Tag Archives: Nick Utphall

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall21)

God’s Plan –  Nick Utphall reflects on the order(s) of the universe and a baby.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Christmas, Years A,  B, and C 

Jerimiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21 
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“What has come into being in him was life…but [they] did not accept him” (John 1:3-4, 11).

We’ve spent months explicitly close to and aware of the sense of not accepting what makes for life. It has been a persistent reiterated theme of the pandemic. How many times have you been told to wash your hands? Remember nine months ago when you were constantly told to sing happy birthday twice to fulfill the proper precaution? And how much has that continued to influence your practice? Or consider recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Coronavirus Task Force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that are repeated ad nauseum on social media about the beneficial health impacts of mask-wearing. All of that eager-emphasizing of a simple and yet possibly life-saving practice seems not to do any good in convincing those who would resist and rebel. Or, to dig a bit deeper, we recognize that the long-trending erosion in our funding of public health infrastructure leaves us closer to death. We end up not accepting life that is right in front of us, practically begging for us to understand.

Those might seem like an echo of the line from the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

As we’re considering that, I suggest we don’t fall into a ditch on either side. There are plenty of examples and instances portraying faith and science antagonistically, as opposed to each other, with a big VS between in the fight. But on the other side, there is also the risk of making faith and science synonymous, equating them with each other. Following Jesus is not identical to following health guidance, nor is the coming of life the same as the arrival of a vaccine. The Gospel of John will go on to convey that life is not just a biological characteristic, not just having a pulse, not a prescription for an exercise regimen, not a doctor’s visit for a clean bill of health. Death is not the end or absence of life, not a failure. Even through death, still there is something of life.

That means that some of the knee-jerk reactions in the face of this pandemic need to be held faithfully and not simplistically or secularly. Faith is neither so separate from health guidance that we ignore it because life and safety are assured by Christianity, nor is faith so combined with science that obeying protocols to keep the coronavirus at bay mean we’re living faithfully.

To glimpse this through another lens, this is the first Sunday of a new year. It’s a new year for which people have been especially yearning and wishing. But, of course, there is nothing that magically changes with turning to a calendar page that restarts simply because it now is labeled “2021.” There is no finish line or lap marker in earth’s orbit around the sun. It is arbitrary. On the other hand, this isn’t the start of a new year for church. This finds us in the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. And in some way while much of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating the 10th day of this short season, marking not a default reset attitude of January but what a certain birth long ago means, what that change and reset meant for our world to have God born among us, as the Word became flesh.

The reading from Ephesians marks this epochal distinction as “the fullness of time” (1:10). That phrase is paired with one of the passages that point us to a notion of the “cosmic Christ,” that God’s plan is to “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). If all things are gathered in Christ, that includes calendars and masks and anti-maskers and COVID-19 deaths and disturbed Christmas traditions…as well as, of course, the orbit of planets and expansion of the universe and light and dark and sheep and storms and irrigated gardens and wilderness areas.

The impact of Jesus includes but far exceeds wellness tips for living. It includes but is not limited by scientific understanding. It ranges far beyond what we know of life.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God is Too Small.” I’ve not read it and cannot comment on the approach or contents, but the title alone is applicable with today’s readings. God is not restricted to our pet projects, neither about morality or physical fitness. God isn’t out to save a few individual souls who have conformed to a religious framework. God isn’t conveying blessings that are about us having an easier day, feeling more satisfied and happier, making a profit.

The immensely unbelievable import of our faith is that God has been working for you to be brought up into all of God’s pleasure and love and goodness since “the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “in the beginning” (John 1:1), since creation began, since the Big Bang or whatever came before that. How can we imagine or begin to conceive of that? How can we get on board with implications of this vision of life that out-stretch all spacetime?

Some of that is the sense of the organizing principle for all creation – the Logos, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God that is mentioned in these readings. That’s especially the theme of the alternate first reading from Sirach, of Wisdom herself (also as a spoken word/Word in 24:3) that preexists and is beyond all the created order.

