Tag Archives: Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 24, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

God can be counted upon to “keep” the creatures of God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus’ Farewell Prayer.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

On this Sunday, the church takes note of Jesus’ ascension to the Father (actually celebrated on the previous Thursday) and recalls Jesus’ prayer for the church in view of the new mode of his presence as universal, that is, at the right hand of God. The significance of the Ascension is, as Gordon Lathrop writes, that . . .

“While the world sees Jesus as dead and gone—’withdrawn’ in that sense—the faith of the community sees Jesus as with God. Jesus’ meaning and presence therefore is universalized, is everywhere, as God is, and at the same time, God’s glory is accessible in Jesus. It is this which the community knows, not the calculations of times and seasons (Acts 1:7)” (Proclamation 6; Interpreting the lessons of the Church Years, Series A, Easter, p. 57).

As anticipated in our reading of the Farewell Discourse of the previous two Sundays of Easter, Jesus is now “at home” in “the Father’s house”—namely, in the whole of the creation!

The manner of Jesus’ “Farewell Prayer” suggests the same situation: Jesus looks to heaven and addresses his Father directly. The prayer itself clearly relates to the Farewell Discourse in a way that is similar to the connection between the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:30 – 32:47) and Moses’ farewell speeches and is deeply grounded in the narrative of the Gospel. As Gail O’Day observes, the prayer echoes with “themes from all of Jesus preceding discourses. . . . The Jesus who speaks in this prayer is familiar to the Gospel reader as the incarnate Logos, the Son of God the Father” (see Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 787, for a detailed list of verse-by-verse references to texts read during the Year A Easter Season). But it also bespeaks an intimate relationship between Father and Son that clearly anticipates the Ascension. Indeed, as Raymond Brown suggests,

“[t]he Jesus of the Last Discourse transcends time and space, for from heaven and beyond the grave he is already speaking to the disciples of all time. Nowhere is this more evident than in xvii where Jesus already assumes the role of heavenly intercessor that I John  ii 1 ascribes to him after the resurrection.”

Quoting C. H. Dodd, Brown concludes, “the prayer itself is the ascension of Jesus to the Father; it is truly the prayer of ‘the hour” (Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, pp. 747).

In striking contrast with this heavenly, filial intimacy, however, is the provocative proclamation represented by the church’s reading of Psalm 68 this Sunday. The God whom the psalmist bids “rise up” so as to “scatter his enemies” presents a much more vigorous and earthly presence: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.” The joyful righteous “sing praises to . . . to him who rides upon the clouds.” The God whom the church relates to the ascension of Jesus is the God who is “father of orphans and protector of widows. . . in his holy habitation” and who “gives the desolate a home to live in.” This God “marched through the wilderness,” when “the earth quaked, [and] the heavens poured down rain.” With “rain in abundance,” he restored the heritage of the people “when it languished.” Like sheep led into green pastures, the people (“your flock”) “found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy” (68:1-10). This is the ancient god of the mountains who created and now saves Israel. As Warren Carter writes,

“The language attesting God’s cosmic reign and identity as divine warrior reflects early Canaanite religious claims. God’s identity as ‘the one who rides upon the clouds’ (68:4, 33) derives from Ugaritic descriptions of Ba’al, the storm and fertility god (68:8-9) who battles (68:17) and defeats the evil and deathly powers that would prevent such life (68:20) and who is enthroned king”  (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 67).

And yet, this God is also familiar to us from the story of Jesus’ way through Galilee. Readers will recognize the God of Sinai, but also the God of Zion, who provides water not only in the wilderness, but also at the well of Jacob and in the pool of Siloam in the city of Jerusalem. This is the God whom Jesus made present on his way through the land to his confrontation with the false shepherds of his people. There is even a bit of wildness to this God, we would suggest, a wildness that Jesus would have encountered and indeed embraced in his sojourn in the wilderness. Just so, the ascended Jesus has good reason to be absolutely “at home” with him; this God has been with him all along the way.

Thus the Farewell Prayer of Jesus, so important for those whom he leaves behind—yes, ironically, it is the “left behind” for whom Jesus prays—is richly significant for the creation over which he now rises. There is another very striking aspect of this God with whom Jesus is now “at home.” This “rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens” is full of creative power:

Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
the God of Israel;
he gives power and strength to his people.

Thus the reading of this psalm makes the connection so essential for care of creation. Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found from time to time more desirable and “wise” from a human point of view. The powers available to him as Son of God (remember the temptations in the wilderness?) will still be under the discipline of this rule of the Servant of creation.

We see an indication of that in the Farewell Prayer: with the reading of this prayer, we “overhear” Jesus’ conversation with the Father in which he asks that with the name (17:6) and the words (17:7) of the Father which Jesus has given to his disciples (later in the prayer he will add the glory (17:22) and the presence (17:23) of God as well) that the Father will protect or “keep” them in the world. As Warren Carter comments, in this prayer of Jesus, John identifies three “crucial but related affirmations about the church as an Easter people:” “Originating with God” and in God’s purposes, and “commissioned to mission in the present,” the church will be “kept by God in God’s future” (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 72). The second reading reminds us that this is true even though they experience the “fiery ordeal” of opposition and harassment from that world. For “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:12). The Father, it seems, like the Son, is also one who can be called upon, and counted upon, to “keep” the creatures of his creation. And together, they will do this forever.

