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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

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

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

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

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Ormseth)

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

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

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “