Tag Archives: Ched Myers

Sunday July 17-23 in Year B (Mundahl15)

Shepherds and Children Tom Mundahl reflects on restoring a healing relationship with the natural world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The readings for this “Shepherd Sunday” ask us to embrace an image problematic in a culture whose focus is too often on acquiring a new Apple Watch or wondering whether that Tesla electric car will finally become affordable. Yet, the power of this metaphor seen vividly in the sixth century churches of Ravenna, Italy, built in an eastern style teeming with colorful mosaics, is even more important today. For the image of the shepherd, portrayed so colorfully in the central dome of Sant’ Appolinaire in Classe, celebrates new creation and resurrection life with trees, streams, peacocks, lions, mythological creatures, and many sheep, depicting a fullness that robs these consumer baubles of their gleam. That fullness belongs to all.

For those of us struggling to serve creation, the importance of the image of “shepherd” cannot be over-emphasized. Is there a biblical role more appropriate to carrying out the call to “tend and care” for all that God has made? (Genesis 2:15) Historically, that metaphor soon was applied to kings who followed in the line of David, the “shepherd boy.” Shepherd-kings could be models of care and compassion. And, if they failed, there were prophets to illuminate their actions, exposing the actions of those who “fed themselves instead of the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:2), or “scattered the sheep of my pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1).

Jeremiah’s prophetic language makes it clear that recent monarchs called to serve their people and land have failed. They are the ones responsible for the “scattering of the sheep”—the exile in Babylon. Now, the only solution, according to Jeremiah, is for the LORD to assume the shepherd’s staff “and gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them . . .” (Jeremiah 23:3). Not only that, but this new divine “shepherd” will “raise up shepherds (kings) over them, who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, nor be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:4)

Here, Jeremiah gets uncomfortably specific. The LORD will begin this process by installing a new servant-king with the (to us) florid name, “the LORD is my righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Of course, this is the meaning of the name Zedekiah, the puppet king installed by Nebuchadrezzer before the beginning of actual deportations in 587-586 BCE. Since this “righteous one” will be anointed by the LORD and not Nebuchadrezzar, a new king is on the way. For the former Zedekiah’s name was public relations only; in fact, he continued to fleece his people (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible Commentary, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 143).

Yet, Jeremiah sees more than a new head of state coming. Jeremiah 23:7-8 (which should be included in this pericope) foresees a time when the return from exile will be seen as even more important than the first Exodus. Not only does this remind us of the landless lack of identity experienced by deportees, but it also suggests the stunning new embrace of the land that will occur when they return. Once more will those who return will experience as if for the first time what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “ a world charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, New York: Knopf, 1995, p.14), a land community to tend and care for like a shepherd.

Failure of leadership is nothing new. American political culture too often rewards cabinet secretaries and those in high office with powerful positions in “the private sector,” where they can now dance through regulatory mazes with confidence as they earn handsome salaries. Of course, the reverse is often true: business leaders are appointed to positions of leadership where they carry mandates to regulate the very firms they have come from, and, perhaps, will return to. What would a Jeremiah have to say about the “shepherds” benefiting from this system of “interlocking directorates” stemming from this perverse “circulation of elites”?

James Luther Mays begins his reflection on Psalm 23 with a helpful discussion of metaphor. To use a metaphor, such as “the LORD is my shepherd,” says Mays, “conveys more and speaks more powerfully than it is possible to do in discursive speech.” (Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, pp. 115-116). While this seems to be invariably true, how much more so is it true in this powerful psalm celebrating God’s shepherding during a time of crisis.

Roman Catholic scholar John S. Kselman dates the composition of the psalm to the same period of early exile in which Jeremiah worked. As Kselman suggests, this ‘psalm of trust’ points to a “divine shepherd, who leads his people in a new Exodus through danger (vv. 1-4) to security (vv. 5-6).” (New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 23). The logic of the psalm begins with an initial statement: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (or, better, “nothing shall I lack”). (Psalm 23:1). The remainder of the psalm, then, describes in powerful poetry all that this people on their New Exodus journey do not lack.

In many ways, the psalm could read as a preferred alternative to Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and finds an echo in Luther’s Small Catechism with the explanation of “The First Article” of the Apostles’ Creed. According to Luther, to confess “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” is, in fact, to say:

“I believe that God has created me and all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children livestock, and all property . . . . God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, 1162).

Notice that both the psalm and Luther’s “explanation” focus on needs, not the many created wants of contemporary consumer culture. These provide a model of shaping community and personal life so that we can ex-tend ourselves in “tending and caring” (Genesis 2:15) in service to the whole creation, a service that necessarily involves a redistribution of wealth in order to meet needs with justice.

That “extension” is clearly visible in our text from Mark’s Gospel. As Jesus’ disciples return from their preaching-healing tour, they all need a rest. Instead of welcome breathing space in the wilderness, the crowds keep coming. Even escape by boat proves impossible. According to Ched Myers, “Now even the wilderness is congested with those in need. Yet rather than responding in exasperation, Jesus demonstrates compassion, and proceeds to teach them until the late hours” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 206).

To react with compassion in such a difficult situation because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34) vaults this “human one” into clear shepherd status. And, in no way should this be seen as a safe exercise in pastoral sympathy. As Walter Brueggemann notes, “In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharoah, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. The norms of law are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 88). Jesus’ extension of compassion is a revolutionary refusal to countenance the numbness built up by decades of imperial rule in favor of authentic hope.

Jesus’ compassion is practical radicalism: he frees his listeners from the “exile” of infirmity and numb despair (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). By honoring their need for learning, healing, and food, he invites them to be “at home” even in a land ruled by Roman “stooges” and religious collaborators. By showing compassion and promising an ‘end of exile,’ Jesus engenders opposition, especially among those “who possess the most and have the most to lose” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 174).

While the numbers of homeless refugees and people without hope for healing undoubtedly is far greater today than could be imagined in the first century, Elizabeth Kolbert has pointed out a similar threat to the rest of creation (The Sixth Extinction, New York: Macmillan, 2014). Perhaps this crisis will intensify the compassion toward all of creation which E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” an innate tendency to focus on life forms and to affiliate with them emotionally. (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, New York: Vintage, 2002, p. 134)

The studies that have been done in this area largely revolve around the nurture of children. In the groundbreaking The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration in Ecopsychology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Theodore Roszak complains that the handbook of mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “defines separation anxiety disorder as excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and those to whom the individual is attached. But no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world” (pp. 14-15). Yet, if E. O. Wilson is correct, humankind—especially children—has a natural affinity for connecting with creation.

Among those who have picked up this theme is Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). After participating in a study group focused on this book, a group of adults at Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, MN, initiated a children’s gardening program using two of the congregation’s community garden plots. One of the goals of Kids Crops, as this program was called, was to help children experience what Louv calls “attention restoration” (Louv, pp. 103-105), a way of learning to experience and fall in love with God’s creation and all its “critters.”

The “shepherds” in this case were church members who love gardening. Although children were often challenged with learning about soil preparation, compost, weeding, and watering, their excited response as they ate pizzas spiced with peppers and onions they had grown demonstrated that the rift between children and creation [nature-deficit disorder] could be healed with joyful learning. Fortunately, similar work is being done in Saint Paul (and around the country) with programs like Urban Roots, which employs its seven gardens and small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization to introduce children and youth in the East Side neighborhoods to gardening.

And that is as it should be. As the author of Ephesians celebrates “breaking down the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14), we recall that this is integral to God’s shaping “all things” (Ephesians 1:10) into a new pattern. Certainly breaking down the wall between children and nature is part of this process.

Intrinsic to this new pattern is being “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2: 19). This is the fruit of God’s gift of “reconciliation,” άποκαταλλάσσω, a verb form used only here (v. 16) and in Colossians 1. Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate suggest that this powerful verb “intensifies the sense of reconciliation, possibly with reference to the enormity of the claim being made, that the entire universe was to be reconciled to the creator through the work of Christ on the cross.” (Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor University Press, p. 100). Which is precisely what shepherds do.

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

Sunday July 17-23 in Year B (Ormseth12)

Who Will Shepherd the Shepherdless? – Dennis Ormseth reflects on a way of life where vices have been transformed into economic virtues.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

On hearing the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost, those gathered for worship might easily regard themselves also as “sheep without a shepherd,” for whom Jesus has compassion. Like the social world from which the villagers of Galilee came to Jesus in the wilderness, the world from which contemporary worshipers come to hear his teaching is all too frequently as badly governed and managed as was Galilee under Herod Antipas. As among those guests with Herod when the head of John the Baptist was served up for food, so also amidst the conspicuous consumers of our political and economic elites, death reigns (see our comment on the readings for last Sunday). If told to go “into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat,” as Jesus’ disciples thought to instruct the gathering in the wilderness, those gathered today would be fully subject to the anxiety of providing for themselves from a market dominated by the politically powerful and the materially wealthy. Indeed, if anything, we have made a science of creating the economic circumstances that generate such anxieties for most of the people of the world.

Particularly telling is the instruction “to buy something for themselves to eat.” What’s typically available for people to buy these days are the products of a system in which people, simply by “providing for themselves,” as Norman Wirzba puts it, often “work against the very memberships [of creation] that sustain them.” Following a finely drawn description of the ecological degradation of Earth’s atmosphere, forests, soil, water and fisheries by modern, industrial agricultural practices, Wirzba’s indictment is strongly worded but unfortunately too true:

“In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhood and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 89).

No mere unintended consequence of good practices, Wirzba insists, this state of affairs “has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile,” as he characterizes the situation, exile from the good garden of God’s creation. “In a variety of ways,” he writes,

“today’s global, free-market economy guarantees that we will disregard, diminish, and destroy the larger economy of creation, and so deprive ourselves of the experience of home. It does this by (1) encouraging patterns of life that keep us from seeing and correctly interpreting where we are, and by (2) forming groups of people who, because of their habits and dispositions, find it very difficult to live into any place with sympathy, affection, responsibility, and joy. Paradoxically, the economic disciplines and practices that are supposed to help us live long and well within our homes are now largely responsible for ensuring that we will live perpetually in a state of exile” (Wirzba, p. 90).

Indeed, he argues, “the success of today’s consumer economy depends on the inattentiveness of its consumers. Very few people appreciate the extent to which their shopping decisions contribute to the degradation of the world’s ecosystems. Fewer still understand how this ecological degradation has the potential to catastrophically jeopardize long-term food safety and sustainability.” Meanwhile, as global food production becomes ever more securely tied to the profit-driven interests of multinational corporations, “land, water, minerals, energy, genetic diversity, as well as the many forms of social capital, are consolidated and then managed by a small number of elites. Because poor people cannot afford to enter the global economy, they are easily abandoned and forgotten, or they are made the objects of charity and relief efforts.” (Wirzba, p. 95).

Quoting Wendell Berry, Wirzba colorfully suggests that our economy is

“an anonymous economy of the “one-night stand”: “‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’ Just so, the industrial eater says to the svelte industrial hog, ‘We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterward.’” We don’t want to know the social, ecological, or health costs associated with our ignorant consumption because if we knew them we would need to give up the idea of “cheap” food “on demand.” Meanwhile, . . . the real costs to places and communities around the world are mounting” (Wirzba, p. 97).

The key point is that this whole development of the way we “provide for ourselves” is a long-term, intentional transformation of human culture. People have been taught “to think differently about human behavior and the aims of a good human life.” What “the great moral and spiritual traditions” once regarded as vices “—pride, greed, prodigality—“ have been “transformed into economic virtues,” so that “Adam Smith’s ideas about production, acquisition, and work “ could take hold. In a fundamental “redefinition of self-interest” people have come “to measure personal worth in terms of private wealth”; then it “is a short step from the legitimation of self-interest to the enshrinement of competition and destruction as the normal, even necessary, courses of economic life” (Wirzba, p. 99).

