Tag Archives: end times

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Saler)

Improvisation — A Christian Stance of Hopefulness:  Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

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

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

At my seminary, I am currently facilitating an Augustine reading group. The group is taking the entire year to work our way through his magnum opus The City of God, purely for fun and edification. This 5th century text features Augustine engaging polemically with the educated pagans of his day, those who blamed Christians for the 410 sack of Rome by the Visgoth army and who advocated for a return to the worship of the Roman pantheon of deities.

I am a longtime lover of Augustine, and there is much about his critiques of the paganism of his day with which I resonate. However, in books 6 and 7 of the text, when he decries the arbitrariness of the placement of gods within the Roman pantheon, an interesting contrast emerges that I think separates his time from ours rather decisively.

In my view, part of Augustine’s mockery of paganism is that so much of it seems improvised to him: gods and men serve certain functions at a particular period of time, and are rewarded/used by being placed then in the pantheon in some position that correlates with their usefulness. By implicit contrast, then, Augustine presents Christian truth as something that is established from the foundation of the world and therefore is always already prior to human intervention (thus echoing Paul’s arguments that he was “handing on” only what had been given to him).

However, in between Augustine’s time and ours, those of us who are Christian have come to understand that the Christian imagination has always involved improvisation and the development of its key themes as those themes have moved across radically diverse epochs and cultures. Part of the genius of 19th century theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was to recognize that doctrine is in a constant state of development, and that all living things must continually be developing and changing in order to stay vibrant. Pure stasis, argued theologians from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Henry Newman, is death.

The early texts of Advent are clearly eschatological in focus. And thinking through how Christians who care about creation might understand the “end(s)” of the world is a worthy preaching task for this season. However, it is also the case that Advent invites the congregation to imagine how God continues to improvise throughout the biblical narrative, and indeed throughout the world as we experience it. The Isaiah reading invites us to imagine swords beaten into plowshares. Meanwhile, the reading from Matthew draws its pathos and power from the sheer unpredictability inherent in the end times: what is to come will be genuinely new, and preparedness is essential.

Genuine improvisation is not pure novelty; at its best (as in jazz, for example), it is rooted in tradition. The story of God’s salvific work towards all creation was given to Israel, and (despite a shameful history of anti-Judaism) the Christian tradition at its best has affirmed that it is a continuation of that same fundamental story as it is grafted onto Israel’s history. Similarly, Advent preaching must resist the temptation to frame the in-breaking of God’s kingdom as pure novelty. Not only is that idea not plausible, it also misses profound dimensions of the Christian witness—the deep resonance between the Holy Spirit’s ongoing improvisatory work in creation, the Biblical narratives’ tales of a God who shapes and is shaped by the actions of God’s people, and the shape of Christian hope for the future.

Innovation as eschatology, too, helps to bring out the resonance between the fact of the Earth’s suffering and the slightly menacing overtones of the Matthew reading (since many scholars think that what Jesus is describing is not God snatching people away, but rather imperial forces). The Earth is subject to injustice and degradation, and God’s redemptive improvisation must deal with this as well. We see from the “weak force” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection how God chooses to work salvifically within the structures of injustice in our world.

Advent is a time, then, to preach about this hope with unsentimental but genuinely biblical confidence in how God’s Spirit continues to do its work throughout creation. The effective preacher will name the deep sense of unease we have as we are surrounded by the effects of what Augustine called libido domini—the imperial lust to conquer, a lust present in our politics and in our souls. However, this will be the occasion for the preacher also to name God’s refusal to let our degradation of what God has made be the final word in creation’s story, and for the preached word to give God’s people new eyes to see how that Spirit is “making all things new.”

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

Sunday November 13-19 in Year C

Preaching the End of the World in the Face of the End of the World – Leah Schade reflects on Malachi 4:1-2a and Luke 21:5-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for November 13-19, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

For preachers, eschatological themes are anticipated with nearly as much enthusiasm as dental check-ups. “The end of the world . . . again,” quipped one pastor at a pericope study I once attended as we tackled once more the images of the end-times that proliferate in the last Sundays of Pentecost and the first Sundays of Advent. This sarcasm perhaps masks a deeper unease about the real fears alluded to in passages such as Malachi 4:1-2 and Luke 21:5-19, whose warnings of impending cosmic upheavals ricochet sharply off contemporary headlines about war, natural disasters, and strange “signs” that warn of dire days ahead. Add to this the disconcerting news about species extinctions, the climate crisis, football-field-lengths of forests disappearing by the hour, and extreme forms of energy extraction, and the task of preaching “good news” in the face of seemingly imminent ecological doom can feel overwhelming to pastor and congregation alike.

