Tag Archives: Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C
By Robert Saler

Ecumenism as Ecological Lure

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

There is a common saying in ecumenical circles known as “ecumenism of the trenches.” As many preachers this week turn to Jesus’ so-called “High Priestly Prayer” and its specific call that Christ’s followers “be one,” ecumenism in general may well be on the minds of both preacher and congregation.

The notion of “ecumenism of the trenches” suggests that, to a certain degree, both Christian division and formalized ecumenical discussions (such as the good work done by the World Council of Churches) are reflective of a certain kind of stability. When Christianity is in a stable place, then Christians have the luxury of fighting over doctrines; meanwhile, involvement in formal ecumenism, while good, is reflective of substantial resources commanded by the various dialogue partners.

But for creation care preachers, can the threat of ecological catastrophe AND the gospel promise be a way to move the conversation forward?

Perhaps we can again consult Joseph Sittler’s work for inspiration, particularly his most famous—and directly ecumenical—speech, “Called to Unity.”

Joseph Sittler’s “Called to Unity” address was very controversial in its time. Even though the 1954 WCC Assembly in Evanson, IL had already tasked a number of theologians (including Sittler) to consider the issue of Christology in relation to church unity in preparation for 1961, Sittler’s argument—that the future of the church’s proclamation depended upon understanding the planet not simply as the site of God’s creation but also as the site of Christ’s redemption—did not go over well. It went against too many established theological categories.

Despite its lukewarm reception in the early 1960’s, the speech soon came to be regarded as a crucial opening salvo in Christian concern for environmental matters. Since most historians of environmentalism would identify the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as a watershed moment in the American public’s awareness of ecological degradation, the fact that Sittler was writing about environmental concerns as early as the mid-1950’s generally warrants him at least a footnote as a “pioneer” in the writings of contemporary ecologically-oriented theologians. And to the extent that Sittler’s speech can be understood as calling for a kind of “ecumenical environmentalism,” then we can say that his vision has come largely to fruition in the work of theologians and churches (including the ELCA and the LCMS) who have taken up the challenge of relating Christian discipleship to care for creation.

Central to Sittler’s legacy is the idea that the work of creation care happens best when it is related to central questions about how Christians understand God’s work of redemption in the world, inaugurated in Jesus Christ and continued in the work of the Spirit and Christ’s church. As he put it:

A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his [humanity’s] home, his definite place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor, and in caring relationship with nature, his sister.”1

This theme of understanding redemption as encompassing all of creation such that nature is not simply the disposable backdrop against which the drama of human salvation history plays itself out (as in the Left Behind series, as well as in much popular eschatology stemming as far back as Origen), but rather as an integral part of our human identity and the identity of God’s kingdom—to the point that salvation makes no sense apart from the context of redeemed creation itself (as in the Book of Revelation)—has informed the best contemporary ecological theology.

Moreover, Sittler’s vision runs even deeper than simply the strategic shared activism of church bodies. It is MORE than just ecumenism of the trenches! According to him, the unity toward which the church is both “thrust and lured” is best articulated by means of a “Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.”

What Sittler’s speech hints towards is not simply a coming “ecumenical environmentalism” but also the possibility of an “environmental ecumenism,” one in which the sort of ecumenical work to which Sittler devoted much of his career (and with which the WCC remains charged) operates with an expanded imagination concerning the body of Christ existing in greater degrees of interconnection around the shape of the world’s need and the ongoing scope of God’s salvific work.

The burden of a challenge toward “environmental ecumenism” would perhaps move us past the old saw that “doctrine divides but service unites” towards a more theologically robust sensibility of incarnation: that to enter into deeper modes of understanding the church Christologically allows us to engage what Sittler calls humanity’s “strong ache” in a world in which nature’s plasticity to human desires has, ironically, constituted nature itself as a new kind of threat—particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable humans on the planet. If ecumenical unity is a future reality to which the present is nonetheless continually “lured,” then Sittler’s speech invites us to think about how this present lure can be comprehended most fully by continually relating our ecclesiology to our Christology, and vice versa.

And for the preacher who wishes to capture the congregation’s imagination as to what can be possible when ecological catastrophe is taken as a “unifying” threat, but also what can be possible when God’s redemption is seen as impacting all of creation, the lure is to try to find ways to make that vision real for the congregation. What rivers near you need to be saved? What are the ways in which divisions among us as citizens of the planet—race, class, income, geographic area, etc.—spill over into churches? What would healing look like?

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (Mundahl)

We strive to enable all members of creation to be what God intended them to be.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013 

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C

Acts 16:16–34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21
John 17:20–26

Once again, today’s psalm sets the theme for our reflections. As an “enthronement psalm,” Psalm 97 celebrates God’s justice and concern for humankind and the whole of creation. Because of God’s being and the action stemming from it, the psalm exhorts: “Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!” (Psalm 97: 1). In a worldview altered by the praise of God, the psalmist can say with confidence: “The LORD loves those who hate evil; he guards the lives of the faithful; he rescues them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalm 97: 10).

We see such a ‘rescue operation’ clearly in our First Reading. As Paul and associates continue their stay in Philippi, they encounter a slave girl with a gift of fortune-telling that provides an attractive income stream for her owners. Yet, she was drawn to Paul, whom she saw as a “fellow slave,” but, in his case, a slave to the Most High God. After being hounded by this young seer for many days, Paul exorcises her (Acts 16: 18).

Because this is nothing short of economic calamity for the slave-owners, they haul Paul and Silas into court on charges of ‘anti-Roman practices,’ charges that lead to beating and imprisonment. The ‘anti-Roman practices,’ of course, consist entirely of freeing this slave-girl from life as an income-producing ‘commodity’ for the owners. While slavery was an accepted part of Roman life and a vexing problem for early believers, the “commodification” of her “talents” makes one wonder where the real ‘demon’ was.

This challenge is nothing new to biblical studies or modern critical analysis. When the only value this young girl has is the capacity for earning money from fortune-telling, we see what Marx called “an inversion of value” (cf. Curtis White, The Barbaric Heart: Faith, Money, and the Crisis of Nature, Polipoint, 2009, p. 143). That is, instead of seeing money as a “means of exchange” in the service of the “intrinsic value” of people and nature, money is seen as “intrinsically of highest value” and people and creation are seen as “means” to enhancing income. Of course, this is the problem with slavery and most economic regimes, a problem intensified in our text. This is, apparently, why Paul frees the slave-girl and treats the jailer with dignity. Human beings, like all creation, carry inherent value.

We see a similar concern in Wendell Berry’s essay, “What Are People For?” He answers his question by claiming that as people bearing God’s image, we are called to be “caretakers.” The consequence of failing to do this is clear, especially in the rural areas of the United States that he knows so well. “That our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that, as farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were in the time of the Dust Bowl” (What Are People For? Essays By Wendell Berry, North Point, 1990, pp. 124- 125). When we cease to care for one another and creation, we transform each other and creation into ‘commodities’—mere resources for waste and exploitation.

This certainly contrasts with the vision of the New City we see in the final chapters of the Apocalypse. John of Patmos passes along a vision that not only provides hope for the audiences of Asia Minor, but suggests an urban center that achieves the ancient ideal of harmonizing city and countryside (Barbara Rossing, “The River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem,” Currents in Theology and Mission, December 1998, p. 498). Berry would, no doubt, approve. The imperial claim to be “Roma Aeterna” has been shown to be groundless; Rome will fall and be replaced. Yet, in spite of these chapters filled with visionary hope, John’s ‘readers’ must continue to live in the midst of oppression, just as we must continue to struggle with forces that threaten God’s creation.

