Tag Archives: Joseph Sittler

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

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

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

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

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

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“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 and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created 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. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

Sunday September 25 – October 1 in Year C

What hope is there unless we address our consumption? – Tom Mundah reflects on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for September 25 – October 1, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31 

This week’s texts all wrestle with the simple question: how is the generosity of creation to be responded to? Or, as Joseph Sittler asks the question: how is creation to be both “used” and “enjoyed?” (Sittler, “The Care of the Earth,” in Steven Bouma-Prediger and Peter Bakken, eds., Evocations of Grace: Writings on Ecology, Theology, and Ethics, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 58.) This becomes even more crucial when we see the effects of inequality of wealth on our common call to care for the earth. 

As the Psalter reaches its conclusion with a quartet of doxologies, we are drenched in language praising and celebrating the God who is both creator and savior, who calls creatures both to enjoyment and just use of all that is. We see that theme especially in Psalm 146, where the psalmist connects the God who made heaven and earth to the one who “executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Psalm 146:6-7). In just a very few words, we see a creator who, in order to achieve the purpose of creation, is hard at work to overturn oppression, the unfair distribution of power, wealth, and resources.

A good share of the heavy-lifting in this ‘saving process’ is done by the prophets, especially Amos. He spares no one among the powerful elite. Whether they rule and administer in the north (Mount Samaria) or the south (Zion), they cannot escape (Amos 6:1). The irony seems to be the total obliviousness to coming catastrophe shown by those who benefit from a system soon to be destroyed by Assyria. Amos’ indictment comes as an ironic public lament: “Alas for those who are at ease . . . , who lie on beds of ivory, lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the stall . . . .” (Amos 6:1a, 40). In their privilege, not only do they take more than their share of resources, but they provide none of the leadership they are called to, especially in the face of impending doom. As Amos puts it, they “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” (Amos 6:6)

Therefore, the elite will share the experience of Joseph—exile! In fact, says Amos, they will be the very first to be taken, “and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away” (Amos 6:7b). It makes one wonder how the possession of power and wealth seem to insulate from reality. Is it being surrounded by “toadies” who continually spout what the powerful want to hear and create a “cocoon” of unreality for the powerful whether in Zion, inside the DC Beltway, or in the halls of Microsoft? 

A similar process seems to operate among broader populations in so-called “developed societies” where political and business leaders urge ‘consumers’ (the new identity that has replaced ‘citizenship’) to continue to ride the ‘luxury loungers’ of consumption, because things will continue to go on just as they have been, unless we stop shopping! Is this mania for over-consumption a kind of ‘lotus eating’ addiction that requires treatment? Is it a learned “psychology of previous investment?” (James Howard Kunstler, “Are We Trapped in a Psychology of Previous Investment?” April 16, 2012, biostruct.ca). That is, are we by mental dispositions formed by the massive advertising industry and economic structure so tied to our current “reality” that the thought of change is frightening? In the face of the possibility of change, do we hold on all the more to a ‘lifestyle’ that stresses the planet and gives us little real satisfaction? Or, is it a combination of all of these fired by the old anxiety that moves us to embrace the notion that ‘we are as gods’ and not subject to the limits of creation? In any case, these lead us to the folly of trying to sustain the unsustainable.

These questions become especially acute as we read and consider interpreting the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” Here, Luke’s recounting of Jesus’ parable demonstrates what it means for the mighty to be brought down from the thrones and the lowly lifted up (Luke 1:52). In the figure of the rich man, the warning from the Sermon on the Plain, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation, “ is confirmed (Luke 6:24). Not only do we see the continuing theme of the dangers of wealth explored, suddenly the “arrogance of wealth” emerges like ‘the great white whale’ vaulting out of the sea.

It would be almost impossible to draw a sharper contrast than that between the lives of the anonymous rich man and Lazarus. We meet a man so wealthy that he feasts every day dressed in the very best, while poor Lazarus, suffering from impaired mobility, lies at his gate hoping for anything that fell from the rich man’s table. Not only does his disability with its open sores make him unclean, this ritual impurity is compounded by dogs that lick the wounds. And then they both die.

