Tag Archives: Elizabeth Johnson

Sixth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Living the Ecological Vocation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the source of new life for all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! . . The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Some six weeks ago, we joined in praise to God with these verses from Psalm 118, rejoicing in the good news of the Resurrection of Jesus. The voice here is markedly singular. Taking it as the voice of the Risen Jesus, we could easily assume that what we celebrated that day was only his individual resurrection. As we listen to the psalm for this Sixth Sunday, however, we hear something decidedly different:

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 4:1-4).

As the season of Easter draws to a close—the Feast of the Ascension follows in four days—the Psalm for this Sixth Sunday presents a final chorus of joyous praise from “all the ends of the earth.” The song is clearly communal and inclusive of all humanity. And there is more: the statement of praise bridges from God’s covenant with Israel to God’s love for all the earth, and “the earth” that sings is not only human:

“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity” (Psalm 98:7-9)

What is particularly interesting to us, of course, is that otherkind as well as humankind is called on to sing these praises. The praise, as it were, ratifies the point of view we have taken in the comments on the texts for these six Sundays, namely, that Jesus’ Resurrection is an event involving all creation, both humanity, past, present and future, and in the words of our initial guides, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “a transformed earth and within a transfigured world” (Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23, 25). Repeatedly in these texts we have seen that the resurrection is understood to include a community that steadily reaches for universality, is steadfastly characterized by the crucified Jesus’ messianic practice of non-violence, and is bound together in a communal meal. The non-violent character of the community is established by the continuity between the crucified and risen Jesus; it is expressed in risen Jesus’ greeting of “peace.” The community’s meal binds the community to the earth in an economic practice that is modeled on God’s own self-giving in creation. The texts for the last two Sundays invited deeper exploration of these themes: the metaphor of the Good Shepherd drew us deeply into an exploration of the “great economy” of the creation, and encouraged us to resist the self-seeking, “hired hand” economy that always wants to be the only economy there is, humans only welcome. And finally, last Sunday’s texts provided the ultimate “green” anchor for a narrative of the Resurrection of the Earth: a vineyard, in which soil, vine, and branches are tended by the holy gardener for the sake of all creation.

Is this a viable and effective vision for the redemption of the creation? We have asked this question repeatedly along the way. The universality of the Resurrection, the non-violent character of the community and the centrality of its meal practice are clearly represented to some degree in each set of texts for the Easter Season. But there is more to the question: we have also seen the need for a particular understanding of the presence of God within the community. Relocated from the Jerusalem temple to the person of Jesus, and then to his “body” as presented in the fellowship meal, God’s presence is experienced as very “down-to earth.” God is present, not only transcendently above Creation, but in, with and under it. It is the Triune God we encounter in these texts, whose Spirit speaks from the Creation, as well as to Creation and on behalf of Creation. Indeed, reflecting back over the season, this is perhaps the most significant lesson we have learned for the sake of care of Creation: the church needs to think consistently of the Spirit as always joined to Creation. It is the Spirit of Creation we meet in these texts, as much as it is the Spirit of God. And it is the Spirit of Creation on whom we can call for insight and strength in our care of Creation.

We meet this God again in the readings for the Sixth Sunday. In the wake of the resurrection, the Spirit is moving the community forward into the future by crossing the ancient red line between Jew and Gentile. This Spirit is also joined to the Creation in the waters of baptism, as it always will be going forward. That is not its only point of connection, however. It is also the Spirit which in the developing life of the church will be intimately allied with the creation in sounds of music, not from the lyre and the trumpet only, but from orchestras of string and brass instruments, and in hymns and anthems sung by choirs and congregations. If the “hills are alive with the sound” of their praise of the Creator, to adapt a familiar phrase, it is the Spirit that engenders their singing. And when even the roar of the seas and the clapping hands of the floods are heard as praise, it is due to the Spirit’s transformation of their voices.

Beyond the scope of these readings, Elizabeth Johnson provides a more complete description of the Spirit’s ties to Creation. The Spirit is also linked to wind, as in the opening verses of the Book of Genesis, when the spirit of God “blows like a wind over the face of the waters, and the world begins to take shape.” Fire also manifests the special approach of the Spirit, as it “sets human hearts on fire and inspires boldness.” “Blowing like wind, flowing like water, flaming like fire, the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things,” she writes, evoking “better than more abstract words the presence of the Creator Spirit in the natural world, in plants, animals, and the ecosystems of the earth. The whole complex, material universe is pervaded and signed by the Spirit’s graceful vigor, blowing over the void, breathing into the chaos, pouring out, refreshing, quickening, warming, setting ablaze,” which characterizes the “loving presence of the living God as such, beyond anything we can imagine, creating the power of life in all things.” Johnson draws here on Hildegard of Bingen in noting that the combination of wind and fire stirs “everything into quickness with a certain invisible life which sustains all.” Correlative “to the vivifying presence of the Spirit of God throughout the natural world, Johnson concludes, “is the blest character of that world itself.” Its “inner secret” is the dwelling of God’s Spirit within it. Instead of being distant from what is holy, the natural world bears the mark of the sacred, being itself imbued with a spiritual presence” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, pp.138, 150).

Finally, in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, we encounter the Spirit as love, embedded in the reality of the living creation. As the reference to “bearing fruit” in John 15:16 reminds us, the Gospel reading follows directly on Jesus’ description of his relationship with his disciples in terms of the metaphor of vine and branches which the church read last Sunday; thus the power of that metaphor is now fully developed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is an act of the Spirit’s love that bears this fruit of full community. As soil, vine and branches work together to produce fruit, so God’s love creates the community that recognizes in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the source of its new life. When the actions of humankind conform to this understanding, otherkind indeed has reason to rejoice. Elizabeth Johnson puts it this way, at the conclusion of a work in which she has listened carefully to what “the beasts” have to say:

“. . . commitment to ecological wholeness in partnership with a more just social order is the vocation which best corresponds to God’s own loving intent for our corner of creation. We all share the status of creaturehood; we are all kin in the evolving community of life now under siege; our vision must be one of flourishing for all. The immediate aim is to establish and protect healthy ecosystems where all creatures, including poor human beings and plants and animals being driven to extinction, can thrive. The longer-term goal is a socially just and environmentally sustainable society in which the needs of all people are met and diverse species can prosper, onward to an evolutionary future that will still surprise.”

