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Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Easter (April 18) in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. 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” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. 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, p. 208).

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

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

The Self-Giving of the Community is Rooted in the Self-Giving of the Creator. Dennis Ormseth reflects on what it means to “own” property.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

Psalm 133 “speaks of brothers dwelling together in unity,” Ben Witherington III notes. And he likens the condition to the pleasure of a priestly anointment of oil upon the head and beard of Aaron, and to dew falling upon the “mountains of Zion” –-“a major blessing—like the dew that refreshes the plants in and around Jerusalem even in some of the dry times” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, p. 17-18). In reading this psalm on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Christian community thus lays claim for its gathering around our resurrected Lord to a sense of well-being associated in the Hebrew psalmist tradition with the temple in Jerusalem. That this is consistent with the view we have been developing in these comments, namely that in the narrative of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, particularly as presented in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus displaces the temple as the center of life in God’s presence, with significant consequences for the Christian orientation towards creation. This Sunday, other Scriptures from John and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles provide vignettes of life in the post-resurrection community which illumine the nature of this orientation and some of its implications.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, “dwelling together in unity” is envisioned as a gathering in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. In the first section of the Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples, addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, and then commissions them by the power of the Holy Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. In the second section of the reading, Jesus’ appearance a week later to Thomas serves to reaffirm that the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus exists in continuity with the body that was crucified. The community of the resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered similarly to reconcile others, will be gathered in the presence of this crucified body and no other.

An important consequence of this gathering in the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus for the community’s orientation to creation is exhibited in the lesson from Acts 4:32-35. This reading provides for contemporary Christians living in such strongly capitalistic societies as ours a strongly counter-cultural illustration of the expectations early Christians had for their communities: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in spite of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully for preachers who have strongly anti-socialist members (or not, given the suspicion directed towards all mildly “socialist” alternatives these days), Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that,

“No one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness. . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (Witherington, pp. 16-17).

It is important to note that while participants in this community did not absent themselves from worship in the temple (Acts 2:46), they nevertheless now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace,” which was fostered by the meal they shared when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ, home bound as it was, maintained in some measure the sense of living in God’s presence previously experienced in the temple.

Readers of our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday will recall our comments there connecting the meal instituted by Jesus on the night of his betrayal with the fundamental experience of the “restoration of human solidarity in membership with both other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.” Participation in the meal, we suggested, provides a “re-orientation to creation” in “that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God.” Quoting Norman Wirzba: “Jesus’ life and death are finally about the transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed.” In the reading from Acts, we see that these expectations have become in some sense normative for the post-resurrection community.

Of particular importance with respect to the orientation of the community to creation is the distinctive attitude toward ownership of property, as we noted above. M. Douglas Meeks provides the following summary of its meaning in his book God the Economist:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 lead to different forms of property. . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (Meeks, p. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property, which is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

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” (Meeks, p. 114).

It is striking to note that a scriptural basis for the trinitarian foundation of this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday, focused as they are “on dwelling together in unity.” The Gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciple. And in the second lesson of 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their Trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might easily move to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Preaching on Creation: Second Sunday of Easter (April 11) in Year B (Ormseth18)

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Dennis Ormseth reflects on community, trinity, and unity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

We continue our exploration of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith occasioned by the observance of Easter and their relationship to practices of care for creation. In the comment for Resurrection of Our Lord, we saw that the Resurrection of Jesus reveals the eschatological presence of God in the community of Jesus’ disciples, as that community brings to the world the message of the God’s victory over the death. Jesus’ resurrection is, in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, a “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ,” in which all creation is eventually to be drawn by God away from destruction and toward salvation “on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” Distinguishing marks of this presence are the non-violent character of relationships in the community, in conformity with the nonviolent practice of their crucified Lord, and the fellowship meal in which those relationships are celebrated.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter encourage us to amplify the significance of those marks, again with special significance for care of creation. The non-violent character of the community is secured in these texts, as in the Easter narrative of Mark, by the affirmation of continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Lord. While Mark provides for that continuity by having the disciples sent back to Galilee, in John’s narrative, composed significantly later and more fully developed theologically, Jesus himself appears to the disciples, first without Thomas and then with Thomas; when they see the marks of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side, they know that this is the crucified Jesus. He then addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, breaths upon them the Holy Spirit, and commissions them by the power of the Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. The continuity of the resurrected Jesus with the crucified Jesus serves to restore the community they experienced prior to his crucifixion. But with the additional acts of breathing upon them and the blessing of peace, Jesus also anticipates a transition in the community from those disciples who see the crucified and resurrected Jesus and thus believe, to those who have faith only by virtue of the presence of God as the Spirit brings the community to life in an ongoing new creation.

The encounter is intended to be understood as an eschatological moment of new creation. This set of messianic practices constitutes the means for creating community with and amongst the disciples, not just in the moment of this encounter, but enduring into the future. Going forward, the breath, the blessing of peace, and the commission will sustain the formation of communities in which Jesus is worshipped, as in the praise of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” As Raymond Brown notes, in John 20:17, it was

“. . . promised that after Jesus’ ascension God would become a Father to the disciples who would be begotten by the Spirit, and also would in a special way become the God of a people bound to him by a new covenant. The words that Thomas speaks to Jesus are the voice of this people ratifying the covenant that the Father has made in Jesus. As Hosea 2: 25 (23) promised, a people that was formerly not a people has now said, “you are my God.” This confession has been combined with the baptismal profession “Jesus is Lord,” a profession that can be made only when the Spirit has been poured out (I Corinthians 12:3)” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), New York: Doubleday, 1970, p.1035).

Thus the members of the community of the crucified and resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to similarly reconcile others, are gathered in the presence of their Creator. Brown called particular attention to this creational emphasis, as he notes, “for John this is the high point of the post-resurrectional activity of Jesus.” He comments:

“Before Jesus says, ‘Receive a holy Spirit,” he breathes on his disciples. The Greek verb emphysan, “to breath,” echoes LXX of Genesis 2:7, the creation scene, where we are told: The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The verb is used again in Wisdom 15:11, which rephrases the creation account: “The One who fashioned him and . . . breathed into him a living spirit.” Symbolically, then, John is proclaiming that, just as in the first creation God breathed a living spirit into man, so now in the moment of the new creation Jesus breathes his own Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life” (Brown, p. 1037).

That Yahweh the Creator is present to the community is made more explicit in the second half of the reading, in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas. As Thomas moves from disbelief to belief, he confesses his faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is, in Brown’s view,

“. . . the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel. In Chapter I the first disciples gave many titles to Jesus . . , and we have heard still others throughout the ministry: Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, King of Israel, Son of God. In the post-resurrectional appearances Jesus has been hailed as the Lord by Magdalene and by the disciples as a group. But it is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh.”

This confession, Brown emphasizes, is not a dogmatic assertion, but rather an act of worship. “It is a response of praise to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus . . . . Thomas speaks the doxology on behalf of the Christian community” (Brown, pp. 1046-7).

Such praise, it is important to note, entails a characteristic reorientation to the creation of the Creator. As Brown notes, the peace and joy noted in John 20:20 are for John, as for Jewish thought generally, “marks of the eschatological period when God’s intervention would have brought about harmony in human life and in the world. John sees this period realized as Jesus returns to pour forth his Spirit upon men” (Brown, p. 1035). Appropriately, this vision is then also manifest in the first lesson for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in the face of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully Ben Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that

“. . . no one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness . . . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003:  Easter through Pentecost, pp. 17-18).

The community now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace” which was fostered by the meal they shared, when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ maintained in strong measure the sense of living fully in God’s presence previously expected by the Hebrew community in its life centered in temple worship.

The distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned here indeed represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world as it should be. As M. Douglas Meeks describes it in his book God the Economist, this new economy is grounded securely in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 leads to different forms of property . . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikia relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property that is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

“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” (Meeks, p. 114).

In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the followers of Jesus have become like those Hebrews of whom the Psalmist sings, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”(Psalm 133:1). They do indeed “dwell together in unity,” the blessing of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3b).  It is striking that a scriptural basis for a trinitarian foundation for this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday. The gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciples, in which the presence of Yahweh the creator is newly communicated. And in the second lesson from 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might accordingly move readily to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property. Care of creation begins at home, where the church dwells together in unity, not only amongst themselves, but in community both with God and with all God’s creation.

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

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth12)

Jesus is the Gardener Dennis Ormseth reflects on the garden as the place of restoration.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

In its stark simplicity, Mark’s spare account of Jesus’ resurrection serves to underscore the themes we have developed in our consideration of the narrative of his passion. The women go to the tomb to anoint his body. Entering the tomb, they encounter the young man in white, who tells them the startling news that “He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” The body they have come to anoint is absent. The young man gives them a message for his disciples: “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The focus rests on the missing body, the young man and his message, all of which figure significantly in understanding the import of Mark’s narrative for the care of creation.

The old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone.

In our comment on Passion Sunday, we saw how Jesus’ body, in the course of Mark’s narrative, came to replace the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life. Now his absent body is in turn seemingly displaced by what Ched Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone. The focus upon the body confirms Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Binding the Strong Man, Myers, p. 406). This is, of course, the direction in which the Gospel has moved since its opening, and with fury in its closing chapters. In the passion narrative, there was “no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.” And when with the visit of the women to the tomb the narrative is regenerated, this also is done, accordingly, with reference to his body, risen from the dead, and the disciples are directed, not to heaven, but rather to Galilee, “the site of earthly practice” (Ibid.). And if the young man represents not only the beginning of the rehabilitation of the community of disciples, as Myers suggested (Ibid., p. 369), but also the once blind beggar who now sees, the agent of that rehabilitation turns out to be none other than Mark’s “son of Timaeus.” And thus, as Gordon Lathrop surmised, we encounter in this final scene of the Gospel the representative of a cosmology that is a strikingly different than the perfect heaven of Plato’s philosophy, in that it proposes, as we wrote in an earlier reflection, that “the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven” (See our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday).

There is now a moveable feast.

In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark functions,” he writes, “to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” But at the same time, he adds, it “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology, which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid. p. 408). At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4). In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21). . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25). Jesus’ teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11)24) . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid. p. 443).

Accordingly, the community is free to move out from the national cultic center of Jerusalem to embrace the suffering of the people of the entire Roman empire, but first in their home place of Galilee, to be sure, as the young man in white directs them. There they will tell the story of Jesus with its remarkable ending, as our reading from Acts 10 reminds us, to both Jews and Gentiles.

It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p.443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent Africa, and even across Asia. But equally important would be some means of giving material embodiment to that word, comparable to, although very different from, the temple that had anchored the experience of God in the land of Israel. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

“. . . it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site (the table fellowship) as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus’ “body” (14:22-25); . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is ‘holy,’ for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid. p. 443).

The meal created bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in which it was shared.

However valuable this insight, Myers is mistaken in one aspect of his characterization of this meal. While it is true that the meal is, as he has it, “a meal for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (Mark 16:7),” the community would not have been sustained in any of its places of settlement had it not also been a meal that created new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in which it was shared. The meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to Earth and to its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human.

Gradually, the community would find itself needing to make that fuller embodiment part of its regular telling of the story of the resurrection. Indeed, we think we see that need rising and being met in the other texts appointed for this Sunday. In his sermon to the Gentiles, for instance, Peter recalls that “God raised [Jesus] on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” The memory of eating with Jesus has special, enduring importance, a significance emphatically underscored by the reading of the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” The eschatological feast on the mountain of God, it seems, will become as important as the destruction of “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations,” and the wiping of tears “from all faces.”

Jesus is the gardener and all gardens are places of restoration.

If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers found themselves, then neither location nor dwelling are irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. In addition to the mountain on which Jesus stands over against the forces of Zion, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, each of which offers its special kinds of membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And, of course, one must not neglect the garden: the story that seemed to end in the garden where there was a new tomb begins anew, the alternative Gospel reading from John 20 informs us, also in a garden, something to which the author seems to want to call our attention with his story of Mary mistaking Jesus as the gardener. Was Jesus not the gardener of the new Eden of creation, as later Christian legend would have it? Was there not something appropriate to the suggestion by a Jewish rabbi it was “the gardener, looking out for his cabbages that morning of the first day of the new creation?” (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, p. 990, for the source of these legends). If the garden is, since Eden, the place of betrayal, it is also the place of restoration; the place of death becomes the place of new life. Can we not hope that this can be said for every garden, if the God we meet in the meal is truly the Creator of all that is?

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

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth18)

A Meal for All Sorts of Hunger Dennis Ormseth reflects on a broad resurrection vision.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

The centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the life of the church means that the Easter texts provide occasion for an examination of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith and, with attention to the focus of these lectionary comments, their relationship to practices of care for creation. We begin with an examination of the nature of the Resurrection itself, prompted by recent provocative observations made by John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan in a recent article in the Christian Century. The visions of Christ’s resurrection held by the Western and Eastern churches differ significantly, the Crossans observe, and the difference is important for the future of the human species on the earth. Based on wide examination of artwork east and west, the Crossans noticed a pattern:

“The West celebrates the individual resurrection. Christ rises triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone. The guards of the tomb may be shown asleep or awake, but nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Whatever may be implied about humanity’s future by this image of resurrection, it says nothing about humanity’s past . . . . The East, on the other hand, celebrates the universal resurrection. Here Christ also rises triumphantly and magnificently—but he takes all of humanity with him. Iconographically, paintings in the East show Christ grasping the wrist of Adam. By the year 1200, he is shown grasping both Adam and Eve. Anastasis-as-resurrection is the liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ.” Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23-24.