In light of this analysis of the world from which we come to Jesus for sanctuary and healing, how are we to understand the significance of this Sunday’s gathering around Mark’s teaching? Is the feeding of the five thousand a model of charity, as though Jesus’ compassion is mostly about “feeding the hungry?” Beyond that possibility, the commonly invoked alternative of teaching people to provide for themselves is clearly inadequate. Mark’s purpose with this feeding narrative, we need to recall (and with the associated one that follows when Jesus and his disciples “land at Gennesaret” and draw a similar crowd, this time of Gentiles), is informed by narratives from Israel’s prophetic tradition. As Ched Myers points out, Mark “is working with several images from the Hebrew scriptures here. The Exodus account of Yahweh’s sustenance of Israel in the ‘wilderness’ obviously comes to mind.” Mark’s narrative is more directly patterned on “an episode in the Elisha miracle cycle “(2 Kings 4:42-44), however, occurring as it does“ in the context of “famine in the land (2 Kings 4:38),” and the bringing of first fruits. And of course a “third Old Testament allusion is the phrase ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34),” which the prophets used “to criticize the leadership of Israel.” Our first lesson from Jeremiah 23:1-6 is one of several possible citations from this tradition (cf. Numbers 27:17; I Kings 22:17; Ezekiel. 34:5-6). In Myers’ view, Ezekiel 34 is particularly significant: it spins a parable around the phrase “that specifically condemns class stratification: ‘I will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (Ezekiel 34:20). The ruling class protects its privilege rather than the collective prosperity of the people, becoming predator instead of shepherd.” And for similar reasons, the motif occurs again in the apocalyptic section of Zechariah 11-12. “Clearly,” Myers concludes, “linking Jesus—as one who attends to the hunger of the crowds in the wilderness—with these prophetic traditions is meant as a criticism of the political economy of Palestine and the ruling class who profits from it. And, as we shall see, Mark will again draw upon the Zechariah parable at the end of the story (Mark 14:27)” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 206-08.)

In other words, Mark’s narrative contains a political critique that provides a basis for addressing the circumstances of “exile from God’s creation” described above. More is called for than either charity for the unfortunate or enhancement of their technological mastery of resources. Governance is the central concern and the question is: Whose governance? Who will shepherd the shepherdless in our ecologically destructive time into a healthy relationship with Earth? Accordingly, note must be taken that the text resonates with deep theological considerations. As Gordon Lathrop reminds us in commenting on these texts, the metaphor of the “shepherd for shepherdless people” is a metaphor for God. And while on the one hand, “to the hearers of this gospel-book, the isolation and hiddenness, of course, function as a narrative reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus, his greatest isolation, where he was most kat’ idian” (by himself), on the other hand, “the crowd which streams to this isolated one and the compassion and food which come from him are narrative presentations of the resurrection.” And the crowd, he notes,

“includes also the present assembly of hearers of the story. Once again, even this fragment of the feeding story is a secret epiphany of the Crucified and Risen One—indeed, an epiphany of the shepherd God –present in the midst of the church. . . . . the ‘shepherd’s’ profound compassion is already the beginning of food for the crowd, a food radically different from anything that Herod served in the immediately preceding narrative[p. 114]. . . . Can given-away, mercy-filled food lead? Yes.” (“Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000, pp. 113-14).

So, “let the sermon announce the judgment of God on false leadership, including the preacher’s own,” admonishes Lathrop, while announcing the gathering, wall-destroying, death-destroying leadership of God, present in the grace, leisure, and life—in the food-–that is here given away. And let the assembly be a temple for that God, for the holy Trinity, the God of boundless compassion” (Lathrop, p. 115).

Further development of these theological themes awaits as for the next five Sundays we turn to the narrative of the feeding by the “Bread of Life” from chapter six of the Gospel of John. Lest we leave too quickly the down-to-earth implications of the prophetic critique of leadership, however, our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the shepherding of God has implications for the gathering’s understanding of itself: as Lathrop summarizes the remarkable images for the church contained in the reading, “The church is a union of the far-off and the near, with the wall torn down and the law which divided abolished (2:14-15). It is indeed the ragged crowd of the Gospel. The church is the ‘household of God,’ the gathered people, a single body, and yet a new-built temple (2:19-20)” (Lathrop, p. 115). That perspective is present in Mark’s narrative as well: Jesus feeds both Jew and Gentile in the wilderness, where God is clearly and unquestionably the host. If, as we have been arguing in this series of comments on the lections for year B, Mark’s narrative is about the displacement of the presence of God from the temple in Jerusalem to the person of Jesus, this “ragged crowd” is privileged by being newly at home with him in the creation given to sustain their lives.

Wirzba describes well what this means for the community, drawing on the prophet whose voice we heard in our first reading, although at another place:

“If we are to enjoy the abundant, delectable life God makes possible, we must first become disciples or apprentices of God the gardener. Perhaps this is why the prophet Jeremiah, speaking to people who knew intimately the pain and place of exile, admonished them to plant gardens and seek the welfare of the city as a sign of hope (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Insofar as people practice the attention and discipline of good work, work that honors the Creator and affirms the need and nurture of creation’s memberships, they share in the life-giving ways of God. The crucial point, however, is that human hope for a good life and a healthy home depends on the affirmation of creatureliness and the embrace of the memberships of life. The path out of exile is a path inspired and directed by God’s own care-full, life-creating work in the world” (Wirzba, p. 76).

If “all around us the memberships of creation are coming apart” (Wirzba, p. 80), what creatures “need is the healing and strengthening of memberships, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on Earth of Christ’s practice or way of being, has a vital role to play (Wirzba, p. 147).

Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday July 10-16 in Year B (Mundahl15)

Faithfulness Will Spring Up from the Ground Tom Mundahl reflects on God’s shalom trumping “royal theologies.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10 – July 16, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Many have read with excitement Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, issued in 2015. By the simple act of taking advantage of the magisterial (teaching) function of the papacy, Francis focused renewed attention on climate change as the most pressing issue of our time, which if unchecked will lead to unimaginable desolation.

Bill McKibben, who has been working on this issue longer than most, having written the first widely-available book on climate change, The End of Nature (1989), posted an excited blog about the encyclical on the New York Review of Books website. Among the comments McKibben shared was that “the heart of the encyclical is less an account of environmental or social destruction than a remarkable attack on the way our world runs: on the rapidification of modern life, on the way that economic growth and technology trump all other concerns, on a culture that can waste billions of people.”

McKibben marvels at how this encyclical draws on both the teaching authority of the church and the ‘magisterium’ of modern science to reach its powerful conclusions. However, even truth this compelling must reckon with the long record of failure by the international community in reaching enforceable agreements. As the Pope has suggested in his earlier encyclical on economic justice, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market; consequently the most one can expect (from political leaders) is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern.”

The scriptures know well the conflict between power and the way of merciful justice, a conflict we see in this week’s appointed readings from Amos and the Gospel of Mark. Amos shows us the paradigmatic conflict between prophet and king, in this case, Jereboam. The prophet faithfully continues to deliver God’s message to the people, this time sharing the image of a “plumb line” which will reveal how ‘crooked’ the culture has become (Amos 7:8). Not only will this “plumb line” expose the level of corruption, but the result will be “laying waste” the sanctuaries and Jeroboam’s death. (Amos 7:9)

This is too much for Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. After sharing Amos’ prophecy with Jeroboam, he comes down hard on Amos. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13). Here we see the power of royal theology, a pernicious ideology that we know all too well. In claiming Bethel for the king, Amaziah attempts to take away any future except that decreed by King Jeroboam “The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 60).

As violent and threatening as Amos’ words are, they seem to be the only means of liberation from this “managed world.” Of course, this royal theology also contains threatening implications for God’s creation. Put simply, two understandings of the land are clearly presented. In the first, the land, like the temple, is ultimately the king’s to be managed for the good of the regime. Anyone who says differently, like Amos, must flee for their lives. “History is closed and land is manageable” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 102). Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies or watched the recent BBC film knows what this royal theology is about.

But Amos stands firm. While it is true he has no ‘royal commission’ to add to his vita, in fact, he is not even a hereditary member of the “company of prophets,” but simply a “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), he has one advantage. It was the LORD who called him, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). With this authority he intensifies his first prophecy:

“Now, therefore, hear the word of the LORD. You say, do not prophesy against.
Israel, and do not preach against Isaac. Therefore, thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters
shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; and you
yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:16-17).

For Israel has forgotten the second, but most basic understanding of “the land.” “The land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). A good reminder to Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and all of us.

A similar conflict between the blindness of ‘royal ideology’ and the prophetic message is found in our reading from Mark. Like Amos, John the Baptist is true to his calling to be an Elijah, speaking truth to power. Here, he has roundly condemned the political marriage of Herod Antipas, often called “king,” but in fact only one of the tetrarchs ruling Galilee and Transjordan (ca. 4 BCE-39 CE). This has especially angered Herod’s new wife, on whose account the tetrarch has John imprisoned.

While everyone knows the story, no one has dramatized it better than Richard Strauss, with his opera, “Salome.” Relying on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name as a libretto the most dramatic moment in this work comes with Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Drunken Herod is so moved by this erotic performance that he makes a promise common to folktales, a promise no one should ever make: “Whatever you ask me I will give you, even half my kingdom” (Mark 6:23). We know the result: after consultation with her mother, Salome asks for the John’s head, which, brought in on a platter, becomes the final course in this celebration of the irresponsibility of royal power.

Mark portrays Herod Antipas as genuinely grieved at the outcome. No wonder when Herod hears of the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus and his disciples, he concludes, “John, whom I beheaded has been raised” (Mark 6:16). Adele Yarbro Collins writes, “The identification of Jesus with John suggests that Jesus will meet a similar fate at the hands of the authorities. But the mention of resurrection implies, ironically, that Jesus, not John, will rise from the dead” (The Beginning of the Gospel, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 62).

Yet the similarity needs to be retained. As Ched Myers reminds us, “The point of identification of Jesus and John is this: the political destiny of those who proclaim repentance and a new order is always the same . . . insofar as they inherit this mission, they inherit its destiny.” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 217)

This has been all true too among those seeking to serve creation. It is now twenty years since Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian government for his protest against Royal Dutch Shell’s petroleum waste dumping. Just this year, Fr. Fausto Tentorio and others in the Philippines have been killed because of their resistance to transnational mining and petroleum interests. Even (or especially) in the U.S. one thinks of the nearly 400 women and men arrested to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2014, or Tim Dechristopher, who protested opening the fragile red rock area of Utah for oil leases by the Bureau of Land Management by bidding on leases he never intended to pay for. This earned Dechristopher twenty-one months in prison, but it also nearly stopped this unwise exploitation of this beautiful natural area.

If our readings from Amos and Mark describe conflict all too common to our condition, today’s second lesson from Ephesians provides a welcome vision of unity. Following a conventional salutation, our text is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origin in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong trinitarian elements (Ephesians 1:3, 5, 13). This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism—“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians, then, is creating a “new family” through “breaking down he dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for an expanded family of faith.

The widening scope of this home-building is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.

The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The common meaning at the time was “to sum up,” to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find . . . its principle of cohesion (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase “God’s plan” in a helpful way? It is crucial to recall that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οίκονομία, a word that implies an ordering of the household, and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for “the earth household” is the harmonious gathering of “all,” τα παντα, so that every member of this “buzzing blooming creation “can be “at home” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 161).

This blueprint or pattern for creation may be best summarized by the simple Hebrew word, shalom, a word that many of us have jettisoned fearing charges of naivete. Yet this is precisely how this week’s Psalm (85:8-13) summarizes our hope.

“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” (Psalm 85: 10-12).

This certain vision and the empowerment that comes from living it trumps even the “royal theologies” of our time that see God’s earth and its people as resources to exhaust in the pursuit of the false security of wealth and power. As I reflect on the recent gift of “Laudato Si’,” I recall a few times when this vision became real for me. It was in 2004 when my wife and I were visiting friends at Mariakloster, a newly established Trappistine community on the Island of Tautra, at the northern end of Trondheimfjord in Norway. In the midst of the Sunday Eucharist, I was suddenly asked to offer an extemporaneous reflection on the readings. As I stood in the midst of that small community and looked out the large window at the fjord, I was silenced by the immense harmony. While I cannot recall anything I said, the experience of suddenly being enfolded by this silent wholeness spoke most elegantly of the melody of creation—a tuneful οίκονομία.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2015.

 

Sunday July 10-16 in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Whole of Inter-Related Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the meals of Jesus overcoming our “reconciliation deficit disorder.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10 – July 16, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

In our comment on the Gospel reading for last Sunday, we noted that Jesus sent his disciples out into the villages of Galilee with power over unclean spirits and instructions to receive their hosts’ hospitality, so as to create solidarity with them in a relationship that was to become a defining mark of a new community. Their table fellowship, we suggested, would be “unbound” from anxiety about the empire and religious observance, and thus open to a “new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation.” In terrifying contrast to those expectations of table fellowship, the Gospel for this Sunday after Pentecost presents a scene that can be described as truly demonic: host to assembled court nobles, army officers, and leading Galileans, Herod Antipas pridefully rewards his daughter’s dancing with a promise to give her whatever she asks for; while her mother directs her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Gordon Lathrop catches the horror of the scene: “A young girl (korasion, Mark 6:22, 28, the same word used for the girl whom Jesus, by contrast, raises to life and a meal of life in 5:41-42) is used as bait to bring about John’s death, dancing during the symposion, the part of a Hellenistic banquet which brought women and slaves into the room as an entertainment that was frequently . John’s head is served then, as if it were part of the food” (New Proclamation Year B, 2000, Easter through Pentecost. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 210). Noting that the company is the “inner circle of power” in Galilee, Ched Myers aptly describes the meal as “the occasion for the murderous whims of the ruling class of Galilee to be revealed.” The story is “a parody on the shameless methods of decision-making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the ‘head’ (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, 1988, p.216).

