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Preaching On Creation: Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

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

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

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

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

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions 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, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn suggestions:

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

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

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

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Ormseth)

Empowered in God’s love for the creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Micah 6 and the beatitudes of Matthew 5.

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

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

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:2).   The prophet’s evocation of mountains and “enduring foundations of the earth” in the opening verses of our first reading this Sunday invites consideration of the texts for the day as material for the quest for what Larry Rasmussen calls an “Earth-honoring Faith.” (Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). With his metaphor of a trial in which God contends with God’s people, the prophet couples testimony concerning God’s works on behalf of Israel to the judgment of the mountains and the earth’s very foundations.  The significance of this linkage of God’s testimony and the mountains’ judgment lies deeper than mere rhetorical device, however.  The passage is one of three texts that Walter Brueggemann cites in an exposition of Jahweh’s “righteousnesses.” Following Paul Ricoeur, Brueggeman argues that the “matrix of trial-witness-testimony” provides a powerful perspective on the theology of the Hebrew bible.  Memories of past events are “all now regarded as acts of transformation wrought by Yahweh on behalf of Israel, all making it possible for Israel to have a chance of well-being in the world” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp.131-32).  In its worship of Jahweh, Brueggemann writes,

“Israel engaged the great memories of its core testimony in which the God of Israel’s most elemental testimony is taken with definitional seriousness in the present.  That core testimony includes both Yahweh as the One who intrudes into Israel’s public experience in dramatic ways, and Yahweh as the One who sanctions and maintains Israel’s life-giving home of creation” (p. 679).

Here is faith, then, that honors the earth, even as it honors Earth’s Creator.  It is worth noting that according to Micah’s oracle, such well-being is not merely a matter of acquiring great wealth.  The cultic sacrifice of “thousand of rams’ and ten thousands of rivers of oil,”  which would presuppose such wealth, is not what God seeks from God’s people.  What God requires, and not just of Israel, but of all humans (“O mortal,” adam,) is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8).  “It belongs to the character of the human creature, ” Brueggemann concludes with respect to the relationship of humans to the creation, that humanness means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defining, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Jahweh for justice and holiness.

The practice of holiness concerns the disciplined awareness that life is to be ordered with the profound acknowledgment that the core of reality lies outside self and is not given over to human control. . . . The practice of justice, in concrete ways, is the enactment of Yahweh’s sedaqah, whereby the cosmos can be ordered for life, and whereby the human community can be kept viable and generative.

Accordingly, the verbs in Genesis 1 and 2 which authorize humans to “have dominion” over creation “suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures” (Brueggemann, p. 460-61).

Thus the prophet’s oracle does indeed adumbrate an “Earth-honoring faith”, a faith, in Rasmussen’s definition, that “is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” And it is the mountains of the prophet’s metaphor that carry this meaning. While the specific mountains which the prophet might have had in mind perhaps include only those from the great narrative of God’s works (the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Moriah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and prominently here in Micah, Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, “up from Egypt”) what renders them trustworthy judges of both human and divine affairs is not limited to such associations. It is in their universal nature that mountains transcend the plain where life is normally lived, and they endure through all generations as well. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols”, so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint, as Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008p. 114).

Indeed, when approached from the viewpoint of contemporary ecology, “making space” in nature is an essential aspect of what mountains “do.”  A mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some aspects to the entire globe.  The measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them, for example, contribute to their understanding of the dynamics of global climate change. Thus to those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the possibilities of well being, in Rasmussen’s phrase,  of “the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.”

Does the mountain which Jesus’ ascends to teach his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel bear such significance?  The linkage of these texts in the lectionary suggests this possibility, and in Warren Carter’s view, the Evangelist appears to recognize this significance of the mountains as well. As Carter notes, the mountain is “a location invested with multiple meanings” in the Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is in fact a mountain oriented affair: after feeding five thousand Jesus retreats “up the mountain by himself to pray” (14:23);  having passed along the Sea of Galilee, he again ascends “the mountain” where he heals “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others’ and again feeds a great crowd, this time four thousand (15:29-39); it is “up a high mountain” that Jesus leads Peter, James and John where he “was transfigured before them” (17:1); he initiates the events of his final confrontation with authorities from “the Mount of Olives” (21:1 and 24:3); and it is from “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, that he commissions their great outreach “to all nations” (28:16-20).

