Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

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

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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

Sunday July 3 – 9 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series C: (2019, 2022)

by Amy Carr

Readings for Series C (2019, 2022)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Today’s readings are filled with images of nourishing and flourishing drawn from the natural world, as well as agricultural metaphors for divine judgment and demand. The former invite us to treasure creation as the very medium and means of God’s blessings for us, while the latter draw our attention to the very human means of promoting a good harvest of blessings for the earth and its inhabitants. God’s gifts, our labor: these appear in conjunction. In relationship to these scripture readings, I will suggest that one kind of creation care strategy involves sowing relationships that bridge urban and rural divides—relationships that might reap a richer possibility of forging just relations for both land and people.

We encounter earthy images of a God-given nourishing and flourishing in Isaiah and Psalm 66. Post-exilic Jerusalem is envisioned as a wet nurse who satisfies “from her consoling breast” (Isaiah 66:11). Because God is a “mother” who “comforts her child” (Isaiah 66:13), our “bodies shall flourish like the grass” (Isaiah 66:14), and God “will extend prosperity to [Jerusalem] like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream” (Isaiah 66:12). The healing and replenishment of our lives are utterly earthly in form and expression, yet divinely generated. As Luther put it in his Large Catechism commentary on the first commandment (“You shall have no gods”):

Creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings. For example, he gives to the mother breasts and milk for her infant, and he gives grain and all kinds of fruits from the earth for man’s nourishment—things which no creature could produce by himself. . . . We must acknowledge everything as God’s gifts and thank him for them, as this commandment requires. Therefore, this way of receiving good through God’s creatures is not to be disdained, nor are we arrogantly to seek other ways and means than God has commanded, for that would not be receiving our blessings from God but seeking them from ourselves (Luther, Large Catechism, trans.Theodore Tappert, http://apostles-creed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/luthers-large-catechism.pdf, p. 8).

The psalmist urges the planet itself to give thanks for the ways that God acts in and through blessings that take material form (like a sea parting to make way for the Hebrews to pass over on dry land): “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” (Psalm 66:1).

While the readings in Isaiah and Psalm 66 cast a vision of earthly well-being, in Galatians and Luke we encounter agricultural metaphors that bear a prophetic spirit of warning and admonition about threats to God’s harvest. Here the blessings spoken of in Isaiah are contingent not only upon our being open to receive what God provides through natural means, but also upon paying close attention to the shape of our human interactions and to whether or not we are discerning and heeding God’s call amid those interactions. Thus Paul commands the Galatians,

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. . . (Galatians 6:7-10).

Paul associates sowing “to your own flesh” with his familiar theme of seeking justification by Jewish ritual works like circumcision (Galatians 6:12-15) instead of justification by faith in the “cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14). But he associates sowing “to the Spirit’ with “doing what is right,” in order to reap “eternal life from the Spirit”—or what he calls “a new creation” (6:15).

In Luke 10, fields ripe for harvest symbolize cities and towns with people ready to hear and respond to the gospel news about the kingdom of God—a way of life together that promotes spiritual and physical healing for all. Here Jesus is like a farmer trying to gather together workers to do the reaping: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). So Jesus sends out 70 people, working in pairs, to visit “every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:2). Jesus does not harvest alone. Indeed, in this story, Jesus seems to act behind the scenes in a contemplative manner (rather, perhaps, as we might experience the risen and ascended Christ doing today), for while the 70 went about healing the sick, releasing people from their demons, and announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, Jesus sat and perceived the spiritual fruits of their harvest: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18).

If we hold in green imagination all the various natural and agricultural metaphors we find in today’s scripture readings, we might ask ourselves: where is the Spirit sending us forth as laborers for a ripe harvest that nourishes both humans and the world in which we dwell? What kind of sowing might we do to promote a ripe harvest that fosters what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls the “kin-dom of God?”

As someone who lives in west central Illinois, one desire that keeps coming to mind in a Spirit-driven way is a hunger to connect farmers with urban or suburban dwellers who know nothing about farming or the agricultural industry. I began to have this thought one week when I witnessed two distinct expressions of youth leadership in my rural university town.

The first was a presentation at a Sunday luncheon at my Lutheran church by four high schoolers, all young women, about their participation in Future Farmers of America (FFA). I was amazed by how well FFA is preparing young people for a wide range of possible careers in agriculture, but also for leadership skills that include everything from taking responsibility for a self-designed agricultural project, to speech competitions, to knowledge of parliamentary procedure. At national conferences, they meet and stay in touch with fellow FFA members who hail from all 50 states and the US territories. Their clear enthusiasm left me confident about the future of agriculture, including a boldness about meetings its challenges.

The second presentation was a Saturday night fashion show, created largely by black university students who designed clothes and modeled them while telling a story. The woman who wrote the script for the modeling show is a Religious Studies minor from St. Louis who wants to work with people with disabilities, and maybe one day help them find creative self-expression through a fashion show of their own. Here, too, I witnessed initiative, drive, imagination, and leadership among young people.

While these two groups of young people may have quite different interests, I have found myself wondering how congregations can encourage meeting with and collaboration between people (young to old) who are deeply committed to their respective communities or fields, but share qualities like dedication and experience at organizing events. It is just the seed of a dream right now; and perhaps, like Jesus, I think it best for those in agriculture and in urban organizations to themselves go ahead to harvest the rich fields of possibility. Some of the fruits could be collaboration on public policy—from economic to environmental—that could be rooted in better mutual understanding between rural and urban or suburban communities.