Even though many argue convincingly that we are at “the end of growth” as conventionally understood (see Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth, New Society, 2011, and live far beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity, the response of the Christian community has been painfully modest. We need to listen to Ulrich Duchrow’s question: “Does the church champion the life of all human beings and of the whole earth, or does it side with the global economic system which at least tolerates and even automatically causes the death of many and the destruction of the earth by the mechanisms so structured?” (Global Economy: A Confessional Issue for the Churches? Geneva: WCC, 1986, p. 179)

What can the Apocalypse offer to those in ancient Asia Minor or to us in the contemporary “developed” world as a source of hope and courage? Today’s reading seems to describe a worship service where the Risen One sends a messenger (angel) with “testimony for the churches” (Revelation 22:16), a phrase pointing to the “word” portion of the liturgy. This is followed with a two-fold invitation: “come,” come to the table. (Revelation 22:17).  “This was probably the invitation to the holy communion feast or Lord’s Supper, a foretaste of the Lamb’s marriage banquet and the gifts of the beloved city” (Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, Westview, 2004, p. 162). Not only is this a “foretaste of the feast to come;” it seems to augur a glimpse of the New and Beloved Community strong enough to encourage both resistance and constructive action. Like the meal, this is “down-to-earth” hope that lives in the trenches of struggle nourished by the ‘water of life’ given as “gift.” (Revelation 22: 17b)

The hope and courage experienced by those who gather around the table is also closely related to the unity Jesus calls for in our Gospel Reading from the High Priestly Prayer. Not only do we hear Jesus praying “that they all may be one” (John 17: 21), we begin to see that because this unity is modeled on that between Father and Son, “this unity should allow for diversity . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Doubleday Anchor, 1970, p. 775). We would suggest that this ‘ecological principle’ includes all of creation.

Perhaps a helpful way to look at this unity in diversity is to remember John of Patmos’ description of the New City, “where there will be no more night; they will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light . . . “ (Revelation 22:5). Surprisingly, this recalls nothing so much as the first Sabbath—the seventh day of creation—where all things were brought together by the gift of menuha, “rest.” What stands out in this strongly liturgical first creation narrative is that it also concludes with no night! (Genesis 2: 1-3).

One cannot help connecting this creation litany and the description of the New City. They both celebrate the unity of God, humankind, and creation—in the absence of darkness. While John of Patmos’ account could be read as an “end of history,” it may be better seen as the “fulfillment of history” or a Sabbath of Fulfillment, where an interdependent dance of harmonious unity—shalom—is celebrated.

Moltmann designates what we call Sabbath Fulfillment as a ‘final Shekinah’ of God’s permanent dwelling. He writes: “The eschatological Shekinah is the perfected Sabbath in the space of the world. Sabbath and Shekinah are related to each other as promise and fulfillment, beginning and completion. In the Sabbath, creation holds within itself from the beginning the promise of consummation.  In the eschatological Shekinah, the new creation takes the whole of the first creation into itself, as its own harbinger and prelude, and completes it.  Creation begins in time and is completed in space.” (The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, Fortress, 1996, p. 266).

Norman Wirzba has continued this theme of Sabbath Fulfillment and suggests: “What this means economically is  revolutionary, for if Sabbath joy, peace, and delight represent the perspective in terms of which we are to judge practical affairs, then it is  clear that the utilitarian, grasping, anxiety-ridden ways of our culture must be transformed. (Author’s note: think of the slave-owners’ anger in the lesson from Acts!). Since the goal of our lives, and the goal of all creation, is to share in the menuha (Sabbath rest) of God, then our work no less than our play must consciously strive to enable all members of creation to fully be what God intended them to be” (The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 173)

Tom Mundahl, Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN            tmundahl@gmail.com.

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

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Mundahl)

Being “at home” involves our connection with God and our relationship with the natural world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22:1-5
John: 23-29

Last week, I watched the Mississippi pour over St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis looking down from the observation deck of the Mill City Museum, an institution celebrating the city’s past as the premier milling center in North America. Recent snow melt had transformed the river, which had been at a near-record low flow last summer, into a mighty force promising downstream flooding.

Despite the wild unpredictability of rivers, cities and towns throughout the world are built on their banks to enjoy water resources, ease of transportation, and the beauty of flowing water—in a word, celebrating the life that comes from water. Even though Psalm 67 does not reference water, without precious rain, the blessing of God that results in the “increase” of the earth could not be experienced (Psalm 67: 6).

We see this ‘water life’ explicitly in our readings from Acts and Revelation. Paul finds himself mysteriously guided to Philippi in the north of Greece, where he and his companions join the Sabbath worship of a group of women on the banks of the river outside the gates of the city (Acts 16: 13). While there, it seems that Paul assumed the seated position of teacher and was so persuasive that several were baptized.

Among the baptized was Lydia, a woman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who had built a business in died fabric (“purple goods”). Not only was Lydia moved by Paul’s teaching, but in words reminiscent of the disappointed Emmaus travelers (Luke 24: 12-35), her “heart was opened” (Acts 16: 14) much like the eyes of the Emmaus couple were “opened” (Luke 24: 31). Again, just as the Emmaus travelers had “pressed” the fascinating traveler to stay with them (Acts 16: 15), so here Lydia “presses” Paul and his friends to stay with her. (Luke 24: 29) (see Barbara Rossing, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001 (Fortress, 2001), p. 48). Perhaps this deliberate parallelism underscores the importance of Paul spending his first night in the home of Gentiles as the Spirit continues to “open” doors of understanding and hospitality.

It may be that Lydia’s hospitality aimed at more than provision of lodging. Philippi was a colonial center that had been intentionally populated by Roman officers (the term describing the distribution of local property to officers was “centuriating”) to insure loyalty of this important gold mining center. As Paul and his associates were soon to discover, it did not take much to disturb the pro-Roman equilibrium and earn a jail term! (Acts 16: 16-40).

But most important is the encounter between Paul, Lydia, and the Philippian women. To this day, Lydia is honored as the founder of that historic ‘church.’ As they all “went down to the river to pray,” Paul’s storytelling resulted in many being ‘bathed’ in the waters of baptism underscoring the strong alliance between ‘river water’ and Word necessary to  nurture the life of a new, European  faith community.

When John of Patmos encounters one of the seven angelic messengers and is carried away to “a great, high mountain” (Revelation 21: 10), it is not to be closer to the heavenly realm, but to gain perspective on God’s earthly locus—the New City. While economy in readings can be a virtue, the omission of so much of what is revealed to John (Revelation 21: 11-27) is unfortunate and may be corrected—especially by a good reader.

But there is no doubt that the version of our text requires us to focus on “the river of the water of life” that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb in the center of the city (Revelation 22: 1-2). This contrasts explicitly with what John’s audience may have imagined would flow from the throne of the emperor in the center of Rome. Unlike Rome, with its many temples dedicated to a variety of gods that served as ideological support for the state, in this city there is no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21: 22).

Barbara Rossing suggests that the focus on green space and God’s river of life (Revelation 22: 1-5) follows Ezekiel (47: 1, 12) in recreating the Garden of Eden at the heart of this thriving urban landscape (Rossing “Series B: The Spirit Series: Fourth Sunday in Creation: River Sunday,” unpublished paper, p. 9).  While Ezekiel imagines the river of life flowing from the temple, here it flows from the throne of God and the Lamb found at the heart of the city. The fruit trees Ezekiel envisions on both banks of “the river” become the “tree of life” (Revelation 22:2), invoking ‘Paradise’ traditions. Not only does the fruit of this tree of life satisfy the hunger of all the faithful (Revelation 2: 7)—overcoming the prohibition of Genesis 3: 22—it offers leaves for the healing of all, the “healing of the nations” (Revelation 22: 2/Rossing, p. 10).

It also becomes clear that the arrogant notion of Roma Aeterna (“eternal Rome”) will come to an end. It is God who reigns forever, not the Roman Empire. But God will not be alone in this “reign.” The “servants” who worship God “will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 22: 5). Combining this ‘Paradise’ tradition with reign by God’s servants suggests that the failure to “till and keep” the ‘Garden Earth’ (Genesis 3) will be reversed. Clearly, this is something to live toward today.

Most of our rivers today are not “rivers of life.” The Mississippi flows relatively cleanly until it reaches the Twin Cities. Then, prodigious dumping of bacteria, phosphorus, sediment from the  Minnesota River, nitrates, and chemicals such as triclosan and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) challenge the health of all life dependent on this mighty waterway (Friends of the Mississippi River, State of the River Report, 2012).  Restoring this river that serves as watershed for 41% of the continental U.S. could not be more important.

Equally significant are the movements to ‘uncover’ rivers and streams that have been covered up by excessive urbanization. In Berkeley, CA, several creeks have been “daylighted” to the delight of residents, who now are more likely to comprehend the reality and importance of “watershed” connections (Richard Register, Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, p. 120, 142). These efforts remind us both of the need to restore rivers and the joy waterways can bring to cities as we live toward the New City.

“Nesting” seems to be one of the goals of care for creation. All creatures need a home, and that theme certainly is sounded with clarity in our gospel reading. When asked “how will you reveal yourself to us when you have gone away?” Jesus replies: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14: 23). This, apparently, will be effected by the gift of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will remind believers of these promises and presence, a reminding that brings this “homemaking presence” with it.

Once more, we see that the goal is not to lift God’s people away from creation, but to make them feel “at home” with the Trinity which dwells in creation. Crucial to being “at home” is this congruence between our connection with God and our relationship with the natural world.  When this happens, we not only experience the promised “peace,” but perhaps find the energy to “beat our swords into a plow (or, perhaps a composter) down by the riverside.”

Tom Mundahl          Lutheran Church of the Reformation          St. Louis Park, MN

tmundahl@gmail.com

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

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Biblical Insights on Power, Religion, and Material Pneumatology

The Sixth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 16:9-15
Revelation 21:10, 22
John 14:23-29

This week’s lectionary selections offer a bounty of potential themes for creation care preaching.

Starting with Acts: the conversion of Lydia has long been understood as a moment in the New Testament in which the early Christian movement—one that, at least according to tradition (with NT scholarship being somewhat divided on the question), was largely comprised of marginal and economically disadvantaged folk—discovers the potential of coming alongside social and economic capital in ways that are faithful. As a dealer in purple cloth, with a home capacious enough to host Paul and his companions, Lydia was apparently a woman of means; and to become so as a woman in her time, she was likely not a person to be trifled with.

Progressive movements, including those towards creation care, tend to have an ambiguous relationship with power and capital. Such movements are often powered by the experience and witness of those on the underside of history; moreover, in the popular imagination at least, the cause is often taken up by those who cast themselves against the rich and powerful (think of Occupy Wall Street). However, as community organizing principles teach us, social change is often effected by organized money and organized power. Lydia, as a formidable presence within the unfolding story of Acts and the unfolding story of the church, might be lifted up homiletically as an instance of an alliance between God’s mission (not only creation care, but also the solidarity with the poor and other victims of injustice that is an inevitable corollary to creation care) and those with capital to effect real change.

Revelation 22, meanwhile, is the verdant image of the river of the water of life. While the best thing for the preacher on this text to do is to consult the beautiful sections on this passage in Barbara Rossing’s study The Rapture Exposed, this is also prime time to remind congregations that the vision of Revelation is one in which “religion,” to the extent that that word implies separation from the merely secular, is precisely the thing that passes away in Revelation 21. Revelation 22’s beautiful imagery, in other words, is predicated on the lack of temple in the new heaven and new earth. Religion so often is separation from the deep incarnation of God’s truth in creation, but precisely this separation is overcome.

Finally, the John readings are shot through with pneumatology. While the role of the Holy Spirit is often invoked in connection with ecological theology, it is crucial that this not partake in the too-common theological error of portraying the Holy Spirit in overly fluffy, sentimental terms. Jesus promises the coming of the Spirit precisely because the disciples, after his death, would be faced with the gritty, life-threatening work of fidelity to Jesus’ continued mission in the world, and nothing less than the very presence of God ongoing in the community of fidelity to the crucified would do. Thus, if creation-care oriented preachers are going to move their sermons in a pneumatological direction this Sunday, they should make it clear that the Spirit’s presence among us is no airy, light thing. It is the emboldening, vital courage of God that inspires fleshly bodies to put themselves on the line in solidarity with threatened people and threatened creation (cf. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil, for an excellent account of this).

While it’s possible to interweave these various themes in a single sermon, wise preaching might also choose to focus in on one and expound. Power, religion, and material spirituality powerfully intersect in the lectionary, and might profitably do so in the Sunday morning experience of those who are in a position to be surprised by the richness of the biblical witness on these subjects.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Debonair Care, or Use in Love
The Fifth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

What does it mean to have a servant’s heart for creation?
The pioneering Lutheran eco-theologian Joseph Sittler was fond of playing with the implications of different translations of the biblical text. He was especially intrigued by a common French translation of Matthew 5:5, which in English is commonly translated as “Blessed are the meek.” Sittler noticed that the French would often translate this as “Blessed are the debonair.” While “debonair” in common parlance might call to mind connotations of a dapper French gentleman sipping espresso in a Paris café, Sittler pointed out that something else might be going on in the time of the French Bible of Calvin:

But “debonair” in French, in the time of the French Bible of John Calvin, meant a person who is not an idolater, one who hasn’t gotten hooked up in anything worldly, one who is so sophisticated as to know wealth for what it is and that it isn’t everything. Such a one knows status for what it is and knows that it isn’t everything and knows beauty and human acclaim for the promising and deceptive things that they really are. This is a person who has a kind of centeredness that doesn’t let the idols of this world capture it. It’s a kind of debonair in which you sit lightly on the offerings and temptations of this world because you have a vision of something better…

Sittler went on to tie this sensibility to creation care.

It doesn’t say they shall own the earth, or control the earth, or have a real estate option on the big pieces. It says they shall inherit the earth. What’s the difference between owning and inheriting? The difference is: what you own, you probably earn, or make. An inheritance is something you don’t own. You don’t deserve it. It’s a surprise. You live in the world with a gentle spirit, because the whole of creation is a kind of outrageous surprise, a gift. Blessed are they of a gentle spirit, because they live in the world not as ones who strut around as if they own the place, with their technological assaults upon it. Rather, their first feeling for the world is one of tender wonder, gratitude, and amazement.

This sensibility by Sittler helps explain the linkage between the Acts text and the gospel for this week. The gospel lesson from John recounts the classic instance of Jesus operating as a servant towards his disciples: washing their feet and giving the commandment to love. It may seem a stark contrast that this is then paired with the Acts reading, in which Peter is given license to kill and eat food that would have previously been unclean for him as a Jew.

But the gospel sensibility informs the Acts text. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This is a key to true service. Like Adam and Eve, Peter is granted creation for use; however, the use is not to be one of domination, but one of gentle engagement—recognize the goodness of creation (“what God has made clean”), use it, but recognize it precisely as a gift.

The awe that this inspires is what produces the servant’s heart. To serve creation is to regard it with love, and this love is what inspired right use of it—and perhaps even advocacy against those for whom use would turn into abuse.

Sittler brings the point home with an anecdote:

The same time I was studying this beautitude, and began to see some light . . . .I went with some college kids on a trip, a big Saturday afternoon walk through the gigantic Douglas-fir forest in the lower slopes of the Cascades. I watched these sophisticated kids . . . . When they walked into the woods, they became quiet, silent. They would reach out and pat the big trees as they went by. The further we got into the woods, the quieter they became. Then the phrase came to me, “They inherit the world, because they don’t own it.” They don’t think of it fundamentally as potential two-by-fours, though it’s all right to use it that way wisely; if you love a thing, then you’re prepared to use it wisely.”

And so the preacher this week has the unique challenge to speak to we heirs of Peter, those whom God calls to use the earth wisely and with love.

(All quotes from Sittler, “His God Story,” in The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life, ed. Richard Lischer and James Childs, Cascade, 2013, 23-24).

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Mundahl)

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with humankind”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year C

Acts 11: 1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21: 1-6
John 13: 31-35

It is almost as if the remaining readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are animated by the ‘spirit’ of Psalm 148. As the praise of the LORD moves from the heavens to the deep habitat of the sea monsters on the way to the dust of the creeping things, a ‘cosmic choir’ is formed whose voice and timbre defy imagination. They remind us once more of the new song Easter brings.