That logic of God’s Wisdom in the alternate psalmody from Wisdom sees a goal of exodus and freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. There is a guiding plan that the weak and injured and disabled are not lacking life or left to die, but rather are especially singled out to be brought along, and that includes helpless infants and their vulnerable and anguishing mothers (Wisdom 10:21 and Jeremiah 31:8).

With a nod to the awareness that the Logos underlies all our studies and –ologies, there’s been a sense for a couple hundred years of the so-called Enlightenment defining our perceptions of zoology and biology (“life” studies) and even cosmology. We subscribe to a saying that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (in words from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), with survival of the fittest. Now, first of all, if we’re looking at evidence around us and thinking that is the order of things, the planned logic of creation, then either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who came as a frail baby, who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”

So how do we compare our scientific and natural understandings of competitive and violent predator/prey perspectives with what our Bible readings today tell us is God’s order and plan and Wisdom, which binds up the broken and cares for tiny children and seeks not to leave any behind?

Maybe we at least need to be willing to incorporate the sort of understanding and wisdom that comes from Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which identify how species cooperate and thrive by symbiosis (living together) and practice mutual sustenance, and how even trees may share with the weaker and needier.

Or maybe such conflicting accounts merely confuse us on God’s intended order of things, obscuring rather than elucidating our studies and logic. Are volcanoes and forest fires creative or destructive? Is a lightning storm a sign of God’s violent power or life-giving potential in fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere? If God intends to give snow and cold (Psalm 147:16-17), is winter a time of stark, severe lifelessness or a moment of preparation and continuance of life? Or should we not try to categorize in binaries of good/bad, either/or?

If that can indicate the challenge of trying to discern God’s Wisdom and not being stuck with a God who is too small, then the next part of the paradoxical challenge is that we also strive to make our God too big, where the Prologue of John very specifically wants us to zero in on a small God, a God who is maybe about eight pounds when his diapers aren’t wet, a God who is not far beyond our finite comprehensions but is very locally contained to a crib in Nazareth.

Ignoring the scandal of particularity, we constantly go searching off to discover and peel back divine masks, making our own efforts at apocalypse (revealing, unveiling) of the mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9), conjuring our self-made spiritual fantasies, all the while creating God in our image. But much more mysterious is that this proclaims it is only Jesus, God the Son, who makes God known to us; the rest we simply cannot see (John 1:18). Are we willing to accept that the truth of God’s mystery and its impact on our existence has been or is being made known to us in Jesus, as a baby and on through his life and death?

For me, as much as I love studying and learning science and noticing these connections, at the heart I need to cherish that this is not about my understanding or acceptance, but is that we’ve been chosen (Ephesians 1:3), given the Holy Spirit (1:13), a pledge to be brought along in redemption with God’s people (1:14) and all those things in heaven and on earth. Toward the end, I trust that the one who is close to God’s bosom (John 1:18 in the closer and more maternal translation) also brings us into that proximity, that intimacy of love and life.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2021. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall20)

Divorced, Together –  Nick Utphall reflects on the connections in the family of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for First Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

For creation connections, it doesn’t get much clearer than the Psalm for the day, Psalm 148. I reprint it here just to refresh and maintain your contact with these globally, cosmically full words:

Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
    praise God in the heights.
Praise the LORD, all you angels;
    sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the LORD, sun and moon;
    sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the LORD, heaven of heavens,
    and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
    who commanded, and they were created,
    who made them stand fast forever and ever,
    giving them a law that shall not pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all deeps;
    fire and hail, snow and fog,
    tempestuous wind, doing God’s will;
    mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars;
    wild beasts and all cattle,
    creeping things and flying birds;
    sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
    princes and all rulers of the world;
    young men and maidens,
    old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
    whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and
    heaven.
The LORD has raised up strength for the people and praise for all
    faithful servants,
    the children of Israel, a people who are near the LORD. Hallelujah!