Mountains thus signal dimensions of justice, mercy, holiness and universality in Jesus ministry.  Just previous to this ascent to teach, Carter emphasizes, from the mountain “the devil offered Jesus ‘all the kingdoms/empires of the world’,” and by contrast, “on this mountain, Jesus will manifest God’s reign/empire.”  As Jesus recapitulates Moses’ and Israel’s experience, escaping from Egypt (2:15), passing through water (3:13-17), encountering temptation (4:1-11),”  That Jesus now goes “up the mountain” to teach his disciples thus alerts us to the significance of the event: Jesus is to deliver a new law that will be as important for life in the coming kingdom of God as the law given to Moses was for the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter their promised land. Jesus’ followers will appropriately remember this teaching as “the Sermon on the Mount.”

If “the mountain” which Jesus ascends carries the significance of Micah’s “mountains,” as we have suggested, can we hope that the teaching he offers would also provide support for an “Earth-honoring faith?”  We of course cannot expect the teaching to directly address aspects of the environmental crisis of our day;  we seek rather to “interrogate” this particular “past tradition of spirituality,” as Rasmussen puts it, in a reexamination of the “’normative gaze’ that frames and guides feeling and thought alike” (Rasmussen, p. 45).”  Does the teaching “alert us to past pitfalls?”  Does it “illumine our responsibility, offer wellsprings of hope, and generate renewable moral/spiritiual energy for hard seasons ahead?” (Rasmussen, p. 81).

In order to carry out this “interrogation” with respect to not only this Sunday’s Gospel, but those of the following three Sundays which also belong to the Sermon on the Mount, and then the “summit” of the Sunday of the Transfiguration, it will be helpful first to draw out more broadly what Rasmussen means by “Earth-honoring faith” for our time.In his chapter on “The Faith We Seek,” he draws these several insights from the Christian theological tradition, represented preeminently here by Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and Reinhold Niebuhr: such a faith, he writes, not only savors life, but seeks to save life.  It sees in a “redeemed Earth as paradise” an alternative to the false paradise offered by human empires. It regards as fundamental to “common Earthly good” the “’minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.”  Such faith grants “moral citizenship” to all God’s creatures, as key to addressing our denial of empathy for them.  It acknowledges the “species pride and arrogance” of humans that denies the “profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures.” It sees that the great imbalances of power in society correlate strongly with the destruction of nature, as one group seeks to exploit nature for the resources to dominate over others. Often more covert than overt, the exercise of such power “nurtures self-delusion” on the part of those who wield it.  Such faith thus recognizes in democracy both the means of checking on “the ever-present imperial impulses in human nature,” but also a source of the delusion of innocence which fails to recognize that imperialism, as it flows from disproportions of power.  It will see in “our present Earth/human relationship” . . the modern/eco-modern version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all:  the ethic of master and slaves,” “applied now to other-than-human nature.  As it grasps the core reality that “the Earth belongs to all and all belongs to Earth, which belongs to God,” it will “rightly name the injuries of nature at our hands ‘sin’ and the abuse of power” Matthew will also report that Jesus “went up the mountain” six times, referring to Mt. Zion (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 129-30). (Rasmussen, pp. 80-104). Finally,

Earth-honoring faith lives by grace.  Life is a gift and a sacred trust.  We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it.  It bears its own power, an energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life creates the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus we can ask: Does Jesus’ teaching constitute support for such justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for all creatures? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator?

Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) . . . Beatitudes are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Our question, then, is does that favor reflect an awareness of the implications of those circumstances and behaviors, beyond the human, for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and the Earth which it represents?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (Carter, p. 131).  We recognize here the imbalance of concentrated power, which renders “spiritless” those who suffer such deprivations. The issue here is one of totally negative expectations regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or community. This is a condition experienced by people who are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates which the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is, significantly with respect to our concern for care of creation, the condition often experienced in our culture by people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so entirely futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so relentlessly. The powerful appear so thoroughly indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely controlled by their own self-interests. The judgment articulated by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (Carter, p. 132).

Will God intervene? Jesus promises not only that God will, but that God is intervening: the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is now theirs. The deficit of spirit is made up with the presence of God in the very company of Jesus’ in which they participate. The hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because in their very struggles God is in the process of liberating them.  Indeed, even as they mourn what they have lost to “the destructive impact of imperial powers,” they are lifted out of an oppression that is seen to be against God’s gracious will, and thus should be greatly and deeply mourned. Their mourning is in fact a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. They mourn because they love, and have suffered the loss of what they love. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, comforts them in their mourning.

