Tag Archives: end times

Sunday November 13-19 in Year A (Ormseth)

Claiming the Future as Precious Gifts of People and Land. Dennis Ormseth reflects on acting boldly for restoration and healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday November 13-19, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Zephaniah  1:7, 12-18
Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

At first look, the lessons seem to be unrelated to care for creation.

We approach the end of the church year, and our focus is directed by the lectionary towards the end of all time. The scriptures for this Sunday before the festival of Christ the King (The Reign of Christ) bear careful reading, lest care of creation be crushed under the weight of apocalyptic narrative popular in American culture. Zephaniah 1:18, for instance, speaks of a time when “in the fire of [the Lord’s] passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” “Who considers the power of your anger?” the psalmist asks (90:11). And while our second lesson holds out the promise that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it says nothing about the fate of the non-human creation.

Accordingly, when we hear the Gospel speak of “a worthless slave” who is to be thrown “into the outer darkness,” we are fully ready to throw our lot in with those who pursue the strong “growth strategy” of the first two servants of Jesus’ parable. Obviously, one doesn’t want to have to deal with the anger faced by that fearful, no-growth slacker of the third servant. His economic behavior might be a great thing for Earth’s climate, but that could hardly matter if the whole earth is to be consumed! Since we know not the “times and the seasons” and are “children of the day,” we can “make hay while the sun shines,” so to speak, and enjoy the Lord’s bounty while it lasts.

Fortunately, this total reversal of everything we have come to expect of Christ the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is not the only possible reading of our texts. On the contrary, when read with appropriate attention to the narrative of the Servant of Creation we have uncovered in this year’s lections, these scriptures comprise a fine, penultimate word of encouragement for care of creation.

Injustice among humans and the devastation of the land go together.

The “great day of the Lord” described in our first reading is a place-specific and time-specific day of judgment upon Judah in the “days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zephaniah 1:1), due to their idolatry (“I will cut off from this place every remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priest”; 1:4) and their sin “against the Lord” (1:17). The people, it seems, have lost their fear of God and disregarded God’s call for justice. They “rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’” The people may have great wealth, but their wealth will not save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”

The passage thus expresses a theme common to the biblical prophets. As Carol Dempsey puts it in commenting on this chapter from Zephaniah, “Breach of the covenant relationship on the part of human beings reaps repercussions that devastate not only humanity but the natural world as well” (Hope Amid the Ruins:  The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, p. 87; cf. Terry Fretheim’s discussion of the same theme in Jeremiah, in God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 171-74). As to the scope of this devastation, Dempsey cautions that the Hebrew term ‘eres translates interchangeably as earth” or “land,” and suggests that the more appropriate interpretation “when used in conjunction with the idea of suffering is ‘land’” (Ibid. p. 76-77).

Breaking the covenant results in social injustice and ecological injustice

Our first lesson thus reaffirms points of great importance for the story of the Servant of Creation:  while the reading does not foresee a final, all-encompassing destruction of Earth, it does say that human sinfulness stemming from faithlessness in relationship to God the Creator results in both social injustice and eco-injustice. God’s judgment is worked out in relationships with both humans and the creation more comprehensively. The reading should give us cause to tremble: We do not know the times and seasons, but the morning newspaper presents headlines warning both that the “poorest poor hit record high” and that “CO2 takes ‘monster’ jump” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday, November 4, 2011, pp. 3 and 9). Might this dreadful combination of unequal distribution of God’s gifts and disregard for the health of the planet culminate in an apocalyptic destruction of the creation, as so many environmental experts fear?  We dare not dismiss the possibility out of hand; the call to repentance in the face of this possible judgment must be heeded!

Still, if it is true that we are “children of light and children of the day,” as the second lesson says, we will also read the times as the Servant of Creation would have us read them, and “encourage one another and build up each other” so as to persevere all the more in the care of creation, both humankind and otherkind—for that is precisely the good word we take away from Jesus’ “parable of the talents” in today’s Gospel.

