Tag Archives: Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 11-17) in Year A (Ormseth)

Choosing LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on Moses’ Farewell Speech and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

As we continue to mine the readings of these Sundays of Epiphany for foundations of an “Earth-honoring faith,” the first reading is obviously most relevant. The reading from Deuteronomy is the end of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he led out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai and through the wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan river at the boundary of the land promised to them.  He will not enter the land with them, so the speech carries the full burden of his hopes for them as they enter and claim their heritage.  The choice they face is a stark one: in Moses’ words, it is between “life and prosperity,” or “death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The choice concerns their relationship to God, but also their relationship to the land.  If they “obey the commandments of the Lord . . by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances,”  they “shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless [them] in the land that [they]are entering to possess.”  On the other hand, if their “heart turns away and [they] do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [they]shall perish. [They] shall not live long in the land that [they] are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”  Significantly for our search for an “Earth-honoring faith,”  which we initiated the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany with Micah’s metaphor of God presenting God’s case against the people in the court of the mountains, Moses here calls both “heaven and earth” as witness to the choice he has set before them. The whole creation is to be aware and observe how the people choose.

For what might these witnesses be watchful?  In the chapter previous to our appointed text, Moses foresees what will take place if the people forsake the covenant:

the next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it—all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Amah and Zeboiim, which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger –they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to the land?  What caused this great display of anger?” (29:22-24).

Moses also foresees an alternative future, however, in which “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you . . Then [they] shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you  “abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (30:9).

The contrast is thus sharply drawn:  people and environment either thrive or languish together. In accordance with Deuteronomic theology, the consequences described here are attributed to the divine wrath as punishment for their idolatry, or divine favor for their obedience. We would rather see a more directly causal relationship between their behavior and the consequence.  As Terry Fretheim explains, “The law is given because God is concerned about the best possible life for all of God’s creatures.” The intent of the law is to serve life, in accordance with God’s overriding interest that the creation as a whole should be served well by those who have responsibility for it.  There are three aspects to this concern. First, “the law helps order human life so that it is in tune with the creational order intended by God.”  Secondly, “because life in creation is not free from all threats, law is given for the sake of both the preservation of God’s creative work and the provision of the most welcoming context possible for ever new creational developments”. The law calls for “basic human respect for the earth” because “’the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1) and the animals and land belong to God.” And thirdly, “law is given to serve the proper development of God’s good but not perfect creation.” There are “creative capacities built into the order of things and the charges given its creatures. . . God’s creation is also understood to be a work in progress.” Thus the law reveals God’s will for the creation God loves, and it is the God-given vocation of God’s image-bearing animal creature, the human being, to love the creation as God does, with an eye to its future perfection, not only its past integrity and present condition.  Failure to obey the law thus carries with it the destructive consequences of what might be deemed opposition to God’s creative love. (See his discussion of ‘Creation and Law,” in God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 133-56).

The choice Moses has placed before the people, we might therefore observe, is an affair of the heart, both God’s heart and the human heart. The decisive issue, as the text says, is whether or not the people “love the Lord their God, walk in his ways, and observe his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” — the choice of life — or turn their hearts away – the choice of death:  love God and so be sustained in their life in the land for generation upon generation, or refuse to acknowledge God as giver of the gift of the land and the law by which they shall live in it, and so perish from the land as the land itself dies beneath them. So choose, says Moses.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (30:19-20).”

We are familiar with a similar choice today, albeit one framed in much more secular terms.  Our relationship with the land in America is defined for our culture mainly in terms of the rights and freedom to take and dispose of it according to the contracts we have struck regarding possession of it, versus a deeper relationship with the land that is part of an older agrarian ethos that regards the land as living habitat for ourselves and the other non-human creatures with whom we share it.  For the one, the land has values to be exploited for our commerce; these values are assigned values, determined by those who have control over it.  For the other, the land is valuable in and of itself, a fund of value which can be drawn upon to sustain the life of the animal communities that are dependent upon it, as part of what makes it valuable, but which really do belong to the land itself.  For the one, the concern is to protect those rights of possession, and to preserve the self-interest of its owner; for the other, laws are sought that set out general principles developed within the interdependent community on how to safeguard and conserve the land’s inherent value.  The one relationship is in fact predominantly a matter of self-interest or self-love on the part of the people who own it; the other is a “love affair:” a love of that which is other than oneself.  For the one, loss of value in the land due to ecological degradation is at best a loss of wealth or potential wealth to the owner.  For the other, loss of value is destruction of some or all of life’s generative possibilities.

Aldo Leopold, a founder of the modern discipline of ecology, is well known for his formulation of a “land ethic” which acknowledges the inherent value in land:  “A thing is right”, he holds, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (From his Sand County Almanac).  Adherence to this ethical principle as a guide through the complex and difficult decisions our society faces might be one way of responding today to Moses’ challenge to “choose life.” It is a principle, we contend, that is genuinely “Earth-honoring.”  The choice of life, in this sense, leads to a way of living that exhibits consonance with the ecological and evolutionary relationships inherent in nature.  But attending to those relationships is not simply a matter of following scientific rationality.  As Leopold himself said, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.”  It is for him, too, fundamentally an affair of the heart.  (See Norman Wirzba’s The Paradise of God, pp. 100-111 for the discussion that underlies this comment.)

When Moses finished his address to the people, we read in the closing chapter (34) of Deuteronomy, God led Moses from the plains of Moab, up another mountain to show him all the land promised Abraham’s descendents, and there Moses died.  God had let him see the land with his eyes, but said: “you shall not cross over there.” Thus did Mount Nebo become the resting place of the prophet whom “the Lord knew face to face,” the like of which has “never since arisen in Israel” (34:10).  Never, that is, until Jesus, according to Matthew, who was baptized at the Jordan, and coming away from the river, “went throughout Galilee” and, followed by great crowds from “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,” went up the mountain with his disciples, where he sat down and taught them (Matthew 4:25 – 5:1). Jesus has accordingly entered deeply into the land, and now from a new mountain, within the land, he returns to the law and commandments of Moses, as the section of his Sermon on the Mount assigned for last Sunday made clear: as he said, “whoever does [the commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:20).”  And indeed, far from abolishing Moses’ teaching, in the verses we read this Sunday, he lifts up selected provisions of that teaching to “radicalize” them, in Robert Smith’s term. Not only murder, for example, but anger, insult , and disparagement” are condemned. Not adultery only, but lust.  Not only false oaths, but any oaths at all, “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (5:21-37).  His teaching at this point calls us, as Smith puts it, to “look into the depths of the human heart.”  At the same time, however, he “shares with us his vision of new human community.” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 158.)

The character of that community has been sketched out in the previous beatitudes. As we have seen in our discussion of earlier sections of the Sermon, he calls for a disposition of meekness (the meek give place to others in the community of life); he creates a thirst and hunger for righteousness (the purpose of his mission is the fulfillment of all righteousness); he promises mercy for the merciful. And to the “pure in heart” (those who render inwardly held conviction of God’s love visible in outward service to the cause of God’s love for the creation) he has promised nothing short of the vision of God.  But in the depths of the human heart vigorous forces of opposition fight against these provisions.  Refusal to give place to others, which leads even to murder, the absolute disrespect for life, bursts out of the deep dispositions of anger, hate, or disparagement of the other. Lust manifests itself in the drive to possess and dominate the other, as in the adulterous exploitation of women.  Deception of the other by calling on either heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem destroys the possibility of righting these relationships by making claims to sacred status, earthly power, or political privilege. Jesus’ vision of a new human community is one in which these destructive “habits of the heart” have no place.   Smith describes this community in a way that must give us pause at this point in American political life: it is a “wondrous world where personal and corporate transactions no longer require batteries of lawyers and reams of documentation, where such safeguards are no longer necessary, where deceit and half-truths and downright lies are unknown, where our speech is simple, direct, and completely honest (5:33-37)” (Smith, p. 159).

The relationships discussed here are obviously social and interpersonal. Is any of this understanding relevant to relationships with non-human others of God creatures?  Choose life, pleaded Moses, and the governing principle here is clearly the loving service of the life of the other.  Domination of every form, physical, sexual, verbal, has been displaced, as next Sunday’s gospel makes explicit, by genuine love for the “other,” even the one who is “the enemy”  (5:43-44). All actions are understood to involve love of the other, as love of relationships that God loves.  Such love of the other moves, not easily but faithfully, in the face of earth’s destruction, from the human community to that of the whole creation. Thus the life of the community becomes a demonstration project of the power of God’s love lived out in community relationships, including our relationships with our habitat, the earth. The reading from 1 Corinthians illustrates the point. The Apostle Paul’s challenge to the conflicted parties dividing the congregation in Corinth strikingly employs the metaphor of one who plants and one who waters, to characterize a relationship of interdependence between participants in the community:  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:1-9).   What is said here of the congregation, could, and should, be said with reference to our relationship to of all God’s creation:  we are God’s servants, working together, in God’s original field, God’s original “building.”

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 11-17) in Year A (Mundahl)

Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on our need to trust in God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Even healthy memories can be buried deeply. It was only yesterday that what surely is a foundation of my creation faith “bubbled up” into consciousness. At every worship service I attended as a child, the pastor would intone: “My help is in the name of the LORD,” and the congregation would respond: “Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124: 8, “Confession,” Service Book and Hymnal, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1958, p. 15).

If I missed that important foundational statement, it is easier to see why writers of the Hebrew Bible felt compelled to emphasize in a host of creative ways the centrality of creation and its blessings. More recently, the church has had to break through the superstructure of a theology that has been aggressively anthropocentric, focusing primarily on “God’s mighty acts” and “human authenticity” (cf. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Promise of Christian Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, ch. 10, pp. 189-218).

This is especially important as we turn to our First Reading, the conclusion of Moses’ “Third Discourse.” Paging through Deuteronomy makes it clear that Brueggemann is right when he reminds us: “And if God has to do with Israel in a special way, as he surely does, he has to do with land as an historical place in a special way. It will no longer do to talk about Yahweh and his people but we must speak about Yahweh and his people and his land” (Walter Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 6).

Deuteronomy is filled with the humming fertility of the gift of land, the gift of creation: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, or vines and fig trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. . . .” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9a). As Westermann argues: “We can no longer hold that God’s activity with his people is to be found only in his ‘mighty acts.’ In addition to these acts, experienced in events, God’s work with his people includes things manifested not in deeds but in processes that are usually regarded as unhistorical—the growth and multiplying of the people and the effects of the forces that preserve their physical life. . . . No concept of history that excludes or ignores God’s activity in the world of nature can adequately reflect what occurs in the Old Testament between God and his people. . . . The activity of God that determines these events is not primarily deliverance but blessing” (Claus Westermann, Blessing, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p. 6).

Most characteristic of Deuteronomy is a series of “blessings and curses.” For example, in Ch. 28, the writer describes the results of harmony with God’s gracious instruction (torah). “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.  Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl” (Deuteronomy 28:3-5). That these blessings are synergistic—they multiply as they are lived out and received—is suggested by the notion that “these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 28:2).

But living out of harmony with God’s template results in curse, a “force” that carries its own negative synergy, bringing downhill spiral. In fact, the ultimate result of continuing to live lives of self-interested greed and obsession with control is a reversal of the Exodus itself! Should this reach critical levels, Israel will experience all the plagues the Egyptians suffered. (Deuteronomy 28:59-61). They shall be brought back in ships to Egypt “by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:68).

The conclusion of “Moses’ Third Discourse”—our appointed reading—summarizes the two diverging paths God’s people face. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). Even though the choice is clear and available, the Deuteronomist relies on a strong Wisdom tradition (a kind of “sophic hortatory imperative”) to call on everyone, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20). It is as if the covenant promise pulls the people forward into the power of blessing.

While the language of blessing and curse may seem strange to us, their reality is not. For example, the psychologist, Erik Erikson sees the characteristic developmental challenge defining adulthood as the tension between “generativity”—using one’s gifts to care for the earth and each other—and “stagnation”—living as “one’s own only child” focused on self (cf. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed, New York: Norton, 1982). These psychological terms certainly remind us strongly of “blessing” and “curse.”

Seen more broadly, the whole panoply of reports describing the environmental crisis contain more than a little suggestion of “curse.” When we read about the need for Charleston, West Virginia, residents to use only bottled water because of a chemical spill, we cannot help thinking of “curse.” The recent spate of fires on freight trains carrying oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken Play” unveils a new kind of inferno-like consequence for our desire to extract oil at any cost. When we consider these consequences, we can understand why Philip Sherrard suggests that we look more closely at the basic technological environment we “swim” in. “There is . . . a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment” (Philip Sherrard, The Eclipse of Man and Nature, West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 70-71).

Confronted with a Corinthian community that is rapidly falling into factionalism, Paul employs a somewhat different dichotomy than blessing and curse—that of “flesh” and “spirit.” This should in no way be taken to devalue that which is created. Rather, Paul uses the term “flesh” to uncover the pretense that some in the community are “spiritual superstars.” What makes Paul confident of his assessment? “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving according to human inclinations?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Being “of the flesh” means living with the self-assertion that becomes more important than God’s gift of unity (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 48).

But there is a way to “spiritual” unity that is described very concretely. Because the community, in fact, belongs to God (1 Corinthians 3:21-23), the way toward reconciliation is a matter of finding each one’s role within it. Using the familiar image of a garden, Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7.  Not only do they now have a “common purpose,” but, in fact, the literal translation of v. 8 is “they are one.” This is simply the end of factionalism.

It is significant that this garden metaphor is used to promote healing imagination. As factional leaders and members begin to think of themselves as “working together” (v. 9– literally, synergoi, the root of “synergy”), they embark in a creation-connected project that is amazingly “synergistic.”  For example, corn kernels produce up to 200 ‘seeds’ apiece. Sunflower seeds multiply by a factor of 50, while lentils only multiply by a factor of 30. Even though gardening here is “only” a metaphor (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 73), the tremendous “increase” that may occur in growing things together suggests a kind of blessing that provides hope not only for the Corinthian assembly, but also for those called to creation care.

For God’s earth is divided into an almost incomprehensible array of “factions” when it comes to commitment to care for the earth. To adopt a version of Paul’s call to unity, where each person relinquished narrower interests in favor of the health of the whole, would be, at minimum, a kind of “spiritual breakthrough” that could hardly help bringing “blessing” to this earth and all its creatures.

If Corinthians believers were tempted to see themselves as “spiritual superheroes,” this week’s text from the Sermon on the Mount provides an antidote. In this section outlining the relationship between this new creation community and the torah, Jesus demonstrates how the law is fulfilled through finding its intention. At the heart of this section is the realization that both the new community and all of creation are made up of relationships that must be nurtured.

This can be seen in Jesus’ reconsideration of murder (Matthew 5:21-22) If vital relationships are to be maintained, murder must be stopped at its source—anger, insult and slander. Much the same could be said of the “lust” (Matthew 5:28). These are quite clearly both behaviors that betray insecurity that call for a deeper foundation of relationship.

Of course, one might argue that “swearing oaths” moves toward finding a firmer base for safety—the appeal to God to undergird messages. But as Carter reveals: “The practice, intended to guarantee reliable human communication and trustworthy relationships, ironically undermined them through evasive or deceptive uses of oaths and by creation a category of potentially unreliable communication not guaranteed by oaths” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 149)

Even though oath-taking is not as prevalent in current public communication, much the same thing occurs when statements are legitimated by appeals to “scientific ‘fact.’” Here science takes the place of the divine as a source of legitimacy. For example, a series of radio programs in the late 1940’s featured ads for R. J. Reynolds’ Camel cigarettes that claimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” This was allegedly based on a survey of 113,597 physicians!  Journalists did find, however, that those few doctors that were contacted had, the week before, all received complimentary cartons of Camels (Martha N. Gardner, “The Doctors’ Choice is America’s Choice,” American Journal of Public Health, Feb. 2006, p. 223). Of course, much the same misuse of “scientific oaths” has gone on among so-called “experts” casting doubt on the effects of greenhouse gases on climate change.

The solution is “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’”—a call to simple truth telling that requires profound security, security that often comes from a strong sense of belonging to a community and a basic trust in creation. Perhaps this comes most powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus’ teaching about prayer: addressing God as “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9) and asking with confidence for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Not only does this provide the courage “not to worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25-34), but it sends us back to durable worship forms from more than 50 years ago: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8).