Which vision is correct? The Crossans admit that it is hard to decide on the basis of biblical texts alone. No direct account of the resurrection exists. Weighing the alternatives, an individual resurrection is the more easily imagined occurrence, they agree, and thereby more readily available to support creedal faith. Within biblical Judaism, on the other hand, “resurrection was always corporate, communal, and universal.” And for the Crossans, it counts heavily in favor of the Eastern view that it addresses much more powerfully human life in the public square (Crossan, p. 24).

Their travels and study have convinced the Crossans that “the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence.” Ever “since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago,” they write, “we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replace.” On this trajectory, they ask, “What can save our species from itself?” Of the two visions of resurrection, they suggest, it is the Eastern Anastasis that holds out most hope. In addition to its communal character, the Eastern tradition clearly portrays the risen Jesus as “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected.” Risen Lord though he is, he is also the non-violent Jesus of his crucifixion. “His halo is imprinted with a cross, the gates of death are flattened in cruciform position, he bears wounds on hands and feet, and he carries a processional cross.” This image points to the fact, the Crossans show, that his death by crucifixion was a mode of punishment that Roman rulers imposed on agents of nonviolent resistance. Following this Jesus, his companions would not have engaged in escalatory violence, not even to save him from crucifixion. The vision of Christ’s resurrection in the Eastern church, the Crossans conclude, thus offers the better alternative for our “historical and evolutionary challenge” in the public square:

“The iconographic message is this: only nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilization can divert the human trajectory away from destruction and toward salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world. . . . As human evolution plays out, Christ’s resurrection isn’t just reality-creating metaphor for creedal Christians—it’s for all of humanity” (Crossans, p. 25).

Our location in the Western tradition aside, the selection of texts for The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B calls for proclamation of this vision of a universal resurrection that offers hope for all humankind. And it does so, we argue, not only in the face of the challenge of escalatory violence feared by the Crossans, but also with regard to the threat of global ecological devastation, which in our view is no less threatening to the future of our species, and a solution to it no less essential to their hope for “salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.”

Peter’s sermon to the gentiles gathered in the Caesarean home of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (Acts 10:1) witnessed “to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). Thus Peter’s message also is about an “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected” Christ—again, by the Crossans’ argument, an advocate for nonviolence—who reigns by God’s ordination as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42)—in other words, of all humanity, past and present. And the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25 strengthens this expectation of universal resurrection in the company of a non-violent lord: Yahweh promised a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples, and destruction of the “shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (v. 6-8, emphasis added)—also, clearly a promise of universal rescue from death, if not explicitly by resurrection.

In addition to their shared view of the resurrection as universal and free of violence, these passages are linked in a second way, one which enlarges the scope of the vision to bring all creation into view: each text mentions a meal, shared in the first instance by the disciples “chosen by God as witnesses” to the crucified-and-resurrected Lord, and secondly, the feast of Isaiah’s prophecy. The latter, we suggest, by its association here in the Easter readings, confers eschatological meaning to the former. The feast of Isaiah 25:6-9 is drawn from the Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, as Jon Levenson explains, the background of which “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the powers of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” “Central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” Levenson argues, Yahweh,

“like Baal associated with natural abundance and enhanced vitality, swallows Death, and we have here no hint that this victory will ever be reversed . . . the life-sapping forces will at last be eliminated, . . [W]hat is definitively defeated here is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1988, p. 30).

Levenson further notes that the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh at Isaiah 26:19,“brings about a resurrection” which, while not “exemplifying a doctrine of general resurrection . . . of the sort that was later to become central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” nonetheless projects “a definitive victory of YHWH over Death and . . . the rich and joyous feast he provides to all nations in celebration of his long-awaited triumph” (Levenson, p. 31).

Thus the linkage of the texts before us provides for extension of the scope of salvation envisioned by the message of Jesus’ resurrection, to embrace hope not only for a future, universal non-violent community of all humans, but also for an entire, restored creation within which they live. Easter is indeed an appropriate occasion for us to look forward to “a transformed earth . . . within a transfigured world.”

There are difficulties in the way of this reading of the texts, of course. In the first place, as noted above, neither vision of the resurrection, as described here, is a matter of actual historical reality. The lack of any description of the actual resurrection constitutes an absolute prohibition on speculation as to how the resurrection actually happened, a serious problem for appropriating the story’s power in the public square in our scientific cultural context. The resurrection remains a matter of metaphor and imagination. And surely an assemblage of ancient myth may seem a weak structure on which to base such extravagant hope. But, as the Crossans point out, while the vision of universal resurrection that drove the creative work of Eastern Christian artists and theologians through the centuries is indeed a metaphorical, and not a literal, event, that doesn’t matter, because “—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Crossan and Crossan, p. 24).

Yet again, even as a matter of metaphor, the assembled texts present a more serious complication for constructing a vision of the resurrection that embraces all creation. As Levenson notes, the vision of Isaiah with its defeat of “all life-denying forces, natural and historical,” is in its biblical context embedded in a narrative that ties it to a particular locale: Yahweh hosts the feast “on the mountain,” that is, on Zion, as the living God celebrates unqualified victory upon the temple mount. The temple, as Levenson shows, constitutes the earthly completion of the “great cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3.” In Rabbinic legend,

“the Jerusalem Temple is depicted as the cosmic capstone that prevents the great abyss (tehoma) from rising again to inundate the world and undo the work of creation. In this current of Rabbinic thought, as in the older temple mythos of the Hebrew Bible and its near Eastern antecedents, the point is not simply that the two projects, world building and temple building, are parallel. Rather, they implicate each other, and neither is complete alone. The microcosm is the idealized cosmos, the world contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be, a powerful piece of testimony to God the creator, a palace for the victorious king. To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil. It is that ideal world which is the result of God’s creative labors” (Levenson, p. 99).

A “distinctive note” of these ancient themes reflected in Isaiah 25:6-8, Levenson observes, is an “eschatological urgency” that derives from the dissonance between the world affirmed in temple liturgy and the world experienced in quotidian life. “In the former YHWH reigns in justice, unchallenged, and abundantly favoring his faithful and obedient votaries, whereas in the latter Israel is a small and threatened people, lacking sovereignty and often even the respect of those who hold her fate in their hand, and fidelity to her religion brings no temporal rewards, but many afflictions” (Levenson, p. 32).

The emergent community of Jesus’ followers undoubtedly shared a profound sense of such “eschatological urgency,” squeezed as it was between the hostile authorities that dominated Jewish life in Jerusalem and the legions of the Roman Empire. The difficulty here, of course, is that Zion with its temple is no longer for the followers of Jesus a place to participate in such a liturgy, whatever its relevance to their endangered situation. On the contrary, as the resurrection narrative of the Gospel reading from Mark shows them, Jesus and his followers are going out away from that sacred mountain. Indeed, the young man dressed in white who greets the two Mary’s at the tomb expressly directs them away from Zion: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It is emphatically not part of the resurrection message that the disciples are to remain in Jerusalem: they will not see the risen Jesus there. Nor, we take it, will any later readers of the Gospel.

So what happens here to the cosmological vision of the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that riven from its temple location, the cosmic conflict is no longer relevant to the future of the community of Jesus? Has the non-violent character of the community perhaps succeeded in banishing death from their midst? Not so, in Ched Myers’ view, not at all. In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” As he explains in his Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401) this redirection by the young man dressed in white actually completes the great religious reversal that Mark narrates from the very beginning of his Gospel. The Jerusalem temple was the economic, political, and religious center of the nation; its temple was the center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth were joined. But the story of Jesus begins out away from Jerusalem, at the edge of the wilderness, where God is first encountered in the waters of the Jordan. And as the story of Jesus’ passion develops, the temple is utterly vacated of the divine presence. As Myers observes, there was

“. . . no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; it is not the heavens that are rent (schizo), but the veil of the earthly sanctuary; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.”

Even the body that had taken central place in the narrative of Jesus’ action in Jerusalem, as Jesus offered himself in love to his disciples, even that is now gone—“he is not here” (Myers, p. 406). When the story of Jesus is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: the crucified body is risen from the dead. But also that body is absent from the scene: as Myers observes, in the course of Mark’s narrative not only has Jesus’ body replaced the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life, but now his absent body is in turn displaced by what Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone,” confirming “Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Myers, p. 406).

This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in fact deeply significant for our concern for care of creation. The mission of the crucified-and-risen Lord is to be worked out in the context of everyday life. Strong confirmation of this redirection is given, in fact, by the very figure who brings the message. Tom Mundahl reminded us in his comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent that the young man dressed in white at the tomb in the Gospel of Mark represents more than the eye can at first see. He is the blind man of Mark 10:47, who flees on the night of Jesus passion, abandoning his cloak; we see him again here at the end of the Gospel, newly dressed in the white robe of the Christian neophyte. His name was Bartimaeus, that is, son of Timaeus. Timaeus was a figure in Platonic philosophy who envisioned heaven and earth, as Mundahl summarizes his view, as “a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision.” The formerly blind but now sighted Bar-timaeus represents the Markan rejection of this elitist view in favor of an understanding of how, in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, his followers are to be made newly aware of how radically different the presence of God is envisioned when Jesus is seen “in Galilee.” At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4). In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21) . . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25). Jesus’ teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11:24) . . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid., p. 443).

And it is there in the discipleship practice that the world, “contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be,” is manifest as “powerful testimony to God the creator,” albeit without requiring “a palace for the victorious king.”

In its readings for Easter Sunday, therefore, the church properly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of its belief in the universal resurrection from the dead and its celebration of the pascal feast. And it does so without limitation with respect to the locus of this discipleship practice in the vicinity of the Temple of Zion or, which is perhaps the more important, larger point, any other, similar cosmic and political center. The departure from Jerusalem is not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel’s faith and concern for creation so central to temple practice, then, as rather its appropriation for those followers who return to Galilee and, indeed, for the mission of those followers as they move from there across the Roman world. What happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh’s holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God’s presence from that precinct; but it was also the initiation of a new manifestation of that presence in the community of Jesus’ followers. As Gordon Lathrop puts it, also with reference to the tombside redirection of the two Marys by Bartimaeus, it is now to be understood that

“. . . the actual history and death of Jesus have inaugurated the eschaton of God in this world. God’s acting in justice and mercy for the healing of the created world could therefore be proclaimed in the gathered communities, in the power of the Spirit, by telling there the stories of Jesus and, reinterpreted through him, the very stories of Israel, and by eating there the eschatological feast of his gift . . . . This encounter with the eschaton, with what came to be called ‘the resurrection,’ was taking place in every local assembly, not in Jerusalem alone, or Rome alone, or some other “apostolic headquarter” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 , p.134).

This being so, it is precisely in those assemblies that we might look for the “world as it was meant to be,” not only a human community from which the plague of reciprocal violence is being removed, but also a new creation, a creation being restored because death no longer has dominion there.

If this relocation of the eschatological presence of God removes ties to the temple, it nonetheless imposes all the more strictly the practice of nonviolence. Indeed, domination by any means is excluded. Crucially, it even “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology,” Myers insists, “which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid., p. 408). The risen Christ remains the crucified-and-resurrected Christ of the Gospel tradition. What this means for the proclamation of the resurrection is that the reach of the life-giving and restoring presence of God in the creation can never be stopped short of its cosmic completion. It can never be permanently captured by the powers that control the sacred center of a society by whatever means, violent or otherwise.

In the first instance, therefore, this message will be returned to the original field of activity, Galilee, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem (Myers, p. 406). It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p. 443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent of Africa, and even across Asia. Before long, of course, the material needs of those communities will bring into ever fuller play the full scope of the eschatological realization of God’s restoration of creation, as symbolized earlier in the temple’s eschatology, but now focused on the life of the discipleship community. As with the temple, so with the community. It’s practice and the world of its location belong together; now they are the implicate of each other, as temple and world were before. This is why the inclusion of the eschatolgical meal in the message of Easter is so significant. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

“it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site [the table fellowship] as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus’ “body” (14:22-25) . . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is ‘holy,’ for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid., p. 443).

The meal is, as Myers has it, “for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (16:7).” But the community will not be sustained in any of its places of settlement if it is not also a meal that creates new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in the midst of which it is shared.

Thus the spread of the discipleship practice congruent with the hope of universal resurrection repeatedly draws the community ever more deeply into the public square. If not in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, and eventually in Rome as the center of its Western Empire, the historical and natural conditions of life are taken up into the story of the way of Jesus. If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers find themselves at home, then neither location nor dwelling are finally irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides the plain where Jesus preached and the mountain on which Jesus died and was raised, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, the city but also the wilderness, each of which offers again and again its special kind of participatory membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And when no longer Rome and its many extensions under the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Western church secured its attachment to the sphere of the planet Earth, then in each of its re-centering capitals, and eventually the United States of America, with its strong if merely metaphorical claim to be a New Israel, and a City set on a Hill. With each of these extensions, more and more peoples are drawn into the community of human life in the name of the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus, more and more of Earth is encompassed in the hope of creation’s restoration and completion. And everywhere the meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human. But whenever any such center makes a claim to be the center in which God is uniquely, even supremely present, and defends that claim by violence that destroys the bonds of community and actions that result in the degradation of creation, it is time for the celebration of the feast to be moved once again to the margins, to the life-giving river in the wilderness, to the edge of the cosmos, and from there to move freely back into the midst of life. It is therefore crucial to the future of the human race that those margins, that wilderness, the infinite, limitless space, continue to provide place for the ever renewing manifestation of God.