“We reap what we sow.” What if we sowed the seeds of a genuine cultural exchange that doesn’t begin with the premise of privileged missioners helping those in need? A mission trip is not always the same thing as building cross-cultural connections among people who perceive one another as social equals. Whether they take one to the inner city, to disasters sites, to Appalachia, or to a Native American reservation, domestic mission trips are often premised on some sort of economic or class disparity. But what would happen instead if we cultivated rural-urban meet-ups between professionals, or people already active and experienced in organizations? Here the conversations have the potential to move beyond personal testimony, beyond direct service, into a mutual cultural understanding and respect that could bear fruit in the political arena. Instead of sowing ignorance and polarized jabs about rednecks or urban elites, instead of reaping a political culture that is sown in resentment of outsiders who fail to understand or respect “us,” perhaps we could sow mutual understanding and respect of different ways of life in relationship to land and to culture. There would still be arguments, still hard environmental and social problems to solve, but we would be better resourced for debating and imagining into their resolutions together.

If we send out harvesters adept at sowing bridge-building across the rural-urban divide, perhaps we can ultimately reap the flourishing of a new and renewed creation. We would be fostering the social capital for developing and supporting a public policy with regard to climate change that includes at the table those who work the land, as well as those who dwell in Jerusalem and other cities that need to be nourished by the fruits of that land.

Amy Carr amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Creation reorientation: Liturgy to Reconcile People and Planet

(Click here to download this document.)

Created by Bridget Jones in 2018 as part of her Masters of Divinity program at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (Environmental Emphasis)

Introduction

As the climate warms, sea levels rise, forests are decimated, and numerous species become extinct, there is no denying that humans are more estranged from the rest of the created universe than ever before. As Christian communities, we are called to join God’s work of reconciliation and healing throughout the cosmos. Our earth is not just a collection of natural resources for us to steward wisely, but a fellow created-being, a creature in need of healing.

Within the past few years, many works have been released about “greening” a congregation, with subjects like incorporating creation care practices into fellowship hour, planting community gardens, and engaging in eco-justice. However, much of this new information stops at the doors of the sanctuary. While many congregations have begun to celebrate Seasons of Creation, there is usually not a year-round emphasis on everything else God has created. But as we continue to do damage to the Earth and everything that lives on it through our lifestyles and participation in systemic sin, there is a need for creation-centered liturgy.

Worship can be a reorientation, a way to focus us toward our values and toward God’s mission of justice throughout the earth. We can begin to pay attention to the needs of fellow created beings as we gather each week. As Gordon Lathrop states, “Sunday after Sunday, our own worldviews are reconstituted, and we are made witnesses to the triune God’s engaged care for the beloved, wounded earth.”1

As witnesses, we remember that we are not just care-takers or stewards. That is part of our vocation as fellow created beings, but we are not creation’s saviors. Ultimately, it is God’s power that heals and renews the cosmos and continues the creation that God started. Rather than continually asking God to help us to remember the earth, or to give us courage to carry out the effort alone, we can begin to remember God’s action and let that give us courage to join in the ongoing work.

Sometimes Lathrop seems to argue that the ordo itself already points to all creation, and the solution to our eco-alienation is more teaching about our traditional elements.2 However, I would argue for an altering of the ordo that is more obvious so that even those unfamiliar with the ancient traditions of the liturgy will be drawn into right relationship with everything God has made. Our task as worshiping communities “…is to anticipate and contribute to the promise of ultimate liberation and reconciliation in human communities and with the rest of nature.”3

To state it even more boldly: “God’s love of creation, God’s desire to redeem creation, and God’s action in reorienting our human relationship with the rest of creation ought to be so present in all we do in worship that they claim our hearts and minds with enthusiasm.”4

To that end, this guide will focus on five guiding principles to reorient every liturgy toward our wounded siblings:

Worship reorients us toward all other created beings.
Worship draws our attention to the cries of creation.
Worship demonstrates the sacramental nature of creation.
Worship joins us to the liturgical life of all creation.
Worship with creation can happen every week.
Worship reorients us toward all other created beings

Often the central idea of worship is only giving praise to God, but in reality worship is doing much more. In fact, rather than a one-way relationship where we shape worship services, we find that in a way worship shapes us. Paul Santmire states it even more unequivocally when he claims, “…ritual creates and sustains the ideas and values and myths, the power relationships and fears, not the other way around.”5

Worship has a powerful influence on congregations that often goes unacknowledged. It has the potential to enact great change in the hearts and minds of worshippers as they gather each week, especially if the service is constructed in such a way that allows for such a transformation. In fact, “…when we worship we put ourselves in in a position to allow God to give us our bearings, to reorient us, to restore us to our rightful relationships.”6

Most liturgies already restore right relationships with God and may even point us toward our neighbors, but unfortunately, “…the orientations we have allowed our religious rituals to give us have been almost exclusively interior orientations to the self, a map of the human heart without a macrocosm, without exterior references except to a World Away From Here, “heaven,” we may call it.”7

It is more than past time to update our liturgy so that it also restores us to rightful relationships with all creation and allows us to be shaped into fellow Earth creatures who care for our siblings, all other created beings. As Lathrop would argue, those seeds have already been planted: “The cardinal directions in Christian liturgy are these: toward God, toward each other in the assembly, toward the needy, toward the earth.”8 However, just as a GPS in your car is unhelpful if it doesn’t give you turn-by-turn directions, these compass points can be similarly unhelpful without obvious arrows pointing toward their directions.

The Season of Creation is one way to make those directions more obvious. Beginning in the mid 1990’s, congregations all over the world have devoted several weeks to focusing on God the Creator and worshipping with all creation. “The Season of Creation challenges us to reorient our relationship with creation, with the Creator, with Christ, and with the Holy Spirit…We return to see ourselves again as part of the very Earth from which we are made.”9 If we continue this trajectory to encompass all seasons of the church year instead of just four weeks, we can strengthen this reorientation, which is what the founders of the Season of Creation intended.