That newness oozes from our First Reading which continues Peter’s sermon that we heard on the Resurrection of Our Lord. Peter’s learning that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10: 34) and welcomes Gentiles has now made its way to Jerusalem where the reception has been chilly.

Having been given the “the cold shoulder” by the Jerusalem community (“Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”) (Acts 11: 3), Peter reprises his earlier vision and the voice claiming “What God has made clean, you must not call profane (“common,” “unclean”)” (Acts 11:9).  Continuing the narrative, Paul teaches the Jerusalem community “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us” (Acts 11: 12).

As we suggested in our comment on Acts 10: 34-43 (Easter Day), it may be time for the same expansive energy that moved Peter to embrace the Gentiles of Caesarea to move us to welcome concern for all of God’s creation within the scope of God’s renewing mercy. That certainly is the direction Psalm 148 moves us—far beyond anthropocentrism!

This same movement is affirmed in our Second Reading, which is from Revelation. Nowhere in the Christian scriptures is the sense of the wholeness and interdependence of all things sung better than in the vision of the New Jerusalem shared by John in Revelation 21–22. As a perfectly realized city, it fulfills the hopes of creation and overcomes the ‘urban violence’ begun when “the city builder,” Cain, killed brother Abel. It truly is a “garden city” built on the banks of a clean—running river that nourishes vegetation designed for the healing of all nations (see Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress, 1996), pp. 314-315).

One of the major themes of the Apocalypse is a New Exodus promised to beleaguered believers of Asia Minor. This time, the Exodus is not from Egypt, but from “Babylon,” John’s rather obvious ‘code word’ for Rome. This is why John reports a voice crying “Come out of her (Babylon–Rome), my people, so you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues . . . .” (Revelation 18: 4)  But where will they go; what ‘land of milk and honey’ will be their destination.  In John’s ‘view’ the destination is the New City. In the logic of apocalyptic, this future vision may appear to be “otherworldly” (see Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Fortress, 1979), pp. 9-12), but nothing could be further from the truth.

This new city “comes down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21: 2). As opposed to the Earth-hating “rapture” theology of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind “novels,” as Barbara Rossing suggests, “this is rapture in reverse” (Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (Westview, 2004), ch. 10). John of Patmos’ vision here completes what we might now see as implicit in John the Evangelist, “the Word became flesh and ‘tented’ among us” (John 1: 14), by announcing: “See (behold!), the dwelling place of God is with humankind” (Revelation 21: 3).

This new city home of God extends resurrection life to its ultimate conclusion—tears will be dried and death will be no more (Revelation 5: 4). Just as all creation has been praising the Lamb in prior readings from the Apocalypse, so now “all will be made new” and “to all who thirst I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21: 5-6).

While this vision of the ideal polis is startling, in another view it does little more than “flesh out” the “grace and peace” from the salutation of this remarkable writing (Revelation 1: 4-8). To confirm the relationship between the beginning and conclusion of this remarkable document, we hear the words of a new creation, “It is done” (could it be: “It has come to birth”?) (Revelation 21: 6), followed by a refrain of the conclusion of the salutation: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21: 6).

In the context of surrounding texts, the Gospel reading from John 13: 31-35 loses its Maundy Thursday feel. In light of resurrection life and new creation, it seems almost ‘sensible’ that the “glorification” (John 13: 32) will be become incarnate in the relationship of love and service exemplified by both Jesus’ washing of feet and the act of drawing all to himself on the cross  (John 12: 32).

That is, the congruence between “knowing” and “doing” (service) will show the presence of the Risen One in a transforming world. Once more, we begin to hear the psalmist’s choir celebrating the interdependence of all creation. And, we feel the energy that sends those who “know” out to serve in “loving” care for creation.

One can think of few better examples of this than Bill McKibben, who ended his work at The New Yorker writing weekly ‘casuals,’ in order to research and publish the first widely-read book for the general reader on climate change, The End of Nature (Anchor, 1989).  While a spate of books and articles from McKibben followed, this pioneer, who also served as a Methodist Sunday School teacher, reacted to the call to combine “knowing” and “doing” by: founding 350.org, one of the most effective climate change action groups; by organizing the largest civil disobedience action in the U. S. since the civil rights movement to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline; and to begin a movement for divestment from carbon company stocks on the part of college, universities and non-profit groups. While McKibben’s story is certainly exemplary, in another way, it simply involves hearing the psalmist’s choir, internalizing this new vision, and putting it into action—all central to this week’s readings.

Tom Mundahl
Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN

tmundahl@gmail.com

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

The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Mundahl)

The Risen One Intensifies Our Purpose, Especially Our Care for the Whole Creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

Fourth Sunday in Easter
Acts 9: 36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30

The Easter song of the whole creation that we heard last week continues—especially in Psalm 23 and the text from the Revelation to John. It should be no surprise that we sing Psalm 23 as much or more than we read it. Whether it is in older texts and tunes or Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me, O God” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship #780) this psalm affirms belonging beyond all challenge. And, when we sing, our whole bodies affirm our membership in each other and the created world. As Norman Wirzba suggests:

Christ is the pattern for a new humanity restored in its relatedness to others, the creation, and God. The barriers of hostility and violence that otherwise divide us—and keep us from singing—are broken in him. (The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 187)

This is particularly true of our second reading from the Apocalypse, which provides an interlude between the opening of the sixth and seventh seal. Our first scene is shot in the heavenly throne room where John’s lens reveals “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9).

Because the “whiteness” of the robes is emphasized in the interpretive response to the vision (7: 13-17), its importance cannot be overestimated. Of course, the “white robe” is the Roman toga of which Virgil wrote: “Romans, lords of the world, the culture that wears the toga” (Virgil, Aeneid, Book 1, lines 281-2). For centuries, the toga was the sign of Roman citizenship. On important days such as the day of marriage, the young Roman escorted his bride from her father’s house to his own house, wearing the toga. Dressed in his toga, he received guests who were citizens of equal status. The Roman citizen came to the assembly in a white robe to debate the issues. He made sacrifices to Roman gods in the toga and was finally wrapped in the same garment in death, when fellow citizens paid respects for the last time as he lay in his atrium. No foreign culture produced robes of the same material and weave; no foreigner was allowed to wear the toga (Wikipedia, “Toga”).

But now, because of the resurrection of the Lamb, even those who feel the heel of the ‘Roman boot’ on their necks after refusing to demonstrate loyalty to the Empire by eating food sacrificed to idols have become “citizens of new creation.” They have gone through “the great ordeal” (Revelation 7: 14), which, as Barbara Rossing suggests, parallels the Exodus plagues, thereby rendering the experience of the believers in Asia Minor as a “new Exodus” (The Rapture Exposed, Westview, ch. 8, pp. 123- 134).

We should take care not to neglect the “palm branches,” Roman symbols of victory. Yet, John’s message to hearers is clear: I am peeling away the veil so that you can see the way things really are. Hold fast, keep the faith, hang on!  Roman reality is not ultimate reality. But this is definitely not an otherworldly vision. This is a view of the way things are, period! The Lamb has won the victory.

And this frees original hearers and those of us who come millenia later to see that, whether it is Roman deforestation of Asia Minor in ancient times or hydraulic fracturing with its devastating results in our time, these are not permanent features of history. This must encourage people of faith not only to oppose all that is destructive of creation—recalling the voices of the elders responding to the Seventh Trumpet that promise destruction for “those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11: 18). Instead, it moves us toward building a culture based on “trees of life,” “open gates,” and healing, and in cities and towns built on the banks of clean rivers (Revelation 21-22).

This is suggested especially by the image of these “citizens of new creation” who have come through the ordeal serving God and being “sheltered” by him (Revelation 7: 15). In a more rustic glimpse of what it means to “dwell” in fulfillment, we see the Lamb become the shepherd tenderly caring for the flock. What a lively image of the care needed for human settlements to flourish in their natural contexts!

