Tag Archives: Amy Carr

**NEW** Preaching on Creation: Sunday July 24-30 in Year B (Carr21)

On Star Trek and Saving the Planet: Messianic Miracles in a New Key Amy Carr reflects on living toward a vision of right relations amid varying degrees of conflict.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year B (2021, 2024)

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

If you’ve ever seen any Star Trek series, have you ever noticed how the starships create a social world made up almost entirely of well-educated professionals? Everyone seems well-equipped to solve together the technological challenges that come their way, in space or in the worlds they visit. And while each ship has a leadership command structure, there is also a spirit of shared mission. Each person (whatever their species) understands not only the vital role they play, but also how everyone’s contributions work together to sustain the common good.

The biblical fantasy of a good king is not unlike today’s fantasy of a good technocracy. Then and now, we would like to trust that there is a leadership structure that can ensure everything will be all right: the hungry will be fed, the unjust will be held to account, and the planet won’t be destroyed.

Jesus both feeds and thwarts the expectations of a good king (or a competent technocracy), doesn’t he? On one hand, he reveals he bears divine authority by displaying his power over the non-human natural world: he makes bread and fish multiply to feed a hungry crowd! He walks on water! He calms a storm! He makes the ship instantly reach shore! He does things that might make us think today of an extraterrestrial from a more advanced civilization. Hindus might place Jesus in a lineage of adept yogis who do similar things. But these nature-controlling miracles of Jesus made Jewish followers think of the prophet Elisha’s own ability to multiply food, Moses’ ability to part the Reed Sea, and Elijah running faster than King Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel (I Kings 18:46). To those who witness Jesus doing such things, he looks to be a messianic king with the added zing of being a prophet with supernatural abilities.

Yet when the crowd that saw his food-multiplying miracle tried to forcibly make Jesus king, he ran to the hills. I am trying to imagine witnessing this scene: a teacher and healer we’ve all gone out to see reveals an ability to feed everyone (today we might notice his ability to feed without overusing the earth’s resources in the process) and then literally runs away from the leadership expectations this ability evokes. What exactly did we just see?

From the stories of YHWH in the desert to those of Jesus in the wilderness, the biblical deity is at once elusive and revealing, hidden even when made plain. What is absolutely clear is that divine authority comes to us on its own terms, not on our own. We cannot make God king, queen, or appointed manager of planet earth. We can only recognize divine authority and goodness when we spot them. As the singer notes in Psalm 145, we can notice and appreciate the generosity that comes from a God who provides for the whole of creation: “Patiently all creatures look to you to feed them throughout the year; quick to satisfy every need, you feed them all with a generous hand” (Psalm 145:15-16, Jerusalem Bible translation).

So often like the crowd that witnessed a particular feeding by God, we both see and do not see the sovereignty of God at work within creation.

On one hand, we have moments when we can perceive an order of things in which God’s “dominion endures throughout all generations,” in which “the LORD is just” in all ways (Psalm 145:13, 17). We witness signs of such things in the way the natural order transcends our small-minded desires, and in the history of human struggles to create societies based on principles of justice and fairness.

On the other hand, just like the crowd Jesus fed one day unexpectedly, we can’t help but notice all the creatures — human and otherwise — that are not fed throughout the year, even if those creatures appeared at all because untold generations of their species had found food. Harpy eagles in the Amazon are starving because once deforestation reaches a certain level, there are not enough sloths and small monkeys for them to feed upon.[i] Polar bears in the Arctic are getting skinny as sea ice melts, depriving them of seals. While the doe licking and feeding a spotted fawn last night in my yard in a west central Illinois town — with rabbits hopping around them — may be glad there are no wolves or loose dogs nearby, the massive and quota-exceeding slaughter of wolves in Wisconsin this past year means that more deer will be without predators, endangering humans and themselves instead through a greater likelihood of automobile accidents.[ii]

What is the gospel for us, then, if Jesus fed some crowds in the first century, but here and now there are still so many creatures unable to feed themselves, and too many entire species are being starved into extinction?

One angle of the gospel is expressed in Jesus’ lifelong pattern of revealing the power to promote flourishing, then withdrawing. Jesus resisted being owned by the temptations of Satan, by crowds or Jewish leaders or the Roman empire, or his disciples’ own efforts to prevent his dying. Throughout his ministry, he moved back and forth between attentive crowds and solitude in the wilderness. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey – not a war horse – and was crowned (mockingly this time) only while being crucified. His resurrection was an event with witnesses but no public enthronement. He disappeared once again by way of ascension into heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit as guide.

We can see this present-hiding power of Jesus when we read John 6 in a Eucharistic key. Jesus is present in the bread and wine of Communion, his very self now multiplied and distributed like those few loaves and fishes by the Sea of Galilee. Invisible as a human being yet present in grain and grape, Jesus unites us with himself by means of the fruits of the earth itself. How might such communion be good news for hungry crowds of creatures, human and otherwise?

In the epistle reading from Ephesians, Paul voices the mystery of the risen, ascended Christ’s leadership in and through those of us united with him. The prayer is Triune: Paul asks the Father, the loving source of all of earth’s families, to empower us through the Spirit to grow with Christ living in our own hearts:

“Out of [the Father’s] infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19, Jerusalem Bible translation).

If not exactly democratized, this is still a sovereign authority diffused throughout the body of Christ. Perhaps only a messiah who runs from the mob’s attempts to crown them can so distribute the power of monarchy itself. If Jesus is monarch of a Kingdom of God that is within us (Luke 17:21), then Christ continues to reveal and vanish, hiding within our own “hidden self,” leading by enabling us to perceive and dwell in the unfathomable love of Christ and the “fullness of God.”

Perhaps the appeal for some of Star Trek is precisely that it is an emblem of a community living out one form of well-distributed, effective leadership that coordinates the technologically-adept skills of many. At a time when the US Congress is divided about the size of an infrastructure bill and how much to support a speedy shift to alternative energy sources, some among us might hunger for a top-down but harmonized technocracy. We could then move more rapidly beyond hammering out statements of value (like the current international movement to declare ecocide a crime[iii]), and toward the actual, radical reordering of our land and power use that we need to prevent global temperatures from rising too high.

But in Paul’s day, like our own, the best of visions cannot prevent struggles over power and strategy. Paul’s prayer speaks to a perception of Christ’s authority in the life of the church that co-exists with the actual tensions he addresses in his letters to churches caught up in their own issue-oriented infighting. Undoubtedly, Christians have always lived toward a vision of right relations amid varying degrees of conflict over leadership and the specific direction to take, in church and in society at large.

I have long sensed that the heart of congregational life is the way worship draws us into a perspective on the whole of our lives before God. To be sure, the pandemic has multiplied how many of us experience worship itself as divided up into a mix of in-person and virtual, synchronous and asynchronous spaces. We don’t entirely know who does or will remain in our congregations. But as we think about our own global context, when the need to feed hungry crowds of people without overusing the land mingles with the need to protect the bees when we are not sure we know how to do so, it is no small thing to stay attuned to the invitation of this week’s scripture texts into a meditation on the revealed yet hidden nature of monarchy, of leadership, of authority—divine and human—with regard to plants, animals, wind, sea, time and space.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

[i] Helen Briggs, “Amazon eagle faces starvation in ‘last stronghold,’” BBC, June 30, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57665575

[ii] John Flesher, “Study says hunting, poaching reduce Wisconsin wolf numbers,” AP, July 5, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/wisconsin-science-environment-and-nature- government-and-politics-3347835f7bebf46163b23fbdcabb8718

[iii] Josie Fischels, “How 165 words could make mass environmental destruction an international crime, NPR, June 27, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/27/1010402568/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime-criminal-court

Preaching on Creation: Sunday July 31 – August 6 in Year B (Carr18)

Heaven-Sent Bread –  Amy Carr reflects on how the bread of life moves us more fully into an appreciation of this beloved created world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 31 – August 6, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

The Hebrews who sojourned through the wilderness had an eye for God’s manifestation through the wonders and otherness and surprises of the natural world. To be sure, the divine personality was not contained in the natural elements per se—in the manna, the quails, the cloud. But after Aaron told them that God had heard their complaining about how they had had it better as slaves in Egypt, where they at least had fine food to eat, “the whole congregation of the Israelites . . . looked toward the wilderness and the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10). Moses translated God’s message to them in this theophany: “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the LORD your God” (16:12). The Psalmist interprets these gifts as God giving in to their cravings (Psalm 78:29—though see Psalm 78:30-31 for the ensuing consequences).