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

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Ormseth)

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

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

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Ormseth)

Empowered in God’s love for the creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Micah 6 and the beatitudes of Matthew 5.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A ( 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:2).   The prophet’s evocation of mountains and “enduring foundations of the earth” in the opening verses of our first reading this Sunday invites consideration of the texts for the day as material for the quest for what Larry Rasmussen calls an “Earth-honoring Faith.” (Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). With his metaphor of a trial in which God contends with God’s people, the prophet couples testimony concerning God’s works on behalf of Israel to the judgment of the mountains and the earth’s very foundations.  The significance of this linkage of God’s testimony and the mountains’ judgment lies deeper than mere rhetorical device, however.  The passage is one of three texts that Walter Brueggemann cites in an exposition of Jahweh’s “righteousnesses.” Following Paul Ricoeur, Brueggeman argues that the “matrix of trial-witness-testimony” provides a powerful perspective on the theology of the Hebrew bible.  Memories of past events are “all now regarded as acts of transformation wrought by Yahweh on behalf of Israel, all making it possible for Israel to have a chance of well-being in the world” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp.131-32).  In its worship of Jahweh, Brueggemann writes,

“Israel engaged the great memories of its core testimony in which the God of Israel’s most elemental testimony is taken with definitional seriousness in the present.  That core testimony includes both Yahweh as the One who intrudes into Israel’s public experience in dramatic ways, and Yahweh as the One who sanctions and maintains Israel’s life-giving home of creation” (p. 679).

Here is faith, then, that honors the earth, even as it honors Earth’s Creator.  It is worth noting that according to Micah’s oracle, such well-being is not merely a matter of acquiring great wealth.  The cultic sacrifice of “thousand of rams’ and ten thousands of rivers of oil,”  which would presuppose such wealth, is not what God seeks from God’s people.  What God requires, and not just of Israel, but of all humans (“O mortal,” adam,) is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8).  “It belongs to the character of the human creature, ” Brueggemann concludes with respect to the relationship of humans to the creation, that humanness means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defining, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Jahweh for justice and holiness.

The practice of holiness concerns the disciplined awareness that life is to be ordered with the profound acknowledgment that the core of reality lies outside self and is not given over to human control. . . . The practice of justice, in concrete ways, is the enactment of Yahweh’s sedaqah, whereby the cosmos can be ordered for life, and whereby the human community can be kept viable and generative.

Accordingly, the verbs in Genesis 1 and 2 which authorize humans to “have dominion” over creation “suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures” (Brueggemann, p. 460-61).

Thus the prophet’s oracle does indeed adumbrate an “Earth-honoring faith”, a faith, in Rasmussen’s definition, that “is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” And it is the mountains of the prophet’s metaphor that carry this meaning. While the specific mountains which the prophet might have had in mind perhaps include only those from the great narrative of God’s works (the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Moriah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and prominently here in Micah, Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, “up from Egypt”) what renders them trustworthy judges of both human and divine affairs is not limited to such associations. It is in their universal nature that mountains transcend the plain where life is normally lived, and they endure through all generations as well. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols”, so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint, as Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008p. 114).

Indeed, when approached from the viewpoint of contemporary ecology, “making space” in nature is an essential aspect of what mountains “do.”  A mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some aspects to the entire globe.  The measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them, for example, contribute to their understanding of the dynamics of global climate change. Thus to those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the possibilities of well being, in Rasmussen’s phrase,  of “the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.”

Does the mountain which Jesus’ ascends to teach his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel bear such significance?  The linkage of these texts in the lectionary suggests this possibility, and in Warren Carter’s view, the Evangelist appears to recognize this significance of the mountains as well. As Carter notes, the mountain is “a location invested with multiple meanings” in the Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is in fact a mountain oriented affair: after feeding five thousand Jesus retreats “up the mountain by himself to pray” (14:23);  having passed along the Sea of Galilee, he again ascends “the mountain” where he heals “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others’ and again feeds a great crowd, this time four thousand (15:29-39); it is “up a high mountain” that Jesus leads Peter, James and John where he “was transfigured before them” (17:1); he initiates the events of his final confrontation with authorities from “the Mount of Olives” (21:1 and 24:3); and it is from “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, that he commissions their great outreach “to all nations” (28:16-20).

Mountains thus signal dimensions of justice, mercy, holiness and universality in Jesus ministry.  Just previous to this ascent to teach, Carter emphasizes, from the mountain “the devil offered Jesus ‘all the kingdoms/empires of the world’,” and by contrast, “on this mountain, Jesus will manifest God’s reign/empire.”  As Jesus recapitulates Moses’ and Israel’s experience, escaping from Egypt (2:15), passing through water (3:13-17), encountering temptation (4:1-11),”  That Jesus now goes “up the mountain” to teach his disciples thus alerts us to the significance of the event: Jesus is to deliver a new law that will be as important for life in the coming kingdom of God as the law given to Moses was for the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter their promised land. Jesus’ followers will appropriately remember this teaching as “the Sermon on the Mount.”

If “the mountain” which Jesus ascends carries the significance of Micah’s “mountains,” as we have suggested, can we hope that the teaching he offers would also provide support for an “Earth-honoring faith?”  We of course cannot expect the teaching to directly address aspects of the environmental crisis of our day;  we seek rather to “interrogate” this particular “past tradition of spirituality,” as Rasmussen puts it, in a reexamination of the “’normative gaze’ that frames and guides feeling and thought alike” (Rasmussen, p. 45).”  Does the teaching “alert us to past pitfalls?”  Does it “illumine our responsibility, offer wellsprings of hope, and generate renewable moral/spiritiual energy for hard seasons ahead?” (Rasmussen, p. 81).

In order to carry out this “interrogation” with respect to not only this Sunday’s Gospel, but those of the following three Sundays which also belong to the Sermon on the Mount, and then the “summit” of the Sunday of the Transfiguration, it will be helpful first to draw out more broadly what Rasmussen means by “Earth-honoring faith” for our time.In his chapter on “The Faith We Seek,” he draws these several insights from the Christian theological tradition, represented preeminently here by Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and Reinhold Niebuhr: such a faith, he writes, not only savors life, but seeks to save life.  It sees in a “redeemed Earth as paradise” an alternative to the false paradise offered by human empires. It regards as fundamental to “common Earthly good” the “’minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.”  Such faith grants “moral citizenship” to all God’s creatures, as key to addressing our denial of empathy for them.  It acknowledges the “species pride and arrogance” of humans that denies the “profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures.” It sees that the great imbalances of power in society correlate strongly with the destruction of nature, as one group seeks to exploit nature for the resources to dominate over others. Often more covert than overt, the exercise of such power “nurtures self-delusion” on the part of those who wield it.  Such faith thus recognizes in democracy both the means of checking on “the ever-present imperial impulses in human nature,” but also a source of the delusion of innocence which fails to recognize that imperialism, as it flows from disproportions of power.  It will see in “our present Earth/human relationship” . . the modern/eco-modern version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all:  the ethic of master and slaves,” “applied now to other-than-human nature.  As it grasps the core reality that “the Earth belongs to all and all belongs to Earth, which belongs to God,” it will “rightly name the injuries of nature at our hands ‘sin’ and the abuse of power” Matthew will also report that Jesus “went up the mountain” six times, referring to Mt. Zion (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 129-30). (Rasmussen, pp. 80-104). Finally,

Earth-honoring faith lives by grace.  Life is a gift and a sacred trust.  We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it.  It bears its own power, an energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life creates the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus we can ask: Does Jesus’ teaching constitute support for such justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for all creatures? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator?

Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) . . . Beatitudes are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Our question, then, is does that favor reflect an awareness of the implications of those circumstances and behaviors, beyond the human, for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and the Earth which it represents?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (Carter, p. 131).  We recognize here the imbalance of concentrated power, which renders “spiritless” those who suffer such deprivations. The issue here is one of totally negative expectations regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or community. This is a condition experienced by people who are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates which the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is, significantly with respect to our concern for care of creation, the condition often experienced in our culture by people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so entirely futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so relentlessly. The powerful appear so thoroughly indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely controlled by their own self-interests. The judgment articulated by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (Carter, p. 132).

Will God intervene? Jesus promises not only that God will, but that God is intervening: the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is now theirs. The deficit of spirit is made up with the presence of God in the very company of Jesus’ in which they participate. The hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because in their very struggles God is in the process of liberating them.  Indeed, even as they mourn what they have lost to “the destructive impact of imperial powers,” they are lifted out of an oppression that is seen to be against God’s gracious will, and thus should be greatly and deeply mourned. Their mourning is in fact a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. They mourn because they love, and have suffered the loss of what they love. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, comforts them in their mourning.

While these first two beatitudes thus respond to the spiritual deficit experienced by mourning humans, the next one addresses more squarely their embodied situation in creation, and suggests a course of action to address and remedy their loss. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence, or more precisely in Rasmussen’s careful phrase,  they act to foster that “minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.” The behavior of “the meek” is an implicitly but nevertheless profoundly “ecological” way of being in community. It is the human analog to the manifold space-creating ecology of the mountain. Indeed, it is what God does in creation. The blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, ‘this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically. “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1).” “humans are to nurture it (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

So also, accordingly, blessed are those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence in the community of creation characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)–they “will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions are consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also in relation to non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” as God inhabits these righteous relationships. And, finally, blessed are the makers of peace: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity”; nor, for that matter, the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped by neither ethnicity nor species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of the triune God.

Which brings us to the final two beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). Jesus returns here to the power struggle identified in the first two beatitudes, that of encountering the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in these beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back” warns Carter. But the reward of those persecuted on account of Jesus is, again,  “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” that is, in God’s presence, God’s own righteous response to the faithfulness that such action exhibits. The reviled participate in the “completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire” (Carter, p. 136).  These last two beatitudes thus clearly anticipate Jesus’ own persecution and death, in which, as our second reading from I Corinthians reminds us, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,”  divine “foolishness” that is “wiser than human wisdom,” and holy “weakness” that is “stronger than human strength,”  are manifest in “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”   It is in this power that the restoration of all creation will be accomplished; and to share in this power is to be empowered in God’s love for the creation.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Mundahl)

When we turn around, we receive the unanimous approval of the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the Earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on what God asks of us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

This week’s texts do nothing less than turn the world upside down. Their power stems from the gracious outpouring we call creation: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it . . . .” (Psalm 24:1). For God to create is to open a place in the triune life for others, to offer hospitality in a circle dance of community which has no boundaries.

We can see the profound respect for creation in our First Lesson from Micah. Here, this late eighth-century prophet acts as “process server” delivering the indictment of a divine lawsuit (rib) to the people of Jerusalem. And “who” acts as the “Greek chorus” or “jury” witnessing this bill of particulars? The LORD, as prosecuting attorney, tries this case before the mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth (Micah 6:1-2).

This is a “jury” that cannot be bought. Here are witnesses that cannot be tampered with. Understandably, in a court this open and honest, Jerusalem cannot avoid responsibility for the centralization of land ownership (Micah 2:2) and judicial corruption described as “tearing the skin off my people” (Micah 3:2). No wonder the people cry in despair: “With what should I come before the LORD . . . ?” (Micah 6:6).

Naturally they suggest all sorts of ways in which they can placate the court without changing basic attitudes—low bowing, burnt offerings, offering of yearling calves, or even first-born children (Micah 6:6-7).

These suggestions are at once too manipulative and too simple. The prophet puts it plainly in a way that summarizes a century of prophetic faithfulness and creativity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Although there is nothing new about these words (e.g. “kindness” is hesed, covenant loyalty and care) except their beautiful crystallization of faith, moving from a culturally approved set of norms to practicing justice changes everything! It defines repentance: turning around and getting a new mind. When that happens, the approval of mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth is unanimous!

Paul’s message to the community in Corinth calls for a reorientation similar in scope. After his “indictment” for falling into factionalism, he offers a primer describing the very basis of the life of those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This foundation is not the cunning of human judgment.

In fact, it is self-interested human judgment which has gotten in the way of unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as an authority that can pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47). Like the religious elite Micah confronted, Paul calls his audience to “give it up,” to relinquish expecting God to meet their standards!

Paul strips away the illusory power of human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting people, institutions, and governments up as ‘ultimate authorities,’ that has led to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For “our standards and criteria” are always partial and can never include the whole of creation. They always benefit only “us”—however that “us” is construed.

But there is another way, according to Paul, a way beyond the self-concern of people, communities, or institutions. This is demonstrated by the obedient One whose concern for renewing creation was not limited even by self-preservation. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (standards and criteria), and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious opponents responded to the threatening newness he brings with all they had—specifically, the cross. A recent “botched” execution by “lethal injection” in Ohio took nearly half an hour and caused the victim of this torture to gasp several times. Crucifixion involved a much longer public humiliation before death—from many hours to several days. It was the most persuasive argument Pax Romana had that no one should defy the powers that be. Yet, Paul’s message is that this act of violence failed miserably. The compassionate and just God triumphed over those powers. As Richard Hays suggests: “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge.” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Now Paul turns to his audience and asks them to consider their calling. None of them were called because they met adequate divine standards and criteria. That makes it clear that, using the logic of the cross, despite their membership in this motley assembly and their checkered histories, they have been made part of a new and unified community. It is nothing to “boast about!” For that reason, self-assertion or factional promotion have no place. Like the sheer graciousness of creation, belonging to this new community that lives by standards considered “foolish” by the kingdoms of the world is a gift. A gift full of promise and consequences.

These consequences become clearer in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes. Now, Jesus, whom Matthew has introduced over his prologue as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), the “one who is more powerful” (Matthew 3:11), the Beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and, later, one who brings the new counter empire, “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17), climbs the mountain to teach. In Micah, the hills and mountains served as witnesses to the trial of God’s people (Micah 6:1-2). In Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-11), the tempter offered Jesus control over “all the kingdoms of the world” with the proviso that Jesus worship the one making the offer (Matthew 4:10). Here the mountain continues to serve as a major character drawing both teacher and learners away from the demands of daily life in order to allow Jesus to act as composer whose “first movement” sounds the major themes that will shape this new community infecting all that Pax Romana stands for.

Beatitudes are not unique to the Sermon on the Mount. They go beyond describing personal qualities and emotions (“happy are…”) to declaring God’s favor for specific human behaviors and often declare “God’s future transformation or reversal of present dismal circumstances”  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 130). What’s more, “They . . . mark out features of a faithful and favored or blessed and honorable group.  They constitute, affirm, and challenge a community’s distinctive identity and practices” (Carter).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), then, becomes a thematic melody coursing through this entire “Sermon.” They are ones who are literally poor, ill, marginalized and outcast. They are victims of the power structure, much like the fishermen called to be the first disciples, whose trade was hampered at every turn by Roman regulations. They certainly do not set standards or criteria for acceptance in their worlds! Their very “spirits” are suppressed by the Roman Imperial System, and are poorly served by much of Jerusalem’s religious elite. Yet, they are named “blessed” because now that the status quo is fading; “theirs is” the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty and hopelessness are ending. “The beatitude blesses the ending of current imperial structures through God’s action” (Carter, p. 132).

The consequences of God’s action in bringing a “new order and community” are vividly described in the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). While “meekness” has been caricatured as passive incompetence  and laughable mildness, it actually suggests a combination of courage and patient hope that trumps all the attention-getting antics of the power elite. Perhaps more appropriate translations would be “humble,” with its connection to humus or “kind” with its suggestion of commonality and its relationship to hesed, covenant consideration for all (cf. Micah 6:8, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1989, p. 236). “To be meek is to renounce retribution and to live faithfully and expectantly” (Carter, p. 133). Perhaps Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 describes the power of this humble meekness best.

“Humility” fits well because “the humble meek” are promised that “they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)  “God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth. The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships, will end” (Carter). Why? The earth and all its creatures belong to God.  With this new “humble empire” it will be nurtured and cared for. Certainly the sabbatical and jubilee traditions suggest ways forward.

But even though the promise is sure, this is not the end of struggle. The final beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” makes that clear (Matthew 5:11). That has always been the fate of the prophets (Matthew 5:12). But as disciples called to be “fishers for people” (Matthew 4:19), that is, those who follow in the tradition of the prophets shining a light on injustice and corruption that the powerful want concealed, they can this expect in this “not yet” time no less.

Recently, the President of the United States spoke to the concern of NSA surveillance, an issue that would surely not have been addressed had not Edward Snowden focused a huge beam of light on the scope of U.S. information gathering and its implications. During this Epiphany season, all those who live in the concrete hope of the Beatitudes are called to “let their lights shine” so that the creation damage that we do, and often are complicit in, is uncovered. We do this in confidence that the “criteria and standards” that have allowed Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia, to avoid responsible care of toxic materials will disappear, and that a new and humble world, community, and neighborhood will emerge spearheaded by God’s people.

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Schade)

“Needing New Nets: Fishing for People in a Creation-Crisis Age”Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 4:12-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Sardines! Carp!  Comb-fish!  Biny-fish!  Every kind of fish!  This is what James and John should have been hauling in from the Sea of Galilee.  Their boat should have been full of fish, wriggling and slapping their tails, flipping and flopping, a mass of glassy eyes and shiny scales.  But what Jesus found was an empty boat and two men trying to mend their torn nets.