As we gather each week as communities of faith, we continue to turn back to God and to our neighbor. Now we can turn also to the Earth and the entire universe. As Ben Stewart states, “[Christian worship] is an act that ascribes worth to God, to us, and to the whole environment around us, stretching out to include the entire ‘very good’ cosmos.”10 Updating our liturgies can communicate how we value the earth and everything on it as we turn toward our hurting created siblings.

Worship draws our attention to the cries of creation.

In the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, there are several places where the presider will say, “Let us attend!”11 In other words, pay attention! One could go through a worship service in a kind of mental fog, but these words call the congregation to be present and aware as important things happen. In the same way, now that our lives are so isolated from nature, we too could go through life in a kind of fog without fostering any kind of connection with God or our neighbors or the Earth. Liturgy itself already calls out, “Let us attend!” to the poor, to the needy, and to our loving God, but what of the creatures that cry out, or our wounded planet? Just as our worship reminds us to pay attention to the least of those around us as we go forth into the world, it can remind us of our siblings of other species and their concerns.

Similarly, there are several places in the Gospels where Jesus brings healing to those who cannot use their senses – though quite often, it is the disciples who are rebuked for seeing and hearing, yet not understanding. As earth-dwellers, our senses have become numb to the suffering of creation, and often when we do perceive what is going on around our fragile planet, we do not fully understand. The liturgy has a place in helping us regain our senses and our understanding of our place in the cosmos

It allows us to ask questions like, “What if authentic biblical religion and the liturgy that enacts and celebrates that religion really do mean to heal our eyes so that we may see the world itself held into holiness in God?”12 Eco-liturgy is the mud placed on our eyes, the fingers in our ears as God says, “ephphatha” – be opened – so that our senses may perceive what has been there all along: a cosmos in need of healing.

Creation itself is a sign that opens our senses and causes us to pay attention. As we hear the whispering of grasses, smell the saltiness of the ocean, see the beauty of majestic animals, taste the sweetness of honey, and feel snow falling softly on our upturned faces, we are called again to “attend” to creation and reminded of its need of healing. These material signs are a gift from our God who continues to offer tangible reminders to people who easily forget.

According to Martin Luther, God has always graciously condescended to our need for material signs:

For all the sacred accounts give proof that by His superabundant grace, our merciful God always placed some outward and visible sign of His grace alongside the Word, so that men, reminded by the outward sign and work or Sacrament, would believe with greater assurance that God is kind and merciful…Thus the church has never been deprived to such an extent of outward signs that it became impossible to know where God could surely be found.”13

These signs and opening of our senses point us toward creation and creation’s cries, as well as the ways that God is dwelling in the broken creation.

Worship demonstrates the sacramental nature of creation

As we become aware of how God dwells in the earth that God has declared very good, we also become aware of how the Word comes to the material elements of the cosmos, giving all creation a sacramental nature. While different theologians can argue over the intricacies of sacral versus sacramental, both positions share common ground in that God dwells in, with, and under all the earth, God has made a covenantal promise with all creation, and creation itself is an element containing the presence of God.

Thus: “…our transcendent God is not floating loose somewhere beyond, but is bound to creation. In this sense, creation is God’s home, even as we can think of it as our sanctuary. Hence, as we have said, all creation is sacral, not just the eucharistic meal.”14 While we can easily recognize water, bread and wine as participating in God’s grace, the rest of creation also points to God’s saving love for a broken cosmos. Furthermore, “The god whose presence fills Earth and who suffers with creation is also the God who through Christ is restoring creation and reconciling alienated dimensions of the creation.”15

God’s presence fills Heaven and the earth, pointing toward God’s grace through physical signs and symbols. All creation participates in this reorientation toward God’s saving love for the cosmos. This is shown also throughout the year as we celebrate different seasons of the church year. “So the liturgical year offers what we might call a sacramental approach to the earth’s seasons, approaching the earth’s great cycles as holy signs of Gods’ saving action in history, drawing us into worship alongside the whole living earth.”16

Just as Sunday morning helps us see ordinary bread, wine, and water as symbols of God’s expansive love for the entire universe, our worship can help us to realize the natural world is also pointing toward God’s grace. Thus all created things become sacramental, “…because the mystery of divine, self-giving presence is really mediated through the riches of the heavens and the earth. Participating in the glory of God, our whole planet is a beautiful showing forth of divine goodness and generosity.”17

Worship joins us to the liturgical life of all creation.

It could be easy to imagine that only humans have a relationship with the Creator, but in fact everything that God has made rejoices in the Lord. Because humanity is relatively new to the planet, we are becoming part of a worship service that is already in progress and has been for eons. “Christian worship has always been an act of joining the wider worship of the whole creation, a liturgy that began long before humans even existed.”18

This worship is mentioned throughout the scriptures, in like Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork.

One day tells its tale to another,

and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language,

and their voices are not heard,

their sound has gone out into all lands

and their message to the ends of the world,

where God has pitched a tent for the sun.

Similarly, Psalm 148:1-6 declares:

Halleluia!

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise God in the heights.

Praise the Lord all you angels;

sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.

Praise the Lord, sun and moon;

sing praise, all you shining stars.

Praise the Lord, heaven of heavens,

and you waters above the heavens.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,

who commanded, and they were created,

who made them stand fast forever and ever

giving them a law that shall not pass away.

The psalm goes on to assert that sea monsters, fire and hail, mountains, wild beasts, and all people join in the worship of the Lord. This hymn of praise continues whether humans can hear it or not. Thus worship becomes a communal act throughout the entire cosmos rather than a gift only humanity can offer God.

Worship with creation can happen every week.

Reading through the principles, case studies, and guidelines in this study could cause one to think that this guide may be helpful around Earth Day or in a liturgical Season of Creation. However, if we take seriously the depth of humanity’s alienation from the rest of the cosmos and the urgency with which we must approach the planetary crises we are facing, these principles should be incorporated each and every week to begin to create the kind of transformation creation cries out for.

