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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

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

All Saints Sunday (November 3, 2019) in Year C

Sin is our refusal to be the responsible consciousness of creation.Tom Mundahl reflects on expanding our understanding of the Communion of Saints.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for All Saints Sunday in Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

On a recent Halloween evening, my wife Anne and I found ourselves on the #21 bus traveling from Minneapolis to our home in St. Paul. We were not surprised by seeing children in costumes, but were amazed at their sheer number! We soon learned that this wave of ‘Captain Jack Sparrows,’ princesses, and beasts was headed to the light rail station, where they would transfer to reach the Mall of America, one of our great national ‘temples of consumption.’ There they would revel in the generosity of merchants enjoying the biggest Halloween party in the area.

While our task is not to comprehend the strange juxtaposition between All Hallow’s Eve and All Saints Day (Sunday), those of us in the northern hemisphere understandably relate the end of the growing season with deaths that have occurred within the faith community. As beneficial as this may be to honor our grief, we have failed to make a connection between our sense of the Communion of Saints and the even greater Communion of All Creation. Perhaps our readings will help us find this thread.

Our First Reading from Daniel contains a vision worthy of Halloween horror. As the structure of the book is transformed from a series of ‘hero tales’ (ch. 1-6) to apocalyptic revelation, we are met by a series of animal figures representing historical kingdoms that threaten both the political survival of Judea and the piety of the people. While these animal figures call to mind the history of international politics between the Babylonian Exile and the time of writing (perhaps 167 B.C.E.), the real focus of Daniel’s apocalyptic material is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Greek-Syrian ruler, whose Hellenization program jeopardizes faith.

What is most important for us may be the beginning of Daniel’s night vision, a specter that opens with “the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea….” (Daniel 7:2b). While this may recall certain elements of Babylonian creation myth, the outcome is clear. Just as the original creation is good, so these foul “beasts from the sea” cannot ultimately destroy God’s people. As they assume historical incarnation, the beasts show “feet of clay” (see W. Sibley Towner, Daniel, Atlanta: John Knox, 1984, pp. 94-95).

Yes, they can cause a brand of “chaos” reminiscent of the first creation narrative in Genesis, but God’s ever-renewing creation can be trusted. Despite the terror, the gift of understanding given to Daniel suggests that the “the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:18) will not succumb (Norman Porteous, Daniel, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964, p. 112). Even if it seems that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is “devouring the whole earth” (Daniel 7:23), the rule that ultimately will prevail “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Daniel 7:27). “All saints” can trust in the reliability of the God who renews creation and faith communities, who does not allow them to be destroyed even in the face of the greatest threats.

While the challenge to the author of this ‘circular letter’ we call Ephesians was more of internal unity than external threat, the epistle continues to maintain a cosmic view. In fact, the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles suggests a universality that can only be expanded in scope. Yet, the letter supports this new unity by suggesting that, in some sense, this new creation community lives as if all were fulfilled. The shared experience of the Spirit, the “pledge of inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14), is an already accomplished fact. As Martin suggests, “the victory of Christ, both present and future, is presented as a fait accompli” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Atlanta: John Knox, 1991, p. 23).

This sense of ‘already’ is buttressed by the conclusion of today’s reading with verses from what appears to be a liturgical text (Ephesians 1:20-23). Again, Martin suggests that in its worship the future is brought into the present as a “liturgical reality” (Martin, p. 23). This not only reminds us of the sense of always worshiping in the presence of the Great Communion of Saints, but also points toward an understanding of “the church, which is his body” , , , as “. . . the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 2:23).

This sense of “the fullness of the body” reminds us of the work of Sallie McFague, who has been inspired, in part by Ephesians, to develop an ecological theology based on seeing the Earth as “God’s body” (The Body of God: An Ecological Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, p. 32). However, the membership of this “body” is now extended to include all of creation. This “body” is threatened now, not only by the “beasts” of history as by also by an inadequate understanding of sin.

McFague suggests: “It is obvious, then, what sin is in this metaphor of the world as God’s body: it is refusal to be part of the body, the special part we are as imago dei . . . . Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives: it is the desire to set oneself apart from others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the cosmos” (McFague, Models of God, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 77).

Celebrating the interdependent fullness of new creation on All Saints Sunday surely points us toward the “Sermon on the Plain,” our gospel reading. While the audience is formally the disciple group, the proximity of great crowds and multitudes (Luke 6:17- 18) who had come to hear removes all limits. And it is a very important set of teachings. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The literary prototype for both sermons is provided by the delivery of the Torah to the people by Moses” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 110). Surely this fits with the New Exodus theme adopted by Luke (9:31) and emphasized in these comments.

We hear this theme especially in the “blessings” that form the “new creation” community. But we have heard them before in Luke. Certainly the concern for the poor and hungry has been outlined in the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53) as well as in Jesus’ “inaugural sermon” in Nazareth, where, reading from Isaiah 61, Jesus announced his agenda as beginning with “bringing good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a).

Here we see that “the fullness that fills all in all” in Ephesians 2:23 becomes much more concrete. As suggested by the Magnificat, the hungry are filled, but “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:21, 25). As many have suggested, Jesus brings a reversal of current fortunes in creating this new community of faith.

This newly-formed community is governed by new norms as well. Gone is the notion of reciprocity, where goods of equal value are exchanged in calculating social commerce. Instead, the watchword is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). Not only does this create a consistency between community formation (not based on merit, but mercy) and community preservation; it also allows for the eventual integration of all into this new community.

That is, to be truly new, this community has to demonstrate more than the replacement of the rich by those who were poor, who now will have the opportunity to become the new wealthy. By calling for transformative love of enemies, reconciliation between ‘classes’ becomes more than possible. Or, to put it another way: this is the only way beyond the historical alternation of elites that has usually taken place with “revolutions.”

This movement beyond prudential reciprocity is also evident in the teaching on what we might call ‘economics.’ “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:30)  This moves trust from the commercial marketplace to the provision of ‘daily bread’ as divine gift. What’s more, it moves toward a need-based world-view that is demonstrated in Acts 2:44-47. This may be, as Frederick Danker suggests, an implementation of the Jubilee announced by Jesus at Nazareth (Luke 4:18-19; Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 143).

All this is summarized in “the golden rule,” a norm that exposes the weakness of reciprocity. Moving beyond mere reciprocity requires the gift of faith found in a secure sense of belonging to the new creation community. As Johnson suggests, “do as you want done” is not even enough. Rather, the standard is better described as “do as God would do” (Johnson, p. 112). For this is the ultimate source of the forgiving love of enemies, sending rain on the just and unjust, and the provision of daily bread regardless of credit rating. This is the source of a compassion that spills beyond the merely human to a realization that our common creatureliness leads us to embrace all that God has made and to learn from this earthy and diverse richness.

If Luke invites all of God’s people and the whole creation on this New Exodus journey, then, as Gordan Lathrop suggests, “the Risen Lord is still the journeying one, still gathering people into the kingdom, still being refused and opposed, but also still the one coming to be received by the current assemblies of Christians—like the stranger in the Emmaus account . . . ” (The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p. 111). One cannot doubt that this presence in our current assemblies also expands the notion of the Great Communion of Saints to becoming the Communion of All Creation.

How might we envision this Communion of All Creation on All Saints Sunday? Perhaps we would be wise to begin with poets, like Denise Levertov, who are on the frontiers of this understanding. Listen to the second stanza of her poem, “We Come Into Animal Presence.” (Denise Levertov, The Life Around Us, New York: New Directions, 1997, p. 34)

                              What is the joy? That no animal

                              falters, but knows what it must do?

                              That the snake has no blemish,

                              that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings

                              in white star-silence? The llama

                              rests in dignity, the armadillo

                              has some intentions to pursue in the palm-forest.

                              Those who were sacred have remained so,

                              holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence

                              of bronze, only the sight that saw it

                              faltered and turned from it.

                              An old joy returns in holy presence.

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

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday October 9 – 15 in Year C

What it means to be servants of creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on 2 Kings 5 and Luke 17:11-19

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 9-15, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

As we began this series of short comments several weeks ago, it was suggested that Luke guides us on a ‘New Exodus journey’ (Luke 9:31), a journey that features a ‘new Miriam,’ Mary, who begins her trek with a simple statement of faith: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). While we have no evidence that this Miriam danced, her song, the Magnificat, still echoes as a New Exodus manifesto: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly . . . .” (Luke 1:52).

Mary gives birth to a child, born of the earth, wrapped in earth’s cloth, and laid in a manger of earthen material. Yet, this lowly infant, a servant of creation, is attested by the elderly Simeon to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This week’s readings will demonstrate just this power of servanthood to break through the boundaries that divide to provide new hope for all creation.

At first, General Naaman, who has won significant victory over Israel in the field, seems a most unlikely candidate for healing that breaks down boundaries. Yet, as part of his war plunder, Naaman had acquired a Jewish female servant who had compassion for the skin disease (leprosy) suffered by her master. The young servant girl lamented to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5: 3). Hearing this, and grasping at the hope it presented, Naaman went to his ‘master,’ the king, who agreed to send a letter of request along with an unimaginably great ‘healing fee’ to his counterpart, the king of Israel (2 Kings 5:4-5).

