Tag Archives: Norman Wirzba

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

Creation is our Home, the Abiding Place of Nurture and Sustenance Dennis Ormseth reflects on the manner with which we regard the creation around us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

At the end of the week of Earth Day, this Sunday’s texts offer rich counterpart to those of the last Sunday, when we saw how the mode of Jesus’ presence with his disciples following his resurrection is full of consequence for the church’s care of creation: the meal they share becomes the touchstone for our orientation to the earth. This Sunday’s texts provide further occasion for reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, now considered as a whole, for its implications for care of creation.

For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of the God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. As the “good” or model shepherd, Jesus thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his]own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The model character of the Shepherd is elaborated further in the Psalm. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus ‘holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61). It is therefore significant that the metaphor of the shepherd is also deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature “ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).

What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with their Creator, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba’s felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,

“A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 60).

The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.”

Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But this Sunday that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, as narrated in the third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple where they engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death (Acts 4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the collected authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who “does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13); the one ‘who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick,” and ask “how this man has been healed” (Acts 4:9).

Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of ‘”ecological degradation,” he suggests that

“people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile” (Wirzba, p 89).

Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days. May his presence inspire us and guide us in loving care for the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Easter (April 18) in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. In the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, p. 208).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

The Self-Giving of the Community is Rooted in the Self-Giving of the Creator. Dennis Ormseth reflects on what it means to “own” property.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

Psalm 133 “speaks of brothers dwelling together in unity,” Ben Witherington III notes. And he likens the condition to the pleasure of a priestly anointment of oil upon the head and beard of Aaron, and to dew falling upon the “mountains of Zion” –-“a major blessing—like the dew that refreshes the plants in and around Jerusalem even in some of the dry times” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003: Easter Through Pentecost, p. 17-18). In reading this psalm on the Second Sunday of Easter, the Christian community thus lays claim for its gathering around our resurrected Lord to a sense of well-being associated in the Hebrew psalmist tradition with the temple in Jerusalem. That this is consistent with the view we have been developing in these comments, namely that in the narrative of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, particularly as presented in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus displaces the temple as the center of life in God’s presence, with significant consequences for the Christian orientation towards creation. This Sunday, other Scriptures from John and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles provide vignettes of life in the post-resurrection community which illumine the nature of this orientation and some of its implications.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, “dwelling together in unity” is envisioned as a gathering in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. In the first section of the Gospel, Jesus appears to the disciples, addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, and then commissions them by the power of the Holy Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. In the second section of the reading, Jesus’ appearance a week later to Thomas serves to reaffirm that the bodily reality of the resurrected Jesus exists in continuity with the body that was crucified. The community of the resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered similarly to reconcile others, will be gathered in the presence of this crucified body and no other.

An important consequence of this gathering in the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus for the community’s orientation to creation is exhibited in the lesson from Acts 4:32-35. This reading provides for contemporary Christians living in such strongly capitalistic societies as ours a strongly counter-cultural illustration of the expectations early Christians had for their communities: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in spite of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully for preachers who have strongly anti-socialist members (or not, given the suspicion directed towards all mildly “socialist” alternatives these days), Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that,

“No one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness. . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (Witherington, pp. 16-17).

It is important to note that while participants in this community did not absent themselves from worship in the temple (Acts 2:46), they nevertheless now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace,” which was fostered by the meal they shared when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ, home bound as it was, maintained in some measure the sense of living in God’s presence previously experienced in the temple.

Readers of our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday will recall our comments there connecting the meal instituted by Jesus on the night of his betrayal with the fundamental experience of the “restoration of human solidarity in membership with both other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.” Participation in the meal, we suggested, provides a “re-orientation to creation” in “that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God.” Quoting Norman Wirzba: “Jesus’ life and death are finally about the transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed.” In the reading from Acts, we see that these expectations have become in some sense normative for the post-resurrection community.

Of particular importance with respect to the orientation of the community to creation is the distinctive attitude toward ownership of property, as we noted above. M. Douglas Meeks provides the following summary of its meaning in his book God the Economist:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 lead to different forms of property. . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (Meeks, p. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property, which is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.

God’s owning, Meeks, concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).

It is striking to note that a scriptural basis for the trinitarian foundation of this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday, focused as they are “on dwelling together in unity.” The Gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciple. And in the second lesson of 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their Trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might easily move to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Passion Sunday and Holy Week in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Transformation of All Life Dennis Ormseth reflects on the reorientation of creation to its sacred center.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Sunday of the Passion
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation’s Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”  With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day.  Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (Mark 14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.

Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.”  The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God’s dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around”  signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple’s significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.

Jesus’ relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark’s Gospel, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed,  the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of  forgiveness,” mediating access to God  (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).

Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus’ view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers’s phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration  and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).

Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment’s significance this way:

“With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14).  The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23).

And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.”  What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”?

In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).

In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week’s associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).

(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)

Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus’ profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).

So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water.  A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus’ commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (Mark 1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (Mark 3:7-11).  After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (Mark 5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world?  “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. “As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected.” (See also Tom Mundahl’s  comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)

If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed.  And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (Mark 8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes,  the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Mark 14:24).”  What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”

The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,

“Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution” (Myers, p. 364).

And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).

As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of  those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.

Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (Mark 14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).

Helpful as Myer’s discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato’s Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark’s gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”

Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.

Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility.

“Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest” (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).

In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.

There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that

“compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).

This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).

In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses  just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.

At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God’s suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)

Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a  replacement of the temple, Jesus’ sacrifice effects

“‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ’s followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).

Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration – of all creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wisdom from Gardening – Tom Mundahl reflects on the seed that dies to bear fruit.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Wisdom and witness from the garden.

The time for studying seed catalogues in the Midwest is nearly over. Now is decision time. What will we grow in our limited space? Even more difficult is choosing seeds. Which varieties of carrots or squash should we try this year? Do we experiment with new, hybrid varieties, or purchase heirloom seeds? Which will work best in our soil conditions and changing climate? These are fascinating but difficult choices for the avid gardener, who, in a few weeks will plant these seeds in the earth “to die.”

Everyone who has ever planted a garden understands the image used in our gospel reading: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (literally, “alone”); but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Without the expenditure of the “life” that is stored in the seed—from genetic material to micro-nutrients—a garden simply will not grow.

Jesus uses this “parable” in response to a request from “some Greeks” who wanted to see him during the at the Passover Festival. While it may seem that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse, responding with a Zen-like koan less than helpful for these Gentile seekers, this short parable points toward the meaning of Jesus’ life and the future of the community enlivened by him.

To live real life is to give life away.

For it is not only gardening advice. With logic much like that used in the first Markan passion prediction (see Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38), Jesus argues that all attempts to find security on one’s own, or to protect oneself from the risks of life together, will lead to unfruitful death (the grain remaining “alone”). This is why Jesus continues: “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). To live real life is to give life away, to “spend” it.

Giving life away may seem like a waste of energy and resources to our culture. But Jesus digs deeper, seeking the very reason for receiving the gift of life. Once again, he puts it in vivid, but difficult words: “ . . . those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is, those who come to see that life is not a possession to be stored in a vault, but shared as needed in community, find that life becomes so rich it takes on a new quality that Jesus refers to as “eternal life.” (John 12:25)

Jesus gives his life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is about to demonstrate with the cross. Resurrection life—the life implied from the very beginning of this gospel—is cruciform to the marrow. Yet, it is the way to the germination of new creation. What would possess one to risk this? Only one who is confident that self-emptying death is not final. Instead, Jesus breaks ground for a “way” that passes even through death into the creation and nurture of a new community celebrating the interdependence of the whole of creation. This is a giving of life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

Wisdom from Dostoevsky: love of Earth and renewing of strength.

This is likely why the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, chose John 12:24 as the epigraph for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Alyosha, has spent months attached to a monastery, mentored by the Elder Zosima. While the novel makes clear that Zosima’s wisdom is focused on life—the precious web of relations between God, people, and the created world, there are those who expect extraordinary miracles that will add to the status of the monastery upon his coming death. The most basic of these expectations is the conviction that, because of the Elder’s holiness, his dead body will not be subject to decay.

When Zosima dies, his body begins to give off “an unmistakable scent.” Many would-be saint-makers begin to scoff at this well-loved teacher. Even Alyosha is crestfallen. Yet, in the midst of his grief and disappointment, he recalls “the Miracle at Cana” (John 2). Alyosha begins to grasp that Zosima has showered him with liveliness comparable to the “best wine” created by Jesus to enliven that wedding party!

As he leaves the monastery carrying this new insight, suddenly:

“The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. . . . He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, 362-63).

There are many ways to embrace God’s creation and to water it with our tears. While these textual comments have focused on Lenten texts, they surely drive toward the Three Days and the celebration of the Great Passover from death to life. As we look forward to baptism(s) at the Vigil, we recall both the renunciation of the powers of destruction in that service and the promise of parents and sponsors to “care for others and the world God made.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Holy Baptism,” p. 228). This makes us ‘fighters,’ too.

The finite bears the infinite.

Of course, this celebration of victory over the power of destruction and evil by the one who “draws all to himself on the cross” (John 12:32) is continued throughout the year in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist. This meal reminds us that what we eat and drink in the midst of the assembly, gathered by the Spirit, and affirming the Risen One, is charged with life that honors all creation (finitum capax infiniti). This meal of radical sharing creates a community whose very reason to be is mutual care–”Go in peace, serve the Lord.”

By our self-denial, we make space for others to flourish.

And this caring mirrors the very act of creation. This is because the Risen One is the embodiment of God’s making space for that which is other, which is essential to creation. This becomes clearer in the even more explicit “self-emptying” we focus on this season (Philippians 2:5-11) As Wirzba reminds us,

“God’s original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God ‘makes room’ for what is not God to be and to flourish. Rowan Williams observes that it is when we practice the self-denial and self-dispossession that mirror God’s life that we are enabled to receive each other and the world as divine gifts rather than personal possessions.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2012, p. 69).

Whether it is caring for our gardens or “fasting” from automobile driving during Lent, this “making space for life” nourishes much like the “seed that dies to bear fruit.”

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Mundahl18)

Ending Our Exile from CreationTom Mundahl reflects on owning the responsibilities of our priesthood.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Finally we can begin to see our garden beds. Even though we have been able to celebrate a Minnesota winter in all of its beauty and challenge, after four months of snow we cannot help but experience a sense of exile from the rich smell of warming humus in garden beds and the ever-surprising growth of seeds into food and flowers. But that exile is also apparent as we begin to comprehend what it means to enter the Anthropocene Epoch where the relative predictability of life on earth has begun to disappear as a result of humans dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is in addition to human resource use that has increased to the point where scholars at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, CA, have estimated that for all humankind to live at the level of Americans, four planets would be necessary! (www.footprintnetwork.org)

Lent is certainly the season to face the arrogance of human “overshoot” and, reflecting on the re-creating mercy of God, to repent by turning our policies, practices and expectations around to learn how to live fruitfully and justly in balance with this blue planet. Like the people of Judah who were captured by the Babylonians, one of the most powerful and advanced cultures of its time, we have been enslaved by a set of axioms for living that cannot be sustained, nor should they. So it is a gift on this last Sunday in Lent to begin with a prophet of exile, Jeremiah, who may help us begin to see glimmers of freedom.

Jeremiah had no difficulty detecting human arrogance. Dragged kicking and screaming into his vocation, he not only exposed the culture’s contempt for truth, but experienced it directly in rejection. Given his faithfulness in delivering God’s message of judgment in both symbolic actions and words, we are surprised suddenly to come upon the “Book of Consolation,” one of the most profound statements of hope in the Jewish scriptures. This new word promises that the LORD will bring the exiles home in nothing less than a second Exodus (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this return to the land of promise begins, Jeremiah describes their future as a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12-14).

That image of a “watered garden” is important for understanding this familiar text. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  It seems that in the face of Judah’s arrogance it was necessary for the leaders to return once more to the wilderness, even if that wilderness was the alien culture of Babylon. Hear Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: the people who have survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).  Only in this “wilderness experience” where dependence is total can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) be seen as gift, not merely the results of human effort.

Just as the return to a fertile land is now seen as something granted, so also is the restored harmony between God and people now experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah,  Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).

Not only does this provide a new basis of forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony throughout the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the rubble. Even fields that had served as burial places for the fallen will once more become fertile gardens (cf. Jeremiah 31:40, John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 283). Quite clearly, “covenant restoration” includes not just humankind, but spills over to the land as well.

Even though the notion of Jesus as “high priest” seems strange during a year when we immerse ourselves in Mark’s Gospel with numerous uses of John, Hebrews holds a secure place in the canon and in piety. The purpose of this metaphor seems to be to establish Jesus’ identity as both the one who brings healing to creation and completes the Jewish system of sacrifice. The “high priest” according to the anonymous author is chosen and “put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1), one who mediates between God and humankind.

