Tag Archives: Lectionary Commentaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source:

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

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

 

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

It is not over,
this birthing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

The “great gathering” of Earth community encompasses the material world of God’s good creation. – Tom Mundahl reflects on our use of the gifts of God’s creation.

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

Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A (2013/4, 2016/7, 2019/20, 2022/23)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

Gathering is at the heart of our celebration of the Christmas season. Not only do we gather for worship to wonder at the incarnation, we gather often with groups of friends and family. What’s more, Christmas is a time both to give and “gather” creation’s gifts, whether the beauty of a tree, a long ski through the woods, or the giving and receiving of food, drink, and presents.

If I ever forgot the importance of Christmas presents to the gathering, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. As a result, we engage in a more mundane sort of “gathering:” attempting to save wrapping paper and bows for reuse, and, finally, gathering up the new “stuff” that we mostly don’t need and have to find room for.

By now, you have guessed that these comments will focus on the “gatherings” revealed by this week’s readings. Surprisingly, we will find that this variety of ways of coming together suggest an intensification of care for God’s creation.

This theme cannot be missed in our reading from Jeremiah. In this chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of Jeremiah’s authentic work (Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, Volume 21, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), the prophet delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8) and “lead them back.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

This new Exodus-gathering takes place with what appears to be altered terms of relationship.  No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or on the work of the temple.  Now it appears that what is primary is gathering the exiles from their diaspora and restoring them to the land. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 186)

That gathering once more in this land is at the center of this return is emphasized by the images of natural abundance we find in this passage.

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, 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).

This celebration of gathering reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and lamb—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this creation care is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock” (Jeremiah 31:10).

Therefore, this new gathering will also bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies.  As the familiar canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Today’s Psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once more, the song is occasioned by restoration from exile in Babylon. As is the case with many Christmas carols, it uses a particular act of grace—deliverance from Babylon in this case—as an occasion for an even more wide-ranging expression of God’s relationship with all creation. The one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2) is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of the stars” (v. 4).

Because of this gracious activity, the community responds with psalms, carols, and hymns. Among the most telling evidence supporting Robert Putnam’s research with its conclusion that U.S. citizens are much less involved in community associations (cf. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) is the decline of singing, especially among younger males. While it can be almost impossible to persuade many Americans to sing, in African worship or at an Italian wedding, it is almost impossible to stop the singing.

During this season of gathering to sing familiar carols and bringing them to nursing homes and to the home-bound, we also need to hear the good news of this season in relation to the song of the Earth. As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 7).

Following a conventional salutation, our reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content certainly has been transformed to contain strong trinitarian elements (v. 3, v. 5, v. 13). This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14) strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism –“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is a “gathering” that effects  “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). Baptism gives non-Jews a share of this blessing.

This ever-expanding scope of election and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (v. 9) “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the work of Irenaeus and Wingren—is described by Martin.

The nature of that plan is now stated. It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ. The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is “to sum up,” to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find . . . its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians,
Colossians, and Philemon
, Atlanta: John Knox, p. 17).

Martin continues by describing this goal as much like the movement toward an “omega point” described by de Chardin (Martin, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend “God’s plan” in a helpful way? For us, it is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means something like “rules for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s ‘rule’ for “the earth household” is connected with gathering all together. This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond Jew and Greek, past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6: 12), to include all creatures (the whole creation) in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

As we gather to hear the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (and it should be read as a whole, not dissected!), we continue the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this prologue is likely “crafted” after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20)  Because it is a song from the community, the emphasis on response is unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16). In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us . . . .” (John 1:14a, cf. Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131).

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. This will free us to return to the creation theme the prologue begins with. Because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation (“All things came into being through him” v.3) in part, by forming a community of faith. And, because this community of faith is rooted in creation and a Word become flesh who draws “all to himself” (John 12:32), we can celebrate the very “fleshiness” of all that is.

Perhaps this means a festive Twelfth Night celebration by the community or with friends, where extra presents that have no room in house or apartment are collected to be shared with agencies that know who can use them. Yet, in no way should this be seen as a denial of the “material” or “fleshy” side of this season.

In fact, we may learn from a British group promoting what they call a “new materialism.” Noticing that religious “put downs” of materialism are not helpful for all of us who live in a “material world,” they have developed a “New Materialist Manifesto” that suggests: liking ”stuff “is a healthy way of enjoying the material world, but it requires lasting relationships with material objects that should be fewer and better—designed to last no less than 10 years. Appreciation of “material” is enhanced when things acquired are purchased with knowledge—who makes them, where they are made, and under what conditions (Factory conditions in Bangladesh?). These material “goods” need to be “loved” –maintained, repaired, or mended, and then repurposed. Finally, this may move us to “reskilling,” where we learn to make, repair, or repurpose “stuff.” And, as we find we need less, we may become freer to share (Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, available through: www.breadprintandroses.orgwww.therealpress.co.uk; or www.schumachercollege.org).

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

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

Christmas (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:  either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

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

Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 22, 2019) in Year A

Faithfulness and Creativity: Robert Saler reflects on the example of Saint Joseph.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

The readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent continue the theme of God’s grace rupturing our quotidian ways of being in the world, and the ways in which the coming of Christ provides a new angle on God’s revelation. This way of framing the matter is important: while Christians affirm that God’s revelation was and is uniquely disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the entire plausibility of the gospels’ narrative framework depends upon Israelite religiosity. This is particularly true in the story of Joseph: while Christians regard Joseph as a hero of the faith for abiding by God’s plan, the entire theological underpinning of Joseph’s encounter with the angel depends upon the rich tradition of Israelite encounter with the divine.

Striking for our purposes, though, is what we might call Joseph’s creative and even “faithful” disobedience to the Hebrew Bible. Much has been made of the fact that Joseph, having discovered seemingly indisputable evidence of his wife’s infidelity to him, could have exposed her to shame, legal punishment, and even death as revenge against her; instead, he chooses simply to end the betrothal without compromising her integrity. This, in and of itself, is an action of what Peter Rollins might call faithful infidelity to the law—by refusing to abide by the letter of the law, Joseph embodies its spirit. Too much Lutheran preaching has occluded the fact that the “law” as the nation of Israel encountered it was in fact a gift of grace from God, a gift that fashioned God’s people and bestowed upon them an identity in a world in which they would be perpetual underdogs. Joseph, by his action, embodies a kind of virtuosic inhabiting of that spirit of grace, but does so precisely by going against his rights under the “law.”

The notion that God’s grace is a kind of deconstructive force that undermines the letter of the law in order to disclose the fundamentally benevolent and life-giving structures of God’s interaction with the world is, of course, a foundational Lutheran premise. Grace does not cancel the law, but it operates in a kind of faithful infidelity to it in order to save sinners. If the law condemns sinners to death, then grace—bestowed by the same God who gives the law—removes the law’s penalty in order to demonstrate God’s redemptive love for what God has made.

A theological maxim that undergirds much of what happens at this site, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is that Christian theology is in need of a “new Reformation,” one that will gradually but permanently shift the center of Christian theology away from understandings of the faith that breed apathy or even hostility towards creation to those that highlight earth-honoring and care for creation as essential aspects of Christian vocation. Those of us who work within that maxim do not view that theological work as entailing the introduction of unprecedented novelties into Christian discourse, as if earth-honoring faith requires a wholesale abandonment of what has come before. Instead, we look to the richness of the tradition in order to discern the paths not taken, the potential conceptual resources, and the places within the core of the faith that can support an earth-friendly practice of Christianity. This lack of fidelity to the tradition as it has been conventionally lived out in many Christian circles is, in fact, a way of honoring what is best about the tradition.

Similarly, the task of preaching Advent hope is not a matter of introducing wholesale rupture into the lives of those listening; rather, it is an invitation to all of us to review where we have been and what God has done for us with fresh eyes, and to consider whether the call of newness that comes with Advent is a call to be creatively unfaithful to that which has held us back from life abundant. All of us have lived lives in which the Spirit of life and our own resistance to grace have intertwined and determined our course; thus, the homiletical opportunity to create a space of honoring what has been life-giving about the past, even as we “betray” those assumptions that have held us back from the life that God would have us receive, is a genuine gift of the preacher.

