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First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

Survival Is Insufficient Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time.  But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of  economies grasping for endless growth.

What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.

The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.

But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).

This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27).  May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.

Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear.  The stories are full of foreboding.  The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.

Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life.  It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be.  It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.

And it is a communal pilgrimage.  This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109).  As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).

Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts.  This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).

Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew.  Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7).  It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.

Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.  Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.

Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18).  This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9).  We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.

All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life–divine, human, and non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors.  Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).

Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building.  This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.

The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV).  This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10).  Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.

To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218).  After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.

This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:

“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back.  It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)

So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?”  Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits.  We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

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

The Way of Ecojustice in a Dangerous TimeTom Mundahl reflects on our place in the world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Thomas Mundal in 2017)

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

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

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have also designated times of renewal centering on prayer and reflection. While Lent is certainly a period for baptismal preparation and rumination about what it means to live as a resurrection community, it also is properly a time of repentance — turning around and renewing the way we think about our identity and vocation.  We sing hymns that honor the Risen One, who “prayed and kept the fast.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, No. 319)  On Ash Wednesday we were starkly reminded of our mortality as we heard the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives — singly and in community.

This Lent could not be more timely, for those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by a presidential regime that ignores the most elementary climate science, threatens water resources and Native culture by permitting unnecessary pipelines, and strips government agencies of the funds and qualified public servants to protect the web of living things. What we do to nature we do to people, so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

We need this liminal season of Lent to return to the threshold of faith, to retreat briefly to the high desert of quiet and rediscover our center.  For this time of threat requires that we once more discover the character of creation and our status as creatures so that we may be renewed in our baptismal calling to care for each other and “till (serve) and keep” all God has made. (Genesis 2:15)

This is the task laid down by our First Reading.  While the storyline beginning at Genesis 2:4b is often called “the second creation account,” it is much more a series of stories about the character of God’s earth and what it calls for from humankind, perhaps better referred to as “groundlings.” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 80.) Why “groundlings?” Our vocation is totally wrapped up in the name: “In that day that the LORD God made the earth and heavens, when no plant of the field had yet sprung up…there was no one to till (or “serve”) the ground. Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:5-7)

It is no surprise, then, that the central purpose of these “groundlings” is to “till (serve) and keep” the garden. To the gift of this vocation is added the invitation to enjoy all the fruits and delights of the garden with the exception of the “tree of good and evil.” Transgressing that ban leads to a death sentence. (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, pp. 46-48) To be a creature, after all, implies limitation.

It is precisely this limitation that the partners charged with caring for the garden violate. They are persuaded by another creature, the serpent, that the Creator and owner of the garden is holding out on them by maintaining a monopoly on divine power. That this is false takes no more than a bite of the tree’s fruit, as the “groundlings” discover not omniscience but shame at upsetting the gracious harmony of the garden.

While this narrative is hardly an explanation of how evil came into the world, or of the origins of death (assumed to be part of the created order), it does illustrate the human drive for power, autonomy, and escape from responsibility. This is revealed especially during the investigation conducted by the garden’s owner as the “groundlings” defend themselves with “I” language, revealing a breach of this primal relationship.  (Brueggemann, ibid., pp. 41-42)

Because adam has not cared for adamah, the “groundlings” are expelled from the garden. As both the Yahwist author of this section of Genesis and critics of contemporary agricultural practice agree, “The land comes first.” (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, Meeting the Expectations of the Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1984, p. 80) Not to “till (serve) and keep” the land brings dreadful consequences.

Today, ignoring care of the soil can be seen with a simple aerial view of the Mississippi delta where a “dead zone” the size of state of Connecticut has formed, the results of erosion and a catalog of chemical fertilizers and herbicides poisoning this watershed which drains 41% of the continental U.S. It is no wonder that Iowa’s rich topsoil which was once as much as fifteen feet deep now averages only four to six inches.

American agriculture has been transformed into an abstract set of economic and bio-physical transactions that see the soil as a mere “medium” for production, a “resource” that can be used indefinitely, not  a living organism in creation that must be “served” with all the agricultural arts. When the concern is winning the prize given by the National Corn Growers’ Association for maximum bushels per acre instead of the long term health of the soil, there is trouble brewing. Only care of the humus will make life human.

By falling for the abstract promises of the clever and neglecting their vocation to care for the garden, the “groundlings” lost the farm. That this continues is beautifully described in one of Wendell Berry’s short stories, “It Wasn’t Me.”  Elton Penn has just purchased a farm at auction, a “place” he can call his own.  He makes that clear in conversation with friends: “I want to make it my own. I don’t want a soul to thank.”  Wiser and older Wheeler Catlett responds that now Elton Penn is connected to a particular farm, things are different.  “When you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you’re in a different line of succession.” (in The Wild Birds–Six Stories of the Port William Membership, San Francisco: North Point, 1986, pp. 67-68)

The Genesis pre-history (chapters 1-11) is populated by actors who “want to make it my own” until Noah comes onto the stage.  Noah, “a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (Genesis 9:20)  This certainly makes him a “new Adam,” one whose faithfulness in preserving creation (“tilling [serving] and keeping”) shows what membership as a fellow creature means and paves the way for making creation a real “place,” wreathed with story.

