Tag Archives: Dennis Ormseth

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Jan. 31) in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

It’s Time!

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

The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

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

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

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

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

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

No more business as usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Time!

 The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

No more business as usual.

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Jan. 24) in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

God Is the God of Embodiment throughout Earth and Sky! Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence calling us to care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

The call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God are primary themes in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Motifs relating to the theology and care of creation are present, but subtle. Using the first lesson and the Gospel, for instance, interpreters call attention to the different and sometimes surprising ways that the call to discipleship comes. Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine address, that God is immanently present in the lives of those called, a theme we have encountered in the Christmas season and emphasized in our comments for its relevance to our orientation to creation.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The Psalm for this Sunday is a particularly strong expression of this theme. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2; “The inescapable God” is the title given to Psalm 139 in the NRSV).  Employed on this Sunday to frame Jesus’ insight concerning Nathaniel in the gospel reading as a sign of divine omniscience, these verses are linked to an appreciation of God as everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your and shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Verses 7 through 12 of the psalm are unfortunately not assigned for the reading, but are nonetheless properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

While the psalm thus embraces a panentheistic view of divine presence, the idea that Jesus shares God’s omniscience is reason enough for Nathaniel to confess that Jesus is “the Son of God.” The more fulsome theme of creative and sustaining omnipresence attributed to the Creator in the Psalm is not necessary for this confession, but other cosmological motifs in the text supply some elements of this aspect.  First, there is the mystery of the fig tree. Interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders: Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus point to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience:  Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000, p. 96). Readers of these comments, however, may recall from our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent the observation of William Telford that “the Old Testament literature “on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” Thus, we repeat what we said then,

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruit is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies.”

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

Our concern in that earlier comment for Advent was that such cosmological elements, which were commonly associated with the temple in Jerusalem, were being rendered meaningless for the Christian tradition, since the presence of God was relocated from the temple to Jesus, following the Markan insistence on abandonment of the temple. Following this theme through the readings for Advent and Christmas, we have seen that this concern was hardly justified. And indeed, the present text confirms this view once again: the fig tree’s return here, albeit now from the Gospel of John, reaffirms the link between Jesus’ mission and concern for creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern appropriate to the call to discipleship. And as Jesus’ promise to Nathanael that he” will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man,” (John 1:51) the future of that discipleship will take its course in a cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Reference to the displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus has been an interpretive key for this series of comments on the lections for year B, beginning with the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. Strikingly, in addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is more explicitly utilized here in this set of readings as well. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices:  “the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: the ark of the covenant will move on, for the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

If “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15.) It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky. (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme.)

God is immanently present in the lives of those who are called.

God is everywhere and in all times present.

The fig tree confirms the link with caring for creation.

The displacement of the presence of God from temple to Jesus is a common theme.

Christian bodies, corporately and individually, are temples “of the Holy Spirit.”

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

Planting Trees as Symbol and Expression of the Restoration of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

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

With the readings for Baptism of our Lord, we saw how care for creation is implicated in both Jesus’s own baptism and the ongoing practice of Christian baptism. In truth, “For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” We discover further implications of this assertion in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B of the lectionary: Care of creation belongs to the call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God, primary themes in these readings.

To begin with, there is the strange business of the fig tree. Why does a fig tree figure so significantly in this story? Amongst the numerous suggestions listed by Raymond Brown (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 196, p.83), interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders:  Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus points to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience: Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Craig Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000. p. 96). Readers also might recall that in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent in year B (Mark 13:24-37), the fig tree is included in a list of cosmic signs that will mark the arrival of the Messiah: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark13:28). With reference to this text and its associated account of Jesus’ curse of the fig tree in Mark 11, William Telford reminds us, in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of non-symbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given—the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Promised Land, the reigns of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming Messianic Age . . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . . “(Cited in Ched Myers,  Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 297-98).

In this connection, it is particularly striking that Jesus’ sights Nathaniel under the fig tree, with his approving comment: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This is followed in quick sequence by first, the account of the Wedding at Cana, also a picture of divine blessing, and then by the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, with which the fig tree is commonly associated as a sign of divine presence and blessing. The fig tree’s presence here in the Gospel of John, we want to suggest, provides a link between Jesus’ mission and concern for the well-being of creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern inherent in the call to discipleship.  Indeed, the future of that discipleship will take its course in cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The theme of divine presence relative to both the arrival of the Messiah and the Jerusalem temple, it occurs to us, is more important in these readings than is commonly recognized. In addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is important as well, as the appointment of the story of Samuel’s call might alert us. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices: “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: The ark of the covenant will move on, such that the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

So also with Jesus and his disciples: The presence of God, with its attendant blessing of land and people, is now being relocated from temple sanctuary to the person of Jesus. This is the import, we suggest, of Nathanael’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and Jesus’ response to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John l1:50-51). As Raymond Brown notes, interpreters have explained the saying with reference to a variety of texts having to do with the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:12, involving ‘the ladder, the shekinah, the merkabah, Bethel, or the rock;” it is “in the theme that they have in common” that “they are probably correct; . . . the vision means that Jesus as Son of Man has become the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth. The disciples are promised figuratively that they will come to see this; and indeed, at Cana, they do see his glory” (Brown, p. 91). Unfortunately, the sequence of the lectionary does not offer an occasion to follow up this suggestion with an examination of the story of the wedding at Cana; if the reader will refer to the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Epiphany in Year C, however, its import for care of creation will be clear: The marriage at Cana, we argue there, is metaphorically the marriage of heaven and earth promised by the prophet Isaiah in the associated lesson for the day, Isaiah 62:1-5.

The significance of this relocation for discipleship doesn’t end there. Indeed, if “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that already by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works,” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme).

Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine presence, that God is immanent  in the lives of those called by Jesus, lives according to the Psalm that are deeply grounded in the earth. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2). “The inescapable God” (the title given to the Psalm in the NRSV) is a God who is everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me becomes night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Unfortunately, verses 7 to 12 of the psalm are not assigned for the reading, but they are properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

The fig tree is a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. The story that when Martin Luther was once asked, “If you thought tomorrow might bring the Day of Judgment, what would you do?” He replied, “I’d plant a tree,” is  probably apocryphal; it is nonetheless relevant to these insights. “What is certain,” Larry Rasmussen notes, is “his use of the tree as metaphor for the Christian life in his ‘Lectures on Isaiah’ and specifically in his commentary on Isaiah 61:3C: ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’’”(Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 199).

In this age of environmental crisis, Lutherans could do much worse than to adopt the tree, fig or otherwise, as sign and inspiration of their discipleship. As we have noted, it’s an image with deep resonance in biblical tradition and Christian witness; it is also prominent, Rasmussen notes, in ancient Judaism, where the “Torah itself, the embodiment of divine instruction and the first emblem of Judaism, as a tree of life. It is even said that abiding by the words of Torah restores the tree of life lost in the primal act of disobedience in Eden.” But also now more than ever in our ecologically informed age, a living tree has become a sign of a healthy, fruitful earth, breathing in the carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to disrupt nature’s balance, breathing out the oxygen that is the essential requirement of all life on earth. As William Brown writes, reflecting on the results of over two centuries of intense study of nature,  “the tree of life remains the most suitable simile for describing the metanarrative of life on Earth” (William p. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 114). Planting trees in the face of possibly catastrophic climate change makes sense for people of Christian faith of all traditions, as sign of hope and faithfulness, yes, but also as servant of the earth, following in the steps of our Lord Jesus, servant of all creation.

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus had a “subversive mission.”

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Christmas in Years A, B, and C (Ormseth12)

Giving, Receiving, and Giving Again Dennis Ormseth reflects on the fullness of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, All Years 

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-2
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

With the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, the bells of Christmas ring out green themes yet one more time. The salvation for which we praise God here at the end of the Christmas season is decidedly ‘down to earth.” The repetition of the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel from Christmas Day underscores the deeply incarnational character of God saving work (see our comments on the readings for those days). But there are a couple of new notes to the music here in these texts. In the first place, if human beings have a vocation to care for Earth, they show that non-human creatures in turn have a vocation of care for the humans (see Terry Fretheim’s discussion of “The Vocation of the Nonhuman” in his God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 278-284). The psalm praises God for the extraordinary care he shows to the people of Israel, in granting peace within their borders and directing the powers of nature so to fill them with ”the finest of wheat.” The prophet Jeremiah looks forward to the return of the people to the land, when “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, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again.”

Nonetheless, it is God’s restoration of the human vocation in Christ that evokes the final praise of the season. Some did not know him, John reminds us, and some still do not receive him. But those who receive him and believe in his name are empowered to live as children of God. Indeed, “he destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” This was God’s plan for the fullness of time, our second reading from Ephesians suggests, “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10.)