This is the vision, she concludes, “that must guide us at this critical time of Earth’s distress, to practical and critical effect”: “A flourishing humanity on a thriving planet rich in species in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God . . . . [L]iving the ecological vocation in the power of the Spirit sets us off on a great adventure of mind and heart, expanding the repertoire of our love” (Johnson, pp. 285-86).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

In Christ’s Resurrection the Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on creation acting on behalf of its Creator.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

In the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, creation speaks and acts on behalf of its Creator, as well as for itself. In the Gospel, a vine speaks about its place in the vineyard: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5). And in the first reading, the wilderness provides water for a thirsty, spiritual traveler (Acts 8:37). No, this is not the way we usually read these narratives. The words, we know, are from Jesus, and the wilderness enters the story of the Ethiopian eunuch by virtue of his route home. But consider what this reading from the perspective of the participating creation does for our sense of the relationship between humankind and otherkind, of what nature does for us, rather than what we do with nature. A vine captures for us it’s essential place in relationship between the owner of the vineyard and those who enjoy its fruit, and how that relationship involves care of the plant. There will be no fruit without that vine and its caretaker. And a pond by the wilderness way provides what the wayfarer needs to receive, in order to know that he is already “at home” in God’s creation.

This reading is strange to us in part because we don’t usually think of nature as an active participant in our experience. Animals are, to a limited extent, perhaps, but not plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests otherwise, and illustrates with a distant relative of the vine, the pecan trees that provided crucial nourishment for her people on the prairie of Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” The elders knew from “the old times” that “the plants and animals have their own council, and a common language.” The communication of the trees was especially important to them because they somehow knew when conditions were worst, and the hungry people needed their fruit. The trees are tuned to the cycle of fat squirrel population, increasing numbers of hungry hawks and foxes, and then a quiet landscape that signals “a good time to make some nuts;” then “all across the landscape, out come the pecan flowers poised to become a bumper crop again.” The feast to famine, “boom and bust” of what is known as “mast fruiting” was remarkable for its coordination: “if one tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove, not one grove in the forest, but every grove, all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective . . . All flourishing is mutual” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 2013, pp. 14-16).

The explanation for this phenomenon is elusive, Kimmerer notes, but the elders were perhaps close to the truth: “the trees are talking to each other.” In actuality, she explains, it is likely that trees communicate “via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning.” Under attack by insects, for instance, “an upwind tree sends out a distress call, . . the downwind trees catch the drift, sensing those few molecules of alarm, the whiff of danger. This gives them time to manufacture defensive chemicals . . . . Trees appear to be talking about mutual defense.” The pecan trees, in particular, show a capacity for “concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees” and “ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive.” The synchrony of the mast fruiting of the pecan trees happens, according to one theory, “not through the air, but underground,” by means of “subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots” and “form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected.” As a “kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time.” The moral insight: “They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.” And humans can easily enter this circle: “Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy [who collects the nuts]—all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.” As Kimmerer comments,

“. . . how generously they shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live. But in the giving their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity . . . . We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels” (Kimmerer, pp. 20-21).

Or not. When her people ignored the collective wisdom of the trees and accepted the offer of the federal government to own property as individuals, within a generation two thirds of their lands had been forfeited, as the new citizens found they could not pay taxes due, or sold their allotment when “offered a keg of whiskey and a lot of money, ‘fair and square’” (Kimmerer, pp. 18-19). Two generations later, “after removal, after allotment, after the boarding schools, after diaspora,” her family returns to Oklahoma and “what is left of [her] grandfather’s allotment.” They dance on the old powwow grounds near the pecan groves along the river. But the meaning of the trees has been largely reduced to metaphor:

The synchrony of our Gathering is determined by our leaders, but more importantly, there is something like a mycorrhizal network that unites us, an unseen connection of history and family and responsibility to both our ancestors and our children. As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.

Still, there is restorative power in the metaphor. It is “a mast year” for her family, Kimmerer writes;

“We are all here at the Gathering, thick on the ground, like seeds for the future. Like an embryo provisioned and protected inside layers of stony shell, we have survived the lean years and flower together. I go walking in the pecan grove, perhaps the very place where my grandfather stuffed his pant legs full [of pecan nuts]. He would be surprised to find us all here, dancing the circle, remembering pecans” (Kimmerer, p. 21).

We note the similarity of the narratives here, nut tree and vine: the one, much later than other, a vehicle of “scientific insight,” countermanding a cultural bias against a communicative nature, in favor of the transfer of native, life-sustaining wisdom; the other, a narrative brought to light, perhaps, by the sustained observation of Palestinian peasants, guided by the Spirit of God into prophetic witness. Background for this understanding is found, of course, in the Hebrew Bible. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” of great heritage. Already in Exodus 15:17 it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” And in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 255). And as Raymond Brown notes, it is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree,” he suggests, “frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here.” A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man, Brown observes, was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples who regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72).

Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the vine for the relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciples, so fully amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is thus a contested reading, claimed by rival parties. The concern for the truth of the vine (“I am the true vine,” John 15:1) accordingly involves a much larger frame of reference than is commonly generated in pastoral reflection on the text. There is contention here between rival political movements, some of which have engaged in violence to defend their cause. Whether or not John here wishes to contrast Jesus and the church as the true vine as over against the false vine of Israel’s religious or political leadership need not concern us here; the more important point is that, with the vine as symbol for Israel of Jahweh’s gracious presence with respect to Israel’s existence in the land in the context of imperial domination, Jesus’ words lay claim to the metaphor for his followers’ relationship to the creation, without any recourse to any sort of human domination over it whatsoever: the true vine is the reality of right relationship—Creator, people, and creation taken together, for the sake of the fruitfulness of the creation.

The Spirit of Creation speaks clearly in both Gospel and Hebrew Scripture: God intends that the vineyard produce good fruit. Indeed, Brueggemann notes, failing that, “Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard:” “I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it”( Isaiah 5:6). This combination of generosity and destructive judgment is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the re-giving of the land after exile.” The metaphor thus expresses

“. . . both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine. The vineyard must be productive, yielding in obedience the fruit intended by the planting” (Brueggemann, p. 257).

The principle holds: as with the people of Israel, so also with the church; those who abide in Jesus as he abides in them “bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

The metaphor of the vine is, accordingly, rich in implication for the church’s vocation in relationship to the creation. We, too, share in a circle of reciprocity. The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine: on this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” But a related truth, of course, is that vine can no more than the trees live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. The relationship of vine and branch is thus part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser, or the gardener, the vineyard in which the vine is planted, and its sustaining environs. Jesus, according to John’s account, is not unmindful of this larger frame of reference: on the contrary, could he be “the true vine” if “the vinegrower,” who brings all these elements together, is not his “Father”? Spirit of life, spirit of creation, prompting Jesus, John, and their community, to take note of the wisdom of relationships in what we referred to as the “Great Economy” in last week’s commentary, and to spread a good word about the relationship of love that pervades all creation. The creation is alive with the presence of one who feeds both body and spirit, fruit of the love of God, fruit of the vine of the earth.

For us, too, then, the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” such as the broken relationship between people and Earth characteristic of our time of ecological crisis. It is for us, too, that the Spirit of Creation is enlisting the wisdom of the vine to restore for us a healthy earth. What more appropriate communication could the Spirit bring to us than one couched in the richly green metaphor of the vine and its branches? It beautifully expresses the needed mutuality of nature and Spirit, and the cooperation required for that restoration.

Readers may object that there is no explicit reference to the land anywhere in John 15:1-8. Might this not mean that only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the Christian community? The rooting of the vine, then, might not need to concern us. We would argue that, on the contrary, with the Creator who is part of the metaphor, comes the land now writ large to encompass all creation, which the Creator provides. As we have sought to show in our comments on the texts for the previous four Sundays, the Resurrection of Jesus is an event that involves not only all humanity, but the creation in which humanity exists. One needs, we propose, to think holistically about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil, it needs to be rooted. No less than the absence of the vine grower, displacement of the vine from the soil of the vineyard would in fact entail the elimination of the very possibility of life for the vine. Given the context of the Gospel’s composition, the claim that Jesus is the true vine retains for the future of his community the Hebrew heritage of the land, although now not limited to the specific land of Israel. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the religious context of the Gospel’s author, Jesus the true vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation, “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And if God, so also God’s people raised in Christ to participate in the vine.

Jesus’s use of the metaphor of the vine does presuppose the active presence of the Yahweh the Vinedresser/Gardener. And so necessarily will the church’s interpretation of the metaphor. But is our insistence on that presupposition, in part for the sake of inclusion of the reality the Earth in the narrative, at cross purposes in our cultural context with achieving a hearing for the healing of the earth and the preservation of its real soil? In his recent work, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton suggests so. In what he calls “An Enlightenment Fable,” Hamilton thinks through the consequences of “the death of God” in which humankind, relieved of

“. . . the individual preoccupation with salvation and damnation, was at the same time born into the role of master of its own destiny. And the essential question became whether it would make worlds that defy the constraints of the Earth or make worlds in which nature flourishes too, that is, worlds in which humankind takes responsibility for the Earth’s healthy evolution” (Hamilton, pp122-23).

Now “those for whom God lived on would have to act etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no God.” Our destiny could no longer “be read from holy books but from our own understanding of the world and its history.” “No longer a spiritual journey,” the

“. . . path to realizing our destiny had become an intellectual and physical one, building on the “epistemic distance” opened up by the scientific worldview. Ultimately, however, it was a power struggle between contending social forces, the forces of neglect—power-hunger, greed, growth fetishism, hedonism, and psychological weaknesses—against the forces of care: self-restraint, respect for the natural world, love of one’s children, and the desire for civilization to flourish.”

Nature’s disenchantment and God’s withdrawal initiated the development of “a new justification for human existence”: “the struggle to learn how to live collectively on the Earth and within its limits is the way, the opportunity for humankind to find its place in the cosmos” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Polity Press: Malden, MA, 2017, pp. 122-125).

For Hamilton, the advent of the Anthropocene is a moment of great peril: “human beings have yet to realize that freedom can no longer operate independently of necessity, and so continue to act as Moderns, free to play out their agency on a compliant Earth.” What might rescue us, he proposes, is a new understanding of human freedom as a possibility that “always resided in nature and once manifested must be bound to it, networked into nature.” “[K]nowing freedom’s source within nature-as-a-whole comes with a heavy responsibility, to protect and enhance nature, to live within its limits as we make new worlds.” We have then become “the key” to nature-as-a-whole: “In that case, our activities in bringing on a new epoch in the geohistory of the planet should not be regarded only as an ethical lapse, with no function in the unfolding of nature-as-a-whole; they tell us something fundamental about the nature of the whole and the arc of its narrative” (Hamilton, pp. 140-41). In this view, Hamilton writes,

“. . . the coming of age was not an accident, or an event triggered by a few intrepid men, or the inexorable evolution of a process in train for millennia. Our coming of age was the manifestation of the agency latent in nature-as-a-whole, when humans, alone in a disenchanted world from which the gods had withdrawn, were ceded the opportunity to earn the right to “inherit the Earth. The concentration of agency in humans is not without meaning; freedom with Earth-changing power put us in the position where we had to decide how humans could flourish without destroying the Earth” (Hamilton, p. 144).

“[B]eyond all purely human-oriented aspirations must be the cultivation of our relationship with the planet to the enduring benefit of both.” Now, the “duty to care for the Earth is the meaningful goal as well as the prudent one.” All along the question has been our relationship with nature, conflicted or consonant, “that would prove decisive“ (Hamilton, pp. 144-45):

“And so, after the death of God, respect for the integrity of the Earth can grow only from the sense of gratitude for the gift of freedom and an acute awareness of its dangers. Such an orientation arises not from obligations to other humans (as in all conventional ethics), which is to say, not from the realm of freedom as such; it arises out of an understanding of freedom emerging from nature-as-a-whole” (Hamilton, p. 149).

Accordingly, the evaluation of the use of our freedom is no longer so much a question of good and evil in our interaction with humans, as it is a matter of care and neglect of the earth. In the latter option, it is no longer merely the benign neglect of an ill-informed humanity, but the “wanton,” “reckless and self-indulgent” neglect of not attending to the consequences no longer unknown and unintended, but rather based on knowledge that “enables us to see, with amazing if far-from-perfect clarity, how the physical world works” (Hamilton, p. 151).