Mark has clearly used the account of John’s beheading to bring prophetic depth and urgency to his narrative. This is what the reign of death looks like under the political and religious powers in control of the region of Galilee. The choice of Amos 7:7-15 as our complementary first lesson underscores this connection with the prophetic tradition, which a similar pairing last Sunday of the Gospel reading with Ezekiel 2:1-5 gave us reason to explore. The story succeeds powerfully as an example of the prophet’s ability to find “fresh and attention-getting ways of imagining Israel into the fissure of death that it chose to deny and disregard,” in Walter Brueggemann’s apt phrase. Anticipated here is the deathly dynamic that will lead to Jesus’ death on the cross. But the contrast with the table fellowship of the disciples and villagers in Galilee might also alert us to the significance of the fulsome comparison that is to come in the unfolding events of the Gospel and, consequently, in the lections for several coming Sundays after Pentecost.

Lathrop sharpens the contrast between the meals within this larger frame of reference in his comments on the Gospel reading for this Sunday:

“The narrative of the meal, its awful roles for women and men and its grisly entrée, recall something even more profound to the Christian assembly gathered to hear this book. Jesus, too, holds meals. In fact, one of these immediately follows this narrative (6:30-44). Another is at a little further remove (8:1-10), after a debate about eating together with the unclean (7:1-23) and a narrative about an outsider woman getting even more than crumbs (7:24-30). Two other meals immediately precede Jesus’ own death (14:3-9, 17-26). And then, the most important of these meals, the church’s Eucharist, is occurring in the very assembly where this book is being read. In all of these meals there are several radical contrasts with Herod’s banquet: crowds are welcome and loved (6:34; 8:2); outsiders are welcome (7:2, 28; women are part of the hungry and fed assembly (7:28; 8:9), not just the entertainment or the servers. Indeed, a woman plays a central role at Jesus’ meals as well, like the role of the korasion at Herod’s banquet, but what she does is anoint Jesus’ head (14:3), not maim it or have it maimed, proclaiming forever the meaning of his death in love (14:9). And astonishingly, Jesus also is served as food in the shared bread and the shared cup (13:22-24), but freely, in love, in the risen presence of his living body encountering the community” (Lathrop, pp. 108-9).

If Mark has indeed devised a “fresh and attention-getting” way to bring his readers “into the fissure of death” that we mostly “chose to deny and disregard,” he is also preparing us to envision an alternative future that invites “not only Israel but all nations beyond its several fissures.” (See Brueggemann’s description of the prophet’s purpose in our comment on the texts for last Sunday).

In an indication of the importance of these themes in the church’s teaching, the meals of Jesus will be the focus of the readings for the next five Sundays. That will give us ample occasion to develop the significance of these meals and their contrast with the banquet of Herod for care of creation. But the readings set beside this Sunday’s gospel already point to leading themes. The first lesson from Amos reminds us of the prophets’ standing assumption that injustice on the part of the ruling elite brings desolation to the land: “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste” (Amos 7:9); the psalmist’s lament expresses longing for the restoration of Yahweh’s glory to the land, when ”[f]aithfulness 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 (Psalm 85:11-13). Hope for enjoyment of the bounty of the creation at table endures, even as a mere “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” leads us in lament over the degradation of the land by policies and practices of the people and their leaders. And last but not least, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us it is God’s will that “according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

Norman Wirzba has neatly woven these themes together for us in sections of his book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, about “Eucharistic Hospitality” and “From Hospitality to Reconciliation.” The heart of the contrast we have been describing between the meal of Herod and the meals of Jesus is identified when Wirzba writes that:

“As early Christians struggled to remember Jesus in their eating and table fellowship, they discovered that to co-abide with Jesus called for a new social reality and a new form of life. In this life the forms of oppression and division, degradation and violence that characterize customary eating and living needed to be overcome. They understood Jesus to be building on the prophetic traditions that spoke of a new way of organizing existence, announcing that in him people will discover the good news of healing, freedom, forgiveness, and reconciliation, all prerequisites to the experience of life in its fullness” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. P. 165).

The practice of coming together in table fellowship that was established in the very first of the disciple’s missionary initiatives thus proves to be “far more than a fueling event,” in Wirzba’s phrase. It is one of those “radical, prophetic act[s] of hospitality that is founded upon God’s primordial and sustaining hospitality whereby the whole world is created, nurtured, and given the freedom to be itself.” As such, it can also serve as a place from which “existing economies are analyzed and challenged.”

When people eat together in a Eucharistic way they learn that sharing with and caring for others is not an option. Helped by the evidence of another’s comforting presence and nurturing touch, they discover that “Human beings are gifts to each other in an endless economy of God’s grace whereby we are given in order to give” (Wirzba, pp. 168-69. The quotation is from Graham Ward, Christ and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005, p. 81).

But the economy of grace does not at all embrace only human beings. This is one of those “misguided beliefs,” Wirzba feels, that have resulted in what he calls the “reconciliation deficit disorder” that has been present for much of the church’s history. It is important to underscore, he insists, that the scope of God’s reconciling work extends beyond humanity to include ‘”all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” As the Apostle Paul proclaims in a passage from our second lesson, (Ephesians 1:3-10),

“God’s plan from before the foundation of the world has been to gather up all things in heaven and on earth in Christ, suggesting that everything God has made has a place in God’s eternal life . . . . Full fellowship with God is not the fellowship of a few disembodied, placeless minds. God’s eternal hope is for a new heaven and a new earth that can be the home of God (Revelation 21:1-4). God’s eternal desire is not to be freed from but to be with and dwell among a reconciled creation (Wirzba, p. 174).

The science of ecology underscores the unlikelihood of such disembodied reconciliation: “Ecology teaches us that no individual lives alone. To live we must eat, which means we must attend to the bodies and the geo-bio-chemical processes that keep all of us on the move.” In the meals of Jesus, we see that the reconciling work of God in Christ encompasses all of God’s inter-related creation (Wirzba, p. 175).

Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday July 3-9 in Year B (Ormseth12)

Congregations who embrace care for creation will find joy in the initiatives they undertake. Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming faithful caretakers of the prophetic critique and vision.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3 – July 9, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

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

“Whatever the watershed in which they gather, the congregation is in a place fully open to the healing presence of God,” we wrote in our comment on the readings for last Sunday—“whenever inhabitants of a place reach out with anxiety-banishing faith to acknowledge the presence of Jesus, they receive his healing power for the mending of creation.” This assertion, if valid, would seem to provide hope for every “hometown” congregation hearing that reading. So it is astonishing to encounter in the Gospel reading for today this disheartening exception: Jesus’ very own “hometown” synagogue is not so open. Indeed, his synagogue is the exception that proves the rule: something keeps them from reaching out with that “anxiety-banishing faith” to acknowledge Jesus’ presence and his healing power. Jesus, Mark notes, “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief” (6:5).

So congregations hearing this reading this Sunday will want to consider how it was that people who knew Jesus well were not truly open to his presence with them. A community seeking to demonstrate fully its care for creation might well ponder this text in order to understand and counter whatever it is that makes prophets in their own country “without honor.” Uncounted initiatives in environmental justice have fallen by the wayside after their passionate advocates have alienated precisely those hometown peers amongst whom they might easily expect to be trusted and heard.

The church’s choice of Ezekiel 2:1-5 follows from Jesus’ self-identification as a prophet, one of those dramatic figures called by Yahweh to speak to the people of Israel. In a brief sketch of the profile of “the prophet as mediator,” Walter Breuggemann provides helpful background for interpreting this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. The prophets were typically “uncredentialed individuals,” he writes, “who made ‘out of the ordinary’ utterances,” “and who were understood as having a peculiarly intimate connection with Yahweh.” Their speech is directed to specific circumstances of crisis “in which dangers are great and life-or-death decisions must be made” relative to the “dominant modes of power and dominant definitions of reality;” indeed, their utterance often “evokes a crisis circumstance where none had been perceived previously.” Gifted with powerful poetic imagination, they have the “capacity to construe, picture, and image reality outside of the dominant portrayals of reality that have been taken as givens.” With “acute awareness of distress,” they found “fresh and attention-getting ways of imagining Israel into the fissure of death that it chose to deny and disregard;” but they also “spoke about possible futures that invited Israel beyond its several fissures, when dominant Israel has arrived at despair.”

Key to the prophet’s claim to revelatory speech, Breuggemann thus contends, was this sense of . . .

“convergence or equation of uncredentialed human utterance and Yahweh’s own utterance that debunks and dispels the social reality that Israel had constructed for itself by removing Yahweh from its center. Yahweh, however, will not be removed from Israel’s center! One of the ways in which Yahweh returns to and remains at Israel’s center is by the utterance of these odd, abrasive, mostly unwelcome voices” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 622-27).

Their seemingly very subjective claim to authority is regularly met with resistance, Breuggemann notes, on the part of those “who wish to remain undisturbed within certain beneficial construals of reality” (Breuggemann, p. 631). That their oracles survive as part of the heritage of faith is accordingly a powerful testimony to the inherent value of nearly universal significance, providing insight both for Israel and for other nations. The body of prophetic literature collected from the periods of Israel’s history, from monarchy through exile and post exile, contains a “metahistory,” in Brueggemann’s view, which consists

“in the claim that Israel’s life, in its prosperity, is at most a penultimate assurance subject to the righteous intention of Yahweh. In like fashion, the successful life of other nations and empires that seem assured to perpetuity is at the most a penultimate claim, subject to the faithful resolve of Yahweh to make all things new.

Whatever strength the prophet’s message lacks in terms of universal reasonableness, it regains in ‘the breadth and depth of the primordial word that constitutes the dialogical situation at the heart of which sin breaks forth’” (Brueggemann, p. 641-420. The last quotation here is from Paul Ricour, The Symbolism of Evil, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 53).

That Jesus represents a re-centering of the experience of God away from the temple, a theme we have developed in this series of comments on the lectionary, accordingly fits well with this view of the prophet in Israel. We also see why his home-town advantage turns out to be a detriment. Namely, if they know him, he also knows them, too well in fact. And in their rejection of Jesus, they disclose how un-centered in God they actually are. Moreover, the relevance of this prophetic voice for care of creation is laid out in Brueggemann’s further analysis. The prophets, he notes, are “advocates of a Yahwistic ethic” and “practitioners of a Yahwistic eschatology.” At the heart of this ethic is a conviction of fundamental importance concerning care of creation:

There can be no viable future of well-being for the Jerusalem establishment, except on the condition of the well-being of the entire community. . . When the strong and powerful mobilize their resources and energy for the weak and vulnerable, peace and prosperity are generated for all. The prophets state these matters with Yahwistic specificity. The argument being made, however, is that this future, conditioned by justice, is not an arbitrary imposition of an angry God, but is a conditionality found in the very fabric of creation. It is indeed how life works, no matter how much the strong and the powerful engage in the illusion of their own exceptionality.

A protest against royal exceptionalism, this insistence that “all members of the community, rich and poor, urban and rural, wise and foolish, powerful and marginated, are bound strongly the individualism characteristic of modern culture, rooted as it is in an ideology that “views the neighbor as impediment” (Brueggemann, p. 645).

Coupled with this ethic, indeed, integral to it, is the “practice of a Yahwistic eschatology.” Hope for the realization of this vision of community Brueggemann writes, is,

“rooted in a conviction of Yahweh’s indefatigable resolve to bring creation, and all in it, to Yahweh’s sovereign intention for creation. The prophets are not fortune-tellers or predictors, working with esoteric means or data. They are, rather, those who attend to Yahweh’s resolve, which will not be defeated, even by the “end of history” that comes with failed ethic. Eschatology is simply Yahweh’s capacity to move in and through and beyond the end of history, to reinitiate the life-giving processes of history” (Brueggemann, p. 646).

It is this confidence in Yahweh’s resolve on into any imaginable future on which the New Testament Gospel writers ground their witness that, with Jesus, the “prophetic promises continue to be generative and revelatory, for the shape of Yahweh’s promised newness is always yet again to be discerned and received” (Brueggemann, p.648).