The accent in both the reading from Ephesians and the reading in the Gospel is on “fullness,” the pleroma: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). Commentators seem reticent to instruct their readers as to the meaning of this pleroma, the term occurring singularly here in John, and only somewhat more frequently in Pauline literature. It clearly has to do with the giving and receiving of gifts, activity inherent in the event Christmas celebrates (and reflected more or less appropriately in the characteristic practices of the celebration), and prompts the following theological reflection.

In his book on “The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth,” David Bentley Hart describes the gift of God within the Trinitarian narrative in a manner that possibly illuminates the meaning of pleroma. “In the Trinity,” he writes,

“the gift is entire, and entirely ‘exposed’:  The Father gives himself to the Son, and again to the Spirit, and the Son offers everything up to the Father in the Spirit, and the Spirit returns all to the Father through the Son, eternally. Love of, the gift to, and delight in the other is one infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, in which desire at once beholds and donates the other.”

This infinite dynamism of giving and receiving, we would suggest, is the “fullness” from which we have received “grace upon grace,”—that is, we would additionally interpolate, the grace of redemption in Christ upon the grace of creation. Creation, Hart explains,

“is always already implicated in this giving of the gift because it is—in being inaugurated by the Father, effected by the Son, and perfected by the Spirit—already a gift shared among the persons of the Trinity, in transit, a word spoken by God in his Word and articulated in endless sequences of difference by the Spirit and offered back to the Father. . . . Creation is, before all else, given by God to God, and only then—through the pneumatological generosity of the Trinitarian life—given to creatures: a gift that is only so long as it is given back, passed on, received and imparted not as a possession but always as grace. “

Creatures participate in this “infinite circle of God’s love” simply by being creatures. As such, it is “all but impossible for them not also to give, not to extend signs of love to others, not to donate themselves entirely to the economy of agape.” Only when the gift is actively withheld is it not given, and this “suppression of the gift” is sin. There is, however, the knowledge that in God “nothing is lost and the substance of hope lies in the knowledge that God has given—and will give—again” (p. 268).

Thus, we conclude that the divine “fullness of grace and truth” is ample enough to embrace and enfold the cosmic fullness of “all things,” which are to be gathered into Christ “in the fullness of time,” “things in heaven and things on earth.” God’s infinite grace is inexhaustible, and allows no final limitation by any creaturely categories, sexual, ethnic, political, nor even the most basic differentiations of living creatures, the being of species, and the non-living physical creation. The significance of this fullness of grace for both the human and the non-human vocations lifted up in these readings is this: if non-human creatures participate in the divine circle of love by naturally fulfilling their vocation of service to humans, then humankind’s refusal of its vocation of care for the non-human creation does interrupt the dynamism of giving and receiving. But that refusal will not stand. It cannot bring that dynamism of God’s fullness to a complete halt, not with respect to any creature, considered in terms of either its corporate or its individual reality (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of human and non-human “selving” and “heaven for pelicans” in his The Groaning of Creation). God’s giving and receiving and giving again of creation is finally not to be denied.

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Ormseth11)

All Nature Sings! Dennis Ormseth reflects on the incarnate God, given for all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

“All Nature Sings”

The readings for the First Sunday after Christmas conform to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary so far. The circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged, and our understanding of the reason for this praise is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Terry Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see the introduction to our comments on the lessons for The Nativity of Our Lord).  Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings. The list amply illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness: each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Why does all creation raise this extraordinary chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created;” God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably. The reading from Isaiah adds more seasonal focus to this by repeating words from the Third Sunday of Advent, words that revel in awareness of God’s saving presence among God’s faithful, an awareness that is connected to renewed vitality of the earth: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” But it is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem that gives us a most surprising justification for the praise of God by all creation.

On the surface, the story of the presentation of Jesus to the Lord in the temple is a rather straightforward tale of obedience to the traditions of Israel. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “the Messiah will emerge from within a family and social world deeply enmeshed in the traditions of Israel, a pious and expectant ‘people of God.’ His parents observe the laws regarding circumcision, purification, and presentation of the first born as dedicated to the Lord, and do so within the symbolic heart of the people, Jerusalem, and its Temple” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p.  56). Yet the observance here is anything but conventional. The temple is the holy center of national life, and the boy is brought there to be “designated as holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23). But his holiness clearly derives from elsewhere, as the prophetic Simeon acknowledges by the power of the Holy Spirit which has drawn him to this encounter with “the Lord’s Messiah.” Jesus is the “salvation” God has “prepared in the presence of all people.”

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

Fred Strickert highlights the irony of the scene: “a closer examination of the text brings to light a stark contrast between the old reality and the world into which Jesus was born and the new reality of his life and ministry.” In this sacred space, access to which was limited to Jews and only partially open to Jewish women, Simeon declares Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” without distinction or qualification. And what he has to say will be heard by Mary and witnessed by the ancient Anna, herself also a prophetess. Simeon, Strickert suggests, “sees what others would not and declares inclusion of the whole world in this place of exclusion.” Similarly, Anna, “a woman doing a man’s job,” blesses the child. “These two represent all of those without title that Jesus will meet, love, heal, and transform.” (Beth Tanner, “First Sunday of Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B 2012 Advent through Holy Week, p. 46-47. Strickert’s comment is quoted by Tanner from his article, “The Presentation of Jesus:  The Gospel of Inclusion.  Luke 2:22-40,” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 1 (1995): 33.)

The temple and its place in Jewish national life are clearly being challenged by the infant boy brought there for blessing. This challenge has been anticipated in the sequence of lections read during Advent and Christmas, as the opening of the Gospel of Mark presented a clear break with the temple-state in favor of “the one who is coming,” and the Gospel of John confirms this transfer of God’s presence from the temple, first to the womb of Mary and then to the house of the church with the proclamation of the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; see our comments on the lections for the Sundays of Advent and for Christmas for the development of this theme). In having Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, Luke might seem on the one hand to resist this transfer, or at least ignore it;  the Isaian prophecy of the first reading might prompt us, after all, to see in the presentation itself the fulfillment of prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch”  (Isaiah 62:1-2). Yet we note that even this prophecy points to “the nations” who shall see this vindication, and to “all the kings” who will see God’s glory. Just so, the prophet Simeon announces “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” and of glory “to your people Israel.” And if the prophetess Anna speaks of the child precisely “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” it is because these two affirmations complement each other. As we recalled in our comment on Mary’s Magnificat on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, God’s promises to Abraham included a blessing to be a blessing for all the nations. Jerusalem and its temple is no longer at the center of God’s story.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

If Mark suggested displacement of God from the temple to Jesus, here the appropriation of the temple and its meanings fit better here as a description of Luke’s strategy, just as it does for the Gospel of John. The temple is not without ongoing significance in the course of Jesus’ life and mission (See the list of relevant passages in David Tiede, Luke, p. 74). And indeed, its meaning for him already casts a shadow over the boy’s future here in the story of the presentation. As Simon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This foreshadowing of the opposition that Jesus will encounter and the crucifixion that such opposition will lead to is symbolized here by the mention of the “pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’ the offering of the poor which Joseph and Mary  brought for sacrifice.

Borg and Crossan’s observation about the Christmas stories being “parabolic overtures” to their gospels which, with great economy and literary creativity, serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole’” of each narrative is again well taken. In this perspective even the smallest detail may register a profound shift in perspective and meaning. For an evangelist that “is interested in temple practices and settings, and intent on demonstrating the faithfulness of Jesus and his followers to true temple worship” (so writes David Tiede, Ibid.), the matter of the sacrifices mentioned here is a bit of a puzzle. The text mentions both the ritual of consecration of the firstborn (Exodus 13:20) and the sacrifice for the purification of the mother (Leviticus 12:8).  But, as Tiede points out, “Luke speaks of ‘their purification,’”  implying that both Mary and Joseph are purified. And while the law actually stipulated a redemption price of five shekels for the consecration of the boy and a lamb and a dove or two doves for the ritual cleansing of the mother, only the later is mentioned, and the less costly offering provided for the poor is the option taken. Gordon Lathrop thinks that Luke conflates the traditions here: “the birds for the sacrifice being juxtaposed to the ‘presented’ child.” The conflation goes to support a key point of the text, Lathrop suggests, because it reminds us that the temple is

“a place of ritual killing. That the child is carried into that place makes us hear the text in a certain way. In succeeding texts in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will be spoken against in the temple (Luke 20:1ff) and his death will be prophesied there (20:15; cf. 19;47). If he is “set” for the falling and rising of many in Israel, it is as a stone in temple building (20:17-18), which is rejected and yet becomes the source and ground of the rising new temple. He falls and rises and so is the source of all rising (Lathrop, “The First Sunday after Christmas,’ in Proclamation 4: Advent/Christmas, Series B, pp. 52-53).