At the center of that human settlement known as Jerusalem was the Temple. Not only is this final segment of the Good Shepherd Discourse (John 10) located in the Temple precincts, it is set temporally at the Feast of the Dedication, Hanukkah. That this feast is in play at the very end of the Book of Signs suggests that John once more returns to the function of what might be called ‘religion,’ especially ‘temple religion.’ Just as the Temple was cleansed at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with Jesus showing himself as the replacement (John 2:19), so here we are once more reminded of the danger of this religious institution.

That this conflict takes place at the Feast of the Dedication is no surprise. While the temple had certainly been abused and in need of cleansing in the past (think of the ministry of Jeremiah), the desecration by Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV set the bar. Not only did this conquering ruler impose new forms of worship, his claim of divinity may have echoed in the ears of Jesus’ opponents as they heard his claim, “The Father and I are one” (John 10: 30). But to those who reflected on what Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection meant, it may have been more convincing to think of Jesus mirroring Judas Maccabaeus and the many who gave  their lives for an authentic faith centered on the Temple (Barbara Rossing, Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Fortress, 2001, p. 37).

That is, the religious elite and Temple hierarchy opposing Jesus are open, like Antiochus, to perverting the Temple—this time turning the Temple into a center of ever-increasing power and wealth that acted as an institutional “vampire” draining the faithful of their resources and misdirecting energy designed to be expended in worship, care for one another, and care for creation. For Jesus to claim “The Father and I are one” (John 10: 30) is also to validate Jesus’ intent to replace this Temple with “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). As the One who “draws all things to himself” (John 12: 32) and is the axis of the new community, he expends himself washing the feet of his disciples, whom he calls friends and whom he commissions for service (John 21: 21-23). Far from diminishing energy necessary to care, the Risen One increases it and gives it new purpose and direction –especially care for the whole creation.

This is why, especially during this Easter Season, we sing the “Hymn of Praise” with gusto.  Because of the vision of John of Patmos once more we:

Sing with all the people of God, and join in the hymn of all creation: Blessing and honor, glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.  (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 101.)

Tom Mundahl          Lutheran Church of the Reformation    St. Louis Park, MN  tmundahl@gmail.com

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

The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Living into the Economy of Trinity and Church

Fourth Sunday in Easter in Year C

Acts 9: 36-43
Psalm 23
Revelation 7: 9-17
John 10: 22-30

The Acts 9 reading for today is a clear instance of how the logic of Acts’ depiction of the early church works. In what we would today call a “callback” to Luke 8, Peter resurrects a woman who has died—in this case, a disciple of Jesus. Meanwhile, in the John reading, Jesus has a plain occasion against his opponents to state—in the high Christological fashion characteristic of that gospel—the plain fact of his literal identity with the Father: “the Father and I are one.”

Taken together, the readings weave a sort of Trinitarian/ecclesial tapestry. What is the point of the Trinity? It is that the character of Jesus reveals the character of God. William Placher, the late professor of theology at Wabash College, was fond of telling a poignant story wherein he was at the bedside of a dying woman. Turning to him as her resident theology expert, she said to him, “Bill, I just have one question. Is God really like Jesus?” As this dying woman prepared to meet the God whom she had worshipped most of her life in church, her main question was whether the character of that God is trustworthily revealed in what we know of Jesus from the gospel accounts. The point of Trinitarian theology, behind all of its metaphysical nuances and exegetical subtlety, is really to be able to give a “yes” answer to that question.

And if Jesus truly reveals the character of God, then the point of the parallelism between the Jesus of the Gospels and the early church in the book of Acts is to continue that symmetry and identity even further. Jesus is really like God, and when the church is at its best, it is “really like” Jesus. Jesus suffers on the cross: this event has implications in the life of God, and it creates a church that is willing to suffer rather than dominate (at least, at its best!). The church has, clearly, failed spectacularly at various points in history to live into this symmetry—and indeed, no more so than when the church is powerful on cultural and political terms. But the vision is still present, and it still finds embodiment in countless (largely anonymous) works of care and humility throughout time and space. As the theologian Bruce Marshall has stated, the church is not a by-product of the gospel; the church is part of the gospel itself. The real body of Jesus of Nazareth gives way to the real body of Christ formed by the church community acting in the name and Spirit of Jesus.

For those engaged in the work of creation care, then, this Sunday is a chance to reflect on what it means to live into this symmetry in a world imperiled by our radical failures to live lives of love, healing, and reconciliation. If, as activists say, “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house,” then environmental activists cannot actively mimic the ways of domination that got our planet into its mess. This is not to say that we do not occasionally engage in leveraging power through community organization, politics, etc.—indeed, those are crucial parts of environmental activism. But the church’s role is to ground such action in a broader economy of God’s salvation such that people look to the church’s action and see in it the sort of logic that drove the early church to model itself upon a crucified and resurrected Galilean peasant.

If Jesus truly shows God, and the church truly shows Jesus, then how does the church go about the work of healing creation as Jesus did? What implications does this have for particularly Christian modes of environmental action, even as part of that answer surely involves solidarity with non-Christians? This Sunday is a rich time to reflect on these questions in robustly Trinitarian, ecclesially rich fashion.

The Third Sunday of Easter in Year C (Mundahl)

We are called to care for all creatures who join the hymn of God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

Acts 9: 1-6 (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21: 1-19

Living out the New Exodus brings more than celebration; it also exposes the old ways of death and division still to be overcome. Just as the author of Psalm 30 gives thanks for being healed from serious illness, so our readings fix attention on what must be avoided if we are to engage in what Wendell Berry calls “practicing resurrection” (Berry, The Country of Marriage, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973, p. 62).

Paul’s call as an apostle of the Risen One exposes the weakness of a religious stance based on absolute distinctions between “insiders” and “outsiders.” At the beginning of our text, we meet a Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9: 1). As he travels toward Damascus to carry out his mission to arrest Jesus’ followers and bring them back for trial, he encounters the Risen One. This dramatic epiphany not only provides light that literally blinds, but also Saul hears a voice demanding, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me.” When the answer makes clear that it is Jesus, whose followers are being pursued, Saul finds himself suddenly blinded and dependent upon others to lead him into Damascus, where “for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).

After three days of what we could call something analogous to “death,” the reluctant but willing Jewish follower of the Risen One, Ananias, enters the house where Saul is staying, lays his hands on Saul, and greets him as “Brother Saul” (9: 17). Suddenly the three days—reminiscent of Jesus’ time in the grave—are over, and Saul’s sight is restored. Immediately, he is baptized and eats. This cannot but remind us of the experience of the Emmaus disciples whose eyes are “opened” in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24: 31). Just as they threw themselves into a new life of action, so Saul will soon be immersed in seemingly endless travel as the one called to be “an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9 :15), an assignment certainly shocking to Ananias Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971, p. 328).

Once more we see the cascading “openings” that begin in Luke’s resurrection chapter (Ch. 24), where the movement goes from “opening the eyes” (v. 31), “the scriptures” (v. 32, 44), “the minds” necessary to comprehend (v. 45), and out to the whole earth (v. 47). Since this movement precedes the encounter between Peter and Cornelius which we considered last week, it is an even earlier and necessary step to understanding that all of creation—all that relates to the food system—is implicated in the new creation begun in resurrection. The movement begun in the resurrection event exposes all that divides and opens people of faith to see endless connections.

But even more is “exposed” by our reading from the Apocalypse of John. In fact, the very name apocalypse can be interpreted as “exposing” or “uncovering.” As he records his ‘visions’ on behalf of the faithful under pressure, John is acutely aware of the need to provide hope sufficient for the situation. That hope is dramatized by the wounded Lamb who is finally able to open the seals and unveil a new future for God’s creation. While many would expect this as a task assigned to a “lion,” “lamb power” subverts the audience’s all-too-real experience with the Roman Empire in Asia Minor, where special attention was paid to ensuring loyalty (Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, Westview, p. 117.