It strikes us, accordingly, that the work of the prophet, as Brueggemann describes it here, contrasts sharply with the approach to engaging environmental crises typical of our culture. Leadership on environmental issues in our context tends to come from very different sources, mainly powerfully credentialed individuals, expert scientists from relevant disciplines. Few of these individuals are gifted with poetic imagination and therefore, as a group, they do poorly when challenging the dominant culture, which for all its dependence on science is increasingly anti-science. Trained in narrow, specialized fields, they may be able to communicate their deep concerns about that “corner” of creation close to them, and their love for it; they typically lack the imaginative power, however, to effectively communicate a convincing vision of the “death of creation,” or, for that matter, to envision the possibility of its restoration on a global scale. Theirs is a relativistic authority; their grasp on the future is in principle a matter of prediction, characteristically expressed in degrees of certitude. The shift to ethical pronouncement is a leap that few are prepared to make convincingly for those who do not already share their perspective. New studies always turn a new page, so few would claim to express convictions with anything approaching absolute certainty; their data is served up in large-scale abstractions, difficult for the untrained to understand and assess. Their mode of operation is that of an elite class of people whose life-style typically leaves them open to the criticism that they have little grasp of the struggles of ordinary people.

Given the consequent difficulty of the scientific community to make a compelling case for policies that respond powerfully to environmental issues, might the church come to their assistance with the voice of the prophet? What exactly might such a voice add to what is available from the secular, scientific community? And how might a congregation find its way through the kind of conflict that Jesus himself aroused in relationship to his hometown synagogue? Answers to these questions and an outline of an effective strategy for this work emerge from consideration of the reading before us in its entirety.

Failing in his hometown, Jesus proceeded to other villages, while at the same time enlisting his disciples in the mission. He began to send them out, equipping them as they went with “authority over the unclean spirits,” and directing them to enter fully into the table fellowship of the houses where they were welcomed. The assignment of these two aspects of their activity, Ched Myers points out, is not unique to this one occasion. Jesus’ directions are rather “for ‘the way’—paradigmatic of discipleship lifestyle.” His directions correlate exactly with a pattern we have encountered in recent Sundays as elements in the mission of Jesus. On the Sunday after Pentecost between June 5 and 11, we heard it said that if “a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ house is clearly divided, and indeed, is “unable to stand” in the sense that one of its own is rejected. The episode actually encapsulates the situation with regard to the entire kingdom of Israel: on two levels, the community is bound by the anxiety they feel in the face of the religious and political circumstances of their society. On the Sunday after Pentecost between June 19 and 25, we sampled the teaching that Jesus might typically have addressed to the assembly, inviting them to abandon their trust in the powers that dominated them in favor of trusting the God who, according to the parable of the sower, is manifest “within the ordinary processes of life,” as we put it, and whose true kingdom is like a mustard bush that gives more than adequate shelter for the birds, an image of a “new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation.” With this teaching, Jesus has in standard prophetic fashion surely raised the level of anxiety to a fever pitch, because what he does is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable practice. The community is on the verge of chaos, but they have no experience of Jesus’ stilling the storm, as the disciples have. And particularly problematic for them, if they know about it, would have been his healing of the Gerasene demoniac on that “other side” of the Sea of Galilee, given what a reversal it represents to the dominant ordering of the cosmos in relationship to the temple in Jerusalem. As Ched Myers points out, exorcism was a “key episode in Jesus-the-stronger-one’s struggle to ‘bind the strong man’” of Satanic despair (see our comment on the readings for last Sunday).

Presumably, the disciples could expect similar reactions as they told about these events in the villages to which they were sent. But what could not be expected to happen in Jesus relationship with his own synagogue because of his kinship ties and responsibilities there becomes plainly visible as the disciples come amongst entire strangers. Like Jesus, who has just forsaken his home village and family, the disciples are to be “completely vulnerable to, and dependent upon, the hospitality extended to them.” If the community is bound up by its anxiety regarding its future under Roman domination and religiously-structured class stratification, joining them in the solidarity of a common table is a sign of their own faith in the God who is “’manifest within the ordinary processes of life.” Thus does “extending and receiving hospitality” become a defining mark of a new community that is “’unbound” from its anxieties about empire and religious observance, and ready to enjoy “the ‘new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation’” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 214).

What this episode is about in the final analysis, we want to suggest, is becoming “practitioners of a Yahwistic eschatology,” in Brueggemann’s phrase. What these disciples do, as it were, is create small-scale instantiations of the eschatological shalom of God, in which the prophetic word of promise is allowed to “reinitiate the life-giving processes of history,” again from Brueggemann’s sketch of the prophet’s profile. The itinerant disciples and members of the village are to be united in faithful dependence upon the God who is present in their midst, not only as provider as always, but now also as revealer and healer. In so doing, they render the teaching of Jesus “believable.”

What Christian congregations can do to address the crisis of creation in their communities, we are suggesting, is to become faithful caretakers of the prophetic critique and vision, as we have in the prophetic literature of the Bible. “Faithful” is the key word here: in contrast to the mode of operation of the scientific community, according to which citizens are addressed primarily in terms of their rational self-interest, the community of faith speaks to the “interest” or will of the creation’s Creator for the creation. As we have seen, the “utterances of uncredentialed individuals” have become an authoritative, literary heritage, which the church inherits by virtue of its fidelity to the prophet Jesus. But this heritage is not merely literary; it involves social and material activation of the promises it contains, as members of a congregation join together as a community of faith to demonstrate in their own community’s life what their trust in the prophet’s promise actually means for the restoration of creation. As it embodies the will of God for the creation in “the fabric of creation,” which God has conditioned to receive it and enfold it, the congregation knows itself as centered in the presence of God, and indeed experiences in some good measure Jesus’ healing power for the restoration of creation.

This is why the current movement to “green” congregations is so significant, in our thinking: whatever actual easing of the environmental crisis they achieve, for example by conserving energy or installing rain-gardens, is in one sense less important than the witness they give to the hope for the creation that is in them. But congregations who accept this mission with all seriousness will also find joy in the many specific initiatives they might undertake. They might imagine the community-sustaining, “servant’s garden” of the future (as opposed to the wartime ‘victory garden’ of the past, because they are not agents of a nation seeking to dominate the world), and begin working to create it in their neighborhood. They might work to become “carbon free,” forsaking as far as possible our society’s deeply destructive dependence upon fossil fuels, with its pollution of the air and warming of the climate. They might become more attentive to the many poets of the creation, e.g. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and others, who speak afresh of God’s love for creation out of the context of modern, science dominated culture. They might find that features of nature that they regard as a “thorn in the flesh” turn out to be the stimulus for a more intense focus on service to the community, the grace of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). But above all, they might find themselves drawn to the God who is at the center of life; in so doing, they will find themselves caught up in the passionate love God has for all God’s creation.

Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday June 19-25 in Year B (Ormseth12)

How is the God of creation related to the storms of global climate change? Dennis Ormseth reflects on the interconnected world of God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

“Who then is this,” the disciples ask “with great awe, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). The God of Israel, formerly worshiped exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem, is now manifest in the person and story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead. The gospel reading for this Sunday after Pentecost in Year B, from Mark 4:35-41, reaffirms that this God is the Creator of the cosmos, present from the beginning of the world, who amidst the wind and sea of chaos brings into being all creation. The narrative occasion of this theophany is the crossing of the “Sea” of Galilee—Mark is apparently the first to call the “inland, freshwater lake (limne) as a ‘sea’ (thalassa)”—“by Jesus and his disciples, going from Jewish to gentile territory, a crucial departure in Jesus’ mission,” as Ched Myers writes, “to ‘bridge’ the deeply alienated world of Jew and gentile.” This is a “symbolic transit to a symbolic locale, a journey to the unknown, the foreign, the ‘other side’ of humanity.” In the real life situation of the young Christian community to whom Mark wrote, as the “community struggles to make the passage” to integration of Jews and gentiles, “all the powers of the established ‘symbolic universe’ oppose this journey.” The “real-life social hostility to such a project of integration [no doubt] threatens to ‘drown’ the community” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, pp.189-90, 195). But Jesus stills the wind with a word and quiets the disciples’ fears the same way. This unlikely itinerant, who is asleep during the storm on a cushion in the stern of the boat, rises up to still the threatening forces of the cosmos.

In our setting, Gordon Lathrop suggests, the story of the stilling of the storm proclaims “into the present assembly how God has come among our chaos and death in Jesus Christ, and how we are invited to trust God’s active intention for peace and life and salvation in the world.” In other words, the story remains metaphorical: the preacher, Lathrop admonishes, needs “to be honest about all of our deathly chaos and to trust the presence of God’s intention for life in the story of Jesus Christ proclaimed here” (“Second Sunday after Pentecost,” New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 93). That being true, one can nonetheless easily imagine a setting for the story, not too far in the future, in which real wind and sea threaten to overwhelm communities seeking their own passage to sustainable, non-violent and inclusive community. Among the signal changes predicted for Earth as a consequence of global warming are massive storms of increased frequency and devastating severity. Indeed, a growing number of climatologists maintain that we are already experiencing this threat in the gradual “changes of the weather” that produce widespread damage from wind and flooding waters world-wide. Catastrophe is clearly upon us, a short generation away, a blink in cosmic time. The degree of threat hinges on our ability to come together as a global community to build the structures for limitation of release of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere, which is proving to be an exceedingly daunting diplomatic and political task (on the difficulty of the challenge, see James Gustave Speth’s discussion in Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Gobal Environment, New Haven and London, Yale university Press, 2004, pp. 117-148; and for the danger we currently face, see Bill McKibben, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011, pp.47-101).

Will the God of all creation who is manifest in the narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus be with us as we make this passage? Christians are divided on this question. Some feel that these mere “changes in the weather” cannot matter to people of faith, because it is hubris to suppose that human beings can cause such changes to God’s creation. Others appear willing to contemplate an apocalyptic judgment by drowning. Yet others simply take God out of the natural equation, because a loving God would not inflict such devastation and terror on the earth. The church’s choice of Job 38:1-11 as the accompanying reading for the Gospel thus serves us well to present the actual relevance of faith in God to our situation. We follow here the interpretation of Job 38 by Terry Fretheim, in his God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 233-247); his discussion refers, we note, to the whole of God’s speeches in chapters 38 through 42, which provides us with a much richer perspective than is possible on the basis of the appointed verses only.

In response to Job’s suffering, Fretheim provocatively notes, “God takes him to the zoo, or better, out to ‘where the wild things are.’” Wildness as well as goodness is characteristic of the creation, Fretheim insists; the whirlwind itself “constitutes an example of creation’s chaotic elements” and is thus instructive for Job, particularly with respect to his suffering:

God appears, “clothed” by elements of God’s good creation. God “wears” a creaturely form in order to be as concretely, persuasively, and intensely present to Job as possible. God assumes this mode so that Job may be moved to discover God and God’s ways embodied within the world itself. Job should understand the focus on creation as revealing of God’s ways in the world more generally (Fretheim, pp. 232-33).

And if readers commonly doubt that this instruction could be truly helpful to Job in his suffering—it easily strikes one as “insensitive,” evasive and even failing to “own up” to the divine complicity in that suffering—Fretheim views the speeches in much different light (Fretheim, pp. 232-233).

“God’s world does indeed have significant ‘chaotic’ elements,” he grants, “but Job’s negative interpretation of that disorder needs to be challenged and re-characterized.” First, God brings forward evidence from the animal world of his bountiful care for the creation. Then, more significantly, he shows that the disorderly, chaotic world is actually “precisely the kind of world God intended.” With creatures like Behemoth and Leviathan, humans are reminded that they live in a diverse and wonderful world in which humans can nonetheless “be hurt and suffer, not least because [such creatures] are certainly beyond any human control.” Nor, for that matter, are they to be considered “fully within divine control; God has set creational limits (e.g., 38:8-11), but within those limits there is no sense of divine micromanagement” (Fretheim, p. 235). The point is extremely important, both for Job and for us:

“To say that the creation is good, . . .is not to say that it is perfect; at the same time, to say that creation is not perfect is not to say that evil makes it so. For Job to understand his suffering, then, would be to recognize that God neither created a risk-free world nor provided danger-free zones for the pious to be kept free from harm . . . . Such a world is necessary for there to be genuine novelty and new creative ventures on the part of both God and creatures. And so God will sustain such an ordered and open-ended creation even in the face of the suffering ones who wish that God would have created a world wherein human beings could be free from suffering. That is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, which creatures pay for the sake of having such a world; but it is also a price that God pays, for God will not remove the divine self from that suffering and will enter deeply into it for the sake of the future of just such a world (Fretheim, p. 237).

Such an understanding of God’s intention for creation, we would add, is deeply consonant with the story of the un-fearful itinerant sleeping in the stern of a storm tossed boat, who on the one hand stills the storm with a word, but who on the other hand succumbs later to forces that would secure for themselves by whatever violence necessary precisely such a danger-free zone where they are kept free from harm.