Thus, the Gospel of the day brings Jesus’ future suffering into the midst of Christmas. The shadow of the crucifixion darkens the entry of the family into the temple. But the story foreshadows even more; and it is this “more” that makes clear the justification for the fulsome praise of all creation.

As several commentators have noted, Simeon’s song has been appropriated to the Christian eucharistic liturgy as the canticle following distribution of the bread and wine. The words are of course entirely appropriate: in the service, we, too, have seen God’s “salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples.” But perhaps more yet is intended here. Simeon is a prophetic figure, but he is commonly represented in Christian art as a priest. This assumption is natural, not only because he comes to the temple, but also because the pattern of this story confirms closely to the ordo of the Christian liturgy. The participants in the story have been gathered there by the Holy Spirit. Simeon takes the boy up in his arms and praises God. But then he bespeaks of the boy’s future suffering and death, with which Mary is now incorporated: a sword will pierce her soul, too. Just as bread and wine are taken and lifted up in blessing, then broken and distributed, so also is the boy taken, lifted up in blessing, and his breaking is anticipated in speech inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as at her annunciation, Mary is the church, whose destiny is identified with that of the child. We who hear this story read aloud in the assembly of the congregation know ourselves to be allies of the suddenly present and active Anna, who gives thanks and who proceeds to spread the word, speaking “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

If this encounter cannot be described as the first Christian Eucharist, it nonetheless anticipates that meal with sufficient clarity to justify the praise of all creation which we join to the story in our singing of Psalm 148. Here is revealed the means of grace by which the incarnate God will be given to all creation. As Lathrop again notes, as the temple suggests the theme of suffering, it “also suggests the theme of light. This house is, after all, the ancient dwelling place of the glory of God. It is the place of light.” The new temple “of which this child is the cornerstone is not a place of killing. His suffering is the end of that” (Ibid. p. 53).

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

There is much to consider here, but, surely, we can understand that creation has reason to praise God. In the first place, in place of the practice of animal sacrifice is substituted the eventual sacrifice of the cross, which brings healing and new life to the world God loves. The non-human animals among God’s creatures will surely rejoice! More fundamentally, as a comment by Christopher Southgate (which we quoted a year ago as we reflected on the story of Herod’s killing of the innocents) brings out, God’s presence to the creation is here revealed to be a suffering presence “of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, p. 52). The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is accordingly “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil in creation—both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures” (Ibid., p. 76). Just so, since this pertains to all creatures, considered both as collective species and as individuals, all things and all creatures find reason to rejoice, and do so greatly. In our Christmas worship, we are privileged to join in their song.

All nature sings.

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

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

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year A (Ormseth10)

A Light Shining in the Darkness – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common

Lectionary Readings for Christmas Eve (2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Readings for Christmas Day 

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is in the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness. As we noted in comments on Isaiah 7:10-16, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the “darkness” in which people walk, is the “distress and hunger” they experienced looking out on the devastated Earth in a time of warfare between the nations. That is to say, the metaphor of “darkness” refers to more than a spiritual or moral condition; it points to the lived experience when the physical landscape has been disordered and its productivity destroyed by human sinfulness. So also with regard to the contrasting image of “the light.” Here the prospects for the people are reversed. As the nation is multiplied, the people rejoice as at the harvest. The people are freed from oppression; and the boots of the ‘tramping warriors” and all the bloodied garments of war are to be burned. The birth of a child initiates a lasting reign of peace with justice and righteousness. The cessation of violent destruction, coupled with the fulfillment of life as embodied in the promised reign of a wise and gracious king. All of this comprises the “light shining in the darkness.”

Borg and Crossan develop the parallel passage from darkness to light exhibited in Luke’s story of Christmas, reading it within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.”

The false character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest: “either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’” Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been told the story of this destruction by his mother Mary, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared.

Contrast this “darkness’ with the “light” of Luke’s story. The night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory.”

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one who turns the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—with the singing trees making up the chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness provided the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. The metaphor of a marriage covenant provides the link for these readings for Christmas Day: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62:4). This verse is not actually part of the assigned scripture. It would be helpful to include it for the liturgical reading, since it provides the premise for what follows. The land clearly benefits from this covenant between God and the people of Israel. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day share this premise, and extend the scope of the significance of Christmas. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: The Word that is from the beginning, is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “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” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.)

So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for both the human and non-human creatures. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2010.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

 

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Bearing God into the World Dennis Ormseth reflects on Christ’s birth opening space and time for the renewal of Earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

One more Sunday we wait for the coming of God. We have waited with hope, we have waited in fear, and we have waited with deepening joy. Now we wait faithfully and obediently, because this last Sunday of the Season of Advent, we wait with Mary. Indeed, we wait as Mary waits, having with her been addressed by the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” No doubt perplexed as she was by these words and pondering “what sort of greeting this might be,” we nonetheless receive the words with faith, and bow in respect for their import for our life together. If the Lord is with us, as the one who presides in our worship service announces, we are indeed “favored ones,” and share Mary’s conviction and joy. As Gordon Lathrop suggests,

“The word which follows such exchange tells us of God’s great grace and favor to the lowly, invites us to let fear go, and assures us of the core biblical mystery—that the God who raises the dead and creates something out of nothing is able to give life where there is none. That word of creative favor and life is the presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. We are invited to respond: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lathrop, Proclamation 4:  Advent/Christmas, Series B, p. 35).

We have, as it were, been gathered by the Holy Spirit into Mary’s company. We are Mary, and Mary is the church, singing her song, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

What do the readings for this Sunday have to contribute to a theology of creation? And what encouragement do they offer us for engagement in care of creation? The one for whom Mary waits is clearly the heir to the throne of David, ancient and revered king of Israel, to whom, as our first lesson reminds us, God promised, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” But the anointed one will not rule over his people as other kings rule, with power to dominate the lowly and favoring the rich over the poor. On the contrary, it is precisely in this great reversal that lowly Mary recognizes her savior and ours. Clearly there are implications for politics and social justice here in Mary’s song. But as we suggested in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Mary’s song is also “good news for Earth: she sings of the end of dominating powers which will clear the way for the expected ‘new Earth, where righteousness is at home.’” And there is even more here to applaud on behalf of the creation, much more.

Gabriel’s message to Mary that Jesus is “the son of the most high,” to whom God will give “the throne of his ancestor David” is the reason for the appointment of the oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel to our lections for this Sunday. It is the connection to David that commonly receives first and even exclusive attention in the preaching of the church, of course; it suffices for this emphasis that David’s offer to build a house for God sets in motion the pun that leads to God’s promise to establish a house for David, i.e. the Davidic monarchical dynasty. The related matter of the proposed building of the temple in Jerusalem may actually seem an unnecessary complication, as reflected in fact that the verses which actually anticipate the erection of the temple by Solomon (2 Samuel 7:13-16) are omitted from the reading. However, as Gordon Lathrop aptly notes in commenting on these readings, both kingship and temple together “provide centrally important metaphors for the message of the New Testament.” And as Lathrop cautions us, great care is needed in interpreting this material, because “[t]he tradition of royal ideology is only received in the New Testament with critique and massive transformation.”

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Including the elided verses in the reading of the lesson would help remind the congregation to the fact that, in spite of Nathan’s revised opinion of David’s proposal to build a temple for God, David’s son Solomon did actually build the temple. That he did so with massive forced labor (Cf. 1 Kings 5 and 6) initiates the tragic role the temple played in the religio-political centralization of the kingdom, which, with respect to Herod’s second temple, is viewed by the author of Mark as a complete disaster for the people’s relationship to God. It is therefore highly instructive that at the outset of the temple tradition the divine protest in Nathan’s oracle condemned the presumption on which the sad history of the temple is based: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” As Frederick Houk Borsch comments, “God has no need to be tied down to one place. God is instead on the move and is fully capable of raising up David from the sheepfold, winning a name for him, and making a place for God’s people without a temple” (“Advent Christmas,’ in New Proclamation, Year B, 2002—2003, p. 25). God makes place for God’s people, in order that they might have life and dwell in peace.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations: these are the gifts that God promises “his servant David”—without the temple. As we have discussed in our comments on the readings for the first three Sundays of Advent, concern that the followers of Jesus should completely sever themselves from the temple state correlates well with the way the Gospel of Mark opens, with John the Baptist announcing the coming of God, not to Jerusalem and the temple, but in the wilderness, away from the city. Mary’s visit with Elizabeth “in the hill country of Judea,” following the angel Gabriel’s instruction, serves to align the annunciation of Mary with this perspective. Thus if God’s promises to David are being renewed with Mary’s child, they are also being extended. God “has helped his servant Israel,” Mary sings, “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:54). God’s promises to Abraham, we recall, included gifts of land, great progeny, and fame, but also a blessing to be a blessing for the nations. And if Mary’s child is the Davidic messiah, he is also according to Gabriel, first of all “the Son of the Most High,” of whose kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:3). As David Bartlett suggests, this “means that Jesus’ rule extends not only forever but infinitely in all directions. That is to say, it is not the kingdom of Israel only but the re-invention of the whole creation, God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven”  (“Advent/Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B, 1999—2000, p. 26).