But Jesus is the final high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10). Much speculation surrounds the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, much of it coming from Qumran referred to in various scrolls. Apparently, the author’s strategy here is to bolster Jesus’ authority with reference to one greater than Abraham, “who blessed him who had received the promises” (Hebrews 7:6) and outranks all other priests (Thomas G. Long, HebrewsLouisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 66-67). Ultimately, because Jesus sacrificed his own blood, he has “opened for us a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).

While Hebrews can seem arcane, we are also reminded that the very notion of “priesthood” is something we share with all Christians through baptism. As Luther wrote in the Address to the German Nobility (1520), “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.” Even though all baptized Christians are called to serve as priests—mediators between God, sisters and brothers, and the creation—not all are called to pastoral ministry. While Protestants have generally seen “the priesthood of all believers” as a critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy, we have all too rarely seen priesthood as an empowering vocation.

Orthodox perspectives help us here. “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly role (not necessarily a priest leading worship) does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on Earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place, but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1) so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as blessing” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207). Our shared priesthood in seeking eco-justice, then, expresses our prayer and action toward ending our arrogant exile from creation, insuring the wholeness and peace that is Sabbath delight.

Timing is everything.  Gardeners know that planting cannot be hurried— the soil must be fed with rich compost and its temperature must have warmed to proper germination levels. In much the same way, “Jesus’ hour” comes only when “certain Greeks” ask to see him (John 12:20), signaling that now with the addition of “other sheep” (John 10:16) the flock is complete. Now is the time for planting: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Jesus’ “parable” takes for granted ancient beliefs that with the loss of their original form seeds ceased to be what they were and died. Even though we understand the growth process differently, the image still conveys power. As James P. Mackey writes, “Every transformation in the universal process of evolutionary creativity involves a death of existing forms or a de-formation . . . (But what is this but) . . . the inevitable negative pole of the positive force of creative evolution that forever brings new or renewed forms into being” (quoted in Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162). As Wendell Berry observes as he works in his hillside woodlots, “where the creation is yet fully alive and continuous and self-enriching, whatever dies enters directly into the life of the living . . . ” (“An Entrance to the Woods,” Recollected Essays 1965-1980, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 240)

Berry’s view of transition in forests reminds us that even theologically, death is a self-offering movement in which an individual gives himself or herself to another for the expansion of life. As Wirzba suggests, “Rather than viewing life as a possession, one inspired by Christ understands that life is a gift to be received and given again . . . . All attempts to secure life from within or to withhold oneself from the offering that is the movement of life, will amount to life’s loss” (Wirzba, p. 112). This is why Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). Real life is expenditure.

This explains why Dostoevsky uses John 12:24 as the epigraph for his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this earthy theological thriller we meet two religious protagonists: the Elder Zosima and Alyosha Karamozov, a novice monk. Zosima serves as starets (spiritual advisor) to the monks and to the multitude who come to him for advice and counsel. But he has not only lived inside cloister walls. Earlier he had been a dashing military officer, playing cards and challenging brother officers to duels. In fact, it was as he prepared for a duel that suddenly he was granted a vision of the unity and holiness of creation, a vision which sent him to the monastery. This tempering of piety with worldly experience serves as the basis of his holiness and humility. It is with the same humility that his life ends: suddenly he felt a pain in his chest, “silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully, gave up his soul to God” (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 6, Ch.3, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 324).

The expectation is that because of Zosima’s unusual holiness, his body will not exhibit the odor of decay. To the delight of his monastic rivals, not only does the stench begin, but it seems to be especially pronounced. Young Alyosha is crushed. Does this mean that his mentor was nothing but a fraud? In his shock he finally returns to stand watch near Zosima’s bier where Father Paissy reads aloud from the scriptures. It is when Alyosha hears the account of the Wedding at Cana read aloud that he experiences once again Zosima’s voice celebrating the richness of new wine. Suddenly Alyosha runs out of the chapel and when he reaches the forest, like Zosima, he falls down and embraces the earth weeping tears of joy. As Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life” (Ibid., Bk. 7, Ch. 4, p. 363). By falling to the earth as the seed that has died, as he leaves the monastery he becomes   part of a new community caring for the whole creation.

Dostoevsky here teaches that self-offering is not a waste leading nowhere. As Wirzba claims, “The giving of oneself, instead, leads to life as it really ought to be: ‘those who hate their life in the world’ (v. 25)—that is, those who realize that individual life is not a possession or an idol to be guarded and worshipped at all costs, those who categorically reject the isolating project of self-glorification, but instead willingly give themselves over for the good of others—‘will keep it for eternal life’ (v. 25)” (Wirzba, p. 114). Working for eco-justice with all one’s life may not be a good career choice, but it is an integral calling among the priesthood of all believers.

The high point of our gospel text occurs when Jesus describes being lifted up from the earth and “drawing all to myself” (John 12:32). Yes, the preferred NRSV reading is “all people,” but “all things” conforms more closely to 3:35 and 13:3, “all things have been given.” Why not, then, simply use “all” to avoid anthropocentrism and emphasize the creation interests of the Gospel. As Daly-Denton argues, “So to think of panta (“all”) being given into Jesus’ hands is to think of ‘all things’ being entrusted to the disciples as well. Their mission is to do the creating and sustaining ‘works of God’ (John 6:28), as modeled by the Good Shepherd, even  to the point of putting their life on the line as he did” (Daly-Denton, p. 166).

Because of the ecological situation we find ourselves in, it would be helpful to hear a confirming voice from heaven as did the festival crowd in our narrative (John 12:29-30). We may ask whether “the ruler of this world has been driven out” (John 12:31) as we admit that the wanton use of our freedom and technological power has led us to the brink of ruin and left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is unresponsive to “human interests.” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37)  Is our fate simply as Philip Sherrard has described: “There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourself to it.  That is the punishment.” (The Eclipse of Man and Nature, Stockbridge: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 71-72)

Every Sunday, even the Sundays of Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection. That does not mean that Christians are naively optimistic about the prospects we face. We would be fools to expect that a new technology or the sudden appearance of a new leader will solve the problems we confront. But as we come down to earth and plant the seeds of small gardens, teach children where carrots come from, and help sisters and brothers to see that eco-justice is central to our “priesthood,” we find hope. The one who sends Jeremiah to tear down our falsity and the Christ to draw all to him on the cross will certainly puncture every assumption of our arrogant culture—including our own personal favorites. Yet that same Creator will give us the courage to own our responsibilities, begin to mitigate climate damage, and work to find a place in the choir for all of God’s creatures.

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

How can we allow the religion of consumption to threaten God’s future? – Tom Mundahl reflects on turning from darkness to light.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

The Religion of Consumption

In 1955, American economist Victor Lebow wrote a prescription for the postwar economy that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” (quoted in Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? New York: Norton, 1992, pp. 21-22)

The impact of this “religion of consumption” is no surprise to those who care for creation, all struggling to live justly and humbly in “the belly of the beast.” The results of this postwar orgy of consumption are clear enough: massive waste of energy and material; increased degradation of air, water, and soil; use of thousands of chemical compounds whose effects are unknown, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exhaust fueling climate change, and embrace of “magical thinking” trusting that these problems will be “solved” by the newest techno “trick.”

How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation?

How could this be? How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation? Today’s readings provide clues that, even though they are nearly too blunt to miss, we too often ‘skate over’ to avoid offending what we might call the ‘spirit of the age,’ especially at a time when we do not want to rock the boat of a fragile economic recovery.

How could the church have bought into Victor Lebow’s clearly idolatrous way of thinking? Or, to echo Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Is it, as Marxists used to claim, “false consciousness?” Are we simply so overwhelmed by the massive quantity of commercial messaging and allegiance to finding meaning in ‘branding’ that we cannot help but respond to these stimuli? Are we so overworked in an anxious job milieu that we take our rewards where we can get them –at the mall or by shopping online?

Light and Darkness / Old Life, New Way of Being in Christ

Our readings suggest that, while all of these carry explanatory power, it is worse than that. As the Nicodemus discourse winds down, Jesus, who in the Prologue has already been called “the true light, which enlightens everyone….” (John 1:9) describes how responding to his presence creates a “crisis” (translated as “judgment,” v. 19) that orients humankind to “the light” or “the darkness.” This parallels the distinction etched in our second lesson between the “old life” (Ephesians 2:3) and the “new life in Christ” that has created a new community of hope (Ephesians 2:4-10). No matter how those who do not believe have ended up in this situation, the result is the same—embracing of the darkness, living in the old ways where one must manufacture one’s own security and hope.

And there is plenty of support for living the old life of darkness! The Roman Empire could provide a complete syllabus of religious practices that would not only be socially approved, but provide a safe anchor in the community. Something like that seems to be true for all in our culture who prefer the darkness. Bill McKibben points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” featured several climate science deniers, including five with ties to Exxon Oil (TomDispatch.com, February 9, 2012).

In fact, the darkness of a system that depends upon ravaging God’s creation has taken more than a century of “popular education” (read ‘propaganda’) to develop. As theologian Norman Wirzba argues:

“In fact, the vices of the great moral and spiritual traditions –pride, greed, and prodigality—first had to be transformed into economic virtues for Adam Smith’s ideas abut production, acquisition, and work to take hold. Today’s economies, in other words, are planned. They depend upon founding myths or assumptions that need to be seriously questioned if we are to make significant changes in the way we live.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 98)

Let Light and Newness Prevail

But God’s purpose in sending the One who is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) is to recreate and renew all of creation so that light and newness prevail. This is the goal we move toward during Lent as we look forward to lighting the “new fire” at the Easter Vigil and anticipate new baptisms into this community of care and love. What moves us cannot be better summarized than in John 3:16: “God so loved the world….” Even if the world contains a deep power of opposition embracing the old ways of darkness, this created world is in the process of being made new.

John connects this action to the old story of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness to bring hope to a community that has, in a sense, destroyed itself on the way to the Promised Land.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

This cross now becomes the center of the world, the axis mundi , the locus from which the Son of Man will draw all to himself (John 12:32) in the process of driving out the ruler of this world…and the musty darkness.

We are called to be a new community of life and hope.

But that is not all. In the meantime, those already captured by the new light are very busy. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may clearly be seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). This line is beautifully echoed at the end our second reading describing the purpose of creating a new community of light and hope. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life”(Ephesians 2:10).

Our task of good works is to care for creation.

Even in the face of a contracting consumer culture, filled with anxiety about what is coming next, our task is to continue to be about “the good works” already prepared for us. This is our life path. At times, I consider chucking this “care of creation struggle” in favor of walking the St. Olav Pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, or the El Camino Santiago Way to Compostela in Spain. Certainly, we all need to experience “sabbatical” time. But as Victor Lebow’s vision of “faith-based shopping” weakens us and our culture, the power of the one lifted up like the serpent frees us to continue to live out the way “prepared for us”—caring for creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Loving the Cosmos as God DoesTom Mundahl reflects on repenting of the “windigo” way.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Each Ash Wednesday we make an unusually comprehensive community confession of sin. We confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people,” “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 253). While the starkness of these petitions may strike some as excessive, in light of the state of our planet one may also wonder: how could they be so mild?

Not only are we struggling through the aftermath of the eighteenth U.S. school shooting in the first couple months of 2018, but already residents of the Ohio River watershed are experiencing severe flooding. In my own Twin Cities, residents of the eastern suburbs of St. Paul are wondering if “3-M’s” nearly one billion dollar fine for polluting groundwater with the chemical components of Teflon will be sufficient given the 100 square mile toxic underground “plume” that has developed. And, once more the residents of California are beginning to worry about the low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, one of their most important water sources. Will this year bring more fires, mudslides, and greater stress to farms and city residents alike?

The gravity of issues like this was on the mind of Wake Forest University’s Fred Bahnson as he attended Good Friday services last year. He arrived at worship hoping to have quiet time to reflect on the cross, the state of his life, and the state of the world. What he experienced was quite different. “Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, but more ‘sackcloth and ashes’” (“The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion, Vol. 36, No. 4, Thirty-fifth Anniversary Issue, 2017, p. 85).

To the wandering Israelites described in this week’s First Lesson, “sackcloth and ashes” may not have sounded so bad. Not only was the first generation of leaders dying, the wilderness wanderers continued to be frustrated by continued detours forcing them to rely on Moses’ leadership and a divinely provided menu. It is no wonder that once more the people complained, this time directly to God, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

No longer does “out of Egypt” seem to be a punch line for a freedom dance. Now Egypt seems to represent a time without endless wandering and, despite bondage, a time of relative economic security. In their imaginations, Egypt may have become what Maggie Ross once referred to as “the mall across the Red Sea.” Especially to the second generation of those on this extended trek, stories detailing life in Egypt would likely have become attractive. How easy it was to forget the cultural humiliation and painful work of brick-making for harsh Egyptian masters, slavery which seemed to consume their unique gift to the world (Dennis Olson, Numbers, Louisville: John Knox, 1996, p. 135ff.).

The desperate attraction to the horrors of life in Egypt reminds me of one of most powerful of Algonquin legends—the tradition of the “windigo,”a being who has developed an appetite for food, wealth, and power that can never be satisfied. Not only had the Israelites been victims of this “windigo” power in Egypt, but in many ways, so are we. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how contemporary culture has “spawned a new breed of “windigo” that devours Earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” This mind-set proposes to improve our “quality of life,” but eats us from within. “It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that only nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2013, p. 308).