Interpretation of the parable of the talents is made problematic by the fact that it seems so contrary to much of Jesus teaching. Warren Carter describes the contradiction as follows:

“In this parable the master behaves in tyrannical ways that imitate dominant cultural and imperial values (25:25-30) and contradicts Jesus’ previous teaching. He rewards the first two slaves for their accumulation of wealth and punishes the third slave for not doing so. The parable takes the perspective of the wealthy elite and legitimates a ‘rich-get-richer and poorer-get-poorer’ approach. It punishes the one who subverts the system” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 487-88).

Who is this master? Conventional allegorical interpretation says that he is Jesus, who thus challenges his disciples (the slaves) to be ready for his delayed return by setting out for them the possible consequences of their failure to properly prepare. But if the master is taken to be Jesus, Carter argues, it would seem that “the gospel has co-opted dominant cultural values in picturing the establishment of God’s empire. God’s empire imitates, rather than provides an alternative to, Rome’s empire, in which the wealthy and powerful become even more so at the expense of the rest.” The strong, positive message that the disciples are “to be actively seeking their master’s good, faithfully carrying out the tasks he has entrusted to them,” has overridden all other concerns, including what exactly that good is, relative to the purposes of God. As we have suggested above, the possible implications of this for care of creation are dreadful: could Jesus have been so careless about the role of his disciples as co-servants of creation, or could Matthew have been so clueless?

The parable is contrary to the values promoted everywhere else in the Gospel.

Bernard Brandon Scott provides us with an alternative reading that rescues the parable for care of creation.  The first two servants have indeed done well. They have made proper use of the wealth that has been placed in their hands. “These servants,” Scott suggests, “are not slaves but stewards acting in the master’s stead.  From the profit they make for their master they will be able to enrich themselves, for they expect to share in his good fortune” (P. 226). Their future, following on their master’s return, is secure, as is the master’s estate.  And from the narrative of the Servant of Creation, we might interpose, as co-servants of creation, they are to enjoy the marvelous increase in value resulting from their care of that which the master has entrusted to them.

None of the options are viable—neither predatory greed nor paralyzing fear.

The unfortunate third servant, on the other hand, has an image of his master that, as Scott suggests, “deprives him of a future, for it freezes the servant in fear.” Is this image of the master wrong? There is poignant ambiguity to the parable here, Scott notes:

“The master never accepts the description of the third servant’s aphorism [reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed] but points back to the first two servants. His refusal to take back the talent implies his rejection of that image. A hearer is asked to choose between two competing images of the master: the explicit image put forward in aphorism by the third servant, and the image implied in the actions of the first two servants. Is the master the hardhearted man of the third servant’s attack, or is he gracious and generous, as he was toward the first two servants? How do we know which of these two views is correct?” (Ibid. pp. 233-34).

We know which image is true of God by virtue of attending to the larger narrative of the Servant of Creation in which this story is placed. The Creator sows the creation richly and graciously and the servants of creation do have incalculable wealth to be responsible for and to take care of.

How can we claim the future as precious gifts of people and land?

What emerges from the parable, Scott urges, is “how one goes about claiming the future. Is it claimed by preserving the precious gift? Or is it claimed in the present as freedom of action, liberating the servant from an aphoristic, conventional vision that paralyzes him?” For Scott it is clearly the latter: “The parable as a window onto the kingdom demands that the servant act neither as preserver nor as one afraid; but act boldly he must. If one is to act boldly, then the rules have been changed. They are no longer predictable.” Again we interpose from the narrative of the Servant of Creation: not frozen preservation, but restoration, healing, and enhancement of a living and dynamic creation is the servant of creation’s proper role. And for that, a trusting faith, wide awake to what’s happening with the creation, is essential. It’s true: terrible in aspect, indeed, is the “outer darkness” of climate change and ecological devastation that will follow from failure to properly serve and steward the wealth of God’s creation. If that is truly the future of Earth, there will be all too much “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those who trust the Creator, on the other hand, can hope with the psalmist “to be satisfied in the morning with God’s steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:14).

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

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