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Preaching on Creation: Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2) in Year B (Ormseth18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching on Creation: Fourth Sunday (April 25) of Easter in Year B (Ormseth12)

We do indeed have this “good shepherd” in whose presence we may dwell all our days. Dennis Ormseth reflects on being “at home” in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

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

The readings for this Good Shepherd Sunday in year B place the much-beloved Psalm 23 in the context of the conflict that is narrated in third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn again this Sunday. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple and ardently engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, in the conviction that he whom the leaders had crucified, “God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the gathered authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who ”does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13)—the one ‘who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick” and who ask “how this man has been healed (Acts 4:9). On the basis of this comparison, we see that Jesus, in whose name the beggar was healed, is rightly identified with the Shepherd of the Psalm, Yahweh, and “the Father” who knows and loves Jesus, who is to gather one flock under one shepherd (John 10:16).

What especially interests us here, with respect to our concern for creation, is the contrast between the qualities of the good shepherd and those of the temple authorities. The favored status of the Psalm in Christian piety grows out of its basis in the Scriptures. As Walter Breuggeman points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997 pp, 260-61). The imagery of the shepherd, Brueggeman emphasizes, “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel” (Brueggeman, p. 61).

At the same time, the metaphor of the shepherd is deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, and the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. One’s soul is restored just in hearing the psalm read. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature,“ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).

What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with this God, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba’s felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,

A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 60).

The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.” And as we have seen the previous two Sundays, eating and dwelling with Jesus is the heart of the Christian experience of the resurrection and, indeed, of the heaven that resurrection anticipates.

Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But on this Sunday, that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, who hold the disciples prisoner and bring them to trial. The rulers’ preoccupation with relationships of power and privilege render impossible the experience of “home place” in the very location where it should be expected to prevail.

Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of ‘”ecological degradation,” he suggests that

. . . “people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile” (Wirzba, p 89.)

Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days, both here on earth and in heaven.

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

Preaching on Creation: Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 25) in Year B (Ormseth18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspirations and gratitude: a Thank You Card for God’s Good Earth

John 15:5 ” I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Isaiah 55:12 For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
St. Peter's Lutheran in Marble Falls, Texas
For Oliver, my furry companion

Atonement Lutheran Church - Overland Park, KS

Luther Springs, Camp Shalom, and Camp Lutherlyn
My farming family and my beautiful surroundings in Austin, TX give me an appreciation for God's Creation.
Matthew 6:26-29 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to your life’s span? And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these.”

In honor of Deacon Laura Heller, Chair of the Delaware/Maryland Synod Creation Care Team

from Brad Schlegel
My beautiful, green, community, abundant with wildlife
1 John 4:7-8 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
In honor of the High Peaks region of the White Mountain National Park, N. Conway, New Hampshire

From Lawrence Ryan

Psalm 65:5-7 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might.
Psalm 65:5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

In honor of the Redwoods of John Muir Woods

Heaven is under our feet and over our heads...always.

For those who advocate & steward well for the Earth!

In honor of Kris McDowell

With love for the North Shore of Minnesota!

Psalm 104:14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.

Thanks to the people of Creation Keepers Ministry at St. Andrew’s Lutheran, Columbia, MO

In Thanks for Holden Village
Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

David Rhoads!
Your stories, your wisdom, your dedication, your friendship.

In honor of My Father, Christian Kilgus
North Rim Grand Canyon and
Big Bend National Parks

For my Grandchildren

In Honor of Pastor Jim Friedrich

In gratitude for our life-giving rivers and lakes

Matthew 6:26-29 “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to your life’s span? And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these.”

- In honor of Zulu Davidson -
May we treasure all our elder creatures!

In honor of Jane Affonso, co-chair with me of the Southwest CA Synod Green Faith Team.

Psalm 104:14-21 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.

In Honor of Dad & Mike

Phoebe Morad
For all of your dedication, friendship, and hard work. :)!

Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.

Phoebe Morad for her awesome job as Executive Director of Lutherans Restoring Creation!

Thanks to all the passion from the North West Pennsylvania Synod Green Team!