Lazarus lands in “the bosom of Abraham,” the goal of all the pious, while the rich man is not so fortunate. Yet, the rich man continues his sense of social privilege by asking Father Abraham to have mercy on him and “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames” (Luke 16:24). Father Abraham’s answer suggests that the rich man might have responded to Lazarus’ cries for help and mercy during their lifetimes. 

But still the rich man has the “cheek” to at least send Lazarus, again seen as a ‘no-count lackey,’ to his brothers’ house where they can be warned. Sending someone from the dead might just have the impact needed to bring change. Father Abraham simply replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even is someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). This is nothing but a scathing critique of a religion that countenances a wealthy elite pretending to righteousness and ceremonial cleanness while the very basic needs of the ‘Lazaruses’ around are ignored? By telling this story, Luke’s Jesus also puts the Pharisees, characterized as “money lovers” (Luke 16:14), in their places (Luke Timothy Johnson, Luke (Collegeville, 1991, p. 256).

This arrogance should sound familiar. F. Scott Fitzgerald defined this for “the Jazz Age” of 1920’s affluence in his fantasy, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels and Stories, 1920-1922, The Library of America, 2000, pp. 913–953). College student John T. Unger, from Hades, Missouri, is invited to visit fellow college student, Percy Washington, at his Montana home for the summer. While there, Unger finds that the Washington family is the richest in the world: their opulent family mansion is built on a diamond bigger than New York’s Ritz Hotel! But the Washington family’s wealth is safe only if they remain totally hidden from public view.

Vast wealth has bought this secrecy until the invention of the airplane. Now, the Washingtons are in danger of losing this protection. As the family compound is being bombed, Braddock Washington makes one more try to preserve wealth and status. After having slaves drag the largest diamond anyone has ever seen to the highest point on the family property, Washington cries, “You out there” . . . . ”Oh, you above there.” With horror, it dawns on young John T. Unger what the elder Washington is trying to do. “Braddock Washington was offering a bribe to God” (Fitzgerald, p. 948). As the distribution of wealth in North America becomes more skewed toward the wealthy, more stories like this will emerge.

So, what is a fitting attitude of God’s people toward wealth and resources?  We can learn much from 1 Timothy 6. Riffing off of the familiar assumption that “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5b), the author confronts the cleavages in wealth that likely existed among the faith community. This discourse hinges on the contrast between “contentment”(v. 6) and “love of money” (v. 10), a love that has great power to send people ‘wandering away’ from the life of faith.

How might this work? Arthur McGill suggests that seeking wealth or, “life by possession” accomplishes this by leading the one with wealth, the possessor, to imagine that she/he is “Lord of myself” (Life and Death: An American Theology, Fortress, 1988, p. 55.). What might motivate people to this endless seeking of wealth and things to possess? McGill suggests that “Their fear of death, their fear that their identity will be taken away from them” (McGill, p. 55). This is precisely what this pastoral epistle seeks to counter.

Because the Risen One, Christ Jesus has already made the “good confession” (v. 13) before the Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate, he is “the only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords…to him be honor and dominion. Amen.” (vv. 15 -16)  Living in faith, then, means to live by means of the rulership of Jesus, who frees the community to enjoy contentment, literally “self rule.”  This delivers us from the merry-go-round of seeking wealth and things “to possess” and helps us to see that all creation is “gift,” where  all is intended “to do good,” so that the community can be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…so that they make take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Timothy 6:18-19)

This life becomes clearer for us in a conversation between Andrew Blechman of Orion magazine and author, Alan Weisman, whose new book on population, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? will be released later in September. Weisman is very clear that when we discuss population in the U.S. we need always to factor per capita consumption into the equation. As he says, “there is no condom for consumption.” (Orion, September-October 2013, p. 55.)

