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**NEW** Third Sunday of Advent (Dec. 13) in Year B (Mundahl20)

Rejoice? Tom Mundahl reflects on joy in the midst of grief.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. While gaudete (“rejoice”) originally comes from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always”, this week’s readings do not neglect this theme.  For example, this week’s Second Lesson calls Thessalonian community members to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), while our First Lesson proclaims the “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 2). But how can we rejoice in the face of a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths, another record year of hurricanes and forest fires (during the hottest year recorded), while just a few miles from my home blocks of burned-out buildings stand empty in the aftermath of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.

Reflecting on this week’s readings, it is clear that the intended audiences for these writings did not spend their lives continuously doing the “happy dance.” They are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, and those surviving with a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). Return from exile has not guaranteed comfort. In fact, arrival to a semi-destroyed Jerusalem apparently has led to renewed fissures in this wounded community. If the people had “wept by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137), is being oppressed in one’s homeland any better? Into this painful situation comes the Isaiah prophet (or the students of the “Isaiah school”) with a message of intensified hope (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169).

Now all will be engaged in a process of rebuilding, a process that will be as slow as the growth of an oak tree. But because “the spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1) is the motive force, all that is necessary for renewed life will gradually be done. These “oaks of righteousness” will rebuild ancient ruins and repair essential services.  While the strategy offered by the Ezekiel prophet was to focus on renewing the Temple priesthood, here the whole people “shall be priests of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:6, Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Fortress, 1979, pp. 65-68). By sharing a calling to the priestly task of rebuilding the city, even the  fog of collective grief will begin to disappear.

Now this wave of shared responsibility will bring so much joy, the prophet can only describe it in terms of a wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating a deepening bond between the divine and all creatures. Because the gift of joy explodes with energy, it is best described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61: 11). Is it any wonder that Jesus read just this text at his home synagogue (Luke 4:18-19 )?

At first glance, Psalm 126 seems only to celebrate the joy of temple pilgrimage by travelers, who on their way remember the return of exiles. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy….” (Psalm 126:1-2a). But they cannot suppress a “blue note,” recalling weeping and asking to be refreshed, just as southern deserts are refreshed by spring rains. They pray that the one who brought exiles back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 400).

In much the same way, Paul’s first letter to the assembly in Thessalonika appears to be little more than a friendly letter of warm support. That this is not the case is revealed by the apostle’s frustration that he cannot be with them as he continues his mission. In fact, this separation has made him feel like an “orphan” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).  That is a feeling that must be familiar to many of us during the many months of the current pandemic. Being cut off from family, friends, fellow worshippers, co-workers has created potentially dangerous isolation, making the call to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) seem like a cruel joke.

Beverly Gaventa suggests Paul’s conclusion of this letter goes far beyond warm exhortation. Instead, it appears to be “an early form of church order,” preceding the Didache by decades (First and Second Thessalonians, John Knox, 1998, p. 84). Maintaining this order then and now requires a strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5:23-28) which contains a prayer asking that the hearers be made, literally, “wholly holy” and enjoy spirits, souls and bodies that are “sound” or “wholly functioning” (5:23). Despite the threatening events of 2020, it is difficult to maintain Paul’s heightened awareness of the parousia, we are responsible for reinterpreting what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

One thing is sure: as faith communities we need to attend to the dying and the bereaved. At a time when too many have had to die alone, connected to the latest medical technology but disconnected from family, friends and faith community, we need every gift of the Spiritus Creator to affirm our ties with one another and keep them sound.  On a public scale, we need to consider Kenneth Feinberg’s proposal to establish a “national office of bereavement” to provide emotional, community, and financial support, as the office he led did in the aftermath of 9-11 (NPR Report, Weekend Edition Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020). But congregations also need to compensate for the absence of public funerals by using all means consistent with health protocols to support the “grief work” of those suffering loss. Perhaps one good unintended consequence of the pandemic will be to recover and acknowledge the tearing separation of “the empty chair at the table” and move away from naive and death-denying “celebration of life” services.

As we recover sensitivity to the power of loss in our lives, we also need to acknowledge our grief over damage to the earth.  Whether it is the prohibition from eating Mississippi River fish that my brother and I caught for dinner more than 60 years ago, the housing development built through our former cross-country skiing trail, or the fact that urban children will never see the Milky Way and learn the constellations, the loss is real. Of course, this is nothing like the asthma and other health problems experienced especially by those in poverty and people of color, victims of environmental racism.

In 2003, Australian geologist, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to denote this loss. Seeing “the existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment,” he saw that new language was necessary. (“The Age of Solastalgia,” The Conversation, August 7, 2012, p. 2). While we have all experienced this, no group has suffered as acutely as climate refugees from Central America and Africa who have been forced to find new homes at a time when they rarely find a welcome. When solastalgia and nostalgia (the “longing for home”) intersect, that is painful loss indeed. The UN conservatively estimates that each year 21.5 million people are added to this group. And this is not even to consider the loss of plants and animals during the current “sixth extinction.”