I had a miniature Exodus protest-in-the-wilderness moment while accompanying my spouse to the nearest airport about an hour and a half away. It seems I had somehow forgotten to put tea in the strainer to steep, and so had only hot water in my tea mug. I found myself complaining about how when I drove back home through small towns, I would not find a coffee shop with loose-leaf tea, nor one that would have the water sufficiently hot (with a pre-heated cup), because only diners pepper the towns we passed through to the airport. . . Then it struck me: I am acting just like the Hebrews did in the wilderness, complaining about how much I miss the stew pots and bread back in Egypt! (In Numbers 11:5 there is an even longer list of cravings for foods they took for granted in Egyptian cities: leeks, garlic, onions, cucumbers, melons, and fish.)

Of course, despite a similar spirit of petulance, my privilege of traveling by car through a metaphorical “wilderness” of small towns is nothing like trying to survive post-slavery in an uncultivatable wilderness. For this reason, it’s always puzzled me why God would seem so irritated that the people complained about having nothing to eat. Did God expect them to eat the air? Or did they have some other food that they were simply tired of? What about all the livestock they took along during their departure from Egypt (Exodus 12:38)?

Regardless, it is clear that the wilderness is not a romantic notion for the Hebrews—even if later generations of Jews to this day recall the time of sojourning in the wilderness with a warm glow during the festival of Sukkot, when they eat or sleep in an open-to-the-rains hut to remember the time when they were acutely aware of their vulnerability to the natural world’s dangers and of their reliance on God for sustenance.

In the diner where I did stop on the way home from the airport (disappointed yes by the tea but glad I gave the diner a try—of course spotting afterward a more promising looking “Candy Kitchen” just a block down the street), I came upon a photo in The Economist of a part of “Guatemala’s lush green countryside” that “became deathly grey after the Fuego volcano” (The Economist, 6-9-18, p. 30). The ash looked like light grey snow that had fallen out of season: astonishingly, you could see distinctly the details of leaves, branches, trunks—all coated in ash. The only thing not grey was an orange-suited human being staring at the transformed trees.

Studying this photo for a while, I recalled how as a child in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whenever I was driving or walking through its ubiquitous forests, I would instinctively scan the environment for any sign of human presence—in telephone poles, in the shacks adolescents would build along trails, in any physical evidence that my species had passed through. I felt comforted by the idea that surveyors had walked and measured and put markers all through the forest in decades past, even though I rarely spotted them. Wilderness always seemed vaster than human lives; so one had to seek the protection of humans who knew how to survive in it.

During graduate school in Chicago, I found I had the exact opposite habit: instinctively attending to signs of non-human biological life—especially plants in parks, or deciduous trees that lined some streets. I was grateful for walkable access to the narrow strip of Lake Michigan lakeshore. At some point after leaving the UP and living in more cultivated and urbanized landscapes, I had suddenly become aware that the wilderness that surrounded me existed more in patches earth-wide—and I felt the vulnerability of the natural world as well.

We are mutually vulnerable to one another, our species and the rest of the natural world.

In North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 1997), Jan Zita Grover describes leaving her depleting work with AIDS patients in San Francisco and moving to the north woods of Wisconsin. The north woods did not prove comforting, though, for she kept noticing parallels between the ravaged bodies of people with AIDS and the forests scarred by clear-cutting. But then she recalls that forest fires have long shaped the lifecycles of forests, which challenges a romantic notion of pristine conditions in the forest. And she observes that the birds make no sharp distinction between the natural and non-natural world, using bits of plastic they find in their nests right along with plant debris. Our castoffs can sometimes be deadly for other species, but sometimes useful to them as well. Grover gazed steadily at everything she found devastating, but without nostalgia for a pure world untainted by human effects, and without any gesture toward a redeeming transcendence. I felt tempered by her words, by her way of seeing—not unlike my experience of reading another writer with roots in the north woods, Reformed theologian James Gustafson, whose Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective: Volume One: Theology and Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 1983) likewise permits no self-pitying, but encourages a constant noticing of an ever-wider circle of relationships we are to attend to, cultivating habits of piety like awe and a sense of responsibility.

In fostering spiritual and practical concern for creation’s well-being, we often focus on noticing and addressing the deleterious effects our species has had on the planet. Or we recall how our exposure to wild places nourishes body and spirit in irreplaceable ways. What might be the role also for being in touch with our own vulnerability to the harshness of the non-human natural environment—and to our raw, relentless need for human technologies to survive?

The leadership of Moses and Aaron in the wilderness was secured through tangible divine signs that fed a hungry people, who were nevertheless scolded for failing to trust that God would provide. God met them halfway, reluctantly. The epistle and gospel readings call us to step forth into our co-responsibility for leadership by discerning how the nourishment of each of us depends upon a relationship with one another in the body of Christ. As so often, a deeper concern throughout scripture is about moving past our immediate cravings to really listening to the voice of God. And as our Benedictine sisters and brothers often remind us, the root meaning of obedience is to “listen toward”—to have ears to hear what is going on within and among us, and to act responsively with theocentric awareness. James Gustafson points out that intensifying theocentric awareness manifests as intensified cosmocentric awareness as well—enlarging our horizon beyond self-concern, even as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that we do each need our daily bread as well.

Set between two interrelated but unique instances of divinely-met complaining in Exodus and in John, the epistle reading serenely—if with an undertone of urgent exhortation—reminds us that we are already “one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4) in Christ,

“from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4:16).

We come to “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), by “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Our gifts and callings differ, but cooperation is vital to growth in our identity in “one baptism” (4:5) and our responsiveness to the calling of “one God and Father of all” (4:6).

The beauty of this vision of oneness in Christ moves us to step back and see the larger picture that already is, even as it conditions mature unity upon our own loving participation in a corporate venture enabled by the expression of our own gifts on behalf of the whole. In so many spheres of our collective life we need this mix of vision and realism—of what we most seek being already secured, yet still in development. In and beyond a distinctly Christian worldview, we find a similar conditioning of environmental activism upon the already-given fact of our irrefutable interrelatedness.

Maturity in environmental commitments requires us to work with our respective gifts, but also to take seriously the expectation that we grow beyond our comfort zones, beyond self-justifying refusals to take any action at all:

“We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ “(4:14-15).

Surely this involves growth beyond climate change denial, beyond evangelizing as if only life after death matters, beyond the persuasive rhetorical habit of believing that we are helpless as individuals to affect the trajectory of environmental catastrophe.

Of course, every activist—budding or mature—knows that seeking social change involves friction. Even efforts to speak “the truth in love” can be met with rebuke. Still, we know we are quite capable of using the truth as a weapon when we are certain of the rightness of our cause. Polarized politics settle in precisely when each side grasps some partial truth and justifies its cause in the name of that truth. To complain about polarization needn’t imply a moral equivalency of positions on the issues at hand; but how hard to avoid falling into a spirit of self-righteousness when we see so clearly how much is at stake! “They” are ignorant or willfully stupid, and “we” need to enlighten them (or at least wrest political power from them)—about the truth of evolution, about the truth of climate change, about the need to radically alter our use of resources now.

It’s true, isn’t it?

In John 6, Jesus works with one clear truth to challenge his listeners to recognize a truth for which they were not prepared. Jesus had just pulled a Moses by feeding 5000 people with two fish and five barley loaves. The next day the crowd follows him across the Sea of Galilee and Jesus complains, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26). Like Moses, Jesus acknowledges that we need food; like Moses, Jesus communicates that this truth rests within a larger framework.

The next exchange taps into the heart of the controversy between the prophets of God and the people of God—between a vision of life in God and our quite justifiable earth-centered priorities. Jesus challenges the priority of pursuing earthly food as an end in itself: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27). The people respond by wondering what kind of “works of God” they must perform to receive enduring food, and Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). The people echo the complaining Hebrews in the wilderness in their appetite for more signs to prove that Jesus is God-Anointed, ironically pointing out that Moses had given them “bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:30-31; Exodus 16:4)—perhaps doubting that their own having been fed by Jesus the day before constituted a comparable miracle, perhaps simply challenging Jesus to a repeat occurrence. Jesus reminds them that “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven,” the “bread of God” which “gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33). When the crowd asks to have “this bread always” (6:34), Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35).

I suspect I am not the only one who worries about those in a Christian crowd today who latch onto this saying of Jesus as an evangelical truth that overrides all earthly concerns, seeing them as shadows of the truer need for salvation in Jesus. Saving souls for eternity John 3:16 style becomes the Christian mission—not a focus on care for this world in which creatures grow hungry and thirsty over and over.

