Tag Archives: Ellen F. Davis

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Coming Down to Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on our vocation to make earth a hospitable household for all.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have been called to interpret them in new ways that speak to the community of faith today. This opportunity is especially afforded by the season of Lent, when not only do we prepare candidates for baptism and ruminate on what it means to live as a resurrection community, but we also take seriously the call to repentance—turning our lives around and developing new mindsets. On Ash Wednesday we are starkly reminded of our mortality as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives: our vocation.

This Lent could not be more timely, because those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by government and corporate leaders dead set on ignoring the most basic climate science, privatizing public lands, and extracting any “natural resource” that could turn a dollar’s profit. What we do to nature we do to people; so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

In recent years,  we have experienced a series of storms and wildfires of nearly unparalleled strength and duration, wreaking environmental damage and costing human life. While the economic costs of these storms is great, the message these events conveys is far more ominous. As Earth system scientists have pointed out, these events reveal a rupture in planetary history requiring us to recognize that we live in a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,” an unprecedented epoch in which human activity is impacting the ongoing course of evolution. It has become clear that the aim of industrial technology to bring the natural world under human supervision has produced quite the opposite effect.  Even though human alteration of the natural world has reached unimagined levels, “we are now more vulnerable to the power of nature in a way we have not known for at least 10,000 years since the last great ice sheets finally retreated. The climate system, in response, is becoming more energetic, bringing more storms, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 45.) In a sense, “Gaia” has become enraged and is fighting back.

It is crucial to make clear that to call this new epoch “the anthropocene” in no way is to make a normative claim for human superiority.  Quite the contrary, it is a descriptive, scientific term attesting to how far our species is affected the planet. If we are to look at our time from the standpoint of value and responsibility, humans are “special” only in our “special responsibility” to recognize where we are and to respond appropriately. As French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests, “Either we deny the evidence of the problem or we look to come down to earth. This choice is what now divides people much more than being politically on the left or right.” (“The New Climate,” Harper’s, May 2017, p.13)

We need the season of Lent to help us “come down to earth,” to retreat to the desert to rediscover our identity and vocation that comes from a renewal of our baptismal calling. We will begin this journey by looking back at the story of Noah, the focus of this week’s First Reading.

The complex narrative of Noah begins with divine disgust at the violence and corruption of those who threaten the good creation (Genesis 6:11-13). The Priestly writers detail the instructions to Noah: build an ark of very specific dimensions and fill it with a male and female of every living thing.  Even though we are given no inkling to what lies ahead for Noah and the creatures, Noah is obedient and prepares for the flood. Echoing other flood stories circulating in the ancient middle east, this flood effectively blots out all of life except for Noah and all the genetic treasure contained in the ark, a “seed pod” for renewing creation.

In the face of this watery dismemberment of creation, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark (Genesis 8:1).” As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “God is no longer angered but grieved.  He is not enraged but saddened. God does not stand over against but “with” his creation. Tellingly, the pain bequeathed to the woman in 3:16 (‘asav) is now felt by God” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.79). The crisis is not so much the flood but the pain that God endures for the sake of a wayward creation, pain transformed into promise in remembrance of the very purpose of creation.

The promise forms the content of this week’s lesson, and if it is a covenant, it is a covenant of promise for the renewal of creation.  Its features are clear: it is a covenant with Noah and his descendants (all humankind) and all living creatures, a covenant that promises never again (Genesis 9:12, 15) shall a flood destroy the earth. This covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, the signature of God’s “unilateral disarmament” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p.18).

Indeed, this qualifies Noah to be the “new Adam.” “He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God” (Brueggemann, p. 80). Not only is he the first to embody faith, but “he is righteous because, like God, he took upon himself the maintenance of all creation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2006, p. 33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah becomes the first planter of a vineyard, one of the richest sources both of fine drink and of a biblical metaphor (Genesis 9:20).

This covenant of promise provides courage and comfort for those who work for ecojustice.  William P. Brown puts it this way: “With the rainbow as its sign, God’s covenant, like the Sabbath, sets an example: it offers a model of human conduct, for only by covenant, by the resolute work of the human community working in consort, can life be sustained amid a new onslaught of destruction, this time wrought by human hands, against the community of creation” (The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 234). Writing in 2010, Brown’s warning was prescient. If the natural world is “fighting back,” what is the place of the rainbow covenant of promise?

As Brueggemann considers the Noah tradition, he reflects: “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain the world, not withstanding the sorry state of humankind. He is God. He takes as his vocation not judgment but the resilient work of affirmation on behalf of the death-creature” (Brueggemann, p. 81). Just as God’s people in the Babylonian exile were not abandoned, so the promise continues its validity. And it is no surprise that much of the Noah narrative comes from this period. But the capacity of humankind to physically alter the very Earth systems underlying earth functioning during the 12,000 years of the Holocene period, when the climate proved stable for what we call “development,” is beyond the imagination of even biblical writers.

How can we continue to model “down to earth” ecojustice in the tradition of Noah when a hole has been torn in the fabric of creation?