A fascinating aspect of Fretheim’s interpretation is that he thinks that God’s questions come not in judgment, but to “challenge Job to probe the creation more deeply than he has already, but this time with a greater appreciation for the grand design.” “Who are you? Where are you? What do you know? Are you able?”—and in answering these questions, Job might learn some of what humans have learned by intense exploration of the natural world in recent centuries:

“If God were to appear in the early part of the twenty-first century and ask these questions, a scientifically sophisticated Job could answer many of them. Job, have you walked on the floor of the ocean? Yes, parts of it. Job, have you any idea how big the world is? Yes, I’ve got a sense of that, but I’m learning more every day. Job, do you know where the light comes from? As a matter of fact, I do. Job, who is the mother of the ice and frost, which turn the waters to stone and freeze the face of the earth? God, I live in Minnesota; it runs something like this. Job, who is wise enough to count the clouds and tilt them over to pour out the rain? Well, we’re working on that one; there are some lively possibilities. Job, do you know when the mountain goats are born? Yes. Have you watched wild deer give birth? Yes. Do you know how long they carry their young? Yes, God, I do” (Fretheim, p. 243).

Our own generation of Job’s descendants, accordingly, ought to be able to appreciate quite fully how suffering fits into this “dynamic and interconnected world in the process of becoming,” a world to which God relates “not as one ‘who intervenes or reacts, but one who modulates and constrains’” (Fretheim, p. 244; the quotation is from Norman Habel). In the interconnected world of this God’s creation, all the creatures “in God’s review provide a community that can surround the suffering one and help to absorb his sorrow. With this God, there are no alien creatures, no outsiders.” Not even the sea is finally an enemy: “God has created the sea, and it is not tightly controlled, but its raging has boundaries (Job 38:8-11)” (Fretheim, pp.245-46).

Could such an understanding of God contribute significantly to the building of a global community that is willing to discipline itself in the face of the coming suffering due to global warming, so as to forestall and mitigate its worst consequences? “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” asked the man in the stern of the boat. These, too, are questions to be taken very seriously by those who care for God’s creation. As we heard in reading the Scriptures for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, faith counters the anxiety that leads us to forsake our vocation of care for Earth. In answering such questions honestly, we may yet find ourselves sustained in courage to become part of “the redeemed of the Lord, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south,” even those who going “down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” see the deeds of the Lord, “his wondrous works in the deep.” For as the Psalmist writes, “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven” (Psalm 107:2-3, 23, 28-30). Joined with all the servants of God, we can persevere through great adversity and even hostility, knowing that for God in Christ, not tomorrow but already “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” when God will help us restore the beloved community of all creation (2 Corinthians 6:2-4).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday June 12-18 in Year B (Ormseth12)

A New and Restorative Ordering of Life – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the kingdom of God and the great ecology of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 12-18, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

The lectionary for the this Sunday after Pentecost includes two readings, the Gospel and the second lesson, the interpretation of which present clear choices for or against a mandate for care of creation. First, with respect to the interpretation of Jesus’ parables in Mark, and more generally as well, Ched Myers raises the issue of the popular expository tradition of seeing parables as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” This, Myers insists,

” . . . is exactly what they are not!  The parables are perfectly consistent with Mark’s overall strategy of realistic narrative, in which any and all apocalyptic symbolics are kept ‘grounded.’ Jesus insists upon articulating the ‘mystery of the kingdom of God’ in utterly mundane, indeed agrarian terms: it is like this! In describing the frustrations and hopes of any peasant farmer, Mark’s Jesus is not exalting the terrestrial into the heavens, or shrouding the plain and common in arcane mysticism, but rather bringing ‘theology’ to earth in a concrete discourse intelligible to the poor” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 173).

In keeping with his political reading of the Gospel, Myers emphasizes the political significance of this perspective. Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom “envisions the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer’s social world. Such images strongly suggest that Mark is articulating an ideology of the land, and the revolutionary hopes of those who work it.” Modern interpreters who romanticize the “earthly stories of rural Palestine” and probe for “heavenly meanings” miss the point entirely (Myers, p. 177). That Mark’s narrative world corresponds “to the main social spheres of Palestinian Judaism (land and table, house and village, synagogue) indicates his concern to apply the kingdom to the whole of public life. . . . The narrative stresses therefore that the messianic community represents both an alternative kinship/family model (3:35) and a new political identity, the ‘confederacy’ (3:13)” (Myers, p. 184)

While agreeing with Myers thus far, we would extend his emphasis on the importance of the agrarian context of Jesus’ preaching to include additional values typically missing in the modern, urban culture.  As Norman Wirzba writes,

“Agrarian life, with its concrete and practical engagement with the forces of life and death, makes possible the intimate knowledge of and sympathy for the earth that are indispensable in the care of creation. Urban life, on the other hand, since it limits the vital connection between humanity and the earth, has the potential to thoroughly insulate us from the grace of life and health. Rather than promoting the sense of our interdependence with each other and with the whole of creation, urban life daily confronts us with the work of our own hands and so gives rise to the illusion that we live from and for ourselves. . . . Agrarian life, because of its difficulty, makes it more likely that we will become attuned to the cruciform character of creation, to the sense that the way of life is through suffering and sacrifice” (The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 72-73).

With little sense for “our vital connection with the earth” as “not simply a resource, but rather a source of inexhaustible life,” in the presence of which any successful endeavor has to be seen as “the result of cooperation with a goodness that is already there,” we are set up to miss the meaning of parables like those in the fourth chapter of Mark:

“At the root of agrarian life we find the experience of waiting and watching, of letting go and trusting the grace of life to accomplish what we ourselves cannot perform. Farmers, though they prepare the soil, plant the seed, work diligently to eradicate pests, understand that they themselves do not cause the seed to grow. The power of life is entirely beyond their or anyone’s control. They know themselves to live at the mercy of forces of life and death that comprehend us, even if we do not comprehend them” (Wirzba, pp.73-4).

Do we read Mark 4:26-29 as anticipating an apocalyptic harvest yet to come (emphasis on the last line, “he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come”)? Or does the “vocation of the disciple/reader” rather lie, “not in trying to provoke the harvest  (for that happens ‘of itself’), but in tending to the “sowing,” the point of the harvest image being to assure the listener that Yahweh’s judgment upon the powers and their system will indeed come, and so give the lie to the counter assertion of ‘realists’ that nothing will ever change,” as Myers suggest? (Myers, p. 179). With emphasis on “the earth produces of itself. . . ,” might not the parable of the unknowing sower rather envision the manifestation of God within the ordinary processes of life, as Bernard Brandon Scott suggests: “These narratives in their literalness are metaphors for God. The God of the everyday need only be seen in the everyday” (Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1989, p. 371). And a hearer who knows that mustard is an “unclean” plant (read “invasive species” in current terminology) that nonetheless can grow into a large bush that—if more humble than the imperial cedar of Lebanon, nonetheless gives ample shelter for the birds—will expect the kingdom to become, not another oppressive empire, but rather a new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation (See our comment on the readings for the Sunday July 24-30 in Year A, 2011, for this interpretation based on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52).

The second lesson for this Sunday, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17, presents a parallel choice of interpretations with respect to the crucial verse of interest, 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!” Does the concept of “a new creation” refer “primarily to the transformation of the whole cosmos or [merely] to the conversion and renewal of individual human being, as a recent discussion frames the issue?” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis. Waco, Texas:  Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 167). The latter, more anthropological reading is argued by Moyer Hubbard on the grounds that “Paul’s focus on the Spirit as the bringer of new life” calls for a view of conversion “as a complete and irrevocable break with one’s former way of life.” Others, including David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate, on the other hand, contend that Paul’s theocentric and eschatological perspective requires a fully cosmic reading of the concept. “The Christ-event,” they argue, “in Paul’s view not only makes possible the transformation of individual believers but also, and more fundamentally, marks the decisive eschatological interruption which announces the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. . . .” The “new creation” both of 2 Corinthians 5 and of Galatians 6:15 “may plausibly be construed as focused less on the individual’s new identity . . . and more on the sense that what God has achieved (or is in the process of bringing about) in Christ is a cosmic “new creation”: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in, this new creation, in which the former distinctions (between Jew and Gentile, etc. no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, et al, pp. 168-70).

Taken together, these rival interpretations of the Gospel and second lesson for this Sunday after Pentecost support or discourage a firm mandate for the care of creation. Either God is in the midst of all things, working to bring about the restoration of the cosmos with all its inhabiting creatures OR God is present only to human individuals, who by virtue of their conversion by the Holy Spirit have come to believe “heavenly truths,”  to which they in turn become witnesses in faith and life. While neither the Psalm nor the first lesson from Ezekiel 17 can be called on to definitively settle the question, at least for this Sunday, the psalm’s sense that “the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” because they are “planted in the house of the Lord” lends considerable weight to a more embedded, ecologically, and even panentheistic reading. Likewise, the image of “planting” a “sprig from the lofty top of a cedar “ on the “mountain height of Israel” (from Ezekiel 17) imagines God as a gardener who brings things to new life, providing habitat for creatures of the earth, both human and non-human.

Congregations with a concern to promote care of creation will, of course, prefer the more agrarian and cosmological readings. Especially those churches situated in urban settings might also do well to support this preference by providing opportunities for their members and neighbors to experience the conditions and values of agrarian culture, an alternative youth camp or mission trip experience, for instance, that would bring participants into relationships with farm life in rural, third-world settings. Congregations with open land will provide space and encouragement for community vegetable gardens; children of both the congregation and the neighborhood will find great delight in actually sowing and harvesting their own seed. Taking such actions together as a congregation promotes awareness of the community of Christ as a community that is fully integrated into the great community of God’s creation, and participant in God’s work of restoring the cosmos.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth12)

Jesus is the Gardener Dennis Ormseth reflects on the garden as the place of restoration.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

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

In its stark simplicity, Mark’s spare account of Jesus’ resurrection serves to underscore the themes we have developed in our consideration of the narrative of his passion. The women go to the tomb to anoint his body. Entering the tomb, they encounter the young man in white, who tells them the startling news that “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” The body they have come to anoint is absent. The young man gives them a message for his disciples: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The focus rests on the missing body, the young man and his message, all of which figure significantly in understanding the import of Mark’s narrative for the care of creation.

The old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone.

In our comment on Passion Sunday, we saw how Jesus’ body, in the course of Mark’s narrative, came to replace the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life. Now his absent body is in turn seemingly displaced by what Ched Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone. The focus upon the body confirms Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Binding the Strong Man, Myers, p. 406). This is, of course, the direction in which the Gospel has moved since its opening, and with fury in its closing chapters. In the passion narrative, there was “no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.” And when with the visit of the women to the tomb the narrative is regenerated, this also is done, accordingly, with reference to his body, risen from the dead, and the disciples are directed, not to heaven, but rather to Galilee, “the site of earthly practice” (Ibid.). And if the young man represents not only the beginning of the rehabilitation of the community of disciples, as Myers suggested (Ibid., p. 369), but also the once blind beggar who now sees, the agent of that rehabilitation turns out to be none other than Mark’s “son of Timaeus.” And thus, as Gordon Lathrop surmised, we encounter in this final scene of the Gospel the representative of a cosmology that is a strikingly different than the perfect heaven of Plato’s philosophy, in that it proposes, as we wrote in an earlier reflection, that “the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven” (See our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday).

There is now a moveable feast.

In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark functions,” he writes, “to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” But at the same time, he adds, it “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology, which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid. p. 408). At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

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

Accordingly, the community is free to move out from the national cultic center of Jerusalem to embrace the suffering of the people of the entire Roman empire, but first in their home place of Galilee, to be sure, as the young man in white directs them. There they will tell the story of Jesus with its remarkable ending, as our reading from Acts 10 reminds us, to both Jews and Gentiles.

It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p.443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent Africa, and even across Asia. But equally important would be some means of giving material embodiment to that word, comparable to, although very different from, the temple that had anchored the experience of God in the land of Israel. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

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

The meal created bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in which it was shared.

However valuable this insight, Myers is mistaken in one aspect of his characterization of this meal. While it is true that the meal is, as he has it, “a meal for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (Mark 16:7),” the community would not have been sustained in any of its places of settlement had it not also been a meal that created new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in which it was shared. The meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to Earth and to its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human.

Gradually, the community would find itself needing to make that fuller embodiment part of its regular telling of the story of the resurrection. Indeed, we think we see that need rising and being met in the other texts appointed for this Sunday. In his sermon to the Gentiles, for instance, Peter recalls that “God raised [Jesus] on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” The memory of eating with Jesus has special, enduring importance, a significance emphatically underscored by the reading of the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” The eschatological feast on the mountain of God, it seems, will become as important as the destruction of “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations,” and the wiping of tears “from all faces.”