But the king of Israel wondered if this request was a diplomatic ruse that may lead to further conflict. Nevertheless, when Elijah learned of the request, he replied simply, “Let him (Naaman) come to me, that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And Naaman did come, arriving with his retinue at Elisha’s house. But he did not see Elisha himself, only a messenger who advised Naaman, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (2 Kings 5:10)

Naaman was angry that Elisha did not attend to someone of his rank personally. What’s more, he was offended by the thought that this healing could not take place in the far more impressive rivers of Syria. He made plans to leave in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12). Fortunately for Naaman, his servants calmed him down, suggesting, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean?”(2 Kings 5:13).

Naaman reconsidered.  He went down to the Jordan, immersed himself seven times, and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). Renewed, Naaman returned with his company to Elisha and confessed: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” Now, the mighty Naaman was a servant! He saw himself as part of the “network of servanthood” that had accomplished his healing. Even though he wanted to share his joy with a large gift to Elisha, as one called to bring God’s healing word as a servant, Elisha refused it (2 Kings 5:16). Naaman had only one more request: that he be given two mule-loads of Israeli earth, to ‘ground’ himself in his new servanthood (2 Kings 5:17).

The power of such a network of servanthood to break down old barriers is at work in this week’s Gospel reading as well. At first glance, our pericope seems to be a healing story with a bonus lesson on giving thanks. Of course, it is both of these. Ten lepers, forced to live outside the village by religious law, keeping their distance cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13). Jesus responds by saying, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As they enter the village to seek ‘certificates of cleansing’ from the priests, a kind of New Exodus, they are all made clean (Luke 17:14). Luke continues the story by describing one who returned praising God with a loud voice. Only as he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him, do we read “And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:16).

But this story is much more than it appears to be. Following Jesus’ instruction about servanthood, it is significant that the lepers correctly address Jesus as “Master.” This correct address reminds the disciples that they were all as outcast as the lepers. Not only can they expect no thanks for their servanthood (Luke 17:9), like the Samaritan leper, they are called to thank the one who has saved them. As Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “The ‘faith that saves’ of the Samaritan reminds the apostles—for whom the temptation to assume the role of “master” rather than “slave” is endemic—of the absoluteness of the faith given them. For this they can never stop giving thanks to the master, never arrogate to themselves the status of master” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 262).

And, it is ‘arrogating to themselves the status of master,’ or, as Frederic Danker puts it, “self-aggrandizement that is maintained at the expense of others” (Jesus and the New Age, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988, p. 291) that blocks breakthroughs experiencing the breadth of the new creation Jesus inaugurates. Certainly, this kind of breakthrough is symbolized by Luke’s dramatic mentioning of the seemingly incidental fact, “And he was a Samaritan,” only after the former leper returned to give thanks and find a community home (Luke 17:16. This was undoubtedly a Samaritan who knew his role as servant.

Yet, this should be no surprise. When the, New Exodus company began their journey toward Jerusalem, they reacted strongly to being rebuffed by a Samaritan village and asked their Master if they should, like Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-16), call down fire from heaven. “But he (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (Luke 9:55). This rebuke is made all the sharper in the very next chapter of Luke’s narrative, where Jesus tells the story of the ‘Good’ Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Finally, we recall that when Jesus began his formal ministry in Nazareth, in his ‘inaugural sermon’ he included a telling reference to Naaman, who was healed despite his status as a foreigner (Luke 4:27). The cost, of course, was an attempt to “hurl him off the cliff” (Luke 4: 29), a portent of things to come.

It is Jesus, the Master become servant of creation, who breaks barriers and frees those who come after to move beyond contemporary boundaries to creation care. Reading through his new book, Oil and Honey (New York: Holt, 2013) one cannot help being moved by the servanthood of Bill McKibben. Not only is his orientation to working to care for creation global—helping to found 350.org to confront climate change and leading the largest U.S. civil disobedience action in this century to at least delay the Keystone XL pipeline; he completes this servant-calling by involvement with the local economy in the area surrounding his home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.

This involvement began when McKibben was asked to teach a class on “Local Food Production” at Middlebury College in 2001. While there were not many resources available then, he seemed to come across the name Kirk Webster in article after article in the Small Farmer’s Journal, writings primarily focusing on beekeeping. Desperately searching for resource people to speak to the class, McKibben discovered that Webster lived in “the next town over” (McKibben, p. 2). Webster not only presented to the class, but he and McKibben developed a growing friendship.

Webster had been involved in beekeeping for years, but had never been able to accumulate enough money to buy a place of his own. Even though Webster had developed techniques to deal with “colony collapse disorder” without resorting to toxic chemicals and was well-known in the world of apiarists, this did not translate into capital funds. McKibben, who had achieved some financial independence through his writings, made him an offer: “What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes” (McKibben, p. 6).

Webster agreed to this “too good to refuse” offer and began the building process with the hope of passing on his skills to apprentices over what he hoped would be twenty more years of work. While McKibben could not be called an ‘apprentice,’ it is clear that he has worked with Webster when he is able in order to deepen his understanding of the beekeeping process crucial for the pollination of at least one-third of all that grows. In doing this, he has modeled the connection between servanthood in one’s home and on our home planet, a servanthood designed to break down the boundaries between humankind and the rest of creation so that we can see all that God has made as a gift and learn to restrain ourselves so that less than one-quarter of the carbon-based fuel available is ever burned (McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012)

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

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday September 11 – 17 in Year C

We are called to exercise the “priestly task” of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation. Tom Mundahl reflects on Exodus 32:7-14 and Luke 15

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary  

Readings for September 11-17, Year C: (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Luke 15:1-10

As we enter the last ‘trimester’ of Ordinary Time, our Common Lectionary readings continue to point God’s people toward creation care. This is particularly true as we take up once more Luke’s theme of New Exodus. Not only is this theme stated explicitly in the Transfiguration, where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah converse about Jesus’ “exodus” (NRSV, “departure”) to take place in Jerusalem (9:31); it is suggested throughout the Gospel.

For example, Luke presents us with another “Song of Miriam,” the Magnificat, this time not to accompany dancing on the far shore of the Reed Sea, but singing in response to Elizabeth’s acknowledgment of the importance of this child, whose birth will not only shower creation with mercy, but “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly” (Luke 1:46-55).  What’s more, the very same (and rare) verb denoting the power of the Most High “overshadowing” this young woman, who becomes the faithful partner in birthing new creation, is repeated as the disciples on the mountain of Transfiguration are “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High impelling them toward participation in this New Exodus breaking in Jerusalem (Luke 9:34). This “overshadowing” also suggests the wind, fire, and verbal–interpretative fireworks that “create” and energize the new community in witness to God’s transformative action (Acts 2:1-21).

Even the first Exodus needs to be more broadly interpreted as much more than redemption history. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “. . . it is the Creator God who redeems Israel from Egypt. . . . . What God does in redemption is in the service of endangered life goals in and for the creation” (Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 13). Fretheim demonstrates that the Exodus narrative provides “cosmic purpose” behind God’s call of Israel in a setting of “creational need” to overcome the anti-life nature of Pharaoh’s power. This creation power once more roots  God’s people, who have come through the sea, on “dry land,” an image of new creation trumping power-mad chaos.

The purpose of this Exodus is creation-wide.  Israel is called to be a “nation of priests” –not as a sign of status and authority—but, just as a priest mediates hope and mercy to the community, Israel is to provide these for all of God’s creation. That is, the story of Israel –God’s people—is not an end in itself, but is told and enacted on behalf of all in the most inclusive sense (Fretheim, p. 14).

The breadth of this intention for the whole of creation is demonstrated dramatically at just what seems the moment of greatest crisis in the Exodus journey –the fashioning of “gods” in the form of a golden calf. Our reading depicts the one called LORD as being so disgusted that he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely . . . .” (Exodus 32:7). In fact, the Holy One is so incensed that, finally, the request is simply to be “let alone” (Exodus 32:10).

But Moses will not let this God alone. Instead, Moses acts as “priest” interceding for his people. He mounts a broad appeal to God’s reasonableness and reputation: Why give the Egyptians more ammunition with which to laugh at this so-called “god” who brought people out to the wilderness just to kill them off? (Exodus 32:12).  Even more importantly, Moses appeals to God’s own promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob) (Exodus 32:13). Clearly, if there was a divine change of mind, this Holy One would appear no more reliable than the “calf builders” (Fretheim, p. 286).

“And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people” (Exodus 32:14). While this is a “change of mind,” a “turning” of decision, it is far from what we might understand as “repentance of sin.” Instead, “divine repentance is the reversal of a direction taken or a decision made. But God does repent of evil (ra’). Evil has reference to anything in life that makes for less than total well-being . . . .” (Fretheim, 286).

Responding to Moses’ priestly intercession, God moves beyond the people’s calf-building perversity in order to fulfill promises made that ultimately will bring about “salvation–healing” for all, including  creation. As Fretheim reminds us, “It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all” (Fretheim, p. 287).

Crucial to this intention is the calling of this Exodus people to be “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). As Norman Wirzba reminds us: “At the most fundamental level, to be a priest of the world means that one is committed to receiving the world as a gift from God, and then seeing in the sharing of these gifts their most proper use. To be a priest (whether as a community or an individual) is to place oneself at the intersection of God’s sacrificial love and the sacrifices of creation’s many members as food and nurture” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. Cambridge: 2011, p. 205).