In summary, as to the question of whether belief in God as Creator helps foster the care of the Earth in the Anthropocene, Hamilton’s argument compels us, he argues, to

“. . . confront the most difficult truth—in the Anthropocene we have no ethical resources to draw on. The cupboard is bare. For all of their worthiness, appeals to “responsibility” have no heft, no ontological substance. Where once we could fear and love God and truly believe in him and his saving power, now we can only fear Gaia. But Gaia is no messiah, which leaves self-preservation as the only motive, a negative motive that seems much too weak. Unless, that is, we can become beings guided by a new cosmological sense rooted in the profound significance of humankind in the arc of the Earth” (Hamilton, pp. 155-56).

Is there a possibility, he asks finally, of the emergence of “new human beings who embody another future, who allow themselves to be appropriated by the next future, who are willing to think eschatologically—that is, to think the end of the world of techno-industrial appropriation in an era of trial and struggle, to accept that the Enlightenment did not banish all darkness and that the lamp of Reason shines too dimly to guide us through the night falling over us?” (Hamilton, pp. 156).

Our answer is yes, there is. It is the possibility inherent in the belief in the God raised Jesus from the dean, in an event that involved not only all humanity, all creation. It is the possibility embedded in the belief in the God who enters the narrative not only as “heavenly Father,” but also as Spirit of Creation. It is, once again, God encountered as Mark Wallace describes her, as the Spirit who abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable, the Spirit who inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) that is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, and speaks to us through Jesus’ word about the true vine, but also, independently, through the story of the pecan tree. Said differently, it is the eternal God who, as Elizabeth Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” As Bishop Ambrose of Milan put it, “in Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose,” which marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos (Adapted from our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, based on Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136; and from Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

From the point of view of creation, which is where we began this comment, this outlook would seem both natural and hopeful, contrary to Hamilton’s skepticism. As evidence for this, consider our second reading, which as we suggested presents creation not only speaking, but also acting on behalf of its Creator. As the story goes, an Ethiopian eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, although cultic rules would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who teaches him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” this exchange of good news already illustrates the liberation of the experience of God’s love from the temple and its governing authorities, which makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all the earth—as the gift of God’s love in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus we appropriately sing in today’s psalm, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).

But the clincher is that the creation itself joins in agreement and acts to raise the Ethiopian into new life. Noticing the water alongside the wilderness road, the Ethiopian observes, “look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And the answer being obviously “nothing,” thanks to the wilderness, he was baptized right there, and was from then on at home with God in God’s creation. The Spirit of Creation, comes, passes by, and goes on across the earth, so that the holy vine grows wherever the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. It happens for the good of humanity, but also the greater good of all the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 25) in Year B (Ormseth18)

All Creation Is Raised Up Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Great Economy of the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 25, 2021
Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

A none-too-wise seminarian once remarked that he didn’t think he would use the metaphor of the shepherd in his work with confirmands, in as much as in his experience few of them knew what a shepherd did, and if they happened to know, they wouldn’t appreciate being compared to sheep who needed herding. Sheep were for them just very stupid animals. Granted the importance of taking context into consideration in preaching, the metaphor is probably still too valuable as comfort at the hospital bedside or the funeral home to abandon it, at least for older people and those who do have rural roots. Which is a good thing for preaching care of creation, actually, because the metaphor in fact has special value, as a means of linking not only such youth and their urban families, but us all, to the earth. The metaphor is intimately connected to images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. In the 23rd Psalm, for instance the pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, Arthur Walker-Jones suggests, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” Accordingly, he urges, the metaphor

“. . . could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).”

Walker-Jones’ point is well-taken, of course, but the condition he seeks to remedy needs to be considered more fully to take full advantage of the metaphor. Indeed, that very separation between humanity and nature is the more important issue raised by the readings this Sunday in the season of Easter.

The difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand, as John has it, is that the latter “does not own the sheep”, and “does not care for the sheep.” Those two assertions draw our discussion into the realm of economics. The relationship of the hired hand to the sheep is a matter of self-interested self-preservation: when it serves his interests, he is happy to receive his wage for tending them; when on the contrary, it goes against his interests, as when the wolf threatens, he runs. And so the metaphor discloses the lamentable condition that is close to the heart of the environmental crisis of our world. The sheep, as we commonly encounter them, are part of our human economy. As “hired hands” we know them as such, and perhaps only as such. The reality is that the way the hired hand relates to the sheep is pretty much the way we in our society relate to nature in its entirety. We don’t really know it, and we don’t take time and effort to get to know it, except in so far as we have special interest and occasion to do so as part of our quest for our own economic well-being. Consequently, in terms of a Senegalese environmentalist’s maxim, nature won’t really be for us something that we genuinely love: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (Baba Dioum, quoted from “Toolkit: Our Watershed Moment,” available for free download from Minneapolis Area Synod EcoFaith Network). We are, in this perspective, far and away the “hired hands” whose main interest in the sheep is a good supply of lamb chops to eat or wool to keep us warm, when we force them to render up their lives for us.

There is another economy at play in this narrative, however, one with significantly different principles. Like the human economy, this one, which Wendel Berry in his masterful essay “Two Economies” calls the “Great Economy,” which “includes principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” But these principles and patterns differ markedly: including all things, everything in the Great Economy is “both joined to it and everything else that is in it.” Its scope, in other words, is universal: “[B]oth known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility” (Wendell Berry, Home Economics, North Point Press: Berkeley, California, 1987, pp. 56-57). Because it includes everything, Berry observes, this Great Economy actually can’t be fully known by humans, which means that “humans can live in the Great Economy only with great uneasiness, subject to powers and laws that they can understand only in part” (Berry, p. 57). By necessity, they cannot choose not to live in it, although they “may choose to act as if they do not.” If humans do “choose to live in the Great Economy on its terms, then they must live in harmony with it, maintaining it in trust and learning to consider the lives of the wild creatures” which it also includes (Berry, p. 58). This inclusivity is temporal as well as spatial; “we cannot foresee an end to it: The same basic stuff is going to be sifting from one form to another, so far as we know, forever” (p. 59).

Both of these two economies concern values, but the values are derived differently: we participate in the “little human economy” by virtue of “factual knowledge, calculation, and manipulation; our participation in the Great Economy also requires those things, but requires as well humility, sympathy, forbearance, generosity, imagination” (p.60-61). And while the human economy “can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, it cannot make value,” which originates only in the Great Economy. Indeed, “when humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.” Recognizing that the values of the human economy are in this sense secondary, it must also be managed so as to “make continuously available those values that are primary or given, the secondary values having mainly to do with husbandry and trusteeship. A little economy is obliged to receive them gratefully and to use them in such a way as not to diminish them” (p. 61-62). Indeed, in a passage that leads to an observation crucial for restorative action, Berry remarks that,

“. . . a little economy may be said to be good insofar as it perceives the excellence of these benefits and husbands and preserves them. It is by holding up this standard of goodness that we can best see what is wrong with the industrial economy. For the industrial economy does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as ‘raw material’ to be transformed mechanically into something else. What it cannot use, it characteristically describes as ‘useless,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘random,’ or ‘wild,’ and gives it some such name as ‘chaos,’ ‘disorder,’ or ‘waste’—and thus ruins it or cheapens it in preparation for eventual use (Berry, pp. 64-65).”

Like the hired hand of the metaphor, we abandon such goods to the wolves that shadow our industry and commerce.

The remedy of this absence of care comes when we acknowledge the existence of the Great Economy, and we are astonished and frightened to see how completely the industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy. The “invariable mode” of the industrial economy’s relation “both to nature and to human culture, we see, is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” In relationship to land, for instance, the industrial economy “removes natural fertility and human workmanship,” reducing the land “to abstract marketable quantities of length and width.” We would like to make our control of “the forces of nature” complete, without any limits on human capacity to employ them. We assume that such control and such freedom are our “rights,” which seems to ensure that our means of control (of nature and of all else that we see as alien) will be violent . . . . Nuclear holocaust, if it comes, will be the final detonation of an explosive economy (Berry, pp. 68-69).

Seeing the human economy “as the only economy,” we regard its errors as political failures, and we continue to talk only about “recovery.” When we think of the little human economy in relation to the Great Economy, on the other hand, we “begin to understand our errors for what they are and to see the qualitative meanings of our quantitative measures,” and the “industrial wastes and losses not as ‘trade-offs’ or ‘necessary risks’ but as costs that, like all costs, are chargeable to somebody, sometime” (Berry, p. 71). This changes everything in our reading of the economy:

We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption, which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a “side” that we can join nor are there such “sides” within it. Thus, it is not the “sum of its parts” but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole” (Berry, pp. 72-73).

In the “membership of the Great Economy everything signifies; whatever we do counts. If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys. We can presume that we are outside the membership that includes us, but that presumption only damages the membership—and ourselves, of course, along with it” (Berry, pp.74-75).

The Good Shepherd, it can now be recognized, is truly and fully at home in the Great Economy. For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The reading of Psalm 23 underscores this insight. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61).

The “good” or model shepherd thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his] own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The Great Economy clearly participates in the divine economy of the Trinity, grounded in God’s active love for God’s people. We’ve already heard about this economy this Easter Season, as we took note of it in our comment on the readings for the Second and Third Sundays. It is the economy of “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” in the words of M. Douglas Meeks, which was manifest in the sharing of goods in the early Christian community (Acts 4:32-34). It is the economy in which

. . . God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113-14). It is the economy of love reflected in the great summation of the gospel in the second lesson, “we know love by this, that Jesus lays down his life—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17).

It also relates to the economy of the Triune God as described both by Mark Wallace in his Fragments of the Spirit and by Elizabeth Johnson in her Ask the Beasts, which we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. As Wallace observed, “Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136). It is filled by this Spirit that Peter addressed those authorities of the temple who objected to “a good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:8-9). And as Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization, Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

Here in the Easter Season we in fact might well identify the Great Economy with the Economy of the Resurrection in which all creation is raised up. In this Economy, the separation of humanity from nature is overcome, and if we trust our metaphorical imagination, we can learn to see in moments of revelatory import signs of death and resurrection that are built into the creation. Berry’s favorite example is topsoil: We cannot speak of topsoil, he writes,

“. . . indeed we cannot know what it is, without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it . . . For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: It is making life out of death . . . . A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.”

Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus wonderfully involves all creation. And no less wonderfully, there is also the mystery of the sheep who are so much at home in the creation that they virtually disappear into it: a small flock of ewes, Berry has observed,

“. . . fitted properly into a farm’s pattern, virtually disappears into the farm and does it good, just as it virtually disappears into the time and energy economy of a farm family and does it good. And, properly fitted into the farm’s pattern, the small flock virtually disappears from the debit side of the farm’s accounts but shows up plainly on the credit side. This ‘disappearance’ is possible, not to the extent that the farm is a human artifact, a belonging of the human economy, but to the extent that it remains, by its obedience to natural principle, a belonging of the Great Economy” (Berry, p. 64).

Not bad for “stupid animals.” We humans should do so well.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. In the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, p. 208).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl14)

Join the Hymn of All Creation Tom Mundahl reflects on ministering to creation as priests of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

The Coming of God in Christ at Christmas changes everything.  It should be no surprise, then, that the psalmody for Christmas Eve echoes the joy of all creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and everything that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord….  (Psalm 96: 11-13)

In a greeting to the 20th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality focusing on ecology, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “If humanity is in God’s image, and if that image is fully realized in the coming of the Word in the flesh, humanity’s calling is to love and nourish the true meaning and form of every aspect of the creation, not to try and subordinate it to some passing version of what seems to be the interest of humanity in isolation.” (Monasterio di Bose Blog, September, 2012)

That is, far from being a “free pass” to dominate non-human creation, to live out the “image of God” must mean to begin a long listening session. Perhaps “imaging God” is an apprenticeship for learning servanthood to the rest of creation, a lifetime of being opened up “to multiple avenues of reciprocal interaction between human beings and other species” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 267). We may even come to understand that, during this season of Christmas, it is we humans who are the latecomers in joining  nature’s chorus.