 For that reason, like Paul, Weisman recommends “contentment,” “self-rule:” “There is no question that the most overpopulated country on earth is actually the United States, because we consume at such a ferocious rate.” (Orion, p. 55)  Obviously, there are better reasons to get off our couches than adding to our collection of that which is unneeded. 

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

 

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

 

Season of Creation 2019: Sunday September 29 in Year C (Universe Sunday)

There is one Wisdom, one Beauty, one Mind that flows through the universe. – Leah Schade reflects on the Fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation.

Season of Creation Commentary on Wisdom in Creation

Readings for Fourth Sunday (Universe), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Proverbs 8:22-31
Psalm 148
Colossians 1:15-20
John 6:41-51

The passages for this Sunday can provide a platform where science and mysticism can come together. Erich Jantsch, in his book The Self-Organizing Universe (Pergamon; 1st edition, 1980), said that God is the mind of the universe—the self-organizing principal of cohesion and organization that evolves as the universe evolves. It is the mind in all things, in the fire, in the ecosystem, in the amoeba, in the galaxies, and in us.

The passages in the scripture readings echo this concept of the wisdom/mind of the universe. The creation story in Proverbs and Colossians is a cosmic story that goes back to the very beginning of the universe. Remember Big Bang theory taught in science class? That supernova had a life, death, and resurrection, in that it birthed the elements of the universe as it exploded. Its death brought new life—helium, hydrogen, the beginning of galaxies. This means that Nature itself contains this imprint of the crucified and resurrected Christ. It is in every place, in every creature. That’s the revelatory power of Nature.

The image of the Cosmic Christ stresses that Christ’s lordship is an eternal presence through time and space encompassing all of Creation in the ultimate fulfillment and consummation of God’s will for the cosmos. Joseph Sittler’s interpretation contains seeds of an early ecofeminism, in that he identifies nature as “God’s sister”:

We must not fail to see the nature and size of this issue that Paul confronts and encloses in this vast Christology. In propositional form it is simply this: a doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is God’s home, God’s definite place, the theatre of God’s selfhood, in cooperation with God’s neighbour, and in a caring relationship with nature, God’s sister (Joseph Sittler, “Called to Unity:  Redemption within Creation,” in World Council of Churches Meeting. New Delhi, India: 1961, reprinted 1985, p. 3).

While the ontological implications of such a relationship between God and nature (i.e., if they are siblings, who is their parent?) are worth exploration at another time, what the preacher may wish to highlight is the way in which Sittler expands a salvific Christology to be inclusive of nature.

The matter might be put another way: the address of Christian thought is most weak precisely where human ache is most strong. We have had, and have, a christology of the moral soul, a christology of history, affirmations so huge as to fill the space marked out by ontological questions. But we do not have, at least not in such effective force as to have engaged the thought of the common life, a daring, penetrating, life-affirming christology of nature. The theological magnificence of cosmic christology lies, for the most part, still tightly folded in the Church’s innermost heart and memory. Its power is nascent among us all in our several styles of teaching, preaching, worship; its waiting potency is available for release in kerygmatic theology, in moral theology, in liturgical theology, in sacramental theology (Sittler, p. 9).

With this in mind, a sermon for this Sunday should take its time with Proverbs and Psalm 148 to trace the contours of the story of the Cosmos’ and Earth’s ancient, primordial history in order to provide the memory of God’s steadfastness and love through the unfathomable reaches of time.

Wisdom again is found at the heart of this poem in Proverbs, explaining her origins as being with Yahweh at the very beginning of creation, intimately forming every aspect of earth, water, plants and animals. As Dianne Bergant observes: “From the pathways of human society, she transports her hearers to the primordial arena of creation.” (Dianne Bergant, Israel’s Wisdom Literature : A Liberation-Critical Reading. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 83). The preacher may even want to expand the lectionary reading to the end of the poem, where Wisdom beckons people to follow her. “It seems Wisdom goes out into the marketplace in order to invite the simple into her home” (Bergant, p. 84). Bergant sees an interesting connection here “between the insights garnered in the marketplace and the very structures of creation. This leads one to conclude that the various kinds of wisdom delineated above are not so much separate realities as they are different aspects of the same reality” (Bergant, p. 84). Thus the marketplace, which tends to see itself as independent and apart from, lording over, and in control of creation, is, in reality, completely reliant on Creation, and thus Wisdom, for its very existence.