Let me give you a little background on what it was like to fish with these nets.  The fishermen most likely worked at night, which means they used something called a trammel net, which was actually composed of three nets.  A trammel net had two large mesh walls about five feet high with a finer net in between. The boat went out at night into deep waters where there are no rocks so that the nets would not be torn. One end of the net was let down into the sea, then the boat made a circle creating a sort of tub in the water. The net gathered in every kind of fish, as they were unable to escape through the three layers of netting.

Sometimes the boats worked in pairs so that the teams could drag in the net and its contents (hopefully a large number of fish), back to the shore. This would go on several times during the night until exhaustion set in or the sun came up, whichever came first.  But when Jesus came to this spot along the shore on this particular morning, he found James and John not out at sea, but sitting there empty of fish.

Why is the boat grounded on the shore?  Because, the text tells us, the fishermen were mending their nets.  They should have been out hauling in their fifth or sixth catch of fish, or at least settling down to extricate the sale-able fish from the throw-aways.  But no.  The fishermen in this boat obviously have caught nothing but nothing.  They’d given up.  Nothing left to do but wash and repair the nets and let them out to dry in the sun.

The invitation from Jesus appears to come at just the right time for them.  Certainly they puzzled as much as we do at his cryptic words about “fishing for people.” But he obviously got their attention, because they followed him.  And in their ministry with him they came to learn what it means to reach out for people who are hurting, to heal children, women and men who were ill or dying, and to transform entire communities with God’s radical love of reconciliation.

Read in the age of the Anthropocene, this text takes on a different and more ominous tone.  If Jesus were to come upon fishermen with empty nets today, the reasons for their lack of fish would be cause for great alarm.  Overfishing, climate change causing ocean acidification, and pollution are threatening all life in the ocean.  And the kind of “fishing for people” needed today takes on a different kind of urgency.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, “Fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices are pushing many fish stocks to the point of collapse.  More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities, which lead to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies” (http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing).

As for ocean acidification due to climate change, fish populations have suffered as coral reefs are destroyed.  “Bleaching,” coastal over-pollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened.  In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years, (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View,” Time, April 14, 2014).

Pollution is another strain on fish populations.  Did you know that approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash per year enters the ocean?  From plastics to oil spills; from leaking pipes to deliberate discharge of industrial waste; from agricultural run-off to fertilizer from our yards – all these and more are causing incredible stress to our oceans and our food supply from these waters.  What they eat – we eat, with the toxins increasing exponentially up the food chain to humans.  (See http://www.noaa.gov/resource-collections/ocean-pollution for more information as well as lesson plans for solutions.)

Given this reality about empty nets, the kind of “fishing for people” we need now is engaging people in the work of caring for God’s Creation.  And for this, we’re going to need a trammel net, understand.  It’s going to have to be wide, and we’re going to have to cast it all around in a great big circle and let it sink deep.  And we’re going to need three layers of net so that we can catch people effectively.

One layer of our net is service to our communities.  Our churches need to understand what environmental issues are happening in our communities and offer to help.  Perhaps there is a local waterway that needs cleaned of trash.  Perhaps there is an abandoned lot that could be transformed into a community garden.  Maybe a dangerous incinerator is being proposed for your neighborhood and the group fighting against it needs a place to meet.  Whatever the need is, work with the people of your local community.  Listen to them, get to know who they are, invite local environmental groups to talk about their work. Go deep with them so that they will see the church as an ally in their work and a valuable member of the local community.  Any effort we make upstream will have tremendous impact downstream and in our oceans.

Another layer is sound biblical teaching.  This is the fine mesh in between.  Help people learn about the ways in which the Bible speaks about caring for Creation. Donate The Green Bible for the church library.  Offer a Bible study on care-of-Creation issues (see “Adult Forum and Bible Study” under the Education tab at the Lutherans Restoring Creation website for ideas).  If you are a pastor, commit to preaching about care-of-Creation issues (for ideas, visit www.creationcrisispreaching.com), including ecojustice concerns in the churches prayers, and designing worship services that help people make the connection between the sacraments of baptism and communion and the necessity for clean land, air and water.  Consider a book study of Ben Stewart’s A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology for ways to help people connect liturgy, Creation, and the Christian life (https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/productgroup/674/A-Watered-Garden-Christian-Worship-and-Earth-Ecology).  Or Mark Wallace’s Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future for examples of faith communities that are doing the theological and scriptural work that leads to advocacy and action on behalf of God’s Creation (http://fortresspress.com/product/green-christianity-five-ways-sustainable-future).

The third layer of our trammel net is love – love for God’s Creation.  Help people fall in love with the world God has created.  Take the children outside and help them learn the names of the plants growing on the church grounds.  Lead a field trip to a local nature area guided by a trained naturalist.  Plan a camping retreat for families.  Worship outside, and even on the shore of an ocean if possible, to help this biblical text and others come alive for people.  God’s Creation has incredible power to minister to people and heal them in mind, body and soul.  Give people opportunities to connect with the natural world and let God take it from there.

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Mundahl)

Christian care for creation will address chemical spills. – Tom Mundahl reflects on mending torn nets, community, and creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

It was not long ago that we heard the more extended Christmas version of Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . .” (Isaiah 9:2a). As we have moved through the season of Christmas and entered Epiphany, we have followed the journey of the one named Emmanuel back to Egypt, where, like Moses, he escapes the slaughter of innocent children. After his “exodus” from Egypt and return to Palestine, we have marveled at his obedience in “going through the waters” of baptism by John, a baptism which led him to forty days in the wilderness (reminding us of Moses’ 40 years of exile in Midian), where Jesus demonstrates the power of this obedience. Now, as he relocates in Capernaum, he prepares to unleash this light in teaching, proclamation, and healing. (Matthew 4:23)

The startling power of this eruption of light is best described in Jesus’ words, “Repent—get a new mindset, change your ways—for the Empire of God is drawing near” (Matthew 4:17, Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 119). This new order begins to be actualized in the calling of the first group of disciples, recruits chosen not from among a privileged elite trained for leadership, but from the fishing trade. News of a new ‘order of things’ must have been welcome to these fishermen, who had struggled for years to pay heavy license fees to Roman minions simply to retain the privilege of putting themselves at the mercy of the elements as they sought to provide food for their neighbors (Carter, p. 121). Even though fisherman were accounted the very lowest status among free workers, they become the core of the community that will serve as an alternative to the Pax Romana.

They are now called with the familiar words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Likely, there are few phrases more misunderstood than “fishing for people.” While we automatically assume that the reference is to traditional evangelism, “fishing for people” has a quite different biblical history, especially in prophetic literature.

Eighth century prophet, Amos, delivers words of warning to God’s people in Samaria because of their neglect of the poor and needy. “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2). Jeremiah writes to warn the people of Judah not to imagine that they will escape Babylon. “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them . . .” (Jeremiah 16:16). Far from the “saving of souls,” “fishing for people” seems to carry the meaning of uncovering that which is concealed, just as fish seem to be concealed in the water until they are netted or hooked. This is surely one result of “great light.”

All that has served to ‘cover up’ massive injustice in this Roman-Judean politico-economic system will be stripped bare. The corruption of the temple-based religious system will not be spared. As Ched Myers suggests: “The point here is that following Jesus requires not just the assent of the heart, but a fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom the personal and the political are one” (Mark, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 1988, p. 132). “Fishing for people,” then, is using the light to uncover that which oppresses and to illuminate the possibilities from this new community for “mending” and “healing” (Matthew 4:21, 23).

It is as James and John are “mending” the fishing nets with their father that Jesus calls them. Not only was mending the nets a constant necessity for fisher folk; it is a powerful image for care of creation. Feminist theologian Letty M. Russell has consistently spoken of the need to uphold this biblical critical principle of the mending of “God’s world house.” She relates: “I first heard this simple expression of eschatological hope from Krister Stendahl, who said that theology is worrying about what God is worrying about when God gets up in the morning: the mending of creation” (Letty M. Russell, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1987, p. 71).

Recently, people in nine West Virginia counties, located on the banks of the Elk River, have been threatened by a highly-toxic chemical spill which has temporarily poisoned the local water supply. People of faith, called to be “fishers,” certainly have the responsibility to provide emergency help and temporary assistance to those affected.  But, as the “crisis” and journalistic attention recedes, there is an even more important responsibility to shine the light of attention on the long-term impact of this situation. Why were there no inspections of the massive Freedom Industries facility from 1991 until 2010, when nearby residents complained about foul odors, which called attention to the plant? What are the long-term consequences of exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) to humans and all of God’s creatures? That is, can “fish” even live in this river? And why do we not use the “precautionary principle” which holds that a chemical must be proven safe before use, instead of relying on vague “risk assessment” criteria? Finally, what other chemicals are stored by Freedom at that site? And what is the condition of storage tanks and the risks of spills?

It is only after the “tears” in the net of “God’s world house” (Russell) are examined that they can be effectively mended. But when they are mended—and through the very process—the light of hope will shine to provide the vision to imagine new options in “making a living” in a way that mends and honors creation. Then the healing that is part of this new “empire of peace”will be experienced.

But this process is not easy for any community. As we wrestle with Paul’s first letter to the new community in Corinth, we see how easily unity can be dissolved. Paul apparently writes before it is too late. As Conzelman suggests: “The split into groups has not yet led to the dissolution of the community; they still celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, and Paul can address the letter to the whole community” ( Conzelman, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 32).

That address follows the salutation (vv. 1-3) and the thanksgiving (vv. 4-9) with an appeal “that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10 b). It may be surprising that the Greek verb “be united” is the very same word Matthew employed for “mending” nets, namely, katartizo. Clearly, there is mending needed in this community. Factions have developed around important leaders. Members look to those who have baptized them as special benefactors, a result that moves down the path toward schism. Even those who claim “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12) “must have been claiming Christ in an exclusivistic way” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 23).

Paul does not counsel faction members to stop bickering because it is inexpedient or looks bad; he points to the center of their faith, Jesus Christ, the bringer of new creation, as the common ground of unity. This source of unity will be tested further, because it is clear that Paul earlier failed to deal with problematic status distinctions and economic inequality, issues that reared their ugly head around the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Hays, p. 24).

One can imagine similar congregational conflict emerging over responses to the chemical spill in the Charleston, W. Va. area. Some may call for serious investigation of Freedom Industries and suggest a new economic basis for the area. Others in the congregation, fearful of losing jobs during a weak economic recovery, may insist that the church “stick to religion” and not be involved in matters involving “mending creation.” Following Paul’s template is the only way to a unity that still may be difficult to achieve. But if church leaders have planned worship that encourages creation care and have modeled environmental stewardship in action, there may be the beginning of a consensus. But that consensus still must be based on what unites us at the deepest level. As the “prologue” to the ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” (1993), states it:

Christian concern for the environment is shaped by the Word of God spoken in creation, the Love of God hanging on a cross, the Breath of God daily renewing the face of the earth.

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14-20) in Year A (Mundahl)

We Are Home.Tom Mundahl reflects on the community of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

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

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

As we considered the prologue to John’s Gospel in our comments for Christmas 2, it was suggested that its communal nature not be forgotten. The evangelist makes it clear that this new divine venture is profoundly social: “the Word became flesh and lived among us;” “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). We claimed that because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation, in part, by forming a new community of faith.

The assigned reading from John not only continues the baptismal theme, it describes the beginnings of this new community. The very newness of this movement is made embarrassingly clear by the response of two of John the Baptist’s disciples. After hearing John testify to the significance of Jesus for the second time in as many days, these disciples take their teacher at his word “and followed Jesus” (John 1:37). When Jesus saw them following, he uttered his first direct speech in this Gospel: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).

Just as Jesus’ first words in Matthew revealed the obedience which shapes that evangelist’s understanding of new community, so this short phrase uncovers an important theme in John’s Gospel. The simple question, “What are you seeking?” underlines the basic need of humankind to turn to God. That is, human beings need to “dwell” or “abide” with God in order to escape the terrors of insecurity, always looking for something or someone that is trustworthy (Raymond Brown, John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 78). If humans constantly seek a community to belong to, a secure home, a “nest,” we may reflect “otherkind” more than we would admit.

And in this reflection, we may conclude one of the most important outcomes of faith is to learn to be at home. This should not surprise us. The author of Colossians describes Jesus this way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, visible and invisible . . . ” (Colossians 1:15 -16a).

Perhaps, then, to answer the question “What are you seeking, or looking for?” we need to be disarmingly honest and respond: “We are looking for a community to identify with, a community that can be part of making it possible for “all things in heaven and on earth” to be “at home” (see Shannon Jung, We Are Home: A Spirituality of the Environment, New York: Paulist, 1993, pp. 54-69)

But it is only when we are “at home” in God’s creation that we are free and secure enough to open our doors and make our ‘walls’ into windows. This is certainly the strategy of the community described in our reading from Second Isaiah. Even if many of its most important leaders remain in exile, the prophet delivers a startling message. Going home is not enough. The impact of this new word extends beyond traditional borders, from “coastlands” to “peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1).

This places the prophet squarely in the center of the post-exilic debate between those who would build the walls high to prevent outside cultural influence (Ezra and Nehemiah) and those whose notion of God could not be so limited (Jonah and Ruth). This text makes it clear that Second Isaiah stands with those who would not limit the aspiration of this people only to becoming a “safe” and “pure” religious enclave.

But this is not only the prophet’s view; it is the word of the LORD, a word that “called” this people to servanthood before birth (Isaiah 49:1b). This is no half-cocked, vague internationalism, but divine purpose that has been determined beforehand (that is, before the foundation of Israel and/or the birth of the prophet). Since a sharp distinction between individual and community is alien to Second Isaiah’s thought, we can only conclude that the servant Israel (49:3), or the prophetic word bearer who becomes the “heart of Israel,” bears this task given in much the same language as the prophetic call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5).

Despite the language of lament with which people-prophet respond to this extraordinary universal charge (49:4), the call stands. Once more we have what amounts to a “messenger formula” directed to the whole people: “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant . . . . ”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of the Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6).

This task of being a “light to the nations” is invested in a complaining, rather unreliable people. By going beyond parochial limitations, however, even this bunch “glorifies God” (49:3). And this seems to be, according to Isaiah, the way to build a strong community, by sharing the LORD’s “cause” (mispat) with the nations of the world. (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 129).

This “scandal of universality” is completely understandable, however, when we recall that it “stems from the inseparability of creation and redemption in the thought world of Second Isaiah.  Since the compass of God’s redemptive activity is the entire created world and its scope is the restoration of all that exists to wholeness, the nations are included in God’s plan” (Hanson, p. 130). And, of course, so is the whole of creation!

What makes a strong community of faith today? How are God’s people to be “at home” in creation? There are certainly those who would argue that getting ‘dirty hands’ from anything other than what we narrowly construe as “religious activity” is the only safe path. But that certainly is not the direction these Epiphany texts send us.  This is not the way to reflect light for the world.

A local congregation I know well works very hard on caring for one another within the context of responsible worship and fine music. But hearing God’s word and sharing the meal in weekly assembly has strengthened this community to open its doors. Not only has it welcomed everyone regardless of background, race, or sexual orientation, it has given its land over to 24 community gardens, a restored prairie, and maintaining an urban micro-forest. This has created new friends in the neighborhood and helped to restore creation.

But the gifts of this community have not stopped there. Surprising connections have been made with Circle of Empowerment in southwestern Nicaragua, a health and education “ministry” that promotes bottom-up development. Whether it is financial sponsorship of students in the seven-village school, purchasing a new “used” bus to transport these students to school, or building a medical clinic, this has been a crucial part of “building community” in this small congregation. The more that has been given away, the stronger this congregation has become!

Or, the more “at home” with itself a community can be, the freer it is to share. And the freer it is to share, the more “at-homeness” it will experience. Wendell Berry calls this “the cultivation of a sympathetic or affectionate mind” (“Two Minds,” Citizenship Papers, Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003, pp. 90-91). This “mind” differs from the “economic mind” in that “it refuses to reduce reality to the scope of what we think we know; it fears the mistake of carelessness more than it fears error; it seeks to understand things in terms of interdependent wholeness rather than isolated parts; it appreciates that a cultural landscape must grow up in faithful alignment with the natural landscape that sustains and inspires it . . . .”(Berry)

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

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Mundahl)

Gentle justice for people and creation:  Tom Mundahl reflects on Jesus’ baptism and the first Servant Song of Isaiah.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34 -43
Matthew 3:13-17

As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are reminded of the power of baptismal liturgy. As those called by the Spirit and trusting the grace of God gather around the font, the presiding minister invites the candidates and sponsors to affirm the responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these gifts of responsibility is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, p. 228). These words help us to understand that the gift of baptism is also a task, that “only those who obey believe” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 76).