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

Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Human beings grow into divine fellowship to participate in the relief of nature’s groaning. Dennis Ormseth reflects on living in relationship.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

The reading of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse continues with this Sunday’s Gospel, with its concern for how his followers will live in his absence, in anticipation of the closing of the period of his Easter appearances and his Ascension. The passage extends the discussion of the relationship between the community of believers, Jesus, and his Father, relationships with which we were engaged by the reading of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. With promises to send the Paraclete and not ever to abandon them (“I will not leave you orphaned”), Jesus invites his followers to look forward to a future in which, by the agency of the Paraclete or “Spirit of Truth,” they will know that he is in his Father, they are in him, and he is in them (14:20). This mutual indwelling is a relationship characterized throughout by love. The relationship of Jesus and the community is one of love: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” They will be loved by the Father: “and those who love me will be loved by my Father.” And Jesus, loving them, will make himself known to them: “I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:20-21). By virtue of this circular set of relationships, the believing community is to be caught up in the divine relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Thus is adumbrated the teaching that will be worked out in the course of the Christian community’s first four centuries as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is interesting to note that all of the issues at stake in the development of this doctrine are at least implicit in the Farewell Discourse: the question of the unity of God or monotheism, which will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the church’s relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that that church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics (For this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172). The lectionary for the remaining Sundays of the festival season—including the Seventh Sunday of Easter (following the Ascension of our Lord), Day of Pentecost, and The Holy Trinity—will provide occasion to discuss the significance of each of these issues for care of creation. But it is the last of these issues that is still our leading concern here, as we explore the significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Farewell Discourse regarding his mutual indwelling between God and the community of faith with respect to the bond between redemption and creation.

From the readings of the previous two Sundays we have seen that the issue of location (in place or in situation) is a constant feature of the experience of redemption associated with Jesus’ resurrection. The Shepherd leads the sheep out into green pastures. Jesus goes to prepare dwelling places in the house of the Lord, which we take to mean the entirety of God’s creation. The readings for this Sunday further strengthen this theme. The psalmist, for instance, describes an experience of release from a period of testing as being “brought out to a spacious place” (Psalm 66:12b). More importantly, in his speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, Paul sketches out the works of God in terms of space and time: “The Lord of heaven and earth . . . made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and . . . allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” It is God’s presence throughout this cosmos—“In him we live and move and have our being”—which guarantees that all nations will search for him “and perhaps grope for him and find him.” As “God’s offspring” (here Paul quotes a pagan philosopher, but perhaps has in mind the metaphor of “God’s children” that he uses in other contexts), we seem especially well-suited to this cosmic search, rather than attempting to locate God in the shrines and idols made by human hands that Paul observed through the city. With the resurrection, God calls all nations to accountability for righteousness before the one appointed as their judge (Acts 17:24-29).

The appointed Gospel might appear to ignore the cosmic, creational reach of these texts in favor of the intimate communion of the believing community, Jesus, and his Father. Within the fuller context of the Farewell Discourse, however, we see otherwise. Gail O’Day sums up her analysis of the complex relationships between the community of believers, Jesus, and the Father as follows: “When the disciples live in love, and thereby keep Jesus’ word, they experience the love of God, and it is through that love that they will also experience the indwelling of God and Jesus.” She goes on to note, significantly, that while, according to John 14:2-3, the “full communion” of the disciples “with God and Jesus” occurs “in the Father’s ‘dwelling place,’” John 14:23 indicates that “love of Jesus leads to the same end. To love Jesus is to live with God and Jesus—that is, to enter into relationship with them (cf. 15:9-10, 12), to come home” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 748). Since the appointed reading ends at v. 21, preachers following this commentary may want to add it to the liturgical reading.  It seems appropriate to us to add this additional insight: Those who do “come home,” are at home were the Father is, in “the Father’s house.” That is to say, they are at home in the fullness of God’s creation. Thus it is precisely the believing community’s communion with God and Jesus, generated through the love of Jesus, which brings them home in relationship to the creation. They are at home with God in God’s creation.

The significance of this insight is developed more fully in reference to contemporary evolutionary thought by Christopher Southgate in his discussion of “the human animal and its ‘selving’” in his Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.  “Graced by the continual outpouring of divine love” in the course of human evolution, Southgate writes, the human animal enjoys “possibilities for a ‘yes’ to God that goes beyond mere selving—a usage Southgate adapts from Gerard Manley Hopkins, meaning the dynamic moment when a creature perfectly expresses its “identity, the pattern and particularity of its existence to their full potential,” i.e. “when it is perfectly itself, both in terms of the species to which it belongs and in its own individuality” (Southgate, pp.63-64).

The human animal’s “yes to God” is “based on a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, on reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, on a recognizing of all humans as one’s neighbor, and on sacrificial actions.” But as with all other creatures, humans never “selve” in any fulfilled way. The ambiguous character of the creation as evolutionary process makes that perfection impossible. “The character of created selves is typically not that of self-giving but of self-assertion, for that, in a Darwinian world, is the only way biological selves can survive and flourish” (ibid, p. 5). Evolutionary strategies “almost always involve the overproduction of offspring, and necessarily imply the existence of ‘frustrated’ organisms is a precondition of other organisms ‘growing toward fulfillment’ and ‘fulfilled.’” (ibid, pp. 64-5). Thus, in human consciousness, “old imperatives with regard to resources, reproduction, relatives, and reciprocity” develop “an addictive power:”

Consciousness seems to amplify the potential of humans for evil as well as good. Both our yes and our no to God take on formidable force; our no becomes ecologically the force to become a “plague species,” economically to perpetuate and exacerbate extremes of wealth and poverty, militarily and socially to ghettoize and ultimately to undertake genocide, religiously to crucify the Prince of Peace and Lord of Glory” (Ibid., p. 72).

