Tag Archives: capitalism

Sunday June 19-25 in Year A (Mundahl)

It Can’t Happen Here Tom Mundahl reflects on prophetic voice and lament.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15) 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

When I read Camus’ novel The Plague during my freshman year in college, it never occurred to me that I would live to see a global pandemic. Nor did I expect that this novel would describe so accurately our reaction to this “new plague.” Here is Camus providing a picture of how the residents of the Algerian city of Oran first met this brewing disaster.

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  How should they have thought of anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.  They fancied    themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences” (Modern Library, 1948, pp. 34-35).

Perhaps no culture has been trapped by the illusions of freedom from necessity and exceptionalism as ours. This has not been helped by the ineptness of current political leadership in understanding that the federal government has leadership responsibilities in responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has been a naive assumption of special American “immunity” — it can’t happen here.

But there is a corollary to this magical thinking as we move from political culture to personal life: “it can’t happen here” becomes “it can’t happen to me.” As a parish pastor working with hospice programs, I have witnessed first-hand just how powerful the fear and denial of death can be. From the preference for terms like “passed away,” which now has been shortened to “passed,” to the medical establishment’s preference for jargon like “expired,” it is clear how very frightening it is to say, “she died.”  After organizing several discussion groups on “Death and Dying” and “Grieving Together,” it has even become evident that one of the ulterior motives for being involved with these topics may even be “finding a way out.” It is “one out of one except me.” And, as all who work for ecojustice know, everything we have concluded about the magical thinking surrounding Covid-19 and personal mortality applies to the threat of the climate crisis. It even applies to systemic racism, where despite no racist bones ever admitted personally, people of color die as a result of government action or inaction at a shockingly higher rate.

Jeremiah also struggled against living in illusion. Only for him, illusion had a royal imprimatur and even the appearance of divine sanction. Beginning with Solomon, kings had ignored the Exodus tradition, replacing the “manna” sense of “just enough” (Exodus 16:18) with the economics of affluence and a temple-based religion even Egyptians would be proud of (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, pp. 31-32).  Building projects, military defeats, the rise first of Assyria, then Babylon, led to religious syncretism which  King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms couldn’t quell. It was a time that required prophets.

That living out the prophetic vocation was no easy task is made clear from reading Jeremiah. In fact, making sense of the lament which constitutes our First Lesson requires that the lector do some storytelling, summarizing the human slaughter that went on in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), the instructions to break an earthenware jug to show the fate of Judah, and Jeremiah’s arrest by Pashhur, the head of the Temple’s secret police (Jeremiah 19:1-20:6). Only then can this lament make sense.

It is ironic that as part of his call to be a prophet Jeremiah is promised that he will be an “overseer of the nations” (Jeremiah 1:10, Hebrew text). Being arrested by a mere “overseer” of the temple police must have been the last straw (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, 1965, p. 132). No wonder his lament is filled with anger at the One who called him with generous promises, most of which now appear empty. Jeremiah complains that he was both seduced and overpowered, and the results of his work are nowhere to be seen (Jeremiah 20:7). “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20: 8).

Still there is power in his call.  Even when he has had enough, he cannot keep from prophesying. Deep down, far beyond any possible level of comfort, there is a barely-conscious confidence that “the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (Jeremiah 20:11).

Yet, there is also power in a royal theology so confident of its unique possession of divine support that it can no longer hear a prophetic voice. Since the regime possesses an “eternal” institutional truth through the monarch, real change is not necessary; it is only a matter of problem-solving and management. It is no surprise that Jeremiah’s “street theater,” using pottery to depict Judah’s future, is unthinkable and cannot be tolerated. It violates an “official religion of optimism” (Brueggemann, p. 37). There is not even a momentary question whether this message might be the word of the LORD. The real problem is Jeremiah, who must be dealt with by a beating  and humiliating time in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2).

That Judah with its royal theology is unable to hear or see the truth Jeremiah brings cannot help but feel eerily familiar to us. While we claim to have outgrown royalty, the current form of American exceptionalism, mixed with a form of patriotism that claims a perverse form of Christian nationalism as a foundational element, functions similarly to block discussion and action to bring real change.  “Change,” isn’t that what the freighted biblical term, “repentance,” really means?