While these first two beatitudes thus respond to the spiritual deficit experienced by mourning humans, the next one addresses more squarely their embodied situation in creation, and suggests a course of action to address and remedy their loss. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence, or more precisely in Rasmussen’s careful phrase,  they act to foster that “minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.” The behavior of “the meek” is an implicitly but nevertheless profoundly “ecological” way of being in community. It is the human analog to the manifold space-creating ecology of the mountain. Indeed, it is what God does in creation. The blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, ‘this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically. “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1).” “humans are to nurture it (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

So also, accordingly, blessed are those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence in the community of creation characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)–they “will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions are consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also in relation to non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” as God inhabits these righteous relationships. And, finally, blessed are the makers of peace: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity”; nor, for that matter, the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped by neither ethnicity nor species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of the triune God.

Which brings us to the final two beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). Jesus returns here to the power struggle identified in the first two beatitudes, that of encountering the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in these beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back” warns Carter. But the reward of those persecuted on account of Jesus is, again,  “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” that is, in God’s presence, God’s own righteous response to the faithfulness that such action exhibits. The reviled participate in the “completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire” (Carter, p. 136).  These last two beatitudes thus clearly anticipate Jesus’ own persecution and death, in which, as our second reading from I Corinthians reminds us, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,”  divine “foolishness” that is “wiser than human wisdom,” and holy “weakness” that is “stronger than human strength,”  are manifest in “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”   It is in this power that the restoration of all creation will be accomplished; and to share in this power is to be empowered in God’s love for the creation.

The Day of Pentecost in Year C (Ormseth)

God’s love of life and delight in creation should serve as a model for humanity’s role in the world.

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

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

Day of Pentecost in Year C
Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b (30)
Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21
John 14:8–17 [25–27]
Acts 2:1-21 and Psalm 104:24-34, 35b are coupled for reading on the Day of Pentecost in all three years of the lectionary cycle. In addition, as in year B, the second lesson is from Romans 8. Our comments in this series on the readings for Day of Pentecost in Year A, and especially in Year B are accordingly helpful background for appropriating the care of creation dimension of the readings for this festival Sunday.  As we noted there, Arthur Walker-Jones characterizes the psalm, “one of the longest creation passages” in the Bible, as a portrayal of the “direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures.” In as much as “God is the spirit of life in all creation,” there is no need for mediation by either King or temple, because God’s presence “is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year A; the quotation from Walker Jones is from his The Green Psalter, p. 120). “First in Jesus,” we suggested, “then in the Spirit of Jesus, access to God is open everywhere” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year B). Once again, the significance of this universal availability of God’s presence will not be lost on those who have followed our argument concerning the displacement of the Jerusalem temple as the locus where heaven meets earth onto Jesus, as key to understanding how the narrative concerning Jesus comes to provide fundamental orientation to creation.

The second reading from Romans 8:14-17 provides the bridge from that universal presence of the Spirit to God’s care for all creation. As we also noted in our comment on the Day of Pentecost for Year B, Romans 8 is embedded in a major Pauline narrative according to which the hope for creation is focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons/children of God.” As David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate argue in their Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis,  Romans 8 is “a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17).” The children of God are leading characters of the narrative, they argue, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused. Thus are the children of God “led by the spirit of God,” “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14, 17)” are crucial agents for the progression of the story of creation from groaning to freedom (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, Greening Paul.  Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010; p. 83).

Read in the context of this narrative of liberation, a key insight to be drawn from the readings for the Day of Pentecost in Year C is that while the Spirit who is the source of the church’s life is clearly the Spirit of Christ, that Spirit is also the Spirit of the Creator of all things. The reading from John asserts the identity of Jesus with the Father, an identity that is revealed more in his works than in his being (John 14:11) (Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI. New York: Doubleday, 1970; p. 632). But the works of the Father, Psalm 140 reminds us, are “manifold” (v.24)—all that the psalmist has listed out in his first twenty-three verses. And as v. 30 expresses so smartly, if poetically these works are to the benefit of all creation:  ‘When you send forth your spirit, they”—i.e. “your creations,” “living things both small and great (vv. 24, 25)—are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (v. 30.) The psalm, in other words, praises God for both creation and the restoration of creation, sounding a great theme for the day, to be sure, but also for the ongoing life of the church, living, as it must, by the creative power of the Spirit.