The consequences for the Israelites attracted to this nostalgic security monster are dire.

Poisonous serpents are deployed that quickly produce a high body count. When the desperate Israelites seek Moses’ help, he prays to the LORD, who commands him to make a bronze casting of a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole, so that, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9). No longer did they long for the storied days of imagined ease brought by the Egyptian “windigo;” now by looking at the very source of death they find healing and restoration of communal trust. It is no surprise that the Johannine evangelist uses this image (John 3:14) to portray the cross, that brutal instrument of Roman torture, as the sign pointing to cosmic renewal of life. God transforms the very instruments of death (serpent/cross) sub contrario, into tools for life.

Much the same can be seen in this week’s Second Lesson from Ephesians, where the author frames the text with the Greek verb peripateo, “to walk,” the source of the English “peripatetic.” This “inclusio” describes contrary ways of life: in v. 2 walking the “windigo” way of death; in v. 10 walking the way of service and care. “Following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) suggests that “human life is under the malign influence of celestial powers thought to rule the universe, akin to ‘the elemental spirits’ of Col. 2:8, 20” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991 p. 26). The result is a warped understanding of life that leads to boasting (v. 9), misplaced confidence in human capacity, and being caught in the maelstrom of “windigo” lust.

The results of this kind of living are familiar to us today. According to Clive Hamilton, “The Great Acceleration began at the end of WW II and inaugurated both globalization and the Anthropocene. The rapid acceleration of economic growth, along with booming consumption and its profligate resource usage and waste, drove human destabilization of the Earth System. The pursuit of the American Dream at the same time brought the Anthropocene nightmare” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 84). That this accelerating, self-augmenting, out-of-control system reminds us of the “windigo” should be no surprise. And, it is certainly not to automobile drivers trapped in nearly identical smog-producing traffic jams in Los Angeles, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, and Addis Ababa.

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians reminds readers of the mercy of God, “who has made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:55). “In effect, God has done for Christians what God has already done for Christ” (Martin, p. 27). This results not in a new status of “holiness,” since it is all done “by grace as a free gift” (Ephesians 2:8), but in an explosion of servant-care. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). This amazing verse pulls no punches: the communal gift of grace flows through us as a way of continuing the renewal of creation and healing. Integral to this new way of walking (the closing of our “inclusio” frame) is building eco-justice.

This week’s lesson from John’s Gospel continues this emphasis on God’s action to heal and renew creation through the Son of Man (John 3:14) and the new community he calls into being (John 3:21). Once more we see a figure lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, but this time the result is not only the healing of those bitten by fiery serpents. Here the result is a new quality of life not only for those who believe, but for the whole creation (John 3:15-16).

Despite the uniqueness of John’s Gospel, Raymond Brown reminds us that the three statements describing Jesus being lifted up (John 3:14, 8: 28, and 12:32-34) function as the equivalent of the three synoptic passion predictions (The Gospel According to John, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 146). While John does not describe a specific response to each of these, the consequences are clear. In our text, even though the Son was “not sent into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), those who have seen and do not believe have already condemned themselves (John 3:18). “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). What is this if not a sense of being trapped in the “windigo” energy of “the virtue of selfishness” which has led to everything from out-of-control ecological devastation to power addiction and genocide? And this does not even begin to measure the energy required to “cover up in the darkness” responsibility for these deeds!

John describes the life of faith as producing even greater energy. But this energy is directed toward “doing the truth” (John 3:21a). Because these deeds come into the light, visible to the entire cosmos, they contain an entirely different kind of generativity. Just as the author of Ephesians refers to “good works which God has prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10), so the works coming from faith-active-in-love are “deeds performed in God” (Arndt, Bauer, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 307). Certainly ecojustice and Earthcare are among them.

The motive force behind “doing the truth” is the “life of new creation”/”eternal life” that comes from the lifting up of the Son of man, the word made flesh. This energy easily surpasses competing powers, including “Eternal Rome.” While Roman ideology claimed divine paternity for Augustus and his successors, who assumed political permanence, the gift of the one lifted up on a Roman cross could be grasped “only by faith” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 78). Still, a “life that bears endless newness” is the audacious claim of the early community, an assertion intensified in his gift of peace “not as the world (here read “Caesar”) gives” (John 14:27).

The center of this text is John 3:16, an echo of the prologue with its allusion to creation—”In the beginning . . . .” (John 1:1). Note well that Jesus does not say, “God loved humankind so much.” The life of the new time is not just for human beings; it envelops the entire Earth, the cosmos. Margaret Daly-Denton calls attention to the rich meaning of “cosmos” with etymological connections to “beauty,” the root of “cosmetic.” In this case, however, the word points to beauty that is rooted deeply within the creation and integral to the harmony of its endless interconnections (Ibid., pp. 78-79).

When we affirm God’s love for the cosmos, broken as it is, we discover surprising depth. What faith sees is seldom simply an object of vision, but even more the unseen reality that brings it into being. As Wirzba writes, “Our gaze at a creature . . . does not stop at the creature’s surface but extends beyond it to its dependence upon and source in a Creator. The Logos through which all things in the world came to be is also the light and life within each thing” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 32). This attitude requires us to live “together with” the whole of creation in a respectful way, or, as John would have it, “living in the light” (John 3:21).

That this is not the way we see the world God loves in our consumer-driven culture is clear. As Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard reveals, “We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves” (Human Image–World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology, Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992, p. 2). In order for us as to serve Earth and build ecojustice for all, we need once more to recognize God’s love in each other and in all that the Creator has made.

Yes, Fred Bahnson is correct in calling for us to put on the “sackcloth and ashes” of grief when we consider what we continue to do to this planet. Our actions are based primarily on how we see the cosmos—as a “mine” of resources to satisfy our endless desires, the “windigo” way from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. While the new-mindedness of Lenten repentance requires action, public policy change, hard work, and all of our energy, it also suggests the need for Lenten time to breathe and remember the depth of God’s love, a memory that may open us once more to be “channels of justice.”

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy! – Tom Mundahl reflects on the continuation and completion of the Sabbath.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Thirds Sunday of Lent, Year B (1012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

As we continue our pilgrimage through the forty days of Lent, we are reminded of Israel’s forty year trek to the land of promise. This week, we will focus on the gift of “the ten words,” the Ten Commandments, on the way to that new land. But we will also see how these words connect with the institutional religion that developed there, especially ‘temple-focused’ religious life.

Perhaps what is most unique about the description of the giving of “the ten words” in our first reading is the immediacy of God’s presence. This is the only example in the Old Testament of direct, unmediated address by God to the assembly. Quite likely the purpose of this direct address is to insure that these “words” are heard correctly, not ‘watered down’ by mediators. Ironically, the assembly cannot take it! Immediately after hearing “the ten words,” they ask Moses to resume as mediator (Exodus 20:18).

Sabbath is more than the absence of labor!

For our purposes, it may be that “the word” most closely connected with caring for creation is the “third word” about keeping the Sabbath, the commandment given the longest elaboration in both versions of “the ten words” (See also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). This “word,” traditionally considered by Lutherans to complete ‘the first table’ of the law consisting of commandments focusing on the relationship between God and humankind, is much broader in meaning—because the notion of ‘sabbath’ as interpreted by the author of the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2.4a) is much more than a “day off” to rest from the heavy lifting required by the first six days.

Sabbath is a dance of delight.

In fact, creation continues on the seventh day. What was lacking from the first six days? Apparently, the ‘lack’ was rest, menuha, a Hebrew word suggesting far more than the absence of labor. Menuha, Sabbath rest, carries rich connotations of delight in sharing the harmonious interdependence of all that God has made. And, recall that Exodus 20:10 makes sure to include livestock in Sabbath observance. No longer can we hold that humankind is the “crown” of creation. Now it is Sabbath rest, menuha, a dance of delight, that crowns the Creator’s work.

Sabbath is a time when all life is celebrated.

Instead, Sabbath is kept when its integrity before God and before all life is celebrated. When that does not happen, all creation is in danger. As Norman Wirzba warns:

“Failure to understand God’s ownership and control of creation leads to human destruction of creation and a distortion of who we are as created beings. Sabbath observance, in other words, teaches us that we are not God, that we are finally not in control, and that the goal of creation is not to be found in us.” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 37.)

Failure to observe Sabbath rest leads to destruction and violence. Keeping Sabbath, on the other hand, opens the way to the mutuality and care sought by the “Second Table” of commands, focused on relationships among creatures.

“Sabbath keeping is an act of creation-keeping.”

Terence Fretheim puts it on the mark when he claims that this “third word” is a rich source for care of creation: “Sabbath keeping is an act of creation keepin.” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 230). And, this creation-keeping that is rooted in Sabbath menuha (rest) leads us to embrace a perspective on creation care—called by Wendell Berry “the Great Economy.” (Berry, Home Economics, San Francisco: North Point, 1987, pp. 74-75.) This notion of “the Great Economy” is practically synonymous with earth-keeping. It views the integrity and health of the whole creation so broadly that it includes even ‘the fall of a sparrow.’ This perspective contrasts sharply with conventional economic views that mark species disappearance, decline in air or water quality, and even climate change as “externalities.”

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy!

A sabbath-based embrace of “the Great Economy” is also rooted in a sense of responsibility and care, echoing the call to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15). During the Lenten season when we are enjoined to consider ‘fasting,’ perhaps we have an opportunity to reduce consumption, freeing ourselves from unnecessary ‘shopping anxiety’ and reducing pressures on the natural world. This practice may liberate us for what E.F. Schumacher has called a “becoming existence” that provides “the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper, 1973, p. 57).

Sabbath is joining the choir of all creation in worship and praise.

Finally, an economy based on Sabbath menuha would join the whole creation in worship and praise. Psalm 19 certainly echoes this refrain we find throughout the scriptures: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) But what kind of worship reflects true Sabbath keeping? This leads us to consider John’s narrative of Jesus’ Cleansing the Temple, our Gospel text. We move from “the ten words” to “the Word made flesh.”

John joins Matthew and Luke in describing a temple cleansing. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John comes near the very beginning of the gospel, at a Passover observance. Following the amazing story of ‘the Wedding in Cana” where Jesus provided massive amounts of wine to continue the party, we now see another eschatological sign regarding the temple.

Although a new and cleansed temple had traditionally been part of future hope, Jesus provides two insights that are significant. First, it is the Jewish leadership that will be responsible for destruction of the temple. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), “destroy” is imperative (“you destroy the temple”) and implies that the religious elite will accomplish this destruction themselves by not using this ‘cultural tool’ to promote Sabbath delight (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. I, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 120). Second, the temple will be replaced by the Risen One, whose new being constitutes a ‘raising’ of the temple. Of course, this idea is carried on in the Johannine tradition with the vision of the new city in the Revelation to John: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”(Revelation 21:22).

The vision of the New Jerusalem represents the fulfillment of creation.

“And there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21:25). This ‘feature’ of the new city is strikingly reminiscent of the first creation story’s description of the seventh creation of Sabbath rest, menuha. For, unlike the other ‘days’ of creation, there is no “evening” on the seventh day, a sign of fulfillment. Could it be that the embodied temple, Jesus the Risen One, described in the Revelation to John, constitutes the perfect fulfillment of Sabbath rest and delight?

Perhaps, then, we can see weekly Sabbath-keeping as the anticipation of creation’s ultimate redemption, the time when “all will be well.” That frees us to understand the work of Christ as the continuation and completion of the Sabbath. Wirzba claims: “The early Christian . . . understood Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and his ministry to be the incarnation of God’s delight and peace in a world of pain and violence” (Wirzba, p. 40). In fact, Jesus’ making himself the sign of a new “temple” engenders hope that all of life will become a Sabbath feast. Because this is a feast of delight for all, it brings with it both hope for the future of creation and active concern and care for all that God has made.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.

Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.

Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.

It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).

While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).

Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.

Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).

This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.

But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).

Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.

It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.

But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.

Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).

What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).

For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.

Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.

But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.

Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Expend your life for Jesus and the gospel of new creation, and you will save it. – Tom Mundahl reflects on the gospel paradox.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-15
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

While this week’s readings vigorously underline God’s faithful keeping of covenant promises made to Abraham and Sarah, including the strong affirmation in our psalm that this promise is for all (Psalm 22:27), our Gospel lesson challenges us to focus both on what threatens and on what sustains care for creation.

The disciples seek power to dominate. Jesus renounces it.

Once more, Jesus and his entourage are “on the way” on the very “edge.” They find themselves in the region of Caesarea Philippi, an area dominated by a city once named for the Greek god, Pan. With Roman imperial dominance, it has been redubbed “Caesarea Philippi” to honor the dedication of a temple there to Caesar Augustus and to recognize the influence of the Herodian tetrarch, Philip. This history not only suggests a fluid religious past, it also opens the door for a new understanding of “the way.” For as they travel, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question, reminiscent of Moses’ interrogation of the “burning bush:” “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

This is only intensified by the follow-up: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers bluntly, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Our text begins—uncomfortably in medias res (v. 31)—as Jesus unpacks the meaning of “messiahship” as suffering, rejection by the religious elite, and resurrection after three days. Understandably, Peter cannot accept any notion of “messiahship” that includes this kind of treatment. “And Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him” (v. 32). Jesus “returns the favor” by rebuking Peter with real harshness: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).