We certainly hear “heaven and nature sing” in Psalm 148. As the centerpiece of the final five “Hallelujah psalms” (Psalm 146-150), it divides the chorus of praise into “the heavens” (vv. 1-6) and “the earth” (vv. 7-14). Given this division, the psalmist seems intent on providing the greatest variety of voices from each sphere. Angels, sun and moon, and even the waters above the firmament, comprise the heavenly choir. In the earthly chorus, sea monsters from the deep lead the voices of “mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148:8-10). To these are added, finally, the human voices ranging from royalty to men and women, young and old.

Why? As appropriate as this psalm is for the Christmas Season, it certainly predates its celebration and points to a continuing melody.  Elizabeth Johnson suggests a simple answer to this question: “Because God commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148:5). All exist as the fruit of the powerful good will of the Giver whose name is exalted beyond heaven and earth” (Johnson, p. 276).

This “choir festival” is echoed in today’s First Lesson from Isaiah. The prophet, drawing on the earlier Isaiah, revisits the marriage imagery from Isaiah 52:1-2. When creation is spiced with this celebration, “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” as naturally as the seeds in a garden sprout (Isaiah 61: 11).

Yet, as Paul D. Hanson suggests, “The optimism conveyed in the reaffirmation of Second Isaiah’s vision of restoration in chapters 60 and 61 is tempered in chapter 62 by another motif. Somber intimations of impending crises begin to lead the prophet to a different posture, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis those perceived as doubting God’s purposes” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 228). The prophet vows not to “shut up” until “vindication” and “salvation” are completely expressed by the giving of a “new name” (Isaiah 62:1-2). To fully appreciate this change of mood and prophetic response, it is necessary to consider Isaiah 62:4-5.

“Third Isaiah follows Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in utilizing the marriage metaphor to express the new name, that is, the new status of the people in relation to God” (Hanson, p. 229).

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isaiah 62:4).

Even though they have completed the return from Babylon, the people have a long way to go. This new journey finds its climax as the people appropriate their new name, a name that pronounces renewed blessing on both people and land. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but the bloom of life spreads before them. Despite past exile and an uncertain present, the future is as hopeful as that of a newly married couple, or of a new CSA gardener planting her first crop of kale.

Like the Isaiah prophet, Paul also writes to a community that needs the terms of its  freedom and hope reinforced. Not only does this week’s Galatians text provide one of the earliest textual references to the nativity, it continues Paul’s argument for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. It is preceded by his reminder that before faith came (“when we were minors,” all were “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3). These “elemental spirits” are no shaggy Druidic forces to seek woodland harmony with. Instead, they were widely thought to be “demonic entities of cosmic proportions and astral powers which were hostile towards man” (Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Series, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 205)

But because in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5), the situation has changed. The first purpose clause (“in order to redeem those who were under the law”) clearly refers to Jewish members of the community. Since Paul commonly uses the formula “Jew first and then Greek,” it is likely that the second purpose clause (“so that we might receive adoption as children”) encompasses all in the early Galatian community (Betz, p. 208). Not only does this incarnation provide unity for the group through the Spirit, but it affirms that slavery for a Christian of Jewish or Gentile origin is over.

Surely this liberation must include freedom from being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” Instead of desperately trying to alter the course of “fate” through a laundry list of sacrifices, astrology, and magic—all part of the old and widely syncretistic worldview—now it is possible to live in freedom. Once more, humankind is freed to deal with the whole creation with the respect and service that is fitting.

Just as our readings from Isaiah and Galatians demonstrate the wholeness God intends for creation, so the new freedom brought by the incarnation is demonstrated dramatically in the life and lyric of Simeon. That Simeon’s entry onstage is vital is signaled by the opening words “And behold” (και ιδου). While there is no evidence that Simeon was an older man, he is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25b). This “consolation” (παρακλησις) is related both to the “comfort” of Isaiah 40:1-2 and to the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:31), which we learn “rested on him” (Luke 2:25b). The Spirit had assured Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2: 26)

That Simeon is painted in the prophetic tradition inspired by the Spirit is clear. Now, in the tradition of Jeremiah’s “symbolic actions,” he takes the child into his arms and praises God in the final “song” of Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, “the Nunc Dimittis” (from the Latin translation of the first words, “Now dismiss….”). In fact, Simeon is celebrating his “manumission,” being released from his patient service as a “slave” (δουλος) by the divine “master” (δεσποτης) after a long wait. As prophesied by Isaiah, this celebration takes place “in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:31, Isaiah 40:5). Just as Paul wrote to bring unity to Jew and Gentile, so Luke ensures full inclusion: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

If God is fully present in the child in the lap of Mary, this One is also present in the arms of Simeon. Similarly, “this child is also fully present in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so known by the faithful, whenever these sacraments are shared according to the cosmic Word” (Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 84). Certainly it is just that “cosmic Word” that faithful Anna shares with the faithful people coming to the temple.

But there is more to Luke’s narrative. Following the blessing, the prophet Simeon shares a hard truth with Mary.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will run through your life also)so that the calculations of many hearts may be exposed (Luke 2: 34-35, author’s translation).

At first, this warning seems to echo Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, which describes a reversal that includes the fall of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly (Luke 1:52-53). But it moves beyond this sense of reversal by identifying “this child,” in the words of Isaiah 8:14-15, as a “stone of stumbling” which breaks to pieces everyone who falls on it. What’s more, this one is also “The stone that the builders rejected (who) has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Both senses of meaning are used to interpret Luke’s crucial parable of the landlord and the tenants (Luke 20:17-18). When Jesus’ opponents hear the parable and its interpretation, immediately they seek” to lay hands on him . . . .” (Luke 20:19). Simeon’s warning, then, exposes the “calculations” of the “scribes and chief priests” and prepares us for Jesus’ passion. No wonder Luke comments parenthetically to Mary, “and a sword will run through your life also.”

Have we lost the celebratory tone of Psalm 148 and our Christmas carols entirely? Of course not, but neither are we so naive as to claim that the age of wonders and fulfillment has completely arrived. In fact, we know that the incarnation of the Servant of Creation still exposes “the calculations of many hearts.”

