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Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Lent (March 7) in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

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