What stiffens Jeremiah’s audience to reject this turn-around and embrace magical thinking,  preventing them from seeing the way things really are?  Put simply, it is fear of death, the death of the religio-political system they rely on for meaning, economic security, and physical safety. Like all prophets, because he tells an inconvenient truth, he is dangerous.  To them, what Jeremiah’s words and street theater point to can’t happen here.

In the U.S. the results of the global pandemic, the reality of the climate crisis, and the seemingly endless level of racist police brutality threaten a culture based on endless economic growth requiring the exploitation of natural resources and inequality.  Despite claiming to be a culture honoring science, the warnings of epidemiologists (whose work has been underfunded) and even fine science writers like Laurie Garret (The Coming Plague, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995) and David Quammen (Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Norton, 2012) have too often been ignored. While acceptance of climate science has grown in the past five years — especially on local and state levels — implementation of policy on the national level has been undermined by the current administration which embraces the “royal theology” of growth at any cost. Similarly, the racial inequality so obvious in the U.S. has been exploited as politically advantageous. As I write, sections of the Twin Cities, my home, are burning.

Like Jeremiah, we ask: why this resistance to truth? Much of the answer lies in our bondage to finding security and identity through possession (cf. Arthur McGill, Death and Life — An American Theology, Fortress, 1987, p. 54).  Whether it is property, wealth, glamour, or intellectual achievement, what we control gives us the illusion of safety and integrity. That is equally the case on the societal level where Gross Domestic Product, a Defense Department budget larger than the next ten countries and necessary to support 800 military bases worldwide, and a massive advertising industry to keep the “consumer faith,” all serve to promote what we have been led to believe is our “well-being.” The results are anything but that — a climate crisis, community and family disintegration, and always the search for scapegoats to bear the blame for the inevitable failure of life lived this way.

So we join Jeremiah in his lament, especially as we consider Psalm 69. Unfortunately, the committee responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary has cut the heart out of this powerful lament.  During this time of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial upheaval, we need also to hear the beginning cry:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69: 1-3).

Why this need? By sharing in lament, our grief, pain, and the threat of chaos are transformed into language. And as we are reminded by the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), just as God spoke all into existence, so something new and creative occurs when we join our speech and song (Current hymnals may feature a section of “hymns of lament,” e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 697-704). This communal voice assures us we are never cut off from holy presence. As poet Gregory Orr contends, “words make worlds” (On Being, American Public Radio, May 31, 2020).

It is also important to honor Psalm 69 because traditionally it has been associated with Jeremiah  (James L. Mays, Psalms, John Knox, 1994, p. 232).  Not only does the lament echo Jeremiah’s language, but the details resonate with his experience of being thrown into the “deep mire” (Psalm 69:2) at the bottom of a Judean cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). Cut off from the support of family (Psalm 69:8) and the larger community, he can only look to God’s steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 69:16).

The freedom to grieve and lament together is a gift of shared faith. Without that, humankind is reduced to living by possession as a hedge against anxiety and fear of death. Paul writes to make it crystal clear that “God is the enemy of all life by possession” (McGill, 54). Of course, what is meant here is the power of sin that is washed away by word and water in baptism. In baptism, death, the very reason we surround ourselves with what we convince ourselves that we control, is central.  Paul’s rhetoric shows his sensitivity to just how shocking this is: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) It is the end of allegiance to empires, whether Roman or the tottering system of contemporary consumer capitalism that seems bent on destroying this green earth. Baptismal faith removes the scales from our eyes to see, yes, it is happening here.

But out of this death comes a share of resurrection that launches “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). As Ernst Kasemann claims, baptism actualizes the cross-resurrection event so that “walking in newness of life” becomes “participation in the reign of Christ” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 168). This changes our fundamental identity and “pledges” our first allegiance to another “community.” Instead of living by possession, we are freed together to live by gift, especially as we are continually recharged by what Kasemann calls “a constant return to baptism” (Kasemann, p. 163).