This is just what the Judean religious elite Jesus confronts has failed to do. And the leaders’ failure emphatically reminds us of the stubborn people for whom Moses intercedes. Luke writes, “And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:2). It is no surprise that this language echoes that of the Exodus people grumbling (LXX) about their lack of water to drink. (Exodus 17:3)

But here the “grumbling” is about Jesus’ welcoming all—even sinners—to the new creation community. In his teaching, Jesus demonstrates “priestly behavior.” Instead of condemning those called to live out a “priestly role”—interceding for and teaching the people—Jesus “intercedes” for them by sharing parables that free them to see the world in a new way so they may fulfill their priestly calling.

The three parallel stories told in Luke 15 not only contrast finding and losing, they provide the antidote to “grumbling” in celebration. The shepherd, the woman, and the Father all call those around them to “rejoice with me” (Luke 15: 6, 9, 32). Why celebrate? Because what was lost has been found. And, as both of the parables in our section make clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

This is precisely the function of priestly leadership: not only to intercede for the “lost,” but to make it clear that they are welcome to take their place at the table of celebration (Luke 14:12-14). This breadth of invitation also reminds us that, having been found and nourished, we are all called to the “priestly task” of interceding and caring for creation.

Restoring the wholeness of creation and community is the purpose of the Most High who “overshadows” young Mary. This happens by toppling the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:35, 1: 46-55). It is the purpose of the inner circle of disciples being “overshadowed” by the divine presence at the Transfiguration, namely, to serve as witnesses to a New Exodus in Jerusalem whose consequences are cosmic (Luke 9:34). This is much more than a matter of putting the “lowly” on the elite thrones; God’s people are “elevated” by receiving the creational gift of a new calling—to care for all that God has made.

While reading Jared Diamond’s Collapse in preparation for a book discussion group, I was taken by his description of the seemingly intractable challenges of dealing with the environmental ravages caused by a declining mining industry in Montana. Diamond cites a spokesperson for a large smelting company, ASARCO, who could not understand how the firm could be held responsible for all the damage it had caused. “Isn’t this the modus operandi of American capitalism? Business leaders are more likely to be accountants or attorneys than members of the clergy”  (Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005, p. 37).

If there are a few clergy among those reading this, you know the implication: clergy, as ineffectual as we might be, are the only ones who are tasked with struggling with the “the values” that might raise questions about corporate behavior. While this is the calling of all God’s people, at least this representative of the copper industry challenges “clergy” to perform their priestly roles.  If “clergy” is rooted in the Greek kleros, a term carrying the sense of “being assigned to a task,” then perhaps we need to actually exercise that ‘priestly task’ of interceding before corporations, military organizations, and governments that destroy God’s creation on the way to other “goals.”

Late in the summer of 2013, a Bloomberg News On-line Report indicated that in the past year Las Vegas had once more become the center of a new “real estate bubble.” The intensity of this boom in housing and other building is indicated by the fact that 60% of the recent purchases have been cash transactions!  (Kathleen Howley, “Bubbles Bloom Anew in Desert as Buyers Wager on Las Vegas,” Bloomberg.com, August 20, 2013)

At precisely the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that continued drought has forced a reduction in water delivery from Lake Powell to Lake Mead, the Las Vegas Valley’s major water source. In fact, if there is no change in drought conditions, especially with winter snows that fill the Colorado River, by 2015, the water supply will have to be curtailed (Henry Brean, Las Vegas Review–Journal, online, August 16, 2013).

What is the “assigned task” to God’s priestly people? Is it to lead the “grumbling” at the lack of water? (Exodus 17:3). Or, is it to focus on the life-giving preciousness of water in worship, learning, service, and action, leading to new ways of using water and, perhaps, to new patterns of settling our bioregions? Another “New Exodus” in the desert!

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

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

Sunday June 19 – 25 in Year C (Ormseth)

Can we be freed by a “cultural exorcism” to seek out God’s new creation?

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 65:1–9
Psalm 22:19–28 (22)
Galatians 3:23–29
Luke 8:26–39

Our reading of the texts for the previous two Sundays have shown that Luke’s witness to the presence of God the Creator in Jesus provides a basis for drawing strong affirmations concerning care of creation from the accompanying lectionary readings. That presence in the midst of the crisis of the creation, we have argued, draws us into “the drama of brokenness and restoration, [which with] Yahweh as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” Within the context of that drama, the forgiveness of sins serves to evoke praise of God’s generosity in both creation and restoration, to afford the freedom for candor to come to grips with the depth of the crisis, and inspire hope over against the pervasive despair on the part of those who genuinely care. The Gospel for this Sunday, with the readings that accompany it, amplifies these learnings.