Following an argument of Walter Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament, we saw earlier in this series of comments on Year C that the worship of God in biblical perspective provides right orientation to creation. For Israel, Brueggemann suggests, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced” is public worship. Creation should not be “understood as a theory or an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” While “creation” may thus be an experience of the world, ‘in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman urges, “permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press. 1997; pp. 533-34).

The repeated use of Psalm 104 as the psalm for the Day of Pentecost affirms that this understanding holds true also for the new community of Christ. Indeed, the act of reciting the psalm serves to transmit the capacity for restoration of the relationship between the children of God and God’s creation from the worship of Israel to the worship of the church. The psalm is itself an act of worship that models this reorientation. As William P. Brown shows in his excellent book, Psalm 104 presents the creation “not from the creator’s perspective but from the creature’s, specifically from the standpoint of Homo laudans, ‘the praising human.’” With poetic energy, the psalm “bursts at the seams with joy as it celebrates creation’s manifold nature,” moving from a delineation of ‘the broad structures or domains of creation” to “detail various life forms and their habitations.” Descending from the “divine realm (vv. 1-4 to the earthly domain, including the watery depths (vv. 6-9, 25-26) and the land (vv. 10-18), the psalmist emphasizes “God’s provision for all life (vv.27-30; cf. Gen 1:29-30)” (Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 144).

Psalm 104, Brown shows, can be particularly effective in the church’s response to the global ecological crisis. The psalm stands alongside Genesis 1:1-2:3 and five other major texts (Genesis 2:4b-3:24, Job 38-41, Proverbs 8:22-31, Ecclesiastes 1;2-11; 12:1-7, and Isaiah 40-55) as pillars on which biblical teaching on creation can be aligned with contemporary biological science and an ecological ethic. The “most extensive creation psalm in the Bible,” Brown suggests, significantly shades its praise of God by recognition of the existence of suffering and evil in the creation. “The psalm acknowledges the ever-resent possibility of famine (v. 29), as well as earthquake and volcanic activity. It’s “wide-eyed wonder over nature’s goodness and God’s grace” is balanced by recognition that “a dark cloud looms on the horizon.” “After celebrating the sheer diversity of life, the psalmist exhorts God to vanquish the wicked.” Often considered a blemish on a perfect poem, this aspect of the psalm made sense for the ancient listener “in a less than perfect world;” “By cursing the wicked, the psalmist transfers the evil chaos traditionally assigned to mythically monstrous figures such as Leviathan and places it squarely on human shoulders. Conflict in creation, the psalmist acknowledges, is most savage among the distinctly human beasts.” This “grim petition” thus. . . rescues the psalm from seeing the world through rose-colored spectacles. The psalmist acknowledges, moreover, both predator and prey.  Here is an authentic assessment of creation as it stands, not as it once was in some pristine state or as it will be in future fulfillment. It is a world in which the purveyors of chaos are not mythically theriomorphic—monsters made in the image of animals—but monstrously human.

Consistent with Brueggemann’s description of the function of worship in relationship to a “world experienced as not good,” the psalmist “aims not to provide information about how the world works but to motivate the reader to praise God and . . . to sustain God’s joy in creation (v. 31b)” (Brown, Seven Pillars, p. 145).

In the verses that precede our reading, the psalm presents a complex sketch of the “character of creation.” Light is viewed not as the first act of creation but rather as an attribute of God: “every dawn could be construed as an act of self-clothing.” The unfurling of the fabric of the heaven “is tantamount to ‘clothing’ that God cannot afford simply to shed without donning something new. No naked God is the creator. According to the psalmist, creation is not God’s body, but neither is it disposable rags.” This intimacy of God’s participation in creation is reflected also with respect to the waters: divine action to restrain them (vv. 7-9) “makes possible the provision of flowing streams for quenching thirst, providing habitation, and ensuring the earth’s fertility. The combination of stream and soil results in the provision of life and enjoyment.” Amidst the fulsome reference to animal creatures, trees are prized here not for the lumber required for human empire but rather for the hospitality they provide for birds. So also God “provides drink to the wild animals” (v. 11), “waters the mountains” and “the trees” (vv. 13, 16), causes “grass to grow for the cattle” (v. 14), provides bread, wine, and oil for human beings (v. 15, and supplies “prey for the lions” (v. 21) as well as food for all creatures “in due time” (v. 27). God’s “open hand” and “renewing breath” are evocative images of such provision (v. 28) (Seven Pillars, pp. 145, 146).