Jesus is the gardener and all gardens are places of restoration.

If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers found themselves, then neither location nor dwelling are irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. In addition to the mountain on which Jesus stands over against the forces of Zion, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, each of which offers its special kinds of membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And, of course, one must not neglect the garden: the story that seemed to end in the garden where there was a new tomb begins anew, the alternative Gospel reading from John 20 informs us, also in a garden, something to which the author seems to want to call our attention with his story of Mary mistaking Jesus as the gardener. Was Jesus not the gardener of the new Eden of creation, as later Christian legend would have it? Was there not something appropriate to the suggestion by a Jewish rabbi it was “the gardener, looking out for his cabbages that morning of the first day of the new creation?” (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 990, for the source of these legends). If the garden is, since Eden, the place of betrayal, it is also the place of restoration; the place of death becomes the place of new life. Can we not hope that this can be said for every garden, if the God we meet in the meal is truly the Creator of all that is?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passion Sunday and Holy Week in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Transformation of All Life Dennis Ormseth reflects on the reorientation of creation to its sacred center.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Sunday of the Passion
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

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

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

The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation’s Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”  With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day.  Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (Mark 14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.

Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.”  The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God’s dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around”  signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple’s significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.

Jesus’ relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark’s Gospel, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed,  the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of  forgiveness,” mediating access to God  (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).

Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus’ view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers’s phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration  and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).

Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment’s significance this way:

“With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14).  The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23).

And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.”  What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”?

In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).

In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week’s associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).

(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)

Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus’ profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).

So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water.  A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus’ commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (Mark 1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (Mark 3:7-11).  After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (Mark 5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world?  “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. “As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected.” (See also Tom Mundahl’s  comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)

If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed.  And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (Mark 8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes,  the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Mark 14:24).”  What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”

The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,

“Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution” (Myers, p. 364).

And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).

As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of  those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.

Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (Mark 14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).

Helpful as Myer’s discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato’s Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark’s gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”

Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.

Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility.

“Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest” (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).

In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.

There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that

“compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).

This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).

In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses  just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.

At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God’s suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)

Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a  replacement of the temple, Jesus’ sacrifice effects

“‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ’s followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).

Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration – of all creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

The disciples seek power to dominate. Jesus renounces it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embrace a priestly vocation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

“. . . a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isaiah 32:15) Dennis Ormseth reflects on the cosmic Christ revealed in the Transfiguration.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

2 Kings 2:1-2
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, we behold God’s new creation. The light that shines in darkness in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:3) now shines from Jesus into the darkness of the world that will crucify him. As the culmination of the Season of Epiphany, the event develops themes we have lifted up in our comments on the lectionary readings for the season’s Sundays. As in his Baptism, we are taken to a remote location where creation is the strong and sustaining witness to the meaning of his presence—at his baptism, in the water of the River Jordan; here on the high mountain. The disciples called from their work close to the earth are now challenged by the voice from the clouds to forsake their resistance to his announcement that he must suffer and die: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 8:31-36). As Ched Myers describes the event,

“The inner circle of disciples is taken up onto a mountain where they encounter a kind of salvation-history summit conference at which Moses and Elijah stand by Jesus, and where a cloud subsequently descends and the heavenly voice speaks. What is the meaning of the appearance of Moses and Elijah here? At the level of intertextuality, each of the two great prophets represents those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. In the story of Elijah, the great prophet has for his trouble become a man hunted by the authorities. He tries to flee, but is met by Yahweh who dispatches him back into the struggle (1Kgs 19:11ff). And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh’s envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must thus ascend the mountain a second time (Ex 33:18ff).” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 250).

Their shared experience entails a dramatic end to “business as usual,” in precisely that “fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which encompasses both people and land and so leads by a new way of life together to creation’s restoration. Supported by the vision of Elijah and Moses, Jesus and his disciples will now engage with demonic powers in a battle to heal creation.

Or is that not what the “mountain-top” experience is about?  Is the God who speaks from the cloud not the God of all creation? Is the mission into which they (and we) are called by Jesus not the liberation of all creation? Skeptics may well protest at this point that we have introduced a concern for care of creation which is not really there in the Biblical witness. We think that the event of the Transfiguration shows that the concern is indeed there, and significantly so, as a hope for precisely “new creation,” in the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah. As Ched Myers observes, their presence functions to “lend credibility to the teaching Jesus has just delivered; the cross stands now with ‘the law and the prophets.’ This is meant as a dramatic confirmation of Mark’s repeated claim that his story stands in continuity with the ‘old story’ (1:2)” (Myers, p. 250). Granted that the credibility lent to Jesus’ teaching is of first importance for the church, we would urge nonetheless that the continuity runs in both directions at this juncture. For the church, “Jesus transfigured” is an originary theophany which opens access to the authority of the “law and the prophets;” it also invites both their study and, consequently, covenantal loyalty and obedience to their God, who as our Epiphany readings have repeatedly affirmed, is the God of all creation. Our first reading suggests that a prophet’s power grows in strength in the degree to which he revisits the full story of redemption: Elisha gains a double share of Elijah’s spirit by first journeying with him to Bethel, Jericho, and a crossing of the Jordan that is reminiscent of the Exodus. So also does the story of Jesus gain much of the spiritual power it has in relationship to all nations and the cosmos by revisiting and drawing from the stories of the Exile, Exodus and Creation. (This is indeed a very important aspect of this commentary on the readings of the Lectionary, with their regular linkage between Hebrew and Christian scripture).

Walter Breuggemann urges the importance of this point in arguing that the “practice of Torah is not only study; it is also worship. It is being in the presence of the One who lives in, with, and under this authoritative text, and who is present in the ongoing work of imagination from this text.” Obviously true for Jews, it is also true, he insists, for Christians: “the practice of Torah as a practice of obedience and imagination that issues in communion is a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 598-99).

With respect to creation, Torah looks to “a world beyond nullification:”’ there is something “ at work in Yahweh’s interior, something to which Israel boldly bears witness, that works against, disrupts, and mitigates Yahweh’s free exercise of wrathful sovereignty. Something moves against destructiveness, either to qualify it or to begin again post destruction” (Brueggemann, p. 542). In the prophets (specifically Hosea and Isaiah,) Brueggemann locates the voice of Yahweh, “who publicly and pointedly claims authority to replicate the initial creation, only now more grandly and more wondrously. This promised action of Yahweh is clearly designed to overcome all that is amiss, whether what is amiss has been caused by Yahweh’s anger, by Israel’s disobedience, or by other untamed forces of death.” The promised “newness of creation” encompasses all things: “All elements of existence are to come under the positive, life-yielding aegis of Yahweh . . . so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘All will be well and all will be well’” (Brueggemann, p. 549; the famous phase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).

“At Yahweh’s behest,” creation has three seasons:  first, “blessing,” in which Yahweh acts for “the well-being and productivity of the world. Yahweh has the power and the inclination to form a world of life-generating proportion”; second, “radical fissure”:  “Creation is not necessary to Yahweh, and Yahweh will tolerate no creation that is not ordered according to Yahweh’s intention for life. The world can be lost!”; and third, “a radical newness”: The reason? Perhaps it “is not in Yahweh’s character to be a God who settles for chaos. It is in Yahweh’s most elemental resolve to enact blessing and order and well-being” (Breuggemann, pp. 549-50).

Terry Fretheim shares Brueggeman’s view. In his persuasively documented study of God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), he, too, uncovers the deep thrust towards “new creation” in the events of the Exodus and Exile. The return from Exile and the Exodus, Fretheim writes, are . . .

“understood as redemptive events, forging the identity of the people of God. But the relationship is not so simple as to say:  just as God acted back then, so God is acting now. The exodus is also contrasted with what God is now about to do in returning the exiles home and planting them in the land: “Do not remember the former things . . . I am about to do a new thing’ (Isa 43:18-19; Jer 15:14-16). The “old” exodus event no longer stands on its own as a redemptive and cosmic event; indeed, it is sharply reduced in importance compared to the new. God is now creating something genuinely new; not only will Israel be newly constituted as a people of God but also the cosmic significance of the event will be more wide-ranging in its effects .” (Fretheim, p.192-93)

God, Fretheim insists, drawing particularly on the prophecies of Third Isaiah, “has a future in store for the entire created order, not just human beings. For the sake of that future—a new heaven and a new earth–God’s salvific activity catches up every creature” (Fretheim, p. 194). And it is important, Fretheim concludes, that this “new heaven and new earth” is not simply a return to Eden:

The most fundamental difference from Eden is that this new covenant does not have the possibility of being undercut by human failure; that cycle will never be repeated. This new day will come when the words of Isa 32:15-18, 20 will forever describe that new creation:

            a spirit from on high is poured out on us,

            and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,

            ……………………………………………………….

            Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,

               and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

            The effect of righteousness will be peace,

               and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

               in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

            ………………………………………………………..

            Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,

              who let the ox and the donkey range freely

         (Fretheim, pp. 197-98).

Christ is this new creation to whom the “law and the prophets” give witness, and as our second reading from 2 Corinthians proclaims: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). But as the disciples, having been silenced by Jesus on their way down the mountain, would struggle in subsequent days to comprehend, Jesus, too, would come into the fullness of “new creation” only after passing through the “radical fissure” of his crucifixion and death.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

For Those Who Are in Christ, Creation Is New! Dennis Ormseth reflects on driving out the demon of climate change denial.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” What, exactly does this promise mean? We have taken it as our epigraph for these comments on the lectionary texts for the Sundays after Epiphany in year B, with the expectation that light will be shed on its meaning as we move through the season. While the text itself, II Corinthians 5:7, does not appear among the readings for any of these Sundays, the second readings through Transfiguration Sunday are consistently drawn from the Letters of Paul to the Corinthians. We therefore anticipated that the assertion would be found consonant with the themes the readings set out. Thus far we think we have shown this to be the case. It helped greatly, of course, that at the outset the readings for the Baptism of Our Lord are rich in creational metaphor and motifs; transferring them to the life of those baptized in Christ was a relatively straightforward matter. On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, we uncovered in the fig tree under which Nathanael sat, when Jesus called him to be a disciple, a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. And in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday, we argued that for those “who are in Christ” at this moment of Earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed time for “breaking with business as usual,” following Jesus’ call to engage in “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses the ecological systems of our planet together with the human community, could lead to all creation’s restoration—to new creation.

The readings for the Fourth Sunday provide further support for this interpretation. In the Gospel we see what Ched Myers describes as “the public inauguration of Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum”, in which “Mark will establish the essential characteristics of the messianic mission.” We are immediately made aware of the nature of the challenge of “breaking with business as usual.” As Myers point outs out, “in one sentence [1:21] Mark moves Jesus from the symbolic margins to the heart of provincial Jewish social order: synagogue (sacred space) on a Sabbath (sacred time)” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books , 1988; p. 141). Jesus’ teaching is acknowledged by those assembled to be authoritative, which has prompted the church to assign Deuteronomy 18:15-20 as our first reading: Jesus is a prophet like Moses, whose teaching is powerful to accomplish his mission. But these affirmations also serve to frame the conflict that breaks into the open in his encounter with the “man with an unclean spirit,” as having “everything to do with the struggle between the authority of Jesus and that of the scribes” (Myers, pp. 141-42). The man’s greeting “communicates defiance toward a hostile intruder,” Myers suggests, but “this defiance quickly turns to fear:  “Have you come to destroy us?”

Following the interpretation of Howard Kee, Myers argues that the episode is “paradigmatic”:

“The word of the demon makes clear that the struggle is not a momentary one, but is part of a wider conflict of which this is but a single phase . . . . The narrative is wholly compatible with the picture . . . emerging from apocalyptic Judaism of God’s agent locked in effective struggle with the powers of evil, wresting power from them by his word of command.”

Such narratives, it is important to note, do not “glorify the one who performed the act,” as Hellenistic miracle stories tended to do; modern interpreters who focus on Jesus’ presumed supernatural powers do something similar. These stories instead “identify his exorcism as an eschatological event which served to prepare God’s creation for his coming rule” (Myers, p. 143. Kee’s work cited here is “The Terminology of Mark’s Exorcism Stories,” New Testament Studies, 14, pp. 242ff). As “one of the central characteristics of the messianic mission of Jesus” which he passes on to his followers, exorcism “is the main vehicle for articulating the apocalyptic combat myth” between the powers (and their earthly minion) and Jesus (as envoy of the kingdom). “Mark’s account thus begins to specify the political geography of the apocalyptic contest begun in the wilderness (1:12f). The demon in the synagogue becomes the representative of the scribal establishment, whose “authority” undergirds the dominant Jewish social order (Myers, p. 143). With this episode, Myers notes, “Mark thus established the political character of exorcism as symbolic action.” Subsequent exorcisms in the Gospel are similarly “concerned with the structures of power and alienation in the social world,” in particular “the deep rift between Jew and gentile” (7:24ff), and “the agonizing struggle to believe in the new order of the kingdom” (9:14).