Even those responsible for popularizing the Season of Creation in the United States admit that those four weeks are only the beginning of a larger movement. As they say, “A Season of Creation has proven to be valuable in its own right. Yet we also need the Season of Creation to wake us up and show us another way to do worship all the time.”19

Worshippers may object to what could be considered a special interest taking over the liturgical life of a congregation. After all, incorporating all of these principles every single week could seem like pastors and worship leaders are trying to hit their parishioners over the head with their pet project. However, if truly believe that creation cries out for healing and that it is part of our Christian vocation to care for creation, then leaders will do the work to prepare their people for this liturgical revolution.

After all, we do not celebrate four weeks of justice for the oppressed, nor do we wait for one Sunday per year to proclaim God’s love. Those compass points are part of our worship practice in the way that eco-worship can and should be. Furthermore, because human beings are also created beings along with the entire cosmos, literally every human concern is a derivative of creation care. Wounded veterans, the poor and oppressed, the sick and dying, and others we pray for each week are all earth creatures in need of healing. If congregations can understand that, “According to the creation story in Genesis 1, this is what we are called to do: love God, love our neighbors, care for creation,”20 then every worship service can continue to point to our Christian vocation.

Final thoughts

The task before ministers, liturgists, and worship leaders is clear: humanity must be reconciled to the rest of the cosmos. As all creation continues to cry out in pain and brokenness due to human activity, our vocation is more urgent than ever before. But as we begin to be returned to our proper place in the cosmos, our senses restored to recognize creation’s brokenness, recognizing God dwelling in this very good earth, joining in the worship of the whole universe, and doing those things every week, we will come to perceive and join God’s work of healing and salvation for all the cosmos. Finally:

If God created the world as a place in which human life in inextricably woven into the rest of creation, then we need to make the natural world self-consciously an integral part of our worshiping experience. If worship means being restored to our proper place in the world in order to reorient us, to recall who we are, where we have come from, the things upon which we depend, and that for which we are responsible, then worship must be a celebration of all creation and a reorientation of ourselves to our proper place within it.21

Case Studies

As a Lutheran worship leader, I draw heavily from the hymnal and liturgical guide published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. These case studies and the rest of this guide will reference material from Evangelical Lutheran Worship, or the ELW. However, the principles can be applied to other worship sources and resources from other denominations just as easily.

Prayers of Intercession

The prayers of intercession, or the prayers of the people, are a major part of reorienting the congregation toward creation as we intercede on creation’s behalf. Gradually, more of creation has been included in these petitions that are provided by the resource Sundays and Seasons (sundaysandseasons.com), so that at least one each week is geared toward the natural world. However, often these petitions subtly reinforce humanity’s dominance by praying that creation continue to benefit us and by excluding prayers for God’s restoring and healing power and focusing solely on humanity’s agency.

For example, prayers asking for blessing upon agriculture, hunting, or fishing are not intercessions on creation’s behalf for the sake of creation; they are intercessions that these parts of creation continue to be beneficially exploited by humanity. Similarly, prayers that humankind become better caretakers of this earth on which we live become prayers directed toward human agency as we clean up our own home so that we can continue to live in it.

For instance, look at the creation petition for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany in 2018:

For the earth and all living creatures, for those preparing fields for planting, and for favorable weather, that all of us who care for this life will find voice to help creation thrive, let us pray.22

While the beginning phrase “for the earth and all living creatures” turns us toward other created beings, and the phrase, “help creation thrive,” in a way can draw our attention to the parts of creation that are not thriving, the third and fourth principles are not realized. Since this genre of prayer has continued to be incorporated on most Sundays, it does continue every week. A different prayer could perhaps strengthen our reorientation for this single petition, as would a second petition specifically for human concerns as related to nature. For example:

Indwelling God, the earth is filled with your glory. We pray for the planet and all living creatures, especially creation in need of healing. Bring your power of redemption to the whole cosmos that all may continue to worship you.

And for humans:

God our provider, you have given humankind food and shelter on this earth. Bless those preparing fields for planting and provide favorable weather. Give us strength and courage to join your work of healing our common home.

Not every prayer each week needs to include all of the principles. However, the more principles that are included, the more a congregation can be turned toward the rest of creation. For example, while the prayer for the first Sunday in Lent for 2018 does not address the sacramental nature of creation or the ways creation worships God, it does turn those praying toward creation in a way that includes humankind in creation without placing humanity at the pinnacle:

“We pray for the world. For the well-being of both our own surroundings and of distant places. For favorable weather and sustaining rains. For creatures awakening from hibernation or beginning seasonal migrations. Provide safe habitats and abundant food for all. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer”23

One edit to make our place in creation even more clear would be to change “For the well-being of both our own surroundings and of distant places” to “For the well-being of all environments around the globe.”

One of the best prayers for creation in Evangelical Lutheran Worship can be found in the additional prayers section in the front of the hymnal. The prayer called Creation’s Praise centers creation’s worship and draws humanity into that praise without making the prayer all about humanity. While it might be tempting to read this prayer only on special celebrations, such as Earth Day or a season of creation, parts of this prayer can be adapted and used many times throughout the church year.

“Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, who in your self-emptying love gathered up and reconciled all creation to the Father. Innumerable galaxies of the heavens worship you. Creatures that grace the earth rejoice in you. All those in the deepest seas bow to you in adoration. As with them we give you praise, grant that we may cherish the earth, our home, and live in harmony with this good creation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”24

Eucharistic Prayer

Another large section of the liturgy that should be subjected to scrutiny and careful choices is the Eucharistic Prayer. There are several different options offered in the ELW, some used more than others. The first one offered is incredibly anthropocentric, to the point where it ignores the rest of creation altogether:

You are indeed holy, almighty and merciful God.

You are most holy,

and great is the majesty of your glory.

You so loved the world that you gave your only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

but have eternal life.