To live faithfully as Christians in a time of ecological danger will require creatively betraying the assumptions under which many of us were raised. It will require the confidence that comes when we realize that the same God who disclosed the shape of grace in Jesus Christ continues to work deeply within the structures of creation, redeeming that which God has made. And it will, most of all, require the sort of love that wages all on the notion that God’s justice is superior to (and more merciful than) our justice and that seeks to remain faithful to that wager against all odds. Inviting the congregation into that wager of love is a powerful Advent opportunity for Christ’s body on this day.

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

Second Sunday of Advent (December 8, 2019) in Year A

Granting Time, Rupturing Time: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 8-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

In his deeply insightful book Capitalism and Religion The Price of Piety (Oxford: Routledge, 2002), the philosopher Philip Goodchild investigates how the structures of late capitalism mimic those of religion, particularly Christianity. At one point, in a discussion on how we “spend” the resources given to us and how such spending choices reflect our “piety,” he offers the following observation on time:

One significant example of the way in which honor is shown is the gift of spending time. One shows value, respect, concern, or interest in something or someone by spending time on it or with them. Unlike other resources, however, we have no freedom to preserve the expenditure of time. Time may be saved only by intensifying expenditure elsewhere. The flow of time forces us to pay our respects—it is a currency that cannot be hoarded but only traded. If we do not choose how we will spend our time, then its expenditure will be determined for us by duty, custom, habit, or distraction. A renunciation of all honoring, all choice of where one spends one’s time, is an acceptance of the values imposed by external powers. It is acquiescence in the existing distribution of values, and an honoring of such values. To the extent that the future encloses possibilities, and thought is able to select among these possibilities, then honor is shown. The question of transcendence is laid upon all free creatures constrained by the flow of time. To be temporal and free is to be pious.

Goodchild’s insight recalls that of Luther, who argued that our real “gods” are the ones that we honor with our trust when the temporal flow of our lives becomes disrupted. It is when the normal flow of time, the quotidian rhythm of our days, becomes disrupted that we come face to face with the real objects of our piety.

John the Baptist was, of course, the great disruptor of time—this eschatological prophet, whom both Jesus and the Gospel writers honored by spending time on his narrative. Similarly, although the Isaiah passage for this week is often understood in somewhat “fluffy” terms as a charming vision of paradise, in its contxt it too should be understood with its full disruptive significance: the coming of peace is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a world in which, as Chris Hedges has said, “war is a force that gives us meaning.” Just as in the book of Revelation, the figure of “the lamb” here is fraught with prophetic force, for nothing damns the horrors of war (including war on our very surroundings) so profoundly as a vision of the blessings of peace.

As we think about how we live as citizens of creation, Advent forces us to acknowledge that both personally and systemically we so often choose to honor (with our time) activities of war, exploitation, and practices that are killing us and our planet. As Goodchild’s quote points out, we do this not only by our active choices, but also by our “acquiescence in the existing distribution of values”—our refusal to be disruptive of the customs and habits that are unsustainably exploitative (hence our liturgical confession of things “done and left undone,” sins of commission and omission).

It is helpful, then, to think of the eschatological in-breaking of God’s kingdom for which the church prepares in Advent in terms of the disruption of our piety—our pieties towards what it is that we honor with our time, the piety that causes us to go along unquestioningly with what Goodchild elsewhere calls the “liturgy of common sense” (even, and especially, when that quotidian “liturgy” is destroying our planet and ourselves), the piety that causes us to look at creation as a stockpile of resources for our consumption rather than a fragile web that sustains that which God loves.

In our daily pieties, we are no better than the hypocrites against whom John the Baptist rails—we, as much as they, need disruptive grace to reform our ways of spending the honor of time, and living as God’s people in God’s creation. The gospel promise of Advent, then, is that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus retains the power to break our way of honoring that which kills us, and frees us to live out our time on this planet as partakers of God’s new way of being.

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

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Saler)

Improvisation — A Christian Stance of Hopefulness:  Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Matthew 24:36-44.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

At my seminary, I am currently facilitating an Augustine reading group. The group is taking the entire year to work our way through his magnum opus The City of God, purely for fun and edification. This 5th century text features Augustine engaging polemically with the educated pagans of his day, those who blamed Christians for the 410 sack of Rome by the Visgoth army and who advocated for a return to the worship of the Roman pantheon of deities.

I am a longtime lover of Augustine, and there is much about his critiques of the paganism of his day with which I resonate. However, in books 6 and 7 of the text, when he decries the arbitrariness of the placement of gods within the Roman pantheon, an interesting contrast emerges that I think separates his time from ours rather decisively.

In my view, part of Augustine’s mockery of paganism is that so much of it seems improvised to him: gods and men serve certain functions at a particular period of time, and are rewarded/used by being placed then in the pantheon in some position that correlates with their usefulness. By implicit contrast, then, Augustine presents Christian truth as something that is established from the foundation of the world and therefore is always already prior to human intervention (thus echoing Paul’s arguments that he was “handing on” only what had been given to him).

However, in between Augustine’s time and ours, those of us who are Christian have come to understand that the Christian imagination has always involved improvisation and the development of its key themes as those themes have moved across radically diverse epochs and cultures. Part of the genius of 19th century theology (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was to recognize that doctrine is in a constant state of development, and that all living things must continually be developing and changing in order to stay vibrant. Pure stasis, argued theologians from Friedrich Schleiermacher to John Henry Newman, is death.

The early texts of Advent are clearly eschatological in focus. And thinking through how Christians who care about creation might understand the “end(s)” of the world is a worthy preaching task for this season. However, it is also the case that Advent invites the congregation to imagine how God continues to improvise throughout the biblical narrative, and indeed throughout the world as we experience it. The Isaiah reading invites us to imagine swords beaten into plowshares. Meanwhile, the reading from Matthew draws its pathos and power from the sheer unpredictability inherent in the end times: what is to come will be genuinely new, and preparedness is essential.

Genuine improvisation is not pure novelty; at its best (as in jazz, for example), it is rooted in tradition. The story of God’s salvific work towards all creation was given to Israel, and (despite a shameful history of anti-Judaism) the Christian tradition at its best has affirmed that it is a continuation of that same fundamental story as it is grafted onto Israel’s history. Similarly, Advent preaching must resist the temptation to frame the in-breaking of God’s kingdom as pure novelty. Not only is that idea not plausible, it also misses profound dimensions of the Christian witness—the deep resonance between the Holy Spirit’s ongoing improvisatory work in creation, the Biblical narratives’ tales of a God who shapes and is shaped by the actions of God’s people, and the shape of Christian hope for the future.

Innovation as eschatology, too, helps to bring out the resonance between the fact of the Earth’s suffering and the slightly menacing overtones of the Matthew reading (since many scholars think that what Jesus is describing is not God snatching people away, but rather imperial forces). The Earth is subject to injustice and degradation, and God’s redemptive improvisation must deal with this as well. We see from the “weak force” of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection how God chooses to work salvifically within the structures of injustice in our world.

Advent is a time, then, to preach about this hope with unsentimental but genuinely biblical confidence in how God’s Spirit continues to do its work throughout creation. The effective preacher will name the deep sense of unease we have as we are surrounded by the effects of what Augustine called libido domini—the imperial lust to conquer, a lust present in our politics and in our souls. However, this will be the occasion for the preacher also to name God’s refusal to let our degradation of what God has made be the final word in creation’s story, and for the preached word to give God’s people new eyes to see how that Spirit is “making all things new.”

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

Third Sunday of Advent (December 15, 2019) in Year A

Expanding the Imagination with Vision: Robert Saler reflects on Isaiah 35.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Robert Saler in 2013)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

The Isaiah text for this week is another Advent reading that offers a unique eschatological perspective—one that might be labeled as a utopia were it not centered in the midst of the ongoing struggle for salvific wholeness experienced by God’s people Israel. The reading contains imagery that is deeply tied to the notion of renewed creation. Much like Isaiah 11’s invocation of the lion lying down with the lamb, here a refreshed and renewed creation is depicted as having its barren and dry places inundated with life-giving water, its habitats kept safe from flesh-eating predators, and (as implied by the language of “everlasting joy”) even the power of death being removed from the creation.