Are we in such a time? The arguments about American exceptionalism in history may legitimately raise the question. The domination of a protestant Christianity over the civil religion of an American imperial leadership in the public sphere may suggest so. The attempt to exclude or at least limit other than Christian religious practice at that seat of military and economic power may also suggest so. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, when humans dominate all the biological processes of earth, and indeed weaponize the earth against its weaker and more vulnerable communities, both human and non-human, is it not time, if not already too late, to ask, whether our current coalition of religious, economic and political power will ever be able to deliver the fullness of both human and other-than-human life, as promised in resurrection vision of the Eastern church? Surely, it seems not. Very few, if any, of the “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” have been removed from our centers of civilization. It is perhaps not surprising that for most followers of Jesus in this age of the great American Empire, it suffices for them to hope that they are among those who in the resurrection will be delivered, individually, or at best, in community limited by faith, out from this vail of tears. We have been making do with that limited vision of an individual resurrection for too long already. Again, let it be said, in the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, we all rise together, and that includes the communities of non-human life, no less than the human species, or we finally rise not at all.

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

Passion Sunday and Holy Week in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Transformation of All Life Dennis Ormseth reflects on the reorientation of creation to its sacred center.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Sunday of the Passion
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation’s Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”  With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day.  Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (Mark 14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.

Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.”  The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God’s dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around”  signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple’s significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.

Jesus’ relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark’s Gospel, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed,  the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of  forgiveness,” mediating access to God  (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).

Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus’ view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers’s phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration  and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).

Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment’s significance this way:

“With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14).  The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23).

And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.”  What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”?

In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).

In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week’s associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).

(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)

Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus’ profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).

So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water.  A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus’ commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (Mark 1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (Mark 3:7-11).  After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (Mark 5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world?  “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. “As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected.” (See also Tom Mundahl’s  comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)

If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed.  And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (Mark 8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes,  the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Mark 14:24).”  What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”

The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,

“Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution” (Myers, p. 364).

And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).

As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of  those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.

Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (Mark 14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).

Helpful as Myer’s discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato’s Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark’s gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”

Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.

Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility.

“Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest” (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).

In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.

There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that

“compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).

This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).

In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses  just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.

At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God’s suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope 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.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)

Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a  replacement of the temple, Jesus’ sacrifice effects

“‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ’s followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).

Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration – of all creation!

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

Sunday of the Passion in Year B (Schade18)

More than Eco-PalmsLeah Schade reflects on ecojustice and Passion Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Mark 11:1-11 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1 – 15:47

On Palm Sunday, thousands of churches will use sustainably-harvested palms in their worship services marking the beginning of Holy Week. It is right and good that more congregations are recognizing the need to exercise environmental responsibility when it comes to liturgical practices. Organizations such as Eco-Palms protect important forests and sustainable livelihoods in the harvesting communities. But let’s not end there. The sermon, too, can incorporate ecojustice themes that highlight the connection between Jesus’ crucifixion and the eco-crucifixion happening today.

We begin our Palm Sunday services with our palm fronds and branches lifted high, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.” Our voices echo those of the crowds gathered outside of Jerusalem waving branches, spreading their cloaks on the road. They were cheering on the man they hoped would lead them to a glorious military victory over the Roman Empire.

Less than thirty minutes later, we’re all yelling, “Crucify him!” when the dramatic reading of the Passion story calls for us to call out these words. What happened? Why the sudden 180-degree turn? As soon as the crowds in Jerusalem realized that Jesus is a leader of sacrificial peace instead of bloody war, they turn on him. One minute they are chanting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Soon after that, they’re screaming, “Crucify him!”

For some people this sudden move from Palms to Passion is jolting. We feel uncomfortable calling for Jesus’ death. We don’t want to be identified with that crowd. Some Christians and certain churches even avoid the entire Holy Week journey altogether. They have Palm Sunday, alright. But they skip over all the dark, ugly, graphic parts of the story on Good Friday. They go right from palms to Easter lilies. None of that messy stuff in between.

Lutherans call this “cheap grace,” because it requires no change, no response. It provides no means for a change of heart, for a transformed attitude, for a moment of self-awareness, repentance, and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.

But we choose not to ignore the suffering of Jesus. We believe it is vital that we tell all parts of the story and that we recognize ourselves as part of both crowds—the ones who cheer, and the ones who call for crucifixion. Especially as our planet is undergoing an eco-crucifixion, it is imperative that we tell that part of the story as well. The crucifixion of Jesus happened once in history. But the crucifixion of Earth is carried out daily.

Mark I. Wallace, in his book Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2005), offers a novel image of Earth as the continually crucified Spirit of God. By seeing the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God, which then becomes embodied in the natural world, he builds on Sallie McFague’s notion of Earth as God’s body. He then shifts the focus to the third person of the Trinity and incorporates the Divine Feminine. He makes the connection to Christ’s crucifixion in this way:

“If God’s body—this small planet that is now under siege by continued global warming, deforestation, the spread of toxins, the chronic loss of habitat—continues to suffer and bleed, then does not God, in some sense real but still unknowable and mysterious to us, also suffer and bleed? . . . If it is the case that when the earth, God’s body, suffers, then God’s Spirit suffers as well, then we can say that the Spirit of God is ‘Christ-like’ or ‘cruciform’ because the Spirit suffers the same violent fate as did Jesus—but now a suffering not confined to a onetime event of the cross, as in the case of Jesus, but a suffering that the Spirit experiences daily through the continual debasement of the earth and its inhabitants . . . . [T]he Spirit bears the cross of a planet under siege as she lives under the burden of humankind’s ecological sin” (Wallace, 23-24).

Wallace warns of a “permanent trauma to the divine life itself” through the crucifixion-like ecocide that humans continually inflict upon Earth and its inhabitants (Wallace, 129). His powerful equation of God’s suffering through Jesus on the cross with God’s suffering through the embodied Spirit in Earth is meant to spurn “a conversion of the heart to a vision of a green earth, where all persons live in harmony with their natural environments” that persuades us “to work toward a seamless social-environmental ethic of justice and love toward all of God’s creatures” (Wallace, 136).

So on Palm Sunday, we tell the story of the Passion so that we remember. We tell this story to our children so that they remember. Lest we think ourselves so much more advanced than the rabid crowds in Jerusalem, we must recognize that we are no different today. What was done to Jesus is still done to people and our planet.  Native Americans continue to lose their sacred land sacrificed to the colonization of the oil and gas industry. Communities of color continue to be targeted for polluting industries and toxic landfills.  Island nations such as Puerto Rico are raked by catastrophic storms super-charged by climate change and given little help in recovery. Coral reefs worldwide are bleaching and dying. Billions of populations of plants, fish, and animals have been lost in recent decades in what scientists are calling a “biological annihilation.” We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event since life began on this planet. So, yes, the crucifixion of our planet and people is real and ongoing.

There is a hymn sometimes sung during Holy Week entitled, “Ah, Holy Jesus” (Johann Heermann, 1630).

Ah, Holy Jesus . . .
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.
I crucified thee.

On Palm Sunday and Holy Week, we consciously and intentionally remember that we are guilty and have committed eco-crucifixion against people and planet.  The pain of eco-crucifixion is real, and the voices of those who suffer need to be heard. We must speak of this in our worship service so that we do not become numb to the pain and thus apathetic towards our sisters and brothers—because, if we cut ourselves off from their pain, the cycle of violence will only continue.

But there is another reason why we tell this story. We do this to remember what God is doing in response to this crucifixion. Some might say, “Well, yes, God sent Jesus to die for our sins. God allowed Jesus to die in order to make payment for our sins. That’s what God is doing here, right?”

However, I would again argue that this is also “cheap grace,” because this theory of atonement requires no response from us. It provides for no change of heart, or a transformed attitude, or a moment of self-awareness, repentance, and a decision to lead a life of reconciliation.

Does God really require the killing of Jesus in order to be satisfied for our sins? No. But humans do. The Jewish and Roman domination systems had to kill Jesus because he was a threat to their power. And we continue to sacrifice lives for the sake of institutional domination, imperial arrogance, economic and territorial greed, and petty pride.

But God answers all of this in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The answer is: this must stop! If God wanted sacrifice, then Jesus would have remained dead. That’s not what happened. Jesus was resurrected. Jesus lives. This means that God does not condone violence committed against God’s Creation. God submits to it, absorbs it, and lives right through it in order to be in solidarity with those who suffer through it. And then God resurrects the condemned one, the betrayed one, the crucified one in order to show that this act of violence is not the last word. We have to believe that God, who has brought us through 14 billion years of time, will not abandon us now. That somehow God is working through even this human-made catastrophe of global climate change, deforestation, massive extinction, and toxic poisoning to find a way for life to push through once again. So I make the choice to believe—and act on my firm belief—that on the other side of the Good Friday of the eco-crucifixion, there is an eco-resurrection.

Stay with the journey to the cross. Don’t turn away from it. It will not be easy. But this is part of God’s plan to transform the worst of humanity into the very best that God intends for God’s people, for our planet, and for our future.

Originally written by Leah Schade in 2018.
Read more by Leah Schade at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/

Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wisdom from Gardening – Tom Mundahl reflects on the seed that dies to bear fruit.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Wisdom and witness from the garden.

The time for studying seed catalogues in the Midwest is nearly over. Now is decision time. What will we grow in our limited space? Even more difficult is choosing seeds. Which varieties of carrots or squash should we try this year? Do we experiment with new, hybrid varieties, or purchase heirloom seeds? Which will work best in our soil conditions and changing climate? These are fascinating but difficult choices for the avid gardener, who, in a few weeks will plant these seeds in the earth “to die.”

Everyone who has ever planted a garden understands the image used in our gospel reading: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (literally, “alone”); but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Without the expenditure of the “life” that is stored in the seed—from genetic material to micro-nutrients—a garden simply will not grow.

Jesus uses this “parable” in response to a request from “some Greeks” who wanted to see him during the at the Passover Festival. While it may seem that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse, responding with a Zen-like koan less than helpful for these Gentile seekers, this short parable points toward the meaning of Jesus’ life and the future of the community enlivened by him.

To live real life is to give life away.

For it is not only gardening advice. With logic much like that used in the first Markan passion prediction (see Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38), Jesus argues that all attempts to find security on one’s own, or to protect oneself from the risks of life together, will lead to unfruitful death (the grain remaining “alone”). This is why Jesus continues: “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). To live real life is to give life away, to “spend” it.

Giving life away may seem like a waste of energy and resources to our culture. But Jesus digs deeper, seeking the very reason for receiving the gift of life. Once again, he puts it in vivid, but difficult words: “ . . . those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is, those who come to see that life is not a possession to be stored in a vault, but shared as needed in community, find that life becomes so rich it takes on a new quality that Jesus refers to as “eternal life.” (John 12:25)

Jesus gives his life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is about to demonstrate with the cross. Resurrection life—the life implied from the very beginning of this gospel—is cruciform to the marrow. Yet, it is the way to the germination of new creation. What would possess one to risk this? Only one who is confident that self-emptying death is not final. Instead, Jesus breaks ground for a “way” that passes even through death into the creation and nurture of a new community celebrating the interdependence of the whole of creation. This is a giving of life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

Wisdom from Dostoevsky: love of Earth and renewing of strength.

This is likely why the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, chose John 12:24 as the epigraph for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Alyosha, has spent months attached to a monastery, mentored by the Elder Zosima. While the novel makes clear that Zosima’s wisdom is focused on life—the precious web of relations between God, people, and the created world, there are those who expect extraordinary miracles that will add to the status of the monastery upon his coming death. The most basic of these expectations is the conviction that, because of the Elder’s holiness, his dead body will not be subject to decay.

When Zosima dies, his body begins to give off “an unmistakable scent.” Many would-be saint-makers begin to scoff at this well-loved teacher. Even Alyosha is crestfallen. Yet, in the midst of his grief and disappointment, he recalls “the Miracle at Cana” (John 2). Alyosha begins to grasp that Zosima has showered him with liveliness comparable to the “best wine” created by Jesus to enliven that wedding party!

As he leaves the monastery carrying this new insight, suddenly:

“The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. . . . He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, 362-63).

There are many ways to embrace God’s creation and to water it with our tears. While these textual comments have focused on Lenten texts, they surely drive toward the Three Days and the celebration of the Great Passover from death to life. As we look forward to baptism(s) at the Vigil, we recall both the renunciation of the powers of destruction in that service and the promise of parents and sponsors to “care for others and the world God made.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Holy Baptism,” p. 228). This makes us ‘fighters,’ too.

The finite bears the infinite.

Of course, this celebration of victory over the power of destruction and evil by the one who “draws all to himself on the cross” (John 12:32) is continued throughout the year in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist. This meal reminds us that what we eat and drink in the midst of the assembly, gathered by the Spirit, and affirming the Risen One, is charged with life that honors all creation (finitum capax infiniti). This meal of radical sharing creates a community whose very reason to be is mutual care–”Go in peace, serve the Lord.”

By our self-denial, we make space for others to flourish.

And this caring mirrors the very act of creation. This is because the Risen One is the embodiment of God’s making space for that which is other, which is essential to creation. This becomes clearer in the even more explicit “self-emptying” we focus on this season (Philippians 2:5-11) As Wirzba reminds us,

“God’s original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God ‘makes room’ for what is not God to be and to flourish. Rowan Williams observes that it is when we practice the self-denial and self-dispossession that mirror God’s life that we are enabled to receive each other and the world as divine gifts rather than personal possessions.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2012, p. 69).

