Tag Archives: covenant

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“Coming home” is at the heart of the Christmas season. To gather with family, friends, and congregation members, to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation, to share good food with its many traditions around a common table, and to tell stories sustains us and forges our identities.

This is true even when coming home is not possible. A recent PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” made this clear. When, to the surprise of the producers of the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn,” the song “White Christmas” became a “hit record,” Crosby was initially reluctant to sing it as part of his many appearances for military personnel serving overseas during WW II. He thought the song’s inherent nostalgia would be too much for those with no hope of celebrating Christmas at home any time soon. What he found was just the opposite: that the longing for home was so central to human being that these “exiles” in this horrible war had  special need for just such a song.

The power of home and homecoming is certainly a unifying theme in this week’s readings. It is especially so in the “song” we call Psalm 147, one of the doxological psalms (Psalms 146-150) that close the Psalter. The psalmist shows us a God whose creative power is so comprehensive that not only are the heavens covered with clouds and the hills covered with grass, but this Holy One also “builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, 8).

This week’s reading from Jeremiah echoes that homecoming. In this section from the Book of Consolation (30:1-31: 37), the prophet delivers a message of comfort, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from all the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).

This new exodus and homecoming takes place in the context of altered terms of relationship. No longer is the focus on lost Davidic kingship or on the destruction of the temple. Now it appears that what is primary is bringing the exiles home and restoring them to the land (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 186). Land now becomes a covenant partner producing amazing abundance in response to the human return. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” (Jeremiah 31:12)

That this homecoming should suggest the land as a covenant partner is no novelty. Even the compilers of Leviticus made this clear: “I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, and yes, my covenant with Isaac, and yes, my covenant with Abraham I shall remember—and the land I shall remember” (Leviticus 26:42). Since the ancestry is stated in reverse order, it stands to reason that the land is the first ancestor! (Ellen Davis, public lecture, Prairie Festival, the Land Institute, Salina, KS, September 27, 2014)

But this celebration of homecoming also reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and meat—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this servanthood is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands
far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him
as a shepherd a flock.” (Jeremiah 31:10)

It is precisely homecoming that will bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the breadth of relationships its fertility implies. As the canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations,” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Following a conventional salutation, this week’s reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong Trinitarian elements (vv. 3, 5, 13).  This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.

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

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

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

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can 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 creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

On this final Sunday of Christmas homecoming, we hear once more the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (it should be read whole, not dissected!), a poem that continues the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this is prologue is likely crafted after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20). Because this is a hymn from the community, the emphasis on response is necessary and unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16).  In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us….” (John 1: 14a; Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131)

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time its communal nature can be highlighted. Certainly, the sense of the Incarnate Word “dwelling” with us has deep implications for being “at home” in God’s creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests:

“In the Christian traditions the presence of God in creation is made even more striking in the teaching of the incarnation. God becomes a human being and, in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 16).

Because of the incarnation, the promise of the end of our exile, the community responds with psalms, carols and hymns—even, and especially, on the last Sunday of Christmas. One of the most alarming indicators of social isolation in American culture is the decline in community singing. We need to learn once more the joy of singing together—and there is no time like the season of Christmas.

No matter whether we are “at home” or not, singing what is familiar, or even what newly tells the familiar story, gives us a sense of rootedness. As we sing, we also learn to hear the good news of the season in relation to the song of the earth—”let heaven and nature sing!” As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 7.).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Christ the King Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We are the people of God’s Earth. Dennis Ormseth reflects on  the inclusion of land and water in God’s reign.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentcost), Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The long awaited king comes in glory, accompanied by God’s angels. He comes to judge “all the nations”—which includes “all people, Christian, Jews, and Gentiles” He comes as a shepherd, separating out his sheep from the goats, those who follow him in care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the ill, and those imprisoned and those who do not follow him. He comes as “the humble, not conquering, king of the triumph.” Indeed, he comes as one who identifies himself with “the least of these,” and now judges on their behalf according to the purposes and authority of his Father (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 493-95).

The sheep have followed Jesus in service to the least.