For a sense of “let all creation praise,” this Psalm voices it all! It covers the whole of creation, top to bottom. It reminds us that the creatures joining our praise are not just the tweets of sparrows or the submarine songs of whales, but that even creatures we’d consider inanimate (note: a word that means “without a spirit” or “without a soul”!) are still joining the hymns of praise and fully in relationship with God—the weather, the rocks, the solar system, and all!

It may be reading into it to a degree (anything is liable to be an interpretive framework, anyway), but I also appreciate that the Psalm isn’t promoting one standard order in creation. Plato instilled in us a sense of the “Great Chain of Being,” which was a hierarchy to rank creatures, including indicating a sense of proximity to God. So God was at the top of the staircase, and angels a step lower. That was followed by humans—generally with a presumption that males were higher than females (or a boss higher than the workers, a pastor higher than the congregation members). Depending on your preferences and debate abilities, maybe subsequently following were dolphins or dogs or chimpanzees or some other mammal. Eagles or chickens came next. Lower still were ensuing lizards and fish and those belly-crawling apple-offering snakes. Then maybe insects, which were at least higher than immobile trees. And those, in turn, must be higher and have more connection for the life and soul in them than water or asteroids or dirt.

But it seems to me that the Psalm doesn’t follow the descending staircase of that hierarchical value. When it does descend, it’s more a matter of sightline and observation, from looking up to the skies, and the clouds, and the hilltops, on down to those of us wandering about at ground level. It doesn’t see separated status; it sees community together. If this is the hymn of all creation, it strikes me that it’s less about the ego of a superstar lead singer who’s got backup singers and a band for accompaniment than it present a choir in fugue, trading off the melody from section to section and voice to voice, supporting each other in mutual harmony and rhythm.

Of course, for all of that, it may well be that the Psalm gets little attention in your worshipping gathering this weekend. It may be a preference to make more room for the limited opportunities of Christmas carols. It may be that you don’t particularly feel you need the Psalm’s echo of the gardens springing up in Isaiah 61. After all, Isaiah is a direct echo of Isaiah’s own self, since we hear some of these words just two weeks ago on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

But for the more Christmas-focused direction, you might still tie in Psalm 148 and notice the typical “star of Bethlehem” fits as one of those voices of praise. The same for the angels that arrived to proclaim glad tidings not just to shepherds but also sheep (though the Psalm has a limited translation of “cattle,” instead of the broader and probably more-intended “livestock” or domesticated animals). And we should be sure that those sheep almost certainly went to meet and praise the baby Jesus, because the shepherds weren’t just going to leave them in the fields at night!

Slightly more focused on our personal neighborhoods of creation (at least as we commonly conceive or attend to), and yet keeping within the song of community together, today’s readings might point us to the broad expanse of human family.

Where the Psalm spans classes and generations, we might also expand across geography and remember that Black Lives Matter and hear Indigenous voices, and notice those who have been historically oppressed.

Not to be too abstract or broad, we should also really notice depictions of the scope of our families—and quite quickly see that that’s not limited by biological family.

Of course, there is the newborn child and the parents. We remember them; they’re not done just because we’re through Advent and the feast of the Nativity. Indeed, most often we think of the expectancy and the arrival, the time of pregnancy and the night of birth. Today’s Gospel reading tells us a short time later of the new family, as the parents are trying to figure out the right things to do now that they have a baby.

And in this reading, as they are going about their business (perhaps in the details of the days like other parents of newborns navigating shopping aisles for diapers), they encounter two others who happen to be there in that same space. Two old people—at least we regularly presume that age about Simeon, with the note that death was being kept temporarily at bay, and for Anna we’re told that she had lived a long time. Simeon and Anna are strangers, but did not remain strange for long. These two who encounter the baby and the new parents resemble a familiar category in many of our churches: they are adoptive grandparents. They scoop the infant into their arms, congratulate the parents, cherish and celebrate the birth, claim its goodness for their own or relate dearly to it.