In his careful analysis of Luke’s revision of Mark’s narrative of the Gerasene demoniac, Luke Timothy Johnson makes several observations that are significant for our interest. First, in his view, it is important to consider this story in tandem with the brief narrative of Jesus calming the storm (8:22-25). “In the calming of the seas,” Johnson notes, “Luke moves the emphasis away from the failure of the disciples to the power of Jesus.” In the disciples’ wonderment, “Who is this. . ,” Johnson hears “the echo of [an] earlier question, ‘what is this speech (logos), that he commands even unclean spirits and they obey.’  As with demons, so with winds and waves.”

Secondly, the demoniac identifies Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” And at the end of the story, the man is told to “declare how much God has done” for him, but Luke has him tell “how much Jesus had done for him;” the reader is to understand that these two assignations are equivalent. Additionally,  in contrast to Mark’s version, according to which the demons fear being sent out of the region, Luke has them beg Jesus “not to order them to go back into the abyss,” an image with the connotation of tehom, “the deep” of Genesis 1:2, as well as the “bottomless pit of confinement reserved for the enemies of God (see Rev. 9:11-11; 11:7; 17;8; 20:1-3 )” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 137, 139; and David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 173). The one who dispatches the legion of demons has the power of God the Creator over the wind and water of the sea, the power to order chaos, and power over life and death.

Such power as belongs to God the Creator is needed to free the demoniac from the “legion” of his demons, according to Walter Wink’s analysis of the demoniac’s possession in his Unmasking the Powers (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press,1986). Drawing on the work of Rene Girard, Wink argues that the man is the “scapegoat” of a population in a region that has suffered repeated brutalization and oppression from successive military conquests by the armies of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Jews, Herod, and now finally Rome. The fierce independence of the people has them locked in a struggle from which there is no relief, except in the bizarre manifestations of the demoniac’s possession.  According to Girard,

The townspeople need him to act out their own violence. He bears their collective madness personally, freeing them from its symptoms. Unlike other accounts where the scapegoat is stoned, he does it for them: he bruises himself with stones. Yet he secretly lives out the freedom to be violent that they crave: he is the most liberated among them, shattering chains, parading naked, free from taxes and tribute and the military service due Rome. Yet he is the more miserable for it, and they insure that he remains so. They chain him and drive him from their midst, to dwell as an outcast among the dead. (Quoted from an essay by Girard, “Generative Violence”; Wink, p. 46; Wink’s analysis is primarily based on the text of Mark).

Jesus intervenes in the “vicious circle of mimetic persecution” to free the man, and sends him back into his home community. The people do not rejoice in the freedom of the demoniac, however; it seems clear that they did not wish to have him freed, and certainly not at the expense of their herd of swine herd. Afraid of what they have seen, they ask Jesus to leave them.

What has taken place, in Winks view, is that Jesus “has freed the man from the ‘spirituality of the people.”  His was “the personal pole of a collective malady afflicting an entire society.” The Gerasene demoniac bore “the brunt of the collective demonism, which is thus allowed to remain unconscious and undetected by society at large.” Readers of Luke after the destruction of the temple in C.E. 70 may well have pondered the significance of that persistent denial in the light of the fact that a Roman legion was garrisoned in the area well into the third century. So also might readers today recognize similar socio-political structures that block the development of initiatives aimed at healing national and even global “disorders.” We know, for example, that the demand for economic growth fueled by both population growth and economic development has the planet earth on a unsustainable course. But overriding commitments at every level of our society compel the pursuit of greater wealth by means of capitalistic growth, with its propensity to ignore both unintended consequences and external costs. We are locked into a cultural system from which there appears to be no escape. As noted in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, the technological fixes proposed on the basis of technological rationality simply do not address the spiritual crisis that fuels the drive toward greater and greater consumerism, with its increasing destructiveness, which would afford release from the bondage to self-interested agendas. There are those who are freed from this “spirituality of the people, to be sure, and who engage in vigorous protest, e.g., Bill McKibben. It remains to be seen whether his strategies will provide a viable route for a social and political movement that is broad enough and strong enough to bring about enduring cultural change by democratic process.

The gospel narrative invites us to consider whether the church can contribute to such a movement by going beyond its largely unheeded call for confession of sin, to strategic acts of cultural exorcism. What would be the equivalent, say, of Jesus’ permission to the demons of Gerasa to go drown themselves by entering the herd of pigs?  How could the scapegoating mechanism be similarly subverted in a spiritual intervention that would redirect the desire for healing towards effective actions? One might well ponder, for a start, that with what Wink calls his “substitutionary death of the pigs,” Jesus acted in a totally surprising way. Ordinarily the scapegoat mechanism would have required the man’s death, as the means by which the peoples’ desire for violence would be satisfied. Jesus’ substitution of the pigs is a striking innovation. How shall we understand this? Is it a substitutionary sacrifice, perhaps, one of considerable wealth, an action that would foster a realignment of the will of the people to the will of God for the people? According to the ritual law of the Jews, unclean pigs would not be a proper sacrifice; but as the gift of their creator for the man’s redemption, the pigs could be deemed worthy for sacrifice, a transformation we explored in our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. More likely, in view of our status as beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifice, we should not consider animal sacrifice as in any way appropriate; but still we might ask, what sacrificial acts by the church in conformity with the death and resurrection of Jesus would serve to free up enough people to effectively sweep our society into the divine drama of “generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope”?