Wendell Berry describes this more simply in one of his “Mad Farmer” poems, where he suggests “practice resurrection” (The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 87). Our Gospel Reading reminds us just how costly this can be. Living by gift, nourishing the earth, and practicing resurrection are guaranteed to bring opposition. It will happen here. This text makes it clear that those who “practice resurrection”will be maligned (Matthew 10:25), will know the division of families (10:34-37), and, as they endure, will know the cross intimately. Yet the promise persists: “Those who find their life (live by possession) will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). During this time of pandemic, racial oppression, and climate crisis, lament offers a path to this discovery.

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

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

Come and SeeTom Mundahl reflects on God’s gift of water.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

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

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

On the day of my ordination at First Lutheran Church, Little Falls, MN, in late September of 1979, I did not expect much more than ritual approval of my new job in parish ministry. I was wrong. As promises were made before the congregation that had nurtured me, my high school teachers, and friends, I was overwhelmed. When, at the close of the service, I was invited to respond, after saying “thank you” all that came to mind was the closing line from Franklin Brainard’s poem, “Raingatherer:” “In a world of earthenware, I come with a paper cup.” (Brainard, Raingatherer, Morris, MN: Minnesota Poet’s Press, 1973)

While that line fits our discussion of the creation of “groundlings” to “till (serve) and keep” (Genesis 2:15) the garden, this week the image is a bit too solid. As we know, planet earth is more than two-thirds water, a fraction closely matched by all living things.  How appropriate, then, that this week’s readings highlight water as both necessary for life and as an image for the flow of “living water”—”a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) The centrality of water is found in the psalmist’s affirmation, “The sea is his for he made it, and the dry land which his hands have formed” (Psalm 95:5). But, in spite of recent concern over the Earth’s water “resources,” unfortunately, the most appropriate line of verse for Americans in 2017 would be, “In a world of water, we come holding a plastic bottle.”

This jarring contrast suits our First Reading from Exodus in which we meet the pilgrim people complaining loudly about their lack of water.  Too often we see Genesis 12-50 and the remaining books of the Pentateuch as focused on “redemption,” assuming the scriptures are done with “creation.” But, especially when our focus is on water, it is clear that it is the very same Creator God who frees Israel from Egypt. For “what God does in redemption is in the service of endangered divine goals in and for the creation.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13)

As the people repeat their well-rehearsed litany about being dragged into the wilderness to die (in this case) of thirst, it is surprising that the divine response contains nothing about “attitude adjustment,” only directions for finding water.  Moses is instructed to use “the staff with which you struck the Nile” (Exodus 7:19-21) and “strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” (Exodus 17:6)

This time fresh water appears, not the bloody river of the First Plague. This occurs as the LORD stands before Moses “on the rock of Horeb.”(Exodus 17:6) Already the gift of torah is anticipated. Just as water enables human bodily life to continue, so also does the life-giving torah hold the community together.  As Fretheim writes, “…social order is a matter of creation.  The gift of the water of life comes from the same source as the gift of the law, a source of life for the community of faith.” (ibid., p. 190)

We are all too aware that many around the world—predominantly women—still lug water long distances daily to ensure survival for their families. Two years after one of the most egregious examples of environmental racism in the United States, tap water in Flint, MI is still unsafe to drink.  Will the Dakota Access Pipeline routed under the Missouri River on disputed treaty land be safe, or will another pipeline leak contaminate drinking water for hundreds of thousands?  What about the one hundred million plastic water bottles used every day around the world?  Those that are not recycled (the vast majority) are thrown into landfills where they do not begin to decompose for seven hundred years; the rest are thrown into rivers where too many end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Certainly, a legal framework both guaranteeing safe water and protecting the planet from plastic waste would be a step toward ecojustice.

That this struggle is far from easy is evident from our Second Reading. While at the center of Paul’s theology “stands the transforming act of God that provides the solution to the problems afflicting both humanity and the wider nonhuman creation,” all is not yet complete.  (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 170) At the same time the community of faith “boasts in hope” (Romans 5:2) trusting in the ultimate success of God’s justice, another regime works actively to thwart hope and convince humankind that the only safe route to security and peace is self-interest, often based on national or ideological “tribalisms,” the most fertile contemporary sources of idolatry. 