What implications does this have for the Church in its task of public theology? If the Church follows Wisdom’s lead, we will also locate ourselves at the busiest corners and crossroads where the public gathers for business and social meetings. The Church will issue invitations on behalf of Wisdom to become disciples of her teachings. And the Church will not mince words about the consequences of turning away from her instruction. The Church will invite disciples of Wisdom to enter her house, her oikos, the very Creation-home itself. This is where they will learn from her the most profound and life-giving teachings.

The Gospel text from John illustrates the sensuous particularity of Sophia-Christ’s teachings. “The Bread of Life” motif is one that is so tangible, so earthy, so incarnational. A children’s sermon could unveil a loaf of freshly baked bread and ask the young ones to smell it and share what memories are evoked for them. Grandma’s kitchen, a favorite corner bakery, an aunt’s house at the holidays, all remind us that love is often expressed by the labor of our hands meant for the hunger of our mouths and bodies.

Nowhere is this more real than at the Eucharist, where the cosmic and the particular come together. Think of the doxology we sing or speak at the time of Holy Communion. Doxa means glory, radiance, beauty—it is a cosmic word; it is the radiance that permeates all things. Hildegard of Bingham says that there is no creature that does not have a radiance—tiny single-celled sea creature, an elephant, a redwood, a baby. Even the atoms of the universe contains photons—radiance, light rays! The glory of God, the radiance of the Cosmic Christ is, literally, in all things!

Every person is a unique expression of that radiance—there is no one else in the history of the universe who was you, or is you, or ever will be you. You, too, are the Alpha and the Omega. You are the first and last you. And there is but one Wisdom, one Beauty, one Mind that flows through it all.

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

Sunday July 31 – August 6 in Year C

Is Distance Our Security? Embracing Interdependence Joyfully: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 12:13-21

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 31 – August 6, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Theologian Joseph Sittler once made the point that, in our day and age, to possess wealth is to be able to purchase distance from one another—to enact a kind of “blubber,” as he puts it, that shields us from undesired interaction with the world. Recently, Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has explored a similar line of thought. In his book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), Sandel discusses all the ways in which wealth allows those who possess it the ability to purchase separation from those with fewer resources. The examples are legion. Housing developments become gated communities, while summer homes are set apart in the woods. Skybox seats at baseball games and concerts lift wealthy spectators out from the audience or “crowd” proper. Airline passengers who pay more can board earlier and sit further apart from other passengers. We have built an economic system in which prestige is marked by the comforts of diminishing proximity – and indeed, diminishing solidarity – with others.

On the one hand, the immediate creature comforts of, say, having more room in an airplane seat are immediately understandable and require little theological interpretation. However, on the other hand, the homiletical opportunity in preaching on Jesus’ parable of the rich man who builds up granaries only to have his life “demanded” of him is to explore more deeply the impulses that drive us to accumulate wealth and its corollaries—land, excess clothing, anti-theft systems, etc.—and how these impulses betray more primal anxieties.

A homiletical failure—one that has unfortunately been common in the Christian tradition—would be to simply denounce the man’s actions as evident of “greed”  and to warn contemporary Christians away from avarice without acknowledging the various forces at work in our North American society that program us to be, not only consumers, but anxious consumers.  Even as we are urged to spend and spend, we are simultaneously bombarded with injunctions to save and build up wealth for retirement, future catastrophes, etc. We measure the health of the economy by its “growth” even as we are warned that only those who have sufficient reserves will be able to navigate the future successfully. The various incompatible demands placed upon our economic psyches leads to an anxiety similar to that depended upon by the “diet” industry: we spend more and more on diet products and exercise programs even as we are bombarded with encouragement to eat more and more.