We give you thanks for his coming into the world

to fulfill for us your holy will

and to accomplish all things for our salvation.

In the night in which he was betrayed,

our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks;

broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:

Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks,

and gave it for all to drink, saying:

This cup is the new covenant in my blood,

shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

For as often as we eat of this bread and drink from this cup,

we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Remembering, therefore, his salutary command,

his life-giving passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension,

and the promise of his coming again,

we give thanks to you, O Lord God Almighty,

not as we ought but as we are able;

we ask you mercifully to accept our praise and thanksgiving

and with your Word and Holy Spirit to bless us, your servants,

and these your own gifts of bread and wine,

so that we and all who share in the body and blood of Christ

may be filled with heavenly blessing and grace,

and, receiving the forgiveness of sin,

may be formed to live as your holy people

and be given our inheritance with all your saints.

To you, O God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

be all honor and glory in your holy church, now and forever.

Amen, amen, amen.25

The phrase, “We give you thanks for his coming into the world to fulfill for us your holy will and to accomplish all things for our salvation,” ignores the redemption of the cosmos and focuses on humanity’s salvation. As it asks, “that we and all who share in the body and blood of Christ may be filled with heavenly blessing and grace, and, receiving the forgiveness of sin, may be formed to live as your holy people,” this prayer’s praise and petitions are all focused on the congregation’s relationship with God to the exclusion of all else. This Eucharistic prayer orients the congregation toward God and the rest of the assembly, but not toward the needy or the rest of creation. It doesn’t acknowledge the cries of creation, admit to the sacramental nature of creation or join us to the liturgical life of creation. This prayer – in some ways the apex of the service – can play a pivotal role in reconciling people to the cosmos if some of these principles are incorporated.

Different liturgical seasons offer slightly more ecological guidance. The Eucharistic prayer offered for the season of Advent and Christmas begins:

Holy One, the beginning and the end, the giver of life:

Blessed are you for the birth of creation.

Blessed are you in the darkness and in the light.

Blessed are you for your promise to your people.

Blessed are you in the prophets’ hopes and dreams.

Blessed are you for Mary’s openness to your will.

Blessed are you for your Son Jesus,

the Word made flesh.26

By adding a blessing for the birth of creation and in darkness and light, this prayer orients us toward other species. However, the line, “Blessed are you for your promise to your people,” ignores God’s covenant with all creation in the Flood Narrative and the way creation also participates in God’s work of redemption.

Another option offered in the ELW is the sixth prayer. It begins:

Holy God, mighty Lord,

gracious Father:

endless is your mercy

and eternal your reign.

You have filled all creation

with light and life;

heaven and earth are full of your glory.27

By referencing all creation and declaring that all creation is filled with God’s light and life, this prayer both points worshippers toward the cosmos and demonstrates the sacramental nature of creation. This is a good option for a eco-Eucharistic prayer during ordinary time. However, the best option is the seventh prayer in the ELW:

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal:

you we praise and glorify, you we worship and adore.

You formed the earth from chaos;

you encircled the globe with air;

you created fire for warmth and light;

you nourish the lands with water.

You molded us in your image,

and with mercy higher than the mountains,

with grace deeper than the seas,

you blessed the Israelites and cherished them as your own.

That also we, estranged and dying,

might be adopted to live in your Spirit,

you called to us through the life and death of Jesus.

In the night in which he was betrayed,

our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks;

broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:

Take and eat; this is my body, given for you.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks,

and gave it for all to drink, saying:

This cup is the new covenant in my blood,

shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.

Do this for the remembrance of me.

Together as the body of Christ,

we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

With this bread and cup we remember your Son,

the first-born of your new creation.

We remember his life lived for others,

and his death and resurrection, which renews the face of the earth.

We await his coming,

when, with the world made perfect through your wisdom,

all our sins and sorrows will be no more.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Holy God, holy and merciful one, holy and compassionate,

send upon us and this meal your Holy Spirit,

whose breath revives us for life,

whose fire rouses us to love.

Enfold in your arms all who share this holy food.

Nurture in us the fruits of the Spirit,

that we may be a living tree, sharing your bounty with all the world.

Amen. Come, Holy Spirit.

Holy and benevolent God,

receive our praise and petitions,

as Jesus received the cry of the needy,

and fill us with your blessing,

until, needy no longer and bound to you in love,

we feast forever in the triumph of the Lamb:

through whom all glory and honor is yours, O God, O Living One,

with the Holy Spirit, in your holy church, now and forever.

Amen.28

The very beginning of this prayer alerts us to the fact that we are not the only ones in relationship with the Creator. By declaring, “You formed the earth from chaos; you encircled the globe with air; you created fire for warmth and light; you nourish the lands with water,” this prayer points us toward the entire cosmos as benefiting from and participating in God’s creative power. We are again reminded of our place as one species of created beings among many.

This prayer also opens our senses to the cries of creation by declaring, “We remember his life lived for others, and his death and resurrection, which renews the face of the earth.” Humans are not the only ones in need of healing and renewal. The entire cosmos cries out in brokenness, and in his resurrection Jesus brings wholeness to all creation.

This prayer could more strongly fulfill the third and fourth principles, but by asserting Jesus is “the first-born of all creation,” it points to the sacramental nature of creation. Jesus is present in all the earth and dwells with all creation. The prayer also alludes to creation’s worship by stating, “You molded us in your image, and with mercy higher than the mountains, with grace deeper than the seas, you blessed the Israelites and cherished them as your own.” However, both of these could be strengthened.

Finally, this Eucharist prayer, or one that is similar, could be prayed every week. It is a bit longer than some congregations are used to, so it could also be shortened to leave the most essential parts. Or different principles could be highlighted each week without necessarily demanding that all be present.