But see what odd thing Jesus does: in response to the people’s demand for a sign, Jesus gives them himself: “Eat me. I myself am the bread of life, the bread from heaven.” Far from devaluing bread, Jesus identifies his very own being with bread.

Here the ecologically-minded among us can be fed by the insights of the 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus. In his intense polemical dispute with gnostic Christians of the 2nd century, he fleshed out the implications of Jesus’ bready identity for earth-valuing. Against gnostic ideas of Jesus as a spirit who was never fully embodied, a Jesus who taught humans to see their own abiding spiritual identity as something having no part of this mortal world, Irenaeus insisted, “If the flesh is not saved . . . the bread we break is not communion in His Body” (The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus against the Heresies, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 90).

And because we are His members, we are nourished by means of creation, the creation which He Himself gives us by making His Sun to rise and sending the rain as He pleases (cf. Matthew 5:45). The cup, which is part of creation, He declares to be His Blood, by which our own blood is fortified, and the bread, which is part of creation, He affirms to be His Body, by which our own body is fortified (Scandal, pp. 90-91)

. . . [Gnostic Christians] will not admit that the same Lord is the Son of the world’s Creator, that is, His Word, through whom trees bear fruit, the fountains gush forth, and “the earth gives first the blade, then the earth, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:28; Scandal, p. 92).

Then again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the Body and Blood of the Lord, falls into corruption and does not partake of life. . . . Our opinion, however, is in harmony with the Eucharist. . . . For we offer Him His own, consistently proclaiming the communion and unity of flesh and Spirit. For just as the bread which comes from the earth, having received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly, so our bodies, having received the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, because they have the hope of the resurrection (Scandal, p. 92-93).

While understandings of bread and wine in the sacrament of communion continue to vary among us, we can see in Irenaeus an ally in our own efforts to articulate how considering Jesus the bread of life moves us more fully into an appreciation of this beloved created world—not away from it toward a future disembodied heavenly state.

Jesus as bread is a sign of the value of bread; bread blessed as the body of Christ reminds us of the interpenetration of the “earthly and heavenly.” While we might be tempted to place all our hope in the incoming new creation and give up on this world, Jesus’ call to eat himself, as the bread of heaven, in grain and grapes, draws us into working through the very matter and matters of this world as part of the birth pangs of that new creation.

This is the larger perspective that John 6 invites us to hold in mind as we engage in this-worldly activism, in all of its unavoidable political messiness: the mutual pointing to one another of earth and heaven, of bread as food of the earth and bread as the body of Christ, of the church as for the world insofar as it is rooted in heaven-sent bread—bread that feeds creation eternally by the Word of God.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2018.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

 

Sunday July 3-9 in Year B (Carr21)

Prophets and Apostles in Our Midst  Amy Carr reflects on a God-driven vision of right relations in our shared world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year B (2021, 2024)

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In light of today’s readings about the experience of being a prophet or apostle, we might see Independence Day as a moment to recall the United States’ own complicated place within the biblical narrative about liberation from oppression. “Prophets” might be those who interrupted the status quo of colonial rule with a revolutionary imagination, and “apostles” those who shaped the constitutional structure of the new nation. So too today, prophets continue to spark revitalization movements that extend our understanding of what just relations look like for people and the planet as a whole, while apostles seek to institutionalize that new and better vision in the nitty-gritty of local, state, federal, and international law (as well as in household, congregational, and business practices). [1]

To be sure, whether it concerns a religious or a national community, the language of prophecy is dangerous. When we are angry enough, any of us might mistake our emotional state for a call to prophecy, claiming the mantle of Ezekiel:

“Mortal, I am sending you to . . . a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn” (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Those who called themselves “patriots” while participating in the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 saw themselves in a revolutionary lineage, standing up for persecuted truth and freedom from tyranny. With equal zeal, others rebuke the January 6 patriots as false prophets who distort a true prophetic focus on empirical facts, racial justice, care for the vulnerable, and a global reorientation away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

We can keep fine-tuning the language of prophecy, as if we’re trying to get the radio frequency just right, keen to hear God’s voice with clarity and elegance, in a way that ennobles rather than dispirits us. Think of recent critiques of virtue-signaling by those with white privilege who protest or use social media to identify themselves as anti-racists. Or of moral grandstanding by anyone adamantly on our own side on an issue, but expressing themselves in a way we find screeching, embarrassing, or counter-productive. Virtue-signalers and moral grandstanders—any who want most to mark their own status on the right side of justice—might find their proof text in Ezekiel 2:5: “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know there has been a prophet among them.”

Of course, these are God’s words, not Ezekiel’s. Ezekiel had fallen face-down on the ground after seeing a dazzling image of God (Ezekiel 2:1); he was so overcome that God had to pick him up off the ground and make him stand up. God’s own outrage about injustice was finding its way through Ezekiel despite or because of his own humility and vulnerability. Here Ezekiel is quite like Paul, who speaks of himself as a rather awkward apostle.

As Christians we cannot avoid embracing (or running up against) the voice of the prophet—even if we need always to test the spirit of prophecy, to keep listening anew for the Word of God as we risk speaking what we hear in our attention to scripture and to the world around us.

The gospel and epistle readings depict public responses to Jesus himself as prophet—a prophet of good news in a hurting world. In Mark 6, we see how disappointed Jesus with those in his hometown of Nazareth who couldn’t fathom that some guy they’d watched grow up could be a prophet. Wasn’t he just one of Mary’s many sons? Jesus was baffled that their bewilderment was so strong they couldn’t open themselves to a good gift right in front of them:  Jesus’ generative power of healing.

How often do those of us in social change movements also look to far-away celebrity leadership, rather than noticing and cultivating leadership in our own congregations and communities?

Once when I belonged to a local peace and justice group that opposed the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, a woman wanted to invite Greg Mortenson to our community to speak about the schools for girls that he was building in Afghanistan through his non-profit organization. His book Three Cups of Tea was a bestseller. We didn’t know then that Mortenson was mismanaging funds, but we did know he was charging thousands of dollars as a speaker. I argued that our small organization shouldn’t try to fundraise that much just for a speaker, especially when we had someone local who could talk about building schools in Afghanistan: a US military officer who had worked on civilian projects in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We did end up inviting our local military officer to speak instead, and he agreed after being persuaded that we weren’t simply going to use the occasion to bash soldiers. The talk revealed to us how little the peace movement was covering the many schools and infrastructure projects being built by the US military (vastly more than by Mortenson’s NGO), and how much the officer who spoke with us admired the below-the-radar civilian foreign women and men who stayed in remote, rural conflict zones to contribute to community-building.

Jesus’ response to his hometown’s dismissal of him was to send out other ordinary movement members two by two to go into towns to preach repentance, to anoint the sick with oil, and to cast out demons. Jesus equipped his disciples with only one thing: “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). He gave them the clarity of a prophetic vision, seeing beneath the layers of suffering to a path to flourishing and well-being. He told them to set boundaries by no longer engaging those who did not listen, while warning them of the consequences of doing so. And we are called to do likewise, aware as we are of the manifold sufferings on a planet facing rising CO2 levels and pollution of many sorts.

Jesus’ disciples became the apostles of the church that continued after the risen and ascended Jesus sent to them the power of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, in the apostle Paul’s own account of getting high in the mystical joy of Paradise, he was simultaneously brought down to earth: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (I Corinthians 12:7). The Lord told Paul to see this thorn as a gift that itself allowed “the power of Christ” to “dwell” in him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (I Corinthians 2:9).

Think of all that Paul accomplished as a missionary as he lived through this mix of being caught up in two sensations at once:  a debilitating affliction, and ecstatic fellowship with the risen Christ. Paul is a disability theologian who reminds us that even when our whole society is snagged by the thorn of an addiction to unsustainable levels of consumption and a despair about our ability to change our ways, we can draw on a Spirit-driven vision to do the work of an apostle for our planet’s well-being.

Here, too, we might pay attention to the local apostles in our midst, and think about where we can join in their labor.