This imagery of creation’s eschatological renewal has been deeply formative in both the Christian and Jewish imagination. Indeed, to the extent that studying early Christian writers is helpful for understanding how the gospel might have impacted those who were hearing it in its early stages, it is striking how often these images recur in patristic writings. As Paul Santmire notes, the church father Irenaeus (130-200) is particularly notable in this regard. As Santmire puts it:

Irenaeus does not assume a dialectic of human salvation and the whole creation, as Origen and many later theologians were to do. He does not envision any kind of pretemporal drama in eternity, where the elect are chosen (thesis); next a scene in time, the creation of the whole world for the sake of providing a place wherein the human creatures or rational spirits already chosen might be saved (antithesis); and then, finally a scene of reconciliation, where the human creatures or rational spirits are enabled to return to God again (synthesis). Rather, Irenaeus begins with the temporal beginning of the creation, as we have seen, and envisions one act of God, one divine economy, aimed at bringing the entire creation of a new status to a final fulfillment through the Word and Spirit” (Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology, Fortress 1985).

In his text Against Heresies, Ireaneus picks up on Isaiah’s imagery as he imagines the eschatological fulfillment of creation’s blessedness:

The predicted blessing, therefore, belongs unquestionably to the times of the Kingdom, when the righteous shall bear rule upon rising from the dead, when also the creation, having been renovated and set free, shall fructify with an abundance of all kinds of food, from the dew of heaven, and from the fertility of the earth.

He even envisioned a situation in which predatory animals would no longer have to hunt each other for food, having returned to a state akin to vegetarianism.

Similar imagery is offered by the patristic writer Lactantius (~260-317) in his text Divine Institutes:

Then, there will be taken away from the world those darknesses with which the sky is obscured and blocked from sight, and the moon will receive the brightness of the sun, nor will it be diminished anymore. The sun, however, will become seven times brighter than it now is. The earth, in truth, will disclose its fecundity and will produce the richest crops of its own accord. Mountain rocks will ooze with honey, wines will flow down through the streams, and rivers will overflow with milk. The world itself will rejoice and the nature of all things will be glad, since the dominion and evil and impiety and crime will have been broken and cut off from it. Beasts will not feed on blood during this time nor birds on prey, but all things will be quiet and at rest. Lions and calves will stand together at the manger to feed; the wolf will not steal the sheep; the dog will not hunt; hawks and eagles will not do harm; a child will play with snakes.

What might these ancient images have to do with contemporary preaching during Advent? The twentieth-century French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry once remarked, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” In a time when so much preaching towards care for creation (as in other important matters) can easily cross the line into mere moral exhortation (or, even worse, scolding), a rich homiletical challenge for today’s preacher—heir to Irenaeus and Lactantius—would be to imagine what sort of vision of fulfilled creation might stir the imaginations of congregations today, and how that vision might inspire creative action towards ecological justice today. Would imagining a world in which coal-burning plants were no more? Where the rich and the poor no longer have to be cast in the roles of ecological enemies? Where species can be appreciated in all their diversity without nagging fears of extinction?

When the preacher engages the Christian eschatological imagination in such fashion, the congregation is left open to surprise as to what actions such an imagination might give rise to, this Advent and beyond. As Jesus himself indicates in the Matthew text for this Sunday, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into our world produces effects beyond what the world might have imagined previously; so it is that the church, Christ’s body on earth, might exceed all expectations (even its own) for what God’s spirit calls and equips it to do.

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

First Sunday of Advent (December 1, 2019) in Year A (Santmire)

Why bother with Advent?  Paul Santmire reflects on the start of the Advent season and offers a sermon example.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Paul Santmire in 2016)

Readings for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

The season of Advent in North America is all-too often swallowed up by the so-called “Christmas spirit.”  Pastors know well the pressures from congregational members to sing Christmas hymns as soon as possible.  Never mind the fact that Christmas decorations already have been up for sale in Home Depot since the end of August.  Why bother with Advent?

Most pastors also know well that the biblical meanings of Christmas only make sense when they’re interpreted in terms of the rich texts of Advent.  Christmas, biblically interpreted, is countercultural.  The countercultural pilgrimage of Advent prepares the way for such understandings.  It’s not enough, in other words, for the people of faith to realize that “Jesus is the reason for the Season” of Christmas.  They need to understand that the biblical Jesus stands over against every human season, both in judgment and in promise.  Advent, rightly preached and enacted, will help the faithful claim that understanding as their own.

Karl Barth was wont to talk about “the strange new world of the Bible.”  What if the presiding pastor were to say, in introducing the themes of Advent:  “You’re not going to ‘get’ our Advent texts, at least not the way you might want to.  I sometimes have trouble understanding them myself.  Listen to them as if they were beamed here from some hitherto totally unknown planet in some strange language.  Advent texts refer to difficult ideas, like ‘the end of the world,’ which some Christians think they know all about, but which in fact are obscure to the point of being unintelligible.  On the other hand, what if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is urgently concerned to speak to you through these very texts?”

Isaiah 2:1-5 is a kind of free-floating text, only loosely related to its context.  Likewise for Micah 4:1-3, which is roughly identical with the text from Isaiah.  The words we have in Isaiah appear to reflect a kind of communal affirmation of faith, analogous, in Christian practice, to use of the Apostles Creed.  Why did that prophetic text have that kind of traditional place of honor in the memories and celebrations of the ancient People of God?  Its countercultural witness to a coming world of universal peace seems to be almost too much to believe in a world of constant warfare, with which the ancient People of God were well-acquainted.
Psalm 122 picks up many of the same themes of universal peace, flowing from Jerusalem.  Note the play of words with the name of the city, shalom or “peace.”  In terms of the history of religions, moreover, the city of Jerusalem for the Hebrew mind is a kind of umbilical center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth, the Divine and the mundane worlds are joined with unique intensity.

Romans 13:11-14 discloses the eschatological mind-set that permeates the faith of the Apostle Paul, a mindset that is sometimes forgotten as interpreters, especially Lutherans, focus on the Pauline theme of justification by faith (Romans 1:17).  But for Paul, the two are inseparable.  The Pauline vision comprehends the whole history of God with the creation, not just the pro me of justifying faith.
Matthew 24:36-44 may be the single most difficult biblical text to preach on in North America today.  Countless millions – including many members of mainline churches – have read the many popular novels in the Left Behind series, the idea being that the day is at hand when a few believers will be “raptured” up to heaven by God, saving them from the total destruction that God is allegedly about to wreak on the whole world.  For New Testament faith, on the contrary, the heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2), leading to a new heavens and a new earth.  Jesus’ language here is figurative throughout, not literal.  It’s intended to shock the hearer into a new way of hearing and understanding (cf. “Keep awake”), akin to his puzzling reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:22-25)

Sample Sermon:  Let it Dawn on You Today

Text:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-13)

St. Paul’s words to the early Christian Church at Rome strike me with a certain terror.  Because I’m a night person.
Are you a morning person?  Or are you a night person?  If you’re a morning person, let me tell you what it’s like to be a night person.  It’ll be good for your spiritual health.  If you’re a night person, like me, then I imagine you’ll be glad to empathize with me, every step of the way.

I.
First, and you morning people may find this difficult to believe, it take a lot of energy to wake up.

My wife’s a morning person.  It took her many years into our marriage to realize that it didn’t make any sense for her to say anything of significance to me first thing in the morning.  You know, she pops right up, and starts talking to me about my “honey-do” list.  And I respond obediently, “uh-huh, uh-huh.”  Two hours later she discovers that I don’t have a bird of an idea what she said to me.

Sin is like that.  It takes a lot of spiritual energy to wake up.  So you’re a smoker.  You know that smoking’s a kind of suicidal behavior.  You know that the Lord doesn’t want you to kill yourself.  You’re going to stop sometime, you know.  But it never really dawns on you that now’s the time to wake up.

So you’re a cheater, at times.  Maybe it’s on your exams at school.  Maybe it’s cutting corners at work.  Maybe it’s on your spouse, real or imagined.  Maybe it’s on your income tax, hugely or just in detail here or there.  You fill in the blank.

Mostly you don’t get caught.  But the whole thing troubles you.  What’s more, you know that once you get into the habit of cheating one thing can lead to another.  And that could be catastrophic for you or for others.  If you’re a surgeon, the sleep you cheat on at night could lead you to amputate the wrong leg the next day or to fall asleep at the wheel on a high speed family outing.