Our other readings lend encouragement for such a course. Selected for its close consonance  with the narrative of the Gospel, the first reading from Isaiah 65 portrays God imploring those “who do not seek [him]” but “sit inside tombs, and spend the night in secret places; who eat swine’s flesh, with broth of abominable things in their vessels,” to give up their “garden sacrifices” and offerings of “incense upon the mountains,” so that God can bring forth and establish anew “descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains, as a remnant that will resettle the land (Isaiah 65:8-9). Indeed, later in the same chapter the prophet looks forward in hope to “the new heavens and a new earth” that God will create, in which “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” By including verse 65:17 as a postscript to the reading in the assembly, a bridge can be built to the marvelous vision, accordingly to which

. . . the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. . .

Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking i will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:22-25).

Moreover, Psalm 22:19-28 encourages the congregation to believe that God will not despise nor abhor “the affliction of the afflicted;” indeed, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (22:27). And the second reading from Galatians promises to make all who in Christ Jesus have faith, to be “children of God,” irrespective of whether they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; no longer naked as the Gerasene demoniac, but clothed with Christ, all will belong to the “offspring of Abraham.” Holding to these promises, might not we, like the Gerasene demoniac, be freed to seek out God’s new creation?

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year C (Susan Henry)

Revelation’s Easter Message

Readings for Series C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Revelation 7:9-17 **Acts 9:36-43 **John 10:22-30

Sermon from Pastor Susan Henry at House of Prayer Lutheran Church,  Hingham MA

More than Just Weird

Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Sunday worship last week, Kurt Lundin leaned in conspiratorially to greet me, saying “Did you notice – hymn number 666?” Indeed I did, and I told him I suspect that the people who put the hymnal together thought long and hard about what song should go with that infamous number.  It’s “What Wondrous Love Is This,” and there are clear references in it to the book of Revelation — which is where 666 and all that “mark of the Beast” stuff comes from.  In the third verse of that hymn, we find, “To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing . . . To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing.”   So there, 666!  “To God and to the Lamb” we will sing, we will sing.  You can’t scare us!

In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, a seer named John who is in exile on Patmos, likely for being a thorn in the side of the Roman empire, writes to seven churches in what’s now Turkey about a heavenly journey he experienced in a series of strange visions.  Through what John has received, he wants believers to find hope and courage so they can live faithfully in even the most difficult times and circumstances.

John’s visions are weird stuff, to put it mildly, although the meaning of the coded language was clearer in its own time and culture than it is to us.  Rome was an oppressive empire, and it expected blessing and honor and wisdom and power to be given to Caesar, the ruler Nero at that time.  It was dangerous not to do that, but Christians then (and now) rightly give honor and blessing and glory and might to God, not to imperial rulers or authoritarian leaders.  Just as Voldemort in the Harry Potter books was sometimes referred to as “He who shall not be named,” Nero was alluded to by believers in other ways.  For example, since Jewish numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet, when you spell out Caesar Nero, you get – ta-dah! – 666.   He who shall not be named.

The book of Revelation was controversial enough to be the last book accepted as part of the Bible, and Martin Luther was never convinced Revelation really belonged there – although he felt free to appropriate some of its imagery to viciously attack the pope.  Revelation has been used and misused throughout the centuries, and the current iteration of misuse is the well-known series of Left Behind books and movies.  In them, born-again Christians get “raptured” up to heaven out of their beds, cars, or planes, leaving behind their clothes, glasses, hearing aids, and maybe even their hip replacements.  The rest of us get left behind.  Lutheran scholar and professor Barbara Rossing recalls how her seminary students once left clothes carefully arranged on their chairs for her to find when she came to class.  Nobody got raptured, she said – “I found them in the cafeteria.”[1]

The whole rapture thing, she insists, “is a racket.”  It was invented back in the 1830s as part of preacher John Nelson Darby’s system of biblical interpretation.  The word “rapture” doesn’t occur anywhere in the Bible, so the concept got pieced together from a verse here and a verse there.  The Left Behind books are grounded in Darby’s system, and they lead to what Rossing sees as a preoccupation with fear and violence, with war and “an eagerness for Armageddon.”[2]  For fundamentalist Christians – who are politically influential right now — all of this has significant implications for American foreign policy in the Middle East, which should give us pause.