A recent e-mail from the people who put together the fine short film about consumption, “The Story of Stuff “ reminded me of this. The message referred to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch created by the interaction of the North Pacific Gyre currents and gross human plastic dumping. The size of this “patch” outstrips the very word used to describe it: estimated to be anywhere from the size of the state of Texas, on the small side, to the size of the continent of Africa (cf. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, New York: St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 121-128).

While the vast majority of this atrocious mess comes from marine vessels, the problem of disposing of plastics is global, but most intense in so-called developed countries. However, since plastic containers have a long life and can be reused many times, there is an opportunity simply to return empty shampoo bottles or olive oil containers to co-ops to be refilled. Unfortunately, refilling options are not always available and, “to expose the calculations of many hearts,” this often requires personal effort. But to move this ‘cardiac exposure’ to the public level, are there not public policies that would both educate and regulate to confront this problem? But what is the level of political contributions of plastic manufacturers in the U.S., so intimately connected with the petroleum industry?

We continue to sing Psalm 148. All creation sings the song of God’s praise together. But we also are called to remember our priestly role in mediating the vision of the intention of God’s creation, priests who both imagine and serve (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 135). But, in a way, that continues our listening to God and the whole creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Ormseth11)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Waiting for the coming of God.

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

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

Advent—joyful anticipation of liberation and transformation.

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

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

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

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

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

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

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

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

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

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

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

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

The First Sunday in the Season of Creation in Year C: Ocean Sunday

Wisdom teaches that what God has gathered up in Christ, we humans should make healthy, free from toxins, cleaned of trash, and restored to abundance. Leah Schade reflects on the first Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation  

Readings for the First Sunday (Ocean), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Job 38:1-18
Psalm 104:1-9, 24-26
Ephesians 1:3-10
Luke 5:1-11

As we begin a sermon series on Wisdom as the force of creativity behind Creation and the energy that enables the human and other-than-human members of the Earth community to fulfill their roles, it will be helpful to provide the congregation with a framework within which to understand the concept of Wisdom.  Elizabeth Johnson’s work in She Who Is and Women, Earth and Creator Spirit is one possibility for such a framework.  She suggests that Sophia, the female personification of Holy Wisdom, can and should be the lens through which the Trinity is viewed, as well as the language through which we speak and hear about God.  Thus she coins the terms “Spirit-Sophia,” “Jesus-Sophia,” and “Mother-Sophia” as an alternative Trinitarian formulation, which places Wisdom/Sophia not in a subordinate position, but as the controlling metaphor.

Johnson believes that the power of the Woman Wisdom image may enable contemporary women and other oppressed and marginalized members of the human community to move beyond the restrictions of patriarchal circumscriptions and realize their power to effect change for themselves, Earth, and their children.  According to Johnson, the Church is the most obvious candidate for modeling what it means to answer Wisdom’s call to undergo transformative attention to those most vulnerable, including the species, habitats, and human beings most threatened by oppression, and to take responsibility for the health and respectful treatment of all Creation.

Applying this Sophia/Wisdom framework to the readings for this Sunday yields interesting points of entry for preaching.  For example, Psalm 104:24 states that “in wisdom” (hokmah in Hebrew) God created the earth.  Johnson reminds us that not only is the grammatical gender of the word for wisdom feminine in Hebrew, but “the biblical portrait of Wisdom is consistently female, casting her as sister, mother, female beloved, chef and hostess, teacher, preacher, maker of justice, and a host of other women’s roles.  In every instance, Wisdom symbolizes transcendent power pervading and ordering the world, both nature and human beings, interacting with them all to lure them onto the path of life,” (Women, Earth and Creator Spirit, p. 51).

Wisdom, then, has many roles to play in God’s ongoing Creation, working alongside Jesus and the Holy Spirit to enliven, restore, teach and bring justice to our world.  In the reading from Luke, for example, we see an example of the way in which elements of Earth become Jesus’ teaching partner.  When Jesus tells Peter to let down his net into the lake of Gennesaret, Peter protests, saying in effect that their entire fishing trip had yielded nothing to that point—so what difference would it make now?  Yet when Peter acquiesces and follows Jesus’ command, the amount of fish in the net is so large they need the nearby boats to come haul it in. The waters and the fish play an important didactic role in teaching Peter and the others that God’s power and abundance never cease to surprise us, gracing us beyond all expectations.

But the reality that also needs to be stated in a sermon is that if Peter should let down his nets in open waters today, most likely his haul would be significantly compromised.  Overfishing would result in smaller and fewer fish.  And the nets would be heavy, not from aquatic life but from a disgusting array of trash, poisons, and toxic waste.  Simply enter the words “trash in the ocean” on http://images.google.com/ to see (and perhaps show the congregation during the sermon?) pictures of floating islands of trash both on the surface and below the water.  Human waste chokes and poisons marine life in ways that cause immense suffering that most of us never see, nor want to face.

Jesus’ teaching on the Gennesaret Sea is not just a metaphor for how the Kingdom of God will manifest itself.  That teachable moment has important significance for this particular time of ecological destruction, because it shows us that the very illustration that Jesus uses—the basic, natural and life-giving phenomenon of fish thriving in a healthy aquatic ecosystem—that very process is under threat of annihilation.  This is a troubling, but accurate reframing of the Gennesaret fishing expedition for today’s world.  Admittedly, it will be difficult for a congregation to hear.

But just as Jesus’ teaching ministry in first century Palestine was meant to shake people up and get them thinking about things in a new way so that they could hear the Gospel clearly, so must our teaching and preaching today include the Good News.  We hear so many examples of what human beings are doing to desecrate the Earth, it is important for us—especially as Christians who proclaim a theology of the cross that reminds us that God shows up in the last place you would think to look—to proclaim the Good News about what God is doing to restore the oceans, seas, rivers and streams, especially as they connect to the human and other-than-human lives around and within them.

In Job 38:1-18, we notice that the words “knowledge,” “know,” “comprehend” and “understanding” are prominent in God’s questions to Job.  Realizing how little we truly know and understand about Creation helps to humble the arrogance and hubris of the human. Part of our calling as Creation-Care-Christians is to devote ourselves to learning about the ecosystems that sustain us. Congregations can host speakers and fairs that highlight local watersheds, lead trash clean-up events through local waterways, and write letters asking legislators and corporations to propose and support better waste management practices and policies.