In themselves, the six actions listed—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison—are, as Carter notes, “traditional (Job 22:6-7; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Tobit 4:16-17; Sirach 7:32-36; Testament of Joseph 1:5-7). Jesus performs them to manifest God’s reign/empire or saving presence in a world of sinful oppression . . . He has taught disciples to perform them as they carry out their mission of manifesting God’s reign/empire.” It is significant that as compared with “dominant cultural practices,” these actions “are nonreciprocal and are concerned for the needs of the other, not the honor and social credit of the giver” (Ibid.  p. 493). Remarkably, Jesus, as the powerful Son of Man, enacts the judgment which involves actions done to Jesus, the suffering servant. The righteous and the unrighteous alike are surprised by this strong identification of the king with the poor. Judgment of the people is based on whether they have taken on his role as their servant. The final verb of the judgment, as Carter notes, is “to take care,” which

“literally means ‘to serve.’ It is the verb by which Jesus sums up the mission of the Son of Man in 20:28 (‘not to be served but to serve’). It denotes actions by angels (4:11), and by women disciples (8:15, giving him food and drink, welcoming him; 27:55). Its cognate noun ‘servant’ names the identity of disciples as a marginal, low-status community in 20:26; 23:11 (cf. 24:45-51; 25; 14-30). The condemned have not lived as disciples. They have not recognized Jesus’ authority over their lives, despite calling him Lord” (cf.7:21-23) (Ibid., p. 497).

Followers of the king who is to be revealed in the remaining chapters of Matthew’s Gospel as the suffering servant of God will follow him in this service, and their service will be vindicated as such in the final judgment. Like those saints identified in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount, they are blessed by Jesus’ Father, and they will inherit the kingdom of God.

The needy have an ecological context, as they have a socio-political context.

Given the finality of this vision and this strong emphasis on the role of the servant, we could wish that care for the non-human creation was among the six actions in which the servant is to be encountered. As we have demonstrated in our comments on the lectionary for Year A, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is appropriately seen as the Lord, the servant of all Creation. The focus here would seem instead to be exclusively anthropological, typically so, one might lament: once more the needs of the human creature are privileged over those of the non-human creature. This focus is probably unavoidable, however, since the emphasis here is on Jesus: the human Jesus will be present in and among the representative human needy. And, in any case, these needy do have real social, political, and even ecological contexts. As Carter points out, the actions Jesus calls for are directed to meet the very real practical needs of people who were likely to be found

“among the majority (non-elite) population of a city such as Antioch, the likely place of Matthew’s audience. Among the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, the uneven and inadequate food and water supply, limited sewage disposal, the epidemics and infections fed by urine, feces, trash, corpses, decay, and insects, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt, disciples are to use their limited resources to meet these basic human needs of the poor” (Ibid. p. 495).

Among those needs, in short, are conditions that we would indeed describe today as “environmental,” conditions that impact in every way the quality of the people’s life. The servanthood of Jesus recognized by the righteous encompasses care for neighborhood as well as neighbor, to draw on another metaphor we have encountered in our readings and, finally, for all creation.

Indeed, above all, sheep need land, good pasture!

Attentive listeners to the first lesson read this Sunday will be prepared to receive this more inclusive, ecological understanding of human need. This human Jesus, servant king of the poor, our reading of Ezekiel 34 asserts, is also a shepherd, and indeed, not just any shepherd, but God, the true shepherd who addresses the need of his sheep in comprehensive scope:

As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 34:12-14).

In this vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the preeminent need of the sheep, we note, is land: fertile, well-watered mountainsides where they can rest and feed “on rich pasture.”  We have also encountered this metaphor earlier, in the Season of Easter. It’s inclusion here as part of the statement of the church’s eschatological conviction underscores the importance of care of creation in the future witness of the church; if Jesus the Good Shepherd is properly part of the vision of how God will bring all things to conclusion, not only his sheep, but also the pasture in which his sheep graze belongs to that vision.

Note the rest of Ezekiel 34 dealing with pollution.

That being said, we can regret all the more that the appointed reading from Ezekiel 34 does not include verses 17-19. The problem between the sheep, these verses make clear, is that not only do the fat sheep refuse to give place to the lean sheep (“you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” [v. 20]), but they harm the pasture as well: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” And they foul the water: “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (v. 18). The point is repeated for emphasis: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (v. 19). A contemporary analogy comes quickly to mind: the feed lots of industrial agriculture not only foul the air, water, and soil of the pasture, but drive out the environmentally-sensitive, small farmer, who struggles to compete in a market structured to favor the large scale operator. This is a vivid metaphor and very much to the ecological point: there are those who make place for others in which to live; and there are those who do not, who indeed on the contrary lay waste the space that others need for life. Social justice and ecological justice are clearly coupled to each other in this picture. God’s servant David was one of the former; so also, we confess, was Jesus. And so also, our readings insist, shall be those who follow him.