Then there’s voting, in particular, and political action, more generally.  If press reports are to be believed, a majority of the U.S. electorate is now disgusted by the tenor and even the substance of our recent elections.  You may well be tempted to throw in the towel of politics, as if nothing political matters any more.  But the truth of the matter is that everything political matters today, perhaps more than ever.  What about the biblical vision of a just peace for all peoples and indeed for the whole creation?!  You heard it again in our readings today.  But if many Christians let themselves go groggy or even fall asleep on the political superhighways of our society, what’s to become of the promise of peace on earth, good will to all?

II.
That’s why we night people need alarms.  Sometimes I set two alarms, one on the bed table, one across the room.  Because I don’t trust myself.  I’m likely to turn off the alarm next to me, roll over, and go back to sleep.  Now as a bona fide night person, I hate those alarm clocks.  But all the more so, I know how much I need them.

Did you ever think that God is setting off dozens of alarms all around you?

Everybody these days is “in” to spirituality.  Go to your local big box book store and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books on spirituality.  So you stand there, like a deer at night staring at the headlights, wondering how you can possibly read enough of those books to be the kind of spiritual person you want to be.

In the meantime, God is setting off alarms all over the place.  Your physician tells you that you’d better quit smoking or you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re fifty.  Your teacher at school quietly takes you aside and tells you that moral integrity is more important than straight A’s, so you might consider writing your own papers and not getting them on line.  Your secretary tells you that she’s leaving, because the environment you wink at in your office is so abusive that she can’t take it anymore.  Then your pastor tells you that, notwithstanding all the toxicity of the last election, Jesus calls you to get back into the political struggle in behalf of the poor and the oppressed and indeed the whole Earth, that Jesus wants you to plunge in, not drop out.

Some people wonder where God is in their lives.  If that’s you, you could start by listening to all the alarms that’re going off all around you, every day.  “It is the hour for you to awake from sleep,” says Paul.

III.
But I can assure you.  There is hope, even for bona fide night people like me.

Let me tell you what characteristically happens to me on Sunday mornings.  Both my alarms go off.  During the dark winter mornings that we have in Advent, I stumble around in the twilight to get ready.  I rummage through the paper to see what happened the day before.  I say a quick prayer.  I gulp down some coffee.  And off I go.

Now and again, it happens.  I’m driving along West Market Street heading downtown, in the dawn twilight.  And then I happen to see the first rays of the sun.  On occasion, this is my vision.  At the top of the last hill down into the city, I look across the way and I see the sun coming up, right behind this church!  What a marvelous sight!

Did it ever dawn on you?  Did it ever dawn on you that if you were at the right place, at the right time, you could see that this world of sin and death and disappointment and political toxicity is in fact God’s world, where God’s struggling to overcome all the darkness?  Did it ever dawn on you that this commonplace society of sinners here on Sunday mornings who are struggling to believe in the midst of the darkness of this world:  that here’s a reliable place for you to see the Light of God?

That’s the way it’s been for me all my life.  However much I’ve stumbled around in the darkness, the Light of Christ has already been there for me, beginning with the mysteries and the ministries of the Church of Christ.  That doesn’t mean that the darkness is going to go away.  That means that you have seen the Light, baby.  Actually, in the person of a baby.  But I don’t want to get ahead of myself – because this is Advent, when what I need to be working on first and foremost is waking up, not figuring out how to hold an infant in my arms.

IV.
Let me tell you a story.  Happens to be a true story.

When I first started preaching and teaching about God’s love for the whole creation, not just humans, I felt very much alone.  In those days, back in the early nineteen-sixties, most of the Church’s preachers and teachers had other axes to grind.  Only a very few, like the great Lutheran theologian of nature, Joseph Sittler, even cared about such things.  Meanwhile, a few of us were indeed convinced that God so loved the world that God gave the Beloved, God’s only Son, so that the world might be saved through Him.

Similar developments were unfolding in a number of Christian churches.  By now the spiritual vision of God loving the whole world – every creature! – has taken over the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world.  Pope Francis’ justly celebrated encyclical Laudato Si’, is the most visible of these developments, but only one among many.

In Lutheran circles, a growing grassroots ecojustice network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is being used by God to transform Lutheran minds and hearts throughout our church.  A new generation of Lutheran theologians, too, dedicated to Earth ministry and to the poor of the Earth, is now calling on our congregations to participate in a new Eco-Reformation – the title of their recently published theological manifesto, which will hopefully inspire new conversations and new commitments in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

Once upon a time, when I was working through my days of depressed theological slumber about these theology and ecology matters, I never could have anticipated what has happened in our churches in the current generation.  But now it’s dawned on me!  God has not forsaken his churches!  I just had to wake up and see!  I also had to wait – but that’s another Advent theme for another day.

V.

It’s not easy being a night person, as I say.  Sometime it takes a long time to wake up and see the light!  But I can tell you, on the basis of my own experience, that sometimes, when you do get around to waking up, after you’ve heard the alarms, the experience of the dawning Light can be remarkable, even overwhelming, right in the midst of the darkness of this world of sin and death.

Hear this Word of the Lord, therefore.  Let it dawn on you this day:  “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”  Amen.

Christ the King Sunday (November 24, 2019) in Year C

It is the cosmic vulnerability that we have to honor if we want to worship the true king, the Cosmic Christ. – Leah Schade reflects on the readings for Christ the King Sunday.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday after Pentecost), Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

Christ the King Sunday has always been a difficult holy day for me to appreciate. I have never been comfortable with the kind of language we use on this day. There is something about using words like “throne,” “scepter,” “footstool,” and “exalted” that strike me as being very patristic and hierarchical. I have learned that I am not the only one who struggles with this kind of imagery. One of my Confirmation students once asked a question in her sermon outline: “If God is our King and reigns over us, could he ever take over or become a dictator? Does God control us?”

What a big question from a 7th grader! Even our children are sensitive to the patriarchal baggage in our liturgical language. Just consider this word “Lord” we use. It comes from the English feudal system, “lording over” someone—it’s a loaded word that carries with it a lot of negative baggage. But the Greek word for “lord” is kyrios, and refers to something much bigger than an earthly kingdom. The passage from Colossians is a statement of faith that God is the lord over the entire universe.

The Cosmic Christ archetype in all its fullness and diversity is about the mystery of life, death and resurrection in the universe. And Christians are not the only ones who have this motif. The wisdom traditions of other faiths have similar archetypes: the Buddha nature, the Jewish Messiah, the Tao, the Dance of Shiva. Not that there aren’t distinctions between these concepts, nor should we collapse them into one Christianized conglomerate of mystery.

Rather, as the mystic Meister Eckhardt said, God is a great underground river of flowing, rushing, living water of wisdom that no one can stop and no one can dam up. There are wells going down to that river. There is a Buddhist well, a Native American well, a Wiccan well, a Muslim well, a Christian well. We have to be willing to go down into that well, make the journey, descend into the depths, and use the mystic tradition within our context to get us to that River of Wisdom common to all traditions. As Thomas Aquinas says, “All truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit.”

And this is all fine and good, but it still does not address the young student’s original question—what is to keep this Divine Power from becoming abusive, dominating, all-consuming. This is where the Cosmic Christ archetype becomes so important—because the Cosmic Christ is not just about Divine Glory. It is about suffering as well. Jesus says that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick and in prison, we are doing this to him! He is directly identifying with the brokenness and vulnerability of this world, of our human society. So the Cosmic Christ is not just about the light in all things, it is about the wounds in all things, says Matthew Fox.

It is important to help people understand that coming to church and being a Christian is not just about being comforted and pious. It is about encountering the Cosmic Christ in those places where injustice is happening, in those places where domination and death are happening. When the soldiers mock Jesus, demanding, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” they are alluding to the question that all the powers and principalities are asking. It’s the question we’re all asking. We want to know—who is lord of the universe? Is it the land developers and the corporate executives? They are certainly acting like they are. Is it the military machine or the heads of Wall Street? We certainly act like they are.

But what Jeremiah is saying is that, no—the Shepherd is the one who looks out for and protects those most vulnerable. Sheep are some of the most vulnerable animals, which is why they are so often used as a symbol for the nation of Israel. And it is always the vulnerable sheep who are slain by imperialism, by war, by domestic abuse, by any form of arrogance and domination. It is always the lambs, those most vulnerable, who suffer when some other entity or person take it upon themselves to say that they are the ruler of the universe. It is the sheep we have to guard and protect in ourselves—it is the cosmic vulnerability that we have to honor if we want to worship the true king, the Cosmic Christ.