Like Toto in “The Wizard of Oz,” John is ‘pulling back the curtain’ to expose the brutal reality of Roman rule. While the results of compliance are not nearly as gratifying as colonial peoples would expect, resistance is much more dangerous. Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza suggests that those who resist “are not able to buy or sell. Not only threat to life, imprisonment, and execution but also economic deprivation and destitution are to be suffered by those who refuse to take the mark of the beast . . . .” (The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, p. 193). Barbara Rossing documents the extraction economy carried on by Roman overlords, especially deforestation. Timber clear-cutting, apparently, is nothing new. The Romans were able to make of this once lush landscape “a wasteland.” (Rossing, “River of Life in God’s New Jerusalem: An Ecological Vision for Earth’s Future,” Currents in Theology and Mission, Dec. 1998, p. 492)

No wonder that “all living creatures” rejoice at the appearance of the Lamb, the Risen One with “full voice!” (Revelation 5: 11-12). As John of Patmos continues, “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing….” For all living creatures anticipate that the “rule of the Lamb” will provide a welcome contrast to the destruction—social and environmental—wrought by Roman imperial power. It is no wonder that “the four living creatures, representing humankind and all animals, said, “Amen!” (Revelation 4: 14)

We add our “Amen” each time we sing the “Hymn of Praise” on Sundays during this season of celebration.  The text comes straight from today’s reading.  But perhaps nothing is stronger than the verse:

Sing with all the people of God, and join in the hymn of all creation: blessing and honor, glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen (Evangelical Lutheran Worship p. 101).

Perhaps we cannot completely understand the Revelation to John of Patmos, but we certainly are able to join with all creation in our song! And this is a song that provides just as much resistance to our own earth-destroying culture, as it did for the earliest faithful who voiced it.

The contrast between the scarcity produced in what is now Turkey by Roman “resource mining” and John’s tale of an immense catch of fish could not be greater. Peter has been “exposed” as less than reliable by his three-fold denial of Jesus prior to the crucifixion. Much better than a simple return to Galilee to pick up the old life is the opportunity for rehabilitation. So, just as Peter denied Jesus three times by the light of a warming fire, here he is nourished by three opportunities to declare his deep allegiance (agape love) for the Risen One.

But in this resurrection world, each confession that erases a prior denial is accompanied by a call to service. Peter is enjoined to “feed the sheep” (John 21: 15-17). Even though the fish seem to pay a steep price in this narrative, the command to care for the sheep must surely extend even beyond care for the human community. That care extends to all who “join in the hymn of all creation.”

Tom Mundahl  Lutheran Church of the Reformation   St. Louis Park, MN                        tmundahl@gmail.com

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

The Third Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C (2016)
By Robert Saler

Divine Recapitulation: We are called to join God’s material improvisation of salvation

Acts 9: 1-6 (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21: 1-19

For ecological theologians, the second-century patristic author Irenaeus is a particular favorite. As Paul Santmire discusses in his still-classic book, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Irenaeus was one of the earliest patristic authors to interpret the promise of redemption as expanding to all of creation, not simply humans (and thus he would prove to be a significant influence on later ecological theologians, including Joseph Sittler).

One of Irenaeus’ enduring legacies is his theory of atonement as recapitulation: the idea that, when God in Christ heals the damage to creation caused by human sin, God does so by providing history with a kind of salvific parallel to the original transgression. Eve rejects God’s command and Adam goes along with it; Mary says “yes” to God and Joseph agrees. The serpent overcomes humanity by means of a tree; Christ is hung on a tree in order to save humanity. And so on.

Scholars engaging Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the beach in the John 21 text have long noticed that Jesus’ otherwise inexplicable demand that Peter repeat his allegiance to Jesus three times makes sense if one sees it as a salvific “recapitulation” of Peter’s thrice-repeated denial of Jesus in John 18. And indeed, one of the things that is striking about the recapitulation themes highlighted by Irenaeus and others is their earthiness: God’s salvation does not occur in some airy “justification” that has no direct bearing on the earth, but rather within creation, in improvising fashion.

Preachers on this day might ask themselves how creation care, and human cooperation with God’s healing of the earth, might follow a similar pattern. To the extent that many atonement theories have a kind of disembodied air to them (e.g. a forensic law-court schema in which God internally arranges for humanity to be declared innocent of guilt for the sake of Christ), recapitulation involves an improvisatory God working with the stuff of creation—including humanity—to bring about historic events that have a salvific impact upon the healing of creation.

Is this not the work of creation care? Humanity, Christians included, are in no position to delude ourselves about the extent of our own capacities for “saving the world,” or even healing it through some series of grandiose gestures. The work of creation care is slow, easily interrupted, not easily measured, and ultimately modest – because the gospel narrative is that it is through small and imperfect things (including Peter and Paul, as in the readings for this week!) that God’s spirit works to bring about repairs to the damage of ecological degradation. We improvise along with God, using the stuff of creation, in order to be a part of how God brings life where there was death. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says to Peter. The betrayer becomes the witness. We who have been criminals towards the earth are given the chance, however imperfectly and partial, to make things right.

The preaching of creation care always provides the opportunity to ask how the God that is revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ chooses to heal the world. What does Jesus show us about God? If Jesus’ salvific acts of recapitulation with Peter are indicative both of God’s will and God’s methodology, then the congregation’s imagination as to how it is called into similar modes of being on behalf of God’s mission and God’s creation is left with a great deal of room to expand this week.

The Second Sunday of Easter in Year C

Celebrate the New World Order brought about by the resurrection of Jesus

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Acts 5: 27-32
Psalm 118: 14-29
Revelation 1: 4-8
John 20: 19-31

Neither a single day nor even a week is sufficient to contain the good news of resurrection that spills over into the renewal of creation and sparks new energy for creation care.  As we continue our encounter with Easter season texts, the themes of “new Exodus” and “new creation” will resonate and find surprising echoes.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows continued tension between the messianic community and the religious establishment.  No sooner are the apostles arrested and jailed than they are delivered when “an angel of the Lord opened prison doors and brought them out” so that they could continue their ‘subversive teaching’ (Acts 5: 19-21)

This smaller ‘Exodus’ from prison only leads to community leaders being dragged before the Sanhedrin where they are explicitly charged with violating the officials’ injunction not to teach in the name of the Risen One. “Yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us” (Acts 5: 28). Peter and the apostles reply in a manner as bold as Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29/this echoes Socrates’ response to the leaders of Athens in The Apology).

Peter follows this bold assertion with a homily that accomplishes just what the religious leaders accuse him of. “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30). Not only does Peter refer here to Deuteronomy 21: 22-23, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree,” but he provides an opening for us to see the “tree” as far more than an instrument of curse, but as a renewed tree of life.

This theme is found on the Exodus journey where looking at the tree-pole adorned with serpents becomes a homeopathic ‘cure’ for punishment occasioned by grumbling (Numbers 21: 8-9). This transformation continues in the Apocalypse, our second reading throughout this season. As we will see in greater detail, John of Patmos envisions the “tree of life” (Revelation 2: 7, 22: 2, 14, 19) as central to the hope of his audience who, living under pressure, are enjoined to see the resurrection so broadly it leads to a new city built around a “tree of life.”

Not only is this true of the scriptures, but early Christian art found in churches from San Clemente in Rome (Barbara Rossing, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Fortress, p. 16) to San Vitale in Ravenna feature the “tree of life” as a sign of resurrection life becoming “new creation.” Finally, Larry Rasmussen reminds us that “the tree of life” provides important meaning in a variety of traditions beyond the boundaries of Christianity, from the Buddhist and Jewish streams of faith to that of the Ogallala Sioux.  (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Orbis, 1996, pp. 195-207)

While our second reading from Revelation formally might be considered a ‘circular apocalyptic narrative of hope’ intended only for the seven major churches of Asia Minor, the intent of its ‘author’ seems to be broader. Like most important Christian writings, the transmission did not stop within major churches; they provided a “distribution point” for passing writings on to the smaller worship communities in their regions. Not only does this dramatic narrative begin performatively by providing “grace” and “peace” to all of its hearers, but it goes on to place their life circumstances and struggles within the wide scope of “him who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:4). The  reading ends just as definitively, reminding the hearer that, despite current resistance from the Roman Empire to this new culture of hope, God continues to be “the Alpha and the Omega….who is, who was, and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8).

