Survival Is Insufficient – Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)
Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time. But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of economies grasping for endless growth.
What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.
The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.
But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).
This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27). May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.
Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear. The stories are full of foreboding. The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.
Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life. It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be. It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.
And it is a communal pilgrimage. This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109). As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).
Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts. This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).
Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew. Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7). It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.
Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted. Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.
Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18). This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9). We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.
All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life–divine, human, and non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).
Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors. Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).
Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building. This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.
The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV). This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10). Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.
To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218). After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.
This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:
“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back. It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)
So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?” Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits. We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.
Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.