That’s why we cannot sing about the “feast of victory for our God,” without also remembering that at Good Friday, we sing about the “sacred head now wounded.” The crucifixion story is about how Christ became yet another victim of state-sanctioned murder, and the sun became dark and the whole earth shook. It is a cosmic experience! The temple curtain is rent in two. It is an ancient Jewish teaching that when a just person is killed unjustly, the whole earth trembles. Expanding the concept of “person” to our Earth-kin, when another species becomes extinct, the whole universe is rent in two. When a woman is raped in a refugee camp, the whole universe shudders. When a child is shot on the streets of Philadelphia, the entire cosmos shakes. God suffers and dies every time another crucifixion happens in our world.

But after the dust settles and the gravestone is in place, and the only sound is the weeping in the garden we recall the words of Psalm 46:10—“Be still and know that I am God.” In the midst of suffering, that is when the Risen Christ appears. Notice that after the resurrection, no one says, “we have seen Jesus.” They say, “We have seen the Lord.” The Lord has risen. The Cosmic Christ is very much alive and gathers in all those who have suffered and died as well, including the woman in the refugee camp, the child in Philadelphia, and the last bird of the species.

Christ the King Sunday is truly Cosmic Christ Sunday. The birth of the Earth; the suffering of Earth; the renewal and resurrection of Earth all happen within and through the Cosmic Christ—this radiant, vulnerable, suffering, resurrected one. The Cosmic Christ is who we trust, the One who we worship.

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

Sunday October 16-22 in Year C

God’s presence and blessing are the source of our care for creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on Jacob wrestling with God and the Parable of the Unjust Judge

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 16-22, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4: 5
Luke 18:1-8 

Caring for God’s creation is both a fascinating and a frustrating calling. It is fascinating because of the wealth of experiences it brings. I was awestruck at seeing a “hummingbird moth” drinking from the flowers in our alley garden, flowers that grow on a strip of land that only persistent composting has made viable. Yet, we all have cried, “How long, O Lord,” in frustration over the reaction of our so-called “advanced civilization” to climate change. And, we know how difficult it is to persuade our sisters and brothers in faith that creation care is constitutive of our common identity. Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to learn “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

Our road to understanding begins with Jacob, a character whose resume is full of deep frustration and worry, most of it self-inflicted. Now Jacob is on the road home—back to  the land of promise, back to meet his brother, Esau, whom he has ‘shafted’ more than once. While Jacob has made a variety of plans to make this meeting go as well as possible, at bottom he realizes—for the first time—that it all depends on God. And so Jacob prays with great intensity, a prayer in which he both shares his fear that Esau may kill him, yet casts his trust on the God of promise, who has said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number” (Genesis 32:11-12).

Having entrusted everything to this God, Jacob’s night is filled with wrestling. Brueggemann suggests that much of the power of this story rests in the uncertain identity of the stranger. “To be too certain would reduce the dread intended in the telling . . . . The power of the stranger is as much in his inscrutability as in his strength” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p. 267). Yet, given the desperation of Jacob’s prayer, it is most plausible that the hidden one is Yahweh.

While the score of this wrestling match is not available, the outcome is significant. Jacob will not let his adversary go without a blessing. At first, all Jacob receives is a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.” In response, Jacob wants to hear the name of this magisterial opponent. This time, he does receive a blessing, something he has been hungering after. “Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel.” (Brueggemann, p. 269)

We see this power in action in the Joseph Saga (Genesis 37-50), where, in spite of the evil intention of brothers, Joseph provides food for a significant Mediterranean population and ensures the continuation of the community of blessing, Israel. Surely, the power of that blessing is available to Israel—”old” and “new”—to care for God’s creation.

Edgar Krentz suggests that the curious parable of “The Unjust Judge,” this week’s Gospel reading, is Jesus’ version of Jacob’s wrestling with God (New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 236). If that is so, certainly the “wrestlers” and the issues dealt with are quite different.  For, no longer is it the trickster Jacob contending with a numinous combatant in a nearly equal contest. Now, it is a relatively powerless widow seeking justice from a shameless judge. Her best power resource seems to be dogged persistence. In fact, she is so determined that the judge fears that she may ‘blacken his eye’ (Luke 18:5).

The logic of this parable seems to be: if even a shameless judge will give in to this kind of pressure, how much more will God grant justice. Because the parable is framed as a response to those who were tempted to “lose heart” (Luke 18:1), this persistence is commended as a model of faith for the new community. Just as tricky Jacob bore the blessing as the forerunner of Israel, so this tireless widow models the faith of those making the ‘New Exodus’ journey.

Central to the identity of communities formed by the one who blesses is the care of those who have no one to stand up for themselves—widows, orphans, and Earth. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson claims, “Doing justice for widows becomes shorthand for covenantal loyalty among the prophets” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 269). This is crucial in Luke’s gospel because his eschatological discourse (17:22-37) makes it clear that “the kingdom he (Jesus) proclaims is not yet the end-time” (Johnson, p. 273). Therefore, the durable and resilient faith modeled by this widow in Jesus’ parable will be absolutely necessary.

Perhaps this provides a clue to the final verse of the parable asking, will the Son of Man find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8). We could translate this poignant question to mean: Will this one find ‘widows’ pressing shameless judges for justice? Will this one find faithful people protesting mountaintop removal in West Virginia? Will those seeking divestment of funds supporting destructive oil companies be found actively pressing their case? Will teachers sharing the wonders of creation with children and teaching them to garden be found?

This begins to sound like the exhortation provided in our reading from 2 Timothy: “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Timothy 4:2). But this persistence must have a basis, or it becomes little more than ‘trying harder,’ or the mantra of the “Little Blue Engine”—“I think I can.”

Ultimately, it must go back to the notion of blessing, like the blessing given to Jacob and the blessing given to the new community formed around the Risen One. We saw in this blessing to Jacob that ” something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel” (Brueggemann, p. 269). “Israel is not formed by success or shrewdness or land, but by an assault from God. Perhaps it is grace, but it is not the kind usually imagined. Jacob is not consulted about his new identity” (Brueggemann, p. 269). Much the same could be said about baptism. It is a gift; it is also a task to be lived out, “walking in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4b)

What is the source of the widow’s persistence, the determination of the blessed Nancy Lund, the late member of Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN, to drive the thirty miles to a Twin Cities area farm and buy 200 dozen brown eggs every week for ten years to donate to the local food shelf and help local agriculture? Or the resolve of Stan Cox of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, to seek ways to cool people without refrigerating vast internal spaces and warming the planet? (see Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool , New York: New Press, 2012). Is it not a sense of blessing that comes from “something of the power of God” entrusted even to us? 

 As we continue to “wrestle” with a new understanding of what God calls us to in caring for creation and each other (as if they could be separated!), it is this sense of presence and blessing ( “Go in peace. Serve the Lord!”) that will drive us on the way together.

 

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

 

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

 

Reformation Sunday (October 27, 2019) in Year C

A reformation that recognizes God’s presence in all creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Romans 3:19-28

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Reformation Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

What can we preach faithfully on Reformation Sunday? Should we attempt to recapture the theologically correct “side” from old arguments in a post-denominational age? Ecumenical agreements, especially those on justification with the Roman Catholic communion (1999), must mean something! Or, might there be a way of learning from an ever-fresh Word what might be the meaning today of Paul’s cry, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)?

This reality is echoed just as dramatically by Luther’s characterization of sin as cor curvatum in sei—”the heart turned in upon itself.” The results are not pretty. By elevating ourselves, we project fear and anxiety upon “the other.” Whether this “other” is the competing village, nation, racial group, gender, sexual preference, class, the results have been violent and destructive.  People of faith have been called to “sniff out ”the underlying pride and arrogance both in ourselves and in our groups.

But we have failed miserably at seeing the contempt we humans have shown for the vast chorus of non-human creation! Dealing with the results of this contempt will constitute our calling for the remainder of our lives. By adding “human species arrogance” to our definition of sin, we take a step toward refreshing the meaning of Reformation. We may even discover elements of this perspective “already there” in our texts.

