Mark 1: 2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promised, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23: 20). Here we have a midrash on Isaiah 40 which suggests that this new messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 125.).

But this conflation also refers to Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . .” (Malachi 3:1). The evangelist suggests here that a renewal of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! John does recapitulate Elijah. But the message that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the temple is no longer the case. Now the action is far from Zion; it is in the desert, the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). As we learned from last week’s gospel reading, the temple is no longer the center of action. This new Advent arrival will take place on the periphery, in the desert.

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

“The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195.).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps John the Baptizer. At first glance, John seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Mark 1:5). Significantly, instead of “all the people” gathering at the Jerusalem temple, they are gathering “in the wilderness” (ερημος—used four times in Mark’s “prologue” Mark 1:1-14). Mark wastes no time laying out the tension between “wilderness” and “temple” so crucial to comprehending the New Exodus announced by John.

That John the Baptizer is Elijah is made clear by his attire and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). But we are tempted to forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the royal court of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah vigorously pronounced judgment for violating the covenant with Yahweh, an action that forced Elijah to flee to the wilderness to save his life (Myers, p. 126). But there is even more in the image of Elijah. For Malachi projects Elijah as the one sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).

But this “day,” which now is not the “end,” but a “new beginning” in the tradition of Isaiah 40, will not come until “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power greater than even the Roman Emperor can imagine. Perhaps, to “riff on” Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

That Advent expectation brings blessing and hope for renewal of the whole creation is underscored by this week’s Psalm (85). It is a communal lament seeking restoration so authentic that it encompasses both land and people. Here, the psalmist clearly recognizes that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25)

This lament is answered by an oracle (vv. 8-13) that not only promises the sought-for renewal but describes it poetically.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:10-13).

Prospects for significant change at the scale needed to confront our largest ‘environmental problem’—climate change—seems to hover near zero. But many avenues to love creation remain open. They need to be embraced. As we are comforted: In our desert struggle to serve creation, we are comforted to know that God’s future always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps this will still move us in this Advent “to think about the unthinkable.”

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

**NEW** Second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 6) in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 11-17) in Year A (Ormseth)

Choosing LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on Moses’ Farewell Speech and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

As we continue to mine the readings of these Sundays of Epiphany for foundations of an “Earth-honoring faith,” the first reading is obviously most relevant. The reading from Deuteronomy is the end of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he led out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai and through the wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan river at the boundary of the land promised to them.  He will not enter the land with them, so the speech carries the full burden of his hopes for them as they enter and claim their heritage.  The choice they face is a stark one: in Moses’ words, it is between “life and prosperity,” or “death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The choice concerns their relationship to God, but also their relationship to the land.  If they “obey the commandments of the Lord . . by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances,”  they “shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless [them] in the land that [they]are entering to possess.”  On the other hand, if their “heart turns away and [they] do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [they]shall perish. [They] shall not live long in the land that [they] are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”  Significantly for our search for an “Earth-honoring faith,”  which we initiated the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany with Micah’s metaphor of God presenting God’s case against the people in the court of the mountains, Moses here calls both “heaven and earth” as witness to the choice he has set before them. The whole creation is to be aware and observe how the people choose.

For what might these witnesses be watchful?  In the chapter previous to our appointed text, Moses foresees what will take place if the people forsake the covenant:

the next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it—all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Amah and Zeboiim, which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger –they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to the land?  What caused this great display of anger?” (29:22-24).

Moses also foresees an alternative future, however, in which “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you . . Then [they] shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you  “abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (30:9).

The contrast is thus sharply drawn:  people and environment either thrive or languish together. In accordance with Deuteronomic theology, the consequences described here are attributed to the divine wrath as punishment for their idolatry, or divine favor for their obedience. We would rather see a more directly causal relationship between their behavior and the consequence.  As Terry Fretheim explains, “The law is given because God is concerned about the best possible life for all of God’s creatures.” The intent of the law is to serve life, in accordance with God’s overriding interest that the creation as a whole should be served well by those who have responsibility for it.  There are three aspects to this concern. First, “the law helps order human life so that it is in tune with the creational order intended by God.”  Secondly, “because life in creation is not free from all threats, law is given for the sake of both the preservation of God’s creative work and the provision of the most welcoming context possible for ever new creational developments”. The law calls for “basic human respect for the earth” because “’the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1) and the animals and land belong to God.” And thirdly, “law is given to serve the proper development of God’s good but not perfect creation.” There are “creative capacities built into the order of things and the charges given its creatures. . . God’s creation is also understood to be a work in progress.” Thus the law reveals God’s will for the creation God loves, and it is the God-given vocation of God’s image-bearing animal creature, the human being, to love the creation as God does, with an eye to its future perfection, not only its past integrity and present condition.  Failure to obey the law thus carries with it the destructive consequences of what might be deemed opposition to God’s creative love. (See his discussion of ‘Creation and Law,” in God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 133-56).

The choice Moses has placed before the people, we might therefore observe, is an affair of the heart, both God’s heart and the human heart. The decisive issue, as the text says, is whether or not the people “love the Lord their God, walk in his ways, and observe his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” — the choice of life — or turn their hearts away – the choice of death:  love God and so be sustained in their life in the land for generation upon generation, or refuse to acknowledge God as giver of the gift of the land and the law by which they shall live in it, and so perish from the land as the land itself dies beneath them. So choose, says Moses.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (30:19-20).”