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

If God’s presence is seen no longer as confined to the Jerusalem temple but in Jesus’ lordship to be global and even universal, then, as Lathrop points out, our readings point to dual transformations of both king and temple at this culmination of the Advent season:

For us, it is the crucified who is ‘king,’ the center of order and peace and God’s presence.  Moreover he is ‘king’ without being any king at all, but by being the victim of kings. It is a virgin girl, not a mighty warrior or a royal prophet, who receives the new royal oracle. And the house of God is her temple, the body of her child, and the house of the church. This house is there for all people, welcoming the least ones into the center, into the presence of God” (Lathrop, p. 36).

From the movement of the Advent season we have traced through these Advent Sundays, our readers will recall that we have followed God out of the temple up into the mountains, and through the heavens. Our concern throughout has been to see if the orientation to creation that the temple represented is completely forsaken, or instead restored in a new location. So we have been heartened by Mark’s direction to look for God to come along paths prepared in the wilderness and alongside the River Jordan. We have been drawn to the insight of John’s Gospel that after the Jerusalem temple was in fact already destroyed, we should now find the light and life of a new creation in the person of one who was in our midst but is yet unknown.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

Therefore we may or may not be surprised at the news delivered by Gabriel to Mary that she should house within her body a truly holy child, one who will be called “Son of God.” But what a truly astonishing new thing, of inestimable significance for creation and creation’s care, this is: Mary’s faith and obedience call for a radical re-orientation to the finite creation as capable of bearing infinity (finitum capax infiniti)  from all those who identify with Mary. Larry Rasmussen states the significance of this re-orientation this way:

“‘God is in the facts themselves,’ said Bonhoeffer, asserting his conviction that God is amidst the living events of nature and history. His favorite quotation from F. C. Oetinger said much the same: “The end of the ways of God is bodiliness.” The meaning of finitum capax infiniti is simple enough: God is pegged to earth. So if you would experience God, you must fall in love with Earth. The infinite and transcendent are dimensions of what is intensely at hand. Don’t look ‘up’ for God, look around. The finite is all there is, because all that is, is there” (Earth Community Earth Ethics, p. 272-73).

Put differently in words that reflect Augustine’s understanding that our bodies are “the dirt we carry,” the dust of the earth from which all living creatures are made, Jesus included, reflects God’s glory, and calls for appropriately infinite respect.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

The church came in due time to confess Mary as theotokos, “God bearer.” She understood herself to be Servant of the Lord (Luke 1:38). Those who care for creation will celebrate her service to the Servant of Creation, who in his suffering on the cross served God by loving the earth and all its creatures as God loves them (For an extensive development of this theme, see our comments on the lectionary for Year A). And we will share in her calling. Indeed, isn’t this the reason for our joy this season and all seasons: at some moment, our waiting for God turns wondrously into the awareness that with Mary we are bearing God into the world? As mother and child are one, so are church and its savior one, having been gathered, being blessed and broken, in order to be shared with all the creation. In that moment, Mary’s soul “magnifies the Lord,” and so do ours. In that moment, Mary’s spirit “rejoices in God [her] Savior,” and so does ours, for Mary’s spirit and ours are joined in one and the same Spirit of the Lord, who is coming into the world. Whether as holy child laid in a manger at Christmas time, suffering servant laid into a tomb on Good Friday, or the Lord who returns in judgment and restoration in the fullness of our time, with Mary we welcome this Jesus as one who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, in order that space and time might be opened for the renewal of Earth and the manifestation of God’s glory in all that is. 

God raises the dead and creates something out of nothing.

God breaks out of the temple to be available everywhere.

Place, land, and life sustained though generations are the gifts that God promises.

God’s presence is global and universal—and always concrete.

The finite creation is capable of bearing infinity.

With Mary we are bearing God into the world.

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

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

Advent Is about Gathering for the New Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on wilderness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Again this second Sunday of Advent, we gather with heightened expectation for the coming of God. “A voice cries out,” the first lesson proclaims: “‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (Isaiah 40:3). “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” echoes the Gospel, “who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mark 1:2). Again we are being reoriented to God’s arrival, but also, as we suggested in our commentary for the first Sunday of Advent, to God’s creation: as we read in the surprisingly eschatological second lesson, we need to consider “what sort of persons [we] ought to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire[;],” for “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Peter 3:11-13).

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

This combination of texts strikes us as discordant and confusing. We are at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel and “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  But we also read what for most hearers will be a word about the end of the world: “the day of the Lord” that “comes like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it be disclosed,” (or, as some ancient authorities read, “will be burned up” NRSV note). What, we might ask, does the end have to do with the beginning? And does the voice cry out in the wilderness, “to prepare the way” for Jesus? Or is the voice itself the preparation of the way in the wilderness, as alternative readings of Mark suggest? Or does the voice call to prepare a way through the wilderness towards Jerusalem, as the reading for Isaiah suggests? Aside from inherent difficulties of interpretation that these questions raise, at stake for those whose concern is a mandate for care of creation are the meanings to be attached to the heavens that pass away, the elements that are dissolved, and the value and uses of wilderness.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

The story of the Gospel of Mark, interpreters of the book advise us, needs to be read on two levels. There is the first-time-through story of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is the eventful account of Jesus’ mission as it unfolds through his gathering of disciples, his teaching his way to them, and the conflict with religious and political authorities in Jerusalem that leads to his death. But there is also the re-reading of the Gospel invited by the direction the young man at the tomb gives to Jesus’ astonished followers, to go back to Galilee where “you will see him, just as he told you.” Readers revisiting the Galilee of the beginning of the Gospel will see things one did not notice in the first reading.

Ched Myers shows how this works with respect to the first sentence of the Gospel in Mark 1:1. On the first level, the beginning is simply what it indicates, the starting point of the story. But on the second level, Mark’s arche is also an “echo of Genesis” which according to Myers serves three functions:

“First, Mark is boldly suggesting that his story represents a fundamental regeneration of salvation history, as will soon be confirmed by his citation of the prophets. Secondly, it introduces at the outset the ‘palingenetic’ thrust of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse: this is a story about a new heaven and new earth. Thirdly, it has a specific meaning in light of the ending of the story . . . where Mark will point back to the place where the discipleship narrative was originally generated—Galilee. A rereading of (reengagement with) the story offers a ‘new beginning’ for the discipleship adventure.” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p.122).

Salvation history, eschatological cosmology, and discipleship are folded into the narrative of the Gospel. Interestingly, the selection of texts for this Sunday accordingly serves well to bring these “hidden” structures of meaning to light. The first lesson introduces relevant material from Isaiah that will help to uncover what the author of the Gospel does to regenerate salvation history. The second lesson presents apocalyptic material from early Christian tradition to help illuminate the promise of a new creation. And the Gospel reading itself engages us in the call to discipleship with a telling account of the first gathering of potential followers. We will consider each of these inter-textual connections in order. What is of special interest to us, of course, is the way in which this re-reading transforms the narrative at its very outset into a story that draws together the new salvation history, the new cosmology, and the anticipated interaction of Jesus with his followers in a narrative of the renewal of creation.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

This is precisely what our reading of the scriptures for the First Sunday of Advent led us to expect, of course. The “heavens and earth” represented by the Jerusalem temple and the orientation to the creation which its social and political organizations involved, we recall, were “heavens and earth” in which righteousness was clearly not “at home” and, with the coming of the Son of Man, will give way to the dawn of a new world “in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 323; cf. our comment in this series on the texts for the First Sunday of Advent). The beginning of the Gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the campaign for “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” And, as we will see, readers are drawn dramatically into this enriched narrative, along with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

The campaign opens on two cultural fronts, the imperial Roman and the local Jewish. The very title of the Gospel, Myers points out, is intended to serve notice that “Mark is challenging the apparatus of imperial propagation.” The “good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” proclaims ‘the advent of an ‘anointed’ leader, who is confirmed by the Deity and who proclaims a ‘kingdom.’ In other words, Mark is taking dead aim at Caesar and his legitimating myth” with “a declaration of war upon the political culture of the empire” (Ibid., p. 124).  Secondly, the prophetic voice crying “prepare the way” is indeed the voice of the prophet Isaiah from our first lesson, but with certain important revisions of the text. The “way” to be prepared, Myers notes, functions to introduce “the central discipleship motif in the gospel.” The “way” is “no mere path; a new way of life is being built [Mark’s verb is “constructed”] in the shell of the old world.” Additionally, the voice of “one crying out in the wilderness” is a reawakened voice thought by many of Mark’s contemporaries to have fallen silent forever with the prophet Malachi. But where that last prophetic word “announces that Yahweh is about to make a dramatic appearance in history,” it also “envisioned the site of Yahweh’s epiphany to be the Jerusalem temple (Malachi 3:1).” Not so Mark, who “conspicuously omits this part of the oracle, and in its place grafts on an almost literal quotation of Isaiah 40:3,” which, contrary to the plain meaning of Isaiah 40:9-10, in which Zion itself is the voice that calls the “cities of Judah” to attend to God’s arrival in their midst, also serves to direct attention away from Jerusalem. “The messenger will appear instead in the wilderness (1:3)—which is precisely where we find John the Baptist in the opening act (1:4)” (Ibid. p.127). Thus does Mark engage his second front, a polemic against the temple cult in the city of Jerusalem, which we discussed in our comment on the lessons for the First Sunday of Advent.