Reading the local newspaper while visiting family this past week in Upper Michigan, I have witnessed apostolic labor at play in the cooperative work of the Buffalo Reef Task Force and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Water Resources Division to remove stamp sands along a five-mile stretch of Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The stamp sands are left behind by copper mill processing, and as they drift into the Buffalo Reef, they threaten the habitat of lake trout and whitefish. Shoreline property owners are asked to report underground septic and water features, to gauge how removing the stamp sands will affect them. And in an editorial, I noticed another apostolic effort at organizing creation care through the federal legislative process: two bills, the Clean Water for Military Families Act and the Filthy Fifty Act, would “direct the Department of Defense to identify and clean up PPAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] at U.S. military installation,” like the defunct K.I. Sawyer Air Force base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. [2]

Environmental activism is not only about selfie-friendly Extinction Rebellion protests and arrests, though some of us are called to bear witness in ways that disrupt the flow of our lives. All of us, however, can open our eyes to see where we can create or support local, state, and national efforts to promote a healthier environment and reduce carbon emissions. Illinois may become the first US state this summer to ban coal-fired power plants; more companies and professions are working with technological innovations to move from greenwashing to carbon reduction. One of our thorns today is living with the question: can we act quickly enough to abate an apocalypse of our own making?

Our scripture readings for July 4 convey that prophets and apostles are freed to work with and through their senses of inadequacy, or their not being believed by others. May we draw upon that same freeing power as we seek to enact a God-driven vision of right relations in our shared world.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

[1] Enrique Dussel’s Ethics and Community (Orbis, 1988) remains a sound companion in thinking through the ways that the gospel motivates, transcends, and ever refines liberation movements.

[2] Marquette Mining Journal Editorial, appearing in The Daily Mining Gazette, June 14, 2021, 4A.

 

Sunday June 26 – July 2 in Year B (Carr21)

God Does Not Desire That Creatures Suffer  Amy Carr reflects on waiting and suffering, fairness and balance.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year B (2021, 2024)

Lamentations 3:22-33 or Wisdom1:13-15, 2:23-24
Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

Lamentations 3:22-33

The activists among us might feel restive with this advice to those in lamentation: “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:26). To be sure, we are aware that acceptance is one vital stage of grief after a tragic loss like that accompanying the 6th century BCE exile from Judah, destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, and loss of an independent Jewish kingdom. But when it comes to seeing and responding to environmental damage, we want to find a way to act:  to clean up after our messes and to develop policies that prevent further destruction. The activist spirit in us resists the very idea that we should wait until the end of time for God to make everything well again. Especially in a pragmatic country like the US, a creation-minded spirituality seems better informed by a doctrine of providence that perceives God at work  through our own efforts to abide by the ancient commandment God gave our species: to be stewards of the earth (Genesis 3:28).

And yet, when we contemplate the gravity of what we have done as a species to enable the destruction of habitat and the extinction of so many non-human species, perhaps we can indeed find a place for “sit[ting] alone in silence when the LORD has imposed it,” to put our mouths “to the dust (there may yet be hope),” to give our cheeks “to the smiter, and be filled with insults” (Lamentations 3:28-30). Waiting in patience for God is here not about passivity, but about opening ourselves to accountability before God. It is about opening ourselves to the consequences of our collective actions, rather than practicing denial or running away.

In Of Women Borne: A Literary Ethics of Suffering (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016, p. 217), Cynthia Wallace notes three definitions of “to attend:”  paying attention; serving or caring for another; and waiting expectantly (with hope or dread). If waiting quietly for God’s liberation involves attention to what God is doing, that means cultivating habits of noticing what is going on in the created realm, and continuing to take in new information, even when it is unwelcome—holding what is in our awareness as we ask what God’s intentions may be. Waiting as attending also means attending to the needs of the earth: acting on what we see, trusting that the larger swirl of salvation includes our committed service on creation’s behalf.

The voice of Lamentations 3 is at once contemplative and prophetic—a voice that demands we behold the “steadfast love,” endlessly new “mercies,” and “faithfulness” of God (3:22-24) not amid a life of ease, but amid enduring being held accountable by that same divine presence.

Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24

More cosmological themes appear later in the Wisdom of Solomon, when natural forces become vehicles of divine action during the exodus from Egypt (chs. 11-19). Here, though, we are confronted with two claims that stand at odds with any empirical natural history.

The first problematic claim is that “death entered the world” not as an ordinary part of God’s created order, but through “the devil’s envy” (Wisdom 2:24). This echoes Paul’s history of the world in Romans 5:12 in which “death came through sin.” The second claim is related: that “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them” (Wisdom 1:14). Would this then mean that viruses are unnatural? Are predator-prey relationships not part of God’s intended created order?

In The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012, pp. xvi-xvi) Peter Enns suggests that the notion that death is not natural—not part of an original divine ordering—is more challenging for Christian creation theology than a six day creation story (a metaphorical reading of which is well-established). A non-literal reading of Paul’s theology affirms the “universal and self-evident” problems of death and sin and “the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ,” but “what is lost is Paul’s culturally assumed explanation for what a primordial man had to do with causing the reign of death and sin in the world” (pp. 123-124).

Might we likewise read Wisdom’s death-denial in a metaphorical way? Whatever it might mean to ascribe the current reality of death to demonic envy, I don’t think we need to walk away from Wisdom’s central testimony to the deathlessness of righteousness (1:15) and of God’s intention for everlasting creaturely flourishing. A Hellenistic Jewish text, the Wisdom of Solomon affirms human immortality (“for God created us for incorruption,” 2:23), yet does not peel back from the created order to a primordial world of Platonic ideas in which the natural world is immaterial (ultimately unreal). Instead, all particular creatures are imagined as mattering from the very beginning: “For he created all things so that they might exist” (1:14). God wills death for no one of them.

Here we do not find a qualified embrace of death’s goodness when death is viewed within a larger scheme of things—a view espoused by Aquinas, who used as an example the fact that a lion’s well-being depends on the death of its prey (Summa Theologiae, Question 22, Article 2; see for example http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1022.htm). Instead, the Wisdom of Solomon offers one biblical warrant for an eschatological vision in which the well-being of the whole creation depends on a liberation from death. In Evolution from Creation to New Creation, Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett imagine God’s new creation as an “emergent whole” that “will transform, yet preserve, the entire history of cosmic creation” (161-162). This future, marked by resurrection and immortal bodies, cannot be anticipated or predicted within an evolutionary framework; it can only emerge out of our intuitions of what God is up to in ways beyond our ken—a God who “does not delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

The question for us then becomes one whose answer lies in the matrix of divine mystery and human action:  Whether we are demonically denying or collectively addressing the outsized effects human activity has on our planet, how do the ways we dwell together, in the here and now, participate in the emergent whole that is the new creation?

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Given the high bar set by the twin miracles in the gospel text, we might find ourselves relieved to contemplate the more manageable set of communal care expectations in the epistle reading. Paul exhorts us to practice with “eagerness” (2 Corinthians 8:11-12) a properly proportioned distribution of resources, locally and globally:

“I do not mean that there should be a relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14).

We are also reminded of a value voiced also in Exodus 16:18—the value of living in a satisfying moderation, rather than in an excessive consumption that comes at others’ expense:

“As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Corinthians 8:15).

Moreover, beyond living simply, we are encouraged not to be overwhelmed by the enormity of all that needs redress, but to focus our energies pragmatically on doing something with an “eagerness” that is “matched by completing it according to [our] means” (2 Corinthians 8:11); for “the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have” (8:12).

We can always do more by way of political organizing and national and international policy campaigns with regard to environmental protection. For some of us, this sort of activism is our vocation. But sometimes those whose activism centers on environmental preservation can lose sight of the ways that field professionals have been developing less environmentally damaging ways of extracting natural resources. Here are some ways I have observed of practicing creation care “according to our means” for those whose career depends on logging or mining. My grandfather, Frank Carr, earned a state award for being the first lumberjack in Michigan to practice selective harvesting of timber, rather than continuing to clear cut Upper Michigan’s white pines. Yet when my father taught in a forest technology program he used to have a sign up in his office that said, “Clear cuts are biologically beautiful.” His point was twofold:  there are occasions when clear cutting makes the best sense for forest management in a given area; and there is far more biodiversity today in Upper Michigan now that there is a mix of old and new growth forest, rather than only an old growth forest that provides so much canopy there is no food for the now abundant species, like white tail deer, that rely on clearings and sunlight reaching the forest floor. For years I have also been learning from my brother about emerging environmental practices in the mining industry, from using superbugs to clean up superfund toxic waste sites (putting in those bugs was his first job after college) to water-cleaning practices in copper and gold mines in Nevada. While our society will continue to debate about the right balance of wilderness preservation and natural resource use, we might be mindful of those professionals who are working “according to their means” within their fields to better care for the earth.

Who in our congregations is practicing stewardship of land and its resources? What can we learn from them about the practices their professions are developing—practices to lift up as part of the expression of our community’s gifts?