The psalmist reminds us that continued trust in the mercy and steadfast love (Psalm 25:6) of the creator is key to living fruitfully in the land. Because the theme of “waiting” is repeated (vv. 3, 5, 21), it is likely this psalm stems, like much of the First Reading, from the time of exile (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 125). The ultimate result hoped for is that the humble who learn the paths of the LORD will “abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land “(Psalm 25:13). As Ellen Davis argues, “For God, earth is mortal—for God, humans are earthy, both earth and its inhabitants are mutually destructive when their relationship with God is severed” (Davis, p. 19). The way past this “shame” and back to their homeland (Psalm 25:2, 3) is active walking in God’s paths (v. 4), another “down to earth” approach to holistic community health, health that includes care for the land.

The Second Lesson from 1 Peter also stems from a time of great pressure, this time on the early community of the Risen One, dispersed as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 1:1-2) throughout the regions of what today comprises Turkey. While the level of persecution is not specific, it is clear that believers have been arrested and required to give an account of their faith (1:6) in a “judgment to begin with the household of God” (4:17).

But this oppression is to be met with confidence: in baptism believers have been “built into a spiritual house” (2: 5) and been transformed into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that . . . proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light “(2:9). With this strong foundation, community members are alerted  to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  reverence” (3:15-16).

What is the basis of this bold courage? The author finds it in the baptismal imagery of Noah and the great flood (Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James and Jude, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 65). He does this to describe Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits responsible for creation’s distress at the time of Noah (3:19-20). And, because Jesus did this, the resurrection community which, like Noah, has gone through the water—this time of baptism—and landed in the ark of the ecclesia now has spiritual power to do the same in a situation where, all too often, informers and secret police agents were eager and ready to pounce (Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 73). Their power has been broken. (Ibid., p. 111)

That is, baptismal creation of the new “household of faith” corresponds to Noah’s planting a vineyard—planting a new kind of community with the resilient confidence to flourish even in the face of oppression (John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 692). That Christ’s work is cosmic in scope and truly trans-historical is made clear by this reading, the central text in the letter which gives a theological basis for the confident hope of the believers’ experiences in the face of persecution. For this text makes it clear that by going through the “baptismal flood,” every Christian is Christianus alter Christus, a second Christ (Ibid.).

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace . . . .” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228) must be emphasized even more energetically.

In their 2014 manifesto, Uncivilization, leaders of the predominantly UK-based Dark Mountain movement focused on countering the headlong destruction of the planet affirm: “We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality (that is, the normative “right” humans have to benefit at the expense of creation), and the myth of our separation from nature” (Uncivilization, Dark Mountain Project, 2014, p. 30). The Christian story, when seen from the standpoint of creation, provides the right alternative, bringing us through the flood to plant new vineyards and nurturing new communities that gives us vision and courage even in the face of an angry Gaia.

We see the power of the Christian story in the very first words of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  In this simple phrase, the author rips an iceberg-size gash in the side of the Roman Empire where “the good news” was the birth of “the most divine Caesar” which is a “new beginning for the world” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 147). As we can see from the text, even though Mark describes Jesus’ entry onto the world stage with less fanfare, he comes as “the stronger one.”

Leaving Galilee for Jordan River, the site of John’s ministry, Jesus’ arrival is almost unnoticed. But he, too, is baptized and as he emerges from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1: 10). Here we see the result of Jesus’ baptism: a new tearing of the heavens. Not only does this satisfy the longing cry from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), but this violent verb of tearing is repeated at the moment of his death, when he “breathes out his spirit” and the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38). Clearly, the one who brings new creation is on the loose, unconfined by humanly-engineered sacred spaces (Donald Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 34).

To educated readers of the Hellenistic world, the notion of a tear in the fabric of the world was shocking. Had they not steeped themselves in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the most-studied Greek text after Homer?  According to the Timaeus, the earth is a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision. Of course, that eliminates those who were blind. Anyone who could not see was incapable of being a philosopher and attaining the good life (Peter Kalkavge, Plato’s Timaeus, Newburyport, MA, Focus Publishing, 2001, (47 b,c), p. 78).

But in Mark’s Gospel, with its massive tear in Timaeus’ perfect world, it is precisely the blind who are able to see most clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ three passion predictions, he encounters a blind man named Bartimaeus. Not only is this a name not found in his culture, it takes very little to realize that symbolically he is bar-Timaeus, the “son” of Timaeus. As Jesus passes bar-Timaeus’ begging corner in Jericho, the beggar shouts out to the embarrassment of the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Somehow this son of Timaeus can “see” that Jesus is Son of David, the expected one. After this cry is repeated, Jesus calls him to get up and approach him. “Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (v. 50).

So is it his “philosopher’s cloak” he is throwing off, or simply his need to beg, as he engages in the ritual performance preceding early Christian baptism? (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, p. 33). Whatever we conclude, Bartimaeus gains his sight and, as a new catechumen-disciple, he “follows Jesus on the way” (v.52). Even though he is blind, he has found the path toward the “best life.”

Mark’s cosmology breaks the cosmological structure of the Timaeus.  Everywhere the Greco-Roman world (including Judea) is full of the blind, the possessed, and the hungry, those demanding a “sign” to validate their religious opinions. It is no wonder (or, is it a great wonder?) that God’s action tears a hole in the fabric of Timaeus assumption that the world is only beautiful, balanced, and perfect. For now even the blind and the centurions on “the other side” can find a sense of belonging. “A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus” (Mark 10:30).