What could be clearer? A “messiah,” an “anointed king” in the tradition of David, must be a political figure sent to restore Israel’s national identity (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 244). But notice that Jesus will have none of that kind of “messiahship!” Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus describes himself as “the Son of Man,” “the human one.” Just as a “messiah” would be drawn toward statecraft, so the “Son of Man” must suffer and come into conflict with power elites. Jesus describes this conflict “quite openly” (Mark 8:32).

It is this rebuke of Peter and Mark’s Jesus presenting himself as “Son of Man” that is crucial for deepening our responsibility for creation care. We are taken back to last week’s Gospel reading that describes Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan and his encounter with “the wild beasts” (Mark 1.13). When we recall Daniel’s apocalyptic language, it is precisely “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) who comes to deal with the wild “beasts” representing the empires that have plagued that area of the world. To be “Son of Man” is to transcend traditional politics in order to bring new creation and to declaw “the beasts” as political players. But it also reveals the great temptation Jesus has, “to get behind himself”—the temptation of political power.

The temptation to seek power can never be satisfied. It is destroying Earth.

The temptation of seeking power that can never be satisfied is all too familiar. In anticipation of seeing Peter Jackson’s unreleased film version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I have been revisiting Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films from nearly a decade ago. Not only do they hold up well as cinematic versions of Tolkien’s saga, but they also illustrate in the most graphic way the personal and environmental effects of obsession with power. Evil wizard Sauron and his lackey Saruman lust to capture the total power of “the One Ring”–with results that can hardly be imagined, even with special effects.

These are described by one of the most beloved characters, Treebeard, an ent or “tree shepherd.” He describes Saruman as. . .

“plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the smelting fires of Orthanc. Curse him, root and branch!” (Tolkien, The Two Towers, Grafton, 90-91)

The result of this deforestation based on an uncontrollable obsession with power is the kind of waste we have seen with deforestation around the world. It is the kind of “denatured” landscape that is familiar from suburban sprawl and in the massive chemically-fed fields of crop monocultures.

We de-create the world with our power to dominate.

This destruction and attempt to de-create the world in the service of power recognizes that evil is, as Augustine held, a force that leads to nothingness, the deprivation of the goodness of creation, privatio boni. Its ultimate goal seems to be the destruction of all things: creation, relationships, faith, and hope. So, when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” the tempter who sets the mind on human things, not the things of God, there is a blunt recognition that this path to power-focused “messiahship” will have devastating results.

The opposite is to sustain life—to resist fear and pursue kingdom practice at risk of death.

But the other way, the way of sustaining life, seems at the outset ridiculous. It is the way and logic of the cross. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). This is the central paradox of the gospel. The other side of the lust for power is the willingness to punish by death all those who resist this powerful impulse. “By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history’ (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 247).

Embrace a priestly vocation.

Perhaps a more hopeful way of framing this reality is to listen to our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they uphold the priestly vocation. Paul Evdokimov suggests:

“In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as priest of his (sic) whole life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering, a hymn of glory” (quoted in Wirzba, 2012, p. 205).

When we broaden this anthropocentric focus, we see that a “priestly” view of the world comprehends all as gift of God to be celebrated by self-giving interdependence. This interdependence seems to cry for mutual regard and care. And this “priestly function” is not necessarily anthropocentric in practice. To return to Tolkien’s great love and concern for forests, throughout my life, trees have served as “priests” many times. Others may remember mediating comfort provided by dogs and cats, lakes and oceans, or the simple cry of a loon.

But the fact remains that those who resist the impulse for power, economic growth, and unchecked technological development are dealt deadly blows throughout the world. Whenever there is malnutrition in formerly subsistent food cultures that now have become exporters of “food resources,” this has happened. Those members of 350.org who protested the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project in front of the White House found harsh treatment even during their short time in District of Columbia detention facilities. There were no “Letters from the Washington Jail.” Finally, Tim de Christopher, who attempted to disrupt the bidding process for oil and gas leases on public lands, did not receive a mere slap on the hand, but two years of hard time at Herlong Federal Correction Institution in California. (Orion, Jan.-Feb. 2012, p. 41)

Expend your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel of new creation—and you will save it.

For those called to care for creation, our Gospel text describes clearly “the way it is.” There is a clear cost to this path of care and service, but it is the way of life. “For those who want to save their life (by submitting to the way of power obsession) will lose it, and those who lose (or expend) their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel (of new creation) will save it” (Mark 8:35).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Coming Down to Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on our vocation to make earth a hospitable household for all.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have been called to interpret them in new ways that speak to the community of faith today. This opportunity is especially afforded by the season of Lent, when not only do we prepare candidates for baptism and ruminate on what it means to live as a resurrection community, but we also take seriously the call to repentance—turning our lives around and developing new mindsets. On Ash Wednesday we are starkly reminded of our mortality as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives: our vocation.

This Lent could not be more timely, because those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by government and corporate leaders dead set on ignoring the most basic climate science, privatizing public lands, and extracting any “natural resource” that could turn a dollar’s profit. What we do to nature we do to people; so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

In recent years,  we have experienced a series of storms and wildfires of nearly unparalleled strength and duration, wreaking environmental damage and costing human life. While the economic costs of these storms is great, the message these events conveys is far more ominous. As Earth system scientists have pointed out, these events reveal a rupture in planetary history requiring us to recognize that we live in a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,” an unprecedented epoch in which human activity is impacting the ongoing course of evolution. It has become clear that the aim of industrial technology to bring the natural world under human supervision has produced quite the opposite effect.  Even though human alteration of the natural world has reached unimagined levels, “we are now more vulnerable to the power of nature in a way we have not known for at least 10,000 years since the last great ice sheets finally retreated. The climate system, in response, is becoming more energetic, bringing more storms, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 45.) In a sense, “Gaia” has become enraged and is fighting back.

It is crucial to make clear that to call this new epoch “the anthropocene” in no way is to make a normative claim for human superiority.  Quite the contrary, it is a descriptive, scientific term attesting to how far our species is affected the planet. If we are to look at our time from the standpoint of value and responsibility, humans are “special” only in our “special responsibility” to recognize where we are and to respond appropriately. As French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests, “Either we deny the evidence of the problem or we look to come down to earth. This choice is what now divides people much more than being politically on the left or right.” (“The New Climate,” Harper’s, May 2017, p.13)

We need the season of Lent to help us “come down to earth,” to retreat to the desert to rediscover our identity and vocation that comes from a renewal of our baptismal calling. We will begin this journey by looking back at the story of Noah, the focus of this week’s First Reading.

The complex narrative of Noah begins with divine disgust at the violence and corruption of those who threaten the good creation (Genesis 6:11-13). The Priestly writers detail the instructions to Noah: build an ark of very specific dimensions and fill it with a male and female of every living thing.  Even though we are given no inkling to what lies ahead for Noah and the creatures, Noah is obedient and prepares for the flood. Echoing other flood stories circulating in the ancient middle east, this flood effectively blots out all of life except for Noah and all the genetic treasure contained in the ark, a “seed pod” for renewing creation.

In the face of this watery dismemberment of creation, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark (Genesis 8:1).” As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “God is no longer angered but grieved.  He is not enraged but saddened. God does not stand over against but “with” his creation. Tellingly, the pain bequeathed to the woman in 3:16 (‘asav) is now felt by God” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.79). The crisis is not so much the flood but the pain that God endures for the sake of a wayward creation, pain transformed into promise in remembrance of the very purpose of creation.

The promise forms the content of this week’s lesson, and if it is a covenant, it is a covenant of promise for the renewal of creation.  Its features are clear: it is a covenant with Noah and his descendants (all humankind) and all living creatures, a covenant that promises never again (Genesis 9:12, 15) shall a flood destroy the earth. This covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, the signature of God’s “unilateral disarmament” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p.18).

Indeed, this qualifies Noah to be the “new Adam.” “He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God” (Brueggemann, p. 80). Not only is he the first to embody faith, but “he is righteous because, like God, he took upon himself the maintenance of all creation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2006, p. 33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah becomes the first planter of a vineyard, one of the richest sources both of fine drink and of a biblical metaphor (Genesis 9:20).

This covenant of promise provides courage and comfort for those who work for ecojustice.  William P. Brown puts it this way: “With the rainbow as its sign, God’s covenant, like the Sabbath, sets an example: it offers a model of human conduct, for only by covenant, by the resolute work of the human community working in consort, can life be sustained amid a new onslaught of destruction, this time wrought by human hands, against the community of creation” (The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 234). Writing in 2010, Brown’s warning was prescient. If the natural world is “fighting back,” what is the place of the rainbow covenant of promise?

As Brueggemann considers the Noah tradition, he reflects: “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain the world, not withstanding the sorry state of humankind. He is God. He takes as his vocation not judgment but the resilient work of affirmation on behalf of the death-creature” (Brueggemann, p. 81). Just as God’s people in the Babylonian exile were not abandoned, so the promise continues its validity. And it is no surprise that much of the Noah narrative comes from this period. But the capacity of humankind to physically alter the very Earth systems underlying earth functioning during the 12,000 years of the Holocene period, when the climate proved stable for what we call “development,” is beyond the imagination of even biblical writers.

How can we continue to model “down to earth” ecojustice in the tradition of Noah when a hole has been torn in the fabric of creation?

The psalmist reminds us that continued trust in the mercy and steadfast love (Psalm 25:6) of the creator is key to living fruitfully in the land. Because the theme of “waiting” is repeated (vv. 3, 5, 21), it is likely this psalm stems, like much of the First Reading, from the time of exile (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 125). The ultimate result hoped for is that the humble who learn the paths of the LORD will “abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land “(Psalm 25:13). As Ellen Davis argues, “For God, earth is mortal—for God, humans are earthy, both earth and its inhabitants are mutually destructive when their relationship with God is severed” (Davis, p. 19). The way past this “shame” and back to their homeland (Psalm 25:2, 3) is active walking in God’s paths (v. 4), another “down to earth” approach to holistic community health, health that includes care for the land.

The Second Lesson from 1 Peter also stems from a time of great pressure, this time on the early community of the Risen One, dispersed as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 1:1-2) throughout the regions of what today comprises Turkey. While the level of persecution is not specific, it is clear that believers have been arrested and required to give an account of their faith (1:6) in a “judgment to begin with the household of God” (4:17).

But this oppression is to be met with confidence: in baptism believers have been “built into a spiritual house” (2: 5) and been transformed into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that . . . proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light “(2:9). With this strong foundation, community members are alerted  to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  reverence” (3:15-16).

What is the basis of this bold courage? The author finds it in the baptismal imagery of Noah and the great flood (Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James and Jude, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 65). He does this to describe Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits responsible for creation’s distress at the time of Noah (3:19-20). And, because Jesus did this, the resurrection community which, like Noah, has gone through the water—this time of baptism—and landed in the ark of the ecclesia now has spiritual power to do the same in a situation where, all too often, informers and secret police agents were eager and ready to pounce (Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 73). Their power has been broken. (Ibid., p. 111)

That is, baptismal creation of the new “household of faith” corresponds to Noah’s planting a vineyard—planting a new kind of community with the resilient confidence to flourish even in the face of oppression (John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 692). That Christ’s work is cosmic in scope and truly trans-historical is made clear by this reading, the central text in the letter which gives a theological basis for the confident hope of the believers’ experiences in the face of persecution. For this text makes it clear that by going through the “baptismal flood,” every Christian is Christianus alter Christus, a second Christ (Ibid.).

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “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) must be emphasized even more energetically.

In their 2014 manifesto, Uncivilization, leaders of the predominantly UK-based Dark Mountain movement focused on countering the headlong destruction of the planet affirm: “We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality (that is, the normative “right” humans have to benefit at the expense of creation), and the myth of our separation from nature” (Uncivilization, Dark Mountain Project, 2014, p. 30). The Christian story, when seen from the standpoint of creation, provides the right alternative, bringing us through the flood to plant new vineyards and nurturing new communities that gives us vision and courage even in the face of an angry Gaia.

We see the power of the Christian story in the very first words of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  In this simple phrase, the author rips an iceberg-size gash in the side of the Roman Empire where “the good news” was the birth of “the most divine Caesar” which is a “new beginning for the world” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 147). As we can see from the text, even though Mark describes Jesus’ entry onto the world stage with less fanfare, he comes as “the stronger one.”

Leaving Galilee for Jordan River, the site of John’s ministry, Jesus’ arrival is almost unnoticed. But he, too, is baptized and as he emerges from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1: 10). Here we see the result of Jesus’ baptism: a new tearing of the heavens. Not only does this satisfy the longing cry from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), but this violent verb of tearing is repeated at the moment of his death, when he “breathes out his spirit” and the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38). Clearly, the one who brings new creation is on the loose, unconfined by humanly-engineered sacred spaces (Donald Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 34).