Mark 5:21-43

A theme running through all today’s texts is that God does not desire that creatures suffer. While the Old Testament lessons offer theological explanations for the origins of suffering, and the epistle reading directs us to respond to suffering, here in Mark we witness Jesus’ direct healing of two suffering human beings who could readily recite Psalm 30: “O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (Psalm 30:2-3). The interrelationship between the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying girl points us in the direction of a cosmocentric reading of their passage from illness and death to restored life.

Taken together, the 12 year old girl and the woman hemorrhaging for 12 years represent the whole of the people of God. In addition to the implicit double reference to the 12 tribes of Israel, we see a story about a low-status woman set centrally (and as a delay tactic) within a story about a high-status child. The hemorrhaging woman may be perceived as perpetually ritually impure, and she herself is her own advocate; the dying daughter of the synagogue leader has others advocating on her behalf.  The faith of the bleeding woman makes her well (Mark 5:34) without Jesus consciously intending to heal her at all, whereas it is the work of others to bring Jesus to a fully life-depleted girl, whose resurrection depends entirely upon the conscious action of Jesus. Both women are surrounded by crowds who interrogate Jesus and exhibit the spectrum of people’s responses to his actions, from doubt to amazement.

There is a kind of technicolor theological panoply in these dramas, at least with regard to questions of where individual, corporate, and divine agency each begin and end. Turning our attention to implications for our care of the non-human world, we might start with one blurry spot in particular: the mirrored leaking of the bleeding woman and the healer Jesus.

In “Permeable Savior” (Christian Century, January 18, 2017, p. 13), Julie Morris cites New Testament scholar Candida Moss’ observation that “the Greek phrase normally translated as ‘the power went out of him’ could also be translated as ‘the power leaked out of him,’” making Jesus’ body feminized:  “leaky, porous, and permeable—like that of a woman’s.” Morris finds here an example of Jesus’ own gender-fluidity; but read with a green eye, we might notice additional layers of earth and spirit in these twin leakings.

On one hand, the bleeding woman took her physical well-being seriously, and let no gendered expectations or ritual purity norms stand in the way of her search for healing from a visible flow of blood. Jesus, on the other hand, is passive—his invisible power exuding from him just by virtue of his cloak being touched by a confident, demanding woman whose physical leaking could be stopped by his own leaking of spiritual power.

The vehicle that conveys Jesus’ spiritual power from his body to the bleeding woman’s body is the act of touching a physical object worn by Jesus. Likewise, Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter by taking her hand; her healing is complete only when she is nourished by physical food (“give her something to eat,” Mark 5:43).

The blood, the cloak, the hands, the food that replenishes, the mediation of touch: these remind especially Protestants that spiritual power is not simply about the inner life of faith. Spiritual power is also profoundly related to the seemingly unconscious, material realm that connects and sustains all of our lives. Indeed in these two stories in Mark, we see spiritual power itself portrayed as an impersonal force that is drawn forth through conscious awareness—be that the awareness of Jesus as healer, or the awareness of the most vulnerable person who cries out to God.

If we can begin to notice how the Spirit of God is active in the cries for help of all sentient beings, and active in the conviction that touch materializes spiritual power—perhaps then we can open our eyes to an ecological theology that bridges an anthropocentric focus on human well-being with a cosmocentric awareness that the unity of the church extends to the non-human material realm we inhabit.

Revised and updated by Amy Carr in 2021, from a commentary originally written in 2018.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr20)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Sunday September 4 – 10 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C:  Amy Carr reflects on Luke 14:25-33 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Readings for September 4-10, Series C (2019, 2022)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Sitting down to think about the cost of a venture before beginning it—to see if one can afford the cost—isn’t that what those of us who treasure environmentally-minded use of land wish we would do with more foresight? But the social cost of environmental activism when it is counter-cultural—not merely pragmatic—is also something the gospel reading provokes us to consider. The stakes are even higher when activists are resisting monied and militant forces that value only short-term profit. But as our reading from Deuteronomy reminds us, individual discipleship is ever-entwined with the well-being of all—not just ourselves.

The context that keeps coming to mind to me in recent weeks is the Amazonian forest in Brazil, where a right-wing populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, denies the facts of climate change, openly encourages illegal logging, and tries to gut the environmental agencies and polices that are meant to resist deforestation. With so many Brazilians burning down—with impunity—areas of the forest for grazing, ranching, logging, mining, or farmland, many scientists fear the forest is at the tipping point after which the rainforest canopy can no longer sustain itself, drying out the forest and intensifying its vulnerability to burning. And pragmatically speaking, the irony is that farming will suffer without the canopied forest to keep more moisture in the atmosphere—and with more carbon released into the atmosphere through burning, raising temperatures and increasing drought conditions. (For sobering details about what is afoot in Brazil, see “On the brink: The Amazon is approaching an irreversible tipping point,” The Economist, 8-1-19, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2019/08/01/the-amazon-is-approaching-an-irreversible-tipping-point).

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28).

Those of us who teach know that students often do not sit down to estimate how much time they need to read, research, and write to finish a project on time. Few among us resist the pull of immediate short-term pleasure. Even when we resist the temptation of profit by cheating, we might be willing to perform beneath our capacities in order to give our time and attention to something more immediately preferable. And we know we all need Sabbath moments, lily-of-the-field hours.

But here Jesus is calling to discipleship those who have considered the costs of investing in accompanying Jesus, and who know how doing so will strain their ties to family and to the state:

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).

Reckoned in terms of green discipleship, those costs range from a commitment to ongoing learning about environmental issues, to finding ways to organize or connect with activist groups or movements, to risking attack or death if one becomes a prominent activist—as many indigenous Brazilian environmentalists have found (such as Emrya Wajãpi, killed on his tribal Amazonian lands by encroaching miners this past July).

And what of those of us who aren’t full-time environmental activists—not full-blown disciples—because we cannot afford to sustain our lives if we did so? Is it enough for us to be in the crowd listening to Jesus’ teachings, then going home and trying to love our neighbors as ourselves—perhaps including our non-human neighbors by writing letters, signing petitions, educating ourselves as we have time—and trying not to despair about how little we as individuals and as a species are doing?

Was Jesus judging those who counted the costs of activism as too high? Those who could not hate their families, in the active sense of breaking with their expectations of our responsibilities to them? Those who did not consciously place themselves in danger of arrest or attack? Or was Jesus simply being matter-of-fact—realistic about how few could meet the challenges of all-in discipleship?

We Protestants have inherited a resistance to making spiritual distinctions of worth among Christians. It reeks too much of the abandoned conviction that monastic life was superior to family life. Yet we too valorize heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was part of a small minority who resisted equating Christian identity with German nationalism.

Deuteronomy offers another perspective on a rightly dedicated life—a perspective addressed in fact to a nation. The well-being of the people and the land depended upon everyone being in sync and harmonizing with the ways of God:

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God . . . by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear . . . I declare today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land. . . . .I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. . . (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).

Some hear in this passage the ring of a prosperity gospel, while others worry about the conquest sensibility so abused by European Christian settler colonialists, and which continues to echo no less in Israel and Palestine itself, with its two competing claims to indigeneity. But with the passage in second person plural voice, I hear myself addressed as part of a we—with no possibility of making a choice that could affect only my own status as a disciple.

In its corporate address to its audience as a people, a nation, the voice of God and Moses in Deuteronomy is as pragmatic as it is demanding. If we don’t work together to hear and heed the voice of the living God in matter-of-fact commandments (based, for ecological matters, on scientific understanding of the natural order), then we—people and land—will face collective destruction.

With a choice between collective flourishing and collective collapse, we are pulled towards a longing to harmonize, to synchronize our lives in a path of justice with our neighbors before a God who forces us to consider the consequences of doing otherwise.

If Luke sharpens the introspective focus of the question of the individual call to discipleship, Deuteronomy diffuses that focus to remind us that what is at stake is the good of the whole. We do not need to be against the state or our families, except where they walk in the way of death, the way that curses the possibility of a common life and the well-being of the land we ultimately possess together—or not at all.

Some readers may know of Paul Wellstone, a US Senator from Minnesota who was killed in a plane crash—but not before inspiring many of his students at Carleton, and many who encountered him when he was in office, with a contagious spirit of dedication to the common good. To be in his class on “Grassroots Organizing and Social Change Movements” was to be challenged to the quick to see, to care, and to participate in action to challenge structural injustice. “Why don’t the poor rise up in the streets?” Paul would ask, with prophetic passion. Among his students was a dedicated smaller group of disciples, some of whom were raised in Republican families and wondered out loud if they should or must distance themselves from old friends and families. Paul let students wonder such things, but he exuded a belief in American democracy and in everyone’s potential contribution as a citizen that was Deuteronomic in spirit—even if he spoke with the passion of Jesus calling for more. When my English major friend Deb asked Paul in office hours: “What about someone like me who wants to write children’s book? Can I contribute that way?” Paul declared that of course—there are many ways to contribute to the common good.