Whether it is caring for our gardens or “fasting” from automobile driving during Lent, this “making space for life” nourishes much like the “seed that dies to bear fruit.”

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Saler15)

Getting Real about the Mortality of the EarthRobert Saler reflects on renouncing control over outcomes.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

We have come to that point in the Lenten season where the preacher is called upon to reflect with the congregation about the reality of death—the death of Christ as illustrated by his familiar yet still-poignant imagery in John 12:24, and also the inevitable reality of death as faced by the all human beings. It is a truism, but it bears repeating: every man, woman, and child hearing preaching this Sunday will face death—some peacefully, others not. Christians, or at least Christian preachers, cannot participate in what Ernest Becker decades ago referred to as America’s pervasive “denial of death.” Honest preaching must be drenched in mortality.

How does this extend to preaching creation care? Several years ago, I wrote a meditation for the literary magazine The Cresset in response to a trend that I tend to find troubling in much environmental discourse, including Christian ecological discourse: the tendency to speak of creation care as if immortality were somehow desirable or even possible—not immortality of the individual, but rather the immortality of the Earth. In my article, I argued instead that it is especially in preaching and theologizing about creation care that we must highlight the mortality of creation—not simply that creation CAN die (a point made often and well by ecologists) but, more radically, that the earth WILL die.

This is why considering every act of care as an act of care for the dying has profound significance for ecological ethics (and indeed, for Christian life as a whole). It is to renounce control over outcomes. It is to refuse to tie the value of an act of care—whether for a child, a tree, or an ocean—to its efficacy in conserving the cared-for thing. It is to celebrate care for its own sake, and for the sake of the possibility that the act of care might be the occasion for the creation of resurrection space. To relinquish “conservation” in favor of “care for the dying” is to acknowledge reality as we know it, but also to honor the hope that the reality that we know might not be “the final word” at all.

The full article, which I hope will be helpful as a preaching resource, is here:
http://thecresset.org/2013/Lent/Saler_L2013.html

As I reflect back on that writing, I have become even more convinced that it is crucial for the homiletical rhetoric of creation care not to lose sight of this powerfully Christian gift of speaking of resurrection and God’s life-giving acts as occurring IN and THROUGH the reality of death, not bypassing it somehow either through silence or, worse, a kind of environmental “theology of glory” (as Luther would put it) that speaks as if we can somehow save the earth through our own acts of ecological righteousness—recycling, political activism, and so on. These works are in fact quite good and necessary, but they cannot without spiritual danger or activist delusion be part of a kind of implicit soteriological schema a) that denies the fact that the earth is as drenched in mortality as we are, and b) that places this false immortality somehow within our control such that we are shamed by the stubborn facts of death. As Luther saw, works-righteousness is its own kind of hell, and this applies as much to ecological works-righteousness as individual schemas.

So, for this Sunday, as the trusted preacher guides her congregation through the process of placing their own mortality in the light of the gospel, it is a marvelous opportunity to expand that mortality out by placing it in ecological context. Too much hope for false immortality defers death by assuming (implicitly or explicitly) that life will somehow “go on” after we die, either in the memory of loved ones (who are themselves, of course, mortal) or in the more abstract form of the species/creation. But as Lutherans, we can be radical in our embrace of mortality knowing that the event of the cross and the empty tomb is not death’s denial but mortality’s deep reckoning. Let this theme be as ecological as others, and the proclamation of the gospel of life may take on existentially richer tones than ever before.

Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Mundahl18)

Ending Our Exile from CreationTom Mundahl reflects on owning the responsibilities of our priesthood.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Finally we can begin to see our garden beds. Even though we have been able to celebrate a Minnesota winter in all of its beauty and challenge, after four months of snow we cannot help but experience a sense of exile from the rich smell of warming humus in garden beds and the ever-surprising growth of seeds into food and flowers. But that exile is also apparent as we begin to comprehend what it means to enter the Anthropocene Epoch where the relative predictability of life on earth has begun to disappear as a result of humans dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is in addition to human resource use that has increased to the point where scholars at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, CA, have estimated that for all humankind to live at the level of Americans, four planets would be necessary! (www.footprintnetwork.org)

Lent is certainly the season to face the arrogance of human “overshoot” and, reflecting on the re-creating mercy of God, to repent by turning our policies, practices and expectations around to learn how to live fruitfully and justly in balance with this blue planet. Like the people of Judah who were captured by the Babylonians, one of the most powerful and advanced cultures of its time, we have been enslaved by a set of axioms for living that cannot be sustained, nor should they. So it is a gift on this last Sunday in Lent to begin with a prophet of exile, Jeremiah, who may help us begin to see glimmers of freedom.

Jeremiah had no difficulty detecting human arrogance. Dragged kicking and screaming into his vocation, he not only exposed the culture’s contempt for truth, but experienced it directly in rejection. Given his faithfulness in delivering God’s message of judgment in both symbolic actions and words, we are surprised suddenly to come upon the “Book of Consolation,” one of the most profound statements of hope in the Jewish scriptures. This new word promises that the LORD will bring the exiles home in nothing less than a second Exodus (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this return to the land of promise begins, Jeremiah describes their future as a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12-14).

That image of a “watered garden” is important for understanding this familiar text. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  It seems that in the face of Judah’s arrogance it was necessary for the leaders to return once more to the wilderness, even if that wilderness was the alien culture of Babylon. Hear Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: the people who have survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).  Only in this “wilderness experience” where dependence is total can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) be seen as gift, not merely the results of human effort.

Just as the return to a fertile land is now seen as something granted, so also is the restored harmony between God and people now experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah,  Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).

Not only does this provide a new basis of forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony throughout the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the rubble. Even fields that had served as burial places for the fallen will once more become fertile gardens (cf. Jeremiah 31:40, John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 283). Quite clearly, “covenant restoration” includes not just humankind, but spills over to the land as well.

Even though the notion of Jesus as “high priest” seems strange during a year when we immerse ourselves in Mark’s Gospel with numerous uses of John, Hebrews holds a secure place in the canon and in piety. The purpose of this metaphor seems to be to establish Jesus’ identity as both the one who brings healing to creation and completes the Jewish system of sacrifice. The “high priest” according to the anonymous author is chosen and “put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1), one who mediates between God and humankind.

But Jesus is the final high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10). Much speculation surrounds the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, much of it coming from Qumran referred to in various scrolls. Apparently, the author’s strategy here is to bolster Jesus’ authority with reference to one greater than Abraham, “who blessed him who had received the promises” (Hebrews 7:6) and outranks all other priests (Thomas G. Long, HebrewsLouisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 66-67). Ultimately, because Jesus sacrificed his own blood, he has “opened for us a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).

While Hebrews can seem arcane, we are also reminded that the very notion of “priesthood” is something we share with all Christians through baptism. As Luther wrote in the Address to the German Nobility (1520), “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.” Even though all baptized Christians are called to serve as priests—mediators between God, sisters and brothers, and the creation—not all are called to pastoral ministry. While Protestants have generally seen “the priesthood of all believers” as a critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy, we have all too rarely seen priesthood as an empowering vocation.

Orthodox perspectives help us here. “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly role (not necessarily a priest leading worship) does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on Earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place, but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1) so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as blessing” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207). Our shared priesthood in seeking eco-justice, then, expresses our prayer and action toward ending our arrogant exile from creation, insuring the wholeness and peace that is Sabbath delight.

Timing is everything.  Gardeners know that planting cannot be hurried— the soil must be fed with rich compost and its temperature must have warmed to proper germination levels. In much the same way, “Jesus’ hour” comes only when “certain Greeks” ask to see him (John 12:20), signaling that now with the addition of “other sheep” (John 10:16) the flock is complete. Now is the time for planting: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Jesus’ “parable” takes for granted ancient beliefs that with the loss of their original form seeds ceased to be what they were and died. Even though we understand the growth process differently, the image still conveys power. As James P. Mackey writes, “Every transformation in the universal process of evolutionary creativity involves a death of existing forms or a de-formation . . . (But what is this but) . . . the inevitable negative pole of the positive force of creative evolution that forever brings new or renewed forms into being” (quoted in Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162). As Wendell Berry observes as he works in his hillside woodlots, “where the creation is yet fully alive and continuous and self-enriching, whatever dies enters directly into the life of the living . . . ” (“An Entrance to the Woods,” Recollected Essays 1965-1980, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 240)

Berry’s view of transition in forests reminds us that even theologically, death is a self-offering movement in which an individual gives himself or herself to another for the expansion of life. As Wirzba suggests, “Rather than viewing life as a possession, one inspired by Christ understands that life is a gift to be received and given again . . . . All attempts to secure life from within or to withhold oneself from the offering that is the movement of life, will amount to life’s loss” (Wirzba, p. 112). This is why Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). Real life is expenditure.

This explains why Dostoevsky uses John 12:24 as the epigraph for his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this earthy theological thriller we meet two religious protagonists: the Elder Zosima and Alyosha Karamozov, a novice monk. Zosima serves as starets (spiritual advisor) to the monks and to the multitude who come to him for advice and counsel. But he has not only lived inside cloister walls. Earlier he had been a dashing military officer, playing cards and challenging brother officers to duels. In fact, it was as he prepared for a duel that suddenly he was granted a vision of the unity and holiness of creation, a vision which sent him to the monastery. This tempering of piety with worldly experience serves as the basis of his holiness and humility. It is with the same humility that his life ends: suddenly he felt a pain in his chest, “silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully, gave up his soul to God” (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 6, Ch.3, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 324).

The expectation is that because of Zosima’s unusual holiness, his body will not exhibit the odor of decay. To the delight of his monastic rivals, not only does the stench begin, but it seems to be especially pronounced. Young Alyosha is crushed. Does this mean that his mentor was nothing but a fraud? In his shock he finally returns to stand watch near Zosima’s bier where Father Paissy reads aloud from the scriptures. It is when Alyosha hears the account of the Wedding at Cana read aloud that he experiences once again Zosima’s voice celebrating the richness of new wine. Suddenly Alyosha runs out of the chapel and when he reaches the forest, like Zosima, he falls down and embraces the earth weeping tears of joy. As Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life” (Ibid., Bk. 7, Ch. 4, p. 363). By falling to the earth as the seed that has died, as he leaves the monastery he becomes   part of a new community caring for the whole creation.

Dostoevsky here teaches that self-offering is not a waste leading nowhere. As Wirzba claims, “The giving of oneself, instead, leads to life as it really ought to be: ‘those who hate their life in the world’ (v. 25)—that is, those who realize that individual life is not a possession or an idol to be guarded and worshipped at all costs, those who categorically reject the isolating project of self-glorification, but instead willingly give themselves over for the good of others—‘will keep it for eternal life’ (v. 25)” (Wirzba, p. 114). Working for eco-justice with all one’s life may not be a good career choice, but it is an integral calling among the priesthood of all believers.

The high point of our gospel text occurs when Jesus describes being lifted up from the earth and “drawing all to myself” (John 12:32). Yes, the preferred NRSV reading is “all people,” but “all things” conforms more closely to 3:35 and 13:3, “all things have been given.” Why not, then, simply use “all” to avoid anthropocentrism and emphasize the creation interests of the Gospel. As Daly-Denton argues, “So to think of panta (“all”) being given into Jesus’ hands is to think of ‘all things’ being entrusted to the disciples as well. Their mission is to do the creating and sustaining ‘works of God’ (John 6:28), as modeled by the Good Shepherd, even  to the point of putting their life on the line as he did” (Daly-Denton, p. 166).

Because of the ecological situation we find ourselves in, it would be helpful to hear a confirming voice from heaven as did the festival crowd in our narrative (John 12:29-30). We may ask whether “the ruler of this world has been driven out” (John 12:31) as we admit that the wanton use of our freedom and technological power has led us to the brink of ruin and left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is unresponsive to “human interests.” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37)  Is our fate simply as Philip Sherrard has described: “There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourself to it.  That is the punishment.” (The Eclipse of Man and Nature, Stockbridge: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 71-72)

Every Sunday, even the Sundays of Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection. That does not mean that Christians are naively optimistic about the prospects we face. We would be fools to expect that a new technology or the sudden appearance of a new leader will solve the problems we confront. But as we come down to earth and plant the seeds of small gardens, teach children where carrots come from, and help sisters and brothers to see that eco-justice is central to our “priesthood,” we find hope. The one who sends Jeremiah to tear down our falsity and the Christ to draw all to him on the cross will certainly puncture every assumption of our arrogant culture—including our own personal favorites. Yet that same Creator will give us the courage to own our responsibilities, begin to mitigate climate damage, and work to find a place in the choir for all of God’s creatures.

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

How can we allow the religion of consumption to threaten God’s future? – Tom Mundahl reflects on turning from darkness to light.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The Religion of Consumption

In 1955, American economist Victor Lebow wrote a prescription for the postwar economy that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” (quoted in Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? New York: Norton, 1992, pp. 21-22)

The impact of this “religion of consumption” is no surprise to those who care for creation, all struggling to live justly and humbly in “the belly of the beast.” The results of this postwar orgy of consumption are clear enough: massive waste of energy and material; increased degradation of air, water, and soil; use of thousands of chemical compounds whose effects are unknown, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exhaust fueling climate change, and embrace of “magical thinking” trusting that these problems will be “solved” by the newest techno “trick.”

How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation?

How could this be? How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation? Today’s readings provide clues that, even though they are nearly too blunt to miss, we too often ‘skate over’ to avoid offending what we might call the ‘spirit of the age,’ especially at a time when we do not want to rock the boat of a fragile economic recovery.