Thus, Brown concludes, “the earth is not just ‘habitat for humanity’ but habitat for diversity.” The psalm “views creation in thoroughly eco-centric terms; the earth is created to accommodate myriad creatures great and small, people included. The earth is host and home to all living kind, and as such it is a source of joy.” The joy creation gives to its Creator is perhaps the most striking aspect of this reading. “Novel to this biblical psalm,” Brown urges, “is the claim that creation is sustained not by God’s covenantal commitment but by God’s unabashed joy.” “The solemn formulation of self-restraining order” of covenantal fidelity is replaced here by “joy-filled poetry of praise.” Consequently, the “psalmist’s commendation of divine joy in v. 31b smacks of urgency. By ceasing to rejoice, God could at any moment turn creation back into a quivering mass of chaos.” Enter a new role for Leviathan, the monster of the deep: “more than any other creation” Leviathan elicits “God’s rapturous joy.” With no hint of animosity in the relationship, “Leviathan is God’s playmate!” Indeed, the monster. . . brings out God’s playful side.  But godly play is no isolated moment in God’s engagement with the world. To the contrary, it supports all creation.  Play makes for creativity. Were this monster of the deep to resume its traditional role as primordial adversary, then God’s delight would cease and the ancient script of chaos battle (Chaoskampf) would be replayed. The joy of play would be replaced with violent struggle, like children turning an innocent game of cops and robbers into something far too serious (Seven Pillars, pp. 149-150).

Humanity, take note: “From the psalmist’s perspective, it is the ‘wicked’ who refuse to play and choose instead to struggle against God and the created order. They are the purveyors of chaos, not Leviathan.” “ As the choirmaster of praise, the psalmist calls readers to take on humanity’s true nature not simply as Homo sapiens but as Homo laudans, the praising human, in the hope that God remains the Deus ludens, the God who plays to sustain creation” (Seven Pillars, p. 151). At home in an earth “uncannily fit for life”  but threatening the very diversity that God so enjoys, humanity risks . . . destroying precisely that which the psalmist celebrates and commends to God’s enjoyment: habitats and their diverse inhabitants. By eliminating habitat and inhabitant, we are diminishing creation’s rich diversity, reducing creation to one big godforsaken bore and in so doing, turning God’s “Joy to the World” in God’s grief for the world (Seven Pillars, pp. 158-159).

With the sixth great extinction of earth’s biological species looming on the horizon of earth’s future, we might suggest, the tongues of fire of the Pentecost experience take on new meaning. Marks of divine love, they signal that God’s biophilia [love of life] should serve as a model for humanity’s role and presence in the world:

[T]o feed the flame of biophilia, both God’s and ours, we must preserve and sustain creation’s biodiversity.  If Leviathan falls, then so do we all. If creation’s wondrous variety is diminished, then the psalmist’s worst fear is realized: creation left to wither away. It is incumbent upon God’s most powerful creatures to ensure that divine delight is sustained so that the world be sustained. As long as the psalmist rejoices in God and God rejoices in creation, the delight shared between creator and creature continues to sustain the world (Seven Pillars, p. 159).

With the worship of the church on the Day of Pentecost and after, it does continue!

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

 

 

The Second Sunday After Epiphany in Year C

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

By Tom Mundahl

Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

As we continue the Season of Epiphany our festivity does not abate. This week’s readings point us toward an even greater focus on celebration. Perhaps an appropriate theme for our worship and preaching is suggested by the antiphonal verse for the appointed psalm: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8). Despite the power of self-interest and deceit described in 36:1-4, God’s steadfast love (hesed) carries the day (Psalm 36:5-10). And it is clear that this abundance is not limited to those who have mastered temple liturgy: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7b).

In fact, the scope is even wider: humans and animals “may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36: 6, 7). This abundance of steadfast care has its source “in the fountain of life” so bright that “in your light we see light.” The creator is the one who makes the very notion of epiphany—the manifestation of God’s glory and steadfast love– possible.  Not surprisingly, the language (“the river of delights,” v. 8) points us to Eden and creation itself. (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 157) No wonder feasting is central.

