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Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the Earth.  These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

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
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

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.
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

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

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

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

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

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

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

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

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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