How could the church have bought into Victor Lebow’s clearly idolatrous way of thinking? Or, to echo Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Is it, as Marxists used to claim, “false consciousness?” Are we simply so overwhelmed by the massive quantity of commercial messaging and allegiance to finding meaning in ‘branding’ that we cannot help but respond to these stimuli? Are we so overworked in an anxious job milieu that we take our rewards where we can get them –at the mall or by shopping online?

Light and Darkness / Old Life, New Way of Being in Christ

Our readings suggest that, while all of these carry explanatory power, it is worse than that. As the Nicodemus discourse winds down, Jesus, who in the Prologue has already been called “the true light, which enlightens everyone….” (John 1:9) describes how responding to his presence creates a “crisis” (translated as “judgment,” v. 19) that orients humankind to “the light” or “the darkness.” This parallels the distinction etched in our second lesson between the “old life” (Ephesians 2:3) and the “new life in Christ” that has created a new community of hope (Ephesians 2:4-10). No matter how those who do not believe have ended up in this situation, the result is the same—embracing of the darkness, living in the old ways where one must manufacture one’s own security and hope.

And there is plenty of support for living the old life of darkness! The Roman Empire could provide a complete syllabus of religious practices that would not only be socially approved, but provide a safe anchor in the community. Something like that seems to be true for all in our culture who prefer the darkness. Bill McKibben points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” featured several climate science deniers, including five with ties to Exxon Oil (TomDispatch.com, February 9, 2012).

In fact, the darkness of a system that depends upon ravaging God’s creation has taken more than a century of “popular education” (read ‘propaganda’) to develop. As theologian Norman Wirzba argues:

“In fact, the vices of the great moral and spiritual traditions –pride, greed, and prodigality—first had to be transformed into economic virtues for Adam Smith’s ideas abut production, acquisition, and work to take hold. Today’s economies, in other words, are planned. They depend upon founding myths or assumptions that need to be seriously questioned if we are to make significant changes in the way we live.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 98)

Let Light and Newness Prevail

But God’s purpose in sending the One who is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) is to recreate and renew all of creation so that light and newness prevail. This is the goal we move toward during Lent as we look forward to lighting the “new fire” at the Easter Vigil and anticipate new baptisms into this community of care and love. What moves us cannot be better summarized than in John 3:16: “God so loved the world….” Even if the world contains a deep power of opposition embracing the old ways of darkness, this created world is in the process of being made new.

John connects this action to the old story of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness to bring hope to a community that has, in a sense, destroyed itself on the way to the Promised Land.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

This cross now becomes the center of the world, the axis mundi , the locus from which the Son of Man will draw all to himself (John 12:32) in the process of driving out the ruler of this world…and the musty darkness.

We are called to be a new community of life and hope.

But that is not all. In the meantime, those already captured by the new light are very busy. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may clearly be seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). This line is beautifully echoed at the end our second reading describing the purpose of creating a new community of light and hope. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life”(Ephesians 2:10).

Our task of good works is to care for creation.

Even in the face of a contracting consumer culture, filled with anxiety about what is coming next, our task is to continue to be about “the good works” already prepared for us. This is our life path. At times, I consider chucking this “care of creation struggle” in favor of walking the St. Olav Pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, or the El Camino Santiago Way to Compostela in Spain. Certainly, we all need to experience “sabbatical” time. But as Victor Lebow’s vision of “faith-based shopping” weakens us and our culture, the power of the one lifted up like the serpent frees us to continue to live out the way “prepared for us”—caring for creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Saler15)

Preaching the Adventure of Passion – Robert Saler reflects on being a listening church.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Those who would preach creation care in connection with the famous John 3 pericope—which of course includes what is perhaps the single most quoted Bible verse, John 3:16—face a significant challenge which we might call the “branding” issue.

The issue is this: While John’s gospel understands the struggle between the “life abundant” promised by God and inaugurated by Jesus on the one hand and the forces of death and darkness on the other to be one of deadly seriousness, one that encompasses both sublime spiritual realities and the most existentially significant embodied struggles in life, in too many sectors that gospel message has been so spiritualized and “churchified” that it has lost the ability to name the most vital struggles at play in our inner and outer worlds. “For God so loved the world” has become synonymous with billboard evangelism and regressive politics, particularly in the U.S. context.

As a number of studies on the rise of the “nones” have concluded (people with religious interests but no religious community), the slow exodus of millenials from traditional religious affiliation is not attributable to a lack of passion to change the world and engage in social justice-oriented activities, including the creation of beauty. Indeed, one of the most troubling facts of these reports for those of us who feel loyalty to the church and its witness is that, in many cases, there appears to be an inverse relationship between a millenial’s passion to spend her or his life in causes that make a difference and the likelihood of that individual participating in church. Millenials are not, by and large, anti-religion; they simply are in the gradual process of losing faith in the institutional church to be a venue that can host and amplify their passions.

Those steeped in the deep wells of Christian ecological theology—or indeed, orthodox Christian theology in general—will know that the Christian witness, apart from its degrading affiliations with cheap sloganeering on political or religious fronts, has always understood itself to encompass the whole pathos of the human condition. As we continue to live into what future generations will certainly see as one of the key defining dramas of our planet—combating the deleterious effects of environmental degradation, with the necessary attention to the matters of race, class, global poverty, and cultural contestation that this struggle entails—then marshalling the passion for human flourishing present within and outside of the church will be, not only a key strategic matter, but also a measure of our fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I have been teaching a course this semester at my school, Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, on C.S. Lewis and the intellectual environment in which his theology took shape. One of the more striking features of Lewis’ work—and that of his close friend and collaborator, J.R.R. Tolkien—is the pervasiveness of the theme of adventure and genuine bodily/existential peril involved in their depictions of the struggle between good and evil. A key motivation behind the theological mytho-poetics of their fantasy texts is to depict, in resonant narrative fashion, what it would mean for Christians to live as if the drama of following Christ’s self-sacrificial love for God’s world truly were a struggle that requires courage, the fortitude of faith, and character formation—all because something truly is at stake.

It would be a sad irony if, at a time in the planet’s history when precisely this sort of struggle is happening in various contexts across the world, the church’s witness to a God who forms us to struggle alongside God’s Spirit in serving life abundant (particularly to the poor and marginalized, who of course are the hardest hit by ecological degradation) is rendered boring, sterilized, cheaply politicized, or “religionized” such that its genuinely disruptive potential is stifled. What a missed opportunity!

Fortunately, for preachers in this time of Lent who have the ears to hear and eyes tuned to see the signs of life-giving passion present both within and without the walls of the church, this Sunday’s proclamation that “God so loves the world,” that God does whatever it takes to give it life and to defeat the forces of death, can become a risky venture into the naming of the spaces of life and death within our lives—hopefully in a manner that is theologically serious yet undomesticated by the restraints of “religion” per se. In a time in which, as I have argued elsewhere, the church is present as much in the act of truth-telling as a “diffusively spatialized event” as within the walls of any given institution (Cf. Robert Saler, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), then this text gives preachers a chance to exercise creative listening to the passions present in their context and to speak—in deeply incarnational fashion—as to how no human passion towards life can be foreign to the gospel proclaimed by John.

In other words, rather than lament or become defensive about the growing irrelevance of the church to the world-changing passions of millenials and others, the ecologically sensitive preacher can demonstrate how the church can be as much ecclesia discens (the listening church) as ecclesia docens (the teaching church) when it comes to being able to discern how the Spirit’s struggle to continue to enact the triumph of life over death in our world is playing out in multiple venues and contexts, “sacred” and otherwise. Such preaching can remove this text from its piety-imposed exile into “churchliness” and reclaim it as the eruptive message of grace for all creation that it is.

Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Loving the Cosmos as God DoesTom Mundahl reflects on repenting of the “windigo” way.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Each Ash Wednesday we make an unusually comprehensive community confession of sin. We confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people,” “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 253). While the starkness of these petitions may strike some as excessive, in light of the state of our planet one may also wonder: how could they be so mild?

Not only are we struggling through the aftermath of the eighteenth U.S. school shooting in the first couple months of 2018, but already residents of the Ohio River watershed are experiencing severe flooding. In my own Twin Cities, residents of the eastern suburbs of St. Paul are wondering if “3-M’s” nearly one billion dollar fine for polluting groundwater with the chemical components of Teflon will be sufficient given the 100 square mile toxic underground “plume” that has developed. And, once more the residents of California are beginning to worry about the low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, one of their most important water sources. Will this year bring more fires, mudslides, and greater stress to farms and city residents alike?

The gravity of issues like this was on the mind of Wake Forest University’s Fred Bahnson as he attended Good Friday services last year. He arrived at worship hoping to have quiet time to reflect on the cross, the state of his life, and the state of the world. What he experienced was quite different. “Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, but more ‘sackcloth and ashes’” (“The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion, Vol. 36, No. 4, Thirty-fifth Anniversary Issue, 2017, p. 85).

To the wandering Israelites described in this week’s First Lesson, “sackcloth and ashes” may not have sounded so bad. Not only was the first generation of leaders dying, the wilderness wanderers continued to be frustrated by continued detours forcing them to rely on Moses’ leadership and a divinely provided menu. It is no wonder that once more the people complained, this time directly to God, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

No longer does “out of Egypt” seem to be a punch line for a freedom dance. Now Egypt seems to represent a time without endless wandering and, despite bondage, a time of relative economic security. In their imaginations, Egypt may have become what Maggie Ross once referred to as “the mall across the Red Sea.” Especially to the second generation of those on this extended trek, stories detailing life in Egypt would likely have become attractive. How easy it was to forget the cultural humiliation and painful work of brick-making for harsh Egyptian masters, slavery which seemed to consume their unique gift to the world (Dennis Olson, Numbers, Louisville: John Knox, 1996, p. 135ff.).

The desperate attraction to the horrors of life in Egypt reminds me of one of most powerful of Algonquin legends—the tradition of the “windigo,”a being who has developed an appetite for food, wealth, and power that can never be satisfied. Not only had the Israelites been victims of this “windigo” power in Egypt, but in many ways, so are we. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how contemporary culture has “spawned a new breed of “windigo” that devours Earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” This mind-set proposes to improve our “quality of life,” but eats us from within. “It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that only nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2013, p. 308).

The consequences for the Israelites attracted to this nostalgic security monster are dire.

Poisonous serpents are deployed that quickly produce a high body count. When the desperate Israelites seek Moses’ help, he prays to the LORD, who commands him to make a bronze casting of a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole, so that, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9). No longer did they long for the storied days of imagined ease brought by the Egyptian “windigo;” now by looking at the very source of death they find healing and restoration of communal trust. It is no surprise that the Johannine evangelist uses this image (John 3:14) to portray the cross, that brutal instrument of Roman torture, as the sign pointing to cosmic renewal of life. God transforms the very instruments of death (serpent/cross) sub contrario, into tools for life.

Much the same can be seen in this week’s Second Lesson from Ephesians, where the author frames the text with the Greek verb peripateo, “to walk,” the source of the English “peripatetic.” This “inclusio” describes contrary ways of life: in v. 2 walking the “windigo” way of death; in v. 10 walking the way of service and care. “Following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) suggests that “human life is under the malign influence of celestial powers thought to rule the universe, akin to ‘the elemental spirits’ of Col. 2:8, 20” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991 p. 26). The result is a warped understanding of life that leads to boasting (v. 9), misplaced confidence in human capacity, and being caught in the maelstrom of “windigo” lust.

The results of this kind of living are familiar to us today. According to Clive Hamilton, “The Great Acceleration began at the end of WW II and inaugurated both globalization and the Anthropocene. The rapid acceleration of economic growth, along with booming consumption and its profligate resource usage and waste, drove human destabilization of the Earth System. The pursuit of the American Dream at the same time brought the Anthropocene nightmare” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 84). That this accelerating, self-augmenting, out-of-control system reminds us of the “windigo” should be no surprise. And, it is certainly not to automobile drivers trapped in nearly identical smog-producing traffic jams in Los Angeles, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, and Addis Ababa.

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians reminds readers of the mercy of God, “who has made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:55). “In effect, God has done for Christians what God has already done for Christ” (Martin, p. 27). This results not in a new status of “holiness,” since it is all done “by grace as a free gift” (Ephesians 2:8), but in an explosion of servant-care. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). This amazing verse pulls no punches: the communal gift of grace flows through us as a way of continuing the renewal of creation and healing. Integral to this new way of walking (the closing of our “inclusio” frame) is building eco-justice.

This week’s lesson from John’s Gospel continues this emphasis on God’s action to heal and renew creation through the Son of Man (John 3:14) and the new community he calls into being (John 3:21). Once more we see a figure lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, but this time the result is not only the healing of those bitten by fiery serpents. Here the result is a new quality of life not only for those who believe, but for the whole creation (John 3:15-16).

Despite the uniqueness of John’s Gospel, Raymond Brown reminds us that the three statements describing Jesus being lifted up (John 3:14, 8: 28, and 12:32-34) function as the equivalent of the three synoptic passion predictions (The Gospel According to John, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 146). While John does not describe a specific response to each of these, the consequences are clear. In our text, even though the Son was “not sent into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), those who have seen and do not believe have already condemned themselves (John 3:18). “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). What is this if not a sense of being trapped in the “windigo” energy of “the virtue of selfishness” which has led to everything from out-of-control ecological devastation to power addiction and genocide? And this does not even begin to measure the energy required to “cover up in the darkness” responsibility for these deeds!