The Christological statement of faith made by Paul in Ephesians 1:3-10 tells us that it is specifically through Jesus Christ that wisdom (Sophia in Greek) and insight (phroneisis in Greek) help us to understand the mysteries that once were closed to us.  And what is it that we are being enabled to comprehend?  It is that God is “gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth,” (v. 10).  Our preaching can echo this proclamation that Christ continues to gather up all things into himself.  And we humans can continue the good work of seeing that what is gathered up is healthy, free from toxins, cleaned of trash, and restored to abundance.

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

 

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year B (Schade15)

Here Am I!Leah Schade reflects on answering the call to love and serve creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the The Holy Trinity, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

The Isaiah text and Psalm 29 for Trinity Sunday contain strong, masculine images of a king seated on his throne above Creation, exercising his power in magnificent, yet frightening ways. God speaks and the voice is like thunder over the waters, resonating with enough force to break trees and send entire countries running like scared young animals. The personification of the deity as a mighty ruler whose power flashes like lightning and whips up catastrophic storms on a whim is common across many religions. Yet in light of earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, and other natural events that can shatter lives, communities, and nearly entire countries, we must be careful not to attribute such occurrences to a capricious deity who appears to arbitrarily wreak havoc on Earth. If this is who our Triune God is and what this Abba/Father does, our awe may turn to abject fear, and there may be little reason to trust and love such a God.

A better way to explore the concept of the Trinity is provided by theologian Elizabeth Johnson, who, in her authoritative and preeminent work She Who Is, seeks to appreciatively uncover, recover, and assess those classic theological resources that may fund a feminist theology (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad, 1992). For example, she draws on the Cappadocian Fathers’ idea of the perichoresis, or mutual in-dwelling of the persons of the Trinity, to describe a three-way partnership that is fully relational with each other and with the world.

At the same time, she is not hesitant to point out the way our forefathers in theology created a religious system that inscribes patriarchy into all aspects of the faith. Drawing on the work of Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Sallie McFague, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, Johnson recognizes the importance of language to both name and create reality. She beckons us to expand our images of the Trinity and offers us new ways to understand our triune God’s relationship to humanity and nature. She insists that Sophia, the female personification of Holy Wisdom, can and should be the lens through which the Trinity is viewed, as well as the language through which we speak and hear about God. Thus she coins the terms Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia and Mother-Sophia as an alternative Trinitarian formulation that places Wisdom/Sophia as the primary metaphor.

According to Johnson, the Church is the most obvious candidate for modeling what it means to answer Wisdom’s call to undergo transformative attention to those most vulnerable, including the species, habitats, and human beings most threatened by oppression, and to take responsibility for the health and respectful treatment of all Creation. As Johnson describes:

“Alive in the koinonia of SHE WHO IS, women and men are called to be friends of God and prophets, that is, appreciators of her wonders, sympathizers with her resistance to whatever degrades beloved creation, companions to her passion for the world’s flourishing, starting with the nearest neighbor in need and extending to the farthest flung system by which we order, or disorder, our common life” (She Who Is, 244).

Johnson also suggests that Jesus reimaged as Jesus-Sophia can be understood as Wisdom incarnate, thus joining him with the Hebrew feminine images of shekinah and ruah. Seeing a connection between the Greek masculine logos, or Word of God, and Hebrew shekinah/ruah, or Spirit of God, she argues for the recovery of the feminine Sophia in order to counterbalance the preponderance of male imagery so often associated with the Trinity. This is an especially poignant insight when considering John’s Gospel, which is replete with references to the logos, while often presenting Jesus as a Wisdom figure along the lines of Lady Sophia from Proverbs.

So if the “voice” of the Triune God is more than a masculine roar triggering cataclysmic events, how might we recalibrate our hermeneutic for hearing the “voice” of SHE WHO IS, Spirit-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia and Mother-Sophia? One way is to remind parishioners that if we listen to the voice of Jesus-Sophia, we will clearly hear that God is not intent on inflicting pain and suffering on Creation, inclusive of humanity. How do we know this? Because, as Jesus-Sophia clearly stated, “God so loved the world,” (John 3:16, emphasis added). The Greek word here is cosmos—meaning not just the human “world,” but all of Creation. Thus God is not intending to destroy that which God loves. Nor does God intend for humans to destroy what God loves. Rather, God intends to redeem all of Creation, which serves as a model for humans to care for what God loves as well.

At this point, the sermon might invoke the image of the searing, yet cleansing, heat from the fiery ember placed on the prophet Isaiah’s tongue. We know our own lips are unclean and that we live among a people of unclean lips, especially regarding the realities of environmental devastation. The successful attempts either to “spin” the truth about the dangers of extreme energy extraction, cover up or minimize the horror of the damage, or to tell outright lies about the science of climate change illustrate the ways in which we live in a time of manufactured realities peddled by the “Merchants of Doubt” (referring to both the book and documentary by Naomi Oreskes).[1]

In the face of such deception, we hear the voice of our Triune God asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (note the plural pronoun, which lends itself well to a perichoretic model of the Trinity!). To which we—individually, collectively, and as people of faith—can boldly answer: “Here am I; send me!” In other words, we can answer the call to announce the prophetic truth—that God is indeed the sovereign over all Creation, and we are called to be servants in this Earth-temple. And that we, as the beloved Children and caretakers of this temple of Earth, will be held accountable for what we have done and what we have left undone. The sermon should encourage listeners to bravely join their voices and efforts with others to speak truth to power and to work on behalf of Earth and those most vulnerable.

Here the preacher may echo the call for collective action—in this case, inviting listeners to write down concrete actions they can take for caring for Creation, thus increasing their level of commitment and participation. Other possibilities for listeners to live out the Gospel might include asking them to sign a petition stating their support for a piece of environmental legislation, or signing up for a road clean-up, or taking part in a field trip to a local creek. In any case, such a sermon might use more direct language to state the need for action in the face of environmental degradation and call on listeners to respond with the courage of Isaiah: Here am I—send me! Send us!

[1] See also the short documentary film by Josh Fox, The Sky is Pink, recounting the deliberate attempts of the fracking industry to deceive the public about the dangers of shale gas drilling.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2015.

Read more by Leah Schade at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/