Catherine Keller describes the problem this way:

[W]arnings of social, economic, ecological, or nuclear disaster have become so numbingly normal that they do not have the desired effect on most of us, who retreat all the more frantically into private pursuits . . . . How can we sustain resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph? That is, how can we acknowledge the apocalyptic dimensions of the late-modern situation in which we find ourselves entrenched without either clinging to some millennial hope of steady progress or then, flipping, disappointed, back to pessimism? (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. P. 14).

Especially for the preacher, the dual temptations to either legalistically preach about “saving the earth” or to irresponsibly encourage waiting passively for a messianic solution can lead to an “apocalyptic either/or logic—if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it. Either salvation or damnation” (Keller p. 14). The task of the preacher will be to avoid such a false dichotomy.

The reality is that in many ways creation is, in fact, already in the eschaton. This is especially true for the strip-mined mountains, decimated forests, and other devastated areas of Earth for whom “the end” has already happened. The preacher working from an eco-hermeneutical reading of these texts might introduce the “readership” of Earth and Earth’s other-than-human creatures. Because, in fact, the “end of the world” has already come to pass for countless species whose history has come to an end at the hands of human beings. Doomsday has come and gone for the North American Passenger Pigeon, Australian Toolache Wallaby, Indian Arunchal Hopea Tree, and St. Helena Olive, not to mention untold numbers of plant and animal species whose final dying members passed into oblivion unnoticed and unmourned by human eyes. And what of the impending end-of-days for the hundreds of plant and animal species currently facing threatened or immanent extinction? How nice that human beings have the luxury to debate their worth, value, and fate, quibbling about biblical and philosophical semantics as these species languish in prisons of shrinking habitat, poisoned waters, and diminishing food supplies. We have ghettoized creation, delineating by way of concrete and metal boundaries where greenery, fur, and feathers can and cannot live, blocking them into increasingly shrinking habitats that isolate and cramp them in their once vast and free-ranging bioscapes.

A sermon that preaches both “law” about our ecological crisis, as well as “gospel” that proclaims God’s grace in the midst of our failures, finds a way to do three things. First, the sermon will honor the intrinsic value of God’s Creation. Second, the sermon will realistically state the ecological dilemma in which we find ourselves today. Third, the sermon will be clear about what God is doing to bring about a transformation towards life, even in these tumultuous, death-drenched days.

The prophetic words of Malachi and Jesus are strikingly appropriate for our contemporary time. As our planet continues to be encased with the fumes of burning fossil fuels, the day has surely arrived when Earth is “burning like an oven.” The difference between Malachi’s prophecy and the situation today is that it is not yet the arrogant and evildoers who are stubble. Rather, it is the poor, marginalized and disempowered. Nevertheless, the prophet is clear that there will be consequences even for those who believe their wealth and privilege will protect them from the evil they commit. Further, the prophecy is also clear that those who have respect for God—and God’s Creation, we might add—will experience the sun not as a burning punishment, but as healing warmth. This will be especially true if our efforts to curb consumption, conserve energy and resources, and develop non-fossil-fuel forms of energy begin to slow the effects of global warming. Thus, we are given hope that our work in faith-based environmental activism will have real effects for society and the planet.

This is not to say that our work in eco-advocacy will go unopposed. Jesus warned that those who do the work of resisting the powers might very well be opposed by people in their own family and possibly be arrested and persecuted. Here one can bring to mind some examples of Christian and other faith-based environmentalists who have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience against corporations and governments who insist on polluting and desecrating Earth and human communities. UCC minister Rev. Jim Artel [http://www.ucc.org/news/ucc-conference-minister.html] and Rabbi Arthur Waskow [http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2013/03/photo-80-yr-old-rabbi-arthur-waskow-arrested-at-white-house-xl-protest-2601032.html] have both been arrested in protests against the Canadian tar sands XL pipeline and its threat to land, water and the climate. Yet Jesus’ words compel us to continue our work and to trust that His power is with us:18”But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Endurance is what is needed in this long-term struggle to protect and advocate for Earth and “the least of these” within our planet’s fragile atmosphere. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians echo Jesus’ words: 13”Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

It is in Psalm 98 where the preacher can find the vision to sustain us during these soul-wearying struggles. “The ends of the earth” (v. 3) already know that God’s victory against the death-wielding systems is assured and are singing a song of joy for what is to come. The sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands herald the work of God filling the earth with Her presence. We, too, are invited to add our voices to Creation’s chorus and bring our instruments of peace to the biotic orchestra.