Our cognitive and emotional resources combine with these biological imperatives to foster “greed, lust, rape, and exploitation of the weak, of the poor, or other species.”   Thus,

“[w]ith our emergent faculties comes a greater and greater need of God—a need not just to receive from God but to dwell within the life of the Trinity, to live within and from the patterns of the triune love. It is the Incarnation, finally, that opens up the being of God in a new way, offering us both the most profound of examples, and a new possibility of being at home within the life of a God who has taken human experience into Godself” (Ibid).

It isn’t that Jesus himself was “at home,” within either the life of God or the creation. On the contrary, Southgate observes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have Jesus confess that while “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt.8:20; Luke 9:5). The Christian conviction is instead “that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. . . The human being has no true home, but only a direction of journeying, into the heart of God in Godself.” What Jesus does to prepare for his disciples, we might say, he does also to prepare for himself. And as he said, “Where I am, there you may be also (14:3).

The model is Trinitarian and, indeed, is more than mere model. It is “not just that a human being fully alive has a quality of life that is like the quality of life that is within God, not just, in the famous saying of Irenaeus of Lyons, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive, but also that a human person living in free, loving, undistorted relationship with others has been drawn up into the life of the Trinity, and participates in that life” (Ibid., p. 73). But this is finally the human animal’s true “selving” as image of God or, more fully expressed, as image of the divine Trinity. As Southgate concludes, “On this model the imago Dei is the imago Trinitatis, the capacity to give love, in the power of the Spirit, to the radically other, and by that same Spirit to receive love from that other, selflessly. But we only grow into that image as we grow into God, as we learn to dwell within the triune love. We never possess the imago independently of that indwelling, that journeying toward God’s offer of ultimate love (Ibid., pp. 72-73). And thus there emerges within human beings that “possibility of a larger ‘yes’—of a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, of reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, of recognizing all humans as one’s neighbor, and of self-sacrificial actions. This possibility will be realized within the web of relationships in the creation, as humans’ grow into the life of divine fellowship and participation in the divine transformation of the biosphere, the relief of nature’s groaning” (Ibid, p. 115).

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

Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 10, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Ocean Coral Illuminates the “Living Stone” of Christ. Leah Schade reflects on 1 Peter 2 and John 14.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house,” said Peter in his letter (1 Peter 2:4). What does it mean to be a living stone? How can a stone be alive?

In 2014 Time magazine featured an article about a global effort to photo-document and study coral reefs using state-of-the-art technology (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View.” Time, April 14, 2014). According to the article, about one-third of everything that lives in the ocean lives in a coral reef. Coral is a living organism, even though at first glance it just looks and feels like colorful rock formations.

We might say that coral is like a living stone. “Corals are tiny invertebrates that exist in symbiosis with photosynthetic single-cell algae called zooxanthellae, which live inside the coral’s tissue (The zooxanthellae provide food to the coral by converting sunlight into energy). Corals build up hard exoskeletons made of layers of secreted calcium carbonate, which form the reef” (p. 43). The structure is sturdy and yet porous, allowing water to flow through it, absorbing nutrients, housing microscopic life forms. Coral reefs provide habitat, food and spawning grounds for countless species of fish and ocean plants. “In a healthy reef, you can see everything from tiny gobies to predatory sharks swimming amid a network of coral as intricate as a medieval cathedral” (p. 43).

Seeing images of these coral reefs brings to mind Jesus’ metaphor for the dwelling place of God: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:2). What better way to think about the infinite hospitality of God than to compare it to a beautiful stretch of coral reef hosting so many different life forms! Psalm 31 also reinforces the imagery of God as a sanctuary of rock, strong and protective—similar to the coral reef that hosts a dazzling array of life-forms. “In you, O Lord, I seek refuge . . . Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2-3). The preacher with access to Powerpoint and a screen for worship services may want to project images of coral reefs so that congregants can have these colorful cathedrals in mind as they make the connection between God as sanctuary and rock and Jesus as living stone.

For some churches, May is the month in which they celebrate Volunteer Recognition Sunday. It is a time to recognize the infinite variety of gifts that each of us brings to the church. We might think of the church as a beautiful coral reef, playing host to so many different individuals and families, an entire ecosystem of faith. Each person has something to contribute to the coral reef of the church. And as a spiritual house of living stones, we each are nurtured by this community, this ecosystem of faith.

But like the coral reefs in our planet’s oceans, church ecosystems are sensitive to systemic and environmental conditions. The Time article listed overfishing, coastal overpollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs. Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened. In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years.

A parallel can be seen in the state of our churches as well. The ecosystems of faith that used to thrive in our society are now finding the conditions around us to be increasingly hostile to the life of the church. Secularization, competition for parishioners’ time, the “pollution” of Sabbath-time by commerce, the growth of “the nones” (folks who indicate adherence to “no religion” in surveys), and the perceived irrelevancy of churches and faith to growing numbers of people are all having detrimental effects on our churches.

What many do not realize, however, is just how valuable the church is to society. The same is true for coral reefs which often go unrecognized for just how much they contribute to our food supply, our economies, and even our medical treatments. Similarly, the church throughout history to the present day has been responsible for much good that most people take for granted. Charity toward widows and orphans, hospitals, public education, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the raising of children with strong moral and ethical values, have all had their origins in churches and other houses of worship, and have had a profoundly positive impact on human society over the centuries. Today, churches contribute much to their communities and society in general by addressing poverty and assisting the poor, responding to natural disasters, providing relief to refugees, advocating for society’s most vulnerable citizens, providing counseling and spiritual direction, distributing food and clothing, and providing leadership and resources for justice issues. Too, some of the greatest leaders lifting up and inspiring humanity’s highest ideals have arisen from churches.