The broad compass of this new beginning is made clear by the voice heard as Jesus emerges from the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The first part of this powerful sentence refers to Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, where the psalmist contrasts the king about to be enthroned with the “kings of the earth (who) set themselves . . . against the LORD and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). This royal one emerging from the water, however, rules not as tyrant, but as a servant, indicated by God’s pleasure in his humility (Isaiah 42:1). While servanthood is often given lip service by royalty, it has never been demonstrated as fully as it has by this newly baptized one, who shreds the job description of all royalty.

And then he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where, as one who seems native to the ragged edges of the official world (e.g. Galilee), he is tested. The tempter is there; and so are the “beasts” perhaps representing the kings and other powers opposing him (Daniel 7). Despite these challenges, not only is he served by the angels, but there seems to be a kind of desert refreshment that propels Jesus on “his way.” As Belden Lane writes, “The place of death in the desert becomes the place of miraculous nourishment and hope, while the place of order and stability of Jerusalem leads only to the chaos of the cross.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 44)

We began this reflection confessing that we humans are responsible for the massively powerful systems that have pushed the climate God’s earth beyond the point of equilibrium, with even more desert being created—the Sahel in Africa and the increasing size of China’s Gobi. This “rupture” requires more serious action than the Paris Accords of 2015 have called for, even though this agreement is a beginning.

What people of faith cannot do is sit back and rest on the graciousness of the Noachic Covenant.  For this covenant only promises that God will never again destroy the earthnot that human beings cannot do so. During this Lenten season of repentance—turning around and being renewed in our thinking—where is hope?

Perhaps hope lies in the fact that the community of faith often discovers new hope at “point zero.” The stable world of the holocene epoch (11,700 years!) may be over, but even in the face of climate change, over-population, and rapid species extinction (Richard Heinberg, “There is No App for That,” Post-Carbon Institute, 2017 (www.postcarbon.org), new ways of coming down to earth and serving creation may be discovered. But even though God often works sub contrario (under the appearance of opposites), bringing new life out of deluge, finding insight and sight in blindness, or puncturing the safety of an old cosmology to usher in new creation, as creatures we have no choice but to own our limitations, mitigate climate damage, and care for this earth as best we can. It is, after all, our home; and our vocation is to make it a hospitable household for all.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12, to include all creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Rejoice? Tom Mundahl reflects on joy in the midst of grief.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. While gaudete (“rejoice”) originally comes from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always”, this week’s readings do not neglect this theme.  For example, this week’s Second Lesson calls Thessalonian community members to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), while our First Lesson proclaims the “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 2). But how can we rejoice in the face of a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths, another record year of hurricanes and forest fires (during the hottest year recorded), while just a few miles from my home blocks of burned-out buildings stand empty in the aftermath of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.

Reflecting on this week’s readings, it is clear that the intended audiences for these writings did not spend their lives continuously doing the “happy dance.” They are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, and those surviving with a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). Return from exile has not guaranteed comfort. In fact, arrival to a semi-destroyed Jerusalem apparently has led to renewed fissures in this wounded community. If the people had “wept by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137), is being oppressed in one’s homeland any better? Into this painful situation comes the Isaiah prophet (or the students of the “Isaiah school”) with a message of intensified hope (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169).

Now all will be engaged in a process of rebuilding, a process that will be as slow as the growth of an oak tree. But because “the spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1) is the motive force, all that is necessary for renewed life will gradually be done. These “oaks of righteousness” will rebuild ancient ruins and repair essential services.  While the strategy offered by the Ezekiel prophet was to focus on renewing the Temple priesthood, here the whole people “shall be priests of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:6, Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Fortress, 1979, pp. 65-68). By sharing a calling to the priestly task of rebuilding the city, even the  fog of collective grief will begin to disappear.

Now this wave of shared responsibility will bring so much joy, the prophet can only describe it in terms of a wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating a deepening bond between the divine and all creatures. Because the gift of joy explodes with energy, it is best described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61: 11). Is it any wonder that Jesus read just this text at his home synagogue (Luke 4:18-19 )?

At first glance, Psalm 126 seems only to celebrate the joy of temple pilgrimage by travelers, who on their way remember the return of exiles. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy….” (Psalm 126:1-2a). But they cannot suppress a “blue note,” recalling weeping and asking to be refreshed, just as southern deserts are refreshed by spring rains. They pray that the one who brought exiles back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 400).

In much the same way, Paul’s first letter to the assembly in Thessalonika appears to be little more than a friendly letter of warm support. That this is not the case is revealed by the apostle’s frustration that he cannot be with them as he continues his mission. In fact, this separation has made him feel like an “orphan” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).  That is a feeling that must be familiar to many of us during the many months of the current pandemic. Being cut off from family, friends, fellow worshippers, co-workers has created potentially dangerous isolation, making the call to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) seem like a cruel joke.

Beverly Gaventa suggests Paul’s conclusion of this letter goes far beyond warm exhortation. Instead, it appears to be “an early form of church order,” preceding the Didache by decades (First and Second Thessalonians, John Knox, 1998, p. 84). Maintaining this order then and now requires a strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5:23-28) which contains a prayer asking that the hearers be made, literally, “wholly holy” and enjoy spirits, souls and bodies that are “sound” or “wholly functioning” (5:23). Despite the threatening events of 2020, it is difficult to maintain Paul’s heightened awareness of the parousia, we are responsible for reinterpreting what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

One thing is sure: as faith communities we need to attend to the dying and the bereaved. At a time when too many have had to die alone, connected to the latest medical technology but disconnected from family, friends and faith community, we need every gift of the Spiritus Creator to affirm our ties with one another and keep them sound.  On a public scale, we need to consider Kenneth Feinberg’s proposal to establish a “national office of bereavement” to provide emotional, community, and financial support, as the office he led did in the aftermath of 9-11 (NPR Report, Weekend Edition Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020). But congregations also need to compensate for the absence of public funerals by using all means consistent with health protocols to support the “grief work” of those suffering loss. Perhaps one good unintended consequence of the pandemic will be to recover and acknowledge the tearing separation of “the empty chair at the table” and move away from naive and death-denying “celebration of life” services.