John writes to celebrate the ‘new world order’ brought in by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is, ultimately, “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1:5). Clearly, the legitimacy of Roman rule is at an end. Resurrection has resulted in the elevation of the audience to kingdom status, but with the calling to be “priests serving his (the Risen One’s) God and Father.”

While the content of this priestly task is not specified, we cannot help but appreciate the Orthodox perspective which connects the “priesthood” of all the faithful and care of God’s creation. As Norman Wirzba suggests: “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly rule does today is to “lift our hearts” to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident” (Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207).

This is absolutely contrary to what happens in our consumer culture where creation becomes commodity—a never-ending stream of products that are always being ‘grabbed’ rather than offered to God in thanks. Priestly “lifting up” and “offering” insists that we learn the art of the ascetic life, cultivating an inner detachment that uses and enjoys creation’s gifts without needing to “possess” them. They are, after all, gifts of  God.

Being the “priesthood of believers,” then, entails a relationship with creation and one another based on intrinsic valuation, not the simple “bean-counting” of Gross Domestic Product. Just as the Apocalypse was likely read (serially?) in  the assembly, so those gathered were and still are called to live eucharistically in all arenas of life, a life where the value of child care and shoe repair become an extension of worship, living in peace and serving  the Lord.

Our Gospel reading portrays a post-resurrection gathering where the explosive arrival of the Risen Jesus simultaneously affirms the materiality of the resurrection body while describing its incomprehensible capacity to penetrate locked doors. Yet, the concern here seems to be not the nature of “the resurrection body,” but keeping intact the membership of the discipleship community, especially not losing Thomas, “the Twin,” a follower who seems to be “of two minds.” Although the Risen Christ offers empirical examination of “the forensic evidence,” that very offer quells any doubts and preserves the wholeness of the community. (John 20: 27-28)

More significant for those concerned with God’s creation may be the profound act of Jesus’ breathing on the fearful disciples. Not only does this amount to a Johannine Pentecost, but it brings to mind the second creation account in Genesis (Genesis 2:7). That is, we can hardly miss Jesus’ action as extending God’s own breathing into the soil (adamah) creating the first human being (adam). While in John’s Gospel, God speaks the world into existence (John 1:1), the one who is “Word made flesh” (John 1: 14) works community-making and “new creation” in a more incarnate-fleshly way—by breathing (Wirzba, p. 146).

This breathy inspiriting also recalls Psalm 104: 29-30: “when you send forth your breath they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” As New Testament scholar Ernst Kasemann has suggested, the new community portrayed by John is enlivened by the “ever-new experience of the first day of creation” (quoted in Rossing, p. 21). And, it is no surprise that this happens on “the first day of the week” (John 20: 19), the Eighth Day, the day of new creation. Perhaps this is what the Psalmist has in mind when he/she writes: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (Psalm 118: 24)

Tom Mundahl      Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN 55416                     tmundahl@gmail.com

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

 

 

 

 

The Resurrection of Our Lord/Easter Sunday in Year C

We are called to re-member what affirms our membership in a newly whole and holy creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Tom Mundahl

Reading for Series C: 2012-2013

The Resurrection of Our Lord/ Easter Day

Acts 10: 34-43
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15: 19-26
Luke 24: 1-12

In, with, and under the increased volume of familiar hymns sung to trumpet accompaniment, texts for The Resurrection of Our Lord/ Easter Day resonate with world-changing yet sturdy hope. This celebration of the “first fruits” of new creation even guides our hope and intensifies our commitment to creation-care rooted in God’s surprisingly “steadfast love” (Psalm 118: 1-2).

We begin with the initial offering in a series of “first lessons” from the Acts of the Apostles, a demonstration project modeling the new community based on new creation. Peter experiences a vision of a ‘large sheet’ coming down, lowered on four corners. “In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air” (Acts 10: 12). When a voice is heard saying, “ Get up, Peter, kill and eat,” he is perplexed by this command to dietary uncleanness until he is summoned to the home of the Gentile centurion Cornelius.

Our reading begins with Peter’s synthesis of this pair of puzzling events. “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10: 35). Peter’s vision challenges him to revise his dietary discipline because it has been used as a basis for exclusion. The instruction to “kill and eat” makes it clear that the very notion of “uncleanness” cannot be continued. As Wirzba suggests, “God is also instructing Peter to be hospitable to Cornelius and welcome him in. If all foods are permissible, then hospitality extends to everyone” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge: 2011, p. 171).

It is not insignificant that Peter’s vision is filled with created beings that have been considered unclean. As this new community struggles to understand and live out the New Exodus that Jesus brings (Luke 9: 31), we see a widening spiral of inclusion whose reach extends even beyond Gentile representatives of the Roman Empire, like Cornelius. This “membership” must also extend to the whole created world! The biblical vision seems always to include the web of creation, a whole creation that is celebrated on the first Sabbath, “the crown of creation.” And if the Sabbath is the “crown of creation,” there is no doubt that the festivities include not only the species Peter sees rambling on his four-cornered sheet, but all creation–as suggested in elaboration of the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20: 8-11 and Deuteronomy 5: 12-15). As we shall see as the Season of Easter continues, this vision of “the membership of all creation” is realized most fully in the New City envisioned by John of Patmos, a marvel of town planning full of rivers, trees, and beautiful minerals.

The notion of “membership’ is also crucial as we wrestle with our Second Lesson from First Corinthians. Paul stretches language to its very limits as he struggles to comprehend the resurrection event. As we reflect on this text, it is important for us to shift the focus away from “this life” (1 Corinthians 15:19) and its implied partner, “the life to come,” to “old life” contrasting with “new life” flowing from the resurrection. This fits more readily with the Adam-Christ typology that Paul presents (1 Corinthians 15: 20-22).

When we consider the scope of “membership” coming from the new life stemming from the resurrection event, we see that the death brought by the first Adam reflects an isolating denial of “joint membership” in God’s creation. This refusal of “membership” constitutes what Orthodox scholar Alexander Schmemann calls “the Original Sin,” a sin against welcoming and sharing in the diversity of the creation community (quoted in Wirzba, Food and Faith, p. 113). Paul’s vivid language about destroying the “powers,” including the “last enemy,” describes the removal of all that would create barriers for realizing a wholly inclusive Beloved Community.

Surprisingly, at first glance, the beginning of Luke’s resurrection narrative (Luke 24: 1-12) appears to narrow the scope of this “membership.” The two “men” in dazzling clothes” (Luke 24: 4) seem to transport us back to the Transfiguration, where only an “inner circle” of disciples (Luke 9: 28-36) were faced with the task of responding to this great mystery, where Jesus, Moses and Elijah speak about a New Exodus to be accomplished in Jerusalem. As Peter continues to offer his suggestion to capture the moment, they are “overshadowed” and “enveloped” by the nimbus—presence of God and commanded to listen to the Servant, the Royal One (Luke 9: 34).

Just as Mary was “overshadowed” by the presence spilling over into the incarnation of the Son of the Most High (Luke 1: 35), so now the New Exodus spoken of by Jesus and his  “companions” in the brightness on the mountain spills over into the new creation of resurrection life. Clearly, the faithful women had forgotten the stories of this experience. To spur them to recollection, the angelic figures ask, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24: 5).  While in our preaching we could “tee off” on this theme, berating a culture that has “majored” in consumerism (“seeking life among dead “stuff”), the purpose of the questions is to open the attendant women to hearing what follows: “He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24: 5b).

Following the creedal rehearsal of Jesus’ passion predictions, Luke tells us, “Then they remembered his words . . . .” (Luke 24:8).  This memory that is powerful enough to knit together the wounds that savaged this “dismembered” community now leads to action. Anticipating the Emmaus disciples who recognize the Risen One in the breaking of bread and immediately return with all speed to Jerusalem (Luke 24:33), they “change directions” and find the eleven and share the good news of their experience (Luke 24: 9).