The Time article noted that public attention to the plight of coral reefs has suffered because these underwater kingdoms are not easy to see. Very few people ever get to swim amid coral reefs. And there hasn’t been much photo-documentation of these fragile ecosystems. That’s one of the reasons the new 360-degree cameras they are using to photograph the ocean floor are so important (similarly to the way Google Earth has shown us the surface of our planet in astounding ways). Oceanographers have come to recognize the truth of a familiar adage: we will not save what we do not love. Thus they are doing their best to help us fall in love with our coral reefs so that as a human species we will take steps to preserve what is left.

Churches, too, have suffered from lack of visibility and accessibility. Very few people in society come into our churches—swim amid our coral reefs, so to speak. That’s why it’s so important to tell people what goes on in our churches, what great work we do to serve local communities and the larger society. I’ve often mused that churches need to hire publicity directors and public relations experts so that, like the oceanographers who bring these images of the reefs to light, the contributions of our churches can be highlighted in our communities. People will not save what they do not love. We should help people to fall in love with our churches, even if they do not attend them, so that they will come to cherish the incredibly valuable “ecosystems of faith” in our society and communities.

In the sermon, the preacher might show and pass around pieces of coral. Let them feel the strength and texture of the “living stone.” Let them see the tiny holes where the algae live. Let them imagine their church as modelling what God intends for the Peaceable Kingdom—a healthy, beautiful, thriving, protective—and protected—ecosystem that welcomes a stunning diversity of life that benefits the entire ocean of human and planetary life.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on following the Good Shepherd.  

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 1:19-25
John 10:1-10

Editor’s Note: In his commentary for the Sundays before and after Earth Day, Nick Utphall reflected on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and the coronavirus. He continues these themes with the following thoughts about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. 

Some pastoral and rural peace may be just the ticket for these days. Let’s get out of the house and follow the Shepherd! These days, it doesn’t even require the frequent explications of ancient shepherding practices or the personality quirks of ovine taxonomy.

For those who may not be able to venture out and explore favorite open spaces and beloved scenery, for living without trips to parks and places of recreation and re-creation, perhaps the occasion invites reflecting on or finding pictures of very earthly real places connected to Psalm 23 (with a good basic Earth Day background that we won’t save what we don’t love). Here’s a starter walkthrough for a mental exploration with the Shepherd:

Verse 2a: Where are the green pastures for you in these days, the outdoor places of abundance and lush, vibrant life? Or where are the places you’ve valued but cannot make it actually to visit right now?

Verse 2b: Where are the still waters? What physical bodies of water have been part of offering you peace and contentment? How have you felt, and how can you access that now?

Verse 3: What pathways have been restorative of life? Where are the trails where you have found more of your identity? Who are the guides who have been with you outdoors?

Verse 4: Where have you walked alongside and amid death, perhaps especially in these days? Where has it been fearful and scary? What makes those places or aspects uneasy? And what has been a resource of faith?

(The remaining verses have less outdoor natural imagery, but may spur reflection on what has been spread on our tables to nourish and sustain us, with gratitude for those who have run the enemy gauntlet of coronavirus to deliver food down highways, through stores, in delivery vehicles. And while having to “dwell in a house forever” may sound more like punishment right now when many might be feeling stuck and isolated, perhaps their remains positive room for reflecting on where goodness and mercy or loving-kindness has surrounded and filled these days of life.)

Especially when disease lurks, threatening to steal and kill and destroy—along with all the other causes of diminishing God’s lavish loving goodness—this is the time to remember the Good Shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10). And not just us, but sheep, and those who are in need (Acts 2:45), and all who are senselessly and unjustly suffering (1 Peter 2:19), the residents of green pastures, still waters, forest pathways, and dark valleys.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Let us live into a vision of sustainability for the whole Earth community. Leah Schade reflects on the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

Good Shepherd Sunday, as this day is sometimes called, provides multiple points of entry for an eco-theological perspective. In John 10:1-10 Jesus refers to himself both as a “good shepherd” and also as the gate by which the sheep enter into safe pasture. 1 Peter 2:25 compares those who follow Christ to sheep who had gone astray but are now safely in the care of the shepherd Jesus, “the guardian of your souls.” Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd . . . .” One only has to say those first five words, and almost everyone in church can join in reciting this most precious psalm.

We are no longer an agrarian nation. Most of us don’t know any sheep herders personally. But at the time when this psalm and the other passages were written, herding sheep was a common profession. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the farm. They have to be led where you want them to go. It is up to the shepherd to find suitable pasture for the sheep to graze. And the shepherd must find water for them. Not just any water—but still water, so that the sheep won’t be swept away by currents that are too fast for them. When we think of this image of water, as Christians, we can’t help but think of the baptismal waters when we hear these words. In the still waters of our mother’s wombs we were created. In the still waters of the font we were baptized Children of God. And this water sustains us all our lives.

For those of us with a Type A personality driven to hard work, we actually have to be led to places that replenish our spirit. Green meadows and still waters are ideal places to do just that. Only by reconnecting with nature can our souls be restored. God knows that, and leads us down those paths.