John describes the life of faith as producing even greater energy. But this energy is directed toward “doing the truth” (John 3:21a). Because these deeds come into the light, visible to the entire cosmos, they contain an entirely different kind of generativity. Just as the author of Ephesians refers to “good works which God has prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10), so the works coming from faith-active-in-love are “deeds performed in God” (Arndt, Bauer, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 307). Certainly ecojustice and Earthcare are among them.

The motive force behind “doing the truth” is the “life of new creation”/”eternal life” that comes from the lifting up of the Son of man, the word made flesh. This energy easily surpasses competing powers, including “Eternal Rome.” While Roman ideology claimed divine paternity for Augustus and his successors, who assumed political permanence, the gift of the one lifted up on a Roman cross could be grasped “only by faith” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 78). Still, a “life that bears endless newness” is the audacious claim of the early community, an assertion intensified in his gift of peace “not as the world (here read “Caesar”) gives” (John 14:27).

The center of this text is John 3:16, an echo of the prologue with its allusion to creation—”In the beginning . . . .” (John 1:1). Note well that Jesus does not say, “God loved humankind so much.” The life of the new time is not just for human beings; it envelops the entire Earth, the cosmos. Margaret Daly-Denton calls attention to the rich meaning of “cosmos” with etymological connections to “beauty,” the root of “cosmetic.” In this case, however, the word points to beauty that is rooted deeply within the creation and integral to the harmony of its endless interconnections (Ibid., pp. 78-79).

When we affirm God’s love for the cosmos, broken as it is, we discover surprising depth. What faith sees is seldom simply an object of vision, but even more the unseen reality that brings it into being. As Wirzba writes, “Our gaze at a creature . . . does not stop at the creature’s surface but extends beyond it to its dependence upon and source in a Creator. The Logos through which all things in the world came to be is also the light and life within each thing” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 32). This attitude requires us to live “together with” the whole of creation in a respectful way, or, as John would have it, “living in the light” (John 3:21).

That this is not the way we see the world God loves in our consumer-driven culture is clear. As Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard reveals, “We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves” (Human Image–World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology, Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992, p. 2). In order for us as to serve Earth and build ecojustice for all, we need once more to recognize God’s love in each other and in all that the Creator has made.

Yes, Fred Bahnson is correct in calling for us to put on the “sackcloth and ashes” of grief when we consider what we continue to do to this planet. Our actions are based primarily on how we see the cosmos—as a “mine” of resources to satisfy our endless desires, the “windigo” way from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. While the new-mindedness of Lenten repentance requires action, public policy change, hard work, and all of our energy, it also suggests the need for Lenten time to breathe and remember the depth of God’s love, a memory that may open us once more to be “channels of justice.”

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy! – Tom Mundahl reflects on the continuation and completion of the Sabbath.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Thirds Sunday of Lent, Year B (1012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

As we continue our pilgrimage through the forty days of Lent, we are reminded of Israel’s forty year trek to the land of promise. This week, we will focus on the gift of “the ten words,” the Ten Commandments, on the way to that new land. But we will also see how these words connect with the institutional religion that developed there, especially ‘temple-focused’ religious life.

Perhaps what is most unique about the description of the giving of “the ten words” in our first reading is the immediacy of God’s presence. This is the only example in the Old Testament of direct, unmediated address by God to the assembly. Quite likely the purpose of this direct address is to insure that these “words” are heard correctly, not ‘watered down’ by mediators. Ironically, the assembly cannot take it! Immediately after hearing “the ten words,” they ask Moses to resume as mediator (Exodus 20:18).

Sabbath is more than the absence of labor!

For our purposes, it may be that “the word” most closely connected with caring for creation is the “third word” about keeping the Sabbath, the commandment given the longest elaboration in both versions of “the ten words” (See also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). This “word,” traditionally considered by Lutherans to complete ‘the first table’ of the law consisting of commandments focusing on the relationship between God and humankind, is much broader in meaning—because the notion of ‘sabbath’ as interpreted by the author of the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2.4a) is much more than a “day off” to rest from the heavy lifting required by the first six days.

Sabbath is a dance of delight.

In fact, creation continues on the seventh day. What was lacking from the first six days? Apparently, the ‘lack’ was rest, menuha, a Hebrew word suggesting far more than the absence of labor. Menuha, Sabbath rest, carries rich connotations of delight in sharing the harmonious interdependence of all that God has made. And, recall that Exodus 20:10 makes sure to include livestock in Sabbath observance. No longer can we hold that humankind is the “crown” of creation. Now it is Sabbath rest, menuha, a dance of delight, that crowns the Creator’s work.

Sabbath is a time when all life is celebrated.

Instead, Sabbath is kept when its integrity before God and before all life is celebrated. When that does not happen, all creation is in danger. As Norman Wirzba warns:

“Failure to understand God’s ownership and control of creation leads to human destruction of creation and a distortion of who we are as created beings. Sabbath observance, in other words, teaches us that we are not God, that we are finally not in control, and that the goal of creation is not to be found in us.” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 37.)

Failure to observe Sabbath rest leads to destruction and violence. Keeping Sabbath, on the other hand, opens the way to the mutuality and care sought by the “Second Table” of commands, focused on relationships among creatures.

“Sabbath keeping is an act of creation-keeping.”

Terence Fretheim puts it on the mark when he claims that this “third word” is a rich source for care of creation: “Sabbath keeping is an act of creation keepin.” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 230). And, this creation-keeping that is rooted in Sabbath menuha (rest) leads us to embrace a perspective on creation care—called by Wendell Berry “the Great Economy.” (Berry, Home Economics, San Francisco: North Point, 1987, pp. 74-75.) This notion of “the Great Economy” is practically synonymous with earth-keeping. It views the integrity and health of the whole creation so broadly that it includes even ‘the fall of a sparrow.’ This perspective contrasts sharply with conventional economic views that mark species disappearance, decline in air or water quality, and even climate change as “externalities.”

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy!

A sabbath-based embrace of “the Great Economy” is also rooted in a sense of responsibility and care, echoing the call to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15). During the Lenten season when we are enjoined to consider ‘fasting,’ perhaps we have an opportunity to reduce consumption, freeing ourselves from unnecessary ‘shopping anxiety’ and reducing pressures on the natural world. This practice may liberate us for what E.F. Schumacher has called a “becoming existence” that provides “the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper, 1973, p. 57).

Sabbath is joining the choir of all creation in worship and praise.

Finally, an economy based on Sabbath menuha would join the whole creation in worship and praise. Psalm 19 certainly echoes this refrain we find throughout the scriptures: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) But what kind of worship reflects true Sabbath keeping? This leads us to consider John’s narrative of Jesus’ Cleansing the Temple, our Gospel text. We move from “the ten words” to “the Word made flesh.”

John joins Matthew and Luke in describing a temple cleansing. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John comes near the very beginning of the gospel, at a Passover observance. Following the amazing story of ‘the Wedding in Cana” where Jesus provided massive amounts of wine to continue the party, we now see another eschatological sign regarding the temple.

Although a new and cleansed temple had traditionally been part of future hope, Jesus provides two insights that are significant. First, it is the Jewish leadership that will be responsible for destruction of the temple. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), “destroy” is imperative (“you destroy the temple”) and implies that the religious elite will accomplish this destruction themselves by not using this ‘cultural tool’ to promote Sabbath delight (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. I, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 120). Second, the temple will be replaced by the Risen One, whose new being constitutes a ‘raising’ of the temple. Of course, this idea is carried on in the Johannine tradition with the vision of the new city in the Revelation to John: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”(Revelation 21:22).

The vision of the New Jerusalem represents the fulfillment of creation.

“And there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21:25). This ‘feature’ of the new city is strikingly reminiscent of the first creation story’s description of the seventh creation of Sabbath rest, menuha. For, unlike the other ‘days’ of creation, there is no “evening” on the seventh day, a sign of fulfillment. Could it be that the embodied temple, Jesus the Risen One, described in the Revelation to John, constitutes the perfect fulfillment of Sabbath rest and delight?

Perhaps, then, we can see weekly Sabbath-keeping as the anticipation of creation’s ultimate redemption, the time when “all will be well.” That frees us to understand the work of Christ as the continuation and completion of the Sabbath. Wirzba claims: “The early Christian . . . understood Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and his ministry to be the incarnation of God’s delight and peace in a world of pain and violence” (Wirzba, p. 40). In fact, Jesus’ making himself the sign of a new “temple” engenders hope that all of life will become a Sabbath feast. Because this is a feast of delight for all, it brings with it both hope for the future of creation and active concern and care for all that God has made.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Saler15)

Projection, Humility, and the Call for JusticeRobert Saler reflects on preaching care for creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

For those preaching about ecological justice during this Lenten season, the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the marketplace presents a significant temptation. We should spend some time exploring that temptation and the ways in which John’s text itself provides a safeguard against it.

The temptation can be described as follows: Regardless of one’s political affiliations, there can be little doubt that the unfettered free market mania towards commodification of Earth (and its people) has been perhaps the most significant factor at play in the 20th century’s degradation of the environment. As Philip Goodchild has argued in his excellent work Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, neoliberal capitalism by definition cannot engender its own safeguards to keep commodification of resources from destroying our planet.

And so it is very easy for environmental preachers to make a leap from Jesus’ protest that the Temple was, in his day, being turned into a “marketplace” of both physical and spiritual economies to a jeremiad against contemporary capitalism and its effects upon the earth. To be sure, such critiques (pastorally calibrated) have their place in preaching, and it can be an effective tool in the preaching arsenal.

However, even as noted, an environmental preacher as Joseph Sittler was also careful to caution that it is very easy for us to simply project God’s will onto our own (especially when we regard our own causes as inherently righteous) and as such simply invoke theological language to “baptize” our projects. Sittler, in his ecological preaching, was also careful to maintain the ontological and epistemological DISTANCE between God and us so that preaching justice (including environmental justice) does not come off simply as coopting God’s word, but rather being responsive to it.

To be clear: Those of us who preach environmental justice DO, hopefully, feel as though we are being responsive to the effects of God’s word upon its hearers; however, the dangers of projection and cooptation must always be borne in mind. Just as I feel as though those who continually invoke the Bible to oppose, for instance, immigration reform are projecting their own politics onto the gospel, I must be open to the same charge being leveled at me and my own inevitable intermingling of religion and politics. There is no safe place on which to stand; all is risk in these fields. The risk must be assumed, but it should be assumed with humility about the extent to which our religious motivations and God’s will can finally be identified with each other.

Fortunately, the John pericope gives its own safeguard:

When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.

The dangers of “owning” the messianic impulse such that faith becomes a property of select individuals (which was, after all, the truly pernicious thing about heresies such as Gnosticism) were already present even when Jesus was alive and walking amongst the people; how much more dangerous are they today!

The preacher, then, has the opportunity to preach on justice in such a way that she can even call attention to the fact that any justice work that we do as a church cannot be a matter of simply “owning” God’s agenda—since that agenda, like Jesus, remains as elusive as it is allusive—but rather of responding in imperfect fidelity to the ongoing call for justice present in God’s world. This latter stance requires deep epistemological humility: At the end of the day we cannot “know” that we are right. It may be that God calls us to work within the structures of capitalism, or to work to undermine them, or to do both—or neither. These are contextual judgments made by imperfect humans, but scripture testifies to the fact that God is in the habit of using precisely imperfect humans to bring about the works of the kingdom. We must, in the end, act, but acting in humility confers far more effectiveness than acting in presumed “prophetic” arrogance.

Preachers, can you enact that balance between the longing for justice and the humility of finally not knowing the extent to which we are “right” in your own sermons? Can that generative paradox be a fruitful place from which to consider care for creation in your own context? I would assert that, to the extent that your own preaching can generate this sort of passionate humility, this space will communicate the gospel mandate to care for creation in a spirit of gentleness and love far more effectively than preaching born from projection. Let your preaching adhere to the paradoxical contours of John’s text, and allow the surprises of the Holy Spirit to take over from there.

Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.

Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.

Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.

It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).

While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).

Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.

Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).

This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.

But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).

Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.

It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.

But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.

Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).

What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).

For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.

Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.

But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.

Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Expend your life for Jesus and the gospel of new creation, and you will save it. – Tom Mundahl reflects on the gospel paradox.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-15
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

While this week’s readings vigorously underline God’s faithful keeping of covenant promises made to Abraham and Sarah, including the strong affirmation in our psalm that this promise is for all (Psalm 22:27), our Gospel lesson challenges us to focus both on what threatens and on what sustains care for creation.

The disciples seek power to dominate. Jesus renounces it.

Once more, Jesus and his entourage are “on the way” on the very “edge.” They find themselves in the region of Caesarea Philippi, an area dominated by a city once named for the Greek god, Pan. With Roman imperial dominance, it has been redubbed “Caesarea Philippi” to honor the dedication of a temple there to Caesar Augustus and to recognize the influence of the Herodian tetrarch, Philip. This history not only suggests a fluid religious past, it also opens the door for a new understanding of “the way.” For as they travel, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question, reminiscent of Moses’ interrogation of the “burning bush:” “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

This is only intensified by the follow-up: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers bluntly, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Our text begins—uncomfortably in medias res (v. 31)—as Jesus unpacks the meaning of “messiahship” as suffering, rejection by the religious elite, and resurrection after three days. Understandably, Peter cannot accept any notion of “messiahship” that includes this kind of treatment. “And Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him” (v. 32). Jesus “returns the favor” by rebuking Peter with real harshness: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).