In many ways, for all his ability to speak like Amos, Paul (a secular Jew who drew on Jewish and humanist values) was also like the apostle Paul in Philemon—urging a better way in every way he could, appealing to the human heart to move it. As the apostle Paul encouraged Philemon to free the slave Onesimus—granting that the decision was Philemon’s alone, the power in his own hands—so too Paul Wellstone sparked a sense of possibility in those around him, a sense that we really could help to make a difference.

The activists who inspire us are those who “delight in the law of the LORD,” and “meditate” on it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). They perceive the pathway of justice and righteousness amid any current configuration of corruption, oppression, and exploitation. “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper” (Psalm 1:3).

We know that the just do not always prosper in conventional ways; they may have to bear their cross in ways that overtake their earthly lives. But it is prosperity simply to hold steady a vision of the common good, with ever-increasing ecological knowledge, especially in a time when many deny scientific facts.

“The way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6) by its own unsustainability. The question is whether the we all addressed by Deuteronomy will perish along with those who deny the way of God, the laws of ecosystems.

There is no path to hope except when we find closed all loopholes that might lead us to think we will be safe if we but look away. Better then to face Luke’s call to discipleship, Deuteronomy’s command to consider always the good of the whole people and land, and Paul’s creative lure to do the right thing because it tugs on our sense of a possible otherwise.

 

 

Sunday August 28 – September 3 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C: Amy Carr reflects on Luke 14:7-14 and Hebrews 13

Readings for August 28 – September 3,  Series C (2019, 2022)

Proverbs 25:6-7 [or Sirach 10:12-18, alternate] Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the occasion of a high-status dinner party to provoke reflection about humility and about what company we value. It is an interesting story to ponder in a non-anthropocentric way, by extending our sense of company to include a wide range of creaturely life. Yet I wonder if the many-sidedness of Jesus’ message challenges us also to be aware of how we can royalize our encounters with the natural world—seeing ourselves as its awe-filled guests in a way that is good, but not in itself good enough to nourish God’s most vulnerable and neglected creatures. We are both guests and hosts with regard to non-human creation.

The setting of the gospel passage immediately draws hearers into a contemplation of their own search for place and the status of their belonging. We step into a Sabbath meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees,” who were “watching [Jesus] closely” (Luke 14:1). That Jesus was invited suggests he is regarded as a social equal by the host; that he is being closely watched suggests that he is being evaluated with regard to his precise status: Is he more opponent or ally? In what unfolds, Jesus speaks into this tense, attentive space by at once outing and redirecting the motivations of both guests and the host at the meal.

Let’s imagine how Jesus’ commanding observations might sound if we think about our relationship to non-human creation as guests and as hosts, respectively.

To the guests, Jesus echoes an old proverb about seeking places of honor not by scrambling to sit near the host, but by humbling oneself: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the palace of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Proverbs 25:6-7). The analogy Jesus uses in Luke 14:7-11 is of a wedding banquet rather than a royal meal, but Jesus does not deny that it is a privilege to dine in the presence of a host who is radiating splendor.

Here we might imagine a wilderness space itself as our host, and we the guests visiting it through a hike or a camping trip. In such settings, many human beings witness the splendor of the holy in the natural world; they long to visit repeatedly, to be near to majesty and grandeur. And because the non-natural world is not looking back at us, it may be easier to accept Jesus’ teaching that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Even the most assertive of us are humbled by the transcendent vastness of the Grand Canyon; before such a royal host, joy and humility mingle together readily.

Conversion to environmental concern begins for many with a realization that wilderness spaces are endangered, and we are snapped into an awareness that we have a responsibility to them—that we are hosts as well as guests in relationship to the non-human natural world. It is not enough for us to enjoy the goodness of basking in the beauty of God’s creation, when we feel called also to protect it.

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus deepens the teaching about humility by turning to address not the guests and their behavior, but the host. The host may be accustomed to inviting friends, family, and “rich neighbors” to a “luncheon or a dinner,” because of the expectation of a gift exchange in which the host will be invited in turn to be “repaid” by his or her guests with an invitation to a feast at their own homes (Luke 14:12). It is not as if the host is scheming, perhaps; more that when we host, we tend to invite peers who are our social equals, or relatives with whom we already share bonds of mutual obligation. “But when you give a banquet,” Jesus suggests, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).

Jesus here addresses us insofar as we ourselves are royalty, seeking not the adulation of economic social equals, but the deeper calling of all with the power of royalty: to utilize our resources to expand who belongs at the banquet that satisfies both our physical need for nourishment and our social need for connection. And once again, Jesus doesn’t deny the goodness of the gift-exchange that is expected from invited guests who are peers; instead, Jesus redirects the desire of the royal host to a longer-term gift exchange—one in which we sacrifice for a future fulfillment that is beyond our immediate glimpse.

As royal stewards of God’s creation, we might widen our hosting responsibilities in a couple of directions. The first flows (with an odd comfort) from the recognition of our own mortality, in a way that is familiar to every homeowner and gardener. At the end of his poem “Planting Trees,” Wendell Berry writes of practicing hospitable attention to the non-human life that will outlive him:

Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.

In planting trees we expect to survive us, we tap once more into the sense of being guests of the wider creation, with whose future flourishing we are identifying.

A second way to widen our hosting responsibilities with regard to the natural world is to engage in the hard work of going out to discover how—and why—creation is rendered poor, crippled, lame, and blind by all the threats not only to wilderness spaces, but also to the sustainability of all the lands our species populates. This calls for us to move beyond amazement at the natural world to the labor of protecting it with activism and political action; only then can we invite limping and wounded plant and animal species to continue to persist as part of earth’s banquet.

The equation of being good hosts with engaging in political action is particularly apparent in countries, like the US under Trump and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, where denial of climate change goes hand and hand with policies that increase the production and use of fossil fuels and open tropical forests to increased deforestation.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the Amazon basin—and not just because it contains 40% of Earth’s rainforests and harbors 10-15% of the world’s terrestrial species. South America’s natural wonder may be perilously close to the tipping-point beyond which its gradual transformation into something closer to steppe cannot be stopped or reversed, even if people lay down their axes. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is hastening the process—in the name, he claims, of ‘development’” (“Deathwatch for the Amazon: Brazil has the power to save Earth’s greatest rainforest—or destroy it,” The Economist, 8-1-19, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/08/01/deathwatch-for-the-amazon ). Part of the proposed action is not only a domestic policy in Brazil of reforestation while it still matters, but of global consumer pressure on food companies to “spurn soybeans and beef produced on illegally logged Amazonian land, as they did in the mid-2000s.” More broadly, we are starting to hear how much it could slow global warming if we each shifted to a largely vegetarian diet, eating meat only once a week.

The exhortations in Hebrews 13 are like cheerleaders urging on those running the marathon of individual and collective efforts to avert catastrophic climate change (and respond to the climate crises already emerging). “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” who may be angels of God (Hebrews 13:1-2). “Remember those who are . . . being tortured, as if you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Instead of loving money, “be content with what you have,” for God will “never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5): what we most need we already have, at the heart of things; thinking otherwise leads us to scar the earth and its inhabitants in our grasping for more.

It is hard also not to think of Swedish teenager climate activist Greta Thunberg, when we ponder Hebrews 13:8: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” She models the kind of humility—of knowing one’s place—that is grounded in facts rather than prideful presumption that it does not matter what we do to or draw from the earth. She leads by asking everyone to start with knowing and heeding the scientific facts: to read the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“16-Year-Old Activist Greta Thunberg on Climate Crisis: ‘Please Listen To The Scientists,” Here and Now, July 25, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/07/26/greta-thunberg-climate-crisis ).

Great Thunberg shares the vision of the psalmist: “It is well with those who . . . conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). Well-being and prosperity are bound up with obedient responsiveness to ineluctable facts. Here the old-fashioned spirit of obedience, of Deuteronomy’s theme of “if you obey, then you will flourish,” very much has its place as our generation takes its turn in hosting a planetary banquet of secure belonging for all earth’s species.