The family has expanded. It has crossed the generations. It is no longer just those who will live together in a household or can claim to be related to each other. There are new relatings and relationships. New bonds are formed. The kindness of the kin-dom finds more kin.

As we’re noticing all these relationships, the 2nd reading continues to expand our awareness. By a rare Pauline highlight of human birth, of a very real mother, Paul also points to other adoptive relationships. Not just those out of kindness as church family cares for each other, but of legal adoptions.

In this, we might begin by observing the identification of Jesus as the Son of God. He rightly and directly calls God “Father, Abba” (Galatians 4:6). On the one hand, that means that of those parents who took him to the temple, Jesus maybe would come to call Joseph something more like “stepfather,” one who legally took on care for Jesus at the same time he was taking Mary as his lawfully wedded wife. It became official that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son.

And there’s a happy exchange, a blessed swap that occurs with that pair of relationships, according to Galatians. Jesus received a human adoptive father, and we who are under the law receive God as an adoptive parent. Through this expanding family, Jesus became our sibling and brings us to be lawfully connected to his Abba who is in some way legally obligated to the care of us!

(Note a clear reminder that caring for creation also includes laws and legal structures for how families are maintained and children cared for!)

For our lives being bound up into the family of God, I also want to observe one verse from the song of Simeon. In the phrase about “now you are dismissing your servant in peace” (2:29), the word for “dismissed” occurs in the New Testament almost only in the Gospels and Acts. At its most basic, the Greek word apoluo just means “release.” It is used when Jesus sends away crowds. It is for releasing from debt and for forgiveness. The biggest concentration for this verb is around the debate about releasing Jesus or Barabbas from arrest on Good Friday.

But one of the most common uses for the verb is as the word for divorce, because a husband was “dismissing” his wife or releasing her.

It’s playing with—or a play on—words, but let’s take Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise, with him then being “divorced” in peace.

Divorce is frequently a hard reality in our families, and usually characterized by animosity more than peace, and with forgiveness maybe almost more than could be hoped.

But here, the divorce is exactly about being incorporated into God’s family, being connected in these human relationships, including for all the peoples, all nations, the whole earth (Luke 2:31-32). The odd character of this divorce is that it only binds Simeon closer to the families of the earth, and simultaneously us with him as we sing his song and welcome this baby into our embrace and are welcomed into his circle.

Again, that is care for creation, not in some abstract sense, but in the very daily reality of our families—families that may be separated and have conflict in a normal holiday season, and also families that are separated and distanced through this year of pandemic. Even as we can’t care for that in the way we might like to, this sense assures us that God binds us closer together than we’ve been able to manage.

One final practical thought on how we attend to our human lives and relationships during this time:

The parents in the Gospel reading were following a common ritual after the birth of a baby. There are also markers for the other end of life, as Anna and Simeon find a rite of passage in their old age. Perhaps this commends to us a question of what we are doing about such transitions during times of quarantine. How can we be intentional about marking rituals and celebrating very real and regular moments of life, and not leaving them isolated? When we can’t gather babies into our arms while milling about the aisles of our religious gathering places, and as we are unable to join in visitations after a death and share a funeral service, how will we properly observe these very real and regular changes in our relationships in this human family?

Perhaps one answer could include something from the practice of the liturgical rhythm of the song of Simeon. Each of the three occasions of daily prayer takes a song from these early chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Morning prayer joins the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). Evening prayer repeats the song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). And the prayer at the close of the day (compline or “night prayer” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship) joins the chorus of Simeon’s song, which has also been used as the canticle after a communion service as the congregation is about to leave from each other and rejoin the rest of the world.