Perhaps it is confusing as to why “the more powerful one” (Matthew 2:11) needs to be baptized by John the Baptist, who has freely admitted his inferiority. It certainly seemed to be incomprehensible to John, who “would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). In response, we hear Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Because this is the first direct speech in this Gospel from the one called Emmanuel, the words must have jumped out at readers and hearers. From the beginning, Matthew’s Jesus defines himself as the obedient one. He does this to “fulfill” all righteousness or justice. And what does this “fulfillment” mean but to “actualize” that justice through obedience in the midst of the community (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, pp. 178-179).

Far from isolating Jesus from the discipleship community, his baptism unites them in the service of a “meta-legal” righteousness that is integral to the call to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Next to the title Emmanuel, which serves as an inclusion for Christological identity (1:23 and 28:20), it is the obedient “Son, the Beloved” who gives shape to Matthew’s story. Jesus’ identity consists not so much in pre-existence or in miraculous conception; rather, in Matthew, that identity is found in unique obedience (Luz, p. 180).

This obedience, then, colors the shape of the community. Members will share in this new life (“be called children of God”—Matthew 5:9) when they “actualize” justice through peacemaking or, even care for God’s creation.  The opening of the heavens not only responded to the cry of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . ” (63:15), but demonstrated that here is a greater prophet (“a more powerful one”) than Moses or John, one whose New Exodus moves far beyond a mere parting of the seas. Now all that separates humankind from Creator and creation is torn away. This freedom is now to be lived in the “simple” obedience of everyday life.

How this freedom is lived is also suggested by the unfolding of Matthew’s baptismal narrative. As Jesus comes through the waters, the heavens opened, and the Spirit descends, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). While Mark (with Luke following) reports the voice as saying, “You are my Beloved Son . . . ,” Matthew uses the third person. Clearly, the voice does not speak for the benefit of the Son, but to John the Baptist (and all who might follow him), as well as to the crowds (which surely include the Christian community).

However, the meaning remains the same: here is one who is both royal figure (Psalm 2:7) and servant (Isaiah 42:1). For the community, this implies that living in free obedience is both a royal privilege and test of servanthood. It reminds us also of the richness of our first reading, the text that introduces this notion of servanthood.

It may be wise at the outset to assume that many layers of meaning are unleashed by this “Servant Song.”  Westermann suggests that our understanding is impeded by the question, “Who is this servant of God?” Instead, more helpful is retaining a sense of mystery by focusing on how the identity of the servant is formed and what the servant is called to do (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 93). In much the same way, Hanson suggests that these servant passages fire the imagination of the community in exile so that a new self-understanding and life response is called forth (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p.41)

If the identity of the servant cannot be pinned down, the servant’s task is clearer. This one is called “to bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1b). This very task has become “an invitation to reflect on the responsibility of all those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and recognize the dependence of all creation on God’s order of justice” (Hanson). When this “order of justice” is ignored, the result is chaos and oppression affecting both human history and the natural world. When Indonesian agricultural land traditionally farmed by small holders is expropriated in favor of large corporate plantations for the production of palm oil, not only are farm families displaced, but massive tree cutting causes soil erosion and removes vegetation capable of absorbing carbon.

But the servant brings forth this justice in a gentle, careful way.“He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3). This non-violent approach is the path to “faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3b). With this approach, the “end” does not justify the “means.” Instead, justice and peace are not only the goal; justice and peace are also the way. As Hanson suggests, “To live consistently in the service of the justice of God is to pattern one’s life on the nature of God. Only in this way is a mortal empowered faithfully to bring forth justice” (Hanson, p. 46).

This is the way to bring “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6b-7). Perhaps it is the deep connection with creation (Isaiah 42:5) that gives Second Isaiah a view of justice as light, light which cannot be contained by political or parochial religious boundaries. This Servant Song, then, is a description of the kind of “servant” that all who are chosen and obedient to God are challenged to become. It is a helpful template for living our baptismal life.

Fred Kirschenmann has lived baptismal obedience through connecting farming and faith. As Director of the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Farming at Iowa State University, he also took over management of his North Dakota family farm of more than a thousand acres. While neighbors warned him that moving to organic agriculture would result in lower yields, Kirschenmann persisted, knowing that in the long run it was the right thing. Imagine his surprise when, after five years, crop yields began to increase as the naturally enriched soil became more fertile (Interview with Peter Pearsall, www.yesmagazine.org  February 22, 2013).

Kirschenmann acknowledges the pressure to become more “efficient” through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-modified seeds. Yet, he also knows that the best chance for people throughout the Earth to achieve food justice is with a decentralized farming culture that invites people to stay on the land and learn “local ways” of regenerative agriculture. And, there are surprising benefits of more traditional farming. At first, typical, relatively compacted farm soil will absorb a half-inch of rainfall per hour. But after five years of organic care, that same soil may absorb up to eight inches of rainfall per hour. That soil not only can handle drought better, but sends less runoff, including toxic chemicals, through the Mississippi watershed to the Gulf of Mexico (Pearsall interview). That is obedient gentle justice for the nations.

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

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Schade)

Inauguration by Water – The Baptism of Jesus:  Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

On this Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and the gift of baptism itself. As Jesus emerges from the Jordan River after being immersed by the prophet John, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, NRSV). The words echo those heard in Isaiah, who foretold a divinely-appointed servant: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations,” (Isaiah 42:1).

Jesus chooses to begin his ministry on the banks of the Jordan River seeking baptism from John. Water is central to Jesus’ ministry. He is, in a sense, inaugurated in the water and by the water. As our country prepares for a different kind of inauguration in the coming weeks—one that is marked with ascension to the highest political office in the United States, and, perhaps, the world—it’s worth noting the stark contrast between these two different scenes.

The presidential inauguration is the epitome of worldly power, with the one assuming the office standing high on a platform on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. Thousands of people will flock to Washington D.C. while the event is televised to millions around the world. The ceremony bestows the authority of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government on this one individual. Military, judicial, economic and cultural dominance are just some of the aspects of power enjoyed by the one sworn in at this inauguration.

In contrast, Jesus’ inauguration to his earthly ministry took place in an out-of-the-way place, a wilderness.  Jesus was not on a high platform, but went down into the water, letting himself be washed by the river. People were gathered at that place as well, though the numbers were certainly less than a hundred.  John’s message of baptism was about repentance and aligning with God’s purposes of justice, righteousness, ethical integrity, and courage in the face of evil. For Jesus to submit to this baptism meant that he was eschewing the worldly trappings of power and dominance. The test of this decision to follow God’s way will immediately follow when Jesus faces temptations in the place of wildness and danger.  Such tests require introspection, self-reflection, and a willingness to face down the demons.  One hopes and prays for the incoming president and the nation as he approaches his own tests of character.

For Christians, the tests of character that come with being baptized have important ramifications because they are linked to both the Matthew and Isaiah passages. It’s worth noting that for the Israelite people, the call to be God’s servant wasn’t necessarily for one person—it was for their whole nation. God empowers people to do the work of building the peaceable kingdom; it’s a divine transference of power. This is a commissioning.  God is telling the people: I have given you as a covenant—you are a sign of the covenant. You are blessed in order to be a blessing.

As Christians, can we as a baptized community of faith be a people who do this? Can we be blessed by our baptism to be a blessing to others? And can we be a blessing for the very water with which we were baptized?

Just consider the gift of water itself for a minute. Water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. But of all the water on the earth, potable water for human use is only about .3% of the world’s water and is found in groundwater aquifers, rivers, and freshwater lakes.

In North America we take this gift of water for granted. We can enter any house, virtually any building, turn on a faucet, and clean water comes pouring out for us. In countries without access to clean water, people (usually women and girls) walk for hours a day back and forth from a water source, carrying heavy jugs, being careful not to spill a single precious drop. At the same time, industries, fossil fuel extraction and human pollution endanger the very waters that give us life. Chemical run-off, discarded pharmaceuticals, fracking, and fertilizers are just a few of the issues that threaten the health and safety of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and oceans.

One of the most ubiquitous symbols of our disrespect for water is, ironically, bottled water. We spend millions of dollars for water bottled in places where the natives don’t have access to the water we’re taking from them. We shell out a dollar for a bottle of water when we could simply put it in a reusable cup or bottle. According to the “Ban the Bottle” website, about 38 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators each year. “Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation. The energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes. Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.3,” (https://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/).

Perhaps what is most frightening is the potential of future wars over water. With populations exploding and water scarcity increasing, there have already been conflicts over water resources in Bolivia, California, Mozambique, and yes, even over the Jordan River. Between climate disruption leading to drought and decades of gross mismanagement of water resources, a regional crises over water resources will become more frequent and potentially violent. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable people who will suffer the most.

In the midst of this suffering, Psalm 29 declares: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” This voice of God is the same one that called upon the people of Israel to do justice, righteousness, in the Isaiah text. It’s the same voice that commissioned Jesus to his ministry of righteousness. And each of us in our baptisms is called by God’s voice to establish justice and righteousness in the earth. We have important work to do on behalf of the water.

Our baptisms conferred on us the duties and responsibilities that being a servant of God entails. We are to protect those who are vulnerable – like the fragile ecosystems—a “bruised reeds,” if you will (Isaiah 42:3). We are to open the eyes of the blind, share the truth about environmental degradation with those ignorant of the ramifications. We are to confront those in power who wantonly abuse water and speak courageous truth in order to establish ecological justice. The coastlands do indeed wait for God’s teaching—they wait for us to learn how to care for them. And we are to teach—on the coastlands, on boats, on mountains, in houses, and anywhere else people are gathered.

The God who is described in verse 5 of the Isaiah text, the God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it—this God entrusts it all to us, and we are commissioned to care for it. Isaiah is clear:  God will not hurt the weak. If we are servants of God, we will not hurt the weak either. We will bring justice to all the earth—even to Earth itself.

Because when we do justice for Earth, it has a flow-through effect for the entire human community, and particularly for the poor and those living in the most fragile of circumstances. People in rich countries use 10 times more water than those in poor ones. The connection between poverty and poor environmental conditions can be seen throughout the United States and the world. It is those who have no resources who cannot afford to move, much less fight against industrial pollution, landfills, and toxic dumping sites, often right in their neighborhoods. Two-fifths of the world’s people already face serious water shortages, and water-borne diseases fill half its hospital beds.

As one person put it in a BBC online commentary: “If water is life, we must learn to treat it not as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder or as an entitlement to the privileged, but as an essential component of human existence. We must learn not only the methods and habits of sharing equitably, but also the technologies and values of protecting the environment that makes fresh water available to us.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm)

I said earlier that John’s baptism was about repentance and being a servant of God. If we’re going to take that seriously, then each of us, and each of our congregations, needs to change our habits in order to do at least some small part in establishing justice for the Earth. Perhaps on Inauguration Day, your congregation can undertake a different ceremony—an Affirmation of Baptism where each person recommits themselves to the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ.

Maybe your church can look at ways to educate your congregation and community about water conservation and water justice issues. Plan a water clean-up for a local stream, river, or ocean front. Encourage youth to make a donation to the Walk4Water (http://elca.org/walk4water) campaign that was begun at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. To date, over $1 million in gifts have created healthier families and stronger economies through projects that provide clean drinking water through spring boxes and boreholes, support for irrigation systems, education about sanitation in rural villages.

Or perhaps you can encourage people to “give up the bottle” (water bottle) for Lent and use water pitchers in their homes, and reusable bottles at work, at school, and on the sports field. It won’t change the world overnight. But it will be one small drop freed from the bottle. And it may be part of God’s ripple effect that spreads out over all the Earth.  Amen.

Source:

Kirby, Alex, “Why world’s taps are running dry” BBC News Online, June 20, 2003; Accessed Dec. 29, 2016.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm

 

Epiphany of Our Lord in Years A, B, and C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Epiphany of Our Lord.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

The narrative of the church’s lectionary seems disordered. Last Sunday we considered Jesus in his childhood; with this Sunday’s story of the visit of the “wise men from the East;” however, we return to Jesus’ birth. For the congregation, this return will no doubt serve to complete “the story of Christmas”: as the Christmas trees are removed from the sanctuary, the last of the cookies are consumed, and gifts shelved in appropriate places, Christmas is “over.” In the introduction to a commentary on “The Season of Epiphany,” however, John McClure insightfully corrects this common perception, quoting  Ann Weems’ poem, “It is Not Over”:

It is not over,
this birthing.

There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

“The lectionary texts from Epiphany to the Transfiguration,” McClure observes, “shout emphatically, ‘It is not over!’” With these texts, McClure suggests, “ the church celebrates the manifestation or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus as Savior.”  (New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004, ed. by Harold W. Rast. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; p. 65). It is particularly noteworthy, then, that this first narrative of manifestation is comprehensive in scope, including within the orbit of that salvation  as it does both “the nations” and the cosmos. Christmas is indeed not “over”: we have just begun to spell out its significance for care of all creation.

Raymond E. Brown sums up the meaning of the story of the magi this way: “In the persons of the magi, Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York:  Doubleday, 1993; p. 199). With modest revision of Brown’s thesis, we propose that precisely because of their birthright of the revelation of God in nature, Matthew’s Gentile Christians would appreciate that the Scriptures of the Jews in fact promise the salvation, not only of Gentiles, but also of the cosmos which was indeed their means to knowledge of God. Their homage of Jesus as savior, we want to suggest, was an appropriate response to their discovery of what they saw as wisdom regarding the cosmos and its future in the plan of God.

The texts assembled by the church for this first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany set out resources for this discovery. The story of the visit of the wise men narrates the fulfillment of the promise from Isaiah 60, that in the midst of “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,” as the lesson reads, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:2).It is expected, then, that the coming of the Savior will be attended by cosmic signs such as the star of Bethlehem. More importantly, as part of the working out of the plan “of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), his coming will also lead to cosmic reconciliation, according to the plan which “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Prophet and psalmist join in describing aspects of this reconciliation in affirmations that portend what we would today consider ecological justice and sustainability, as well as social justice. His coming will cause hearts to “thrill and rejoice” because “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (60:5), and in Psalm 72:

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.<
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading).

With the Apostle Paul, the church is commissioned to bear “this wisdom of God in its rich variety” to all, even to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

What at the outset of this comment seemed a disordered sequence of texts is actually very well ordered with respect to our concern for care of creation. Last Sunday, we learned of Jesus “growth in wisdom” and explored the meaning of that growth with respect to his experience of God as creator; this Sunday, in turn, we are given a mandate to not only to explore more fully the content of that wisdom, but also to advocate for it publicly, in contention with “spiritual forces of evil” that are hostile to God (Ephesians 6:12; cf. McClure, p. 71.) We return briefly, therefore, to Larry Rasmussen’s argument for wisdom as “the biblical eco-theology and ethic,” as an illustration of what this mandate might mean for us in a time of global ecological crisis.

Rasmussen locates examples of wisdom in a great variety of genre, from didactic sayings to treatises that “grapple with life’s most difficult or perplexing circumstances–disease, calamity, boom and bust, the drama of good and evil,” along with “prayers, meditations, parables, and passages that invite a return visit over and again;” practices such as Sabbath-keeping and writing poetry also give expression to principles of wisdom. A more “ambitious and far-reaching” example of “wisdom-in-the-making” that directly addresses the global ecological crisis, however, is the Earth Charter.

After the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, a Charter Commission launched what turned out to be “the most inclusive process ever associated with an international declaration, with grassroots participation by communities and associations of all kinds across all sectors of society.” While not a formal treaty, the Charter “seeks universal recognition and international backing as a ‘soft-law’ document, morally binding upon those who subscribe to it.” Generated with “high levels of participation cutting across all sectors of society, with a determined effort to include historically underrepresented voices, two aspects of the charter in particular “command the attention of religious ethics:  the Charter’s high levels of representation and agency in the effort to realize the ancient dream of an Earth ethic; and its moral universe, with respect for the full community of life and its diversity as foundational.”

Central to the Earth Charter is a vision of sustainable community that accords well with the expectations for social and ecological justice proposed in this Sunday’s texts. According to the charter, sustainable community is the effort to preserve or create all together or in part: greater economic sell-sufficiency locally and regionally, with a view to the bio-regions themselves as basic to human organization; agriculture appropriate to a region and in the hands of local owners and workers using local knowledge and crop varieties, with the ability to save their own seeds and treat their own plants and soils with their own products; the preservation of local and regional traditions, language and cultures and a resistance to global homogenization of culture and values; a revival of religious life and a sense of the sacred, in place of a way of life that leaches the sacred from the everyday and reduces life to the utilitarian; the repair of the moral fiber of society on some terms other than sovereign consumerism; resistance to the full-scale commodification of things, including knowledge; the internalization of costs to the local, regional, and global environment in the price of goods; and the protection of ecosystems and the cultivation of Earth, in the language of the Charter, as ‘a sacred trust held in common.’ (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 347)

The Charter qualifies as genuine wisdom, Rasmussen contends, because it is “attentive to questions that global capitalism, even as sustainable development, rarely asks: What are the essential bonds of human community and culture, as well as the bonds with the more-than-human world? What is the meaning of such primal bonds for a healthy, concrete way of life; what are cultural wealth and biological wealth and what wisdom do we need to sustain them in the places people live with the rest of life’s community?” (Rasmussen, p. 348).