Other illustrations

Everything throughout the liturgy can be evaluated with the five guiding principles and altered to form congregations into witnesses for our fellow created beings. Following is a guide through a traditional service from the ELW with various changes to make the creation orientation more obvious.

Gathering

Confession and Forgiveness

If, as Lathrop says, the cardinal directions in our worship are God, each other, the needy, and creation, the rite of Confession and Forgiveness is sorely lacking in the final aspect. While it may be helpful to add a specific petition for forgiveness from our ecological sins, you may also simply recognize our shortcomings in the first prayer for forgiveness like thus: “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves; we have not loved all Creation with the love of the Creator.”

Thanksgiving for Baptism

The Thanksgiving for Baptism is perfect place to bring in language that illustrates the five principles mentioned above. One way to open worshippers’ senses to perceive creation’s cries is through the practice of aspurging, or flinging water over the congregation. This tangible reminder of baptism can help draw us back into relationship with water. This is also a good point to have children be involved in the service. Another way to bring actual water into the sanctuary is to include prayers for the health of the local rivers, lakes, streams, oceans, or watershed.

The prayers throughout this rite can be adapted to include the gift of water and the way it brings forth life. Lathrop includes this prayer from the Common Book of Worship in his discussion of baptism: “At the beginning your Spirt was at work, brooding over the waters of creation’s birth, bringing forth life in all its fullness. Through the gift of water you nourish and sustain all living things. Glory to you forever and ever.” 29

If you use the traditional Thanksgiving for Baptism in the ELW, you can make small changes like adding all creatures to “Through the waters of the flood you delivered Noah and his family.”30 There were two of every animal but only eight humans on the ark, yet somehow we only recall God’s saving power toward humanity. In fact, the entire rite should be less human-centered, in recognition of water’s sustaining power for all Creation. It would be appropriate to add a beseeching prayer for the health of nearby waters, or for all water in the globe. “Perhaps even mountains and rivers and seas – even solar systems and galaxies – could enter our prayers. Baptism must not be about saving us from this company, but with this company.”31

Gathering Song

As we begin the gathering song, there are several options. All of them preference the well-being of humanity and exclude the rest of creation. Not all songs must be about the entire cosmos, but these songs are expansive, singing for peace for the entire world. If we have already included all human beings, not just the ones in our assembly, denomination, or faith, we might as well include all other species who worship God.

Slight adjustments to the lyrics may easily alter the song and continue to draw us back into relationship with all other created beings. This is easy in some settings where the Kyrie is chanted and thus more adaptable to changing lyrics, or in churches where the songs are printed in the bulletin instead of sung out of a hymnal. If you are a hymnal church and you do decide to permanently change the lyrics, consider printing a small booklet containing the service hymns with the alterations for each hymnal so that visitor may also participate.

Kyrie

Most of the Kyrie used in the ELW is fine, but the second line is problematic:

“For the peace from above, and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord.”32

The line, “for the peace from above,” continues the earth-Heaven dichotomy that has led many Christians to treat this planet as disposable. If God truly dwells in the earth, if the earth is filled with God’s glory, then God’s peace is present in, with, under, around, and throughout the entire cosmos. It is not just descending from above, but rising from the deeps, and spreading out from each created being. An amendment that could recognize this might sound like:

“For the peace of the Creator, for the well-being of the church of God…”

Hymn of Praise

The first option for a hymn of praise begins and ends with the phrase, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”33 This anthropocentric song ignores the worship that creation is already and constantly engaging in. An adaptation could potentially sound like, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to creation on earth.”

The second option, “This is the Feast,” includes the line, “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.”34 However, this language obscures the fact that God’s power of redemption is for the entire cosmos, and not just one species. A more accurate and rhythmically similar adaption looks something like, “Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood redeems us and all creation.”

Word

Sermon

Preachers are often willing to preach on creation during a special Season of Creation or Earth Day service, but what about the rest of the year? As part of the ordo, sermons continue the work that the beginning of the service has already started. “Preaching means to bring us again to faith and so gift us again with the reoriented view of the world that belongs to the whole liturgy.”35 While not every sermon has to have creation as its sole focus, there are other ways of bringing in lessons from the Book of Nature. One of the easiest is to include stories of time spent in nature.

For a January term class in seminary, I visited Holden Village – a Lutheran retreat and renewal center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington – to learn how the seasons of the Church were tied to the seasons of creation. Over the course of this class, other students gave presentations about different aspects of the liturgy, especially focusing on the cycle of daily prayer. We explored these topics through mystagogy, using our own experiences, stories, and metaphors to dive deeply into sacramental theology.

Beginning many sessions with prompts and questions like, “Think about your favorite sunrise,” or “What is a memorable scent for you?” allowed us to pull from our own natural experiences to explore theological topics like Gospel canticles and incense. It also demonstrated that almost everyone has cherished and memorable stories of creation that can be told with only a few moments of thought. These stories, of our relationships with creation, can be brought into any sermon as we continue to be reoriented toward our non-human siblings.

Not every sermon must include some sort of personal testimony of a creation experience, but including stories of time in nature throughout the year allows worshipers to continue being reoriented during the preaching event. There are many opportunities for this sort of story – stories of being lost in a wilderness during Lent, stories of new birth or growing things in Easter, stories of things dying through Advent, stories of light and darkness in Christmas and Epiphany, and many more throughout ordinary time.

Meal

The Eucharistic prayer has already been discussed at length, but there are other adaptations that can be made to the rest of the sacrament to strengthen the reorientation toward creation.

Offering

For example, during the offering, if your community has a garden some of the produce can be brought forward with the bread and wine and money. Similarly, flowers, changing leaves, and other parts of nature’s praise like rocks or shells could also be brought up as a representation of what creation is offering God in praise.

Communion

As for the actual physical part of the meal, consider offering vegan bread so that those who do not consume animal products can still partake. There are many excellent recipes online to guide you, and many are also gluten-free.