Even in the face of this demonic opposition, confident hope is maintained.  As Paul puts it, “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:2-5)  Because we live in sure and certain hope of resurrection, even as we experience cruciform reality in our struggles for ecojustice, we continue in confidence.

If this description of struggle seems unfamiliar to those who serve creation, it soon will be apparent. The forces defending what is billed as “free-market capitalism” in the United States have thrown down the gauntlet and seem ready to marginalize all who see the creation as God’s gift and threaten to all but eliminate the federal government’s role in protecting the natural world, which they see it as a “resource dump” to be mined in every possible way, enriching a wealthy elite. The January 2020 revised definition of “Waters of the US,” which curbed protection of rivers, streams, and the likes, is a case in point.

Because this week’s reading from Romans drives to Romans 8 with its “vision of cosmic reconciliation that includes and incorporates all things,” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, ibid.), living out of God’s future suggests that faithful ecojustice advocates keep faith and counter those who would “privatize” everything in order to build the “commons,” even if only on a local level. The gifts of water, air, and atmosphere must be part of the shared inheritance to be nurtured as we “till (serve) and keep” God’s garden earth. The odds seem against us, but now “much more surely” (Romans 5:9-10) can we participate hopefully in assuming responsibility for the future and health of creation.

At first glance, our Gospel Reading seem to reveal a woman short on courage, furtively going to draw water in the middle of the day when everyone else has finished this tedious chore. What is immediately apparent is the contrast between this woman and Nicodemus.  He is a male Jewish insider with well-regarded credentials; she is a female Samaritan outsider with what can only be seen as a checkered past. Even though through a slow development we see Nicodemus being transformed in the narrative of John’s Gospel, it is not long before this  Samaritan woman can be found among the townspeople she had been avoiding with a bold invitation: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)

The turning point for this ill-used woman seems to be Jesus’ offer of “living water.” Not surprisingly, in John’s rich world of double meanings, she assumes that Jesus is offering “flowing water,” water from a stream or artesian well. What’s more, when Jesus goes on to define this water as “a well of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:12), she is even more excited about the possibility of water that will never run out, sparing her the embarrassment of a daily appearance at the well.

As the conversation continues with a probing of the woman’s past and a discussion of authentic worship, things begin to change. Finally, she senses an unimagined presence and blurts out, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” (John 4:25) Jesus replies simply, “I am.” (John 4:26) And the next time we see the woman she is inviting townspeople to “come and see” Jesus.  She leaves her water jar leaning against the well, for now she contains “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

This should be no surprise, for John’s Gospel begins with a flowing movement of creation and new creation.  In the Prologue, the one who reveals himself to the well woman as “I am” is the Word who “was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:2-3a)  It continues with the efflorescence of light and life and the “Word becoming flesh” to “pitch his tent” as a human. (John 1: 4, 14) This powerful current carries Jesus as the Risen One to be seen as “the gardener,” (John 20:15) bringing renewal to the garden of life.

“Deep incarnation” is one apt description of this flow.  Coined by Danish theologian, Niels Gergerson, it has found a ready reception, recently reported in the proceedings of a 2011 Copenhagen conference exploring its possible meanings. (Niels Gregerson, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015)

In one of the most helpful essays, Celia Deane-Drummond of Notre Dame writes: “Theologically, deep incarnation can be understood to act at the boundary of creation and new creation, where Christ enters into the human, evolutionary, and ecological history in a profound way so that through the living presence of the Holy Spirit that history is changed in the direction of God’s purposes for the universe in the pattern of Christ.” (Gregerson, 198)  This current, according to Deane-Drummond, “is also a call to act out in proper respect for the natural world and all its creatures.  It is, in other words, unavoidably an ecotheology marked out by a call to build a community of justice.” (ibid., p. 199)

We see the power of this new pattern as our pericope ends,  After hearing the invitation of the well-woman to “Come and see,” people from Sychar do just that. As Craig Koester suggests, “By going out of Sychar to meet Jesus, inviting him into their town, and calling him “Savior,” the Samaritans give Jesus a welcome similar to those granted to visiting rulers.” (quoted in Warren Carter, John and Empire: Initial Explorations, New York: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 189)  As the giver of “living water” Jesus’ authority exceeds that of the emperor.