This week’s reading from Isaiah (62:1-5) reminds its audience of festive joy in an oblique way. If Third-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) confronts the problem of a community that has returned from exile and is sagging in its efforts at rebuilding and renewing core religious practices, we are reminded that the prophetic poetry of the earlier Isaiah is still in play. Feasting and celebration are clearly integral to the community’s new beginning. For example, Second Isaiah alerts the freed exiles, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion!  Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, holy city” (Isaiah 52:1). The prophet continues, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! . . . for your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” (Isaiah 54:1, 3)  “For your maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name . . . .” (Isaiah 54:5). As a result, the prophet calls all to a festive celebration: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, and eat” (Isaiah 55:1) (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, pp. 148-150).

Clearly the message of this week’s reading from Isaiah depends and builds on the power of this earlier tradition to support a community engaged in the tough work of rebuilding. Remember who you are: “My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”  (Isaiah 62:4-5)  No longer, suggests the prophet, will foreigners drink your bread and wine. That is surely reason for the feasting described with such energy in the final chapter of Isaiah. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

As we consider this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians (12:1-11), we hear a cautionary note seemingly unsuitable for festivity. Yet, Paul’s critique of a community infected by competition among spiritual superstars, where adepts boast of their spiritual gifts, is a necessary corrective leading to the restoration of wholeness. This competitive spirituality destroys any possibility of community cohesion.

To counter this dangerous tendency, Paul contrasts charismata (gifts of the Spirit) with pneumatika (alleged manifestations of the Spirit)) that create community tension. In a beautiful example of primitive functional trinitarianism, Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

For Paul it is not a matter of achievement and recognition, but service resulting in the common good. This is no simple totalitarian unity; it is based on the amazing diversity of gifts (charismata) distributed by the Spirit. As Hays writes, “Paul is emphasizing the importance of diversity in the church. The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds expression in an explosion of variegated forms” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 210).

As we learn more about the mutual interdependence of the faith community, we cannot help but think of the ecological mutuality of the wider creation. One is reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of the natural community as he develops a “land ethic.” Leopold writes: “ . . . quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” (A Sand County Almanac, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1966, p. 262)

This suggests that the Pauline notion of community must be extended to the non-human world since . . .humans are undoubtedly and inalienably dependent not only on each other but also on a whole range of other organisms. It has become increasingly evident that these networks of interdependence include not just our intestinal flora, the crops we might grow, and the animals we might keep, but relationships at great distances. To breathe we depend upon photosynthesis for our oxygen, to eat protein we are dependent ultimately  on the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, but far less obviously, for example, we are dependent also on the recycling of atmospheric sulfur  by marine algae.” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 212)

This interdependence based on a life of self-offering that uses the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the commons—human and biotic—frees us for festivity. Ironically, as we look farther ahead to Lent, it is also the basis for fasting. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “People should feast so they do not forget the grace and blessing of the world. People should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God. In short, we feast to glorify God and we fast so we do not glorify ourselves” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 137). This is “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

We see this common good boldly affirmed in John’s narrative of the Wedding at Cana. It may be as Raymond Brown suggests that provision of wine was one of the obligations shared by guests at a Jewish wedding. Since Jesus and his followers had totally failed in this requirement, Jesus’ mother’s chiding may be understandable (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966, p. 102).

While the narrator does not share Jesus’ mother’s reaction when the water for purification becomes the choicest wine in prodigious quantity, we are able to share the joyful surprise of the steward of the marriage feast: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). The celebration of new creation in the Word made flesh (John 1:14) goes beyond calculation and represents a first step (“sign”) in the evangelist’s project to reveal Jesus replacing the Temple as the center of worship and meaning. (Brown, p. 104)

The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was so taken by this Johannine story that he devoted a chapter to it in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. As the Elder Zossima lies on his bier during the monastery’s period of mourning, the monks are shocked that his body has begun to evidence the stench of decay, something not expected from such a holy man. Novice monk, Alyosha Karamazov, is initially in despair. But as he returns to the funeral vigil he hears Father Paissy reading scripture, this time the story of the Marriage at Cana. Suddenly Alyosha’s heart lifts as he understands, “Ah that miracle, that lovely miracle! Not grief, but human joy Christ visited when he worked that first miracle, he helped bring joy . . . . He loves us, loves our joy . . . .” And how many times had the Elder taught just this? (The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 360).

Young Alyosha now recalls that his mentor had shocked him by revealing that Alyosha’s calling was to bring joy by serving as a monk in the world. Suddenly all became clear. As he embraced his new vocation, he left the monastery and ran into the forest, joyfully falling to his knees to embrace the earth with its fecundity and decay. Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life . . . . Three days later, he left the monastery, which was also in accord with the words of his late elder, who had called him to ‘sojourn in the world’” (Pevear and Volokhonsky, p. 363).