Conclusion

This guide is not intended to be the definitive answer on how to incorporate love for the earth into the liturgy, but merely the beginning of a conversation. The Holy Spirit will guide each community in their own respective contexts as to how we modify our worship to transform congregations into witnesses for all creation. Lathrop asks, “…does that assembly invite us to see the place on which we meet – and the earth all around the meeting – as holy ground? Do the stories we tell, the meals we eat, the rituals we keep, engage us in caring for the earth with which we live? Or not?”36

My hope and prayer for all worshipping communities is that they will be invited to know the place in which they meet – indeed, the entire earth – as holy ground, as they become reconciled to the rest of the created cosmos. As we are reoriented towards creation, sensing creation’s cries, being drawn to creation’s sacramental nature, joining creation in worship, and doing these things constantly, we will join God’s work of healing and salvation for the entire universe.

Bibliography

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders Desk Edition. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Habel, Norman C., Rhoads, David, and Santmire, H. Paul, ed. The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.

Johnson, Elizabeth. “Heaven and Earth Are Filled with Your Glory” in Finding God in All Things: Essays in Honor of Michael J. Buckley, S.J. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.

Lathrop Gordon. Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Liturgical Commission of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America. The Orthodox Liturgy: The Greek Text of the Ecumenical Patriachate with a translation into English. Garwood, New Jersey: Graphic Arts Press, 1974.

Luther, Martin., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Luther’s Works Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House,1958.

Nash, James. Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and the CristianResponsibility. Nashville: Abingdon; in cooperation with The Church’s Center for Theology and Public Policy, Washington D.C., 1991.

Santmire, H. Paul. Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Stewart, Benjamin M. A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2011.

“Sunday, February 4, 2018: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany/Lectionary 5,” Sundays and Seasons, accessed February 14, 2018,https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources ?date=2018-2&eventDateId=0#texts.

“Sunday, February 18, 2018: First Sunday in Lent,” Sundays and Seasons, accessed February 14, 2018, https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources/2018-2-18/0#texts.

Endnotes

1 Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009) 135.

2 Ibid., 146.

3 James Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological integrity and the Cristian Responsibility (Nashville: Abingdon; in cooperation with The Church’s Center for Theology and Public Policy, Washington D.C., 1991), 133.

4 Norman C. Habel, David Rhoads, and H. Paul Santmire, ed., The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 20.

5 H. Paul Santmire, Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 89.

6 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 17.

7 Lathrop, Holy Ground, 58-59.

8 Ibid., 63.

9 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 5.

10 Benjamin M. Stewart, A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2011), 10.

11 Liturgical Commission of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, The Orthodox Liturgy: The Greek Text of the Ecumenical Patriachate with a translation into English (Garwood, New Jersey: Graphic Arts Press, 1974), 25, 27, 71.

12 Lathrop, Holy Ground, 4.

13 Martin Luther, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Works Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 248.

14 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 45.

15 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 39.

16 Stewart, A Watered Garden, 52.

17 Elizabeth Johnson “Heaven and Earth Are Filled with Your Glory” in Finding God in All Things: Essays in Honor of Michael J. Buckley, S.J. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), 93.

18 Stewart, A Watered Garden, 18.

19 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 4.

20 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 19.

21 Habel, Rhoads, and Santmire, The Season of Creation, 18.

22 “Sunday, February 4, 2018: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany/Lectionary 5,” Sundays and Seasons, accessed February 14, 2018, https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources?date=2018-2&eventDateId=0#texts.

23 “Sunday, February 18, 2018: First Sunday in Lent,” Sundays and Seasons, accessed February 14, 2018, https://members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources/2018-2-18/0#texts.

24 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Worship: Leaders Desk Edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 152. (Hereafter cited as ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE)

25 ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE, 194-195.

26 ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE, 196.

27 Ibid., 199.

28 ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE, 200-201.

29 “Thanksgiving over the Water”, Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 422. As cited in Holy Ground 104.

30 ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE, 169.

31 Lathrop, Holy Ground, 113.

32 ELCA and ELCC, ELW:LDE, 170.

33 Ibid., 171.

34 Ibid., 173.

35 Lathrop, Holy Ground, 204.

36 Lathrop, Holy Ground, 125.

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Mundahl)

Offering Life for the World Tom Mundahl reflects on Christ’s suffering and death.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2017)

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

Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27: 66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The Sunday of the Passion begins the eight-day holy week, which culminates in the central celebration of the Christian faith: the passage of Jesus from death to life marked by the Three Days. Not only do the readings contain rich support for serving creation, but the gospel readings show the cosmic significance of the events—ranging from the donkey and tree branches of the entry into the city to the cosmic elements of darkness and earthquake in the passion story.

Norman Wirzba summarizes the connection between our readings and ecojustice concerns: “We discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God’s offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 126). While the very notion of sacrifice is uncomfortable to death-denying North Americans, it still is the way of the cross that leads to new life.

To grasp Isaiah’s Third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9a), it is important to uncover the world of self-deception many exiles still embraced. In fact, one of the purposes of Second Isaiah is to convince the people that they were responsible for their condition; they had lost their freedom and land because they had convinced themselves that any wealth and status they enjoyed resulted from their own efforts, not as a gift of God. They had clearly forgotten the warning of the Deuteronomist: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Yahweh responds to this arrogance with an indictment and trial immediately preceding our First Reading. Here the very notion that the LORD is responsible for breaking the covenant and selling the people off to the highest bidder is shown to be pathetic and self-serving (Isaiah 50:1-3). Since living in self-deception only leads to greater self-destruction, the verdict is a stiff dose of the truth. As Paul Hanson suggests, “the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not dedicated to avoiding offense at all costs, but to dispelling the delusions that imprison human beings” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 137). As the prophetic word delivered by Isaiah has it, “I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

This reminds us of nothing so much as the delusion of “American exceptionalism” that credits national wealth totally to a genius that forgets what once were seen as limitless natural “resources,” centuries of slave labor, and the genocide of native people. Like the exiles, advocates of eco-justice are called to be prophetic truth-tellers, awakening us to the fact that we, too, because of water depletion, resource waste, and climate change are also living in an illusion of prosperity containing the seeds of destruction.