The results of this arrogance were clearly visible to Jeremiah. As a prophet, called ‘kicking and screaming’ to deliver God’s ‘word’ to the people, he not only exposed this contempt; he experienced it. Yet, in the chronicle of his work, we suddenly come to a “Book of Consolation,” a statement of hope and reassurance even for those who live as refugees in Babylon. That word promises that the LORD will even bring the people back to the land of promise (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this second Exodus begins, Jeremiah describes 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).

Perhaps the image of “a watered garden” is important for understanding the well-known text we consider this week. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). But, in order to begin this ‘building’ process, apparently it is necessary for the people to have returned once more to the wilderness, this time the ‘wilderness’ of Babylon. As Jeremiah conveys, “Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2). Only in this “wilderness experience,” where dependency is total, can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) become a gift of God and not simply the results of human effort.

Just as the return to the land and its fertility is seen as something granted, so also the congruence between God and people now can be 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 for forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony with the land, where not only will the city of Jerusalem be rebuilt and renewed, but even the fields that have served only as burial places for the dead will become fertile sources of food, “sacred to the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:40, see John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1965, p. 283). Clearly, when there is “new covenant” restoration, it includes not only humankind, but the whole of creation.

This broad perspective is also there in the reading from Romans, a reading which has become a kind of “Lutheran mantra” for Reformation Sunday. Paul restates his theme (Romans 1:17-18) with the dramatic “But now, apart from the law, the justice (righteousness) of God has been disclosed, and is attested to by the law and prophets, the justice (righteousness) of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22). The very forcefulness of this verse should convince us, as Kasemann argues, “As surely as justification loses its reality unless it happens to the individual, just so surely it cannot remain an eschatological event unless it is the Creator’s grasping of his (sic) world and not of the individual alone” (E. Kasemann, Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 93).

That this “grasping of the world” as a gift of God to be cared for and shared is necessary is made clear by the powerful description of human brokenness that follows: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift . . . .” (Romans 3:22b-24a).  Therefore, there is no room for claiming ‘special privileges,’ or, in Paul’s language, “boasting.” This is not only true of claims of religious groups—Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants—it is also the case when considering the relationship between humankind and ‘otherkind.’ No, it is not that ‘otherkind’ has sinned, but surely non-human creation suffers from the results of human arrogance, especially through climate change. The ‘Christ event’ and its continuation through new creation ‘grasps’ all together.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson has described the results of contemporary “boasting” spot on.

If you put God outside and set him vis-a-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will be yours to exploit (Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: Random House, 1972, p. 472),

“But now” (Romans 3:21) the new “justice–justification” brought in the Christ event frees us to see us ourselves as a partner species with all that is created with a special calling to comprehend and care (with great humility).

This Reformation “freedom” is at the core of our familiar Gospel reading. However, John only reveals this freedom by contrast. In this case, contrast is provided by “the Jews.” While there is extensive scholarly debate about who “the Jews” might be, it is clear that it does not mean all Jewish people of the time. That would have included Jesus and the disciples! It seems this incendiary term, “the Jews,” refers to hereditary Temple authorities. Their rejection and persecution of Jesus and his followers can be understood, then, as stemming from the fact that his teaching and healing lacks the pedigree and approval of the Temple elite (New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, Third Edition, 2001, NT p. 147).

Because “the Jews” see their ‘place at the table’ ascribed by heredity and its perquisites, they do not “continue in my (Jesus’) word.” This denies them the gift of freedom, “freedom of the household.” The sheer exasperation of this new kind of affiliation based on “continuing in the word,” leads this group to the conclusion that Jesus must be “possessed” (John 8:52), and to launch an attempt to stone him summarily (John 8:59). Perhaps, as has been suggested, this conflict refers historically to the expulsion of “Jesus’-believing-Jews” from the synagogue.

Real freedom comes from “remaining in Jesus’ word” and opens the “freedom of the household” to all who believe, regardless of pedigree. While the contribution of Luther’s Reformation to the history of the new community is crucial and should never be forgotten, this “relational freedom” today needs to be re-imagined.

First, this sense of “boasting,” or claiming “special privileges” because of religious heredity—even Lutheran—must be seen for what it is, and what Jesus calls it: evil (John  8:44). It is time to remember that homo sapiens is but one created species in the earth-household. Our uniqueness lies, as suggested earlier, only in a specific calling to love and care for each other—including the whole creation. As Dostoevsky in his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, suggested “each is responsible to all for all” (New York: Modern Library, 1964, p. 317). It is both the “gift” and the “task” of being a daughter or son in the “household off faith” and “household earth.” It is what the Reformation tradition calls “the priesthood of all believers.”

This is freedom, even if it sounds like endless labor. It is a vocation that recognizes with Luther that God is present in all of creation, finitum capax infiniti, the finite bears the infinite. Not only does this stance move beyond “species arrogance,” it leads to reverence for all that is. As Larry Rasmussen has it:

The meaning of finitum capax infiniti is simple enough: God is pegged to earth. So if you would experience God, you must fall in love with earth. The infinite and transcendent are dimensions of what is intensely at hand. Don’t look “up”     for God, look around. The finite is all there is, because all that is, is there. This is earthbound theology (Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, p. 273).

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

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

Sunday November 13-19 in Year C

Preaching the End of the World in the Face of the End of the World – Leah Schade reflects on Malachi 4:1-2a and Luke 21:5-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for November 13-19, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

For preachers, eschatological themes are anticipated with nearly as much enthusiasm as dental check-ups. “The end of the world . . . again,” quipped one pastor at a pericope study I once attended as we tackled once more the images of the end-times that proliferate in the last Sundays of Pentecost and the first Sundays of Advent. This sarcasm perhaps masks a deeper unease about the real fears alluded to in passages such as Malachi 4:1-2 and Luke 21:5-19, whose warnings of impending cosmic upheavals ricochet sharply off contemporary headlines about war, natural disasters, and strange “signs” that warn of dire days ahead. Add to this the disconcerting news about species extinctions, the climate crisis, football-field-lengths of forests disappearing by the hour, and extreme forms of energy extraction, and the task of preaching “good news” in the face of seemingly imminent ecological doom can feel overwhelming to pastor and congregation alike.

Catherine Keller describes the problem this way:

[W]arnings of social, economic, ecological, or nuclear disaster have become so numbingly normal that they do not have the desired effect on most of us, who retreat all the more frantically into private pursuits . . . . How can we sustain resistance to destruction without expecting to triumph? That is, how can we acknowledge the apocalyptic dimensions of the late-modern situation in which we find ourselves entrenched without either clinging to some millennial hope of steady progress or then, flipping, disappointed, back to pessimism? (Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. P. 14).

Especially for the preacher, the dual temptations to either legalistically preach about “saving the earth” or to irresponsibly encourage waiting passively for a messianic solution can lead to an “apocalyptic either/or logic—if we can’t save the world, then to hell with it. Either salvation or damnation” (Keller p. 14). The task of the preacher will be to avoid such a false dichotomy.

The reality is that in many ways creation is, in fact, already in the eschaton. This is especially true for the strip-mined mountains, decimated forests, and other devastated areas of Earth for whom “the end” has already happened. The preacher working from an eco-hermeneutical reading of these texts might introduce the “readership” of Earth and Earth’s other-than-human creatures. Because, in fact, the “end of the world” has already come to pass for countless species whose history has come to an end at the hands of human beings. Doomsday has come and gone for the North American Passenger Pigeon, Australian Toolache Wallaby, Indian Arunchal Hopea Tree, and St. Helena Olive, not to mention untold numbers of plant and animal species whose final dying members passed into oblivion unnoticed and unmourned by human eyes. And what of the impending end-of-days for the hundreds of plant and animal species currently facing threatened or immanent extinction? How nice that human beings have the luxury to debate their worth, value, and fate, quibbling about biblical and philosophical semantics as these species languish in prisons of shrinking habitat, poisoned waters, and diminishing food supplies. We have ghettoized creation, delineating by way of concrete and metal boundaries where greenery, fur, and feathers can and cannot live, blocking them into increasingly shrinking habitats that isolate and cramp them in their once vast and free-ranging bioscapes.

A sermon that preaches both “law” about our ecological crisis, as well as “gospel” that proclaims God’s grace in the midst of our failures, finds a way to do three things. First, the sermon will honor the intrinsic value of God’s Creation. Second, the sermon will realistically state the ecological dilemma in which we find ourselves today. Third, the sermon will be clear about what God is doing to bring about a transformation towards life, even in these tumultuous, death-drenched days.

The prophetic words of Malachi and Jesus are strikingly appropriate for our contemporary time. As our planet continues to be encased with the fumes of burning fossil fuels, the day has surely arrived when Earth is “burning like an oven.” The difference between Malachi’s prophecy and the situation today is that it is not yet the arrogant and evildoers who are stubble. Rather, it is the poor, marginalized and disempowered. Nevertheless, the prophet is clear that there will be consequences even for those who believe their wealth and privilege will protect them from the evil they commit. Further, the prophecy is also clear that those who have respect for God—and God’s Creation, we might add—will experience the sun not as a burning punishment, but as healing warmth. This will be especially true if our efforts to curb consumption, conserve energy and resources, and develop non-fossil-fuel forms of energy begin to slow the effects of global warming. Thus, we are given hope that our work in faith-based environmental activism will have real effects for society and the planet.

This is not to say that our work in eco-advocacy will go unopposed. Jesus warned that those who do the work of resisting the powers might very well be opposed by people in their own family and possibly be arrested and persecuted. Here one can bring to mind some examples of Christian and other faith-based environmentalists who have been arrested in acts of civil disobedience against corporations and governments who insist on polluting and desecrating Earth and human communities. UCC minister Rev. Jim Artel [http://www.ucc.org/news/ucc-conference-minister.html] and Rabbi Arthur Waskow [http://beforeitsnews.com/alternative/2013/03/photo-80-yr-old-rabbi-arthur-waskow-arrested-at-white-house-xl-protest-2601032.html] have both been arrested in protests against the Canadian tar sands XL pipeline and its threat to land, water and the climate. Yet Jesus’ words compel us to continue our work and to trust that His power is with us:18”But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Endurance is what is needed in this long-term struggle to protect and advocate for Earth and “the least of these” within our planet’s fragile atmosphere. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians echo Jesus’ words: 13”Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

It is in Psalm 98 where the preacher can find the vision to sustain us during these soul-wearying struggles. “The ends of the earth” (v. 3) already know that God’s victory against the death-wielding systems is assured and are singing a song of joy for what is to come. The sea roaring and the floods clapping their hands herald the work of God filling the earth with Her presence. We, too, are invited to add our voices to Creation’s chorus and bring our instruments of peace to the biotic orchestra.

[Note:  Worship planners may want to have the congregation sing the hymn “Earth and All Kin,” based on the well-known “Earth and All Stars,” in response to creation’s call and God’s call to “sing a new song.” [http://ecopreacher.blogspot.com/2013/09/hymn-earth-and-all-kin.html]

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

All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2019) in Year C

Sin is our refusal to be the responsible consciousness of creation.Tom Mundahl reflects on expanding our understanding of the Communion of Saints.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for All Saints Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

On a recent Halloween evening, my wife Anne and I found ourselves on the #21 bus traveling from Minneapolis to our home in St. Paul. We were not surprised by seeing children in costumes, but were amazed at their sheer number! We soon learned that this wave of ‘Captain Jack Sparrows,’ princesses, and beasts was headed to the light rail station, where they would transfer to reach the Mall of America, one of our great national ‘temples of consumption.’ There they would revel in the generosity of merchants enjoying the biggest Halloween party in the area.

While our task is not to comprehend the strange juxtaposition between All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day (Sunday), those of us in the northern hemisphere understandably relate the end of the growing season with deaths that have occurred within the faith community. As beneficial as this may be to honor our grief, we have failed to make a connection between our sense of the Communion of Saints and the even greater Communion of All Creation. Perhaps our readings will help us find this thread.

Our First Reading from Daniel contains a vision worthy of Halloween horror. As the structure of the book is transformed from a series of ‘hero tales’ (ch. 1-6) to apocalyptic revelation, we are met by a series of animal figures representing historical kingdoms that threaten both the political survival of Judea and the piety of the people. While these animal figures call to mind the history of international politics between the Babylonian Exile and the time of writing (perhaps 167 B.C.E.), the real focus of Daniel’s apocalyptic material is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian ruler, whose Hellenization program jeopardizes faith.

What is most important for us may be the beginning of Daniel’s night vision, a specter that opens with “the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea….” (Daniel 7:2b). While this may recall certain elements of Babylonian creation myth, the outcome is clear. Just as the original creation is good, so these foul “beasts from the sea” cannot ultimately destroy God’s people. As they assume historical incarnation, the beasts show “feet of clay” (see W. Sibley Towner, Daniel, Atlanta: John Knox, 1984, pp. 94-95).

Yes, they can cause a brand of “chaos” reminiscent of the first creation narrative in Genesis, but God’s ever-renewing creation can be trusted. Despite the terror, the gift of understanding given to Daniel suggests that the “the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18) will not succumb (Norman Porteous, Daniel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964, p. 112). Even if it seems that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is “devouring the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), the rule that ultimately will prevail “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). “All saints” can trust in the reliability of the God who renews creation and faith communities, who does not allow them to be destroyed even in the face of the greatest threats.

While the challenge to the author of this ‘circular letter’ we call Ephesians was more of internal unity than external threat, the epistle continues to maintain a cosmic view. In fact, the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles suggests a universality that can only be expanded in scope. Yet, the letter supports this new unity by suggesting that, in some sense, this new creation community lives as if all were fulfilled. The shared experience of the Spirit, the “pledge of inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14), is an already accomplished fact. As Martin suggests, “the victory of Christ, both present and future, is presented as a fait accompli” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Atlanta: John Knox, 1991, p. 23).

This sense of ‘already’ is buttressed by the conclusion of today’s reading with verses from what appears to be a liturgical text (Ephesians 1:20-23). Again, Martin suggests that in its worship the future is brought into the present as a “liturgical reality” (Martin, p. 23). This not only reminds us of the sense of always worshiping in the presence of the Great Communion of Saints, but also points toward an understanding of “the church, which is his body” , , , as “. . . the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 2:23).

This sense of “the fullness of the body” reminds us of the work of Sallie McFague, who has been inspired, in part by Ephesians, to develop an ecological theology based on seeing the Earth as “God’s body” (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, p. 32). However, the membership of this “body” is now extended to include all of creation. This “body” is threatened now, not only by the “beasts” of history as by also by an inadequate understanding of sin.

McFague suggests: “It is obvious, then, what sin is in this metaphor of the world as God’s body: it is refusal to be part of the body, the special part we are as imago dei . . . . Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives: it is the desire to set oneself apart from others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the cosmos” (McFague, Models of God, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 77).

Celebrating the interdependent fullness of new creation on All Saints Sunday surely points us toward the “Sermon on the Plain,” our gospel reading. While the audience is formally the disciple group, the proximity of great crowds and multitudes (Luke 6:17- 18) who had come to hear removes all limits. And it is a very important set of teachings. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The literary prototype for both sermons is provided by the delivery of the Torah to the people by Moses” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 110). Surely this fits with the New Exodus theme adopted by Luke (9:31) and emphasized in these comments.

We hear this theme especially in the “blessings” that form the “new creation” community. But we have heard them before in Luke. Certainly the concern for the poor and hungry has been outlined in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53) as well as in Jesus’ “inaugural sermon” in Nazareth, where, reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus announced his agenda as beginning with “bringing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a).

Here we see that “the fullness that fills all in all” in Ephesians 2:23 becomes much more concrete. As suggested by the Magnificat, the hungry are filled, but “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:21, 25). As many have suggested, Jesus brings a reversal of current fortunes in creating this new community of faith.

This newly-formed community is governed by new norms as well. Gone is the notion of reciprocity, where goods of equal value are exchanged in calculating social commerce. Instead, the watchword is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Not only does this create a consistency between community formation (not based on merit, but mercy) and community preservation; it also allows for the eventual integration of all into this new community.

That is, to be truly new, this community has to demonstrate more than the replacement of the rich by those who were poor, who now will have the opportunity to become the new wealthy. By calling for transformative love of enemies, reconciliation between ‘classes’ becomes more than possible. Or, to put it another way: this is the only way beyond the historical alternation of elites that has usually taken place with “revolutions.”