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

“Wilderness” is a “crucial coordinate of Mark’s narrative world,” Myers notes. It has “the principal narrative function” here in the Gospel’s prologue, he suggests, of representing the “peripheries:”

By inserting this coordinate in place of ‘Malachi’s temple (representative of the “center”) as the site of Yahweh’s renewed action, Mark creates a spatial tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces. This wilderness/temple polarity becomes explicit in Mark’s wry report—a typical Semitic hyperbole—that ‘all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem’ seek John in the wilderness (1:5). According to the dominant nationalist ideology of salvation history, Jerusalem was considered the hub of the world to which all nations would one day come (see Ps 69:35f. and Is 60:10-14) (Ibid. p. 125).

“Wilderness” is, of course, a “crucial coordinate” in the narrative world of contemporary environmentalists as well; and the reading of this Scripture can perhaps provide an occasion for reflection on this shared symbolism, for reasons shared by the semantic field of Mark’s readers: “In literal terms, wilderness connoted an uninhabited and desolate place, marginal existence: John lives on locusts and honey (Mark 1:6), and persons hunger there (Mark 8:2f).  Symbolically, it was the site of a community in flight (as in the exodus tradition) or a refuge for the persecuted faithful who await deliverance.” These are meanings wilderness has certainly had in the story of the American west, meanings which are also commonly used in the ideological struggle for the preservation of untrammeled regions of forest, lake and mountain. We wonder, however, if another meaning of wilderness isn’t significant for both contexts. Wilderness is also the place of renewal and even redemption. At least it certainly appears to have that significance here in the Markan story: as earlier at Sinai, the wilderness is the location of a new encounter with God, to which is attached a new story and a new set of religious practices. Wilderness is the location of a reorientation to God that Mark regards as necessary to redemptive history, a complete break with the temple state—and, as such, needs the open and indeterminate space of the wilderness for its thorough realization. It is the “down to earth” counterpart to the relocation of God from the temple to the open skies of the cosmos.

 In that general way, it serves needs like those we find in the much-quoted statement of Henry David Thoreau: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The wilderness is a spiritual anchor for the renewal of both personal life and civil society in our time. We cannot dwell on this topic at length here; Mark’s gospel will provide additional occasions to carry the discussion forward. However, one meaning essential to the appreciation of this meaning of wilderness in either context is expressed in the first lesson from Isaiah. When the prophet asks what he shall cry, he is instructed to cry, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The acknowledgement of being part of a fragile and vulnerable creation is an essential element in a sound theology of creation; and it is also the foundation of every campaign to discourage the human presumption of dominating and controlling nature to serve our purposes (See Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind for a discussion of “The Wilderness Cult’ in American experience; and Wallace Stegner’s brief “Wilderness Letter” in Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, pp. 110-120 for a range of meanings of wilderness in American culture).

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Mark thus proposes the regeneration of salvation history by means of a pointedly altered prophetic voice and the reorientation to God’s presence by relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology. These are coupled to the dramatic movement of peoples from the “whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” out to the river Jordan to be baptized by John. We have noted above the hyperbole of this statement. Mark’s exaggeration serves to remind us of the significance of these events in the eschatological perspective we developed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. “Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling,” we wrote, reflecting on the apocalypse of Mark 13:27. “Off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man.”  Myers suggests that as Mark “envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled,” the implied regathering at the end of the story makes the crucial connection to Mark’s story of discipleship.  The young man at the tomb

“sends the disciples back to Galilee—that is, back to the ‘genesis’ of the discipleship narrative. And how does Mark’s story commence? ‘The beginning of the gospel’ (1:1), the new creation! Like the ‘end,’ the ‘beginning’ too is archetypal, representing the invitation to join anew in the journey of discipleship, that struggle for justice in the only world there is.

So too all later readers of the Gospel are to be immediately caught up in the movement of people from Jerusalem out to the Jordan where they will witness the baptism of Jesus and the conferring of his mandate to bring about the new creation.” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 344)

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

All of which suggests a powerful theme for Advent preaching, namely, Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth. The church gathers for many different reasons in different seasons and at various times of day, but in this first season of Advent, our gathering establishes the pattern for righteous gathering in worship all year long. The “elect gathered from the four wind, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven,” “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem,” going out to John to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. When we gather as we do in Advent, at the beginning of the whole story of Jesus Christ, we gather in a way that is prototypical for every time we gather for eucharistic worship, in which, similarly, the pattern of the whole story is recapitulated in gathering, word, meal, and sending.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

If this is so, then might it not also be properly said, that according to Mark’s gospel, the Christian gathering for eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness, calling us to come out of the cosmologies that entrap us in nationalistic, socially and politically self-serving appropriations of God’s good creation? And if wilderness is the appropriate location where all this becomes very obvious, then perhaps it can also be said that Christian worship, rightly done, always begins in the wilderness under open skies, looking forward to the coming of God and the new creation that God’s Son brings, and in genuine repentance for the harm we have done and continue to do. Of that confession of sin, more later. But the psalmist is entirely correct in singing, as this morning’s psalm has it,

Surely his salvation is at and for those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground;
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
And will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:9-13.)

Elements in these texts are difficult in relation to care for creation.

Reading Mark on two levels: the first reading and the re-reading.

What the Gospel of Mark does to regenerate salvation history

How does wilderness relate to new creation?

Relocation to the wilderness and its open cosmology

Advent is about gathering for the new creation, the passing away of old cosmologies and the instantiation of the new heavens and earth.

Eucharistic worship is always a response to the voice in the wilderness.

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

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

We Await the Transformation of the Cosmos. Dennis Ormseth reflects on an orientation to God’s Creation in the season of Advent.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
I Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

A new church year begins as the last ended, waiting and watching, in hope for the coming of God’s future kingdom. Appropriately for the beginning of a new year, the readings for this Sunday are significantly cosmological. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” begins the first reading from Isaiah 64. “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth,” prays the psalmist. And with the Gospel reading we are directed to the vision of the “Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). However, the contrast with the beginning of the secular New Year to come a month from now couldn’t be clearer: instead of the eternal return of the natural world, marked is it is in this season by the fading strength of the sun, we are oriented towards the future which God will bring the cosmos. Although in either perspective we find ourselves waiting in darkness, these texts invite us to look forward in time to when all things now darkened by human sinfulness will be restored. As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

In his Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Gordon Lathrop alerts us to the importance of cosmology for interpreting the Gospel of Mark. Mark, he points out, is very “interested in ‘heaven’ (e.g., 1:11; 6:41; 8:11; 13:25; 14:62).” This interest, according to Lathrop, is driven in significant measure by Mark’s concern to break open the cosmic myths of the ancient world. “A hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere” of Plato’s Timaeus, for instance, opens the way for Mark’s own cosmology of “the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” Similarly, in Mark 4:30-32, the ancient cosmic image of the great tree of life “that holds all things in order” is broken open to reveal new meaning as an annual bush, still with room for all things in its branches, which is the cross. Most significant in our view, however, relative to our concern for creation in these Advent readings, is Mark’s treatment of “the Jerusalem Temple, that ancient symbol of the heart of the cosmos, the navel of all things.” “The temple is cleansed (11:25-19) and then held under the threat of destruction (13:2). But the cornerstone of a new temple (12:10-11) or its architect and builder (14:58; 15:29; compare 6:3) is the Crucified One” (Holy Ground, pp. 34-35).