It is this impulse which leads us to conceive of economic security in terms of distance, lack of vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the market and the crowds, and getting off the treadmill of the uncontrolled push/pull of late stage capitalism. Likewise, in Jesus’ time, where the gap between the rich and the poor was even more pronounced than in our day, to store up grain for oneself in order to ward off the possibility of future economic ruin would have been a highly understandable impulse. Thus, it might be that the more homiletically honest move here would be to focus less on “greed” and more upon the tendency, in Jesus’ day and ours, to equate wealth with invulnerability and independence.

Here, then, is where “ecological” thinking in its most robust sense may be helpful. In his recent text The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), critical theorist Timothy Morton points out the ways in which our politics, economic arrangements, and even religious understandings might change if we were to live fully into the radical potential contained in the seemingly simple base ecological maxim: “Everything is connected to everything else.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to articulate so powerfully, we exist in “webs of mutuality” such that our humanity is enhanced, not diminished, as we grow more and more interdependent on each other. To seek independence through invulnerability, to build up reserves and to purchase distance such that we absent ourselves from these webs, is not only anti-ecological but also diminishes our humanity as such.

There are profound links for the preacher to explore here. Just as Jesus’ injunctions for humans to exhibit radical dependence on God’s grace were designed to heighten our humanity (as opposed to making us superhuman), so also living into our ecologies of interdependence frees us up to be creatures who joyfully embrace our dependence upon each other and our environment. Solidarity with Earth and with each other is, in one sense, nothing other than having our own fates inextricably tied to the fate of creation and its people. If that is the case, then we really have no choice as to WHETHER or not to be in solidarity—the choice is whether we receive it in joy, live into it with purpose, and eschew all that would distance us from it.

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

 

 

Sunday July 17-23 in Year C (Saler)

Right Delight is the Basis of Right Action: Robert Saler reflects on Luke 10:38-42

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for July 17-23, Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1: 15-28
Luke 10:38-42

The story of Mary and Martha has, throughout history, served as a kind of paradigmatic biblical intervention into a philosophical conversation that predates the Gospels by centuries, but yet was very current in Jesus’ time: the relative merits of action vs. contemplation (praxis vs. theoria, in Aristotelian terms).

When we think of theory, we often have an attenuated sense of it as a kind of disembodied, less-than-practical intellectual activity; hence our tendency to ask, “It may work in theory, but will it work in practice?” However, in important strands of the Greek philosophical tradition, “theory” (and its Latin cognate of “contemplation”) had a much richer valence, one having to do with gazing in delight and unperturbed peace upon the true, the good, and the beautiful. To be engaged in theory is to be delighting in the good as such.

Unfortunately, while much Greek philosophy did make connections between theory and ethics, the class structures in place in most ancient societies led to fairly stark class-based divisions between those few elites with the leisure time to “theorize” and the majority whose labor (including slave labor) supported the social infrastructure. Aristotle, for instance, did not disguise his views that the life of philosophical contemplation was superior to a life of labor, and that true statements about beauty and the good could only come from the mouths of those with enough leisure, riches, and education to contemplate the good in unhurried fashion.

To the extent that the Christian tradition’s thinking has taken on such Greek philosophical assumptions, then Luke’s account of the Mary/Martha story has served to reinforce such a sense among Christians. Much exegetical tradition has emphasized that it is Mary, who sits in contemplation of “the good, the true, the beautiful” (that is, the person and teachings of Jesus) who is engaged in the properly “Christian” activity, while Martha, whose labor provides the space in which such contemplation can happen, is given short shrift. Sermons stemming from this tradition tend to unwittingly reinforce the divide between theory and action/ethics, with the latter losing out.