Sunday July 31 – August 6 in Year A (Carr20)

Incline Your Ear and Listen Carefully – Amy Carr reflects on our response to grief, anguish, and the temptation to despair.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for Sunday July 31 – August 6, Year A (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda has always impressed me with her careful attention not only to the demands of justice, but also to the fatigue and hopelessness that can accompany awakening to the enormity of structural injustice—especially the enormity of climate crisis. To put it in terms familiar to Luther, Pascal, and centuries of monastics attentive to the ways we resist contending with sin: if false presumption that all is well is one half of our planetary challenge (or what Moe-Lobeda calls “moral oblivion” in Chapter 5 of Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Fortress, 2013), then despair is the spiritual danger that emerges once we are woke to the damage we are doing and facing collectively, as global temperatures rise.

Our scriptural texts for today reckon with the temptation to despair. Each is situated in a state of anguish about something that has come to pass, or that refuses to come to pass. Divine creativity appears within a space of openly knowing and naming that anguish.

Matthew 14:13-21: Losing John, Becoming Elisha: Grief and the Power of Multiplication

In The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation, Matthew 14:13 sets a story of Jesus’ feeding multitudes in the context of the finale of John the Baptist at the hands of Herodias: “When Jesus heard about the beheading, he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone.”

Never before had I noticed that Jesus’ multiplication of a few loaves and fish to feed 5000 families was a gesture born not only of compassion, but amid grief. Jesus performed this act only after first trying to get away from Nazareth to be alone to mourn the execution of his imprisoned mentor, John the Baptist. But the urgent desire of other human beings for what Jesus himself offered led them to follow on foot to where they saw his boat land. When Jesus “saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14, Inclusive Bible).

Like Elisha, who multiples oil for a prophet’s wife in need (2 Kings 4:1-7) only after his mentor Elijah has been taken by God, Jesus’ own power seems to be magnified when John the Baptist has been taken by Herod’s family. Likewise, the crowd that follows Jesus into his grief-space in the wilderness echoes the story of the Hebrew people who leave Egypt for the hopes of a better life; as they were fed with manna at Moses’ command, so too is the crowd that follows Jesus fed by his blessing of a few loaves and fish.

Out of grief from one loss comes compassion for many who are lost; out of the loss of a mentor comes a new identity as one who is as powerful as any of the great prophets in Israel’s history. Such greatness is bred not in self-seeking, but in mourning and in its capacity to deepen sensitivity to the suffering of others. It is as if the wider is Jesus’ heart, the more he is able to give—even as God alone can give.

Like Jesus, many are drawn to wilderness spaces to gain clarity, perspective, a renewed vision. But today we are also aware of deserted places as themselves vulnerable to destruction. And what kinds of healing and acts of multiplication might we find ourselves expressing as baptized members of the body of Christ who move through the grief about the effects of climate change into compassionate responses? Perhaps our responses involve advocacy about public policy, or direct service to those whose lands and livelihoods are destroyed, or a found capacity to survive our own loss of home to flood or extreme weather. Maybe we plant trees and pollinator crops. Perhaps we hold the truths of the world in prayer, so as to strengthen others engaged in response.

Certainly, like Jesus’ disciples, we may wrestle with doubt about whether or not we have the capacity to meet the gravity of the need. We might resist literal or glib readings of the feeding-of-the-5000 story that focus on its miraculous nature and leave us feeling either incredulous, or inadequate to the faith needed to perpetuate such a miracle in Jesus’ name today. But perhaps those worries miss the boat that Jesus was actually taking. Our journey is with the heart of Jesus, and here Jesus’ heart begins with his disorientation about losing a fixture in his sense of the world and of his own vocation: the formative presence of John the Baptist. Within that space of grief—opened to in a deserted place—came an upwelling of compassion for those who seek healing and nourishment.

Can’t we make that journey together as well, from loss of anchor to depth of commitment, as we face the disorienting disruption of our assumption that the earth and its species will continue as we know them?

Romans 9:1-5: Anguish about the Unwoke

The anguish expressed in Romans 9:1-5 reminds us that the richest theological understanding arises only as we claim our emotional truths—including our emotional truths about those who seem to stand against the very projects of redemption and salvation in which we invest.

In Romans 9, Paul tells us that his “conscience confirms . . . by the Holy Spirit” that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart,” to the point that he wishes that he himself “were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of [his] own people,” the Israelites (Romans 9:1-3, NRSV). We are not told why he is so distraught in Romans 9:1-5; here we need to read further to learn that Paul is anxious because only a “remnant” of his fellow Israelites are being “saved” by no longer “seeking to establish their own” righteousness, but believing in God’s righteousness that now comes through faith in Christ (Romans 9:27, 10:2-10).

Yet it is precisely in expressing fully his longing for fellow Israelites to regard Christ as he himself does, and in letting loose multiple exegetical arguments for his view of justification by faith in Christ, that Paul stumbles into a way of affirming a “mystery”: that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-26). He cannot fathom it, really: “How unsearchable are [God’s] judgments and how inscrutable [God’s] ways!” (Romans 11:33). But Paul observes that Israel’s God has had a long pattern of electing some people over others for the purposes of covenant-making (Abraham; Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau), and of hardening the hearts of some (like Pharaoh before Moses) to show forth divine power (Romans 9:6-18). So Paul concludes that it is God who had destined most Israelites not to believe in Jesus as Messiah, precisely so that more Gentiles can be grafted into the covenant (Romans 11:7, 11, 17-20). Ultimately, however, “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable;” God will not abandon God’s own people, only temporarily imprison them—indeed, all—“in disobedience so that [God] may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:29, 32).

Here Paul’s anguish signals his inability to consent to the exclusion of his own people from belonging still to God, even if most of them fail to see salvation shining in the new covenant revealed in the story of the particular Jew who re-sets the world for Christians. In Paul’s exegetical searching, he finds a way of discerning God’s providence at work in the very hardening of hearts—against the new covenant in Christ—that so disturbs him.

Post-Holocaust Christians and Jews have gathered around Romans 9-11 as a fruitful oasis for imagining a non-supersessionist way of connecting Jewish and Christian covenants. Might we learn anything comparably fruitful as we consider Paul’s generative anguish in light of climate crisis?

Having just witnessed two debates among the Democratic candidates for President, I noticed that most of them voiced agony about climate change and pledged to make it a priority. Many also complained about the “climate change deniers” in the Republican Party. They cast a narrative of Democrats who are woke vs. Republicans who are self-blinded—their hearts hardened against seeing and reckoning with the depths of planetary peril.

We can go only so far with analogies between climate change deniers and Paul’s fellow Israelites—those who so distressed him with their refusal to wake up to the salvation that rescued him from being himself a hardened zealot who had persecuted those who followed the Way of Jesus. But Paul did not give up seeing himself and his fellow Israelites as belonging to one another and to God, even though he thought they were wrong in thinking that the Torah rather than Christ should be their basis of identity. Can we likewise ask ourselves, as Christians concerned about climate crisis, how to see God’s hand at work in those who deny the basic facts of climate change, as we see them?

We can be as prone to presumption about our own righteousness when we feel woke to a profound problem as when we delude ourselves into believing all is well, when it is not. Paul warns Gentile believers against thinking too highly of themselves in relationship to Israelites who reject salvation in Christ (Romans 11:17-18). Likewise, we are missing the mark if we focus more on our sense of being in the right about climate change than on finding common cause with all persons to address the actual challenges we face together. Perhaps that is a minimal kind of providence we can discern as we grapple with those who deny the science of climate change: a warning against liberal self-righteousness as an end in itself—as if, like Jonah, we would rather be right as we wait to witness the destruction of Nineveh than to care about Nineveh’s people and animals and reach out from the heart of anguish and compassion to our political enemies, towards whom God’s concern also extends (Jonah 4:9-11).

Romans 9:1-5 sets us solidly in anguish—not self-righteousness—as the starting place for moving toward those who oppose us.

Isaiah 55:1-5: Funeral Feasts and Listening toward Restoration

So much voiced in the psalms and prophets is counter-factual—announcing a state of affairs in which God is ultimately making all things well, even when the current moment is a disaster. And sometimes stirred into the prophet’s vision-pot is anticipation of a wider covenant—a home-going after exile that is not a nostalgic return to what had been, but instead a new kind of homemaking, with foreigners now joining in.

In Isaiah 55:1-5, the prophet calls those exiled from Jerusalem to come join a free feast, anticipating a return from exile. Those who are dead to their old lives are addressed with the same word used to call forth the dead to a ritual meal on their behalf: “Ho!” (Isaiah 55:1). But the richness of the food also evokes a royal banquet, and for Christians, the Lord’s Supper that both memorializes Jesus’ death and provides a foretaste of “the feast to come” in the fullness of the Kingdom or (in Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’ famous words) the Kindom of God.