What could be clearer? A “messiah,” an “anointed king” in the tradition of David, must be a political figure sent to restore Israel’s national identity (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 244). But notice that Jesus will have none of that kind of “messiahship!” Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus describes himself as “the Son of Man,” “the human one.” Just as a “messiah” would be drawn toward statecraft, so the “Son of Man” must suffer and come into conflict with power elites. Jesus describes this conflict “quite openly” (Mark 8:32).

It is this rebuke of Peter and Mark’s Jesus presenting himself as “Son of Man” that is crucial for deepening our responsibility for creation care. We are taken back to last week’s Gospel reading that describes Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan and his encounter with “the wild beasts” (Mark 1.13). When we recall Daniel’s apocalyptic language, it is precisely “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) who comes to deal with the wild “beasts” representing the empires that have plagued that area of the world. To be “Son of Man” is to transcend traditional politics in order to bring new creation and to declaw “the beasts” as political players. But it also reveals the great temptation Jesus has, “to get behind himself”—the temptation of political power.

The temptation to seek power can never be satisfied. It is destroying Earth.

The temptation of seeking power that can never be satisfied is all too familiar. In anticipation of seeing Peter Jackson’s unreleased film version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I have been revisiting Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films from nearly a decade ago. Not only do they hold up well as cinematic versions of Tolkien’s saga, but they also illustrate in the most graphic way the personal and environmental effects of obsession with power. Evil wizard Sauron and his lackey Saruman lust to capture the total power of “the One Ring”–with results that can hardly be imagined, even with special effects.

These are described by one of the most beloved characters, Treebeard, an ent or “tree shepherd.” He describes Saruman as. . .

“plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the smelting fires of Orthanc. Curse him, root and branch!” (Tolkien, The Two Towers, Grafton, 90-91)

The result of this deforestation based on an uncontrollable obsession with power is the kind of waste we have seen with deforestation around the world. It is the kind of “denatured” landscape that is familiar from suburban sprawl and in the massive chemically-fed fields of crop monocultures.

We de-create the world with our power to dominate.

This destruction and attempt to de-create the world in the service of power recognizes that evil is, as Augustine held, a force that leads to nothingness, the deprivation of the goodness of creation, privatio boni. Its ultimate goal seems to be the destruction of all things: creation, relationships, faith, and hope. So, when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” the tempter who sets the mind on human things, not the things of God, there is a blunt recognition that this path to power-focused “messiahship” will have devastating results.

The opposite is to sustain life—to resist fear and pursue kingdom practice at risk of death.

But the other way, the way of sustaining life, seems at the outset ridiculous. It is the way and logic of the cross. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). This is the central paradox of the gospel. The other side of the lust for power is the willingness to punish by death all those who resist this powerful impulse. “By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history’ (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 247).

Embrace a priestly vocation.

Perhaps a more hopeful way of framing this reality is to listen to our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they uphold the priestly vocation. Paul Evdokimov suggests:

“In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as priest of his (sic) whole life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering, a hymn of glory” (quoted in Wirzba, 2012, p. 205).

When we broaden this anthropocentric focus, we see that a “priestly” view of the world comprehends all as gift of God to be celebrated by self-giving interdependence. This interdependence seems to cry for mutual regard and care. And this “priestly function” is not necessarily anthropocentric in practice. To return to Tolkien’s great love and concern for forests, throughout my life, trees have served as “priests” many times. Others may remember mediating comfort provided by dogs and cats, lakes and oceans, or the simple cry of a loon.

But the fact remains that those who resist the impulse for power, economic growth, and unchecked technological development are dealt deadly blows throughout the world. Whenever there is malnutrition in formerly subsistent food cultures that now have become exporters of “food resources,” this has happened. Those members of 350.org who protested the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project in front of the White House found harsh treatment even during their short time in District of Columbia detention facilities. There were no “Letters from the Washington Jail.” Finally, Tim de Christopher, who attempted to disrupt the bidding process for oil and gas leases on public lands, did not receive a mere slap on the hand, but two years of hard time at Herlong Federal Correction Institution in California. (Orion, Jan.-Feb. 2012, p. 41)

Expend your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel of new creation—and you will save it.

For those called to care for creation, our Gospel text describes clearly “the way it is.” There is a clear cost to this path of care and service, but it is the way of life. “For those who want to save their life (by submitting to the way of power obsession) will lose it, and those who lose (or expend) their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel (of new creation) will save it” (Mark 8:35).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Turning Around and Rethinking the “Royal Theology” of Our Time Tom Mundahl reflects on the appeal of kingdom, power, and exceptionalism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

As we move from the Genesis pre-history to God’s forming a new community through Abram and Sarai, the centrality of creation and the vocation to care for the land and make it a home endure. Even though divine action “ruptures” safe worldviews in favor of living by promise, this week’s readings provide courage to continue even when this new community is at odds with power structures.

What is most striking about the Priestly account of the Abrahamic Covenant is that it is given in extemis. The narrator makes it clear that Abram and Sarai are so far beyond the age of child-bearing, that even to speak of posterity is ridiculous. But this Holy One, who is here introduced as El Shaddai, an early appellation that may mean “God with breasts” or “fertile God” ( cf. Genesis 49:25) is true to his name and enlivens hope in this couple with the promise of a child (Genesis 17:16).

This new covenant fulfills creation promises of fruitful multiplication (Genesis 1:28, 9: 1), providing for a future that is clearly dependent upon God’s gracious action and nothing else. “But the point of fruitfulness, of son, of enduring covenant is announced only in v. 8, an affirmation made not to either Adam or Noah, but only to Father Abraham. It is delayed until now, until the new history of Abraham, and it concerns land: ‘And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan.’” Brueggemann goes on to claim, “This is the focal verse of the tradition of promise history.” (Genesis, Louisville, John Knox, 1980, p. 21)

The promise of sons and daughters (a future) only makes sense in light of a land of where they can become a sustaining community (Which makes the omission of v. 8 questionable at best). But in no way can either the land or the progeny be considered “property.” As the Deuteronomist warns the people, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). These words and the Abrahamic Covenant must have been especially powerful to those in Babylon “barren” of land during their nearly half-century of exile.

Seeing children and the land as covenant gift was theologically crucial. As early as the reign of Solomon (970-930 BCE), a “royal theology” had emerged based on Israel’s affluence, as well as their diplomatic and military power. Unfortunately, proponents of “royal theology” began to see the land as property, wealth as something to be enjoyed by the few, and even fellow Israelites as subject to forced labor—all too reminiscent of Egyptian bondage (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, p.24). Not only did this religious decay lead to the emergence of the prophets, but it comes into play in this week’s Gospel reading as Jesus warns Peter to distinguish “human things” from “the things of God” (Mark 8:33). More importantly, the focus of “royal theology” on kingdom building neglects a question that every leader should ask in humility as she/he thinks about amassing power: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14)

The psalmist approaches this question from a better angle: the standpoint of a lowly one (ani, one of the aniwim) lamenting in words familiar from Good Friday, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). It is only in the midst of the worshipping community (v. 22) that this lowly one is empowered once more to reflect divine passion for the earth and its people in the peculiarly appropriate act of praise.  It is worship that stems not from a “royal edict,” but from a celebration of the goodness of a creation, where even “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (v. 26).  Despite the earth’s cycles of living and dying, the LORD ensures the fruitfulness of creation.

This creational generativity is upheld by Paul as he writes to the churches of Rome to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers. Equally important is his hope to extend the mission of the church as far as Spain. To accomplish both of these goals, he holds that “in the shameful cross, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Greco-Roman world and that provided support for the premise of exceptionalism for the Empire” (Robert Jewett, Romans, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 1). No longer can categories of exceptionalism be tolerated (cf. Galatians 3: 27-28).

In this takedown of Roman imperial theology, Paul can find no better model than Abraham. Abraham certainly carried no religious resume to boast of; he and Sarah simply trusted the nearly laughable promises of heirs and land. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but Paul suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world . . .”(Romans 4: 13). This cosmic inheritance drives powerfully to Romans 8, where Paul will claim that the entire world waits with eager longing for “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19), who as Jewett claims “would take responsibility for the polluted world” (Jewett, p. 326). This is a direct effect of the faith God engenders in all—regardless of ethnicity or citizenship—faith that grows from the soil of promise.

That Abraham should inherit the world (Romans 4:13) comes as no surprise since the gift of faith grows out of the gift of creation. Abraham believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17b). Therefore, “if faith is a gift, creation is the greater gift” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 75).

Here Paul reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay “Walking” wrote, “. . . in Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Lewis Hyde, ed., The Essays of Henry David Thoreau, New York: North Point Press, 2002, p. 162). By this he meant that creation has been given the capacity for renewal as part of its being. When that capacity for renewal is blocked,  through drought, through suburbanization, or through climbing earth temperatures, the “world”— human and all else—is threatened.

That threat is visible in the massive attempt of the Roman Empire with its explicit “imperial theology” to control reality in multi-faceted ways, ranging from the over-harvesting of timber throughout the Empire to proclaiming the emperor divine. Paul claims that real life is celebration and care of the gift of creation and promise through faith. In doing so, he tears a hole in the fabric of a system dedicated to maximizing human control.

As we enter the anthropocene epoch, we have begun to realize that the fruit of human attempts to control the natural world have failed and, in many cases, led to a “wildness” that no longer nourishes, but is “out of control.” Take the case of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Dubuque, IA. Since its founding in the late 1790’s, this human settlement on the banks of the Mississippi has tried to control the river with levees, dikes, and a massive flood wall built after the devastating 1965 flood. The many smaller streams and creeks emptying into the river were simply paved over. None of this has worked: the flood wall simply intensifies the speed of water flowing to increase flooding downstream and the city storm sewer system has proven inadequate in coping with underground water flows.

Finally, residents have begun to preserve their city by learning from the “wildness” Thoreau referenced. Just last year, the first of several creeks to be “daylighted” (uncovered) was dedicated, Bee Branch Creek. This creek, along with others in planning stages, not only provides recreation and beauty, but it is important in flood control, especially in efforts to stop frequent flash flooding. In fact, living and working in the Bee Branch Watershed is becoming more attractive because of the beauty of the Creek and the flood prevention it has provided (Connie Cherba, “The Bee Branch Creek is Back,” Big River, Sept,-Oct. 2017, p. 37). As Thoreau might have said, “Learning from the Wild is the preservation of the World.” Faith and trust in creation, not control, is a crucial step in mitigating the disorder of our new age.

Our Gospel reading shows Jesus and the disciples in a place of intense control, Caesarea Philippi, whose villages surrounded the new imperial city in the highlands of northern Israel, formerly a center for the worship of the Baalim and the Greek god Pan. In this area with a long tradition of religious ferment, Jesus asked his students who they thought he was. The first to speak was Peter who answered, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).  Not only did Jesus strongly silence his circle, but he used this as an opportunity for teaching.

What is most striking is that in the first of three “passion predictions” central to this gospel, he calls himself not “the Christ,” but the “Son of Man,” or, as some translate it, “the human one.” Even more surprising is his conviction that “it is necessary that the Son of Man undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise” (8:31).  Shocked, Peter protests and begins to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus rebukes  (the verb, “rebuke” is the same one used to silence demons, 1:25) Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things” (8:32).

Why did Peter react so strongly? Ched Meyers suggests it was because ”according to the understanding of Peter, “Messiah” necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 244). Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man” and his passion predictions “dismantle the dominant theories of power by asserting that all such would-be power is in fact no-power. Thus the passion announcements of Jesus are the decisive dismissal of every self-serving form of power upon which the royal consciousness is based. Just that formula, Son of man must suffer—Son of man/suffer!—is more than the world can tolerate . . . ” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, pp. 96-97).

Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus’ free and open teaching continues with the “crowd” included.  This has often been called a “catechism” for disciples; perhaps we could see it as the vocation of all who believe. The words are familiar and still shocking: they turn the “instinct” of self-preservation and the desire for wealth and glory upside down.  Why? These are the rules for confronting all authoritarian regimes which are ultimately based on fear of death.  The one “with the most stuff when she/he dies” actually wins nothing except the contempt of those who have to deal with “the remaining collection.” In fact, they (we?) have “forfeited our lives” (Mark 8:36b) in favor of standards of economic ease we entrust as life’s “the bottom line.” Real life is dangerous, often counter-cultural, but on the way, as poet W. H. Auden wrote, we are promised “unique adventures” (“For the Time Being,” Collected Poems, New York: Random House, 1976, p. 308).

Jesus unmasks the weakness of the power system.  If one of the definitions of a government is that agency exercising the “‘legitimate’ power of coercive violence,” all is revealed. For the most extreme threat, then, is the power of execution justified as a method of keeping order or, at the least, protecting interests. By being willing to “take up the cross,” the one called to follow contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history (Myers, p. 247). Discerning the legitimacy and proper methods of resistance must be done prayerfully within the context of the Christian community, a community that follows on this “unique adventure.” Yet, we do so in confidence because we have “been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Combining last week’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness  (Mark 1:12-13) and this week’s calling out of Peter as a “satan” for defining Jesus as a power-playing Messiah in the highland villages, we see that Mark’s Gospel does contain a complete temptation story (cf. especially Matthew 4:8-10 and Luke 4:5-8). Just as the Son of Man rejects the way of messianic power, we are called to find real life in serving, including building eco-justice. The “royal theology” of our time is addiction to economic power that requires nothing less than endless growth, maldistribution of growth’s benefits, deregulation of those inconvenient measures to promote safety and health, and the denigration of education and culture. The result is a culture dedicated to intensifying the dangerous impact of the “anthropocene epoch.”