However, such a divide is disastrous for a Christian faith that takes creation care seriously. This is not so only because it is clear that a great deal of ethical action is necessary if the deleterious effects of environmental degradation are to be addressed (and further degradation halted). It is also because care for creation is clearly an area where action must stem from a more fundamental delight in what God’s hand has fashioned in our environment.

The Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler saw this. In his celebrated sermon “The Care of the Earth,” Sittler points to the deep interconnection between fundamental “joy” in creation (joy which the Christian tradition from Augustine to Aquinas defined as “resting in something for its own sake”) and right care for—or “use of”—creation. In his sermon (available at www.josephsittler.org), he writes,

It is of the heart of sin that man uses what he ought to enjoy. It is also, says Thomas, of the heart of sin that man is content to enjoy what he ought to use. For instance. charity is the comprehensive term to designate how God regards man [sic]. That regard is to be used by man for man. That is why our Lord moves always in his speech from the source of joy, that man is loved by the holy, to the theater of joy, that man must serve the need of the neighbor. “Lord, where did we behold thee? I was in prison, hungry, cold, naked”-you enjoyed a charity that God gives for use.

If the creation, including our fellow creatures, is impiously used apart from a gracious primeval joy in it the very richness of the creation becomes a judgment. This has a cleansing and orderly meaning for everything in the world of nature, from the sewage we dump into our streams to the cosmic sewage we dump into the fallout.

Abuse is use without grace; it is always a failure in the counterpoint of use and enjoyment. When things are not used in ways determined by joy in the things themselves, this violated potentiality of joy (timid as all things holy, but relentless and blunt in its reprisals) withdraws and leaves us, not perhaps with immediate positive damnations but with something much worse—the wan, ghastly, negative damnations of use without joy, stuff without grace, a busy, fabricating world with the shine gone off, personal relations for the nature of which we have invented the eloquent term, contact, staring without beholding, even fornication without finding.

When “use” is informed by joy, use (action) itself becomes a kind of expression of that joy. Theoria and praxis merge.

When approached in this light, the story of Mary and Martha offers an intriguing opportunity for the preacher to meditate on how ethical action in the world stems from deep theoria, deep contemplative joy in gazing upon the beauty and goodness of creation. Those already involved in creation care know that acts of care for creation—and those who inhabit it, including humans—have a unifying tendency in that they unite joy and service in an embodied, concrete sense. It is to “take refuge in God,” as the psalm says, by letting delight for what God has made inform peaceful action on behalf of its health and flourishing.

One final note: stemming from the above discussion of the class-based distinctions that have historically facilitated separation between theory and practice, and elevation of the former over the latter, this week’s gospel might also be a time for churches to ruminate on those structures in our world that allow a certain small percentage of our populations to “enjoy” nature in leisurely fashion (e.g. a trip to the Grand Canyon) while others whose labor helps sustain our societies are cut off from such opportunities for unhurried enjoyment. Likewise, discussions of environmental racism might benefit from seeing them through this same lens (that is, what sort of communities are denied chances to enjoy the beauty of nature based on socioeconomic factors?).  Here too, discussion of the beautiful might energize practices of justice.

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

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (Saler)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary
The Season of Easter in Year C
By Robert Saler

Ecumenism as Ecological Lure

The Seventh Sunday of Easter in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

There is a common saying in ecumenical circles known as “ecumenism of the trenches.” As many preachers this week turn to Jesus’ so-called “High Priestly Prayer” and its specific call that Christ’s followers “be one,” ecumenism in general may well be on the minds of both preacher and congregation.

The notion of “ecumenism of the trenches” suggests that, to a certain degree, both Christian division and formalized ecumenical discussions (such as the good work done by the World Council of Churches) are reflective of a certain kind of stability. When Christianity is in a stable place, then Christians have the luxury of fighting over doctrines; meanwhile, involvement in formal ecumenism, while good, is reflective of substantial resources commanded by the various dialogue partners.

But for creation care preachers, can the threat of ecological catastrophe AND the gospel promise be a way to move the conversation forward?