As we recover sensitivity to the power of loss in our lives, we also need to acknowledge our grief over damage to the earth.  Whether it is the prohibition from eating Mississippi River fish that my brother and I caught for dinner more than 60 years ago, the housing development built through our former cross-country skiing trail, or the fact that urban children will never see the Milky Way and learn the constellations, the loss is real. Of course, this is nothing like the asthma and other health problems experienced especially by those in poverty and people of color, victims of environmental racism.

In 2003, Australian geologist, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to denote this loss. Seeing “the existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment,” he saw that new language was necessary. (“The Age of Solastalgia,” The Conversation, August 7, 2012, p. 2). While we have all experienced this, no group has suffered as acutely as climate refugees from Central America and Africa who have been forced to find new homes at a time when they rarely find a welcome. When solastalgia and nostalgia (the “longing for home”) intersect, that is painful loss indeed. The UN conservatively estimates that each year 21.5 million people are added to this group. And this is not even to consider the loss of plants and animals during the current “sixth extinction.”

How can we respond? Larry Rasmussen suggests developing a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 364). Such a network of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping the earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” Part of this must include attending to bereavement in all it forms, including solastalgia. While this seems like a tall  order, Paul makes clear that the one whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

John affirms this as he accepts his role as a witness who testifies to the light that comes in the midst of our darkness. This role becomes more than metaphor when he is “put on trial” by Temple authorities from Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the central question is, “Who are you” (John 1:19)? Responding to their grilling, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, Elijah the forerunner, nor the Moses-like prophet to come. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

The evangelist confirms John’s importance by including additional testimony. When asked later in the gospel about his identity, John again denies that he is Messiah, but calls himself the bridegroom’s friend. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). As the plot in the gospel moves from John’s baptizing in the wilderness to its climax, we recall that “the voice” Isaiah describes sees the blooming of the wilderness (Isaiah 51:3). It is no surprise, then, that we move from forensic interrogation in the bleak desert to utter astonishment in the garden of resurrection (John 20), for when the Logos/Sophia is deeply incarnated, it brings a wedding feast for the whole creation (See the important work of Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 43-50).

Feasting hardly seems appropriate as 2020 comes to its brutal end.  Perhaps we need to hear  this week’s Prayer of the Day once again. “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light….” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 19). Through our baptism we are called to join John in testifying to the light. That testimony can be a challenge for it calls us to enter the deepest darkness with honesty and courage.

Facing exponential increases in Covid-19 cases, continued indifference to the climate crisis, and virulent racism, all too often we can only respond with lament.  Yet as we share this lament together something happens. As we feel frozen in crises that have no clear pathways through, together we discover the dim light of new routes for response.. That is certainly the witness of the Black Church. It is also the teaching of blues singers, a message captured by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni:

We stirred the blues in our stews to give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used The Blues to give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And so much more
Thank The Lord
How to stay until the next day
The Blues is our history
Our quilt
(“The Blues,” Make Me Rain, William Morrow, 2020, pp. 28-29)

Perhaps learning to “sing the blues” will sharpen our eyes so that together we begin to see the light.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Thinking about the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our desert struggle in the time of climate crisis.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Few themes sound more forcefully during Advent than the promise of comfort.  We are moved by Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Many of us will invite congregations to echo that message with Olearius’ hymn, “ Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, No. 256). Whether that message will hit home among so many of us who are already quite comfortable is a question that must be asked.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind (it remains a great danger), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a small, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable, New York: Horizon Press, 1962. In this volume, Kahn went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and asked: How would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that openly discussing this horror was dangerous, not only did this work change military strategy, it likely moved major nuclear powers to begin negotiations to reduce arsenals.

To God’s people exiled to Babylon, comfort and freedom were just as “unthinkable.” They were as unimaginable to those experiencing loss of homeland and sense of comfort that comes with it, as those voting on November 4, 2014 could imagine strong political decisions responding to climate change. Yet, the unthinkable prophetic word went out from Isaiah: Captives will be free to return home!

Sounding a new message of freedom and renewal of cultural life is the strategy of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet begins with a series of strong verbs designed to get the hearers back into motion—not an easy task. For it is likely that, even before the captivity, the leaders of Judea had become resigned to living under a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What is most needed is what is most unacceptable –an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophet Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

In such a situation, life-goals are often reduced to just getting by, mere survival. This makes for a culture vulnerable to takeover and manipulation since it is dying from the inside. In many ways, it is not different from contemporary US culture where dreams and imagination seem to have shriveled. The capacity to grapple with large issues seems atrophied. “When we try to define the holding action that defines the sickness, the aging, the marriages, and the jobs of very many people, we find that we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary” (Brueggemann, p. 63).