This, according to Paul, is also the way of Jesus, who not only empties himself on behalf of all, but in resurrection life suffuses creation with the gift of overflowing grace which frees “groundlings” from sin and for “the exercise of just power” throughout the scope of creation. (Romans 5:15, 17)  Because the righteousness of God means “God’s putting things right” (Krister Stendahl, Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, p. 31), believers are called to exercise “dominion in life” (Romans 5: 17) as Noah did in faithful care for the elements of creation he protected during the deluge.  The “deluge” we experience may be political, civilizational, as well as environmental,  but its effect is just as deadly.

It is based on what Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute calls “the uber-lie.” Simply put, “it is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet and never suffer the consequences.” (postcarbon.org/the-uber-lie/) That political candidates seeking votes fear “the limits to growth” is no surprise. In response to this central dishonesty, those who have received overflowing grace are called to join with all who recognize that curbing consumption so that all may have enough, population control, and public policy supporting these by curbing carbon emissions are elements of “exercising servant-dominion” and “putting things right” in God’s creation. This may have to begin at the local level where “soil” becomes “place” through stories of care and where “groundlings” affirm their “membership” in the whole creation which Paul promises will “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:23)

Just as the community of faith is freed by the overflowing grace of the Christ to care justly (“to exercise dominion”) and serve creation (Romans 5:17), so Matthew’s temptation narrative reminds us where the authority to carry this out rests.  In the course of this three-fold testing, the curtain is removed so that Matthew’s audience cannot help but recognize the awful truth: the Roman Empire and its colonial collaborators are in thrall to the evil one, the destroyer. (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 106)

That Jesus intends to move beyond the sump of Roman rule is signaled by the location and details of our reading. As the temptations intensify, so does the elevation — from the high desert (4:1), to the temple “wing”(4:5), to the top of “an exceedingly high” mountain (4:8). Not only do these locations reflect Matthew’s fascination with mountain settings, they put Jesus in what early modern philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) called “the state of nature” where what is basic about the human behavior can be discovered.

While these “wild states” may seem to indicate “advantage devil,” Belden Lane, drawing on Terence Donaldson’s study of the function of mountain imagery in Matthew, suggests something entirely different:

“An eschatological community takes shape on the boundaries, at the liminal place on the mountain’s slope. The established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.” (Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998, p. 45)

Even though this appears to be a one-on-one conflict, in fact it is the Spirit who has “led Jesus up to the wilderness” (4:1) where Jesus “affirms his baptism.” And, it is the Spirit who gathers the “new community.” (Luther, Small Catechism, Third Article, “What Does This Mean?”)

In his preparation for writing The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky had come to see atheist revolutionary terrorism as the greatest temptation to those seeking to bring change to Russia’s czarist autocracy. It is no surprise, then, that at the center of this vast novel we find “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, an imaginative retelling of Matthew’s text. Jesus suddenly appears in Seville, Spain, where after healing a child he is promptly arrested.  During the interrogation the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for refusing the three temptations which would have lifted the burden of freedom from the masses, those who would say, “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky tr., San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 253)

Ralph Wood suggests that the temptations of “miracle, mystery, and authority”—Dostoevsky’s shorthand for our narrative’s three challenges—sound only too familiar in a culture in love with the miracles of gadgetry, the thrill of amazing athletic feats, and willing to hand over freedom to authoritarian leaders.  He writes, “Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification, constitutes a yet worse kind of herd existence than the one …(Dostoevsky) describes—a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.” (Ralph Wood, “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake,” First Things, December, 2002, p. 34)

Rather than defining freedom as individual autonomy, Jesus gathers a new community where “our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network and shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises.” (Wood, p. 33)  In other words, as Wendell Berry would say: we discover our vocation largely through our “memberships.” The integrity of this vocation too often requires resisting temptation at heavy cost.

This is authentic freedom whose pathway is led by the one who resists temptation, who refuses the easy road to accomplish the will of the one who sent him. This is self-emptying love that we will recognize most fully on Passion Sunday when we hear the “Christ Hymn” from Philippians 2:5-11 with its blunt portrayal of kenosis. And it may be increasingly the way of ecojustice in an increasingly dangerous time.

In his recent Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture (named after the author of the important volume, The Fate of the Earth (1982), the decade’s most important warning about nuclear weaponry—available online at http://www.fateoftheearth.org), lecturer Bill McKibben compared the nuclear threat with the danger of climate change by describing a nuclear attack as something that “might happen,” while climate change is a process well underway. More importantly, McKibben suggested “learnings” from the anti-nuclear movement.

The first lesson referenced by McKibben is the power of “unearned suffering.” The anti-nuclear movement learned this from the civil rights movement. Now in the face of potential violent repression, “groundlings” of faith who advocate for strong governmental programs seeking ecojustice on the national level may pay a price previously unimagined.  Reflection on what needs to happen and its cost will be part of our Lenten pilgrimage. 

HYMN SUGGESTIONS

Gathering: “O Lord, Throughout These 40 Days” ELW, 319
Hymn of the Day: “Light Shone in Darkness, ELW, 307
Sending: “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord, ELW, 580

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

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

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.