We are familiar with a similar choice today, albeit one framed in much more secular terms.  Our relationship with the land in America is defined for our culture mainly in terms of the rights and freedom to take and dispose of it according to the contracts we have struck regarding possession of it, versus a deeper relationship with the land that is part of an older agrarian ethos that regards the land as living habitat for ourselves and the other non-human creatures with whom we share it.  For the one, the land has values to be exploited for our commerce; these values are assigned values, determined by those who have control over it.  For the other, the land is valuable in and of itself, a fund of value which can be drawn upon to sustain the life of the animal communities that are dependent upon it, as part of what makes it valuable, but which really do belong to the land itself.  For the one, the concern is to protect those rights of possession, and to preserve the self-interest of its owner; for the other, laws are sought that set out general principles developed within the interdependent community on how to safeguard and conserve the land’s inherent value.  The one relationship is in fact predominantly a matter of self-interest or self-love on the part of the people who own it; the other is a “love affair:” a love of that which is other than oneself.  For the one, loss of value in the land due to ecological degradation is at best a loss of wealth or potential wealth to the owner.  For the other, loss of value is destruction of some or all of life’s generative possibilities.

Aldo Leopold, a founder of the modern discipline of ecology, is well known for his formulation of a “land ethic” which acknowledges the inherent value in land:  “A thing is right”, he holds, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (From his Sand County Almanac).  Adherence to this ethical principle as a guide through the complex and difficult decisions our society faces might be one way of responding today to Moses’ challenge to “choose life.” It is a principle, we contend, that is genuinely “Earth-honoring.”  The choice of life, in this sense, leads to a way of living that exhibits consonance with the ecological and evolutionary relationships inherent in nature.  But attending to those relationships is not simply a matter of following scientific rationality.  As Leopold himself said, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.”  It is for him, too, fundamentally an affair of the heart.  (See Norman Wirzba’s The Paradise of God, pp. 100-111 for the discussion that underlies this comment.)

When Moses finished his address to the people, we read in the closing chapter (34) of Deuteronomy, God led Moses from the plains of Moab, up another mountain to show him all the land promised Abraham’s descendents, and there Moses died.  God had let him see the land with his eyes, but said: “you shall not cross over there.” Thus did Mount Nebo become the resting place of the prophet whom “the Lord knew face to face,” the like of which has “never since arisen in Israel” (34:10).  Never, that is, until Jesus, according to Matthew, who was baptized at the Jordan, and coming away from the river, “went throughout Galilee” and, followed by great crowds from “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,” went up the mountain with his disciples, where he sat down and taught them (Matthew 4:25 – 5:1). Jesus has accordingly entered deeply into the land, and now from a new mountain, within the land, he returns to the law and commandments of Moses, as the section of his Sermon on the Mount assigned for last Sunday made clear: as he said, “whoever does [the commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:20).”  And indeed, far from abolishing Moses’ teaching, in the verses we read this Sunday, he lifts up selected provisions of that teaching to “radicalize” them, in Robert Smith’s term. Not only murder, for example, but anger, insult , and disparagement” are condemned. Not adultery only, but lust.  Not only false oaths, but any oaths at all, “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (5:21-37).  His teaching at this point calls us, as Smith puts it, to “look into the depths of the human heart.”  At the same time, however, he “shares with us his vision of new human community.” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 158.)

The character of that community has been sketched out in the previous beatitudes. As we have seen in our discussion of earlier sections of the Sermon, he calls for a disposition of meekness (the meek give place to others in the community of life); he creates a thirst and hunger for righteousness (the purpose of his mission is the fulfillment of all righteousness); he promises mercy for the merciful. And to the “pure in heart” (those who render inwardly held conviction of God’s love visible in outward service to the cause of God’s love for the creation) he has promised nothing short of the vision of God.  But in the depths of the human heart vigorous forces of opposition fight against these provisions.  Refusal to give place to others, which leads even to murder, the absolute disrespect for life, bursts out of the deep dispositions of anger, hate, or disparagement of the other. Lust manifests itself in the drive to possess and dominate the other, as in the adulterous exploitation of women.  Deception of the other by calling on either heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem destroys the possibility of righting these relationships by making claims to sacred status, earthly power, or political privilege. Jesus’ vision of a new human community is one in which these destructive “habits of the heart” have no place.   Smith describes this community in a way that must give us pause at this point in American political life: it is a “wondrous world where personal and corporate transactions no longer require batteries of lawyers and reams of documentation, where such safeguards are no longer necessary, where deceit and half-truths and downright lies are unknown, where our speech is simple, direct, and completely honest (5:33-37)” (Smith, p. 159).

The relationships discussed here are obviously social and interpersonal. Is any of this understanding relevant to relationships with non-human others of God creatures?  Choose life, pleaded Moses, and the governing principle here is clearly the loving service of the life of the other.  Domination of every form, physical, sexual, verbal, has been displaced, as next Sunday’s gospel makes explicit, by genuine love for the “other,” even the one who is “the enemy”  (5:43-44). All actions are understood to involve love of the other, as love of relationships that God loves.  Such love of the other moves, not easily but faithfully, in the face of earth’s destruction, from the human community to that of the whole creation. Thus the life of the community becomes a demonstration project of the power of God’s love lived out in community relationships, including our relationships with our habitat, the earth. The reading from 1 Corinthians illustrates the point. The Apostle Paul’s challenge to the conflicted parties dividing the congregation in Corinth strikingly employs the metaphor of one who plants and one who waters, to characterize a relationship of interdependence between participants in the community:  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:1-9).   What is said here of the congregation, could, and should, be said with reference to our relationship to of all God’s creation:  we are God’s servants, working together, in God’s original field, God’s original “building.”