“Wisdom,” Rasmussen concludes, “has found a home here.” Has God, we might well ask, thrown a new star in our sky? And will the church pay proper homage to it, and follow it?

Green Reflections on the Epiphany Season in Year C (Rhoads)

Overall Eco-Reflections on the Season of Epiphany in Year C for preaching and devotions.

By David Rhoads

Epiphany is the season of the church year following the season of Christmas. The season of Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus is of course the foundational epiphany in the church year as the manifestation of God in the appearance of the child Jesus. Epiphany follows as a season that demonstrates how the appearance of Jesus in his adult life manifests the power and love of God.

Epiphany as a season extends from the day of Epiphany (celebrating the arrival of the magi), which does not often fall on a Sunday, until the Sunday of the Transfiguration. There are eight Sundays after Epiphany beginning with the Baptism of Jesus and following in the annual calendars until the Sunday before Transfiguration. The season does not always include all eight Sundays of the Epiphany Season.

In order to offer some care for creation reflections on the season of Epiphany in Year C, I will make general observations about the season that includes specific references to the various Gospel lessons occur during this season and some overall reflections about the Gospel of Luke. 

The color white: Light of the world. First, we note that part of the epiphany season makes use of the color white: the day of Epiphany, the Baptism of our Lord, and the Transfiguration. Among other things, the color white emphasizes light, because the season of Epiphany is a manifestation of God through Jesus. Jesus is “the light of the world,” “the true light that enlightens everyone [which] has come into the world.” This light “shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” In Jesus, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”

The light of our physical world is produced by the sun by day and the moon reflection of the sun and the stars by night. The sun generates light, energy, and heat, all of which make life on earth possible. The true light of the world lies behind this universe of light as the one in whom all things were created. This true light makes life possible in a more profound sense and makes abundant life possible for humans and all creation. Epiphany season represents the way in which the true light of the world, the creator of all things, has become manifest to redeem life and bring life to its fullness.

During the winter months, many of us suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” due to light deprivation and need additional light to overcome sadness, depression, and the loss of energy. In the midst of this geological season of the deprivation of light, Epiphany reminds us that we too may suffer from “Christ deprivation disorder,” that we may lack the light of Christ in our personal lives and in our communal lives together. The celebration of Epiphany enables us to bask in the light of the glory of God manifest in our world in Jesus.

The encounter with the light of the world is not just for some. It is for all. This is “the light to enlighten the gentile nations.” In the Lukan Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus announces his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, and the people are delighted because, as their hometown prophet, he will bring all these benefits to them. But then, Jesus declares that a true prophet does not benefit only his own, but reaches beyond boundaries to the” others.” He gives the examples of a Gentile widow being given food and a Gentile leper being cleansed. The community is enraged by this. But Jesus and his movement will not be deterred. The light of the world will cross all our human boundaries, as happens with Jesus during his lifetime and with the mission of the followers after his death. And now, also, the light of the world is for all of Earth community. This is the boundary we need to open so that we see other animals and plants as our kin and our companions in living a life in which all can thrive together. The light of the world shines on all of the world.

The color green: The flourishing of nature. Second, we note that for the rest of the season of Epiphany, from the second Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday before the Transfiguration, the color of the season is green. Green represents the flourishing of the natural world as an expression of the creation. In this regard, it is interesting to see the relationship between light and the greenery of the world, because it is precisely the light of the sun that has created and that nurtures the flora of the world, in particular, the trees, which in turn create food and energy for the sustenance of animal and human life.

Sometimes, the choice of green for the season of Epiphany is connected metaphorically with spiritual growth. In this reflection, we prefer to talk about the lush greenery of the earth at a literal level. This gives us an opportunity to talk about the seamless continuity between the God whose grace brings forth life on this planet and the God of grace whose son brings redemption and new life to the human community and beyond. We cannot talk about one without talking about the other. All of creation represents explicit or implicit epiphanies of God’s reality.

Furthermore, our human relationship with the rest of nature is not just an analogy with spiritual growth. Rather, nature is a major source of our spiritual growth. Many studies have shown that human health and the wholeness are nourished and deepened by a close relationship with the rest of the natural world. We can speak in Epiphany about the ways in which we have degraded and destroyed the life of trees, shrubbery, flowers, vegetables, and other green plants by our human activity. In so doing, we have suppressed the epiphanies of God in the natural world. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about our commitment to restore of this natural world—for ourselves and for God!

In our worship life during the last two millennia, we have focused almost exclusively on nurturing our human relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings. Epiphany is an opportunity to talk about God’s relationship with the rest of the created order, our human relationship with the rest of the created order, as well as our human relationship with God in and through the rest of the created order. In this way we will see, as Joseph Sittler has said, that all of “nature is the theater of God’s grace.”

The natural world as vehicles for epiphanies. One of the key ways in which we can celebrate all of creation in the season of Epiphany is to notice the ways in which nature interacts in the Gospel lessons assigned for this season. More could be said about the Old Testament lessons, the psalms, and the epistle lessons for this season. However, let me focus on the Gospel lessons and invite you to apply these observations to the other lessons as well.

  • On Epiphany Day, at the birth of Jesus, the light of a star guides the wise men to the birthplace of Jesus. Here we see how all creation is responding to the new life brought by the appearance of Jesus.
  • On the First Sunday after Epiphany, the day that celebrates Jesus’ baptism, it is an astounding observation that the Holy Spirit, in Luke’s depiction, descends upon Jesus in bodily form as a dove. Here the dove is more than a symbol. Instead, we see a form of incarnation of the spirit in a bird. Might not this understanding of doves having the potential to bear the divine presence lead us to think differently about doves in particular and birds in general? Should this not lead us to preserve endangered birds and foster the flourishing of bird life? Should this not lead us to treat with reverence birds that we irreverently pack together as an economical way to raise food for humans?
  • On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, note how Jesus takes an ordinary element of life, namely water, and transforms it into wine for celebration at a wedding. Cannot we reflect on the notion that in our day we have so defiled water that much of it is undrinkable, let alone being fit to be turned into wine? How much might this appreciation of the value of water lead us to preserve its purity?
  • In the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Jesus refers to the prophets who multiplied grain for the widow of Zaraphath in a time of famine. This act anticipates Jesus’ feeding of crowds in the desert area where there is no food and people are hungry. The arrival of the kingdom manifests an abundance in nature and calls us to share the abundance of food when there is famine and hunger.
  • In the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, we see how a lake produces an abundance of fish in the presence of Jesus. When the disciples have fished all night and caught nothing, Jesus is able to draw from the lake of Galilee such an abundance of fish that the nets threaten to break. Does this not lead us to recognize the ways in which we have so depleted and polluted our rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans that no such abundance is possible? Are we not called by God to nurture and protect our waterways so that marine life will thrive and teem and flourish? Just as humans and other animals are to multiply and fill the earth, so also are fish to multiply and fill the seas with life.
  • Finally, in the Transfiguration, the clothes of Jesus made from natural materials manifest the glory of God by becoming dazzling white. And a cloud overshadows them manifesting the divine presence and the voice of God, leading us to see how every dimension of the natural world is a place for the divine to be manifest.

In all of this, there is an affirmation of creation as good, as part of God’s redemptive world, and as capable of manifesting the glory of God. “The whole Earth is filled with God’s glory.” Were we to take this declaration of the psalmist seriously, we would see that God is present and manifest in all of life, not only in the dramatic events surrounding the appearance and activity of Jesus.

We would also see that these dramatic events are not interventions in nature nor are they contrary to nature. Rather they are dramatic expressions of the potential there in the natural world when God is at work in special ways. In the biblical materials, these wondrous events are not referred to as “miracles” contravening the laws of nature but as “acts of power” or “powerful acts of nature.” Far from being supernatural, they are super natural. As such, they affirm the goodness and potential of all creation to thrive in abundance. And they affirm the capability for all of life to be filled with God’s glory.

In addition to these manifestations of God in nature, we also note the various references to nature throughout these Gospel lessons that reflect wisdom drawn from the created order. References to snakes, roots of vipers, trees that produce good fruit, rotten trees, grapes, bramble bushes, and so on reveal that the people depicted in this story live close to nature and find insight and wisdom from their close observation of creation. Again, we are encouraged to draw closer to the rest of God’s creation not only as a source of personal renewal but also as a source of wisdom.

The Earth is filled with God’s glory. This is the affirmation that lies behind the special manifestations of God in Christ. In my own Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther considered that God was present in and through all of creation, from the most beautiful to the most hideous and threatening parts of nature [such as a crucifixion]. As the psalmist has said, there is no place in creation where one can hide from God’s presence. Here is Luther’s astounding affirmation that all the Earth is filled with God’s glory.

God is substantially present everywhere, in and through all creatures, in all their parts and places, so that the world is full of God and He fills all, but without His being encompassed and surrounded by it.  He is at the same time outside and above all creatures. These are all exceedingly incomprehensible matters; yet they are articles of our faith and are attested clearly and mightily in Holy Scripture….  For how can reason tolerate it that the Divine Majesty is so small that it can be substantially present in a grain, on a grain, through a grain, within and without, and that, although it is a single Majesty, it nevertheless is entirely in each grain separately, no matter how immeasurably numerous these grains may be? …And that the same Majesty is so large that neither this world nor a thousand worlds can encompass it and say: “Behold, there it is!” . . . . His own divine essence can be in all creatures collectively and in each one individually more profoundly, more intimately, more present than the creature is in itself, yet it can be encompassed nowhere and by no one. It encompasses all things and dwells in all, but not one thing encompasses it and dwells in it (Luther WA: XXIII,134.34-23:136.36).

To say that God has been and always will be fully present in all things is a life-changing realization. God is embodied in creation. How can we see God in all things? How can we change our perception so that we see Christ not only in the faces of one another but also in the faces of animals and the leaves of plants? How can we see the world around us as valuable for its own sake—apart from our human use of it? Epiphany invites us into relationship with this manifestation of God’s glory.

The point of Epiphany is that we when we experience the glory of God, we will be transformed by it. There are no disinterested observers, because it is precisely those who have eyes to see who experience them. Thus, epiphanies elicit responses, the new purpose in life; a bright star led sages on a pilgrimage; the Spirit as a dove anoints Jesus for mission; the new wine leads Jesus’ disciples to believe in him. Perhaps the experience of Peter in response to the overwhelming catch of fish shows it best. In response, he falls to his knees recognizing his sinfulness and in awe of Jesus. He will never be the same. The biblical stories themselves have taken countless generations into their grasp. Epiphanies are therefore transforming events. The season of the Epiphany allows us to see and be changed.

The nature of the God of epiphanies: Compassion. And what is the nature of this God who is manifested in these epiphanies. The lessons of epiphany from the Gospel of Luke make it very clear that this God is marked most profoundly by compassion. As expressed in Jesus teaching on the seventh Sunday after epiphany, Jesus urges his listeners to be compassionate as God is compassionate. We see this compassion expressed in the ministry and activity of Jesus as marked by his inaugural appearance in the synagogue of Nazareth on the Sabbath. He states:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

      because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,

      and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

      to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Throughout the Gospel narrative, Jesus liberates people from the tyrannies of illness, demons, and sin. The centurion’s slave, the widow’s only son, the sinful woman who anoints his feet, the Samaritan who attends to the stricken traveler, the father who welcomes the prodigal son, the tax collector who is was justified, the thief on the cross. There are a host of vulnerable people who populate the society depicted in Luke’s story to whom Jesus brings healing, liberation, forgiveness, and wholeness.

Compassion for the most vulnerable. To encounter God in this story is to meet and be changed by the mercy of God. The compassion of God bends toward the vulnerable, the sick, the disabled, the poor, the hungry, those who mourn, those who are despised, the “sinners”, the unclean, the possessed, the outcast, the marginalized, and the lost. To express this mercy is the entire purpose of Jesus. As he says in response to the conversion of Zacchaeus, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Epiphany is an opportunity to bask in the light of God’s mercy and the activity of Jesus’s compassion—and to be transformed by.

Now we need to become profoundly aware not only of God’s compassion for suffering humanity but also of God’s compassion for the most vulnerable in all of nature. It is critical that we love the most vulnerable of animals and plants and ecosystems. They are like canaries in the mine. When they become endangered and extinct because of the degraded state of nature at the hands of humans, the people in the mine are at risk too. If we ignore the most vulnerable and think we can ignore the warning of their sacrifice, we do so at our peril and the peril of all Earth community. So God’s glory goes to the most vulnerable as the way to save all. And it will not be enough to care for the Earth just to save humans. We will not do enough. Rather, we will only restore humanity adequately if we follow Luke’s vision and love all creatures for their own sake, out of the compassion of God for all of life.

The call to show compassion.  In the light of God’s reflective glory manifested in Jesus, we see our own failures in compassion. In the Sixth Sunday after epiphany, Jesus pronounces woes on those who have wealth because it has not been shared, on food because it has not been distributed, on power because it has been the source of laughter at the oppressed, and on the love of honor, because it has been the basis for arrogance and the neglect of and disregard for the lowly.

At the same time, in the presence of the compassion of God, we see in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain [in the lesson for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost]how we are called to show compassion to others:

      Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

      If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the most high; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

This is mercy expressed in extravagant and counterintuitive ways. These acts are done with generosity, humility, and empowerment. They  are done in ways that go contrary to our natural instincts. They are done totally apart from what we ourselves might get from it, even what we might get back from it. They are done unilaterally, without depending on others doing it with us or upon favors being returned. They are done because we have seen and experienced the gracious love and compassion of God for us and for the vulnerable around us and we want to extend that compassion in the words and actions of our own lives as well. This is our calling on behalf of all of Earth community. In this way, we too become vehicles for the epiphanies of God’s compassion.

Epiphany leads to Lent. Because the manifestation of God’s compassion leads to a lifting of those who are lowly and outcast in the society, because the message challenges the lifestyle and values of the leaders of the nation, and because Jesus actions call for a dramatic transformation of the political economic and social forces of the society, yet the manifestations of God in Jesus and his followers lead to conflict, opposition, and suffering. We see this foreshadowed in the opening inaugural announcement of the kingdom of God in the synagogue at Nazareth. Those who heard that the compassion of God extends not simply to those who are part of the in-group—the village of Nazareth, the territory of Galilee, the nation of Israel—these people are deeply offended by the fact that the manifestation of God’s glory will extend to a widower and a leper in Gentile territory—Gentile nations outside of Israel, indeed one’s enemies. The villagers of his hometown seek to take Jesus and throw him over the precipice near their village. Clearly the episode foreshadows the ultimate fate of Jesus. Such opposition, rejection, and suffering may also await those who extend the boundaries of our responsibility and our compassion to the larger arena of the natural world.

The Transfiguration leads to the journey toward Jerusalem for Jesus and his followers and a journey in Lent toward Good Friday. The Transfiguration is a response to the interaction between Jesus and his disciples that preceded this event. Jesus had told the disciples that he would be rejected and executed by the leaders of the nation. Speaking on behalf of the disciples, Peter resisted this declaration and opposed the idea that Jesus [or they] would suffer for the kingdom of God. The Transfiguration forms an apt conclusion to the Season of Epiphany. On the one hand, it puts a frame around the season by having God speak to the disciples to affirm the divine identity and mission of Jesus as God had spoken to Jesus in the baptismal event of the First Sunday of epiphany. At the same time, the glorification of Jesus in the Transfiguration affirms for the disciples that the one who would in fact be rejected and executed will also indeed be the one who is ultimately glorified.

And so, our opportunity to bask in the light of the world in the Season of Epiphany now leads us to sober reflection on the consequences of his life and of our discipleship—on behalf of humanity and the entire created order.

 

 

 

The Baptism of Our Lord, The First Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Dennis Ormseth

Creation itself participates when the Spirit descends in bodily form as a dove.

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As with the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B of the Lectionary, the baptism of Jesus in year C reverberates with creational and cosmic accents. In the first lesson, we are reminded that the God who speaks from the opened heaven is one who renews the people God created for Godself, gathering them from the four directions of the earth (Isaiah 43:5-7) and leading them through water and fire. Psalm 29, appointed for all three years, evokes the power of God’s voice “over mighty waters” and the “cedars of Lebanon’” the voice that “flashes forth flames of fire” and “shakes the wilderness,”causing “the oaks to whirl and strip[ping] the forest bare” (29:3-9). With the descent of the Spirit  “the first day” of creation” is again brought to mind, when the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). (See our comments in this series on the texts for the Baptism of Our Lord in years A and B).