It’s only on All Saints Day and during the Easter season every three years that we hear readings from Revelation, so it’s a perfect time to leave behind the misuses and abuses of it and wonder how it might be the word of God addressed not just to first-century Christians, but to us today.  It’s full of rich images for worship that are meant to be read more as poetry than prediction.  And while John hears about the coming Lion of Judah – fierce and violent – what he sees is “the Lamb who was slain” – vulnerable and victorious.

As I was studying Revelation this week, I found myself thinking about the baptismal font in the church where I grew up.  It was white marble and on its cover stood a little lamb with a tall, thin pole leaning against it.  At the top of the pole was a narrow signal flag.  Oh, I realized, that’s “the Lamb who was slain [who] has begun his reign.”  And we who got baptized in the water in that pure white font were washed in the blood of that slaughtered Lamb.  It’s a shocking image that we’ve thoroughly domesticated, and of course it’s not meant to be taken literally.  However, it bears witness to how life is stronger than death and how God’s vision is about new life, restoration, renewal, and healing.

When chaos threatens, people of faith can live as people of hope, enduring through struggles and suffering because we trust that ultimately God’s power is greater than any other power, God’s grace is stronger than the world’s sin, and God’s reign has already begun, even if we don’t see it.  Revelation is a pretty bracing witness – encouraging us to not give up or give in to whatever is not “of God.”  We sometimes pay lip service to how a life of faith is a counter-cultural way of life, but Revelation amps that way up and exhorts us to resist the cultural and political forces that work against God and seek to thwart God’s desire for an end to violence and oppression.  The Lamb who was slain becomes the shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and springs of water, and through places of danger to where “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”  John wants believers to listen in worship to his visions so that they will find courage and discover strength for the present because they have hope and trust in God’s future.

A week or so ago, Kris Niendorf came to the Thursday Bible study with a bunch of origami peace cranes she’d made as signs of hope while watching the not-so-hopeful news on tv.  It seems to me that, through these tiny symbols of resistance to the world’s injustice and violence and oppression, Kris was refusing to give in to the despair that I suspect can tempt us all.  Images, gestures, and actions can embody hope and offer strength in anxious times like our own, and worship itself is full of such images and actions.  We come to remember who God is and who we are.  We come to be put back together after the past week so that we can be signs of peace and hope in the week ahead, bearing witness to God’s power to sustain and encourage us and to lead us to live ever more deeply into our identity as people of faith.  Revelation speaks as powerfully about our call to live with hope and courage in the face of injustice and violence as it did in the first century.

Revelation offers us a word from the Lord in another way, too.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear a reading from Revelation in which John sees the holy city, the new Jerusalem, “coming down out of heaven from God.”  He hears a voice saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”[3]  In John’s vision and God’s plan, the earth matters.  We don’t go up to God; God comes down to us and makes God’s home with us.  If we took that image seriously, how might it affect how we care for the earth and for all life on this planet we call home?

The language of Revelation is filled with images of all creation being restored and redeemed, and of all who make earth their home singing praises to God.  As part of the Great Thanksgiving in the liturgy during the Easter season, I say, “And so, with Mary Magdalene and Peter and all the witnesses of the resurrection, with earth and sea and all its creatures, with angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. . . .”  Did you catch that?  It’s not just us who sing but it’s the earth itself, the sea, the creatures who walk and swim and fly.  We all sing “to God and to the Lamb” and “millions join the theme” as we sing, as we sing.  We’re part of a cosmic chorus.

We humans are smart but not necessarily wise, and technology allows us to exploit our planet’s resources faster than the earth can renew itself.  That has never been true until now.  We who are called by God to care for and protect what God has made are surely called to repent — not only for what we have done but also what we have left undone in caring for God’s creation.  From the beginning, we were created for partnership with God, for joining all creation’s song of praise.  We were not made to wreak havoc on creation, which humankind increasingly is doing.

In that holy city that comes down from God, the water of life that we know in baptism flows through the city from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  John sees that “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  Can you picture in your mind God’s new creation where water flows freely, all are fed, and healing marks all kinds of relationships?  Where our allegiance is to God alone?

That’s the vision John describes, and we are called to live into it, to let God’s future draw us to it and to work for its fulfillment.  A clear-eyed look at the forces, fears, appetites, and institutions that resist what God desires makes it clear that courage and hope will be crucial if we are to live faithfully.  A community of worship that sings “with earth and sea and all its creatures” and receives the Supper of the Lamb will help sustain us.  The book of Revelation – which, as you see, is not just weird — will ground us in a deep ecology that is the word of God addressed to us today.

And so, let us be faithful people of hope and courage, of strength and healing.  Let us be faithful people together in worship and praise.

Amen.

 

[1] Amy C. Thoren, “Barbara Rossing:  The Wittenburg Door Interview,” Issue #202, November/December 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Revelation 21:2-3