The prophet knows we need to “listen carefully” from within our current grief, responding to the call to eat “rich food” that we “may live,” as God makes with us “an everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 55:2-3)—one that stretches to include “nations that you do not know” who shall run to the very people in exile “because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 55:5).

As Christians, we hear in these prophetic words an anticipation of how Gentiles—“the nations”—will run to Jesus as the Anointed One of God. And as those inspired by the global movement of young people skipping school to demand that all nations respond to climate crisis, we might also hear the voice of Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden, calling like Isaiah to listen, that we may live.

To find our way to the promised feast, we have to “incline [our] ear” (Isaiah 55:3) and figure out where God is inviting us. That is the hard part, of course: how do we move from exile to restoration, from lifeways that continue to damage our planet to a serious commitment to reverse our course in a way inclusive of all persons and institutions, from every walk of life and business? (For some prophetic-styled depictions of resistant-to-proactive responses among a range of industries, see Schumpeter, “The Seven Ages of Climate Man: A Shakespearean guide to how companies tackle change,” The Economist, 5-25-19, https://www.economist.com/business/2019/05/23/a-shakespearean-guide-to-how-firms-tackle-climate-change)

We do not lack for prophets today. As in Isaiah’s time, the challenge is to incline our ear to listen to them—and, as Isaiah urges, to trust the promise that our response to God’s invitation to restoration matters.

The Psalm reminds us that the wider creation is included in the streaming-forth to rejoice together before God: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season;” “and all flesh will bless [God’s] holy name forever and ever” (Psalm 145:15, 21).

Oringinally written by Amy Carr in 2020.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Sunday July 3 – 9 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series C: (2019, 2022)

by Amy Carr

Readings for Series C (2019, 2022)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Today’s readings are filled with images of nourishing and flourishing drawn from the natural world, as well as agricultural metaphors for divine judgment and demand. The former invite us to treasure creation as the very medium and means of God’s blessings for us, while the latter draw our attention to the very human means of promoting a good harvest of blessings for the earth and its inhabitants. God’s gifts, our labor: these appear in conjunction. In relationship to these scripture readings, I will suggest that one kind of creation care strategy involves sowing relationships that bridge urban and rural divides—relationships that might reap a richer possibility of forging just relations for both land and people.

We encounter earthy images of a God-given nourishing and flourishing in Isaiah and Psalm 66. Post-exilic Jerusalem is envisioned as a wet nurse who satisfies “from her consoling breast” (Isaiah 66:11). Because God is a “mother” who “comforts her child” (Isaiah 66:13), our “bodies shall flourish like the grass” (Isaiah 66:14), and God “will extend prosperity to [Jerusalem] like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream” (Isaiah 66:12). The healing and replenishment of our lives are utterly earthly in form and expression, yet divinely generated. As Luther put it in his Large Catechism commentary on the first commandment (“You shall have no gods”):

Creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings. For example, he gives to the mother breasts and milk for her infant, and he gives grain and all kinds of fruits from the earth for man’s nourishment—things which no creature could produce by himself. . . . We must acknowledge everything as God’s gifts and thank him for them, as this commandment requires. Therefore, this way of receiving good through God’s creatures is not to be disdained, nor are we arrogantly to seek other ways and means than God has commanded, for that would not be receiving our blessings from God but seeking them from ourselves (Luther, Large Catechism, trans.Theodore Tappert, http://apostles-creed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/luthers-large-catechism.pdf, p. 8).

The psalmist urges the planet itself to give thanks for the ways that God acts in and through blessings that take material form (like a sea parting to make way for the Hebrews to pass over on dry land): “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” (Psalm 66:1).

While the readings in Isaiah and Psalm 66 cast a vision of earthly well-being, in Galatians and Luke we encounter agricultural metaphors that bear a prophetic spirit of warning and admonition about threats to God’s harvest. Here the blessings spoken of in Isaiah are contingent not only upon our being open to receive what God provides through natural means, but also upon paying close attention to the shape of our human interactions and to whether or not we are discerning and heeding God’s call amid those interactions. Thus Paul commands the Galatians,

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. . . (Galatians 6:7-10).

Paul associates sowing “to your own flesh” with his familiar theme of seeking justification by Jewish ritual works like circumcision (Galatians 6:12-15) instead of justification by faith in the “cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14). But he associates sowing “to the Spirit’ with “doing what is right,” in order to reap “eternal life from the Spirit”—or what he calls “a new creation” (6:15).

In Luke 10, fields ripe for harvest symbolize cities and towns with people ready to hear and respond to the gospel news about the kingdom of God—a way of life together that promotes spiritual and physical healing for all. Here Jesus is like a farmer trying to gather together workers to do the reaping: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). So Jesus sends out 70 people, working in pairs, to visit “every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:2). Jesus does not harvest alone. Indeed, in this story, Jesus seems to act behind the scenes in a contemplative manner (rather, perhaps, as we might experience the risen and ascended Christ doing today), for while the 70 went about healing the sick, releasing people from their demons, and announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, Jesus sat and perceived the spiritual fruits of their harvest: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18).

If we hold in green imagination all the various natural and agricultural metaphors we find in today’s scripture readings, we might ask ourselves: where is the Spirit sending us forth as laborers for a ripe harvest that nourishes both humans and the world in which we dwell? What kind of sowing might we do to promote a ripe harvest that fosters what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls the “kin-dom of God?”

As someone who lives in west central Illinois, one desire that keeps coming to mind in a Spirit-driven way is a hunger to connect farmers with urban or suburban dwellers who know nothing about farming or the agricultural industry. I began to have this thought one week when I witnessed two distinct expressions of youth leadership in my rural university town.

The first was a presentation at a Sunday luncheon at my Lutheran church by four high schoolers, all young women, about their participation in Future Farmers of America (FFA). I was amazed by how well FFA is preparing young people for a wide range of possible careers in agriculture, but also for leadership skills that include everything from taking responsibility for a self-designed agricultural project, to speech competitions, to knowledge of parliamentary procedure. At national conferences, they meet and stay in touch with fellow FFA members who hail from all 50 states and the US territories. Their clear enthusiasm left me confident about the future of agriculture, including a boldness about meetings its challenges.

The second presentation was a Saturday night fashion show, created largely by black university students who designed clothes and modeled them while telling a story. The woman who wrote the script for the modeling show is a Religious Studies minor from St. Louis who wants to work with people with disabilities, and maybe one day help them find creative self-expression through a fashion show of their own. Here, too, I witnessed initiative, drive, imagination, and leadership among young people.

While these two groups of young people may have quite different interests, I have found myself wondering how congregations can encourage meeting with and collaboration between people (young to old) who are deeply committed to their respective communities or fields, but share qualities like dedication and experience at organizing events. It is just the seed of a dream right now; and perhaps, like Jesus, I think it best for those in agriculture and in urban organizations to themselves go ahead to harvest the rich fields of possibility. Some of the fruits could be collaboration on public policy—from economic to environmental—that could be rooted in better mutual understanding between rural and urban or suburban communities.

“We reap what we sow.” What if we sowed the seeds of a genuine cultural exchange that doesn’t begin with the premise of privileged missioners helping those in need? A mission trip is not always the same thing as building cross-cultural connections among people who perceive one another as social equals. Whether they take one to the inner city, to disasters sites, to Appalachia, or to a Native American reservation, domestic mission trips are often premised on some sort of economic or class disparity. But what would happen instead if we cultivated rural-urban meet-ups between professionals, or people already active and experienced in organizations? Here the conversations have the potential to move beyond personal testimony, beyond direct service, into a mutual cultural understanding and respect that could bear fruit in the political arena. Instead of sowing ignorance and polarized jabs about rednecks or urban elites, instead of reaping a political culture that is sown in resentment of outsiders who fail to understand or respect “us,” perhaps we could sow mutual understanding and respect of different ways of life in relationship to land and to culture. There would still be arguments, still hard environmental and social problems to solve, but we would be better resourced for debating and imagining into their resolutions together.

If we send out harvesters adept at sowing bridge-building across the rural-urban divide, perhaps we can ultimately reap the flourishing of a new and renewed creation. We would be fostering the social capital for developing and supporting a public policy with regard to climate change that includes at the table those who work the land, as well as those who dwell in Jerusalem and other cities that need to be nourished by the fruits of that land.

Amy Carr amyreneecarr@gmail.com