It is the “Holy Spirit descend[ing] in bodily form  like a dove” that most demands our attention here, however. As David Tiede points out, Luke presents Jesus’ baptism as the “acclamation and anointing of the true king of Israel. Luke’s account of Peter’s speech before Cornelius offers the best commentary: ‘beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power’ (Acts 10:37-38). . .The presence of the Holy Spirit is best understood as the authorization of divine kingship.”  As Tiede puts it, “God’s word to Jesus confirms the promise of divine dominion in Israel made to David and his heirs. Jesus is the one of whom God had spoken to David: ‘I will raise up your offspring after you. . . . and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father and he shall be my son’” (2 Sam. 7:12-16) (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988: p. 94, 95). Luke Timothy Johnson  agrees: compared with the other Gospels, he observes, Luke’s baptismal narrative gives “narrative expression to an essentially interior transformation or confirmation.” The event is structurally very similar to that of the annunciation, he notes: “In the annunciation, the Spirit comes down and the child will be called son of God; furthermore, the power will ‘overshadow” Mary’–the word, we saw, recalled the ‘hovering’ in passages such as Ps 90:4 (LXX). In the angelic song, we find the heavens open, and the declaration of people to people ‘of God’s favor’–the same word used here of Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota; The Liturgical Press, 1991: p. 71).

Why then does Luke place “rather heavy emphasis on the physical manifestation of the Spirit,” as Johnson observes he does? Although Luke omits Mark and Matthew’s “he saw” (Mark 1:10 and Matthew 3:16), he nonetheless emphasizes the physical reality of the “bodily form like a dove” or “physical shape of a dove,” as Johnson prefers to translate the verse. In the baptism, Johnson suggests, “the dove is perhaps ‘the “hovering’ symbol that enables the reader’s imagination to pull these elements into a single focus.” Like the wind and tongues of fire later in Luke’s Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-4),” Johnson concludes, the dove provides “physical manifestation of the Spirit”  (Johnson, pp. 69, 71). In any case, as Tiede notes, the “descent of the Holy Spirit in bodily form has thus become a visible sign confirming Jesus’ identity and role as fulfilling and surpassing God’s rule in Davidic kingship.”

Creation itself thus participates as the God of Creation identifies and claims for Godself the beloved one who will serve God in saving all creation. And although Johnson discounts its significancece as scriptural precedent for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ baptism,  the dove of course also inevitably recalls for us the story of Noah and the ark from Genesis 8. How else might one explain the church’s enduring association of the dove with the Spirit’s redeeming presence on Earth? Warren Carter points out in his commentary on the baptism narrative in Matthew that “since Homer (Odyssey 12.62) the dove has been identified as Zeus’s servant who represents divine presence and love and conveys Zeus’s messages.” Luke’s interest in creating “surpassing” narratives in competition with pagan emperors—an important motif in the birth narrative—might explain his emphasis here on the bodily form of the dove –a real dove, in other words, not just a metaphorical one. But Carter suggests an alternative interpretation: “in contrast to such claims,” he writes, the “dove is linked with the Spirit which empowers Jesus, God’s beloved child, as God’s commissioned agent,” because “God is beginning a whole new world, an alternative way of life, because the present structures of Rome’s empire allied with Israel’s social and religious elite are not what God intends. God will complete God’s salvaton in the yet-future return of Jesus to establish God’s empire in full” (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000: p. 103). Might not Jesus “surpass” David’s kingship, in Luke’s mind, precisely in  laying hold of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” the covenant God established when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16)? Indeed, the repitition this Sunday of a portion of the Advent narrative of John’s the Baptist’s preaching serves to remind us that, for Luke, Jesus is “more powerful” than John precisely in baptizing with the Holy Spirit, and that he comes, as we put it, as a farmer with winnowing fork in hand to enlist wind and fire in preparation of grains for both harvest feast and new planting of seed—as the prophet had written, “the holy seed is [the tree’s] stump” (Isaiah 6:13). Water is already at hand, available from “the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3) and the Jordan river for the baptism of repentance; with the wind and fire brought by this farmer, new earth lies ready to be dug from the threshing floor. The primordial elements needed for new creation are thus gathered and all the earth awaits the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (see my Comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent).

A dove out scouting a new shoot is, we think, very much at home in this evangelist’s imagination.

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

 

The Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

The biblical Year of Jubilee authorizes us to establish laws and practices that bring justice and renewal for humans, other creatures, and the land.

Nehemiah 8;1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

The Gospel reading for this Sunday confirms what we have come to expect from our reading of the narratives of Advent, Christmas and especially Epiphany, namely, that Jesus’  mission includes concern for the healing of the Earth. Luke’s relocation  of Jesus’ appearance at the synagogue in Nazareth to the very beginning of Jesus’ work and his inclusion of the citation from Isaiah in the speech of Jesus,  Luke Timothy Johnson writes, make the account “into a programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative.” The passage, he argues, shows unequivocally “what kind of Messiah “ Jesus was to be:  “anointed with the Spirit,” the “servant of the Lord” is, in the words of the prophecy from Isaiah, “to bring good news to the poor . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 79, 81). The last of these purposes is particulary important relative to care of the Earth.

 

“The acceptable year of the Lord,” David Tiede observes, may be “the most telling phrase” in the list. The phrase refers to the “year of Jubilee” commanded in Leviticus 25, a “time of restitution and restoration for all Israel” culminating a series of seven seven-year periods, each involving rest for the land of a year. More a statement of hope than actual practice, the “acceptable year of the Lord” would remain “a religious symbol, projected into an uncertain future when God’s dominion would be revealed to the whole word” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis, Augburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 105). Walter Brueggeman  identifies the connection the symbol makes between agricultural practice and faith as follows:

 

[T]he land itself shall be subject to the sabbatic principle (vv.1-7)—the land shall have periodic rest from cultivation. This may be a wise principle of agriculture, so that the land is not exhausted from overuse. In the total witness of Isarel, however, this practice of Jubilee for the land is to be understood as an acknowledgment of creation, as respect for creation, and as awareness that the land belongs to Yahweh and not to Israel. This remarkable chapter [Leviticus 25] enunciates the practice of the Jubilee year, a celebration of the fiftieth year (after seven sevens), in which there will be a return to one’s property and one’s family—a homecoming—and in which family land that has been forfeited in the normal transactions of business is returned. This is a remarkable provision, for it relativizes all economic transactions for the sake of rootage in the community.

 

At the core here, Brueggeman notes, is a “repeated claim of the governance of Yahweh.” While there is reason to doubt that Israel ever actually implemented this “visionary law  . .on the horizon of Israel,” it is the “culminating assertion of the God of Sinai (who is the God of the Exodus), who intends a very different regimen of social wealth and social power” than is our practice: “the social fabric has the political economy as its instrument, unlike our practice, where the social fabric receives the leftovers of the political economy” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1997; p. 189-90).

 

We are in revolutionary territory with these readings. As John McClure notes, “Paul shows that the Spirit subverts the way that we understand our social relationships (1 Corinthins 12)”: starting with “ground-leveling oneness of the Holy Spirit” he “argued for the diversity of the body of Christ” and then “moves on” to argue for “the profound interdependence of the members of the body,” in which “the ‘weaker’ and commonly regarded as ‘less significant parts of the body’ are, in fact, ‘indispensable’ and worthy of honor and respect (vv.  23-24)” (John S. McClure, “Third Sunday after Epiphany” in New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003; pp. 94). It is a profoundly non hierarchical, relational and, one might argue, ecological, model of community. So also the idea of Jubilee is “nothing short of a revolution in the way that economic relationships are to be conceived.”  It “undermines the ability of a few to accumulate wealth at the expense of others” and “mandates that every fifty years the entire economic system must begin all over again from scratch.” Applied to the world in our time, the “Jubilee plan” would mean that

 

many of the goals of productivity and capital gain have to be checked at the door.  The Jubilee plan requires that the land be permitted to rest, that we live in support of the environment so that it might support us. The Jubilee plan mandates that the wealthy forgive debts that are owed in order to provide a fresh start for those for whom the burden of debt has become debilitating. It requires that the system of exchange that has become a prison-house of debt, envy, and greed loosen its grip on the lives of each one of us so that we might be freed up to discover relationships that are not defined and motivated primarily by the need for monetary gain or success. The Jubilee plan encourages the limitation of growth, earning, accumulation, and speculation.  At the same time, as Maria Harris points out, Jubilee encourages us to take the limits off of literacy, education, and the provision of basic economic needs such as life, liberty, health care, housing, and food. Finally, the Jubilee plan means justice, that we “sort out what belongs to whom and return it” (McClure, p.98; the quotation is from Harris’s Proclaim Jubilee: A Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996; pp 86-87).

 

In contemporary parlance, accordingly, this aspect of Jesus’ teaching supports practices  to promote  both ecologically sustainable agriculture and social and economic justice, bridging one of the great divides in the question for justice in our society (See Larry Rasmussen’s discussion, in his Earth Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 207-19).

 

When is this to be realized? From Jesus’ words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” we infer that it began already that day with his proclamation in the synagogue and that it continues where he is present in the worshipping community. It is important to note that, in Brueggemann’s view, alongside this “trajectory of command” in Israel’s Mosaic tradition represented by Leviticus 25, which is oriented to “theological needs and sensibilities of the economically disadvantaged,” there is a second trajectory, “also derivative from the exclusive claim of Yahweh,” which “reflects the theological sensibilities and needs of those who experience life as profoundly disordered, and who have no doubt (and so testify) that Yahweh has provided concrete disciplines whereby the life-threatening disorder may be overcome.” Whether the “surging chaos on the grand scale of cosmos, the social experience of disorder” such as “the loss of the Jerusalem temple and king and the profound displacement of exile,” or the more personal “disintegration in which life is deeply marked by behavior that is felt to be contaminating, thereby placing everything in jeopardy,” such “massively threatening” disorder is addressed in “public worship, where life may be experienced in order, symmetry, coherence, and propriety” (Brueggemann, p. 191).

 

Expressed in terms of rules for ritual purity, this trajectory became the primary responsiblity of the priesthood, who “wisely and rightly order worship space, time, and activity, whereby worship becomes an environment for a God’given order available nowhere else.” But late in the tradition initiated by Ezra’s reading and interpreting the Torah in community, celebrated in our first lesson this Sunday, the literature of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers itself “became a sacramental vehicle for Israel.” Henceforth, it has provided “a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God.” In an increasingly “hostile, inhospitable envirionment, “what Israel could not discern in the world of events was given in the artistic world of Israel’s sacramental texts” (Brueggeman, p. 590).

 

Jesus, we are told, “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Luke 4:16). On the one hand, Luke no doubt makes the point to remind his hearers that Jesus is a pious Jew (Johnson, p. 78); for Jesus himself, on the other hand, we can reasonable assume that he and those who wrote his story were beneficiaries of this process. The regularity of his participation should in any case alert us to the likelihood of his having sufficient confidence in God’s good order  to counteract the threat of the “disordered” cosmos, whatever the particular form of disorder he encountered. With respect to his advocacy for the “acceptable year of the Lord, might it not be true, as McClure provocatively suggests, that “[m]ore and more, Jubilee is looking less like an impractical ideal and more like good common sense, a practical pathway toward repairing the fabric of human relationships on local, national, and global scales” (McClure, p. 98). The idea of Jubilee is strikingly similar to the wisdom Larry Rasmussen uncovers in the Earth Charter, as we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Sunday of the Epiphany (see that comment and Rasmussen, pp.344-48).

 

In this connection, it is important in addition to note that in the Hebrew tradition such threats are also addressed, strikingly, by “’procedures, practices, and agents’ sanctioned by the God of Sinai, by means of which an ordered, reliable, livable life is maintained and guaranteed,” and which do not differ that much in purpose from the rules and regulations of a more scientific age that protect us from such contaminations as are “posed by nuclear waste products that cannot by willed away but must be managed,” or  “toxic waste products such as mercury” that require “careful, legal supervision.” As Brueggeman comments, “It will not do for us to regard this tradition of purity as primitive and therefore obsolete, for the issues are still with us, even when they gather around different sorts of threats” (Brueggemann, p. 192). Global climate chaos now heads the list of concerns.

 

Rules that regulate our relationship to the environment, along with those governing socio-economic relationships, thus find an anchor here in such  ancient provisions that protect from threats both feared and actual, both spiritual and material. Wouldn’t Jesus be an advocate for these as well? If so, can his church do less? The capacity to fashion such rules is, after all, the practical counterpart of the wisdom which represents, as we put it in our comment on last Sunday’s readings,

 

the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the “wisdom of things,” which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it (See our comment on the readings for the Second Dunday after Epiphany; the quotation is from Brueggemann, p. 532).

 

If such rules need today to be informed by ecological science as well as the accumulated experience of the human community in worship, the psalm which accompanies this reading expresses  high  confidence that the cosmos,  along with Torah, is a reliable source of truth (19:1-6). Jesus, teacher of all wisdom that he is, would surely agree.

 

For 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

 

 

 

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The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Exodus 34: 29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4:2

Luke 9: 28-36 [37-43]

As we complete the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany complex, once more we dress the altar, lectern, and ministers in bright white to celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, a festival that crystallizes the meaning of the incarnation and anticipates resurrection. This is a Sunday of mystery which needs to be experienced, not explained. As Karl Rahner wrote a generation ago: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something, or he [sic] will cease to be anything at all” (quoted in Bernard McGinn, “The Future of Past Spiritual Traditions,” Spiritus, Vol. 15, No. 1, p 1). This week’s texts are rich in just this way.

For example, the appointed psalm, a hymn of enthronement, sets our theme by describing the holiness of the LORD, enthroned upon the cherubim of the ark of the covenant, with power to make the earth quake (Psalm 99:1). The triple refrain, “Holy is he” (vv. 3, 5, 9) suggests the depth of response to the mysterium tremendum of God’s holy presence. Mays compares this psalm to Isaiah’s throne vision. (Isaiah 6) Just as Isaiah of Jerusalem would never be the same after this experience, so those performing and appropriating this psalm are now invited to see God and creation in a new way (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 316).

Much the same can be said of this week’s First Lesson, describing Moses’ second return from the heights of Sinai with new tablets engraved with the commandments. This time there was no golden calf (Exodus 32), but Moses’ “face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29). Moses veiled his face so that those looking would not be blinded—except when he shared the word of God with the people. How can we even begin to comprehend the meaning of this brightness?

Perhaps we could say that it marks Moses apart as the one “ordained” to bring God’s word to the people, much like a liturgical minister dressed in white alb, stole, and chasuble for eucharistic service—or even more so, an Orthodox wearing vestments that  shine with the brightness of gold threads! But because Moses cannot “divest” himself of this brightness, might we not say that “in some sense he embodies that word” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 311). That is, Moses’ shining face is the only vision of the “face of God” safely available to the community.

But if Moses embodies that word, what does “embodiment” mean? Perhaps there is also a sense of “bodying forth” in the midst of creation. As Fretheim suggests, “The human response can never simply be to believe or speak; it must also mean to do, to re-embody the word in the world. Moreover, the word is imaged in a shining, a radiance, a brilliance, an incandescence, a fieriness. As such it evokes freshness, vividness, intensity and splendor . . . . As such, it evokes ardor, zeal, vigor and vitality” (Fretheim, p. 312). That is, the beauty and splendor of holiness points beyond wobbly knees to new imaginative ways of living and being together, a quality we draw on each time we use the Aaronic benediction.

While the interpretive schema used by Paul in this week’s Second Reading are clearly not adequate (e.g. “what once had glory has lost its glory because of greater glory;” 2 Corinthians 3:10), perhaps Paul is closer to the mark as he examines his relationship to Corinthian believers. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our (your?) hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). He could almost be echoing the baptismal exhortation, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.”

The brightness only increases as Jesus ascends the mountain of transfiguration. Luke begins to differ from the Markan source immediately, writing that Jesus went up the mountain “about eight days after these sayings” (Luke 9: 28). While ecclesiastical tradition has come  to understand “the eighth day” as the beginning of new creation, commentators point out that Luke may be insuring that even though the identity of Jesus as prophet-messiah is clear, he is not simply “a prophet like (equivalent to) Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Moses went up to the mountain “after six days;” Jesus, the greater one, begins his climb “about the eighth day.”

What may be more important for understanding the significance of the transfiguration in Luke is the fact that he brackets the narrative with nearly the same phrase, in those days (v. 28, “it happened after eight days”) that he uses for the Zechariah-Elizabeth (Luke 1:5, 24), Mary’s journey to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), and the beginning of the birth narrative (Luke 2:1). The same phrase is repeated at the completion of our pericope (v. 36): “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Certainly this “inclusio” highlights the importance of the transfiguration to Luke.