In a sermon given on this text at St. Andrews University, Richard Bauckham claims that this sign reminds us that salvation is more than healing; it is also enlivening. He goes on: “To live life more fully is to love all life, to care for all living beings against the threats to life: against poverty, sickness, enmity, death” (St. Salvator’s Chapel, January 15, 1995). Kierkegaard’s scathing critique of the church allegedly included this aphorism: “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” But Jesus’ enlivening sign remains and points toward the source of all life and celebration.

This theme of joyful festivity is picked up by Pope Frances in Laudato Si’. In the context of reflecting on being at home in creation, he suggests that the integrity of the ecosystem needs to be reflected in home and community. “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 225). Perhaps this may move us to a more festive embrace of the Earth!

Hymn suggestions:

            Gathering: “Rise, shine, you people”  ELW 665

            Hymn of the Day: “Jesus, Come! For We Invite You” ELW 312

            Sending: “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve”  ELW 551

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you enlivened the celebration at Cana with the gift of wine. Teach us to love one another and all that you have made so that this shared joy may be of the richest vintage.

God, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.

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

Preaching On Creation: Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Mundahl)

Offering Life for the World Tom Mundahl reflects on Christ’s suffering and death.

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

Readings for the Sunday of Passion, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27: 66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The Sunday of the Passion begins the eight-day holy week, which culminates in the central celebration of the Christian faith: the passage of Jesus from death to life marked by the Three Days. Not only do the readings contain rich support for serving creation, but the gospel readings show the cosmic significance of the events—ranging from the donkey and tree branches of the entry into the city to the cosmic elements of darkness and earthquake in the passion story.

Norman Wirzba summarizes the connection between our readings and ecojustice concerns: “We discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God’s offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 126). While the very notion of sacrifice is uncomfortable to death-denying North Americans, it still is the way of the cross that leads to new life.

To grasp Isaiah’s Third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9a), it is important to uncover the world of self-deception many exiles still embraced. In fact, one of the purposes of Second Isaiah is to convince the people that they were responsible for their condition; they had lost their freedom and land because they had convinced themselves that any wealth and status they enjoyed resulted from their own efforts, not as a gift of God. They had clearly forgotten the warning of the Deuteronomist: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Yahweh responds to this arrogance with an indictment and trial immediately preceding our First Reading. Here the very notion that the LORD is responsible for breaking the covenant and selling the people off to the highest bidder is shown to be pathetic and self-serving (Isaiah 50:1-3). Since living in self-deception only leads to greater self-destruction, the verdict is a stiff dose of the truth. As Paul Hanson suggests, “the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not dedicated to avoiding offense at all costs, but to dispelling the delusions that imprison human beings” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 137). As the prophetic word delivered by Isaiah has it, “I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

This reminds us of nothing so much as the delusion of “American exceptionalism” that credits national wealth totally to a genius that forgets what once were seen as limitless natural “resources,” centuries of slave labor, and the genocide of native people. Like the exiles, advocates of eco-justice are called to be prophetic truth-tellers, awakening us to the fact that we, too, because of water depletion, resource waste, and climate change are also living in an illusion of prosperity containing the seeds of destruction.

This Servant Song reminds us that, in spite of human delusion, God does not give up on sending prophets as messengers to help the recovery of our senses. Whereas in Isaiah 42 it is the Spirit that emboldens the servant, in this Sunday’s text it is the power of the word itself: “The LORD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In fact, this Servant Song comes close to presenting a job description for prophets. The power of calling provides the endurance to confront those who meet the truth with “insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50: 6). The simple fact of persistence—“setting the face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7)—in the face of constant ridicule is the key to prophetic effectiveness (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 229).

It is through the suffering of the servant that power to transform the whole community grows. One of the great mysteries of faith is that those with the greatest ability to encourage the distraught are often those who, far from being exempt from suffering , discover special gifts of empathy and empowerment precisely in their own valleys of personal suffering (Hanson, p. 141). Again. we see life emerging from death.