To educated readers of the Hellenistic world, the notion of a tear in the fabric of the world was shocking. Had they not steeped themselves in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the most-studied Greek text after Homer?  According to the Timaeus, the earth is a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision. Of course, that eliminates those who were blind. Anyone who could not see was incapable of being a philosopher and attaining the good life (Peter Kalkavge, Plato’s Timaeus, Newburyport, MA, Focus Publishing, 2001, (47 b,c), p. 78).

But in Mark’s Gospel, with its massive tear in Timaeus’ perfect world, it is precisely the blind who are able to see most clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ three passion predictions, he encounters a blind man named Bartimaeus. Not only is this a name not found in his culture, it takes very little to realize that symbolically he is bar-Timaeus, the “son” of Timaeus. As Jesus passes bar-Timaeus’ begging corner in Jericho, the beggar shouts out to the embarrassment of the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Somehow this son of Timaeus can “see” that Jesus is Son of David, the expected one. After this cry is repeated, Jesus calls him to get up and approach him. “Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (v. 50).

So is it his “philosopher’s cloak” he is throwing off, or simply his need to beg, as he engages in the ritual performance preceding early Christian baptism? (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, p. 33). Whatever we conclude, Bartimaeus gains his sight and, as a new catechumen-disciple, he “follows Jesus on the way” (v.52). Even though he is blind, he has found the path toward the “best life.”

Mark’s cosmology breaks the cosmological structure of the Timaeus.  Everywhere the Greco-Roman world (including Judea) is full of the blind, the possessed, and the hungry, those demanding a “sign” to validate their religious opinions. It is no wonder (or, is it a great wonder?) that God’s action tears a hole in the fabric of Timaeus assumption that the world is only beautiful, balanced, and perfect. For now even the blind and the centurions on “the other side” can find a sense of belonging. “A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus” (Mark 10:30).

The broad compass of this new beginning is made clear by the voice heard as Jesus emerges from the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The first part of this powerful sentence refers to Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, where the psalmist contrasts the king about to be enthroned with the “kings of the earth (who) set themselves . . . against the LORD and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). This royal one emerging from the water, however, rules not as tyrant, but as a servant, indicated by God’s pleasure in his humility (Isaiah 42:1). While servanthood is often given lip service by royalty, it has never been demonstrated as fully as it has by this newly baptized one, who shreds the job description of all royalty.

And then he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where, as one who seems native to the ragged edges of the official world (e.g. Galilee), he is tested. The tempter is there; and so are the “beasts” perhaps representing the kings and other powers opposing him (Daniel 7). Despite these challenges, not only is he served by the angels, but there seems to be a kind of desert refreshment that propels Jesus on “his way.” As Belden Lane writes, “The place of death in the desert becomes the place of miraculous nourishment and hope, while the place of order and stability of Jerusalem leads only to the chaos of the cross.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 44)

We began this reflection confessing that we humans are responsible for the massively powerful systems that have pushed the climate God’s earth beyond the point of equilibrium, with even more desert being created—the Sahel in Africa and the increasing size of China’s Gobi. This “rupture” requires more serious action than the Paris Accords of 2015 have called for, even though this agreement is a beginning.

What people of faith cannot do is sit back and rest on the graciousness of the Noachic Covenant.  For this covenant only promises that God will never again destroy the earthnot that human beings cannot do so. During this Lenten season of repentance—turning around and being renewed in our thinking—where is hope?

Perhaps hope lies in the fact that the community of faith often discovers new hope at “point zero.” The stable world of the holocene epoch (11,700 years!) may be over, but even in the face of climate change, over-population, and rapid species extinction (Richard Heinberg, “There is No App for That,” Post-Carbon Institute, 2017 (www.postcarbon.org), new ways of coming down to earth and serving creation may be discovered. But even though God often works sub contrario (under the appearance of opposites), bringing new life out of deluge, finding insight and sight in blindness, or puncturing the safety of an old cosmology to usher in new creation, as creatures we have no choice but to own our limitations, mitigate climate damage, and care for this earth as best we can. It is, after all, our home; and our vocation is to make it a hospitable household for all.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth12)

It’s Time to Break with Business as Usual and Tend God’s Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on what we can learn from fishermen.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

It’s Time!

When it’s time, it’s time. And, indeed, it is time for Christians to reorient their lives to God’s creation in crisis. The readings for this Sunday provide occasion for making this call. From Mark’s Gospel we have heretofore heard the announcement of a new beginning. We have encountered John the Baptist at the Jordan and shared in his expectation of the arrival of one who is more powerful than he. We have undergone baptism with water, and await the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And now the word comes: John has been arrested; Jesus is on the move. “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaims, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14). So with Simon and Andrew, James and John, we are invited to “break with business as usual” and enlist in Jesus’ campaign to restore God’s creation (“breaking with business as usual” is Ched Myers’ apt characterization of these verses from the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel; see his Binding the Strong Man, p. 132)

The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

What does the drawing near of the kingdom of God have to do with the restoration of the creation? A lot, if not everything, we would urge. We have anticipated this assertion in our commentary on the lectionary lessons for Advent and Christmas: the coming of Jesus, we have suggested, represents the relocation of the presence of God from the temple at the heart of the Jewish state to the person of Jesus, who is the servant of God’s creation. A succession of symbolic associations through these two opening seasons of the church year has provided confirmation of this perspective: the fig tree (First Sunday of Advent), the wilderness (Second), the light (Third), the incarnation (Fourth), the praise of all creation (Christmas Eve and Day, and First Sunday of Christmas), the assembly of God’s people for the meal (First Sunday), and the water of baptism (Baptism of our Lord). These are all signs of the immanence of God in the creation, which we argued in our comment on the readings for last Sunday is the presupposition of the call to discipleship from God. Now on this Sunday that God is seen in the person of Jesus to draw near and call into specific relationship those who will accompany him on his mission, and so be prepared to carry it forward in his name. But it is only with this Sunday that we first see how crucial the creation itself is to the fulfillment of the time and the drawing near of the reign of God.

Myers shows us why choice of location and occupation of the first people called as disciples is significant for understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission. Sea is important, along with wilderness, river, and mountain, he notes, as primary topological sites in Mark’s narrative. Here in the first part of the gospel, “the sea (of Galilee) is a prime positive coordinate; by it the discipleship narrative commences (1:16; 2:13), and consolidates (3:17)” (Ibid., p. 150). It is, obviously, the context in which fisherman, who are recruits for Jesus’ following, could be expected to be found. That the nature of their work is important is clear, both from Mark’s emphasis on it—“he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen,” and from Jesus’ use of that vocation in describing their future role in his mission: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). The image, Myers emphasizes, “does not refer to the ‘saving of souls,’ as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status.” The image is rather

“carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh’s censure of Israel. Elsewhere the ‘hooking of fish’ is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege “(Ibid., p. 132).

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

Belonging as these men do to an independent artisan class for whom “the social fabric of the rural extended family was bound to the workplace,” the call to follow Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. These concrete imperatives are precisely what the rich—Mark will later tell us—are unable or unwilling to respond to. This is not a call “out” of the world, but into an alternative social practice.

No more business as usual.

Thus, this “first” call to discipleship in Mark is indeed “an urgent, uncompromising invitation to ‘break with business as usual’” (Ibid., pp. 132-33).

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

What Myers’ exposition leaves unanswered, however, and indeed, even unasked, is the question as to why these fishermen are apparently both able and willing to respond so positively to Jesus’ call. What exactly is it about fishermen, to pick up on Mark’s emphasis, that renders them open to Jesus’ call and able to make the break? Our view, admittedly somewhat conjectural, is that it is in the nature of their work and its domain, the sea of Galilee, to foster such readiness and courage. Theirs was a daily encounter with both the great bounty and the threat of the sea. While harvesting that bounty, they move at the edge of chaos. Contrary to the rich people dwelling in the cities of the land, for whom their wealth was a guarantee of continued well-being and purchased safety and therefore a cause of resistance to Jesus, the fishermen’s entire dependence upon the sea for their livelihood could make them acutely aware of their dependence upon God for both their sustenance and their safety. We can imagine them singing with firm resolve the psalm appointed for this Sunday: “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.  He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:5-8). People of this spirit could be quite ready to respond quickly and affirmatively to Jesus’ summons.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

This is to suggest, accordingly, that the fisherman’s relationship to the creation plays a significant role in the unfolding of this narrative. Their entire lives are so oriented to the unfettered dynamic of creation that “business as usual” in the socio-political realm of the temple-state has very little meaning for them. This suggestion is supported by Norman Wirzba’s argument in his book, The Paradise of God, that one of the keys to restoring to modern life a “culture of creation” is the reformation of our patterns of work and play, to bring them into proper relationship with the patterns of creation. Fundamentally, he argues, “work and play . . . are our responses to God’s own work and delight in a creation well made. They show, when most authentic, a sympathetic attunement to the orders of creation and their divine goal.” Meister Eckhart, Wirzba suggests, found that

“[i]n returning to our “ground,” as he put it, we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart, and head.”

Human work, rightly understood and well-practiced, promotes entry “into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality” (Wirzba, pp. 154-155). This, we suggest, is how the Galilean fishermen lived.

This reading of Mark’s narrative is provocative, we think; contrary to our usual concern to show how Christian faith might help foster and sustain care of creation, we find here that a particular orientation to creation helps to form and foster a relationship of faith to God and commitment to God’s purposes.  Aware as they would have been of changes in their circumstances due to Roman domination of the seas and due to Jerusalem’s collaboration with Roman authorities, their relationship to creation renders the fisherman ready to see in Jesus God’s messiah. They agreed with Jesus: the time was fulfilled. As we have come to expect by virtue of our practice of baptism, water and the Spirit of God together stir up faith in God, so that  even the “unclean spirits” amidst the great crowd that eventually gathered by the sea, when they saw Jesus, “fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 3:7-11).

But perhaps this is not so provocative, after all, at least in more extended biblical perspective. That the creation itself assists in the stirring of faith and consequent action would actually seem a lesson to be drawn from the fabled story of Jonah, revisited in our first reading for this Sunday. It is the great fish’s role, after all, to redirect the reluctant Jonah to his calling. Is it not congruent with this “natural fact,” perhaps, that the animal population of Nineveh quite freely joins the human population in donning sackcloth and ashes?

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

The lesson is timely for us: With benefit of only the slightest prompting on the part of the prophet of God, the ancient, sinful city of Nineveh repents of its alienation from God because of the sign of the fish. The reluctant prophet of God will himself eventually repent of his reluctance, but the change does not come easily. A parallel might be seen in the slowness of God’s church to attend to the crisis of creation, while the secular community of the world, educated about nature by the sciences of ecology and climate change, turns from its hugely destructive ways, and begins to do the hard work of restoring God’s creation. It is time; nature is telling us that it is time. And those Christians who do live close to the Earth and know themselves to suffer with the whole creation, need to leave their boats—or automobiles, electronic toys, or whatever—and, breaking with the spiritual authority of “business as usual,” follow Jesus.

It’s Time!

 The Kingdom of God is the Restoration of Creation.

Following Jesus requires a reordering of socio-economic relationships.

No more business as usual.

The fishermen’s dependence on God in fishing leads them to follow unconditionally.

Work and play rooted in God are holy activities on behalf of creation.

Nature and God are telling us: It is time to repent like Jonah.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“Coming home” is at the heart of the Christmas season. To gather with family, friends, and congregation members, to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation, to share good food with its many traditions around a common table, and to tell stories sustains us and forges our identities.

This is true even when coming home is not possible. A recent PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” made this clear. When, to the surprise of the producers of the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn,” the song “White Christmas” became a “hit record,” Crosby was initially reluctant to sing it as part of his many appearances for military personnel serving overseas during WW II. He thought the song’s inherent nostalgia would be too much for those with no hope of celebrating Christmas at home any time soon. What he found was just the opposite: that the longing for home was so central to human being that these “exiles” in this horrible war had  special need for just such a song.

The power of home and homecoming is certainly a unifying theme in this week’s readings. It is especially so in the “song” we call Psalm 147, one of the doxological psalms (Psalms 146-150) that close the Psalter. The psalmist shows us a God whose creative power is so comprehensive that not only are the heavens covered with clouds and the hills covered with grass, but this Holy One also “builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, 8).

This week’s reading from Jeremiah echoes that homecoming. In this section from the Book of Consolation (30:1-31: 37), the prophet delivers a message of comfort, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from all the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).