But as the psalmist reminds us, there will be difficult times in life. This psalm does not shy away from that fact. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” What exactly are the rod and staff? A shepherd always carries a long stick to beat away any predators that may attack the sheep. And the staff is the crook, a long hook used to reach out and pull back the sheep that are wandering close to danger. The psalmist is saying that just the sight of the rod and the staff are a comfort to him, assuring him of God’s attentiveness and protection.

Then the imagery of God in the psalm changes from a shepherd to that of a host in a welcoming household. God lays out a banquet before us, even with enemies lurking around. Here the sacrament of communion may be evoked. At the Eucharistic table we come to partake of the bread and the wine. A whole world of worry awaits us beyond the meal. But for this moment of kairos time we’re invited to the banquet of Jesus Christ to feed on the spiritual food of forgiveness.

Then we hear the promise of abundance, oil running down our cheeks, smoothing out the rough spots. Cups are overflowing with goodness and mercy. The community of believers in Acts 2 is a heartening portrayal of this kind of abundance. Wonders and signs are performed by the apostles, rich and poor share resources in common so that there is plenty for all. In what today’s terms might be called a “sustainable community,” no one goes hungry and all are filled with praise of God, so much so that their community grows by the day with people drawn to a way of life that is countercultural and life-giving.

Given the reality of our present situation where the gap between economic classes is so grotesquely huge, and the strain on Earth’s capacity to sustain life is so severe, we may wonder if an Acts 2 community could ever be possible. Theologian Margaret Swedish has pondered this very question, noting that the concept of “sustainability” is actually not enough. “[W]e are still largely ignoring that other elephant in the room—the crisis of ecological overshoot. We need not only to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in order to save the planet for future generations, but also to consume less, a lot less. And we cannot ask this of the poor” (Margaret Swedish, Living Beyond the End of the World: A Spirituality of Hope, Maryknoll: Orbis, p. 171). She cites Sven Burmeister’s work for guidance:

Burmeister gave us a golden rule for how to approach this challenge: ‘per capita resource use should not exceed the level the globe can sustain for all the world’s people’; [Burmeister, “Can the Twilight of the Gods Be Prevented?” Friday Morning Reflections at the World Bank: Essays on Values and Development (Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 1991)] that is, our per capita consumption must shrink to a level that the globe can sustain for all people. But more, far more, per capita consumption in wealthy countries must shrink enough so that the per capita consumption of the poor can rise while keeping consumption overall at a level the globe can sustain (Swedish, p. 85).

Here, then, is another way to think of the rod and staff from Psalm 23. We need God’s rod to beat back the predators of greed, self-centeredness, global financialization, and mindless consumerism. God’s staff is needed to pull us back from the cliff’s edge of global ecological disaster and set us on a path that is life-giving for all Earth’s creatures, including humanity, as well as Earth itself. Says Swedish: “The Earth can heal, if we get out of the way, if we learn to live within the limits of our creation, but the balance will be new, and one of the questions is what of life as we know it will remain in that new balance” (p. 137).

Psalm 23 ends with the image of living in God’s house for eternity, making it a favorite for funerals. But it can also be read as “returning” or “coming home” to this very planet which has been the source of abundance throughout the collective life of the human race. A sermon that helps a congregation creatively imagine an Acts 2 community that includes all our Earth-kin can help the hearers live into the eschatological vision of God—“the restoration of soul, the protection from death, the gifts of abundant and unending life, and the meal in God’s presence,” (John Eaton, The Psalms, Continuum: New York, 2005, p. 123). It is the psalm of the sacraments—baptism and communion. It is the psalm of life and death—the dark valley and the house of the Lord. This psalm touches on every important aspect of our lives. And it is the psalm that each of us should know by heart.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Third Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

We need a “conversion to Earth!” Leah Schade reflects on lives being changed.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Hearts burning, eyes opened, lives changed, communities revitalized. These are the outcomes following the aftershocks of Jesus’ resurrection that we read about in today’s lessons. Two followers of Jesus recognize the risen Christ in the breaking of bread after having been instructed by him as a mysterious stranger accompanying them on their walk to Emmaus. Peter’s sermon leads to the conversion of three thousand people to faith in Jesus Christ. In both cases a new start is made with hope for a better way to live and stronger faith in God.

Many environmentalists and eco-theologians speak of a different kind of conversion that is needed today as we witness the global climate and biotic catastrophe that is being wreaked upon  Earth. Thomas Berry, Larry Rasmussen, and Mark Wallace all speak of a “conversion to Earth.” Says Rasmussen when talking of Thomas Berry’s work The Great Work (Harmony Books, New York, 2000):

“[W]e badly need a religious and moral conversion to Earth, not to say cosmos, if ‘ecozoic’ rather than ‘technozoic’ (Berry, p. 55) is to characterize the coming great work. ‘Growing people up’ for a different world, one that assumes Earth as the comprehensive community, is the task, a task which understands that human ethics are derivative from Earth and the ecological imperative, not vice versa” (Larry Rasmussen, “The Great Work Underway,” http://www.thomasberry.org/Essays/TheGreatWorkUnderway.html, accessed April 21, 2014).

Would that the conversion to Earth would happen as swiftly as the conversions that occurred in the readings we have for the Third Sunday of Easter! The two disciples’ eyes were immediately opened when Jesus revealed himself at table. And in response to Peter’s sermon to the crowd gathered on the Day of Pentecost, those gathered were “cut to the heart” and wanted to know what they could do in response to the knowledge of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Three thousand persons were baptized and reoriented their lives around the apostles’ teaching as they began building community, and sharing meals and prayers.