One observes here a striking structural similarity between this analysis of the opposition Jesus encountered and Naomi Klein’s description of the climate change denial movement’s opposition to climate change action. Here, too, there is great fear expressed by the defenders of our dominant economic system. One can easily imagine a climate denier standing in the door of a meeting of the Heartland Society she describes, refusing to allow entry to a climate change activist, with the frightened challenge (in the words of the demon in Mark), “Have you come to destroy us?” As she writes, this . . .

“is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we  need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market” (Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014. p. 41).

Klein’s point is critical to an understanding of the dynamics our our political situation relative to climate change:

“Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces” ( p. 41).

And it isn’t only a matter of economic and political policy; here, too, there is an ideological “war of the myths:”

“[F]or many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge goes deeper still, threatening not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about what humans are doing here on earth. Are we masters, here to subdue and dominate, or are we one species among many, at the mercy of powers more complex and unpredictable than even our most powerful computers can model?” (Klein, p. 42).

Faced with this situation, how might the church respond in Jesus’ name?  How might we drive the demon of climate change denial out?

An answer requires more extensive discussion than we can do here, of course. But key elements of an answer lie close at hand this Sunday in the second reading from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In fact, this text relates as closely to our epigraphic promise as any we will encounter during the season.  With its concern for eating of food sacrificed to idols, the passage may seem irrelevant to the concerns raised by the Gospel reading. Until, that is, we learn in verse 6 that the presupposition of Paul’s argument here is the powerful confessional statement that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

 As David Horrell, Cheryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate point out in their Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010), the repeated “all things” (ta panta) here alerts us to the connection between this passage and the line of Paul’s thought represented by the famous hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. The phrase “refers to everything, indicating the universal and cosmic scope of the hymn’s concerns.  This view of all things as the work of the one (good) creator, in and through Christ, implies the intrinsic goodness of all created entities, including the nonhuman elements, a repeated emphasis in the first creation narrative in Genesis” (Horrell, et al.p.104). The confession in 1 Corinthians 8, these authors argue, is the most important of several texts showing that for Paul

“there is no intrinsic or inherent source of moral corruption in the material things of the world God has made. And it is significant that this is expressed even in a letter (1 Corinthians) where the “world” is generally depicted in somewhat negative terms, owing   . . . to Paul’s sense that he needs more strongly to reinforce a sense of distinction between the church and its wider society” (Horrell, et al., p. 159).

Combined with “the most important reconciliation text in the undisputed Pauline letters,” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (which includes our epigraph), this and other texts (e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:27-28), provide a basis for arguing that “broadly construed as the drawing together of all things into Christ (and/or God), cosmic reconciliation can stand at the focal center of [a] reading of Pauline theology and at the center of. . . Paul’s story of creation (Horrell, et al., p. 168). Within the framework of this cosmic narrative, the “new creation” of 2 Corinthians 5:17 is “plausibly construed” as

“focused less on the individual’s new identity – a focus that may owe more to Western individualism than to Paul . . . and more on the sense that what God has achieved (or is in the process of bringing about) in Christ is a cosmic “new creation”: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in, this new creation, in which the former distinctions (between Jew and Gentile, etc.) no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, et al., pp. 169-170).

While Paul’s “predominant concern is with the conversion of human beings and with the communities of believers whose corporate life he seeks to shape,” these authors conclude, his theology is nevertheless “centered on the act of God in Christ which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos—what Paul describes as new creation”  (Horrell, et al. p. 172).

All things belong in God, all things are being reconciled in Christ: this is what “new creation” means. All things are valued as good; all things are being restored to the community of creation. And to be in Christ is to participate in that great work. So does Psalm 111 appropriately remind us that

            Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful (111:2-4)

Who then, and by what power, can climate change deniers, persist in their opposition to care for creation?

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

It’s Time to Break with Business as Usual and Tend God’s Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on what we can learn from fishermen.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

It’s Time!

When it’s time, it’s time. And, indeed, it is time for Christians to reorient their lives to God’s creation in crisis. The readings for this Sunday provide occasion for making this call. From Mark’s Gospel we have heretofore heard the announcement of a new beginning. We have encountered John the Baptist at the Jordan and shared in his expectation of the arrival of one who is more powerful than he. We have undergone baptism with water, and await the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the word comes: John has been arrested; Jesus is on the move. “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). So with Simon and Andrew, James and John, we are invited to “break with business as usual” and enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation (“breaking with business as usual” is Ched Myers’ apt characterization of these verses from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel; see his Binding the Strong Man, p. 132)

The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

What does the drawing near of the kingdom of God have to do with the restoration of the creation? A lot, if not everything, we would urge. We have anticipated this assertion in our commentary on the lectionary lessons for Advent and Christmas: the coming of Jesus, we have suggested, represents the relocation of the presence of God from the temple at the heart of the Jewish state to the person of Jesus, who is the servant of God’s creation. A succession of symbolic associations through these two opening seasons of the church year has provided confirmation of this perspective: the fig tree (First Sunday of Advent), the wilderness (Second), the light (Third), the incarnation (Fourth), the praise of all creation (Christmas Eve and Day, and First Sunday of Christmas), the assembly of God’s people for the meal (First Sunday), and the water of baptism (Baptism of our Lord). These are all signs of the immanence of God in the creation, which we argued in our comment on the readings for last Sunday is the presupposition of the call to discipleship from God. Now on this Sunday that God is seen in the person of Jesus to draw near and call into specific relationship those who will accompany him on his mission, and so be prepared to carry it forward in his name. But it is only with this Sunday that we first see how crucial the creation itself is to the fulfillment of the time and the drawing near of the reign of God.

Myers shows us why choice of location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea is important, along with wilderness, river, and mountain, he notes, as primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Ibid., p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fisherman, who are recruits for Jesus’ following, could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). The image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the ‘saving of souls,’ as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather

“carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege “(Ibid., p. 132).

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call “out” of the world, but into an alternative social practice.

No more business as usual.

Thus, this “first” call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Ibid., pp. 132-33).

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond so positively to Jesus’ call. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Our view, admittedly somewhat conjectural, is that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage. Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. We can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has very little meaning for them. This suggestion is supported by Norman Wirzba’s argument in his book, The Paradise of God, that one of the keys to restoring to modern life a “culture of creation” is the reformation of our patterns of work and play, to bring them into proper relationship with the patterns of creation. Fundamentally, he argues, “work and play . . . are our responses to God’s own work and delight in a creation well made. They show, when most authentic, a sympathetic attunement to the orders of creation and their divine goal.” Meister Eckhart, Wirzba suggests, found that

“[i]n returning to our “ground,” as he put it, we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart, and head.”

Human work, rightly understood and well-practiced, promotes entry “into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality” (Wirzba, pp. 154-155). This, we suggest, is how the Galilean fishermen lived.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, we think; contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and due to Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11).

But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily. A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation. It is time; nature is telling us that it is time. And those Christians who do live close to the Earth and know themselves to suffer with the whole creation, need to leave their boats—or automobiles, electronic toys, or whatever—and, breaking with the spiritual authority of “business as usual,” follow Jesus.

It’s Time!

 The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

No more business as usual.

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

This Changes Everything: No Longer Business as Usual Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus inviting the common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  II Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). Jesus is on the move. So this Sunday, we are invited with Simon and Andrew, James and John, to enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation. To be sure, that Jesus’ mission had to do with the healing of all creation was not clearly envisioned by the author of the Gospel of Mark. His focus, as Ched Myers proposes, is more properly understood as “a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships.”  And here at the beginning of the Gospel, we have before us only “the first step” of that reordering, the crisis in which the “world” of Jesus’ disciples is overturned with an “urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual.’” But make no mistake: as Myers puts it, “The world is coming to an end, for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure.” It is that “moment which reoccurs wherever the discipleship narrative is reproduced in the lives of real persons in real places. This disruption represents the realization of the apocalyptic ‘day of the Lord’” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; pp. 132-33). And so for us “who are in Christ” at this moment of earth’s all-encompassing ecological crisis, it is indeed a moment which calls for an entire “breaking with business as usual,” yes, precisely “a fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which, if it encompasses both human and ecological systems of our planet together, could lead to creation’s restoration.

In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2014), Naomi Klein also calls for an end to business as usual in a thorough reordering of socioeconomic relationships from the bottom up. She describes the moment in which we live in the terms of a “stark choice: “Either we “allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate.” The challenge, she continues,

“is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it’s that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change. Cutthroat competition between nations has deadlocked U.N. climate negotiations for decades: rich countries dig in their heels and declare that they won’t cut emissions and  risk losing their vaulted position in the global hierarchy; poorer countries declare that they won’t give up their right to pollute as much as rich countries did on their way to wealth, even if that means deepening a disaster that hurts the poor most of all. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention” (Klein, pp. 21-22).

The “thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing,” Klein insists, “is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders.” The actions required, she argues,

“directly challenge our reigning economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and can outsmart its limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more). They also spell extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has ever known—the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in anything like its current form if we humans are to avoid our own extinction.”

We are, she concludes, “locked in—politically, physically, and culturally”—to this “world” of ours, and “only when we identify these chains do we have a chance of breaking free” (Klein, p.63).

Kleins’ description of our situation is, of course, entirely secular. Her analysis is not that of a person of faith. It is, however, one to which a Christian understanding of creation and human responsibility can respond helpfully and powerfully. Our reading of this Sunday’s texts, we believe, substantiates this claim. An intriguing feature of Klein’s analysis is that “climate change represents a historic opportunity” to build a social movement on the scale of the New Deal or the civil rights movement which would advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up”—a “People’s Shock” as it were,” which unlike the corporate world’s exploitation of the earlier crises which she documented in her book Shock Doctrine, would “disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the hands of the few, and radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces.” The transformations she describes would, she claims, “get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now” (Klein, p. 10). To the extent that this is true, we believe that there is consonance between her call to action and that of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. Because Jesus’ call to discipleship is pitched to the “real people and real places” of first century Palestine, as Myers shows, it also speaks powerfully to the crisis of our people and our moment in history. As we shall see, with the promise of a whole new world to replace the world whose “present form is passing away (I Corinthians 7:31b), Klein’s transformations do anticipate the new creation which those in Christ envision and hope for.

Already in this season of Sundays after Epiphany, we have seen that Christian discipleship includes care for creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the previous two Sundays). This Sunday’s readings deepen this perspective by showing how certain social and cultural factors support an expectation that followers of Jesus might join the movement to “break with business as usual” with respect to care of creation. Ched  Myers shows us that the location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea locales alongside wilderness, river, and mountain, he points out, are primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the Gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Myers, p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fishermen recruited for Jesus’ following could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17).

But the image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the “saving of souls,” as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere, the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezek 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege (Myers., p. 132.)

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call ‘out’ of the world, but into an alternative social practice. Thus this ‘first’ call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Myers, pp. 132-33).

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to just why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond as positively to Jesus’ call as they do. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Isn’t it that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage? Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety, and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood  could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. Indeed, we can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit, it seems to us, could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, furthermore, because contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. Business as usual could no longer continue for them. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11). But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily.  A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s characteristic relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has little hold on them. It is interesting that as Naomi Klein surveys our society in the search for willing and ready participants in the movement beyond the culture of “extractivism,” as she characterizes our industrial, fossil fuel dependent economy, she ruthlessly rejects a number of significant players: big green (collaborators with big business), green billionaires (messiahs with broken dreams), geo-engineers (“the Solution to Pollution Is . . .Pollution?”). The problem with these big boys, she thinks, is that they really do not want at all to break with business as usual. Their strategies persist in the illusion that we are called to “save” the Earth, “as if it were an endangered species, or a starving child far away, or a pet in need of our ministrations.” It is an idea that “may be just as dangerous as the Baconian fantasy of the earth as a machine for us to master, since it still leaves us (literally) on top.” The truth lies elsewhere: “It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely” (Klein, p. 284).