This new exodus and homecoming takes place in the context of altered terms of relationship. No longer is the focus on lost Davidic kingship or on the destruction of the temple. Now it appears that what is primary is bringing the exiles home and restoring them to the land (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 186). Land now becomes a covenant partner producing amazing abundance in response to the human return. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” (Jeremiah 31:12)

That this homecoming should suggest the land as a covenant partner is no novelty. Even the compilers of Leviticus made this clear: “I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, and yes, my covenant with Isaac, and yes, my covenant with Abraham I shall remember—and the land I shall remember” (Leviticus 26:42). Since the ancestry is stated in reverse order, it stands to reason that the land is the first ancestor! (Ellen Davis, public lecture, Prairie Festival, the Land Institute, Salina, KS, September 27, 2014)

But this celebration of homecoming also reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and meat—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this servanthood is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands
far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him
as a shepherd a flock.” (Jeremiah 31:10)

It is precisely homecoming that will bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the breadth of relationships its fertility implies. As the canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations,” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Following a conventional salutation, this week’s reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong Trinitarian elements (vv. 3, 5, 13).  This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism—“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is creating a “new family” through “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for a newly-extended family of faith.

The expanding scope of this home-building (traditionally described with terms such as “election” and “reconciliation”) is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.

“The nature of that plan is now stated.  It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ.  The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is ‘to sum up,’ to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find…its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can 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 creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

On this final Sunday of Christmas homecoming, we hear once more the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (it should be read whole, not dissected!), a poem that continues the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this is prologue is likely crafted after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20). Because this is a hymn from the community, the emphasis on response is necessary and unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16).  In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us….” (John 1: 14a; Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131)

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time its communal nature can be highlighted. Certainly, the sense of the Incarnate Word “dwelling” with us has deep implications for being “at home” in God’s creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests:

“In the Christian traditions the presence of God in creation is made even more striking in the teaching of the incarnation. God becomes a human being and, in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 16).

Because of the incarnation, the promise of the end of our exile, the community responds with psalms, carols and hymns—even, and especially, on the last Sunday of Christmas. One of the most alarming indicators of social isolation in American culture is the decline in community singing. We need to learn once more the joy of singing together—and there is no time like the season of Christmas.

No matter whether we are “at home” or not, singing what is familiar, or even what newly tells the familiar story, gives us a sense of rootedness. As we sing, we also learn to hear the good news of the season in relation to the song of the earth—”let heaven and nature sing!” As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 7.).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl14)

Join the Hymn of All Creation Tom Mundahl reflects on ministering to creation as priests of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

The Coming of God in Christ at Christmas changes everything.  It should be no surprise, then, that the psalmody for Christmas Eve echoes the joy of all creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and everything that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord….  (Psalm 96: 11-13)

In a greeting to the 20th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality focusing on ecology, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “If humanity is in God’s image, and if that image is fully realized in the coming of the Word in the flesh, humanity’s calling is to love and nourish the true meaning and form of every aspect of the creation, not to try and subordinate it to some passing version of what seems to be the interest of humanity in isolation.” (Monasterio di Bose Blog, September, 2012)

That is, far from being a “free pass” to dominate non-human creation, to live out the “image of God” must mean to begin a long listening session. Perhaps “imaging God” is an apprenticeship for learning servanthood to the rest of creation, a lifetime of being opened up “to multiple avenues of reciprocal interaction between human beings and other species” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 267). We may even come to understand that, during this season of Christmas, it is we humans who are the latecomers in joining  nature’s chorus.

We certainly hear “heaven and nature sing” in Psalm 148. As the centerpiece of the final five “Hallelujah psalms” (Psalm 146-150), it divides the chorus of praise into “the heavens” (vv. 1-6) and “the earth” (vv. 7-14). Given this division, the psalmist seems intent on providing the greatest variety of voices from each sphere. Angels, sun and moon, and even the waters above the firmament, comprise the heavenly choir. In the earthly chorus, sea monsters from the deep lead the voices of “mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148:8-10). To these are added, finally, the human voices ranging from royalty to men and women, young and old.

Why? As appropriate as this psalm is for the Christmas Season, it certainly predates its celebration and points to a continuing melody.  Elizabeth Johnson suggests a simple answer to this question: “Because God commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148:5). All exist as the fruit of the powerful good will of the Giver whose name is exalted beyond heaven and earth” (Johnson, p. 276).

This “choir festival” is echoed in today’s First Lesson from Isaiah. The prophet, drawing on the earlier Isaiah, revisits the marriage imagery from Isaiah 52:1-2. When creation is spiced with this celebration, “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” as naturally as the seeds in a garden sprout (Isaiah 61: 11).

Yet, as Paul D. Hanson suggests, “The optimism conveyed in the reaffirmation of Second Isaiah’s vision of restoration in chapters 60 and 61 is tempered in chapter 62 by another motif. Somber intimations of impending crises begin to lead the prophet to a different posture, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis those perceived as doubting God’s purposes” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 228). The prophet vows not to “shut up” until “vindication” and “salvation” are completely expressed by the giving of a “new name” (Isaiah 62:1-2). To fully appreciate this change of mood and prophetic response, it is necessary to consider Isaiah 62:4-5.

“Third Isaiah follows Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in utilizing the marriage metaphor to express the new name, that is, the new status of the people in relation to God” (Hanson, p. 229).

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isaiah 62:4).

Even though they have completed the return from Babylon, the people have a long way to go. This new journey finds its climax as the people appropriate their new name, a name that pronounces renewed blessing on both people and land. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but the bloom of life spreads before them. Despite past exile and an uncertain present, the future is as hopeful as that of a newly married couple, or of a new CSA gardener planting her first crop of kale.

Like the Isaiah prophet, Paul also writes to a community that needs the terms of its  freedom and hope reinforced. Not only does this week’s Galatians text provide one of the earliest textual references to the nativity, it continues Paul’s argument for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. It is preceded by his reminder that before faith came (“when we were minors,” all were “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3). These “elemental spirits” are no shaggy Druidic forces to seek woodland harmony with. Instead, they were widely thought to be “demonic entities of cosmic proportions and astral powers which were hostile towards man” (Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Series, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 205)

But because in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5), the situation has changed. The first purpose clause (“in order to redeem those who were under the law”) clearly refers to Jewish members of the community. Since Paul commonly uses the formula “Jew first and then Greek,” it is likely that the second purpose clause (“so that we might receive adoption as children”) encompasses all in the early Galatian community (Betz, p. 208). Not only does this incarnation provide unity for the group through the Spirit, but it affirms that slavery for a Christian of Jewish or Gentile origin is over.

Surely this liberation must include freedom from being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” Instead of desperately trying to alter the course of “fate” through a laundry list of sacrifices, astrology, and magic—all part of the old and widely syncretistic worldview—now it is possible to live in freedom. Once more, humankind is freed to deal with the whole creation with the respect and service that is fitting.

Just as our readings from Isaiah and Galatians demonstrate the wholeness God intends for creation, so the new freedom brought by the incarnation is demonstrated dramatically in the life and lyric of Simeon. That Simeon’s entry onstage is vital is signaled by the opening words “And behold” (και ιδου). While there is no evidence that Simeon was an older man, he is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25b). This “consolation” (παρακλησις) is related both to the “comfort” of Isaiah 40:1-2 and to the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:31), which we learn “rested on him” (Luke 2:25b). The Spirit had assured Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2: 26)

That Simeon is painted in the prophetic tradition inspired by the Spirit is clear. Now, in the tradition of Jeremiah’s “symbolic actions,” he takes the child into his arms and praises God in the final “song” of Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, “the Nunc Dimittis” (from the Latin translation of the first words, “Now dismiss….”). In fact, Simeon is celebrating his “manumission,” being released from his patient service as a “slave” (δουλος) by the divine “master” (δεσποτης) after a long wait. As prophesied by Isaiah, this celebration takes place “in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:31, Isaiah 40:5). Just as Paul wrote to bring unity to Jew and Gentile, so Luke ensures full inclusion: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

If God is fully present in the child in the lap of Mary, this One is also present in the arms of Simeon. Similarly, “this child is also fully present in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so known by the faithful, whenever these sacraments are shared according to the cosmic Word” (Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 84). Certainly it is just that “cosmic Word” that faithful Anna shares with the faithful people coming to the temple.

But there is more to Luke’s narrative. Following the blessing, the prophet Simeon shares a hard truth with Mary.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will run through your life also)so that the calculations of many hearts may be exposed (Luke 2: 34-35, author’s translation).

At first, this warning seems to echo Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, which describes a reversal that includes the fall of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly (Luke 1:52-53). But it moves beyond this sense of reversal by identifying “this child,” in the words of Isaiah 8:14-15, as a “stone of stumbling” which breaks to pieces everyone who falls on it. What’s more, this one is also “The stone that the builders rejected (who) has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Both senses of meaning are used to interpret Luke’s crucial parable of the landlord and the tenants (Luke 20:17-18). When Jesus’ opponents hear the parable and its interpretation, immediately they seek” to lay hands on him . . . .” (Luke 20:19). Simeon’s warning, then, exposes the “calculations” of the “scribes and chief priests” and prepares us for Jesus’ passion. No wonder Luke comments parenthetically to Mary, “and a sword will run through your life also.”

Have we lost the celebratory tone of Psalm 148 and our Christmas carols entirely? Of course not, but neither are we so naive as to claim that the age of wonders and fulfillment has completely arrived. In fact, we know that the incarnation of the Servant of Creation still exposes “the calculations of many hearts.”

A recent e-mail from the people who put together the fine short film about consumption, “The Story of Stuff “ reminded me of this. The message referred to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch created by the interaction of the North Pacific Gyre currents and gross human plastic dumping. The size of this “patch” outstrips the very word used to describe it: estimated to be anywhere from the size of the state of Texas, on the small side, to the size of the continent of Africa (cf. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, New York: St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 121-128).

While the vast majority of this atrocious mess comes from marine vessels, the problem of disposing of plastics is global, but most intense in so-called developed countries. However, since plastic containers have a long life and can be reused many times, there is an opportunity simply to return empty shampoo bottles or olive oil containers to co-ops to be refilled. Unfortunately, refilling options are not always available and, “to expose the calculations of many hearts,” this often requires personal effort. But to move this ‘cardiac exposure’ to the public level, are there not public policies that would both educate and regulate to confront this problem? But what is the level of political contributions of plastic manufacturers in the U.S., so intimately connected with the petroleum industry?

We continue to sing Psalm 148. All creation sings the song of God’s praise together. But we also are called to remember our priestly role in mediating the vision of the intention of God’s creation, priests who both imagine and serve (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 135). But, in a way, that continues our listening to God and the whole creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year A (Ormseth10)

A Light Shining in the Darkness – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common

Lectionary Readings for Christmas Eve (2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

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

Readings for Christmas Day 

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is in the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness. As we noted in comments on Isaiah 7:10-16, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the “darkness” in which people walk, is the “distress and hunger” they experienced looking out on the devastated Earth in a time of warfare between the nations. That is to say, the metaphor of “darkness” refers to more than a spiritual or moral condition; it points to the lived experience when the physical landscape has been disordered and its productivity destroyed by human sinfulness. So also with regard to the contrasting image of “the light.” Here the prospects for the people are reversed. As the nation is multiplied, the people rejoice as at the harvest. The people are freed from oppression; and the boots of the ‘tramping warriors” and all the bloodied garments of war are to be burned. The birth of a child initiates a lasting reign of peace with justice and righteousness. The cessation of violent destruction, coupled with the fulfillment of life as embodied in the promised reign of a wise and gracious king. All of this comprises the “light shining in the darkness.”

Borg and Crossan develop the parallel passage from darkness to light exhibited in Luke’s story of Christmas, reading it within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.”

The false character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest: “either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’” Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been told the story of this destruction by his mother Mary, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared.

Contrast this “darkness’ with the “light” of Luke’s story. The night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory.”

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one who turns the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—with the singing trees making up the chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness provided the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. The metaphor of a marriage covenant provides the link for these readings for Christmas Day: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62:4). This verse is not actually part of the assigned scripture. It would be helpful to include it for the liturgical reading, since it provides the premise for what follows. The land clearly benefits from this covenant between God and the people of Israel. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day share this premise, and extend the scope of the significance of Christmas. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: The Word that is from the beginning, is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.)

So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for both the human and non-human creatures. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2010.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

 

Sunday October 9-15 in Year A (Ormseth)

It Is God’s Will Dennis Ormseth reflects on joining with the Lord, Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 9-15, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

This is the Feast of Victory for our God!

The coupling of the parable of “The Wedding Banquet” from Matthew 22:1-14 with this Sunday’s first lesson from Isaiah 25 suggests that the parable must be understood as referring to the messianic banquet. Reading these texts together in Christian worship, however, raises a difficult question for those who rejoice in God’s love for all creation.

A verse of one of the canticles of praise sung by Lutheran congregations at the opening of eucharistic worship expresses the expectation that all of creation joins in the feast that celebrates the triumph of God over all evil:

“This is the feast of victory for our God.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
. . . Sing with all the people of God,
and join in the hymn of all creation. . . .”

The liturgy “Now the Feast and Celebration” makes the point even more emphatically: “Now the feast and celebration, all of creation sings for joy.” We have urged this perspective upon our readers at every opportunity in this series of comments on the readings for Year A of the lectionary. That the “Parable of the Wedding Banquet” suggests a markedly less inclusive vision might therefore give us pause concerning this expectation. The refusal of the invitation by a whole host of humans, coupled with the final exclusion of a person brought in from the streets because he is not appropriately dressed, tends to lessen our confidence in the inclusiveness of God’s victorious love. What, then, really counts for inclusion or exclusion in the great feast? Why is the proper wedding garment the crucial factor related to inclusion? And what actually is this exclusion about?