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is simply managing lowered expectations acceptable; God is operating in a new way. And that is why the first word to the prophet is: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” It is a word of forgiveness so powerful it carries with it a New Exodus. Now all questions about being abandoned by the Holy One are at an end. A new and clear “enthronement formula”—”say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40: 9-10)—now becomes the source of courage and imagination (Brueggemann, p. 72).

All of this from a prophet who clearly admits very little self-generated vision. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-10), he admits his imaginative poverty. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .” (Isaiah 40:6-8a).  Westermann reminds us that . . .

“The exiles’ greatest temptation –and the prophet speaks as one of their number was precisely to be resigned to thinking of them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that perished: all flesh is grass” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p.41).

But there is something that trumps this fatalism: “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b). This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with the final verses, a doxology describing the joy of all creation in the return of the exiles.

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Only God’s creative word is an adequate basis for this New Exodus. To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation would guarantee only anxiety. It is the necessary answer to Isaiah’s query: “What shall I proclaim?” It frees the community to trust in a divine presence that not only “comes with might” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10 -11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why Mark turns to Isaiah’s song of hope as he pens “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the “eschatological historical monograph” we call the Gospel of Mark. (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 18)

This simple beginning immediately subverts the Roman imperial order where “good news” was the reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the Son of God” only made matters worse. Not only was this a jealously-guarded imperial title  applied to an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, he had been executed as a brigand by the emperor’s colonial administrator.  Another exercise in “thinking the unthinkable” (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p.61). Yet this powerful beginning is no less than another “enthronement formula!”

Following this announcement, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the appearance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple reference to Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a conflation including references to Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way . . . ” (Mark 1: 2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promised, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23: 20). Here we have a midrash on Isaiah 40 which suggests that this new messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 125.).

But this conflation also refers to Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . .” (Malachi 3:1). The evangelist suggests here that a renewal of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! John does recapitulate Elijah. But the message that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the temple is no longer the case. Now the action is far from Zion; it is in the desert, the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). As we learned from last week’s gospel reading, the temple is no longer the center of action. This new Advent arrival will take place on the periphery, in the desert.

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

“The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195.).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps John the Baptizer. At first glance, John seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Mark 1:5). Significantly, instead of “all the people” gathering at the Jerusalem temple, they are gathering “in the wilderness” (ερημος—used four times in Mark’s “prologue” Mark 1:1-14). Mark wastes no time laying out the tension between “wilderness” and “temple” so crucial to comprehending the New Exodus announced by John.

That John the Baptizer is Elijah is made clear by his attire and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). But we are tempted to forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the royal court of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah vigorously pronounced judgment for violating the covenant with Yahweh, an action that forced Elijah to flee to the wilderness to save his life (Myers, p. 126). But there is even more in the image of Elijah. For Malachi projects Elijah as the one sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).

But this “day,” which now is not the “end,” but a “new beginning” in the tradition of Isaiah 40, will not come until “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power greater than even the Roman Emperor can imagine. Perhaps, to “riff on” Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

That Advent expectation brings blessing and hope for renewal of the whole creation is underscored by this week’s Psalm (85). It is a communal lament seeking restoration so authentic that it encompasses both land and people. Here, the psalmist clearly recognizes that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25)

This lament is answered by an oracle (vv. 8-13) that not only promises the sought-for renewal but describes it poetically.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:10-13).

Prospects for significant change at the scale needed to confront our largest ‘environmental problem’—climate change—seems to hover near zero. But many avenues to love creation remain open. They need to be embraced. As we are comforted: In our desert struggle to serve creation, we are comforted to know that God’s future always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps this will still move us in this Advent “to think about the unthinkable.”

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Stay Alert with Hope; and Beware the Consumers of Christmas. Tom Mundahl reflects on hope, watching, and serving.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

In a recent review of new books on climate change, British  environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth shares his fear that stopping warming is nearly impossible; the very best that can be done is controlling how bad it will get. This pessimism is reinforced by a conversation Kingsnorth had with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in a New York cafe. Because Kahneman, an economist and a lifetime student of human decision-making, is convinced that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living, he concludes:  “So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope” (London Review of Books, October 23, 2014, p. 18).

Despite that increasing consensus, the community of faith insists on calling Advent a season of hope. But this is not a naive hope. As William and Annabeth Gay wrote their annual Christmas letter in 1969—in the midst of the worst of the Vietnam War –as always they included a hymn, whose middle verse puts it best:

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows Older,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

This hope is especially critical for those of faith called to serve a creation rent by the Ebola virus, drought from another record year of heat, water shortages, and rising oceans –all challenges met by paltry human response. As we begin a new church year, we look for signs of hope where they always have been, in our Advent readings from scripture.

It may be surprising that our first reading from Isaiah addresses those who have returned from exile in Babylon and have resumed a corporate life together. Yet things have not gone so well; the very promises of a New Exodus seem to have been empty. No wonder the people ask, “Where is the one who brought them from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this LORD  “harden our hearts, so that we do not fear you?” (Isaiah 63: 17) (see the discussion by Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 234-235).

Out of this sense of frustration and failure comes a desperate cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1).  While this image may call to mind the old tradition of the Divine Warrior, it goes even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Not only does this cry occasion a turning around –repentance—by the people, it roots what is to come in “remembering” God’s faithfulness. (Isaiah 63:11)

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah (40-55) now seems to be fantasy, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams and defeated hopes together by remembering God’s action, the only power capable of healing what has been ‘dismembered.’ That memory does more than face backwards: it recalls that this is the God who clears the way for the new, capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

In fact, now the prophet reminds listeners of the creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah.