Genesis 1:20-23 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

In honor of Kim Winchell
Isaiah 40:12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?
In honor of
Pastor Dan, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Fairfax, Va
In thanks to Barbara Rossing & David Rhoads
In Honor of Jeff Schlesinger
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Port Angeles, WA
In honor of Nathan Brueschiff
In Honor of Alexa C. Sulak
In Honor of Ken and Betty Moyer
In Honor of Rio Hondo, Valdez NM
For kindred spirits in The Great Work.
In Remembrance of Nathaniel Andrew
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As we recognize 50 years since the first Earth Day in 1970, supporters from across the nation say thanks by giving a donation to Lutherans Restoring Creation and lifting up the people, scripture, places, creatures which remind them of God’s love shown through Creation and our vocation to care for it:

 

5 Ways to Celebrate Earth Day as Church Together but Apart

*Carbon Pricing: Suggested Resolution for 2021*

The Board of Directors of Lutherans Restoring Creation has unanimously endorsed the resolution (see here) adopted by Upper Iowa River Conference of the Northeastern Iowa ELCA Synod to support Advocacy for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.

Lutherans have gathered together as a Faith Action Team with Citizens Climate Lobby.  They are educating fellow congregations and urging synods to propose resolutions to their local council leaders re: the Carbon Dividend Act.  LISTEN/WATCH HERE to the March 1st recording ASAP to find out more.

Next steps: 
1) Find out if your synod is taking resolutions and what the deadline and process is on your synod office website.

2) Work with your Green Teams (+/or any other ELCA members concerned about climate change) to make adjustments to the template to work for your own context.

3) Forward throughout your region to find other congregations to support it (explore materials below for help).

4) Regardless of where the vote goes you will have raised the issue and helped educate everyone involved!

ELCA Carbon Pricing Principles and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (03-01-21)

Conference Resolution Template ELCA Advocacy and Carbon Pricing

Synod Assembly Resolution Template ELCA Advocacy and Carbon Pricing

Click here for Presentation Slides by Bob Lindmeier, Senior Chief Meteorologist, WKOW TV & ELCA Synod Creation Care Team (best if seen with link above as well)

Preaching on Creation: Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2) in Year B (Ormseth12)

Vine and Branches Rooted in God’s Good Earth Dennis Ormseth reflects on hope for all who live in exile from good Earth,

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

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

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” As part of Jesus’ Last Discourse, this use of the metaphor of the vine for the Christian relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciple, so richly amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is also full of significance, perhaps largely unrecognized, for developing the church’s understanding of its vocation in relationship to the creation.

The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine. On this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” A like truth is that a vine cannot live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. And as a recent trip through the vineyards of western Oregon reminded this writer, good fruit like the pinot noir grape depends very much on the soil it grows in! This is to say that as the relationship of vine and branch is part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser (or the gardener) and the vineyard in which the vine is planted, so also we might expect that the metaphor in biblical context is a lively, expansive set of images, which encourages imaginative development of the metaphor’s potential. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” in Old Testament literature, where already in Exodus 15:17, it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your bode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis, Fortress Press 1997, p. 255).

Thus, in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, namely Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah.” On the other hand, in that God intends that the vineyard should produce good grapes, “failing that (v. 7b), Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard.” The combination of generosity and destructive judgment (Lutherans might see gospel and law here) is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the regiving of the land after exile.” As such, the metaphor expresses

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

Against this Old Testament background, we want to suggest, the development of the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” in our time for the restoration of the creation in the face of the displacement of the human community from the Earth that sustains it, which is at the heart of the environmental crisis.

In this context Jesus’ claim to be the “true vine” would appear to mean that he is the true Israel that produces the rich fruit God desires from the land. Raymond E. Brown discusses this possibility at length in his commentary on John. The issues are too complex to discuss here, but Brown shows that the combination of parable and allegory characteristic of John’s Gospel allows for this interpretation. The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree, frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here,” he writes. It is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” And because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72). It is therefore quite possible, he suggests, that John is here contrasting Jesus and his followers as the real vine with the false vine. A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Thus if, as we have noted, John’s “description of the vine and the branches echoes OT passages dealing with the chastisement of Israel,” it seems reasonable to conclude that “the Johannine writer may well have been thinking that God had finally rejected the unproductive vine of Judaism still surviving in the Synagogue” (Brown, pp. 674-75).