Just as a day may close, marking the finality and transition, with this song of divorce and of connection, maybe we echo it and reverberate with this reality where in our separations we are still bound together. In our song of fulfillment, completion, and transition, we join the hymn of all creation, even in our release and sending away still finding that we are ever more united in the relationships of all life in this grand family.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord) in Years A, B, and C (Utphall20)

Displaced and Found by God –  Nick Utphall reflects on the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christmas Eve (Nativity of Our Lord), Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.

In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!

While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.

Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.

In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.

Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.

And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.

For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.

In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.

There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.

There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.

God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.

Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.

Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.

This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.

I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).

In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.

The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).

First, from Psalm 96:

Sing to the LORD a new song;
   sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    at your coming, O LORD
    for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)

Second, from Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns!
Let the earth rejoice;
    let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
    burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
    and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).

Finally, from Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
    who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).

Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 98:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter (May 3, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on following the Good Shepherd.  

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 1:19-25
John 10:1-10

Editor’s Note: In his commentary for the Sundays before and after Earth Day, Nick Utphall reflected on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and the coronavirus. He continues these themes with the following thoughts about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. 

Some pastoral and rural peace may be just the ticket for these days. Let’s get out of the house and follow the Shepherd! These days, it doesn’t even require the frequent explications of ancient shepherding practices or the personality quirks of ovine taxonomy.

For those who may not be able to venture out and explore favorite open spaces and beloved scenery, for living without trips to parks and places of recreation and re-creation, perhaps the occasion invites reflecting on or finding pictures of very earthly real places connected to Psalm 23 (with a good basic Earth Day background that we won’t save what we don’t love). Here’s a starter walkthrough for a mental exploration with the Shepherd:

Verse 2a: Where are the green pastures for you in these days, the outdoor places of abundance and lush, vibrant life? Or where are the places you’ve valued but cannot make it actually to visit right now?

Verse 2b: Where are the still waters? What physical bodies of water have been part of offering you peace and contentment? How have you felt, and how can you access that now?

Verse 3: What pathways have been restorative of life? Where are the trails where you have found more of your identity? Who are the guides who have been with you outdoors?

Verse 4: Where have you walked alongside and amid death, perhaps especially in these days? Where has it been fearful and scary? What makes those places or aspects uneasy? And what has been a resource of faith?

(The remaining verses have less outdoor natural imagery, but may spur reflection on what has been spread on our tables to nourish and sustain us, with gratitude for those who have run the enemy gauntlet of coronavirus to deliver food down highways, through stores, in delivery vehicles. And while having to “dwell in a house forever” may sound more like punishment right now when many might be feeling stuck and isolated, perhaps their remains positive room for reflecting on where goodness and mercy or loving-kindness has surrounded and filled these days of life.)

Especially when disease lurks, threatening to steal and kill and destroy—along with all the other causes of diminishing God’s lavish loving goodness—this is the time to remember the Good Shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10). And not just us, but sheep, and those who are in need (Acts 2:45), and all who are senselessly and unjustly suffering (1 Peter 2:19), the residents of green pastures, still waters, forest pathways, and dark valleys.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/ 

 

Second and Third Sundays of Easter (April 19 & 26, 2020) in Year A (Utphall)

Needing New Life:  Nick Utphall reflects on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and coronavirus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

Readings for Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020, 2023)

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website: http://nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).

It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.

Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.

So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.

And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.

But.

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.

I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.

But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?

In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.

Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.

Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!

That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.

I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.

We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.

Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmental practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.

And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.

So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?

Here are a few thoughts:

2nd Sunday of Easter

The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.

Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you that you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.

We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.

What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?

Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur to me are:

The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village. (See http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/mine-remediation/.) It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.

I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)

I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?

None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.

3rd Sunday of Easter

The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, I’m hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?

Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.

One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.

Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465

Not related to the readings, but to still observe this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:

https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/5-ways-to-celebrate-earth-day-as-a-church/

Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2020. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/