Perhaps we can again consult Joseph Sittler’s work for inspiration, particularly his most famous—and directly ecumenical—speech, “Called to Unity.”

Joseph Sittler’s “Called to Unity” address was very controversial in its time. Even though the 1954 WCC Assembly in Evanson, IL had already tasked a number of theologians (including Sittler) to consider the issue of Christology in relation to church unity in preparation for 1961, Sittler’s argument—that the future of the church’s proclamation depended upon understanding the planet not simply as the site of God’s creation but also as the site of Christ’s redemption—did not go over well. It went against too many established theological categories.

Despite its lukewarm reception in the early 1960’s, the speech soon came to be regarded as a crucial opening salvo in Christian concern for environmental matters. Since most historians of environmentalism would identify the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 as a watershed moment in the American public’s awareness of ecological degradation, the fact that Sittler was writing about environmental concerns as early as the mid-1950’s generally warrants him at least a footnote as a “pioneer” in the writings of contemporary ecologically-oriented theologians. And to the extent that Sittler’s speech can be understood as calling for a kind of “ecumenical environmentalism,” then we can say that his vision has come largely to fruition in the work of theologians and churches (including the ELCA and the LCMS) who have taken up the challenge of relating Christian discipleship to care for creation.

Central to Sittler’s legacy is the idea that the work of creation care happens best when it is related to central questions about how Christians understand God’s work of redemption in the world, inaugurated in Jesus Christ and continued in the work of the Spirit and Christ’s church. As he put it:

A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation. For God’s creation of earth cannot be redeemed in any intelligible sense of the word apart from a doctrine of the cosmos which is his [humanity’s] home, his definite place, the theater of his selfhood under God, in cooperation with his neighbor, and in caring relationship with nature, his sister.”1

This theme of understanding redemption as encompassing all of creation such that nature is not simply the disposable backdrop against which the drama of human salvation history plays itself out (as in the Left Behind series, as well as in much popular eschatology stemming as far back as Origen), but rather as an integral part of our human identity and the identity of God’s kingdom—to the point that salvation makes no sense apart from the context of redeemed creation itself (as in the Book of Revelation)—has informed the best contemporary ecological theology.

Moreover, Sittler’s vision runs even deeper than simply the strategic shared activism of church bodies. It is MORE than just ecumenism of the trenches! According to him, the unity toward which the church is both “thrust and lured” is best articulated by means of a “Christology expanded to its cosmic dimensions, made passionate by the pathos of this threatened earth, and made ethical by the love and wrath of God.”

What Sittler’s speech hints towards is not simply a coming “ecumenical environmentalism” but also the possibility of an “environmental ecumenism,” one in which the sort of ecumenical work to which Sittler devoted much of his career (and with which the WCC remains charged) operates with an expanded imagination concerning the body of Christ existing in greater degrees of interconnection around the shape of the world’s need and the ongoing scope of God’s salvific work.

The burden of a challenge toward “environmental ecumenism” would perhaps move us past the old saw that “doctrine divides but service unites” towards a more theologically robust sensibility of incarnation: that to enter into deeper modes of understanding the church Christologically allows us to engage what Sittler calls humanity’s “strong ache” in a world in which nature’s plasticity to human desires has, ironically, constituted nature itself as a new kind of threat—particularly to the poorest and most vulnerable humans on the planet. If ecumenical unity is a future reality to which the present is nonetheless continually “lured,” then Sittler’s speech invites us to think about how this present lure can be comprehended most fully by continually relating our ecclesiology to our Christology, and vice versa.

And for the preacher who wishes to capture the congregation’s imagination as to what can be possible when ecological catastrophe is taken as a “unifying” threat, but also what can be possible when God’s redemption is seen as impacting all of creation, the lure is to try to find ways to make that vision real for the congregation. What rivers near you need to be saved? What are the ways in which divisions among us as citizens of the planet—race, class, income, geographic area, etc.—spill over into churches? What would healing look like?