Its significance is found particularly in Luke’s special material. Unique to his account is the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.” They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodus), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31). This “exodus” carries at least a two-fold meaning: first, the journey that Jesus would embark on with his followers to Jerusalem with all of its teaching and other events (9:51-19:27), and second, the “exodus” of his physical death—resurrection—ascension which are so central to Luke-Acts, and the substance of “these sayings” as the transfiguration narrative begins. (Frederick Danker, Jesus and the New Age–A Commentary of St. Luke’s Gospel, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 199)

This is all missed by the disciples accompanying Jesus who had fallen asleep. As they awakened, they not only saw the extraordinary brightness, but determined that Moses and Elijah were beginning to depart. So Peter said, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). After all, Peter and the others had missed “the fireworks” and perhaps, if they built dwellings called for by the Feast of Booths, they might be able to prolong the experience and “capture” the glory of God. Even more revealing in Peter’s suggestion is the equal accommodation all three “prophets” receive. To correct this, suddenly a terrifying nimbus of divine presence overshadows them. From this murkiness a voice emerges, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts –A Literary Interpretation, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, p. 224). The voice seems both to point back to Jesus’ first passion prediction (Luke 9:18-27) and ahead to things that are to come as the “exodus” unfolds.

While Luke does not contain the Markan command to keep silent about all of this, the evangelist tells us, “And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9:36). What is the significance of this epiphany? Is it, as Tannehill and other commentators suggest, “an anticipatory vision of Jesus’ glory,” that is, “a vision of Jesus as he will be when, through resurrection and exaltation, he begins the messianic reign”? (Tannehill, p. 223). Or, in fact, is it just the opposite? Because the  disciples sleep through the spectacular events, but do hear the words “listen to him”—another example of Luke’s aversion to apocalyptic demonstrations—is the message to pay close attention to the teacher?

I would suggest that both are the case—Luke surely had a reason to place the conversation concerning the “exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:32) within this numinous setting bracketed by time references, “after about eight days” (9:28) and “in those days told no one” (9:36). This certainly suggests a different kind of time, a time that had taught interpreters to see the “eighth day” as symbol of new creation. For the silent inner circle of disciples—despite failures during Jesus’ arrest—were empowered by the Spirit—wind and flame—to proclaim, in essence, new creation on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). In this view, the transfiguration demonstrates that “there is a depth to the world’s reality out of which comes the light that will connect, around and in Jesus Christ, all the complex pain and hope of creation” (Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light –Praying with Icons of Christ, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, p.10).

Yet, Luke’s placement of the transfiguration immediately prior to his “travel narrative” is a way of reminding the community that the Risen One is “still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians . . . .” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). That is, the assemblies or worship gatherings are precisely where followers still “listen to him,” baptize, and share in the Eucharist, experiencing the transfiguration necessary to serve all of creation. Following Fretheim’s lead, we might say that just as Moses’ radiance conveyed torah—words to be embodied—so the mostly hidden, but still available, brightness of the Risen One calls forward fresh and vivid approaches to passionate justice for all creatures. It is no accident that the Greek word for beauty (kalos) is also the word for goodness. As the beautiful liturgy of worship is completed with the “sending”—“go in peace, serve all creation,” it now is transfigured into the raw ingredients of justice: making “faith active in love.”

Notice that Lathrop described the Risen One as continuing to journey to the assemblies of Christians. While sometimes these are on cruise ships, or buses stuck in blizzards, most often they are at home. Amy Jill-Levine claims that the horizons of Judaism and Christianity differ markedly: Judaism maintains a goal of “making aliyah,” or, literally going home to Jerusalem, while Christianity moves toward what she calls “the goal of the eschatological end zone” (The Misunderstood Jew, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006, p. 199). But surely she mistaken in this regard. 

Instead of “the eschatological end zone,” we live toward “new creation” by planting trees with leaves, if not for the healing of the nations, at least for the enhancement of beauty and the nourishment of birds and pollinators in our back yards, parks, and boulevards. That is, just as “we listen in our local assemblies,” so we embody the brightness of transfiguration by building and planting at home. Luther is reputed to have advocated just such an action when a student asked, “Doctor Luther, what would you do if you knew the earth was to end tomorrow?” He replied, “I would plant an apple tree today.” This is not to say that we will relinquish travel and investigation of this miraculous planet. As T. S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding,”

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

That sounds like truly being at home.

Hymn Suggestions for the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Gathering—“Oh, Wondrous Image, Vision Fair”  ELW 316

Hymn of the Day—“Holy God, Holy and Glorious”  ELW 637

Sending—“Alleluia, Song of Gladness” ELW  318

Petition for Intercessory Prayer

God of all-surpassing glory, in the transfiguration you show us the brightness and energy of your new creation. Reflect that brightness through us as we serve and learn from all that you have made. God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year C

By Dennis Ormseth

Embodiment is God’s means for the liberation of creation.       

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

The Feast of the Transfiguration is the climax of the Season of Epiphany. The Season has provided firm and ample grounds for advancing our concern for care of creation. The visit of wise men following the light of a star provides a mandate to explore the mixture of scientific knowledge and practical experience that is ecological wisdom for our time of global environmental crisis, and to advocate for its importance in the face of the despotic powers that seek to secure and extend their powers of domination no matter the cost to creation. The descent of the spirit in the form of a dove encourages us to hope that Jesus’ mission for the kingdom of God represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Noah, the beginning of a “whole new world” with an alternative way of life that supports well-being for every living creature. Jesus’ transformation of water into wine is sign of the coming consummation of the marriage of heaven and Earth, in which God promises that Earth will never be forsaken and left desolate: “whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and make whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world.” The inclusion of the year of Jubilee in the agenda of Jesus’ mission shows that care of creation is intimately joined with social justice and authorizes Jesus’ church to advocate for laws and practices that bring both justice and renewal for humans, other creatures, and the land. What the church can bring to the cause of ecological restoration of the earth beyond the anthropologically centered appeals of most political initiatives is the sustained energy of divine love that “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of God’s beloved creation (See our comments in this series on the readings for the Sundays of Epiphany for arguments on these several points).

The great theophany of the Transfiguration lends fresh energy to these affirmations as we enter this week into the Season of Lent. The Gospel of Luke shares the basic structure and meanings of the other synoptic accounts, certain aspects of which serve to underscore the significance of the event for the cause of care of creation. Jesus’ glory is manifest in both his shining face and the dazzling white of his clothing. The clouds of divine immanence “overshadow” the mountaintop, and (special to Luke) then envelop all those gathered there. Thus do mountain, light, and clouds unite in a manifestation of divine presence that shares the power and character of Yahweh’s previous self-manifestation to Israel. Here again, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Yahweh relates as Yahweh chooses, without condition, reservation, qualification, or explanation” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; p. 569). To the theophanies of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Carmel represented by the presence of Moses and Elijah is joined an anticipation of the advent of the Son of Man who “comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels,” in “direct and immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prediction in 9:26-27” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 154). The future of earth is in the hands of the God who created it and who is served by this Jesus, identified here as the Servant of God prophesied by Isaiah, the one who serves God by serving God’s beloved creation (Johnson, p. 156).

The event of the Transfiguration thus sets the course for what follows. The presence of Yahweh previously mediated to the people on Zion, Yahweh’s “holy mountain,” as our Psalmist for this Sunday reminds us (Psalm 99:1, 9), is now fully and forever identified with Jesus. With a subtle but significant modification of his synoptic sources, Luke specifically names the topic of conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah: it concerns his “departure” or exodus, the way that will lead through suffering and death in Jerusalem. The glory that was mediated by the temple on Zion is now to be mediated through him, precisely on the way of the cross. This transfer, we think it is important to note, is assisted by precisely those aspects of creation which have greatest power to manifest divine presence and authority: mountain, light, and clouds. Thus, does creation add its mystery and awe to this refocusing and redirection of divine presence.

It is, on the other hand, also important to note that none of the parties that are witness to the theophany, neither human nor non-human, are to continue to bear significance in the narrative to come. Peter’s suggestion regarding booths to mark the place of this divine intrusion is emphatically rejected; the mountain, previously unnamed, will be left unmarked. In spite of the glory manifest there, no new tabernacle will be created there to contain and mediate the glory to the people. The presence of God will no longer be identified with a singular, particular place or people (For our discussion of the demotion not only of Zion but also of all mountains as sacred precincts in the narrative of Luke, see our comment in this series on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent). The glory of God is on the move toward the ends of the inhabited world. As the cloud lifts from the mountain top, not only does Jesus stand alone, but his face and clothing no longer shine with divine brilliance. The silence of those who shared in the experience will suffice to keep the event from public knowledge until the resurrection (“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen” Luke 9:36).  And as the reading from 2 Corinthians suggests, unlike the theophany of God on Sinai, no fading light will bring into question the power and authority of the now sole mediator of God’s presence. Henceforth, that presence will be completely identified with the Spirit; and unveiled faces will bear testimony to new light, “light that shines out of darkness” (3:18), and “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Death, darkness, and human evil, also all participants in Earth’s community of life, are to be taken up into the narrative of God’s redeeming presence in the creation.

Does this preference for “Spirit” over localized theophany mediated by elements of the creation constitute a denial of material creation’s significance in and for the redeeming work of God? Not so, we think, in view of our confession that the Spirit of God is “the Lord, the giver of life,” as we confess in our statement of faith in the Triune God. The Spirit of God has actually already entered Luke’s narrative, announced early on by the angel Gabriel to Mary as an “overshadowing” “power of the most High,” and, as we have noted above, descending on Jesus in his baptism “in bodily form like a dove” (thus, comments Luke Timothy Johnson, does Luke “by such subtle signals . . connect parts of his story” (Johnson, p. 38). Embodiment in creation is still God’s way to creation’s liberation. Beginning with the narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness on the First Sunday in Lent, the Spirit will be Jesus’ constant companion on his way to the cross. Indeed, the Spirit will come to have decisive significance in the narrative that will now take us through the Seasons of Lent and Easter to the great explosion of Pentecost that will bear God’s redeeming power out into all creation.

 

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

Must we appeal to “self-interest” in order to love creation as our neighbor?

 Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany completes the narrative of Jesus’ appearance in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, read last Sunday. If the first half of this story contained the “programmatic prophecy which guides the reader’s understanding of the subsequent narrative” of Jesus ministry, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, this reading “announces the theme of prophetic rejection that had been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon” in Luke 2:34. “Jesus declares that no prophet is acceptable in his own country, and his townspeople’s vivid rage and murderous intentions fulfill his prophecy.” While  the “programmatic prophecy” provided strong encouragement for care of creation as represented by the promise of the Jubilee year, this “prophetic rejection” is also highly instructive as to difficulties a congregation might encounters in advancing the cause of creation care today.

Why do his townspeople turn on Jesus? Johnson asks. Their initial response was enthusiastically approving: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth” (4: 22). The exchange that follows transforms them into a murderous mob, which drives Jesus from town and attempts to throw him off a cliff (4:28). What happens, we suggest, is that while initially overjoyed by the fact that Jesus is one of their own (“Is not this Joseph’s son?”), the people are deeply offended by his immediate refusal of the implications of that claim on him. “Doctor, heal yourself” is what they are thinking, he suggests: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Elija and Elisha, he reminds them, both extended the prophetic visitation “to Gentiles—outside the boundaries of the people Israel.” Thus, what the reader of the Gospel has already heard from Simeon is now delivered to Jewish townspeople in the narrative: “the salvation brought by Jesus would extend to all nations” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 199; pp. 81-82).

The dynamics that drive this encounter will be familiar to those engaged in promoting care of creation. The standard appeal for support of an environmental policy is almost always couched in terms of self-interest, on the assumption that sin the political arena, self-interest  is what naturally motivates people. Condition or predictions of ecological disaster are presented with the expectation that rational people will make a positive, self-interested response to eliminate or avoid them. When the danger is clear—smoke in the air, pollution in the lake we have enjoyed swimming and fishing in, for example—we do respond. Action with respect to a more ambiguous and less well-defined threat, such as that from non-point source pollution, on the other hand, is more difficult to motivate. The more diffused the source of the problem, the more self-interest has to include an enlighted interest in the well being of other persons with whom one shares one’s community.  But there are natural limits to the power of this extended appeal. When the appeal involves various economic interests of the community, conflicts naturally arise. And a political leader who insists on policies involving costly remediation that will mostly benefit only unknown strangers can quickly alienate her own constituents.

In light of this difficulty, the secular environmental movement has recognized for some time that religious communities have considerable “social capital” which they would like to tap for their work in environmental advocacy. What they have not always understood well is how such social capital is generated within a religious community. So when congregational leaders are recruited to be an advocate of a given environmental policy, they are understandable wary of potential conflict. Self interest is at play here as well. Some steps are easy. An energy audit for a church building, for example, may save money for the congregation over time. The self-interest of the congregation is clear. But resurfacing the great expanse of asphalt on the church’s parking lot so as to permit runoff to drain into the acquifer is another matter entirely, because the payoff is so remote as to be incalcuable. And advocacy on issues that clearly impact local industry will inevitably raise questions on which members of the congregation will be divided, perhaps sharply. Anthropogenic climate chaos  projected to arrive a generation or two in the future is an easily deferred concern, especially as other more immediate economic demands crowd the political agenda. Even the most popular appeal to the “future of our children and grandchildren” gets weighed negatively on the scale of self-interest in comparison with more immediate concerns such as profit from industrial farming using fertilizers and the funding one needs to educate those very children and grandchildren. If such appeals to communities of faith are to succeed, they need to be based on some other principle than self-interest.

Jesus, it would seem, did not make it clear how much he had the interests of the people in his synagogue on his heart. Hadn’t he more or less deliberately shown them that other communities had at least equal claim on his talents? This one who spoke so graciously as to evoke their hopes for a prominent place in the restored kingdom of God cared more about the people in Capernaum than those in Nazareth! The great expectations which he had so quickly aroused were as quickly dashed.  And in a dry run for the later response of the people of Jerusalem, they angrily drove him out of town and threatened his life: “But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (4:30).

Might Jesus have handled the situation more adroitly? Couldn’t a well-trained community organizer succeed where Jesus failed, simply by carefully eliciting their self-interest so as to enlighten and perhaps even transform it? Perhaps he could have, but that wasn’t his mission. To do so did not coincide with his interests, or better, with the interests of the one who had consecrated and appointed him, as our first reading maintains, “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Deconstruction of their understanding of themselves as Jesus’ neighbors must precede the building and planting of the new cummunity of God’s kingdom. As the collected readings from the Season of Epiphany have so clearly shown us, his “way” indeed leads “through the midst of them” out beyond Nazareth, beyond Jerusalem even, to encompass the whole inhabited world.

What the advocate for enlighted policy on environmental issues, whether an outsider or insider in relationship to the community of faith, needs to understand about that community is that there is another principle at work in its life. Call it “other-interest,” as opposed to self-interest. Or call it love, as in our second reading from Corinthians 13, that habit of being that is “patient,” “kind,” “not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” which “does not insist on its own way, . . is not irritable or resentful; . .  does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” It does these things because it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” for the sake of the beloved, in addition to which it also “never ends” (1 Corinthins 13:4-8). Love is all-inclusive with respect to both space and time, some people would say to an impossible extreme, others to an infinity of possibile realizations. It is God’s love, God’s care for all creation, communicated through all creation, to all creation.

In his recent book Earth-Honoring Faith, Larry Rasmussen asserts rightly that the problem with nearly all ethical theories and ethical regimes, both classical and modern, is that they are essentially anthropocentric: values are defined in relationship to the self-interested standard of the human species that is defining the good. Rasmussen calls instead for an ethic that embodies H. Richard Niebuhr’s way of answering the question, “Who is my neighbor I am to love as I love myself?” The neighbor is “the near one and the far one; the one removed from me by distances in time and space, in convictions and loyalties. [The neighbor] is man and he is angel and he is animal and inorganic being, all that participates in being.” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith;  Religious Ethics in a New Key.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p.221; the quotation is from The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry:  Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education, p. 38). To “love your neighbor as yourself” is not simply an extension of self-love, as it might appear to be, but rather love of neighbor for the neighbor’s own sake as one beloved by God, which might lead to care of the neighbor’s neighborhood, whether or not one shares immediately and directly in that neighborhood. The genuinely eco-centric ethic that we need for the future, in Rasmussens’s view, is one that instead measures “all our moral and religious impulses by such questions as

Are they Earth-honoring? Do they contribute to Earth’s preservation and restoration? Is life and what it requires the better because of them? Are the parental elements of life accorded their place? Has the shift from ego to ecosphere as the center of moral work been made?  Does it re-form itself around the human vocation of tilling and keeping in such a way as to move into new first works for the age of the Anthropocene.[the epoch characterized by human transformation of the earth].

“Because we are born into a great web of belonging,” Rasmussen explains, “the health of that web is the initial and basic frame of moral reference. The ethical method of Earth-honoring fatih thus first asks how the health of the primal elements is secured and then, from there, how the well-being of human life and other life is secured in relation to it. It asks questions of our working moral theory such as these: What individual and collective virtues, what consequences of our decisions and actions, and what fundamental obligations does this web of belonging, this communion, require of us?” (Rasmussen, pp. 220-21).