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making?” (Isaiah 45:7)

This earthy metaphor serves as a timely affirmation in spite of the freed peoples’ faithlessness: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ that is the source of hope in the midst of hopelessness. And this hope is justified, for the prophet goes on to share a “divine speech” in Isaiah 65 that offers a promise of radical newness and a vision of shalom. (see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 169)

For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth….I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people….They shall build houses and inhabit them;         they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (Isaiah 65: 17, 19, 21-22).

Paul writes with just this sense of hopefulness to a Corinthian community faced with the challenge of cultural diversity and internal division. Even though our text comprises the formal thanksgiving in the letter, it is hardly formulaic. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, the very first word of this thanksgivingευχαριςτω—“I give thanks”—drives toward and includes everything in this section, culminating in the promise of strength to live out the community’s calling (Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia Commentaries, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Clearly, this community is not without resources as it continues to serve under pressure. Nor are these resources self-generated. The Corinthian community has been “enriched” by God’s gifts.  Despite the NRSV translation, the Greek word “spiritual” does not appear in 1:7. The grace of God simply provides what is required for life and service.

These gifts, χαριςματι, could not differ more from the great hunt for holiday gifts in the race beginning on so-called “Black Friday.”  Brueggemann deftly characterizes this “holiday shopping spree” as the “achieved satiation” of a “royal theology” aimed at sedating ‘consumers’ into thinking that everything is “all right” and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by economic exchange (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower this new servant body to nurture the mystery of hope, to ‘get its hands dirty’ as part of a community so inclusive it ‘comprehends’ all creation.  No other scaling of community, κοινωνια, is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God. (1 Corinthians 1: 9)

Richard Hays, in his comment on this text, puts it nicely:

“We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale. We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us instead to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference…. “(First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p.20).

Ironically, it is cosmic vision which frees us to see what is at hand locally with new eyes: every child, every one of Grandpa Ott’s ‘Morning Glories’ in the alley, every city council meeting, and even every diseased ash tree as holy, a gift of God.

Chapter 13 in Mark’s Gospel may provide us with more of the “cosmic” than we bargained for.  Description of “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7), “fleeing to the mountains” (13:14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere of terror and anguish. Far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter “documents” the struggle in the Markan community over what tack to take in this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not yet come” (Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 82).

Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with ‘Jewish patriots’ in rebel action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 330). This call is to say “no” to false messiahs, military violence, and predictions of the end of hostilities. It is a call to active watching and waiting, the call of the whole faith community during Advent.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat that produces nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service within the web of creation. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological “call” is freed for this very activity: watching and serving. The time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime, wakeful care is the watchword, as it indeed is for the season of Advent.

This attention and watchfulness is more than a strategy; it replaces the world of the temple cult with trust in the “word” of the Risen One. (Mark 13:31) The old fig tree (Mark 11:12 -14)—representing temple culture –no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care. This crop will provide the sustenance servants of creation need to carry out their calling (Mark 13:28-31). This is true for us as we are challenged by an economic culture that uses shopping and buying to sedate us so we cannot see the way things really are.

When Wendell Berry wrote, “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed” (“Faustian Economics,” Harpers, May, 2008, p. 35), he could just as well be speaking of the North American celebration of “the holidays.” Much as the earliest community was tempted to embrace military violence to easily solve the problem of Roman rule in Palestine, so we are tempted to forget any discipline of waiting and watching and, instead, to jump “whole hog” into the arena of “getting the goods.” In this kind of culture there is no hope that “consumers” will cut themselves off acquiring the latest toy and risk social disapproval, little chance that steps to deal honestly with the causes of climate change will be taken. But when we “keep awake” (Mark 13:37), who knows what new doors may open.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Let’s Just Start Over! Tom Mundahl reflects on the start of Advent in the midst of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial violence.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

Advent marks a new beginning, entry into a new church year.  What a luxury it would be to face the future by erasing the challenges of the last year as easily as a child does by shaking her Etch-a-Sketch. Unfortunately, as we restart the liturgical year — our framework for telling and living the story of faith — the persistent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic,  the climate crisis, and the raw wounds of systemic racism will not let go. Any naive hope for exemption from these is dampened by what the psalmist calls “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5).

That we are not the first generation to face such intractable problems is revealed by one of the earliest Advent collects which begins, “Lighten our darkness.” This prayer dates at least to the Fourth Century C.E. when it was described by St. Basil as “the candle-lighting hymn” (liner notes for the CD “Lighten Our Darkness,” various artists, Hyperion, 2006). It should come as no surprise, then, that during this season of new hope, we light candles.

Because we cannot “just start over,” we light another candle each week, not for aesthetic reasons or even to help find our way through this inconvenient season, but so we can take a new look at ourselves and our surroundings, away from the false illumination of a still powerful, but collapsing culture. During this season of darkness when we navigate by candlelight, we remember German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, reflecting on a decade of resistance to the Nazi regime, celebrated the surprising discovery that “we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). No longer can we take the clinically-detached view embodied by a gorgeous shot of our planet from space. Because our hands are “dirtied” by our responsibility for climate, pandemic, and racial violence, we must refocus our attention and, with Bonhoeffer, “dig in.”