Realistically, we know that the chances of our ecologically-oriented sermon converting even one or two hearers to Earth-consciousness may be slim. Yet we are compelled to prophetically speak about God’s incarnating and redeeming our sin-filled world as much as Peter was to the crowd gathered in Jerusalem. The urgency of the need for prophetic and pastoral voices in the pulpit is underscored by nearly daily reports of the worsening ecosystems of our planet—from coral reefs bleaching and dying, to species disappearing, to island nations submerging.

Wallace warns of a “permanent trauma to the divine life itself” through the crucifixion-like ecocide that humans continually inflict upon Earth and its inhabitants (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature, Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, p. 129). His powerful equation of God’s suffering through Jesus on the cross with God’s suffering through the embodied Spirit in Earth is meant to spur “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments.” This conversion persuades us “to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures” (p. 136).

In the passage from 1 Peter, the faithful are urged to “live in reverent fear during the time of [their] exile” (v. 17). In many ways, humanity is living in a time of self-imposed exile within our very planet. And yet Peter reminds his readers that they “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [their] ancestors” (v. 18). We, too, have inherited futile ways from our ancestors. The way we power our industries and transportation with fossil fuels; the mindless accumulation of goods with no thought to their source, production, or destination after we dispose of them; the way we commodify every aspect of Creation and assess its value only in monetary or capitalized terms: these are all futile ways of living passed down to us that are bringing humanity and the planet to ruination. And like the ransom of which Peter speaks, our lytron, literally, our liberation, cannot be bought with wealth. It is the self-giving, self-emptying love of Jesus Christ that creates the freedom for which we long.

Thus, Peter encourages us to “trust in God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (v. 21). In this way, the work we do in raising awareness, cultivating new attitudes, and reshaping habits is built on trust in the God of the resurrection, even while we are in the midst of ecological crucifixion. Peter continues: “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” (v. 22). What would it look like to live in obedience to the truth of the ways of God’s Creation, the laws of nature? How would things be different if we respected Earth and all its flora and fauna “deeply from the heart?”

Berry coined the term “Ecozoic Era” to describe the period he would like to see emerge when humans “would be present to the planet in a mutually enhancing manner.” He states, “We need to establish ourselves in a single integral community including all component members of planet Earth” (Thomas Berry, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and John Grim, The Christian Future and the Fate of Earth, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2009, pp. 48-9). This can only happen, says Berry, when humans come to see their place and role in the universe as completely dependent on the habitats, flora, and fauna of Earth, all of which have intrinsic value not dependent on human needs or wants. Accepting this limited role with limited rights is the first, and most difficult step that humans must take. The next step for healing the damaged planet is based on an operating principle of creating continuity between the human and all other forms of life in every aspect of human life, from its institutions and professions to its programs and activities. If these two steps are taken, Berry sees hope for humanity’s and the planet’s survival.

What is the Church’s role in this Ecozoic era?  Berry sees it as potentially a very compelling one, capable of re-establishing both its internal cohesion and its external relevance for the larger society:

“At this moment of transition the twenty-first-century Church, which has lost a sense of its basic purposes in these past centuries, could restore its efficacy and extend its influence over human affairs. The Church could be a powerful force in bringing about the healing of a distraught Earth. The Church could provide an integrating reinterpretation of our New Story of the universe. In this manner it could renew religion in its primary expression as celebration, as ecstatic delight in existence. This, I propose, is the Great Work to which Christianity is called in these times” (p. 53).

This will entail a new understanding emerging in every aspect of the Church, from its beliefs and disciplines, to its governance and worship. It may begin with something as simple as the breaking of bread at the Eucharistic table. Seeing the connection between Christ’s body and Earth’s body out of which the grain for the bread is sprouted could spark the recognition of our own connection to it all. And then, though we hardly dared hope it, hearts may begin burning, eyes may be opened, lives may be changed, and communities may be revitalized.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Second Sunday of Easter (April 19, 2020) in Year A (Schade)

Celebrating the Subversive Life of the Resurrection Leah Schade reflects on the lessons of Holy Humor Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

For a growing number of churches, the Second Sunday of Easter is celebrated as “Holy Humor Sunday.” In the early church, the Sunday after Easter was observed by the faithful as a day of joy and laughter with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. The custom of Bright Sunday, as it was called, came from the idea of some early church theologians that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Easter was God’s supreme joke played on death—risus paschalis—“the Easter laugh!” On this Sunday people dress in clown outfits, paint their faces, wear underwear on the outside of their clothes, men dress as women (and vice versa), and jugglers and jokesters add to the carnival of joy. As Campbell and Cilliers describe it: “Christian carnivals and other carnivalesque celebrations embody the new age—the new, inverted order—that has broken into the world in Jesus Christ” (Charles L. Campbell and Johan H. Cilliers, Preaching Fools: The Gospel as a Rhetoric of Folly, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012, p. 77).

Preaching on this Sunday might interpret Jesus’ breathing on his disciples as the “holy laugh” that brings forgiveness and new life. How good it feels to take in that air, feel it expanding our lungs, and expelling it in a physiological act unique to the human animal—laughing. Further, the image of the divine ruah, or breath of God, could be developed from an ecotheological perspective in terms of the breath of fresh air for which our planet, choking on pollution and climate disruption, longs. Like Ezekiel prophesying to the wind in the Valley of Dry Bones, the very Spirit of God enters into lifeless bodies and revives them. In a great rush the wind blows—the same wind that blew across the waters of creation; the same wind that parted the Red Sea; the same wind that will blow into an upper room in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. This wind—the same wind that was first blown into the lungs of Adam—is blown into the lungs of the disciples bereft and grieving, and today is blown into our atmosphere longing to be set free.