Why does the temple hold this importance for us? First, because of its place at “the heart of the Jewish nation,” as Ched Myers puts it. “It was where God dwelt, and in it the whole ideological order was anchored and legitimated. It was the one holy place universal to all Jews, toward which all pilgrimages and contributions were directed.” Because the temple was the center of Jewish political, economic and social as well as religious organization, its existence and meaning were matters to which “every Jewish social group and strategy had to take an ideological stance” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p. 78-79). The destruction by the Roman army in 70 C.E. was a cataclysmic event which some scholars have regarded as giving occasion to the composition of Mark’s Gospel. While Myers argues otherwise (See Binding the Strong Man, pp. 417-21), he nonetheless maintains that for Mark “the temple state and its political economy represented the heart of what was wrong with the dominant system.” What distinguished Mark’s agenda over against the others who also rejected the control of the temple by the religious and political elite, the rebels leading the Jewish revolt and the Essenes who withdrew to the desert, Myers argues, was that Mark “had no wish for greater access to, or control over, the cultus—only its demise. In the same breath, he was at pains to reassure his Palestinian readers that God’s existence was not tied to the temple” (Ibid. p. 80).

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

Understanding what Lathrop describes as the “breaking of the myth” of the temple is therefore crucial to appropriating the Gospel’s message. One commentator has insightfully captured what’s at stake in framing the question that is “first and foremost” in Mark’s theology as “where do we find God?” She answers: “Not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the center of power and authority but in the wilderness.” Which leads her to pose a great question for Advent: “Where will we look for God this Advent season?” (Karoline Lewis, “Where Are We?” Commentary on the Gospel for First Sunday of Advent, Mark 13:24-37 at www.workingpreacher.org).

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

While we appreciate this perspective, what concerns us here is the possible displacement from the story of Mark, along with the temple, what more the temple represented in Jewish cosmology, besides the locus of God’s presence. Myers calls attention to “four elements of the ‘primordial landscape’” appropriated by Israel from ancient Near Eastern temple traditions: “the cosmic mountain; (2) the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation; (3) the spring waters of life, symbolizing both chaos and salvation; (4) the tree of life” (Myers, p. 79; he cites J. Lundquist, “The Legitimizing Role of the Temple in the Origin of the State,” in SBL Seminary Papers 1982, p. 171ff.). Clearly, the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation that incorporated these elements, were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation. What, we are asking, are the consequences of the relocation of God’s presence from the temple to the person of Jesus? What happens to the mountain, the hillock, the waters, and the tree of life when the sanctuary in which they are located is vacated? Are these elements of the “primordial landscape” relocated to the story of Jesus, and, if so, where do we find them? Does Mark find a place for them in his story of Jesus? Or are the readers of Mark’s Gospel, on account of Mark’s opposition to the temple state and its economy, possibly left without any orientation to creation whatsoever? This is our question for Advent:  Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation?

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain.

Our search in Mark’s Gospel is at first rather discouraging. In the chapters leading up to this Sunday’s reading, Jesus enters Jerusalem and takes a first, quick look around the temple. This visit is followed “on the following day” by the strange action involving a fig tree. “He was hungry,” Mark tells us, so “seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.” Finding “nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs,” he cursed it, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again” (Mark 11:12-13). His cleansing of the temple follows immediately; and the next day, having gone out of the city with his disciples again, they discover that the fig tree has “withered away to its roots.” When Peter points this out, Jesus responds rather obliquely, “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mark 11:20-23).

In explaining the significance of the cursing of the fig tree, Myers cites William Telford’s argument in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, in which he points out that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of nonsymbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given. . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . (Ibid. pp. 297-98).

So much for the cosmic tree, it appears, and the beneficial orientation to the creation that it symbolized: Jesus’ curse has killed it!

And there is much more to discourage any hope of reorientation to creation from him.  Faith in God, his response to Peter might suggest, will dispatch not just the cosmic tree, but also “this mountain” before them. Which mountain he means is not spelled out, but obviously he intends the sacred mount Zion, location of the temple. Indeed, the mountain will “be taken up and thrown into the sea,” thus rhetorically returning cosmic tree, temple, and mountain into the waters of chaos from which it arose! It would appear that Jesus’ followers have no need of any of these things. The temple and its primordial elements are rendered meaningless. As he says, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” The central concern will not be one’s relation to the temple and its correlated orientation to the cosmos, but rather one’s relationship with other human beings, as verse 25 shows us: Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

So will the religion of the temple with its socially and politically important orientation to creation be wholly displaced by a religion of personal forgiveness? It seems so! And isn’t it largely so in contemporary Christianity in America? In any case, when we arrive at the exchange between Jesus and his disciples just prior to our reading, we cannot be too surprised that Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple. In what Karoline Lewis delightfully calls the disciples’ “Little Red Riding Hood” moment (“Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”), Jesus assures them that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2). If this is true—and by the time most readers come to the Gospel, it has of course long been true as a matter of historical fact—what will replace it? Taking a seat on the Mount of Olives “opposite the temple,” Jesus has a stern word of warning for his disciple, and for us: “False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.” It is a definitive moment. As Myers notes,

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

Mark envisions a new world free of domination.

And with that, Jesus offers them “a vision of the end of the temple-based world,” but also, fortunately, “the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 323). What that vision of a new world is we shall have ample opportunity to discover in the year to come, but already the readings for this first Sunday of Advent point the way.

It is, after all, the creation itself that will alert the disciples to the coming of the Son of Man:  “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Reorientation in both space and time is part of the expected action to come: the elect will be gathered from the four directions of the winds, and from the depths of the earth as well as the heights of heaven. The Son of Man comes in the center of the cosmos! Upon seeing the “desolating sacrilege” that violates the holiness of the temple, as Jesus anticipates earlier in his warning (Mark 13:14-15), they will have fled from the city to the mountains. There they will be extremely vulnerable to conditions in the wilderness, having no time to fetch a coat or provide for nursing mothers. But for the sake of the elect, God will cut short that time of exposure. The main thing is to be alert to the signs in both the heavens and on earth that announce the arrival: “keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Given the assumptions of popular apocalyptic in our culture, combined with broad familiarity of the second law of thermodynamics, it is easily assumed that these signs point to the destruction of creation: the sun burning out, the moon losing its light, and stars falling from the sky.  But as Myers points out, “[c]osmic portents symbolic of judgment are common in apocalyptic literature.” The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the “desolation” of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the “fall” of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).  As this morning’s reading from Isaiah 64 reminds us, creation acts in concert with the actions and purposes of God.  The heavens are torn, the mountains quake. It is like “when fire kindles brushwood and fire causes water to boil,” moments in which recent science has located seemingly chaotic and intractable changes which nonetheless result in a new ordering of nature: creation explodes with great energy when God comes suddenly out of hiding (Isaiah 64:1-2, 7).

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

Out of the temple, God goes, and into the cosmos, from where the powers in opposition to God are falling; off the temple mount go the elect, into the mountain wilderness, from which the winds blow freely to gather them up before the Son of Man; the withered tree bursts into flame as the temple tumbles into the turbulent waters over which the Spirit of God moves: so, it seems, God’s departure from the temple means the re-engagement of all creation in God’s purposes. Is this the end? No, says Myers: The scope of the ingathering is from one end of creation to another; Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe, the dawn of a new world now that the powers have been toppled” (Myers, p. 344). And the most telling sign of this renewal of creation in God is the greening of the fig tree, which Jesus now gives to his disciples in parabolic form (Mark 13:28). All these things, Mark says, are like the greening of the fig tree: when you see it happening, you know that summer is near. So also, with these things, you will know that the Son of Man and the renewal of life that the Son of Man brings is near, indeed, is “at the gates” (13:28-30).

The leafing of the tree, Myers notes, implied for William Telford a blessing for the Christian community “as a counterpoint to its withering in 11:20 and against the curse of Jerusalem.” On the contrary, Myers argues, the narrative relationship between the two trees does not in fact suggest contrast, but continuity. Mark’s reader “must once and for all learn the lesson of the fig tree. Which was:  the world of the temple-based social order must come to an end (11:20-26) in order for the new order to dawn” (Ibid. p. 345).  The parable of the fig tree actually summarizes the teaching of Jesus’ earlier parables:

The leafy fig tree symbolized “not the kairos for fruit”; the “bad soil” (cf. the sower parable, 4:16f.) symbolizes the oppressive temple state, which causes fruit to “wither’ (11:21). Similarly, the leafy fig tree means that “summer” (or “harvest,” to theros, 13:28) is imminent. . . This was already spelled out in the seed parable of 4:26-29: the kingdom seed grows unseen, but when it yields fruit the “sickle” is sent (apostellei) for “the harvest” (ho therismos). The war means that the “moment of truth” is “at the door” for the community” (13:29) (Ibid.).

The teaching of Jesus is full of new life, not only metaphorically and spiritually, but also existentially and materially. But one must remain alert to see its blossom.