[Note:  Worship planners may want to have the congregation sing the hymn “Earth and All Kin,” based on the well-known “Earth and All Stars,” in response to creation’s call and God’s call to “sing a new song.” [http://ecopreacher.blogspot.com/2013/09/hymn-earth-and-all-kin.html]

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

Sunday August 7 – 13 in Year C

Freedom from Fear is Freedom to Act:  Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:32-40

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for August 7-13, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 20-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

Well-cathechized Lutherans tend to be familiar with most of what theologian Robert Jenson refers to as the “slogans” of the Lutheran faith – “two kingdoms,” “theology of the cross vs. theology of glory,” etc. Oftentimes, though, we portray these slogans as if they mean only one thing, like code words pointing to one specific reality.

It’s more rewarding to realize that any theological notion rich enough to bear the “thickness” of a tradition like Lutheranism is more likely to be polysemic and polyvalent – referring to multiple kinds of truths simultaneously, with shifting emphasis on a given meaning depending on the context in which the words are deployed.

This is particularly true of the cornerstone Lutheran slogan  “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” It is this theological notion that defines Lutheranism, both ecclesially and hermeneutically. Ecclesially, because historically and today, it allows us to judge church practices (indulgences, worship styles, baptismal practices, etc.) by the standard of whether or not they place emphasis on God’s loving action towards us rather than our pious attempts to justify ourselves religiously before God. Hermeneutically, because prioritizing our inability to earn God’s love and salvation allows us to approach such otherwise dire passages as Jesus’ eschatological warnings in Luke 12: 32-40 with the mindset, not that we will live up to the remarkably high standard of eschatological “alertness,” but that God in Christ has already taken the initiative in taking up our failures into the larger Triune work of salvation.

This alone is a rich and crucial referent on the slogan “justification by grace through faith apart from works.” However, another meaning of the phrase is crucial in our time of ecological peril and opportunity. If we are freed to live without eschatological fear of God and free from the demand to justify ourselves religiously by our own actions, then that freedom from fear frees us to be creatures whose actions on behalf of creation and the neighbor—however partial and imperfect—do not need to live up to some hidden standard of divine perfection, but only the God-given creaturely standard of caritas (charity). As Luther saw, the freedom of a Christian to serve neighbor and creation has as its root freedom from eschatological fear, such that we can perform acts of love and charity in genuine concern for the neighbor and not concern for our spiritual résumés.

To take a counter-example: it is well-documented that some (not all) fundamentalist Christians are skeptical about creation care for specifically theological reasons. In many cases, the presenting reason is because they believe that Earth is a temporary vessel for the human drama of salvation, a vessel that will be destroyed at the eschaton/ endtime (cf. Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed, Fortress, 2005). However, I have increasingly wondered whether the deeper reason why this particular brand of judgment-oriented fundamentalism is so suspicious of creation care is because framing God as a vengeful judge who can only be appeased by right “works” of belief (that is, believing the proper Christian doctrines) sets God up as what philosopher Slavoj Žižek might call “the Big Other,” namely, the impossible standard by which we measure our actions such that we eventually become neurotic and insular in our capacity to act healthily towards ourselves and others. Fear paralyzes right action; freedom from fear inspires love that heals. Without becoming triumphalist, we Lutherans should not underestimate what a gift this aspect of our heritage is for the Church catholic and the world as a whole.

All of this is to say that the same hermeneutic that allows us to read Jesus’ eschatological statements as promises of God’s coming salvation and not as dire (and ultimately paralyzing) warnings of impending doom is the same hermeneutic that frees us for action. When God’s word heals us, it frees and forms us to play our blessedly limited parts in healing all that God has made. Let the preacher preach love, and know that in her doing so God’s spirit is at work fashioning a people who can live, work, and heal in this Earth.

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