The cost of resistance is high, but this is the season for repentance—turning around and rethinking. Those to whom we preach expect faithfulness and honesty. Control over the natural world has backfired. Our vocation is no longer to be found solely in the realm of “freedom,” but also in the realm of necessity, “because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, pp. 52-53). And yet, is not this duty at the center of Luther’s definition of “Christian freedom: “not only royalty subject to none, but obedient service, subject to all.” (paraphrased from “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works–Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957,vol. 31, p. 344) Today that “all” must include service to a fractious creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wilderness As a Place of Possibilities Tom Mundahl reflects on finding hope in barrenness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Forty days and forty nights. Time in the ark with waters from the upper and lower firmaments, held back at creation, once more meeting at “boat level.” Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness tempted by Satan. Forty  days and forty nights of Lenten “returning to the LORD.” It should be no surprise to discover that these Lenten texts that help us prepare to celebrate the Paschal Feast are also rich in themes grounding us in care for creation.

Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

How could there be a better place to start than with the tale of Noah and the Flood? As a result of human violence and corruption, God determines to destroy evildoers and the earth (Genesis 6:13). Yet this determination is not total, for Noah is commissioned to build an ark which is no less than a “floating seed-pod” ready to re-plant creation and human culture once more. Even though the opening of both the firmaments—below and above—could hardly be more menacing, Noah’s amazing ark portends an outcome beyond annihilation.

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

This portent is fulfilled in a reading that stuns us with the scope of this covenant of promise. Not only does the Creator promise never again to destroy the earth by flood, but God also provides a natural sign as a reminder—the rainbow. No longer an instrument of war, this bow points to God’s victory over both the temptation to retributive justice and the chaos brought by humankind. The divine relationship with creation is now based on nothing less than “unqualified grace” brought about by a revolution in the heart of God (Brueggemann, 1982, p. 84).

The scope of this grace travels with such wild energy that it includes “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16), reminding us of our co-participation with creation in the gifts of God and the opportunity not only  for us to care for the non-human, but also to learn from our encounters. As Christopher Southgate remarks so bluntly, “God’s purposes with creation are not wholly bound up with humanity” (Southgate, 2008, p. 37).

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

This tsunami of promise concluding Noah’s watery forty days spills over into the lesson from 1 Peter. No matter whether this letter functions primarily as a “baptismal sermon,” it is clear that the power of baptism takes center stage. What will give these “resident aliens” in Asia Minor the courage to stand and make their defense before the authorities? It is the primal power of baptism (3:21) which contains those who gather (in later times a “nave,” from navis, ship or boat) as an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and to all creation amplified  to  become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation. This is the unparalleled “confluence” of story and creation that will encourage and guide these communities under pressure. It is the same energy that will free us on behalf of all creation’s constituents to speak truth to those afraid to face the science of climate change and to unmask those who claim plutocracy and democratic justice to be identical.

Jesus’ forty wilderness days are drier. Yet, there are powerful themes that resonate in this Gospel lesson from Mark. As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, “he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10). Just as in the flood, the firmament is pierced, but this time there is no destructive deluge: only a healing breach in the barrier between God and creation.

Jesus’ vision of this new immediacy is confirmed by the words he hears: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (1:11). If the gap between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ can be ‘torn open,’ so can an equally great divide—that between royalty and servanthood. Yes, Jesus is “the Son, the Beloved,” as kingly as can be (Psalm 2:7); but he is equally servant (Isaiah 42:1) who is “well pleasing.” Clearly, as has been claimed in these commentaries, he is Servant of Creation.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

With language that matches his description of the “tearing of the heavens,” Mark describes Jesus being “driven by the Spirit” into the wilderness, where he is tempted for the biblical forty days. Not only do we hear echoes of the forty years of wilderness wandering by the people of God, we sense that this wilderness offers a new frontier, new possibilities in its very barrenness. It seems to be that “luminal place” or “threshold” where new doors are open and new hope is born.

This is not to turn this desert retreat into a trip to Palm Desert. While it may be tempting to see “the wild beasts” (1:12) as creatures straight out of Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, it is more likely that they are creatures of temptation that we meet most graphically in apocalyptic, especially Daniel and the Apocalypse of John. Since this menagerie is usually taken as a graphic representation of “the kingdoms of the world,” it seems likely that they have a deeper connection with the temptation by Satan than the Noah Covenant. As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that the real temptation is for Jesus to understand himself not as Servant of Creation, but as “conventional Messiah” taking power in the usual ways, as elaborated by Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13).

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

The hopeful irony is that in Mark, sometimes called a “desert Gospel,” all is turned upside down. What was seen as a place of death and waste (before Ed Abbey and others helped us see the beauty and complexity of desert ecosystems) becomes a locus of nourishment and hope. The forty days is central to Jesus’ ministry. Throughout the Gospel, “lonely places” provide opportunities for teaching, healing, and feeding thousands (Mark 6:8) as a new community is formed. Jesus continually seeks “wild places” as a refuge for prayer (1:36, 6:30-32) for himself and his disciples. And, the ultimate action in this Gospel takes place in the desperate and lonely forsakenness of the cross.

We are reminded most forcefully that these lonely, desert places where new life sprouts are a contrast to the aridity of the seemingly “civilized” religious establishment operating in the service of Imperial Rome in Jerusalem. On the “edges” of things, new life and community grow; the illusory stability of Jerusalem leads only to attempts to “plug” the breach in “the heavens” in denial of the new creation that this Gospel promises (1:1).

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

When Thoreau wrote that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking”), he was far from packaging “the wilderness” as a commodity to be enjoyed in perfect comfort with all the right gear by wealthy folks.  Instead, he saw “wildness” as that deep down quality of creation that leads to surprising renewal. If there is a hint of that in our Gospel reading, there is even more of a sense that this one who embodies “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) removes focus from “the-powers-that-be” in Jerusalem and Rome. This happens even in the “desert” far from the Tiber Valley of the Temple. What is more, it is described in language that not only reminds us of creation (“the beginning”), but it is the beginning of the good news, the “Gospel”—the kind of news that is the special province of the Emperor.  No wonder Jesus tangles with the “beasts!”

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

Beasts continue to make their presence felt in our own day. Refusal to build the Keystone XL pipeline is maintained by the most tenuous combination of courage and political expediency, regardless of the fact that James Hansen of NASA has said that its building and encouragement of “tar sands oil” will mean “game over” for a swiftly heating planet. Fear moves 2/3 of American parents to transport children to school by car, where only a generation ago that same fraction walked, biked, or took the bus. Today, some of our “most abandoned” places are found not in the Mojave, but in decaying cities where deserted buildings and lots await transformation. Our readings suggest that even these desert challenges may end in new life and concrete hope.

 Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Saler15)

Jesus and the Journey of Overcoming Robert Saler reflects on God’s healing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Whenever I teach seminars about the relationship between our Christian faith and care for God’s creation, I have an exercise at the beginning where I ask students how it was that they fell in love with the idea of caring for creation as an expression of their faith. What was their epiphany, their conversion?

And as you might guess I heard a lot of stories about students standing at the Grand Canyon and having God’s majesty watch over them, or spending hours walking through the pristine woods and feeling God’s presence, or looking out onto the ocean, and so on.

My story was a little different.

The truth is, that I first came to really get the connection between faith and earth care during a pretty intense hangover.

When I was in graduate school, working on my doctorate in theology, I used to spend hours and hours each day reading and arguing and getting into all the different nuances and theological opinions of Christians across twenty centuries. Catholics, Lutherans, Orthodox, evangelicals, atheists, on and on and on, fighting it out in my head. I did that for about eight or ten hours a day, and I loved it, but, as you can imagine, at night I would occasionally need to go out and blow off steam. I was young, no family, etc. So one night I maybe stayed out a bit too long, blew off a bit too much steam…etc. So the next morning I found myself a little bit unable to move, or to travel very far from my bed. Head killing me, stomach upset: some of you reading this know the drill.

So I’m lying there, and the problem is that even though my body feels about dead I can’t shut my brain off and go to sleep. So I’m thinking about, you know, regret and remorse: “never again!” But since I was used to thinking about all of those theology fights all day, I couldn’t help it: I started thinking about religion and theology, right there in the middle of my hangover.

And in so doing, just like my students standing at the Grand Canyon, I had my epiphany.

And that epiphany was—wait for it—pain hurts. It really, really hurts. And it does really, really bad things to our spirits.

Amazing insight, right?

And my further epiphany was as follows, and just bear with me for a second here: a hangover, as you may know, is primarily caused by dehydration. Lack of water in the body caused by excess alcohol metabolization, etc. Dehydration. Which means that the pain I was feeling because of my own dumb fault that morning was not entirely dissimilar to the intense pain being felt by our sisters and brothers on this planet—the UN estimates 783 million—who do not have enough access to water, including the intense pain felt by children who die from dehydration. That pain is real. Indisputably real. Pain kills bodies, but it also damages souls if it goes on long enough and intensely enough.

And it was then that I realized that—all the controversies aside, all the religious disputes about Christian belief and ethics and dogma aside—surely at the end of the day there are some pretty simple facts staring us in the face. Pain hurts. People without water, men and women and children in this world, are in pain. People without adequate energy resources—namely, without power/ heat/electricity, and so on—are freezing. Pain, as Elaine Scarry has reminded us in her monumental work The Body in Pain, creates worlds of hopelessness for victims in which language and narrative selfhood falls away. It can be nothing but evil in such contexts.

And let’s keep being real for a moment: We all know that issues around environmentalism, ecology, conservation, etc., get very political very quickly. That’s inevitable, and serious issues deserve serious debate. But underneath all the politics, when all is said and done, let’s be clear: people are hurting. Bodies are hurting and pain damages souls. And however much fun it may or may not be to distract ourselves with party politics and church politics, at the end of the day: pain is real. And if we believe that God is a God of love, and that God loves those in pain, then the math becomes pretty simple. It doesn’t have to be about hugging trees or saving whales if that’s not your thing. But if Jesus is your thing, then ignoring those who are hurt by environmental degradation really just isn’t an option—at least according to that really edgy sermon that we’ve all heard, the one preached from a mount.

I’d love to be able to end this story of my conversion  by writing that since that moment I became a model ecological citizen—always recycling, retrofitting the house to cut energy costs, not taking a job that has me flying every month, etc. But that would be a lie. “Chief of sinners am I,” said Paul, and he meant it. So do I.  I’m a 21st-century American, and by virtue of that fact alone I’m already richer and more resource-secure than the vast majority of the planet’s population. I use way more than my fair share of energy, and water, and food, and carbon, and despite whatever articles I write or sermons I preach, the fact remains that I’m still caught up in living in ways that hurt God’s planet and God’s people. Unsustainable systems from which I benefit and to which I give strength, even when I’d like to think that I’m rebelling.

And that brings us to the fight against temptation, and demons, and Satan, and to our reading, because the truth is that the Christian faith has long understood that the real evils that we have to fight are not the ones out there, but the ones inside of us. The ones that we cling to, that partly make us who we are. The ones that drive us into our own wilderness, where the fight must take place.

The preacher who preaches on demons and demonic temptation in Lent should not waste time trying to convince the congregation one way or the other as to whether there literally are realities called demons, or whether the Bible uses that language symbolically to describe persistent inner torments and temptations; faithful Christians across centuries have and do understand it both ways. But the preacher should try to convince the congregation that the gospel of Jesus Christ is only gospel for us if we understand that our deepest sins are not math problems that we can somehow stand outside of and puzzle about and solve through reason. No, our deepest problems, our deepest sins, are inside of us. The fight isn’t a math problem, it’s a wrestling match.

And if the preacher falls into the trap that is as common with environmentalists as it is the old-fashioned moralists and tells the congregation that the only answer is to pick yourself up and try harder, then the joy of preaching is betrayed. We talk a lot in the Lutheran church about works-righteousness, but really in this context that’s really just a term for the idea that faith is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and fighting your demons alone and God/the Earth judging you at the end.

But this isn’t a story of a man being told to pick himself up and fight the fight against demons alone. This is a story of Jesus overcoming, and of the church being invited to live into that overcoming. The good news is the overcoming of Satan and, as we’ve seen in earlier texts, the overcoming of the demons that cause us to become agents of death rather than life. Jesus taking on Satan in the wilderness and inaugurating the victory of which his church is to be the bearer.

Which means that the Jesus which the congregation encounters in Lenten preaching is not a Jesus who is going to tell us to keep doing good things for creation for the motivation that somehow it’s up to us to save the planet and save God’s people. No. If it were up to us then we’d be lost, and God’s creation even more lost.

The Jesus that we meet in Lent doesn’t wait around for us to get it together. He fights demons and the temptation to dominion, and fights it on our behalf. He takes the sins that we hold deep inside of us and, slowly but surely, does the Spirits’ work of changing us into God’s people.

Preaching creation care in Lent must avoid at all costs having the congregation leave feeling like it has heard environmental scolding, or even Christian scolding, a word telling it to do better or else. The gospel of the Lenten journey inaugurated in the desert is to know that the Jesus that we meet here in these texts is one who is already working on God’s world, working on its pain in ways seen and unseen and, more to the point, is already working on your heart. That your demons and my demons aren’t safe, and that even in the pain of losing them we are held by a love that is bigger and more powerful than we can possibly comprehend. God is doing God’s healing in the world. God’s people, God’s church, is so loved by God that the Spirit is going to take us along for the ride. Preach that scandalous good news and be amazed—by the beauty of God’s healing out there, and the beauty of God’s healing in our very being.

Originally written by Rober Saler in 2015.
rsaler@hotmail.com