What, then, can we conclude thus far with respect to an orientation to creation in the season of Advent? Yes, to be sure, the “heaven and earth” of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds. Even as the disciples will fail in their struggle to stay awake in that garden, the reader of the Gospel is alerted to the birthing of a new heaven and a new earth in the life and death of Jesus. What Jesus encourages here, Myers suggests, is “a mythic moment of watching, however eerie and uncorporeal it may seem to us,” that was widely understood by the early Christians:

It was the cornerstone of the primitive church’s understanding of eschatological existence on the edge of history, and perhaps the most strongly attested of all New Testament catechetical/parenetic traditions (cf. Mt 24:43-51; Lk 21:34-36; 1 Thes 5:2-8; Rom 13:11-13; Col 4:2; 1 Pt 5:8; Rv 3:2). For Mark, it is the culmination of Jesus’ sermon on revolutionary patience. The discipleship community is exhorted to embrace the world as Gethsemane: to stay awake in the darkness of history, to refuse to compromise the politics of the cross. (Ibid., p. 347)

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

This is indeed a new orientation to the creation for us. Perhaps there is no better way to begin a new year. Whether or not it will make a difference for the well being of Earth, perhaps only time will tell. “Heaven and earth”—cosmologies, that is to say—come and go, as the history of science shows us; and some are more fruitful than others. One could argue that currently we are caught up in the struggle between, on the one hand, the mechanistic cosmology favored by the construction of the world according to the fossil fuel industry, which along with its deeply entrenched commercial, political, and military powers, is killing life on earth, and on the other hand, a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe. Which of these Mark’s Jesus would applaud is surely clear, if it true that his Word, like a fig tree, endures. We shall indeed keep awake this Advent season, to see what’s coming.

As heavenly powers fall, the scattered people of God will be gathered to witness the dawn of a new world.

Temple is the heart of the cosmos and Israel’s social order.

God breaks out of the Temple to be present everywhere.

Where in the church’s scriptures for this season can we find God’s creation? 

Mark displaces creation: Temple, fig tree, and mountain.

Mark envisions the renewal of everything in the universe.

We await a new ecological and developmental cosmology of life, according to which all things can work together to create and sustain the awesome diversity and beauty of the created universe.

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

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

Sunday October 30 – November 5 in Year A (Ormseth)

Called To Be No Less Than Servants of Creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on servant leadership.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 30 – November 5, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
I Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Live a life worthy of the creator.

The scriptures appointed for this Sunday after Pentecost are focused on the theme of authentic leadership. Over against “prophets who lead my people astray” and rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity” (Micah 3:5, 9), “those who are deceitful and unjust” (Psalm 43:1), and those scribes and Pharisees who “do not practice what they teach,”  Matthew’s Jesus lifts up the images of the “one Father, the one in heaven” and the “one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:9, 10), to the end that his disciples should be mindful that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). In the second lesson, Paul writes to the congregation at Thessalonica as “brothers and sisters” who will recognize shared burdens and a fatherly concern for a ‘life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (I Thessalonians 2:9, 12).

 Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

Those who would lead the Christian community into care of creation do well to heed these counsels. To be credible, leaders on any issue of environmental concern must “practice what they teach” with a seriousness that goes beyond mere show. The burden of behavioral change necessary to restore creation is indeed heavy. Sharing that burden equitably in relationship to one’s responsibility is a complicated challenge; it can probably be met only by those who are willing to forego their own claims for equity and set an example by strict adherence to principle. Especially those who draw on special authority to instruct us regarding environmental damage (climate change scientists, for example) will find that their effectiveness is proportional to their ability to demonstrate their own serious commitment to real behavioral change.

The servant model of leadership.

The most significant element in these readings, however, is the way in which Jesus again lifts up the model of the servant. Jesus’ criticism of the leaders serves to underscore the practical importance of this model: their way is the exact opposite of how a genuine servant would lead. We recognize the model as his own: we confess him to be the Lord, the Servant of Creation (see our comments on Passion Sunday). What particularly interests us here is the way in which the model serves to bridge the way leaders conduct themselves in relationship to their community, with the way Christians, following the model of Jesus, might understand the relationship of humans to creation. The servant model of leadership reinforces the servant model of human care of creation in a manner that other models do not do.

Steward as Model?

In his discussion of three such models, those of steward, citizen, and servant, Norman Wirzba points out that “at least in the popular imagination,” the model of the steward “maintains the notion that human beings are in control, and so stewardship stand in stark contrast to other environmental approaches that stress a more egalitarian view’ (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 130). “Though it serves well as a titular designation, its programmatic neutrality with respect to means and ends . . . makes it susceptible to misuse and distortion” (Ibid., p.132). The way that the model functions in human community, in short, does not work well as an image for our relationship with nature.

Citizen as Model?

Alternatively, Wirzba suggests, the model of humans as citizens in nature serves to emphasize that “we are through our bodies necessarily and beneficially embedded in a historical and biological context that, while making our individual lives possible, is nonetheless greater than us.” This model is well suited for illuminating our pursuit of self-interest in nature’s arena of conflicting and competing interests, and thus points to our need to expand our range of interest to the “health of the whole” as “citizens entwined together in a common fate” who “harm ourselves and each other if we think and act too much on the assumption of our individuality.” On the other hand, the model so closely identifies human identity and ecological context as to ignore moral and spiritual capacities unique to humans that are needed for the ”transformation that will bring our hearts and minds into alignment with the divine intention for creation” (Ibid., 134-35.)

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

What is needed, Wirzba argues, is a model that “takes seriously the imago Dei and that acknowledges our ecological interdependence, an image that recognizes human uniqueness without turning it into despotic exploitation.” The model of servant of creation meets this need. The model of servant,

“…which itself draws on many human responsibilities, can help us as a focal image that animates and is at work in the various tasks we perform. Servanthood, in other words, permeates the many roles of the religious follower, often by informing the specific practices associated with religious life: prayer, worship, and work each require, at some point, exemplification in a life of service. Moreover, to speak of servants, rather than stewards or citizens, of creation is to highlight the counter-cultural nature of the task before us. Servanthood, unlike major emphases in current cultural life, shifts the orientation of our action away from ourselves to the well-being of others, to the work of ‘making room’ for others to be, and finally to the praise of the creator. It takes our minds off the current obsession with the consumption of creation and redirects it to the work of enabling the continuity of creation. Servanthood, in short, introduces us to the long, patient labor of fitting ourselves within God’s creative work.” (Ibid., p. 135-36. Wirzba develops this theme more fully in his The Paradise of God, “On Being Servants of Creation,” pp. 136 – 145.)

And, we would add, it has the obvious advantage of authorization by the Servant of Creation, as in our Gospel reading for this Sunday!

Live a life worthy of the creator.

Care for creation practitioners: Practice what you teach!

The servant model of leadership.

Steward as Model?

Citizen as Model?

Servant as Model—in the Image of God

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

Sunday October 23-29 in Year A (Ormseth)

To love neighbor involves love for their neighborhood. To love God involves love for God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on loving as God loves.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 23-29, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it; ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)

Coming as it does at the end of a block of narrative in which the conflict between Jesus and his opponents over his mission and his authority is brought to the fever pitch that leads to his death, this saying, the so-called ‘double commandment to love,” constitutes something of an epitome of both Jesus’ teaching and his practice. Citing both Moses and the holiness code from Leviticus, Jesus demonstrates his loyalty to the faith of Israel and thus silences his critics. Again we have an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of care of creation in the mission of Jesus, if we can show the connection of this saying to that concern.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

We have previously given attention to the second half of the saying, concerning love of neighbor, most recently in our comment on the texts for Lectionary 23. With reference to Paul’s ethical counsel in Romans 13:9-10, we asked, “Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the ‘hood’ in which the neighbor lives?”

“Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor,” we urged, “encompasses all aspects of the web of relationships, natural no less than social, economic, and political.” We refer the reader to that discussion, and turn to what happens to be the more important and decisive matter of the first half of the saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all our soul, and with all your mind.”

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

In a recent discussion of the biblical meaning of love, Michael Welker makes the key points that are needed here. “If we take the time to compare the numerous statements about love in the biblical traditions,” he writes, “we are first struck by the multitude of ‘relations’ that cause them to speak of ‘love.’” Contrary to what he regards in contemporary discussions of love as “captivity of thought” to a “paradigmatic concentration on the affective person-to-person relation,” Welker argues that “[a]part from the great variety of ‘love relations’ in the biblical traditions it is striking that for centuries the love of God is strictly connected to the respect for and “attention to the commandments” or to the ‘holding fast to God’s word. Correspondingly, ‘to love God’s name’ and ‘to serve God’ (Isaiah 56:6) can be connected.’ . . . The ‘love of God’  . .  quite obviously also means to take up and pursue God’s intentions as they pertain to the good order and the well-being of creation in general.” Love of God, he urges with specific reference to the saying of Matthew 22:37,

“. . . includes, and even opens up, law-abiding and loving relationships to the world, to fellow human beings, and even to other fellow creatures, according to God’s intentions. The so-called ‘double commandment of love’ should thus not be regarded as a combination of two different basic relations, but as a strict connection that says something important about the biblical understanding of love in general” (Welker, “Romantic Love, Covenantal Love, Kenotic Love,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, John Polkinghorn, editor, pp. 130-31).