This authority surely is enough to encourage us to continue as “water protectors” even in the face of a culture that sees life as only instrumental to economic growth.  This encouragement can be amplified in our worship. Lisa Dahill has recently suggested that most baptisms as well as affirmations of baptism take place in local waters. “Baptizing outdoors recasts the meaning of baptism. Here Jesus Christ is not a mark of separation—Christians here, non-Christians there—but is the one who brings Christians and our best wisdom, faith, and practice into restored unity in our shared waters with all people and all creatures.” (Lisa E. Dahill, “Into Local Waters: Rewilding the Study of Christian Spirituality,” Spiritus, Vol 16, No. 2, Fall, 2016, p. 159)

This flowing faith might also be nurtured in our houses of worship with the installation dramatic art. Kristen Gilje has painted a permanent altar fresco for Faith Lutheran Church, Bellingham, WA, that features vivid, flowing water cascading from the roots of the tree of life. While this theme has nurtured worshippers since the mosaics of San Giovanni Laterana were installed in the fourth century, CE, today this strategic beauty is even more crucial in empowering us to endure threats to creation and to live from a hope that does not disappoint.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing,” ELW, 807
Hymn of the Day:  “As the Deer Runs to the River,” ELW, 331
Sending: “Lord, Dismiss Us with Your Blessing,” ELW, 545

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

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday July 31 – August 6 in Year C

Is Distance Our Security? Embracing Interdependence Joyfully: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:13-21

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 31 – August 6, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Theologian Joseph Sittler once made the point that, in our day and age, to possess wealth is to be able to purchase distance from one another—to enact a kind of “blubber,” as he puts it, that shields us from undesired interaction with the world. Recently, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has explored a similar line of thought. In his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), Sandel discusses all the ways in which wealth allows those who possess it the ability to purchase separation from those with fewer resources. The examples are legion. Housing developments become gated communities, while summer homes are set apart in the woods. Skybox seats at baseball games and concerts lift wealthy spectators out from the audience or “crowd” proper. Airline passengers who pay more can board earlier and sit further apart from other passengers. We have built an economic system in which prestige is marked by the comforts of diminishing proximity – and indeed, diminishing solidarity – with others.

On the one hand, the immediate creature comforts of, say, having more room in an airplane seat are immediately understandable and require little theological interpretation. However, on the other hand, the homiletical opportunity in preaching on Jesus’ parable of the rich man who builds up granaries only to have his life “demanded” of him is to explore more deeply the impulses that drive us to accumulate wealth and its corollaries—land, excess clothing, anti-theft systems, etc.—and how these impulses betray more primal anxieties.

A homiletical failure—one that has unfortunately been common in the Christian tradition—would be to simply denounce the man’s actions as evident of “greed”  and to warn contemporary Christians away from avarice without acknowledging the various forces at work in our North American society that program us to be, not only consumers, but anxious consumers.  Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement, future catastrophes, etc. We measure the health of the economy by its “growth” even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully. The various incompatible demands placed upon our economic psyches leads to an anxiety similar to that depended upon by the “diet” industry: we spend more and more on diet products and exercise programs even as we are bombarded with encouragement to eat more and more.

It is this impulse which leads us to conceive of economic security in terms of distance, lack of vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the market and the crowds, and getting off the treadmill of the uncontrolled push/pull of late stage capitalism. Likewise, in Jesus’ time, where the gap between the rich and the poor was even more pronounced than in our day, to store up grain for oneself in order to ward off the possibility of future economic ruin would have been a highly understandable impulse. Thus, it might be that the more homiletically honest move here would be to focus less on “greed” and more upon the tendency, in Jesus’ day and ours, to equate wealth with invulnerability and independence.