As we advance into the murkiness of all that makes us anxious, we come to rely even more on the word of hope we hear from the scriptures, a word that has provided mooring during troubled times throughout the history of God’s people. The candles we light point precisely to this strong narrative. Because I was privileged to live near St. John’s University and Abbey during my pastoral service, I was able to see the Saint John’s Bible as it was crafted by Donald Jackson and his team. As the first handwritten Bible authorized by a monastic community in 500 years, the displays of the first sections with illuminations were breathtaking. But, as an advocate of frugality, I was taken aback by what I saw as the profligate use of gold leaf. Then one of the project’s directors explained that the gold leaf was used to catch candlelight so that reading scripture was possible–by reflective illumination. During the darkness of our time also, the Advent candles illuminate the scriptures so that we can rediscover the confidence and courage they provide. As we  consider the readings for the season of Advent we will be on the hunt for clues and surprises that will “lighten our darkness.”

Despite a gracious “New Exodus” providing return from captivity in Babylon, hopes for a resurgence of a just and vibrant corporate life in Judah had dimmed. The people began to ask, “Where is the one who brought us from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this God “harden our hearts…?” (Isaiah 63:17) It is out of this frustration that the desperate people cry, “O that you would open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image calls to mind the Divine Warrior tradition, it drives even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Renewal includes both the “turning around” of repentance and “remembering” divine faithfulness (Isaiah 63: 11), especially in the Sinai event.

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah seems to have weakened, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams together by that very act of recalling God’s faithfulness, the only force capable of renewing what has been “dismembered.” That memory does more than face backwards; it recalls that this is a God who makes way for the new, one who is capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

Here, the prophet returns to  creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah. “Woe  to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter”(Isaiah 45:7). Recalling this earthy metaphor, the prophet goes on to affirm divine reliability. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” that provides a way through even in the midst of despair. This hopefulness is amplified as the prophet adds divine assurance of restoration and harmony to the land (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169). These promises encourage us as we struggle with issues of justice, threats of political violence, and pandemic fears during the twilight of Advent. Just as the thin gold foil in an illuminated Bible gives clarity to a text, so our thin threads of hope weave together the sturdy fabric of confidence and expectation.

With the foundation of this promise of re-creation, we are energized to take part in restorative ecojustice ourselves, whether that means resetting the climate-driven human-wildlife imbalance that has led to Covid-19 and prospective deadlier viruses (see Rachel Nuwer, “Nature is Returning,” Sierra, November- December 2020, pp. 28-33), or learning from soil scientists such as Walter Jehne about the role of hydrology in the climate crisis.

Not only do we need to continue study of the role of excess atmospheric carbon on biodiversity; we need also to study the restorative effects of biodiversity.  Jehne estimates that restoring one percent of the planet’s cooling capacity through repairing hydrological cycles (preserving marshy areas, forests, uncovering urban streams and planting in the riverbank areas they need), increasing regenerative agriculture that minimizes or eliminates plowing, composting everything…would offset the effects of current anthropogenic carbon gases” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration, Dark Mountain, 17, Spring 2020, p. 11). Of course, this is all the more reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “lighten our darkness” by continuing to learn from our terroir.

While these steps to restore a regenerative creation and human resilience must all be community-based, moving beyond denominational “silos” to maintain a deeply-rooted theological foundation is essential.  We learn this from Paul, who writes to the Corinthian assemblies in order to confront the challenge of internal division. As Hans Conzelman suggests, the very first word of the formal thanksgiving comprising our text, eucharisto, “I give thanks,” drives toward the assurance that all the gifts necessary to live out the community’s calling, including the strength to persevere, will be provided (1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Because these gifts are freely-given, there is absolutely no basis for status differential or discrimination: all are called to serve. Of course, this is the time of year when the word “gift” often carries quite different meanings. It has been suggested that some may compensate for virus-produced anxiety by “doubling down” on holiday gifts. Walter Brueggemann counters that such shopping sprees provide a false “achieved satiation” that sedates us into thinking that everything is just fine and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by more consumption (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower a servant community to nurture the mystery of hope, to build a community so inclusive it comprehends all creation. No other scaling of  koinonia is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1:9). Commenting on this text, Richard Hays warns: “We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale.  We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference….” (First Corinthians, Louisville, John Knox, 1997, p. 20).

We may conclude that chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel provides us with more of the cosmic than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), “fleeing to the mountains” (v. 14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere more suited to bad Halloween horror movies. But far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt  of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter documents  the struggle within the early community over which tack to take responding to this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (Mark 13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not come” (The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress, 1992, p. 82). Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with Zealots in military action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 2nd Ed., Orbis, 2008, p. 330).  This is a strong call to  embrace nonviolence in response to the climate crisis and the healthcare and racial justice reforms while we wait and watch during Advent.

This gospel offers no passive appeasement of Roman imperialism. The evangelist makes this clear in the first verse of the gospel. Historians remind us that emperors considered themselves great benefactors of their subjects as is made clear in the documents and pronouncements detailing their activities.  For example, the Priene Calendar Inscription found near Ephesus, dating from the early first century CE, claimed that the birth of the emperor, considered a “son of God,” “signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 18). Contradicting this imperial arrogance, our gospel writer starts: “the beginning of the good news (“gospel”) of Jesus Christ, son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Lathrop suggests that this clear statement should be considered the title of this anonymous gospel.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat producing nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological call is freed for helpful response to whatever assails us. A time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime ecojustice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick are seasonal watchwords.