Jesus as Trickster interrupting the reign of evil and death with his ruah-breath of laughter and forgiveness is a powerful image. The figure of the trickster or fool is an archetype in all societies and cultures. Tricksters function differently in various cultures, but Campbell and Cilliers identify three fundamental aspects of the fool’s activity: 1) instigating and sustaining liminality, 2) changing perspective, and 3) calling for discernment (p. 70). Regarding the first, they define liminality as “the experience of being and moving in between spaces and times,” explaining that:

“the folly of the gospel interrupts the presuppositions and myths of the old age and creates a liminal, threshold space at the juncture of the ages—a space in which change (as fundamental transformation) can take place. We have suggested that the Spirit is active in that liminal space to keep believers changing and moving from the old age to the new” (p. 39).

The authors identify Jesus as “the ultimate liminal figure”:

“[C]rossing boundaries, teaching and preaching with intentional ambiguity, and calling people to perceive and live at the threshold of the old age and the new—in the reign of God that is breaking into the world . . . . [Jesus embodies] in his own person the threshold between the human and the divine, between the old age and the new” (p. 103).

Jesus, too, in his role as Trickster enlists the elements of nature and non-human kin to “play.” Wind and wave obey his command (Matthew 8:24-27, Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25). Birds and flowers serve as his teaching partners (Luke 12:24-32), as do fig trees (Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31, Luke 21:29-33), wind and weather (Matthew 5:44-45, Luke 12:54-56, John 3:8). Water sneakily becomes wine in stone jars at the Cana wedding (John 2:1-11), and holds him up when he walks across the sea (Mark 6:48-51, John 6:18-21). Stones cry out in praise (Luke 19:40). Matter is itself in flux as Jesus walks through walls and appears in front of locked doors (John 20:19). In all these cases, Creation surprises and even suspends its “natural” processes for the sake of thwarting the expectations of humanity.

And there is no greater surprise in Creation than that Easter morning which witnessed the reversal of the “natural” process of death—death that came by the unnatural hand of evil. The resurrection is God’s surprise reversal of the Powers that we assume are triumphant and unassailable. When Jesus showed Thomas his scars, Campbell and Cilliers remind us that “Christ carries in his resurrected body the coarse and vulgar joke of crucifixion. The joke, one might say, lives on . . . . [T]hrough the resurrection Christ defeats the final enemy—death—and sets believers free from the fear of death so we might take up the foolish way of the cross” (pp. 34, 35).

Peter is among the first to proclaim the way in which Jesus’ cross and resurrection have interrupted the power of death. In his address to the people gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14a, 22-32), he explains how the resurrection has created a space where we may be liberated from the deadly ways of the past and rejoice with gladness in God’s presence, just as their ancestor David did (Psalm 16:9). David, of course, danced before the Ark of the Covenant, playing the part of the fool, much to the embarrassment of his wife. But his joy could not be contained. On this Holy Humor Sunday, we might even invite the congregation to dance in the aisles, form a conga line, and laugh with unfettered joy!

It is the preacher-as-trickster who can help to birth this proclamation of God’s foolish power through preaching that inhales the ruah of Easter. L. Susan Bond states that “[p]reaching evokes or names the presence of God within the community and the vision of God for creation . . . . The community is a sign to the world, in its mutuality and its work for justice, that God is still alive and reconciling” (L. Susan Bond, Trouble with Jesus, St. Louis, MI: Chalice Press, 1999, p. 116). We, as preachers in the Christian carnival, as ring-leaders in the circus of silliness, can help the Thomases in our midst to learn that “it is good to be unsettled. It is good to be drawn out of our theological certainties and clear identities into the fluidity and flux of a liminal gospel . . . . [T]he foolish gospel we have encountered is profoundly disruptive and unsettling” (Campell and Cilliers, p. xii).

Thus a sermon can create and encourage holy laughter to create the liminal space so needed in our world of human-made concrete and steel that leaves so little room for nature. John McClure describes such preaching in this way:

“This group of preachers begins with a powerful experience of the resurrection community as it lives over against and out from under the principalities and powers that distort reality and create structures of oppression in the world. By living more and more into its identity as the resurrection community, the church becomes the locus for resisting and contesting the presumed hegemony of these demonic and oppressive powers. These preachers feel deeply that they are part of a countercultural Christian resistance movement (Christ’s body) that is, in no uncertain terms, at war with the structural forces of oppression, violence, and greed in the world.”[1]

The preacher will want to lift up examples of communities and instances that demonstrate living “over against and out from under” the androcentric principalities and powers of the fossil fuel industry industry, corporate fascism, and the prejudices of classism that “distort reality and create structures of oppression” against the people and their surrounding ecosystems. The preacher can provide a model for the church of what it means to live into its “identity as a resurrection community.” The carnivalesque assembly on that Holy Humor Sunday can itself provide a witness. What our motley crews of Christians create is a kind of carnival that turns the tables in a playful, irreverent way in order to empower us for sharing the holy ruah with the world.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

[1] McClure, Other-Wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics, 137.

Second and Third Sundays of Easter (April 19 & 26, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and coronavirus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website: http://nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).

It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.

Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.

So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.

And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.

But.

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.

I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.

But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?

In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.

Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.

Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!

That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.

I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.

We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.

Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmental practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.

And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.

So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?