Why the inclusion and then the exclusion?

In Bernard Brandon Scott’s view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the “Man Who Gave a Banquet” needs to be read in sequence with Matthew’s earlier parables of “A Man had Two Sons” and “A Man Planted a Vineyard.” In the progression of the three parables, Matthew “sketches out his vision of the kingdom and its coming,” which represents an “ideology of salvation history” and which “concludes, on the one hand, that Israel has rejected God’s messengers and, on the other, that the church’s good fruits show forth that it is the true Israel.” At the same time, however, this progression undercuts the apparent verisimilitude of the parables, which removes the cause of offence taken at the rejection of the man having no wedding garment. Matthew simply wants to make clear, Scott suggests, “as is most evident in his Great Judgment scene (Matt 25:31-46),” that “if grace calls, the threat of no fruits remains for judgment.” The man without a wedding garment is a man “without the fruits of the kingdom” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 162-63).

The key to the series of parables is that we join God in care for all creation.

Our reading of the parables of these last several Sundays, while making use of Scott’s suggestion that Matthew undercuts their verisimilitude, also supplants the ideology of salvation history with a theology of care of creation. We would accordingly include in this progression the parable of “the laborers in the vineyard,” the point of which, we suggested (following Scott and Norman Wirzba), is that “God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing” (See our comment on the readings for last Sunday). God’s call to work in the vineyard of creation is a principle motif of the entire sequence, which invites us to enter into “‘the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head.” The invitation is “’to join God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen. 2:8-9). It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality’” (See our comment on the readings for Lectionary 25.  The quote is from Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 155).

Accordingly, the parable of “A Man had Two Sons,” while also part of the ideology of salvation history in which the church becomes the “true Israel,” in this reading can be seen to imply that the Son who actually went to the vineyard and engaged in its care is the true Servant of the creation. Our reading of the parable of “A Man Planted a Vineyard,” furthermore, enlarges the scope of this line of interpretation by drawing on the primary vineyard texts of Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46 for development of the metaphor: those who reject the son reject their role as caretakers of the vineyard; and the new tenants who replace them are those who reclaim the heritage of the Son and join him in the work of restoring the creation, a near parallel to the Gospel for this Sunday.

Warren Carter explains the connection: like the harvesting of good fruits, “feasting and eating indicate participation in God’s purposes.” The readings of Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23 serve to illustrate and underscore the point: the “meal also symbolizes the yet-future completion of God’s purposes when God’s empire will be established in full. Isaiah envisions God’s future triumphant return to Zion, where God will make “for all peoples a feast of rich food. . . . In the parable those who refuse to attend the wedding celebration are excluded, while those who come participate in God’s purposes.” The man who comes without a wedding garment, fails “to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king,” and therefore suffers the worst imaginable consequences because “to be called and chosen means honoring God (22:37-39) and doing God’s will (7:24-27; 12:46-50) until the judgment” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins, p. 434).

Just as we join the Lord in care for the poor and distress, so also we join the Lord, the Servant of Creation in unending care for God’s creation.

Brandon Scott’s treatment of this parable, which he renames “’What If No One Came?” provides an additional insight worthy of mention here. The banquet, he argues, along with the excuses, which allude to a list of reasons for refusing to participate in holy war, add to the reader’s expectation that this is the messianic banquet that celebrates victory over the Lord’s enemies. But strangely, the meal in the parable “never escalates to the expected messianic banquet, because the master is powerless to attack those who have snubbed him.” Furthermore, the master “loses his upper-class status and must join those who live in the streets.” In contrast to the passage from Isaiah, in which “the poor and distressed receive new value from being associated with God,” in the parable, the “householder cannot raise the poor up but must himself join them.” Perhaps this is the way the Servant of Creation would have originally told the parable. If Matthew, on the other hand, insists on the necessity of vengeance to restore the king’s honor, the point is well taken: it is God’s will that we join with the Lord, the Servant of Creation, in unending care of creation!

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

Sunday September 18-24 in Year A (Ormseth)

Acceptance in an Economy of Grace Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 18-24, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost invite our participation in God’s gracious care for all creation. In the words of the Psalmist, we “celebrate the fame of [God’s] abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of [God’s] righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 145:7-8). An additional verse makes it clear that this love is all-inclusive: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (Ps 145:9). So we hear that out of concern for the “hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals,” God relents of a threat to punish all Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). And we are encouraged by the Apostle Paul to engage in the “fruitful labor” of a life lived “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” the one whom we know as the Lord, the Servant of all creation. And the Gospel provides more specific encouragement for engaging in this care.

Interpretations of the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard” typically emphasize the landowner’s generosity and “the free gift of grace associated with the kingdom’s coming.” The problem with this reading, suggests Bernard Brandon Scott, is that the supposed target of this teaching, the Pharisees, “would not have seen themselves as rejecting God’s generosity to sinners,” nor is it suggested anywhere that “those who have worked in the vineyard all day have not earned their wages,” which on close analysis turn out to be not generous, but only what an average a peasant could expect to earn (”the usual daily wage,” NRSV) (Hear Then the Parable, pp. 282-83).

What about these workers living on the margins?

The point of the parable lies elsewhere, Scott urges. Matthew reads the parable “as an example of the theme that the first shall be last and of the moral contrast between good and evil” (Ibid., p. 287). He leads his readers into the parable, we note, with a sketch of the end of time (“at the renewal of all things” . . . “and when everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life”) and a portrayal of the great reversal it brings about (“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”). The parable also speaks of those who have left home. As Warren Carter notes in his illuminating commentary, day laborers like those invited by the landowner to work in the vineyard,

“. . . were a common sight in the agora, or marketplace (20:3) as they waited to be hired for work. They were a readily available pool of cheap labor for wealthier landowners and urban dwellers. Commonly uprooted from peasant farms taken over by wealthy landowners after foreclosing on debt, or forced from family plots because they could not support the household, they looked for agricultural or urban work, usually day by day and at minimal rates. During planting and harvest, work was readily available, ‘for vintage and haying’ (Varro, On agric 1.17.2), but in between times it often was not. For these ‘expendables’ or involuntary marginals . . . life was unpredictable, marked by unemployment, malnutrition, starvation, disease, minimal wages, removal from households, and begging. Their situation was more precarious than slaves since an employer had no long-term investment in them” (Matthew and the Margins, p.397).

We have seen their modern-day counterparts crowding the entrances to Home Depot parking lots. They are persons for whom the passage of the time of day could easily descend into hunger and a state of despair. Those not hired will end the day without resources to restore themselves for another day of anxious waiting to be hired; they will know themselves as persons without place or means to live. The question that has to be answered in the hearing of this parable is: “What is right?”—because those who are jobless at the day’s end have the same needs as those who are hired early in the morning. And what possibly could the hope for the renewal of all things mean for them?

Determining what is “right” is not so easy.

The narrative of the parable is structured according to the passage of time: from morning, to noon, then through the afternoon and into the evening. The landowner has promised that he will pay each of them “‘whatever is right.” And as each new cohort arrives to work in the vineyard, the question “what is right?” has to resonate more stridently with those who came earlier—and, of course, with the parable’s audience. The surprise at the end of the day is that all are paid the same, what those hired first agreed to, namely, a day’s living wage. Just so, those who came first want to know, what is right about equal pay for very unequal work? And hearers who identify “with the complaint of the first-hired,” opt “for a world in which justice is defined by a hierarchical relation between individuals (i.e., for a world in which the accounting should set matters aright.). To treat all the same is not just, because all are not alike, all have not earned the same.”

The issue is not justice but acceptance

But we have seen earlier what can happen when an accounting is expected to set matters aright. For example, in the parable of the king’s accounting we read last Sunday, an expectation of different treatment on the part of the servant elicited a demand from his fellow servants for an equally harsh punishment! It appears that it is indeed more difficult to say “what is right” than one at first thinks. But is it really a fair resolution that the landowner claims for himself: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Again the ground has shifted under the feet of the audience: there will be no resolution to the question “what is right.” As Scott explains, “The lack in the parable of any absolute standard of justice undermines any human standard for the kingdom.” What then is the standard? For the parable, value or worth (i.e., a place in the kingdom), Scott argues, is determined not by what is right but by acceptance. The householder’s urgent though unexplained need for laborers is the parable’s metaphor for grace. It is not wages or hierarchy that counts but the call to go into the vineyard. The householder’s generosity lies not in the wage but in the need (Scott, p. 297). And because nothing is said about it being either planting or harvest time, the need is not so much the landowner’s own need, but rather that of the laborers themselves. Those who hear the parable as a story of injustice (“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”) are sent away from the vineyard; they do not belong here with “the last.”

The vineyard is God’s vineyard—the world!

How then is this parable concerned with care of creation? Early, midday, afternoon, evening, the landowner persists through the cycle of the day. The workers are called, Scott notes, to service at “not simply any farm work but labor in a vineyard,” which has the strong metaphorical potential of the Song of the Vineyard (Is 5:1-7) and Jeremiah 12:10, the vineyard which “many shepherds have destroyed.” It is a richly significant place. And who is the householder? In Matthew’s casting, it is Jesus (Scott, p. 287). In our reading, it is Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And he calls these persons at the margins to participate in the “alternative economy of unlimited grace” which we envisioned in our comment on last Sunday’s readings, in which the gift of creation always creates the value to be enjoyed by those who participate in it. Here, too, is that “alternative economy” in which an “alternative egalitarian lifestyle” with its equal opportunity for meaningful work is regarded as the “right” thing, the good, Godlike thing, to do (Carter, p. 398). The workers were without place to work; but by the end of the day each of them has been restored to work in the creation and invited to enter into the joy of that “good thing.”

Can we offer work that is meaningful for people and that restores creation?

Among the strategies for developing a “culture of creation” (identified by Norman Wirzba in his Paradise of God) is the renewal of the meaning of work in relationship to the creation. Work that is severed from the rhythms of creation in places that are not familiar to us has an anonymous character, he suggests,

“that makes it impossible for workers to see practically how what they are doing might benefit or harm others, and vice versa. What we do, our productivity, serves a neighborhood that is unfamiliar to us, and so the affection and care that are the hallmarks of quality work, as well as the inspiration for a fulfilling and enjoyable work experience, are untapped. In a global economy, for the most part, we do not see the effects of what we do because they take place, oftentimes, thousands of miles away. Compensation serves as the substitute for the felt kindness and experienced blessing that otherwise would come from the close, affirming interaction among friends. . . More fundamental to work than its compensatory or its obligatory aspects is its ability to express gratitude and respect for innumerable benefits received. . . .Put positively, authentic or proper work and leisure reflect an attitude of attention to the orders and the needs of creation and a disposition to care for and preserve the rhythms and flow of life” (Wirzba, pp. 153-54).

The workers hired at the beginning of the day protested the seeming injustice of the landowner; they obviously thought mainly of their value in terms of the compensation they should earn, it seems. Those called later had the opportunity to learn about mercy, respect and gratitude from one who wanted to be not just an employer, but also one who would be a friend.

Can we root our work in the grace of creation?

Can members of a congregation learn to think differently about their work, and perhaps even to experience it differently? Possibly, if they can see themselves as people who have at least in spirit “left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields,” for Jesus’ name’s sake. As Wirzba suggests, drawing on the mystical insight of Meister Eckhart, in “returning to our ‘ground ‘. . . we come upon the experience of the grace of creation and there find our proper bearings for action. We learn that work is not foremost about us, but is instead the holy activity through which creation as a whole is sanctified. Work, rather than following from divine punishment, becomes the noble activity of presenting to God a creation strengthened and restored through the exercise of our hands, heart and head. It is to join with God in the divine work of cultivating and maintaining a garden (Gen 2:8-9).  It is to enter into the flow of the divine beneficence and hospitality.” For those who came last to the vineyard, all this opens up as possibility for them—for them, and for those who hear, whenever the invitation of Jesus to work in God’s vineyard is presented.

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

Sunday September 4-10 in Year A (Ormseth)

Love Your Neighbor! Dennis Ormseth reflects on cultivating a sense of place, where love for one another includes all of life.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday September 4-10, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

With the texts for this Sunday after Pentecost, we continue from the previous two Sundays a search for principles to guide the church’s care for creation. Our requirement is that the principles be consonant with Jesus’ role as Servant of Creation and also conform to the general expectations he set out for his followers. The reading from Matthew reiterates the encouragement from the Gospel reading two Sunday’s ago for engaging in this search: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  As we stated in our comment on that text, we understand this promise to encourage the church in the pursuit of understanding what works for the “care, preservation, and restoration of the Earth,” in view of the global ecological crisis of our times.