Here, then, is where “ecological” thinking in its most robust sense may be helpful. In his recent text The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), critical theorist Timothy Morton points out the ways in which our politics, economic arrangements, and even religious understandings might change if we were to live fully into the radical potential contained in the seemingly simple base ecological maxim: “Everything is connected to everything else.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to articulate so powerfully, we exist in “webs of mutuality” such that our humanity is enhanced, not diminished, as we grow more and more interdependent on each other. To seek independence through invulnerability, to build up reserves and to purchase distance such that we absent ourselves from these webs, is not only anti-ecological but also diminishes our humanity as such.

There are profound links for the preacher to explore here. Just as Jesus’ injunctions for humans to exhibit radical dependence on God’s grace were designed to heighten our humanity (as opposed to making us superhuman), so also living into our ecologies of interdependence frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment. Solidarity with Earth and with each other is, in one sense, nothing other than having our own fates inextricably tied to the fate of creation and its people. If that is the case, then we really have no choice as to WHETHER or not to be in solidarity—the choice is whether we receive it in joy, live into it with purpose, and eschew all that would distance us from it.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

 

Sunday June 19 – 25 in Year C (Ormseth)

Can we be freed by a “cultural exorcism” to seek out God’s new creation?

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 65:1–9
Psalm 22:19–28 (22)
Galatians 3:23–29
Luke 8:26–39

Our reading of the texts for the previous two Sundays have shown that Luke’s witness to the presence of God the Creator in Jesus provides a basis for drawing strong affirmations concerning care of creation from the accompanying lectionary readings. That presence in the midst of the crisis of the creation, we have argued, draws us into “the drama of brokenness and restoration, [which with] Yahweh as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” Within the context of that drama, the forgiveness of sins serves to evoke praise of God’s generosity in both creation and restoration, to afford the freedom for candor to come to grips with the depth of the crisis, and inspire hope over against the pervasive despair on the part of those who genuinely care. The Gospel for this Sunday, with the readings that accompany it, amplifies these learnings.

In his careful analysis of Luke’s revision of Mark’s narrative of the Gerasene demoniac, Luke Timothy Johnson makes several observations that are significant for our interest. First, in his view, it is important to consider this story in tandem with the brief narrative of Jesus calming the storm (8:22-25). “In the calming of the seas,” Johnson notes, “Luke moves the emphasis away from the failure of the disciples to the power of Jesus.” In the disciples’ wonderment, “Who is this. . ,” Johnson hears “the echo of [an] earlier question, ‘what is this speech (logos), that he commands even unclean spirits and they obey.’  As with demons, so with winds and waves.”

Secondly, the demoniac identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” And at the end of the story, the man is told to “declare how much God has done” for him, but Luke has him tell “how much Jesus had done for him;” the reader is to understand that these two assignations are equivalent. Additionally,  in contrast to Mark’s version, according to which the demons fear being sent out of the region, Luke has them beg Jesus “not to order them to go back into the abyss,” an image with the connotation of tehom, “the deep” of Genesis 1:2, as well as the “bottomless pit of confinement reserved for the enemies of God (see Rev. 9:11-11; 11:7; 17;8; 20:1-3 )” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 137, 139; and David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 173). The one who dispatches the legion of demons has the power of God the Creator over the wind and water of the sea, the power to order chaos, and power over life and death.

Such power as belongs to God the Creator is needed to free the demoniac from the “legion” of his demons, according to Walter Wink’s analysis of the demoniac’s possession in his Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press,1986). Drawing on the work of Rene Girard, Wink argues that the man is the “scapegoat” of a population in a region that has suffered repeated brutalization and oppression from successive military conquests by the armies of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Jews, Herod, and now finally Rome. The fierce independence of the people has them locked in a struggle from which there is no relief, except in the bizarre manifestations of the demoniac’s possession.  According to Girard,

The townspeople need him to act out their own violence. He bears their collective madness personally, freeing them from its symptoms. Unlike other accounts where the scapegoat is stoned, he does it for them: he bruises himself with stones. Yet he secretly lives out the freedom to be violent that they crave: he is the most liberated among them, shattering chains, parading naked, free from taxes and tribute and the military service due Rome. Yet he is the more miserable for it, and they insure that he remains so. They chain him and drive him from their midst, to dwell as an outcast among the dead. (Quoted from an essay by Girard, “Generative Violence”; Wink, p. 46; Wink’s analysis is primarily based on the text of Mark).