Further readings in year C of the lectionary will surely provide answers to these questions.

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

 

 

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Psalm 71: 1-6

1 Corinthians 13: 1-13

Luke 4: 21-30

In a talk entitled “Health is Membership,” occasioned by seeing his brother go through open-heart surgery, Wendell Berry said, “Like divine love, earthly love seeks plenitude; it longs for the full membership to be present and to be joined” (“Conference on Spirituality and Healing,” Louisville, KY, Oct. 17, 1994)). This week’s readings provide insight into the meaning of “membership” in a community of life that always seems to be pressing the boundaries that humankind erects.

While, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Jeremiah seeks to protect himself by setting limits based on his youth and lack of rhetorical skills, the one who calls will not let him sidle away. Not only does the Word of the LORD make it clear that this calling precedes his birth (Jeremiah 1:5), but the caller assures him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 1:8). To provide assurance to this “outsider” from Anathoth, born to the tribe of Benjamin, that he really is a member of the company of prophets, the LORD touches his mouth saying:

Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jeremiah 1:10).

At first, the terms of this call seem to come directly from an ambassador’s portfolio, but Jeremiah accomplishes his mission in the earthiest of ways. He uses pots and loincloths as symbols. He earns the contempt of the religious elite by bringing a message of repentance directly to the temple (Jeremiah 26: 1-24) and rumbles with Hananiah (Jeremiah 28) over the nature of prophetic calling. But his call to pluck, pull down, destroy and overthrow aims always to affirm membership in the community of life—to build and to plant. The compost is always used to build new soil.

Like Jeremiah, Paul ‘s prophetic apostleship rests partly on the understanding that his “call” preceded his birth, crucial for establishing legitimacy: “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born, and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles . . . .” (Galatians 1: 15-16).

Paul did just that. But now, the Corinthian community which he founded is divided and needs to rediscover the unity that comes from a new understanding of spiritual gifts and a sense of membership in the body of Christ.

Ultimately, claims Paul, it is love that serves as the dynamic antidote to factionalism in the Corinthian community. This is no frothy stream of sentimentality; love (agape)  is “the generic name for specific actions of patient and costly service to others” (Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 222). It is at the heart of Paul’s pastoral strategy bolstering the character formation of the Corinthian membership. Rather than serving as a powerful engine sparking competitive spirituality, love is patient and kind; it is not irritable or resentful. “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

With Jesus’ self-offering life as template, it should be no surprise that challenges to community solidarity appeared in Corinth. Yet Wirzba is right when he says, “When Christians truly love each other they will bear each other up because they know that the health of the whole body requires a common service to each other.” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 152). It is important to note that the Greek verbs beginning and ending the series in verse 7 both carry rich connotations of “bearing,” “enduring,” “standing one’s ground,” and “holding out.”

Not only does this resonate for those involved in serving creation, this ability to “hold on” reminds anyone who has spent time outdoors of trees growing out of bare rock walls that seem as strong as any in the forest. Recently, the word “resilience” has been used (and overused!) to describe this phenomenon in living communities—memberships of people or other living things. British naturalist Jay Griffiths sees this ability to stand one’s ground in trees, especially the willow. In fact, she notes that the word ‘resilient’ is related to the Latin word for willow, salix (Jay Griffiths, Kith, London: Penguin, 2013, p. 254).

But love does more than hold the community together. Using the example of learning to appreciate the gift of wine which “gladdens the human heart” (Psalm 104:15), Wirzba suggests that those who love extend the character of communal affection to what they know and enjoy. “Those who truly love wine, for instance, are not simply those who become drunk by its consumption. They are rather those who are open to the miracle of sunlight, water, plant, and soil transformed into grapes, open to the gift of fermentation and taste, and open to the conviviality of a shared bottle” (Wirzba, p. 185).

The same love that unifies a community, then, extends affection to the created world, expanding the very notion of membership. This is nothing new to those who live closely connected to the wild. Poet Gary Snyder reminds us that such people rarely seek wilderness thrills. “If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately, all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest” (The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 23). When asked by a young anthropologist, “What can I do for self-respect?” contemporary Haida elder Florence Edenshaw responded “stay home” (Snyder, p. 24). She was not being hostile, but simply expected everyone to pay attention to the “real work” of building their own culture—strengthening the affection among their own memberships—humankind and otherkind.

This sounds much like the proverb “charity begins at home,” often ascribed to William Tyndale. Perhaps this week’s continuation of Jesus “Inaugural Sermon” in Luke can serve as a test case. We recall that after reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus assumes the sitting position of authoritative teaching and begins to say, as all eyes in the synagogue are fixed on him, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 21). James Sanders notes that this phrase—used only here in all the scriptures—must have sent a powerful shock wave through the congregation (God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 72).

But the fireworks were only beginning. While some marveled at the gracious words that Jesus spoke, others began to wonder: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4: 22b). Regardless of the reception, Jesus began his midrash—sermon by explaining his low-key approach in his home town with the proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4: 24). Ironically, the one who declares Jubilee—the acceptable year of the Lord, is not accepted in the very place he was nurtured.

Jesus continues his talk by citing examples from the lives of two model prophets—Elijah and Elisha—instances of providing food and healing for those who were clearly foreigners. Suddenly any benefits the local clan might have expected from Jesus are thrown out the window. As Sanders asks, “ . . . what’s the use of being faithful if God does not intend to honor our efforts on his behalf?” (Sanders, p. 74). In their anger at not being able to benefit from the fame of their “hometown hero,” they attempt to throw him off the edge of a nearby hill.

As so many discovered as they encounter Jesus, “God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 8). In his midrash, Jesus, in effect, says that God will not embrace holy mother church, or Israel, as the sole possessor of the truth. Does charity begin at home? Yes, of course. But only because “charity,” the English translation of the Latin, caritas (itself the translation of the Greek agape), is most often shaped and learned in one’s community of origin as a basis—with the generativity of the Spirit—for expanding that love beyond the boundaries to new memberships.   

This should be no surprise. because the sabbath tradition—Sabbath day, sabbatical year, and the year of Jubilee—goes far beyond parochial limits set by synagogue worshippers in Nazareth or restrictions proposed by anti-immigration forces in the U.S. Recall that the Sabbath commandment stipulated rest not only for the community of faith, but also for “male and female slaves, livestock, and the alien resident in your towns” (Exodus 20:10). To the list of beneficiaries of Sabbath rest is added the land and economic inequity as we move to sabbatical year and jubilee (Leviticus 25).

The idea that old limits are erased is no surprise to the author of Luke, who, with Simeon, sings of God’s healing salvation for “all peoples” (Luke 2:31-32) and records the Baptist’s word that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3: 6). To some, this new construction of identity beyond a set of agreed-on boundaries provokes anxiety. Yet the freedom announced by Jesus provides the best basis for building new relationships. It is a freedom that is best captured by Luther’s paradox from The Freedom of a Christian (1520): “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly free servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). Here radical freedom issues in radical servanthood resulting in new and imaginative communities of caritas.

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering — “You Are Holy” — ELW 525

            Hymn of the Day –”Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue” — ELW, 644

            Sending — “Light Dawns on a Weary World — ELW, 726

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Liberating One, you have freed your people so that we may serve one another and all of creation.  Remove the chains of prejudice and the limits of imagination so we may learn from the stunning interdependence of all that you have made. Lord, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

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

The Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C

By Tom Mundahl

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Luke 4:14-21

As we continue our Epiphany journey celebrating the manifestation of God in the deep incarnation of Jesus, we marvel at the interconnections between creation and the story of God’s people. That relationship is proclaimed in the very first verse in this week’s psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

The creation, then, does precisely what the congregation does when it gathers to worship: it praises God.  This is based on the notion common in biblical thinking that “every created thing has the capacity of a creature to acknowledge its originator” (James Luther Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 97). Time and again in the biblical tradition, that which is visible becomes vocal. “The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (Mays).

Just as the universe is patterned to praise God, so the torah gives life and shape to the human community. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul . . . .” And, “More to be desired are they [the commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:7, 10).

By connecting the song of creation with the torah, the psalmist honors what Ellen Davis calls “proper world order.” “Divine order is exemplified in the proper functioning of both nature and human society. The well-being of humans and the enduring fruitfulness of earth are inseparable elements of a harmony sometimes imagined as a ‘covenant’ encompassing all creatures” (Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 12). We have witnessed the violation of this covenant far too often and understand that when it is shattered it is nearly impossible for any creature to be “at home.”

To Ezra and Nehemiah (one “book” in the Hebrew Scriptures), nothing was more important than restoring this sense of proper order. Even though exiles began to leave Babylon in 538 BCE, it was nearly a century before the repopulation and rebuilding of Jerusalem would lead to full restoration of religious life. This week’s reading highlights this milestone with a public reading of the torah by Ezra.

But public reading of the torah should not be seen as an attempt by elites to impose a code of conduct on the people. Quite the contrary. The narrator makes it clear that this marathon reading was demanded by the people. “They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1). To make sure that they could both hear and see Ezra, the people built a bema, or reading platform. Hearing the newly-codified torah marked a new stage in their life together in a dramatic way ( Mark A. Throntveit, Ezra-Nehemiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1992, p. 96).

Although archaeologists disagree as to where “the square before the Water Gate” (Nehemiah 8:1) was located, the very proximity to a community water source reveals, as the author of Psalm 19 made clear, the close relationship between the gift of creation and torah instruction for harmonious order. Although the first reaction of the people hearing this reading was mournful weeping over past failures, Ezra called for a celebration of their renewed life together. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD . . . .” (Nehemiah 8:10) It was a festal homecoming and housewarming for the whole city and its inhabitants.

As the Book of Nehemiah ends, we see that the unity described at the communal reading of the torah was not perfect. Nehemiah discovered that both international traders and residents had begun to violate the Sabbath—key to understanding both creation and the torah—by running an active marketplace at the gates of the city. After shutting the city gates, Nehemiah was able to drive out foreign traders, putting an end to sabbath trading. To guarantee this would not continue, he engaged “purified Levites” to guard the entrance to the city (Nehemiah 13:15-22).

Although the factionalism among the early community in Corinth did not reach this citywide scale, Paul, too, struggled to provide an ordering vision. Not only did he emphasize that there were no spiritual “superstars,” only spiritual gifts given for the common good,  but he now asks the community to envision the recipients of this diversity of gifts as “one body.” “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

There was nothing new about the body metaphor. Plato and Aristotle had made good use of it to describe what we would consider “natural hierarchies,” with those who were labeled “head” and “heart” (monarch and counsellors) ruling those less talented, who served as soldiers and slaves. Stoic thinkers had expanded the notion of the body to comprehend the entire cosmos held together by “sympathy.” But Paul’s notion of the body emphasizes the value of all “members,” but especially the inferior and less respectable, totally undermining the “honor” values of Roman culture.

Because this “body” is created by the Spirit in baptism, this depth of connection will provide the resilience to move beyond factionalism. As Wirzba writes, “The Pauline understanding of membership, much like the Johannine depiction of Jesus as the vine onto which his disciples are grafted, is much more organic and vital. If each person is joined to another like a limb is joined to a torso, then there is nothing voluntary or occasional about the relationship. For a limb to flourish, it must draw its life from the whole body . . . . Joined together, all the members of the body share a common life” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 151). This body metaphor mirrors the ecological interdependence of the whole creation. We have learned that ocean plankton, the snail darter, and intestinal bacteria are just as crucial to the proper working of the body of creation as the mountain lion or the human brain. Each “member” is indispensable.

We see the same Spirit at work in the life and ministry of Jesus begun at baptism. Initially, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to demonstrate obedience (Luke 4:1-13). The power of the Spirit propels him home to Galilee where he teaches in area synagogues to excellent reviews (Luke 4: 15). And things seem to begin this way for Jesus in his home synagogue.

On the sabbath day, Jesus follows his usual custom of worshipping in the local synagogue where he is asked to read the scripture portion from the haftaroth, the prophets. We do not know whether the reading from Isaiah 61 was appointed for the day or chosen by the reader. But we do know that this was “the going passage of the time because it spoke of how the eschaton would take place. It speaks of the coming of a herald to proclaim the acceptable year of God for the poor, captives, blind and oppressed” (James A. Sanders, “What Happened in Nazareth,” God Has a Story Too, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 71).

As Brueggemann suggests, this incident completes the birth narrative. “The birth of a new king, the one Rome did not anticipate and Herod could not stop, begins another history, which carries in it the end of all old royal history. Characteristically, the birth of this new king marks a jubilee from old debts, and amnesty from old crimes, and a beginning again in a movement of freedom (so Luke 4: 18-19)” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 103).

Not only does this connect Epiphany with the Christmas Season, it reminds us of the importance of the sabbath complex ( Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5: 12-15; Leviticus 25)—surely read to the people by Ezra—as an ordering vision. In declaring Jubilee, Jesus follows the long tradition of prophets who made observance of the sabbath a prerequisite for the restoration of the land and Israel as the people of God. “This view of the sabbath indicates that creation truly becomes itself when it ceases the improper desire of self-gain or self-glorification . . . our use must not turn into abuse. It must be directed to the pleasure and menuha (rest, the final step in creation, Gen. 2: 2-3) of God, which signifies the non-contentious serenity of creatures being who they are meant to be” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God — Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p.39).

To keep the sabbath is the opposite of a desire to be rewarded for holy performance. As Moltmann says, “The peace of the sabbath can be viewed as the Jewish ‘doctrine of justification.’ Anyone who looks at Israel on the sabbath cannot reproach her with a ‘righteousness of works.’ And on the other hand, Christian faith in justification must be understood analogously as ‘the sabbath rest’ of Christians” (God in Creation, The Gifford Lectures, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), p. 286).

Not only is the celebration of Sabbath—weekly, sabbatical year, or jubilee—an elemental experience of God’s creation; it is central to what Jesus proclaims at Nazareth. For the early community understands his preaching as the continuation of the sabbath. “As lord of the sabbath, Jesus takes within himself the aspirations of sabbath life and gives them concrete expression in the ministries of feeding, healing, exorcism, companionship, and service. Jesus’ proclamation of the imminent kingdom makes the whole of life a sabbath feast” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 40). The community joins “the heavens” (Psalm 19) in singing praise and doing justice as one interdependent organism among many others.

But can we make any sense of Jesus proclaiming Jubilee aside from being a powerful metaphor crucial in announcing the arrival of the prophetic messiah?  Although there is evidence that the sabbatical year was observed (both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar made provision in tax laws for Israelite exemption during sabbatical years), there is none for implementation of the Jubilee. Yet, the very existence of this pattern stands as a call to deal justly as we make a home in God’s creation and learn to serve it. “The goal of our life is so to take care of ourselves that the care of creation is maintained at the same time” (Wirzba, God in Creation, p. 39). The long-term nature of jubilee –every fiftieth year –is especially important for this care.

Since October, a leaking underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles has released vast amounts of methane, more than one hundred times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. While nearly two million pounds of methane spew into the air every day, residents of the affluent suburb of Porter Ranch report a variety of short-term symptoms—headaches, nausea, bloody noses, and increase in childhood illnesses. Even though this methane leak is not as visible as the Macondo Well Disaster in the Gulf in 2010, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency. 

Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, blames this blowout on a failure in infrastructure, the failure of steel pipe, first laid in the 1950’s that has had to withstand 2,700 pounds of pressure per square inch for sixty years. While SoCal Gas has tried to downplay the severity of the situation and promises to have it fixed in a few months, Ingraffea worries about other aging infrastructure that may also cause problems, infrastructure for which there are no replacement plans (NPR, “Living On Earth,” January 8, 2016).

A similar disaster this time featuring public infrastructure recently has been uncovered in Flint, MI, where high levels of lead in the water have been measured.  These dangerous lead readings, especially dangerous to growing children, result from the City of Flint’s refusal to spend $100 per day on an anti-corrosive agent for pipes. Now even water piped in from Detroit is contaminated.  Flint is a  bankrupt “Rust Belt” city with more than 40% of its citizens below the poverty line, another example of the poorest and racial minorities suffering environmental harm. Yet both affluent Porter Ranch, CA, and Flint, MI, demonstrate what will become an increasing problem in the U.S. — crumbling  infrastructure with insufficient resources for replacement. Only long-term concern such as that inspired by jubilee thinking can begin to reorient a culture in love with the novelty of the latest smart phones and driverless cars.

Hymn Suggestions:

            Gathering: “We Are Called”       ELW, 720

            Hymn of the Day: “God of the Sparrow” ELW, 740

            Sending Hymn, “Christ, Be Our Light” ELW, 715

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you free us to celebrate sabbath in all its forms so that we may be             filled with the beauty and interdependent harmony of all that you have made. Awaken us to the long-term needs of all of your creatures.  God, in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

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