Here are a few thoughts:

2nd Sunday of Easter

The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.

Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you that you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.

We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.

What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?

Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur to me are:

The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village. (See http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/mine-remediation/.) It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.

I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)

I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?

None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.

3rd Sunday of Easter

The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, I’m hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?

Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.

One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.

Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465

Not related to the readings, but to still observe this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:

https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/5-ways-to-celebrate-earth-day-as-a-church/

Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Day) in Year A (Schade)

How does creation participate in this new life? Leah Schade reflects on Christ’s passion and resurrection through an ecological hermeneutic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Easter Day, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118:102, 14-24
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 38:1-10

What a wonderful coincidence that the celebration of Easter is the same week as the secular celebration of Earth Day this year. Peter reminded the Gentiles in Cornelius’ house: “Jesus’ commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Thus the preacher might consider taking a cue from St. Francis of Assisi, preacher of sermons to his Brothers and Sisters in Creation, and address the “congregation” of the other-than-human members of God’s Earth-cathedral.[1] The Earth-congregation can be directly addressed and the humans told that they can “listen in.” Thus anthropocentrism would be de-centered from the outset.

Moreover, the members of the other-than-human community could be identified by their role within the Passion and Resurrection narratives. The ecological hermeneutic can be woven throughout the sermon by seeing the events from the nature characters’ points-of-view. They were, in fact, witnesses to the events from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and were co-sufferers in Jesus’ crucifixion. The voice of the stones echoed the ringing “hosannas” along the road to Jerusalem. The Palm leaves waved from trees and human hands as the donkey’s hooves carried Jesus into the city. Olive Grove stood sentry over Jesus as he prayed at Gethsemane. The sun hid its face during the torturous hours Jesus hung on the cross, as Nephesh, the Breath of Life, was forced from his lungs with each passing hour. And two Trees—both felled in the prime of their lives after having housed countless birds, insects, and children’s playtimes—were lashed together and forced to become the scaffolding of death for Jesus. Even the Rocks trembled and shook, fractured and split as Jesus breathed his last.

By the same token, Creation witnessed the resurrection. Earth essentially took Jesus’ body into herself and birthed him from her womb as the Resurrected One, the earthquake reminiscent of the “labor pangs” Paul mentions in Romans 8:22. Imagine the elements of Creation providing a unique witness to the resurrection, allowing us to see that morning from a fly’s eye, stone’s eye, and birds’ eye view of the risen Christ. The Greek chorus of Creation is set in relief against the reaction of the women at the tomb on Easter morning. The description of what they see is echoed by Catherine Keller’s description of an ecological resurrection:

Only by locating the renewed body within the larger ecologies in which it dwells—of which it is a shifting configural space—do we allow renewed powers of desire and of healing to release themselves into feedback loops large enough to ’embrace’ us, to feed us back to ourselves more animate. . . [T]he old creation will remain, marred and scarred, to be mourned, healed, teased, its lonely phallic signifiers danced around like ancient maypoles (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pp. 179, 180).

Thus the sermon, through both its form and content, could enact a creative actualization of the biblical story from Earth’s perspective and situate the other-than-human characters as equals in the theo-drama of the Passion and Resurrection.

The sermon might remind Creation of its continued suffering of ecological-crucifixions such as clear-cutting and deforestation, oil and gas drilling, air pollution and children’s asthma, global warming and climate change. Mark Wallace makes the connection between the cruciform Spirit and “the continual debasement of the earth and its inhabitants . . . [T]he Spirit bears the cross of a planet under siege as she lives under the burden of humankind’s ecological sin” (Mark I. Wallace, Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005, pp. 23-4).

But even while recognizing that we are in the midst of “an environmental Good Friday,” the sermon proclaims the Cosmic Christ resurrected and Earth’s creatures as witnesses to the miracle. In this way, the Lutheran concept of Deus Absconditus, the hiddenness of God under the form of opposites, can be invoked and listeners given hope in the midst of the darkest hour of our modern-day Easter vigil. Further, the sermon must emphasize that Christ appears to us and calms our fears: “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:10). At the same time we are given instruction to “go” and announce to the world the one whom we have seen, the miracle of the resurrection that Creation itself announces to us. Concretizations of Earth-renewal and community restoration would be helpful in enabling the congregation to visualize what eco-resurrection might look like. What are examples of the local community “preaching” that Christ’s resurrection is for the whole Earth? Where are waterways being cleaned up, brownfields being reclaimed, churches being revived by their attention to Earth-care, conservation, and investments in renewable energy?

When, like the women on Easter morning, we stand at the tomb of the crucified Earth looking at the enormous stone blocking our way, might we look forward to the Resurrected One surprising us by calling our name and opening our eyes to Creation transformed to new life? Even as we do all we can to resist evil and teach our children to cherish and protect Earth, speak out against eco-injustice, and change hearts, minds, practices and laws, sometimes it seems all we see is Earth’s crucified body crumpled and dead all around us. An ecological homiletic urges us to return again and again to the biblical accounts of the resurrection to recover sacred memory and thus to renew hope.

What can we learn about resurrection from the biblical texts? The key is in how Jesus appeared: the same, yet different; transformed, yet with scars remaining. So, too, will be the resurrected Earth, which also bears the scars. Nevertheless, new life will emerge in ways that are sure to surprise us with God’s grace.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2014. Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/


[1] Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano (1229) wrote: “When he found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures brother, and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the hidden things of nature with his sensitive heart, as one who had already escaped into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” (1 Celano, 81-82) [as cited in Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). p. 210].)

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.