In the place of these collaborators with business as usual, Klein would accordingly nominate as her “climate warriors” participants in what she calls “Blockadia”—’not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines.” United in resistance to mining and fossil fuel companies as they push “relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology (in particular, local water systems)” these are basically local groups of shop owners, professors, high school students, and grandmothers. But they are building a ‘global, grass-roots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen” (Klein, p. 294-45). Generally speaking, these people live in the “sacrifice zones,” formerly the traditionally poor, out-of-the-way places where residents had little political power, but now increasingly also located in “some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world,” to the immense consternation of “many historically privileged people who suddenly find themselves feeling something of what so many frontline communities have felt for a very longtime: how is it possible that a big distant company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk?” (Klein, pp. 312-13). New alliances are thus being formed across traditional social barriers. Corporate assurances are no longer accepted on blind faith. The language of risk assessment is being “replaced by a resurgence of the precautionary principle,” as blockadia insists “that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe,” something that “in the era of extreme energy . . . is something that simply cannot be done” ( Klein, pp. 315-335).

Particularly striking is Kleins’ observation regarding two “defining” features of these groups. There is, she notes,  a “ferocious love” of “an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their granchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice” (Klein, p. 342). And secondly, especially significant is a common concern for precious sources of water; in Kleins’s view, this is the “animating force behind every single movement fighting extreme extraction”: “Whether deep water drilling, fracking, or mining; whether pipelines, big rigs, or export terminals, communities are terrified about what these activities will do to their water system” (Klein, p. 345-46). The reason for this is clear, of course: “extreme energy demands that we destroy a whole lot of the essential substance we need to survive—water—just to keep extracting more of the very substances threatening our survival and that we can power our lives without.” Coming at a time when freshwater supplies are becoming increasingly scarce around the world, people are becoming more and more aware of certain disturbing truths of their experience:

Growing in strength and connecting communities in all parts of the world, [these truths] speak to something deep and unsettled in many of us. We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need (Klein, p. 347).

From the divestment movement which seeks to defund the companies that enforce this imprisonment, to local groups seeking to democratically recapture power over their communities, and indigenous tribes defending their rights to land and a way of life grounded in it, it is their relationship to the earth itself that inspires and empowers their liberation from bondage to business as usual. Perhaps most significantly, their love for their habitat and their deep concern for water put them in touch with what Klein calls the regenerativity of nature’s processes:  we can become, she concludes, “full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” There is in their company a “spirit” that is already busy at work promoting and protecting life in the face of so many life-negating and life-forgetting threats (Klein, p. 447-48).

Can the church join this movement with integrity? Yes, because disciples are called to serve creation, and it is the creation itself, in its newness, that is giving supportive voice to that call.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

Jesus Ushers in a New Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new” (II Corinthians 5:7, translation by David Rhoads).

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway.  As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.

The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full  “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space.  The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).

What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity.  “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).”  Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.

Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”

It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say.  Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground,  p. 106).

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace:  a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized.  We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

If You Would Experience God, You Must Fall in Love with Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on baptism as a cosmic event.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, we return to “the beginning” of the Gospel of Mark which, as we noted in our comments on the lections for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, draws us quickly into the cosmological as well as the eschatological themes of Mark’s story. Readers of those comments will recall the strong interest of Mark’s Gospel in these themes: the author breaks decisively with the cosmology of the temple-state centered on the Jerusalem temple, as the elect of God are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness for the opening of the new creation. This break in fact provided the impetus for us to trace in the lections of the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus. Subsequently, in the readings for Christmas Eve and Day, we beheld him enfolded in the glory of God’s primordial light and life. Jesus’ birth is worthy of all creation’s praise, we suggested, because, as Mary saw, not only would he break with the human pattern of domination that makes a desert of creation, but the birth itself effects a reorientation to creation expressed in the insight that the incarnation of God in his person means that the “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.” In Larry Rasmussen’s excellent words, “so if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

In the readings appointed for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church fully affirms these cosmological accents of Jesus’ advent. Once again, “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). Yes, in the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are meant to see the opening of a new creation story, in which, as on “the first day” of creation, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2), and we are reminded of the  “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). Out of the waters rises a new humanity: having identified fully with our sinfulness in an act of repentance, Jesus opens the possibility of our identifying with him as God’s new creation.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” The cosmological accents of Jesus’ baptism thus serve to mark the difference not only between the temple state and the kingdom of God, but also between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full “renunciation of the old order” which Jesus’ baptism represents (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete the baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. New creation, and not merely repentance, this shows, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; the difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

It is instructive to note in this respect that, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed baptismal practice retains significant cosmological elements. Water, of course, takes central place here. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite; as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say. Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to replace the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“. . . that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force here. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Ibid., p. 106).

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Ibid., p. 107).

Then, as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life and the tree of life; see our discussion in the comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent), so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace: a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Ibid., p. 107).

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized. We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, ‘the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation.

The incarnation means that “the finite is capable of bearing the infinite.”

The Gospel is a “new creation” story—as Jesus rises from the waters.

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

Baptism is the renunciation of the old order and the emergence of a new reality.

The temple in Jerusalem is replaced by the baptismal font—center of the cosmos.

Baptism is not just a personal experience; it is a cosmic event.

Jesus’ baptism and our baptism orient us to God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Joyful Anticipation of the Transformation of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the cosmological significance of Christ.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Waiting for the coming of God.

We gather for a third Sunday, impatiently perhaps, waiting still for the coming of God. The reading from Isaiah looks forward to the restoration of Jerusalem that will take place in “the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” which the prophet proclaims (61:2). The second lesson encourages us in prayerful, grateful, and “blameless” waiting for the “coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). The Psalm anticipates the restoration of Jerusalem as well, and picks up on the theme of joy expressed in both of these lessons. And the Gospel focuses again on John the Baptist across the Jordan River. Preachers who have said everything they want to say the last two Sundays about waiting for God’s arrival will be eager to take advantage of the alternative reading of the Magnificat in place of the psalm, and focus on Mary.  Her joyful song of praise serves as a convenient tie between the eschatological focus of these texts and the Christmas story, which by now, no doubt, is foremost on the minds of members of the congregation. This will be the Sunday for children’s Christmas programs and the Christmas choir concerts.

How and why is John’s Gospel is different from Mark’s Gospel?

So it is likely that the eschatological and cosmological dimensions of these readings, with their implications for a theology of creation, will not find their way into this Sunday’s sermons. Indeed, the Gospel reading itself might seem to discourage it. John the Baptist is still “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness;” but neither those who come to question him nor John the evangelist makes much either of his message or of his location. They are more concerned with the question of what he represents, or rather, doesn’t represent. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light (John 1:8); and he was definitely neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor “the prophet.” (1:20-21). Each of these possibilities had to be considered, given the heightened eschatological expectation of the time. And the all-inclusive denial of them here in our text is notably at odds with Mark’s presentation in the Gospel reading last Sunday. For Mark’s readers, Ched Myers argues, John’s garb and food are clearly meant to invoke Elijah, and his appearance in the wilderness “dramatically escalates tension expectation” with its reference to the prophetic “promise/warning” of Malachi 4:5: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord arrives” (Binding the Strong Man, 126-27). Not so for John’s readers. Missing here as well are the great crowds coming out from Jerusalem to the Jordan, another sign for Mark of the beginning of the day of the Lord; only a few “priests and Levites,” officials connected with the temple, are mentioned as being “sent from Jerusalem” by the Pharisees. Our gathering this Sunday will have little of the eschatological “wildness” of the Second Sunday of Advent; and the cosmos has, too, has receded into the background.

Clearly, a reframing of John’s appearance at the Jordan has taken place from last Sunday to this Sunday or, more properly, from the writing of Mark to the writing of John. The highly eschatological and cosmological frame of reference connected with Mark’s challenge to the temple state has been largely displaced in favor of a singular focus on the ”one whom you do not know,” the one who is coming after” the voice (John 1:26-27). How are we to understand this reframing, and what are its implications for our concern with creation?

Part of the explanation for this shift is surely that the author of John writes in a time and place where Mark’s challenge to the temple state is no longer of central importance, for the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and leadership of Jewish opposition to the Christian movement has passed from the priest and Levites to the rabbinic heirs of the Pharisees in Diaspora Judaism. Of some newer concern to John the evangelist might be the “sectarians of John the Baptist” who hung on to the legacy of “the voice in the wilderness,” as well as assorted alternatives to the Christian movement like the community at Qumran, which may have shared either territory or religious ideas with those sectarians. If so, it could be important to emphasize, as the Baptist himself does, that “he” [Jesus] must increase, but I [John] must decrease” (John 3:30).

On the other hand, an evangelist among the Diaspora might be particularly concerned to make the case to Jewish Christians threatened by expulsion from the now crucially important synagogues, that Jesus as messiah has actually replaced the Jewish institutions and festivals that they would now have left behind. The Baptist’s fierce challenge to the temple state was no longer helpful; on the contrary, the temple and its festival traditions could now instead be regarded as important resources for the development of the Christian witness. In Raymond Brown’s view, this is in fact a leading concern in the composition of the gospel. The motif of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the story of Jesus is of great significance for the structure and message of the Gospel. That story, Brown shows, is still largely played out in the context of the temple precincts and festivals, which serve to effect the appropriation of the traditions connected with them into the Christian narrative. With the Johannine community, continuity with the traditions of Israel’s temple has become theologically important again (See Brown’s illuminating outline of the Gospel in The Gospel according to John I-XII, pp. cxl-cxli and consider Brown’s discussion of John’s relationship to the Jewish cultural context in the Introduction to the first volume of this two-volume commentary (pp. lxvii – lxxix) is background for this paragraph).

The Gospel of John brings the cosmic / creation dimensions of Christ to the fore.

Our readers may recall that in our comment on the readings for the first Sunday of Advent, the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus raised for us the question of what happens in this transfer to the orientation to creation that the temple and its festivals represented. “Where in the church’s Scriptures for this season,” we asked, “can we find the creation of God?” Or does this relocation mean that we are “left without any orientation to creation whatsoever?” Our reading from John provides an astonishingly ready, although for the moment somewhat oblique, answer. The man named John was sent from God, we are assured, but “he was not the light.” Those awake to the themes of the Gospel’s prologue will be quickly drawn to the cosmological significance of the one whom John precedes. No, John was not the light, but the one who is in the beginning as the Word and is now “coming into the world,” he is “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:6-9). As Gordon Lathrop has observed, “While Mark’s ‘arche of the gospel’ (Mark 1:1) includes John the Baptist, the arche of the Fourth Gospel articulates the very beginning of all things, echoing the first verses of Genesis in astonishing christological praise, but also still including the witness of John the Baptist.” In Lathrop’s view, this actually heightens the significance of John: “He is not simply a baptizer dealing with people’s needs who is depicted as Elijah. He is now a witness to the light, to the life and logos at the center of the cosmos” (Proclamation 4, Advent / Christmas, Series B, p. 27).

We shall, of course, have occasion to celebrate this good news for the creation—and our orientation to it—in the Gospel lesson for Christmas Day. In the meantime, John the Baptist is still crying out in the wilderness, baptizing with water, and we can make of his presence there what we can as a sign of good things to come. We will have to wait until after the Nativity, however, for our first encounter with the one “who is more powerful” than he (Mark 1:7), whose sandals he is not worthy to untie (both Mark 1:7 and John 1:27), the stronger one about whom it was said last Sunday that he will baptize “with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1: 8), and the eschatological “confrontation with the powers” dominating the cosmos that it represents (Myers, p. 127).

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

All the same, our texts this Sunday, anticipate in subtle but significant ways that renewal of engagement to come. It is the “spirit of the Lord” upon the anointed one, the prophet Isaiah informs us, that sends “good news to the oppressed” about the restoration of the land (Isaiah 61:1) and the revived vitality of the earth, which as it “brings forth its shoots, and a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,” will “cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nation” (61:11). “Do not quench the Spirit,” warns the Apostle in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:19). And if the Magnificat is read in place of the Psalm, we can of course acknowledge therein the encouragement that the Holy Spirit confers on one who is lowly but dares to believe God’s power to “do great things.” Her song is good news for the earth: she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected “new earth, where righteousness is at home” (Luke 1:52-54; 2 Peter 3:13), a presence that she personally embodies already. These anticipations of transformation to come whet our appetite for the fulsome renewal of creation by the power of the Holy Spirit that is “the Lord, the giver of life,” and in Elizabeth Johnson’s felicitous phrase, “the pure unbounded love that turns the hearts of human beings toward compassionate care as well as moves the sun and the other stars” (Johnson, She Who Is, p. 144). These expectations of both God and the cosmos are indeed reason for rejoicing on behalf of the creation in the darkness of this Sunday and the winter solstice.

Waiting for the coming of God.

How and why is John’s Gospel is different from Mark’s Gospel?

 The Gospel of John brings the cosmic / creation dimensions of Christ to the forefront.

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com