And, the promise of a natural covenant of peace

It will help to bring this insight forward in this Sunday’s sermon, if Ezekiel verses 17-19 are included in the reading, and the reader would do well to extend the reading further to include verses 25-31. The additional verses show why these servants of God do what they do; they do, quite simply, what God does; namely, they serve and keep the garden of Earth:

I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods secure. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid.  I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 34:25-31).

We are the people of God’s pasture!

Allowing that in biblical ecology the banishment of wild animals does not mean their extermination, but rather their restoration to a place in which they also can live in peace, this covenanting God promises to restore all creatures to their appointed place in the creation. God will sustain them there, in accordance with God’s purposes, in the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). There, we might imagine, they will join the angels of God in the hymn of praise appointed as the psalm for this Sunday—a truly ecologically sensitive hymn, in the view of one commentator (see Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, pp. 135-36). Thus does the year end with all God’s creatures, saints and servants, joining in praise of their Creator and his Servant: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” (Psalm 95:6-7).

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

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

Claiming the Future as Precious Gifts of People and Land. Dennis Ormseth reflects on acting boldly for restoration and healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Zephaniah  1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At first look, the lessons seem to be unrelated to care for creation.

We approach the end of the church year, and our focus is directed by the lectionary towards the end of all time. The scriptures for this Sunday before the festival of Christ the King (The Reign of Christ) bear careful reading, lest care of creation be crushed under the weight of apocalyptic narrative popular in American culture. Zephaniah 1:18, for instance, speaks of a time when “in the fire of [the Lord’s] passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist asks (90:11). And while our second lesson holds out the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it says nothing about the fate of the non-human creation.

Accordingly, when we hear the Gospel speak of “a worthless slave” who is to be thrown “into the outer darkness,” we are fully ready to throw our lot in with those who pursue the strong “growth strategy” of the first two servants of Jesus’ parable. Obviously, one doesn’t want to have to deal with the anger faced by that fearful, no-growth slacker of the third servant. His economic behavior might be a great thing for Earth’s climate, but that could hardly matter if the whole earth is to be consumed! Since we know not the “times and the seasons” and are “children of the day,” we can “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak, and enjoy the Lord’s bounty while it lasts.

Fortunately, this total reversal of everything we have come to expect of Christ the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is not the only possible reading of our texts. On the contrary, when read with appropriate attention to the narrative of the Servant of Creation we have uncovered in this year’s lections, these scriptures comprise a fine, penultimate word of encouragement for care of creation.

Injustice among humans and the devastation of the land go together.

The “great day of the Lord” described in our first reading is a place-specific and time-specific day of judgment upon Judah in the “days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1), due to their idolatry (“I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priest”; 1:4) and their sin “against the Lord” (1:17). The people, it seems, have lost their fear of God and disregarded God’s call for justice. They “rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” The people may have great wealth, but their wealth will not save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

The passage thus expresses a theme common to the biblical prophets. As Carol Dempsey puts it in commenting on this chapter from Zephaniah, “Breach of the covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but the natural world as well” (Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, p. 87; cf. Terry Fretheim’s discussion of the same theme in Jeremiah, in God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 171-74). As to the scope of this devastation, Dempsey cautions that the Hebrew term ‘eres translates interchangeably as earth” or “land,” and suggests that the more appropriate interpretation “when used in conjunction with the idea of suffering is ‘land’” (Ibid. p. 76-77).

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

Our first lesson thus reaffirms points of great importance for the story of the Servant of Creation:  while the reading does not foresee a final, all-encompassing destruction of Earth, it does say that human sinfulness stemming from faithlessness in relationship to God the Creator results in both social injustice and eco-injustice. God’s judgment is worked out in relationships with both humans and the creation more comprehensively. The reading should give us cause to tremble: We do not know the times and seasons, but the morning newspaper presents headlines warning both that the “poorest poor hit record high” and that “CO2 takes ‘monster’ jump” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday, November 4, 2011, pp. 3 and 9). Might this dreadful combination of unequal distribution of God’s gifts and disregard for the health of the planet culminate in an apocalyptic destruction of the creation, as so many environmental experts fear?  We dare not dismiss the possibility out of hand; the call to repentance in the face of this possible judgment must be heeded!