This Servant Song reminds us that, in spite of human delusion, God does not give up on sending prophets as messengers to help the recovery of our senses. Whereas in Isaiah 42 it is the Spirit that emboldens the servant, in this Sunday’s text it is the power of the word itself: “The LORD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In fact, this Servant Song comes close to presenting a job description for prophets. The power of calling provides the endurance to confront those who meet the truth with “insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50: 6). The simple fact of persistence—“setting the face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7)—in the face of constant ridicule is the key to prophetic effectiveness (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 229).

It is through the suffering of the servant that power to transform the whole community grows. One of the great mysteries of faith is that those with the greatest ability to encourage the distraught are often those who, far from being exempt from suffering , discover special gifts of empathy and empowerment precisely in their own valleys of personal suffering (Hanson, p. 141). Again. we see life emerging from death.

As we began these comments on Lenten season texts, climate activist and Methodist layperson Bill McKibben’s 2016 lecture to inaugurate the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lectures was referred to. We saw that McKibben took as his task applying the lessons of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to the climate struggle. The first lesson McKibben mentioned was the power of “unearned suffering” (This lecture is available online at www.fateoftheearth.org). Increasingly, it appears that McKibben’s prescience was uncanny. The courage to endure in seeking eco-justice in the face of opposition from the current presidential regime can only come from a source as strong as that described by Isaiah: in our case, the power of baptismal calling to give us strength “to set our face like flint” in the quest for eco-justice, a quest that seems more likely with each passing day to require civil disobedience. This may be how we offer ourselves to one another “to till (serve) and keep” the creation.

Few texts sing the melody of self-offering for the life of the world as clearly as our Second Lesson, Philippians 2:5-11. “For at the heart of the story of creation, from its origins through problem to resolution is the story of Christ, who enters the world to redeem it, and is raised to glory as the firstborn of the new creation. Paul summarizes this story most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 172).

Named after the father of Alexander the Great, by the middle of the first century CE Philippi had become a retirement center for the Roman military, a city where loyalty to the emperor was highly valued. In the face of the dominant culture, this Christ hymn makes the subversive claim that believers are “citizens of an empire where Christ is Lord” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, p. 499). Of course, the appellation, “Lord,” was a commonplace when referring to the emperor. As Ovid wrote, the emperor is “Lord of the empire, no less mighty than the world he governs” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, p. 108). To send a letter featuring this Christ-hymn naming Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) was surely crossing the line.

But the “career trajectory” of this lordship is unlike any sanctioned by Roman culture. Instead of a climb to the top, this lordship participates in the depths of life by obedient self-emptying (kenosis). Influenced by elements of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53: 12), the Genesis narrative of disobedience (Genesis 3), and the Roman cult of the emperor, this Christ-hymn concisely summarizes the story as one of incarnation (he emptied himself), death (he humbled himself), and glorification (Gorman, p. 506).

Although we are mindful of the final verses of the Christ-hymn, it is crucial to recognize on this day, formerly referred to almost exclusively as Palm Sunday, that it was not “hosannas” all the way. To remind his audience (and all hearers) of this, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ self-emptying is the pattern of faithful life: “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2: 5).

Some years ago, Wayne Meeks suggested that the basic purpose of Philippians “is the shaping of a Christian phronesis (way of thinking) that is ‘conformed to Christ’s death in hope of resurrection’” (“The Man from Heaven in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” in Birger Pearson, ed., The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, p. 333). As we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, perhaps we could see this “way of thinking” as shaping Luther’s theology, in particular his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Early in his career as a reformer, Luther made it clear that “everyone who knows he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests” (“The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520), in Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther—Selections from His Writings, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961, p. 349). That same year, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” Luther defines this priesthood, drawing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (12:12f.): “We are all one body, yet each member has his own work serving others” (Ibid., p. 407). Surely this priesthood—offering life for the world in the name of the Christ—includes serving creation and securing eco-justice.

Even on the Sunday of the Passion, we “lean” toward the culmination of this holy week at the Vigil. Therefore, we cannot ignore the glorification in the final part of the Christ-hymn. This, too, reflects the baptismal priesthood we share. We learn that “what a priest does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now . . . . When we ‘lift our hearts’ to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). As priests we begin to see the whole creation as an altar of God’s offering. This altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 207).

We cannot neglect our gospel reading(s). The processional reading requires good participation from the congregation—energy is important (as are eco-palms that are widely available). Because it is important to begin this week being immersed in the passion story, my recommendation is reading the longer version. If it is a single reader, it should be done at an appropriate pace, unhurried. If there is a talented storyteller in the congregation willing to take this on, what a gift! Even better is a choral reading using resources that are widely available. However, the key to a good choral reading is recruiting good readers, all standing near the lectern, who have practiced together at least twice. If sound reinforcement is necessary, that should also be “practiced.”

Is a traditional sermon necessary? That is a local decision. While serving as a pastor, when I did preach I usually focused briefly on the Philippians Christ-hymn. In the last fifteen years of ministry, simply hearing the passion gospel read was more than enough. If this is done, it is particularly important to allow silence (more than a minute before and two minutes or more after the Passion Gospel) for reflection and prayer.  While this may seem unusual and even uncomfortable for some, silence is a gift of life for this unique week and always in congregational worship.

Hymn Suggestions:

Processional: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” ELW, 344
Hymn of the Day: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” ELW, 340
Sending: “What Wondrous Love Is This,” ELW, 666

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