Jesus intervenes in the “vicious circle of mimetic persecution” to free the man, and sends him back into his home community. The people do not rejoice in the freedom of the demoniac, however; it seems clear that they did not wish to have him freed, and certainly not at the expense of their herd of swine herd. Afraid of what they have seen, they ask Jesus to leave them.

What has taken place, in Winks view, is that Jesus “has freed the man from the ‘spirituality of the people.”  His was “the personal pole of a collective malady afflicting an entire society.” The Gerasene demoniac bore “the brunt of the collective demonism, which is thus allowed to remain unconscious and undetected by society at large.” Readers of Luke after the destruction of the temple in C.E. 70 may well have pondered the significance of that persistent denial in the light of the fact that a Roman legion was garrisoned in the area well into the third century. So also might readers today recognize similar socio-political structures that block the development of initiatives aimed at healing national and even global “disorders.” We know, for example, that the demand for economic growth fueled by both population growth and economic development has the planet earth on a unsustainable course. But overriding commitments at every level of our society compel the pursuit of greater wealth by means of capitalistic growth, with its propensity to ignore both unintended consequences and external costs. We are locked into a cultural system from which there appears to be no escape. As noted in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, the technological fixes proposed on the basis of technological rationality simply do not address the spiritual crisis that fuels the drive toward greater and greater consumerism, with its increasing destructiveness, which would afford release from the bondage to self-interested agendas. There are those who are freed from this “spirituality of the people, to be sure, and who engage in vigorous protest, e.g., Bill McKibben. It remains to be seen whether his strategies will provide a viable route for a social and political movement that is broad enough and strong enough to bring about enduring cultural change by democratic process.

The gospel narrative invites us to consider whether the church can contribute to such a movement by going beyond its largely unheeded call for confession of sin, to strategic acts of cultural exorcism. What would be the equivalent, say, of Jesus’ permission to the demons of Gerasa to go drown themselves by entering the herd of pigs?  How could the scapegoating mechanism be similarly subverted in a spiritual intervention that would redirect the desire for healing towards effective actions? One might well ponder, for a start, that with what Wink calls his “substitutionary death of the pigs,” Jesus acted in a totally surprising way. Ordinarily the scapegoat mechanism would have required the man’s death, as the means by which the peoples’ desire for violence would be satisfied. Jesus’ substitution of the pigs is a striking innovation. How shall we understand this? Is it a substitutionary sacrifice, perhaps, one of considerable wealth, an action that would foster a realignment of the will of the people to the will of God for the people? According to the ritual law of the Jews, unclean pigs would not be a proper sacrifice; but as the gift of their creator for the man’s redemption, the pigs could be deemed worthy for sacrifice, a transformation we explored in our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. More likely, in view of our status as beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifice, we should not consider animal sacrifice as in any way appropriate; but still we might ask, what sacrificial acts by the church in conformity with the death and resurrection of Jesus would serve to free up enough people to effectively sweep our society into the divine drama of “generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope”?

Our other readings lend encouragement for such a course. Selected for its close consonance  with the narrative of the Gospel, the first reading from Isaiah 65 portrays God imploring those “who do not seek [him]” but “sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels,” to give up their “garden sacrifices” and offerings of “incense upon the mountains,” so that God can bring forth and establish anew “descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains, as a remnant that will resettle the land (Isaiah 65:8-9). Indeed, later in the same chapter the prophet looks forward in hope to “the new heavens and a new earth” that God will create, in which “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” By including verse 65:17 as a postscript to the reading in the assembly, a bridge can be built to the marvelous vision, accordingly to which

. . . the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. . .

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking i will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:22-25).

Moreover, Psalm 22:19-28 encourages the congregation to believe that God will not despise nor abhor “the affliction of the afflicted;” indeed, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (22:27). And the second reading from Galatians promises to make all who in Christ Jesus have faith, to be “children of God,” irrespective of whether they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; no longer naked as the Gerasene demoniac, but clothed with Christ, all will belong to the “offspring of Abraham.” Holding to these promises, might not we, like the Gerasene demoniac, be freed to seek out God’s new creation?

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288