The “love God loves with and wants to be loved with” is both revealed in Jesus and made available to us through him as a power with which we, too, can love the creation.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Love in this perspective takes two forms, covenantal love and kenotic love. Both are of crucial significance for the care of creation. The covenantal form of love, Welker stipulates,

“. . . bestows a great dignity on human beings. They are dignified to take up and pursue God’s intentions in relation to creation, God’s interests in the well being of creation. They are dignified to reveal God’s will and God’s plans for creation. And they are dignified to work toward the fulfillment of the divine creative, sustaining, and transforming agency. No less is expressed in the notion of the imago Dei” (Ibid., p. 133).

But given the great “weight of love” thus conferred on human beings—“For who could claim that he or she could respond to this calling and take care of God’s intentions for the creation? Who could claim to participate in God’s strength and being?” (Ibid.)—, God also “unconditionally turns to creatures in order to liberate them out of the depths of confusion, lostness, and sin, to win them for the coming reign of God, and to ennoble them to the experience and enactment of God’s love, something they can only experience and enact as a new creation.”

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

In this kenotic form of love, God reveals God’s own “burning passion for creatures” in themselves, and “not just for their suitability to the divine plan for the world.” This love involves “a passionate interest in the otherness of the other, a passionate interest in letting the other unfold himself-herself in freedom, a passionate interest to pave ways for the unfolding of his-or-her life, all are characteristic of kenotic love.” Not just a matter of curiosity, this love

“. . . seeks to win the other for a new life in a new creation. The kenotic love of God seeks a new covenantal relationship—without boundaries, without exclusion, but with the divine purpose to win the beloved one for participation in the divine life and in the divine plans for creation. The life of Christ offers guidance to help us become familiar with these plans” (Ibid., p. 134).

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

With this assertion we profoundly agree, in light of our course of discovery of such guidance in our comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. We can perhaps sum up his argument this way: If love of neighborhood is inherent in love of neighbor, so also is love for God’s creation inherent in love for God. To love God is to respect God’s work of love, the whole creation. It is to love what God loves, with the love with which God wants it to be loved, the love which is ours in and through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This love can be exercised most directly and effectively in relationship to one’s neighbor and the ‘hood’ that we and our neighbors share. Surely it belongs to the practice of every Christian congregation to demonstrate to the community surrounding it that this is very much what Christian faith is about.

To love the neighbor requires love of their ecological neighborhood.

Love for God involves loving all that God loves.

Covenantal love dignifies our role as God’s partners in tending creation.

Kenotic love is God’s burning passion of all living things in themselves.

How can we—Christians and congregations—not love and care for creation?

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

Sunday October 9-15 in Year A (Ormseth)

It Is God’s Will Dennis Ormseth reflects on joining with the Lord, Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is the Feast of Victory for our God!

The coupling of the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” from Matthew 22:1-14 with this Sunday’s first lesson from Isaiah 25 suggests that the parable must be understood as referring to the messianic banquet. Reading these texts together in Christian worship, however, raises a difficult question for those who rejoice in God’s love for all creation.

A verse of one of the canticles of praise sung by Lutheran congregations at the opening of eucharistic worship expresses the expectation that all of creation joins in the feast that celebrates the triumph of God over all evil:

“This is the feast of victory for our God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
. . . Sing with all the people of God,
and join in the hymn of all creation. . . .”

The liturgy “Now the Feast and Celebration” makes the point even more emphatically: “Now the feast and celebration, all of creation sings for joy.” We have urged this perspective upon our readers at every opportunity in this series of comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. That the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” suggests a markedly less inclusive vision might therefore give us pause concerning this expectation. The refusal of the invitation by a whole host of humans, coupled with the final exclusion of a person brought in from the streets because he is not appropriately dressed, tends to lessen our confidence in the inclusiveness of God’s victorious love. What, then, really counts for inclusion or exclusion in the great feast? Why is the proper wedding garment the crucial factor related to inclusion? And what actually is this exclusion about?

Why the inclusion and then the exclusion?

In Bernard Brandon Scott’s view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the “Man Who Gave a Banquet” needs to be read in sequence with Matthew’s earlier parables of “A Man had Two Sons” and “A Man Planted a Vineyard.” In the progression of the three parables, Matthew “sketches out his vision of the kingdom and its coming,” which represents an “ideology of salvation history” and which “concludes, on the one hand, that Israel has rejected God’s messengers and, on the other, that the church’s good fruits show forth that it is the true Israel.” At the same time, however, this progression undercuts the apparent verisimilitude of the parables, which removes the cause of offence taken at the rejection of the man having no wedding garment. Matthew simply wants to make clear, Scott suggests, “as is most evident in his Great Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46),” that “if grace calls, the threat of no fruits remains for judgment.” The man without a wedding garment is a man “without the fruits of the kingdom” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 162-63).

The key to the series of parables is that we join God in care for all creation.

Our reading of the parables of these last several Sundays, while making use of Scott’s suggestion that Matthew undercuts their verisimilitude, also supplants the ideology of salvation history with a theology of care of creation. We would accordingly include in this progression the parable of “the laborers in the vineyard,” the point of which, we suggested (following Scott and Norman Wirzba), is that “God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing” (See our comment on the readings for last Sunday). God’s call to work in the vineyard of creation is a principle motif of the entire sequence, which invites us to enter into “‘the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head.” The invitation is “’to join God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality’” (See our comment on the readings for Lectionary 25.  The quote is from Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 155).

Accordingly, the parable of “A Man had Two Sons,” while also part of the ideology of salvation history in which the church becomes the “true Israel,” in this reading can be seen to imply that the Son who actually went to the vineyard and engaged in its care is the true Servant of the creation. Our reading of the parable of “A Man Planted a Vineyard,” furthermore, enlarges the scope of this line of interpretation by drawing on the primary vineyard texts of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 for development of the metaphor: those who reject the son reject their role as caretakers of the vineyard; and the new tenants who replace them are those who reclaim the heritage of the Son and join him in the work of restoring the creation, a near parallel to the Gospel for this Sunday.

Warren Carter explains the connection: like the harvesting of good fruits, “feasting and eating indicate participation in God’s purposes.” The readings of Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 serve to illustrate and underscore the point: the “meal also symbolizes the yet-future completion of God’s purposes when God’s empire will be established in full. Isaiah envisions God’s future triumphant return to Zion, where God will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food. . . . In the parable those who refuse to attend the wedding celebration are excluded, while those who come participate in God’s purposes.” The man who comes without a wedding garment, fails “to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king,” and therefore suffers the worst imaginable consequences because “to be called and chosen means honoring God (22:37-39) and doing God’s will (7:24-27; 12:46-50) until the judgment” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p. 434).

Just as we join the Lord in care for the poor and distress, so also we join the Lord, the Servant of Creation in unending care for God’s creation.

Brandon Scott’s treatment of this parable, which he renames “’What If No One Came?” provides an additional insight worthy of mention here. The banquet, he argues, along with the excuses, which allude to a list of reasons for refusing to participate in holy war, add to the reader’s expectation that this is the messianic banquet that celebrates victory over the Lord’s enemies. But strangely, the meal in the parable “never escalates to the expected messianic banquet, because the master is powerless to attack those who have snubbed him.” Furthermore, the master “loses his upper-class status and must join those who live in the streets.” In contrast to the passage from Isaiah, in which “the poor and distressed receive new value from being associated with God,” in the parable, the “householder cannot raise the poor up but must himself join them.” Perhaps this is the way the Servant of Creation would have originally told the parable. If Matthew, on the other hand, insists on the necessity of vengeance to restore the king’s honor, the point is well taken: it is God’s will that we join with the Lord, the Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation!

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

Sunday October 2-8 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Parable about Caring for Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the Earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; (Isaiah 5:1-7).

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land (Psalm 80:8-9)

Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . . (Matthew 21:33-34).

In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Ibid., p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a:  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard: 

“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling,  until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (6:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (6:24b).

Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Ibid., p. 250).  But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:

“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement.  In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (p. 257).

But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate. 

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this:  after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.

Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matt 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.

Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:

“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).

 Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Ibid., p. 429). 

We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?

This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.”  Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The]  parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph.  In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation.  The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)

Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.

 The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).

Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, The Kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? (Matthew 21:44).

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

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