Even though the women are accused of inventing “an idle tale,” the power of the resurrection event moves in an ever-widening spiral in Luke-Acts from the faithful women, to the Emmaus walkers, to the call to spread this to all nations beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24; 47). Eyes, scriptures, and minds are opened so that the “membership” that goes beyond cultural differences—and even beyond species divides—can expand.

Perhaps widening the scope of “membership” to include all creation seems audacious. Yet, as Christopher Southgate suggests, Suffice it to say that if the Cross and Resurrection inaugurate a great era of redemption of the nonhuman creation leading to the eschaton, as seems to be the implication of Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10, then the impact of the Christ-event must be an objective one [author: i.e. it is not dependent upon response nor limited to humans]. (The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster, John Knox, 2008, p. 76)

As we are reminded by the Johannine tradition, incarnation and resurrection amount to no less than another creation, a new creation (cf. John 1). Just as the faithful women remembered Jesus’ words, so we are called to re-member something that affirms our membership in a newly whole and holy creation.

Tom Mundahl. Lutheran Church of the Reformation. St. Louis Park, MN tmundahl@gmail.com

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

 

 

 

Lessons for Year B (Lent – Easter 2018)

The Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Third Sunday of Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

The Second Sunday in Easter in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

Easter Sunday in Year B (by Dennis Ormseth)

Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in Year B (by Kiara Jorgensen)

Passion Sunday in Year B (by Leah Schade)

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Third Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Second Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The First Sunday in Lent in Year B (by Tom Mundahl)

The Second Sunday in Easter in Year C

A Sermon by Gil Waldkoenig, Professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

Church of the Abiding Presence, April 10, 2013

The Second Sunday in Easter in Year C

John 20: 19-31
Rev 1: 4-8
Acts 5:27-32

Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about unbelief.  The kind of unbelief that makes the news quite often has to do with climate change, also called global warming.

Almost half of the American population does not believe that the recent spike in global warming results from human activity, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. Some disbelieve very aggressively. They say global warming is a hoax. Some disbelieve more cautiously, saying we need to wait for more information or to see how things turn out. And then some people disbelieve in a way that is just plain lazy: they just hope it will all go away.

The disbelievers either don’t know, or don’t care to know, that the carbon that is clogging our atmosphere has gone up while oxygen has gone down in direct proportion. That indicates burning. And the carbon is a particular kind of carbon: carbon 12. Carbon 12 comes from plants long dead. It is not carbon 13 which could come from recently living plants (because carbon 13 becomes radioactive and dissipates).  Nor is it carbon 11 which comes from the molten geologic core of the earth when it releases through volcanoes. If the carbon is from burning, and it is not from volcanoes and not from recent plants, but is from plants long dead, then it can only be from fossil fuels. Last I checked no monkeys were burning fossil fuels. So I’m going to “believe” it has been some of the 7 billion humans on earth who have put over 380 parts per million of carbon into the atmosphere, which is drastically altering climate.[1]

Then there are some religious people who say, “Well, the planet is going to end anyway, when God blows it up or burns it up”—or whatever apocalyptic narrative you choose. The bad signs, the evidence of global warming and the troubles it will cause are warnings, and we must appease, they indicate, an obviously angry God before it is too late. If it gets to be too late for everyone else, at least a few who are on the right side of God could escape like Lot and Abram running away from Sodom.

So we have a set of disbelievers who don’t like the bad signs and deny them. And then we have another set of people who seem to relish the bad signs as a curse or judgment of doom that can inflame their religion of propitiation or appeasement.

In the closing chapters of the gospel of John, the disciples are being reassembled from here and there, drawn into good news, good signs, that Christ is risen, and that Christ abides with them, and they can respond to God’s world with love.

Thomas missed an earlier meeting where the disciples saw the wounded but resurrected Christ in person. The others are waiting for Thomas to join them, but Thomas is holding out for his own signs. Unless I see and touch to verify, I will not believe, Thomas says.

To me, it is interesting that even though Thomas gets to see and touch, and consequently expresses belief, he also in the same moment says “help my unbelief.” And then Jesus blesses all those who would not get the same signs that Thomas got, and yet would believe. I can’t help but imagine a kind smile on the face of Jesus when he says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

A couple of things are going on in John’s gospel here. It is a message of comfort to all those believers who would encounter Jesus through the written gospel, and the preached gospel and the acted gospel, rather than hearing and seeing Jesus in exactly the same manner as the first disciples did. And it is part of an ending to the gospel that is very consistent with the rest of the book–a book that had so much attention to signs, from water jars at Canaan to post-resurrection appearances. The blessing is for those who will NOT be eye-witnesses to the signs narrated in the gospel of John, but who WILL see and touch other signs in the days and years afterwards. Those signs would include bread and wine, words of good news spoken, baptismal waters splashed, and acts of compassion and justice.

The signs can change. The array of signs in John makes John a great piece of literature: from jars of water to bread and vines and sheep and gates and light and dark and descent and ascension and authority and subversion of authority and more.  The signs are many. But Christ is one, and grace is one.

It is hard to imagine the narrative in John 20 going any other way, but try this as an exercise. Thomas sees Jesus and touches his wounds. Then Thomas says, well, I need a bit more evidence. Please eat a fish right here in front of me.

Eating fish is a different sign, by a campfire, on the lakeshore, in chapter 21. Nobody falls on their knees saying “my Lord and my God” when they see Jesus eating fish—maybe because they were stuffing their faces with fish. But that sign is another physical sign, like touching and seeing for Thomas, that showed Jesus is bodily resurrected and abiding close by within creation.

If Thomas had asked for a fish [comp. Luke 24:41-42], it would have changed his experience but it would not have changed the cross. Not one bit. His belief and yours and mine do not make the cross of Christ more or less of what it is, the once and central triumph of God’s grace over all that would oppress it—and the resurrection is its twin sign of God’s good intent and faithfulness to Christ and to creation forevermore. Thomas and the disciples find that Christ is still one, even after the cross tore him and them apart, and grace is one in the resurrection forevermore. That’s why the blessing of all those who don’t see belongs in the narrative with the really fine Jesus-sighting that Thomas received.

In our time, when the climate is warming, many signs are not good. The bad signs ought to be evidence for us that we must care for our planet and our neighbors in new and better ways. Some of the denial and disbelief ring suspiciously similar to our old human unwillingness to change because it is going to cost something to care for neighbor and planet.

But all who gather around the signs of grace have an orientation and centeredness to face the bad signs in their stark reality, without denial and without avoidance. The church is already learning to change and respond in new ways, because from the source of grace we can respond beyond denial and fear, with love – love just like the gospel of John features from beginning to end! In other words, go ahead and ask for a fish or any other signs—the work of our time still lays before us. The cross and the resurrection are still what they are, and from that orientation, we’re going to be able to move and respond.

When the floods come, and hurricanes and winds and storms—or when the drought cracks the land and the people and animals and plants perish—we humankind will indeed lament our deeds which have brought these conditions upon us and upon our home, planet earth. The disbelief and denial is but the first whimpering before the real wailing (Rev 1:7). But the church of Jesus Christ, abiding in his presence and the cross accomplished, stands with the sign of resurrection at the center of all other signs. The cross flowers into the renewed tree of life on the last page of the Bible (Rev 22::2; cf. Acts 5:30),[2] after apocalyptic waves pass, and wailing gives way to hymns of grace and courage, hope and joy. In the meantime, the church can and will be a community of resilience[3] with open doors to which the flooded and parched alike may come, to hear not a word of curse but a word of redemption and grace. Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief.

[1] Information in this paragraph is from Earth: The Operator’s Manual DVD by Richard Alley (PBS, 2011)

[2] Thanks to Dr. Matthew Sleeth for attention to the tree on the past page of the Bible, as an object of focus by God. Sermon, Sunday, March 10, 2013, Washington National Cathedral (http://tinyurl.com/cz2w762)

[3] Thanks to Mary Minette, ELCA Director of Environmental Education and Advocacy, for the term “communities of resilience” that she suggested to me in conversation about the widening attention to sustainability/greening in congregations, synods and church wide that is fostered by Lutherans Restoring Creation (lutheransrestoringcreation.org) & GreenFaith (greenfaith.org).