The Gospel for this Sunday is clearly focused on interpersonal conflict within the community of faith. The practices proposed here for resolving conflict within the community, while not specifically relevant to care of creation, are nonetheless good counsel for those advancing the cause of creation care within congregations. They envision a close, but not a closed, community that holds its members accountable for the ethical consequences of their beliefs. By careful comparison, Warren Carter shows that while these guidelines are similar to those developed in other religious communities of the period, they clearly incline more toward reconciliation than strict exclusion. Even those who have resisted both private and public admonishment are still to be regarded as “Gentiles and tax collectors,” which would make them “objects of mission, people to be won over to the community of disciples . . . . What is ratified is not the offender’s permanent exclusion.” Like God (Mt 18:10-14), the community pursues the difficult task of restoration.” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading pp. 367-68).

This is wise counsel for environmentalists operating within the church; adamant, self-righteous insistence on environmentally benign practices can quickly alienate offenders beyond the point of recruitment to the cause. Patience in developing an appropriate understanding of the issues at stake is by far the more successful strategy. The “two or three” gathered in the name of Jesus do well to keep the purpose of the healing and restoration of creation ahead of being “right”—it should suffice that they have the promise of the Servant of Creation to be with them.

Love for Neighbor and Self Cannot Ignore Love of the Nature that Undergirds Us.

While the counsel regarding love of neighbor from the second reading in Romans 13 would seem to be similarly limited to the arena of social relationships, it is in fact highly relevant to our concern with care of creation. We noted in our comment on the lesson from Romans for last Sunday that, in the view of David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in their recent book on Greening Paul, the Apostle Paul’s ethical reflections generally constitute “an ethic of universal human concern” that “offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection,” although remaining “a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric.” Paul’s summation of the law under the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” in today’s first lesson demonstrates their point exactly. Paul’s choice of commandments fits well within this limitation of concern to human relationships; and the suggestion that such love is appropriately measured by one’s love of self would appear to ignore Jesus’ encouragement to “deny self and take up one’s cross,” which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. On the other hand, when read in the context of faith in Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, this command to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” proves to be profoundly salutary for care of creation as practiced by his church.

Caring for the sheep means tending to the pasture. Loving the neighbor means caring for our shared place in creation.

Can one imagine that one could love a neighbor, doing the neighbor no wrong, as Paul specifies, without also caring for the “ ‘hood” in which the neighbor lives? The problem of Paul’s “anthropocentricism,” in this instance at least, may be more a matter of our tendency to read “neighbors” simply as individuals who either have needs to be met or, as in a common interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, the means and will to meet those needs. But was the man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho to be loved even though, or precisely because, he was not at home with his own neighbors, in the sense of those who live close by (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Might not Jesus have meant to assert the importance of that very natural web of relationships we call a neighborhood across a wider span of reference? As we have noted before, a good shepherd takes care not only for the sheep of his flock but also for the pasture where his sheep feed. In a sense, what the Good Samaritan did for the man on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was to create a neighborhood that would provide for his very desperate and immediate need.

Love your neighbor! Love your neighborhood!

Furthermore, the idea of taking one’s self-love as the measure of one’s love of neighbor is removed in the instance of the actual neighbor, since the actual neighbor is by definition one who shares that ‘hood’ with one’s self. The practice of love for the neighbor’s neighborhood necessarily entails love for one’s own neighborhood. Since they are the same place, what one does for the ‘hood’ to the benefit of the neighbor necessarily also benefits oneself within that same web of relationships.

Cultivate a sense of your place.

Care for the neighborhood as an essential aspect of love of neighbor encompasses all aspects of that web, natural no less than social, economic and political. However, the importance of care of the neighborhood, understood as a geographically-limited region, derives also from the fact that it involves a network of personal relationships that, as we have seen above with reference to the Gospel reading, should be present and operative within the life of a congregation. Such relationships are characteristically face-to-face, whether that interface is between humans or between humans and the non-human creation.  They make possible a quality of concern and care all too rare in the normally less personal relationships of modern society. As Norman Wirzba observes,

“The significance of proximity, of face-to-face familiarity, should not be underestimated as we try to recover a sense of responsibility for creation. In large part it is because the moral sense depends on it. Is it an accident that the eclipse of the moral sense of the world goes hand in hand with the practical and the theoretical distance between humanity and the earth that is fully developed in the modern world? So long as we treat others, whether they be human or nonhuman others, in an abstract manner as objects or workers or consumers, we invariable tend to degrade them, to misunderstand and misuse them. We overlook their intrinsic value or at best assign to them a value derived from our economic or utilitarian calculus” (Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, p. 170).

While Wirzba makes this point relative to the growth of economic and social organizations in modern society, we would raise it as an especially important concern for congregations seeking to consistently demonstrate care of creation. In the church, as elsewhere, responsible action requires “that we become knowledgeable about the contexts in which our action takes place.” This happens only as we “forsake our passive ways and become attentive to the world around us” (Ibid., pp. 165-66.)

Measure your ecological imprint on the place you inhabit.

The drive for what usually counts for success on the part of contemporary congregational organizations involves growth that quickly transcends capacity for awareness of the congregation’s ecological footprint. Corporate efficiency “demands uniformity and generalization,” Wirzba notes. This is true also for churches: policy is too often guided by principles of growth that foster disregard, not only for differences between persons, but also for the great variety of life in the ecological setting of the congregation. “There simply isn’t the time to pay attention to, nor is there someone who can master all the specifics of, the needs of particular places. What this simplification amounts to is a distortion of the reality engaged” (Ibid., p. 167). Who takes note if that huge expanse of asphalt deemed necessary to attract young suburban families represents an assault on water quality and animal habitat? Who counts the cost to the health, so that people might come, ironically, to worship God the Creator and proclaim Jesus the Servant of Creation, Lord?

When love of neighbor is taken to include love of the neighbor’s neighborhood, the congregation will necessarily develop concern for the health of the larger community’s ecological situation. Care for the congregation’s neighborhood will indeed be a primary concern for a congregation that cares for creation.

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

Preaching on Creation: Sunday June 12-18 in Year A (Mundahl)

A Community to Serve the Whole Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on support, endurance, and hope for the challenges we face.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 12-18, Year A (2020, 2023)

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has shaken our culture to the foundations. In a matter of a few months, trust in endless economic expansion and progress has all but disappeared. The vaunted American medical system — the “best in the world” — has been unmasked as a disorganized boutique  set of arrangements designed to treat illness among the economically advantaged, not a resilient institution designed to provide public health for all. And the food system with its deadly and exploitative meat processing plants has not only sickened its workers and failed those in animal husbandry; it has led to search for new models.  No wonder we hear discussions of “the collapse complex societies” and how to live through a “long emergency.”

This is all reminiscent of the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the now-convicted murderer, Raskolnikov, as he begins his seven years of hard labor in Siberia, dreams that a pandemic plague had killed nearly all humans, leaving those remaining badly shaken. “Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part — but immediately begin something completely different from what they had just suggested, begin accusing one another and fighting….” (New York, Vintage, 1992, Pevear and Volokhonsky, trans., p. 547).

Among the multitude of dangers described by the author and mirrored in our current situation is the shredding of all that binds community.  This week’s readings focus on just that question.  In the face of threats to disintegration: what is the purpose of the faith community and what holds it together?

Too often creation accounts have been dismissed as mere stage scenery providing the setting for what really matters, the historical drama of the Exodus.  Close attention to the Book of Exodus, however, shows how closely creation and liberation from Egypt’s oppression are connected. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of all creation” (Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 13). In fact, the harrowing narrative of crossing the sea on “dry land” points directly to Genesis 1:9-10 with its separation of water and dry land.

In fact, what happens at Sinai can only be understood as an affirmation of the goodness of creation, in sharp contrast with Pharoah’s death-dealing use of the Hebrew slaves as mere instruments of production. This suggests that the Sinai Covenant assumes both the coherence of creation’s interdependence and the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12 and 17). What’s more, any new Torah is preceded by a reminder of gracious dealing: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Just as a mother eagle both prods eaglets to try their wings, rescuing the chick when flight fails, so the Creator may be trusted.

Again, the basis of this echo of the Abrahamic promises, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples,” is anchored by creation: “indeed, the whole earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5). But this election is rooted in generous purpose. “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” ( Exodus 19:6). While the notion of “priesthood” may seem alien to us, it is central to biblical thinking, especially the tradition that the Jerusalem temple is where heaven and earth meet.

More helpful today is the Orthodox view where the role of the priest is to lead worshipers in “lifting up our hearts” to God so that the earth can be transfigured.  As Norman Wirzba writes, “When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation…so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing (another priestly function)” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 264).  As all creation is lifted up, persons may no longer can be seen as mere “machine parts” and the fruits of creation become gifts, not commodities. So even before the Torah is given, we see that “Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s” (Fretheim, p. 212).

Just as all creation is “lifted up” in priestly service, so humankind recognizes that we join the community of all creation in continuous worship. Psalm 100 makes this clear, for as the place of worship is entered, praise is unison.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing (Psalm 100:1-2).

Here the psalmist reminds us that there can be no worship apart from the sabbath community of interdependent creatures whose highest priestly function is never-ending praise (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 319). This is exactly what happens when the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds with their creation affirmations are professed.  We commit ourselves as a community to perform in earth care exactly what we confess.

Initially it may seem that nothing could be further from the notion of priestly service than a gospel reading detailing healing and the sending of disciples. But when we recognize the “compassion” Jesus views the crowds with, we see nothing more than a slightly different form of “lifting up.” Those elevated are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). These are personal problems, to be sure, but also afflictions that cannot be separated from the corruption of the religious elite, the “so-called shepherds,”and Roman oppression of Judea (Warren Carter, Matthew at the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 230).

Jesus reframes this as kairos, a time full of opportunity–”the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Without a doubt, there is an element of judgment here that cannot be avoided, judgment of the false shepherds and Roman oppressors. But “harvest” is hardly a time for grim judgment alone; it is a time of nourishment and celebration of a new and different kind of empire.  In a commissioning that foreshadows the final sending (Matthew 28:19-20), the named apostles are empowered to heal and spread the news of the new “imperial order.”  It may seem odd that Matthew’s Jesus limits the mission to Israel. But they are the very ones foundering “like sheep without a shepherd.” Beyond that, as we recall from the First Lesson, Israel is the people called to be a blessing to all the earth, the instrument channeling hope to the nations and the whole creation.

The spirit with which Jesus sends the disciples to participate in this harvest festival of care, is further evidenced by the “easy yoke and light burden” Jesus describes (Matthew 11:29-30). Following the seemingly weighty instruction  to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” Jesus reminds the Twelve, “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8). This new community spawned by compassion, runs on a gift economy.  Just as “the sun rises on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45), so no one earns the benefits of this new creation. For it is as productive as the mysterious seeds which yield ”some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8), and as generous as the vineyard owner who pays a full days’ wages for one hour of work (Matthew 20:1-16).

Another way of describing living out this harvest festival we celebrate and share, the one we have been welcomed to “without payment” (Matthew 10:8) is “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Too often, while reading Paul–especially Romans–we forget that he is writing about the same realities that occupy our other readings. “Peace with God,” then, is no pale abstraction. It is a result of having been “made right” with God  and is the active participation in the interdependence and care necessary to maintain the “peace–shalom” intended for all.

Just because believers are welcomed into this community graciously through baptism into the cross and resurrection (Romans 6:1-6) and live this out in worship, learning, and care for creation, does not mean that they will be applauded by the dominant culture. Because this culture tends to idolize competitive struggle for wealth with little or no regard for the fate of “the losers,” opposition is guaranteed.  When sisters and brothers live out their calling to join Native American “water protectors” in protesting building an oil pipeline through the Missouri River, they are classified as domestic terrorists. When teenagers of faith follow the lead of Greta Thunberg and commit to the “school strike” to change views and behavior toward the climate crisis, many adults still believe they should “not waste their time, but stick to their studies.”

No wonder Paul responds to the inevitable opposition of those who find their security in wealth, power, and success with the logic of the cross: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5a). Despite how successful our efforts to build ecojustice appear, this endurance –another gift–has its source in openness to God’s trustworthy future, a new creation (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 135).

As we began this essay, we looked at what to all of us just six months ago would have seemed only a nightmare illuminating the troubled psyche of one Rodion Raskolnikov.  As violent as this  dream was, we could hardly have imagined that we would find ourselves in what may be a multi-year pandemic. But we still can learn from this rich, but troubling novel. For as this young Siberian exile recovers, taking a break from producing gypsum he looks across a river and sees the black specks of the yurts of the nomads of the steppe. “There was freedom, there a different people lived, quite unlike those here, there time itself seemed to stop, as if the centuries of Abraham and his flocks had not passed away” (Crime and Punishment, p. 549).

What was Raskolnikov seeing?  Community. Real community based not on the fevered longings  for personal greatness, but on a deep promise, a promise that enables him to hold the hand of his friend, Sonya, for the first time with assured fidelity.  Although we will depend on the best science to focus on the global problems of Covid-19 and the climate crisis, we equally will need resilient and dependable communities to provide support, endurance and hope.  This week’s readings assure us that this is a gift God’s people can provide.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com