In this light, it is important to note that in John 15:1-7 there is no reference at all to the land. The reader of earlier comments in this series on the lectionary for year B might recall that we regard Jesus’ displacement of Jerusalem and its temple as the central meeting place of people and God as a key to interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for our orientation to creation. Do only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the community? Or is it the case that the relevance of land is nonetheless assumed? Wouldn’t displacement from the vineyard in fact entail the destruction of the very possibility of life for the vine?

One needs, we propose, to think afresh about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil; it needs to be rooted in the earth. Vine and branches have little purchase on our imaginations apart from their rootedness in soil. The following story illustrates the point. A recent synod assembly was held in a large suburban church that featured a sanctuary filled with trees, rocks and water running over stone walls. Speakers addressing the assembly made beautiful use of the biblical metaphors of trees and plants. Close observation of the trees and the rocks into which they were planted revealed, however, that they were without soil. They didn’t need soil because both plants and rocks were in fact plastic imitations, very skillfully done, to be sure, but without even the possibility of real life. For this observer, the power of the metaphors we were hearing was entirely vacated. Real vines need soil; vines growing in the imagination without it cannot be true. Applied metaphorically to the life of a human being, and particularly to a human being who represents an entire people, as in Jesus’ claim, this requirement of the metaphor still holds: human beings, created by God as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, need adamah, earth, for life. The “true vine,” one might say, needs to be rooted in earth; only so does it make any sense to consider whether or not the branches of the vine are fruitful.

And so it is: If the presence of God has been displaced from Jerusalem to Jesus ‘the true vine,” that presence must nonetheless still be rooted in earth. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the Johaninne context, the claim that Jesus is the true vine reclaims the Jewish heritage of the land for the future of his community. Jesus the vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation , “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” Not by natural limitation, of course, but rather by virtue of the intent and commitment of God’s love (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And just so, God “is glorified by this,” says Jesus, “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

This interpretation of the Gospel reading places strong emphasis on the importance of what Brown called “the anti-Synagogue polemic in John.” Brown has his own good counsel on this matter for readers of his commentary; John’s “harsh statements about ‘the Jews’ must be understood and evaluated against the polemic background of the times when it was written (The Gospel According to John I-XI. New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 368). We would add, however, that the displacement of the presence of God from the temple under the control of the Jewish authorities to the person of Jesus and the body of Christ, as his presence came to be identified in the Eucharistic worship of the Christian community, liberated the experience of that presence from the social and political bonds in which the practices of the Jewish political and religious elites in Jerusalem had expressed it. This is undoubtedly what the mutually hostile polemic was largely about. Nothing illustrates that liberation so dramatically, perhaps, than the narrative concerning the Ethiopian eunuch in this Sunday’s first lesson. The eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple; custom would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home to Ethiopia, he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who shows him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” already in this exchange the good news of the reorientation to creation as the gift of a loving God is becoming a reality everywhere on what we now understand to be one planet in a marvelous universe (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).

The liberation from the temple and its governing authorities of the experience of God’s love makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all of Earth—as the gift of God’s love serves as the soil in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus, we appropriate sing in today’s psalm text that

“All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.”

God’s “rootedness” in the earth, in other words, is not limited to one mountain, or even to one land. It is available wherever there is water (even in the desert) by means of which we can enter and become part of a “new creation.” Once seen as limited to a “holy land,” that experience is now opened up in the presence of Christ to all who inhabit this “sacred earth.” The vine grows where the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. The fruit that once died on the vine gains new life, as it is grafted into “the true vine,” which grows up out of the good soil of all God’s creation. This is indeed hope for all who live in exile from that good Earth. As Norman Wirzba writes,

“True followers are beloved friends of Jesus who know from the inside what the intention and the life of the Father is all about. If they are grafted onto Jesus—most basically by continuing Christ’s ministries of feeding, healing, forgiving, and reconciling—then they will be continuing in the world God’s own life-building ways that have been in place since the first day of creation. They will garden creation like God does. Jesus is the vine that makes possible every fruit-bearing branch” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 67).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com