This movement beyond prudential reciprocity is also evident in the teaching on what we might call ‘economics.’ “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)  This moves trust from the commercial marketplace to the provision of ‘daily bread’ as divine gift. What’s more, it moves toward a need-based world-view that is demonstrated in Acts 2:44-47. This may be, as Frederick Danker suggests, an implementation of the Jubilee announced by Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19; Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 143).

All this is summarized in “the golden rule,” a norm that exposes the weakness of reciprocity. Moving beyond mere reciprocity requires the gift of faith found in a secure sense of belonging to the new creation community. As Johnson suggests, “do as you want done” is not even enough. Rather, the standard is better described as “do as God would do” (Johnson, p. 112). For this is the ultimate source of the forgiving love of enemies, sending rain on the just and unjust, and the provision of daily bread regardless of credit rating. This is the source of a compassion that spills beyond the merely human to a realization that our common creatureliness leads us to embrace all that God has made and to learn from this earthy and diverse richness.

If Luke invites all of God’s people and the whole creation on this New Exodus journey, then, as Gordan Lathrop suggests, “the Risen Lord is still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but also still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians—like the stranger in the Emmaus account . . . ” (The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). One cannot doubt that this presence in our current assemblies also expands the notion of the Great Communion of Saints to becoming the Communion of All Creation.

How might we envision this Communion of All Creation on All Saints Sunday? Perhaps we would be wise to begin with poets, like Denise Levertov, who are on the frontiers of this understanding. Listen to the second stanza of her poem, “We Come Into Animal Presence.” (Denise Levertov, The Life Around Us, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 34)

                              What is the joy? That no animal

                              falters, but knows what it must do?

                              That the snake has no blemish,

                              that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings

                              in white star-silence? The llama

                              rests in dignity, the armadillo

                              has some intentions to pursue in the palm-forest.

                              Those who were sacred have remained so,

                              holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence

                              of bronze, only the sight that saw it

                              faltered and turned from it.

                              An old joy returns in holy presence.

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

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

Sunday October 9 – 15 in Year C

What it means to be servants of creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on 2 Kings 5 and Luke 17:11-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 9-15, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

As we began this series of short comments several weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke guides us on a ‘New Exodus journey’ (Luke 9:31), a journey that features a ‘new Miriam,’ Mary, who begins her trek with a simple statement of faith: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While we have no evidence that this Miriam danced, her song, the Magnificat, still echoes as a New Exodus manifesto: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly . . . .” (Luke 1:52).

Mary gives birth to a child, born of the earth, wrapped in earth’s cloth, and laid in a manger of earthen material. Yet, this lowly infant, a servant of creation, is attested by the elderly Simeon to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This week’s readings will demonstrate just this power of servanthood to break through the boundaries that divide to provide new hope for all creation.

At first, General Naaman, who has won significant victory over Israel in the field, seems a most unlikely candidate for healing that breaks down boundaries. Yet, as part of his war plunder, Naaman had acquired a Jewish female servant who had compassion for the skin disease (leprosy) suffered by her master. The young servant girl lamented to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5: 3). Hearing this, and grasping at the hope it presented, Naaman went to his ‘master,’ the king, who agreed to send a letter of request along with an unimaginably great ‘healing fee’ to his counterpart, the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4-5).

But the king of Israel wondered if this request was a diplomatic ruse that may lead to further conflict. Nevertheless, when Elijah learned of the request, he replied simply, “Let him (Naaman) come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And Naaman did come, arriving with his retinue at Elisha’s house. But he did not see Elisha himself, only a messenger who advised Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (2 Kings 5:10)

Naaman was angry that Elisha did not attend to someone of his rank personally. What’s more, he was offended by the thought that this healing could not take place in the far more impressive rivers of Syria. He made plans to leave in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12). Fortunately for Naaman, his servants calmed him down, suggesting, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”(2 Kings 5:13).

Naaman reconsidered.  He went down to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Renewed, Naaman returned with his company to Elisha and confessed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” Now, the mighty Naaman was a servant! He saw himself as part of the “network of servanthood” that had accomplished his healing. Even though he wanted to share his joy with a large gift to Elisha, as one called to bring God’s healing word as a servant, Elisha refused it (2 Kings 5:16). Naaman had only one more request: that he be given two mule-loads of Israeli earth, to ‘ground’ himself in his new servanthood (2 Kings 5:17).

The power of such a network of servanthood to break down old barriers is at work in this week’s Gospel reading as well. At first glance, our pericope seems to be a healing story with a bonus lesson on giving thanks. Of course, it is both of these. Ten lepers, forced to live outside the village by religious law, keeping their distance cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13). Jesus responds by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they enter the village to seek ‘certificates of cleansing’ from the priests, a kind of New Exodus, they are all made clean (Luke 17:14). Luke continues the story by describing one who returned praising God with a loud voice. Only as he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him, do we read “And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).

But this story is much more than it appears to be. Following Jesus’ instruction about servanthood, it is significant that the lepers correctly address Jesus as “Master.” This correct address reminds the disciples that they were all as outcast as the lepers. Not only can they expect no thanks for their servanthood (Luke 17:9), like the Samaritan leper, they are called to thank the one who has saved them. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The ‘faith that saves’ of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith given them. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 262).

And, it is ‘arrogating to themselves the status of master,’ or, as Frederic Danker puts it, “self-aggrandizement that is maintained at the expense of others” (Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 291) that blocks breakthroughs experiencing the breadth of the new creation Jesus inaugurates. Certainly, this kind of breakthrough is symbolized by Luke’s dramatic mentioning of the seemingly incidental fact, “And he was a Samaritan,” only after the former leper returned to give thanks and find a community home (Luke 17:16. This was undoubtedly a Samaritan who knew his role as servant.

Yet, this should be no surprise. When the, New Exodus company began their journey toward Jerusalem, they reacted strongly to being rebuffed by a Samaritan village and asked their Master if they should, like Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16), call down fire from heaven. “But he (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). This rebuke is made all the sharper in the very next chapter of Luke’s narrative, where Jesus tells the story of the ‘Good’ Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we recall that when Jesus began his formal ministry in Nazareth, in his ‘inaugural sermon’ he included a telling reference to Naaman, who was healed despite his status as a foreigner (Luke 4:27). The cost, of course, was an attempt to “hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4: 29), a portent of things to come.

It is Jesus, the Master become servant of creation, who breaks barriers and frees those who come after to move beyond contemporary boundaries to creation care. Reading through his new book, Oil and Honey (New York: Holt, 2013) one cannot help being moved by the servanthood of Bill McKibben. Not only is his orientation to working to care for creation global—helping to found 350.org to confront climate change and leading the largest U.S. civil disobedience action in this century to at least delay the Keystone XL pipeline; he completes this servant-calling by involvement with the local economy in the area surrounding his home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

This involvement began when McKibben was asked to teach a class on “Local Food Production” at Middlebury College in 2001. While there were not many resources available then, he seemed to come across the name Kirk Webster in article after article in the Small Farmer’s Journal, writings primarily focusing on beekeeping. Desperately searching for resource people to speak to the class, McKibben discovered that Webster lived in “the next town over” (McKibben, p. 2). Webster not only presented to the class, but he and McKibben developed a growing friendship.

Webster had been involved in beekeeping for years, but had never been able to accumulate enough money to buy a place of his own. Even though Webster had developed techniques to deal with “colony collapse disorder” without resorting to toxic chemicals and was well-known in the world of apiarists, this did not translate into capital funds. McKibben, who had achieved some financial independence through his writings, made him an offer: “What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes” (McKibben, p. 6).

Webster agreed to this “too good to refuse” offer and began the building process with the hope of passing on his skills to apprentices over what he hoped would be twenty more years of work. While McKibben could not be called an ‘apprentice,’ it is clear that he has worked with Webster when he is able in order to deepen his understanding of the beekeeping process crucial for the pollination of at least one-third of all that grows. In doing this, he has modeled the connection between servanthood in one’s home and on our home planet, a servanthood designed to break down the boundaries between humankind and the rest of creation so that we can see all that God has made as a gift and learn to restrain ourselves so that less than one-quarter of the carbon-based fuel available is ever burned (McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012)

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

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