Still, if it is true that we are “children of light and children of the day,” as the second lesson says, we will also read the times as the Servant of Creation would have us read them, and “encourage one another and build up each other” so as to persevere all the more in the care of creation, both humankind and otherkind—for that is precisely the good word we take away from Jesus’ “parable of the talents” in today’s Gospel.

Interpretation of the parable of the talents is made problematic by the fact that it seems so contrary to much of Jesus teaching. Warren Carter describes the contradiction as follows:

“In this parable the master behaves in tyrannical ways that imitate dominant cultural and imperial values (25:25-30) and contradicts Jesus’ previous teaching. He rewards the first two slaves for their accumulation of wealth and punishes the third slave for not doing so. The parable takes the perspective of the wealthy elite and legitimates a ‘rich-get-richer and poorer-get-poorer’ approach. It punishes the one who subverts the system” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 487-88).

Who is this master? Conventional allegorical interpretation says that he is Jesus, who thus challenges his disciples (the slaves) to be ready for his delayed return by setting out for them the possible consequences of their failure to properly prepare. But if the master is taken to be Jesus, Carter argues, it would seem that “the gospel has co-opted dominant cultural values in picturing the establishment of God’s empire. God’s empire imitates, rather than provides an alternative to, Rome’s empire, in which the wealthy and powerful become even more so at the expense of the rest.” The strong, positive message that the disciples are “to be actively seeking their master’s good, faithfully carrying out the tasks he has entrusted to them,” has overridden all other concerns, including what exactly that good is, relative to the purposes of God. As we have suggested above, the possible implications of this for care of creation are dreadful: could Jesus have been so careless about the role of his disciples as co-servants of creation, or could Matthew have been so clueless?

The parable is contrary to the values promoted everywhere else in the Gospel.

Bernard Brandon Scott provides us with an alternative reading that rescues the parable for care of creation.  The first two servants have indeed done well. They have made proper use of the wealth that has been placed in their hands. “These servants,” Scott suggests, “are not slaves but stewards acting in the master’s stead.  From the profit they make for their master they will be able to enrich themselves, for they expect to share in his good fortune” (P. 226). Their future, following on their master’s return, is secure, as is the master’s estate.  And from the narrative of the Servant of Creation, we might interpose, as co-servants of creation, they are to enjoy the marvelous increase in value resulting from their care of that which the master has entrusted to them.

None of the options are viable—neither predatory greed nor paralyzing fear.

The unfortunate third servant, on the other hand, has an image of his master that, as Scott suggests, “deprives him of a future, for it freezes the servant in fear.” Is this image of the master wrong? There is poignant ambiguity to the parable here, Scott notes:

“The master never accepts the description of the third servant’s aphorism [reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed] but points back to the first two servants. His refusal to take back the talent implies his rejection of that image. A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? How do we know which of these two views is correct?” (Ibid. pp. 233-34).

We know which image is true of God by virtue of attending to the larger narrative of the Servant of Creation in which this story is placed. The Creator sows the creation richly and graciously and the servants of creation do have incalculable wealth to be responsible for and to take care of.

How can we claim the future as precious gifts of people and land?

What emerges from the parable, Scott urges, is “how one goes about claiming the future. Is it claimed by preserving the precious gift? Or is it claimed in the present as freedom of action, liberating the servant from an aphoristic, conventional vision that paralyzes him?” For Scott it is clearly the latter: “The parable as a window onto the kingdom demands that the servant act neither as preserver nor as one afraid; but act boldly he must. If one is to act boldly, then the rules have been changed. They are no longer predictable.” Again we interpose from the narrative of the Servant of Creation: not frozen preservation, but restoration, healing, and enhancement of a living and dynamic creation is the servant of creation’s proper role. And for that, a trusting faith, wide awake to what’s happening with the creation, is essential. It’s true: terrible in aspect, indeed, is the “outer darkness” of climate change and ecological devastation that will follow from failure to properly serve and steward the wealth of God’s creation. If that is truly the future of Earth, there will be all too much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who trust the Creator, on the other hand, can hope with the psalmist “to be satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

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

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