As we began these comments on Lenten season texts, climate activist and Methodist layperson Bill McKibben’s 2016 lecture to inaugurate the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lectures was referred to. We saw that McKibben took as his task applying the lessons of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to the climate struggle. The first lesson McKibben mentioned was the power of “unearned suffering” (This lecture is available online at www.fateoftheearth.org). Increasingly, it appears that McKibben’s prescience was uncanny. The courage to endure in seeking eco-justice in the face of opposition from the current presidential regime can only come from a source as strong as that described by Isaiah: in our case, the power of baptismal calling to give us strength “to set our face like flint” in the quest for eco-justice, a quest that seems more likely with each passing day to require civil disobedience. This may be how we offer ourselves to one another “to till (serve) and keep” the creation.

Few texts sing the melody of self-offering for the life of the world as clearly as our Second Lesson, Philippians 2:5-11. “For at the heart of the story of creation, from its origins through problem to resolution is the story of Christ, who enters the world to redeem it, and is raised to glory as the firstborn of the new creation. Paul summarizes this story most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 172).

Named after the father of Alexander the Great, by the middle of the first century CE Philippi had become a retirement center for the Roman military, a city where loyalty to the emperor was highly valued. In the face of the dominant culture, this Christ hymn makes the subversive claim that believers are “citizens of an empire where Christ is Lord” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, p. 499). Of course, the appellation, “Lord,” was a commonplace when referring to the emperor. As Ovid wrote, the emperor is “Lord of the empire, no less mighty than the world he governs” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, p. 108). To send a letter featuring this Christ-hymn naming Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) was surely crossing the line.

But the “career trajectory” of this lordship is unlike any sanctioned by Roman culture. Instead of a climb to the top, this lordship participates in the depths of life by obedient self-emptying (kenosis). Influenced by elements of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53: 12), the Genesis narrative of disobedience (Genesis 3), and the Roman cult of the emperor, this Christ-hymn concisely summarizes the story as one of incarnation (he emptied himself), death (he humbled himself), and glorification (Gorman, p. 506).

Although we are mindful of the final verses of the Christ-hymn, it is crucial to recognize on this day, formerly referred to almost exclusively as Palm Sunday, that it was not “hosannas” all the way. To remind his audience (and all hearers) of this, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ self-emptying is the pattern of faithful life: “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2: 5).

Some years ago, Wayne Meeks suggested that the basic purpose of Philippians “is the shaping of a Christian phronesis (way of thinking) that is ‘conformed to Christ’s death in hope of resurrection’” (“The Man from Heaven in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” in Birger Pearson, ed., The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, p. 333). As we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, perhaps we could see this “way of thinking” as shaping Luther’s theology, in particular his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Early in his career as a reformer, Luther made it clear that “everyone who knows he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests” (“The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520), in Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther—Selections from His Writings, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961, p. 349). That same year, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” Luther defines this priesthood, drawing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (12:12f.): “We are all one body, yet each member has his own work serving others” (Ibid., p. 407). Surely this priesthood—offering life for the world in the name of the Christ—includes serving creation and securing eco-justice.

Even on the Sunday of the Passion, we “lean” toward the culmination of this holy week at the Vigil. Therefore, we cannot ignore the glorification in the final part of the Christ-hymn. This, too, reflects the baptismal priesthood we share. We learn that “what a priest does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now . . . . When we ‘lift our hearts’ to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). As priests we begin to see the whole creation as an altar of God’s offering. This altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 207).

We cannot neglect our gospel reading(s). The processional reading requires good participation from the congregation—energy is important (as are eco-palms that are widely available). Because it is important to begin this week being immersed in the passion story, my recommendation is reading the longer version. If it is a single reader, it should be done at an appropriate pace, unhurried. If there is a talented storyteller in the congregation willing to take this on, what a gift! Even better is a choral reading using resources that are widely available. However, the key to a good choral reading is recruiting good readers, all standing near the lectern, who have practiced together at least twice. If sound reinforcement is necessary, that should also be “practiced.”

Is a traditional sermon necessary? That is a local decision. While serving as a pastor, when I did preach I usually focused briefly on the Philippians Christ-hymn. In the last fifteen years of ministry, simply hearing the passion gospel read was more than enough. If this is done, it is particularly important to allow silence (more than a minute before and two minutes or more after the Passion Gospel) for reflection and prayer.  While this may seem unusual and even uncomfortable for some, silence is a gift of life for this unique week and always in congregational worship.

Hymn Suggestions:

Processional: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” ELW, 344
Hymn of the Day: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” ELW, 340
Sending: “What Wondrous Love Is This,” ELW, 666

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