Alertness and watchfulness are more than a strategy; they replace the world of temple cult with trust in the word of the Risen One (Mark 13:31). The old fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) representing temple culture  no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care, a fig tree-tree of life that will sustain servants of creation in carrying out what is necessary (Mark 13: 28-31).

As we approach Advent 2020, we know our task is daunting–almost unthinkable. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has said that the next months of the pandemic will be by far the darkest (Osterholm Update Podcast, Episode 29). “Lighten our darkness” continues to be our prayer. And, when we are able to, we will join together in song.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday October 16-22 in Year A (Schifferdecker)

Let all creation praise by not polluting! Kathryn Schifferdecker reflects on creation’s ability to praise its Creator.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 16-22, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 45:1-7

Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

In this week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22, the religious and political leaders seek to trap Jesus. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes. If he answers, ‘yes,’ he will get in trouble with the religious authorities. If he answers ‘no,’ he will be considered a threat to Roman authority.

Jesus asks for a Roman coin and poses the question, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” When they answer, “The emperor’s,” he says, “”Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

The distinction between God and the emperor reaches back to the Old Testament, where there are differing opinions concerning human kings. In 1 Samuel 8, when the people of Israel demand a king, God says to the prophet Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). The people don’t need a human king, because God is their sovereign. Nevertheless, God grants their desire and instructs Samuel to anoint Saul, then David, as king. And, of course, God eventually promises David that one of his descendants will always sit on the throne (2 Sam 7), a promise that eventually leads to the belief in a Messiah, a “son of David” who will redeem Israel.

The psalm appointed for this Sunday, Psalm 96, belongs in the first chorus of voices, the chorus that proclaims God as king: “Say among the nations, ‘The LORD is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity’” (Ps 96:10).

This proclamation, “The LORD is king!” is great good news to the created world, and creatures, even inanimate creatures, respond with joy:[1]

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad!
Let the sea thunder and all that fills it!
Let the fields exult and all that is in them!
Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy
Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.   (Ps 96:11-13; cf. Ps. 98:7-9)

The LORD’s coming in judgment may seem to us at first reading a strange reason for the world and everything in it to shout for joy. “Judgment,” after all, usually implies punishment of some kind. For human creatures, the thought of judgment day probably evokes more fear than exultation; but from the perspective of the non-human creatures—who are the chief singers in these psalms—the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is a very good thing indeed.

The trees, the fields, the seas, and all the animals that fill them, are singing the Hallelujah Chorus because they see salvation coming. They are singing praise to their Creator who comes to judge the world, to set things right, to remove the sin and defilement of which the prophets speak. Our sin defiles the earth, according to the prophets, and the earth and its inhabitants suffer. We human beings, along with the rest of creation, were created to praise our Maker, but when we damage the earth and its inhabitants, their ability to praise is diminished. A polluted river cannot praise God with full voice. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 19:1); but not as clearly when they are clouded with smog. The extinction of a species silences a unique voice in the chorus of praise.

Rainforest destruction, global warming, pollution of air and water—these results of human sin affect human beings, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, those without the means to protect themselves or to move away from unhealthy habitats. We sin against ourselves and our poor human neighbors when we engage in environmentally damaging practices. Psalm 96 reminds us that we sin also against our fellow non-human creatures and our Creator when we engage in those practices. The sin of environmental degradation is sin not only because it endangers or damages the lives of human beings; it is sin also because it diminishes creation’s ability to praise its Creator. “Then all the trees of the forest will shout for joy / Before YHWH, for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth.” For the fields, the sea, the forests, and all the creatures that inhabit them, the fact that God is coming to judge the earth is very good news indeed. In that day, human sin with its pollution and defilement will be wiped away, and the creation will at last be able to sing with full and clear voice in praise of its Creator.

This proclamation, “YHWH is king!” is also, in the end, good news for human beings, as well. “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Ps 96:13). Judgment in righteousness and truth will expose all our petty lies and self-deceptions, all our seeking after the things that are Caesar’s, all our greed and grasping. And then, stripped of all that weighs us down, we too will be able to join in the chorus of praise rising from the mountains and seas, the plains and forests, to the God of all creation. “O sing to YHWH a new song; sing to YHWH, all the earth!”

Originally written by Kathryn Schifferdecker in 2014.

[1] Much of what I’m saying here about Ps. 96 is published in an article I wrote entitled, “’And also many animals’: Biblical Resources for Preaching about Creation” in Word and World 27:2 (Spring, 2007), 210-223. In the piece on Ps. 96, I relied on memories of a sermon I heard by Ellen Davis during my student days at Yale Divinity School. Davis, of course, has been a leader in ecological hermeneutics for many years.

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

Survival Is Insufficient Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time.  But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of  economies grasping for endless growth.

What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.

The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.

But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).

This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27).  May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.

Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear.  The stories are full of foreboding.  The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.

Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life.  It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be.  It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.

And it is a communal pilgrimage.  This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109).  As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).

Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts.  This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).

Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew.  Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7).  It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.

Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.  Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.

Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18).  This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9).  We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.

All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “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 non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors.  Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).

Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building.  This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.

The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV).  This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10).  Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.

To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218).  After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.

This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:

“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back.  It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)

So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?”  Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits.  We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

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

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

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

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

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they 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, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. 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. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.