How can we respond? Larry Rasmussen suggests developing a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 364). Such a network of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping the earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” Part of this must include attending to bereavement in all it forms, including solastalgia. While this seems like a tall  order, Paul makes clear that the one whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

John affirms this as he accepts his role as a witness who testifies to the light that comes in the midst of our darkness. This role becomes more than metaphor when he is “put on trial” by Temple authorities from Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the central question is, “Who are you” (John 1:19)? Responding to their grilling, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, Elijah the forerunner, nor the Moses-like prophet to come. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

The evangelist confirms John’s importance by including additional testimony. When asked later in the gospel about his identity, John again denies that he is Messiah, but calls himself the bridegroom’s friend. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). As the plot in the gospel moves from John’s baptizing in the wilderness to its climax, we recall that “the voice” Isaiah describes sees the blooming of the wilderness (Isaiah 51:3). It is no surprise, then, that we move from forensic interrogation in the bleak desert to utter astonishment in the garden of resurrection (John 20), for when the Logos/Sophia is deeply incarnated, it brings a wedding feast for the whole creation (See the important work of Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 43-50).

Feasting hardly seems appropriate as 2020 comes to its brutal end.  Perhaps we need to hear  this week’s Prayer of the Day once again. “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light….” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 19). Through our baptism we are called to join John in testifying to the light. That testimony can be a challenge for it calls us to enter the deepest darkness with honesty and courage.

Facing exponential increases in Covid-19 cases, continued indifference to the climate crisis, and virulent racism, all too often we can only respond with lament.  Yet as we share this lament together something happens. As we feel frozen in crises that have no clear pathways through, together we discover the dim light of new routes for response.. That is certainly the witness of the Black Church. It is also the teaching of blues singers, a message captured by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni:

We stirred the blues in our stews to give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used The Blues to give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And so much more
Thank The Lord
How to stay until the next day
The Blues is our history
Our quilt
(“The Blues,” Make Me Rain, William Morrow, 2020, pp. 28-29)

Perhaps learning to “sing the blues” will sharpen our eyes so that together we begin to see the light.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

**NEW** Second Sunday of Advent (Dec. 6) in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Let’s Just Start Over! Tom Mundahl reflects on the start of Advent in the midst of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial violence.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Advent marks a new beginning, entry into a new church year.  What a luxury it would be to face the future by erasing the challenges of the last year as easily as a child does by shaking her Etch-a-Sketch. Unfortunately, as we restart the liturgical year — our framework for telling and living the story of faith — the persistent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic,  the climate crisis, and the raw wounds of systemic racism will not let go. Any naive hope for exemption from these is dampened by what the psalmist calls “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5).

That we are not the first generation to face such intractable problems is revealed by one of the earliest Advent collects which begins, “Lighten our darkness.” This prayer dates at least to the Fourth Century C.E. when it was described by St. Basil as “the candle-lighting hymn” (liner notes for the CD “Lighten Our Darkness,” various artists, Hyperion, 2006). It should come as no surprise, then, that during this season of new hope, we light candles.

Because we cannot “just start over,” we light another candle each week, not for aesthetic reasons or even to help find our way through this inconvenient season, but so we can take a new look at ourselves and our surroundings, away from the false illumination of a still powerful, but collapsing culture. During this season of darkness when we navigate by candlelight, we remember German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, reflecting on a decade of resistance to the Nazi regime, celebrated the surprising discovery that “we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). No longer can we take the clinically-detached view embodied by a gorgeous shot of our planet from space. Because our hands are “dirtied” by our responsibility for climate, pandemic, and racial violence, we must refocus our attention and, with Bonhoeffer, “dig in.”

As we advance into the murkiness of all that makes us anxious, we come to rely even more on the word of hope we hear from the scriptures, a word that has provided mooring during troubled times throughout the history of God’s people. The candles we light point precisely to this strong narrative. Because I was privileged to live near St. John’s University and Abbey during my pastoral service, I was able to see the Saint John’s Bible as it was crafted by Donald Jackson and his team. As the first handwritten Bible authorized by a monastic community in 500 years, the displays of the first sections with illuminations were breathtaking. But, as an advocate of frugality, I was taken aback by what I saw as the profligate use of gold leaf. Then one of the project’s directors explained that the gold leaf was used to catch candlelight so that reading scripture was possible–by reflective illumination. During the darkness of our time also, the Advent candles illuminate the scriptures so that we can rediscover the confidence and courage they provide. As we  consider the readings for the season of Advent we will be on the hunt for clues and surprises that will “lighten our darkness.”

Despite a gracious “New Exodus” providing return from captivity in Babylon, hopes for a resurgence of a just and vibrant corporate life in Judah had dimmed. The people began to ask, “Where is the one who brought us from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this God “harden our hearts…?” (Isaiah 63:17) It is out of this frustration that the desperate people cry, “O that you would open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image calls to mind the Divine Warrior tradition, it drives even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Renewal includes both the “turning around” of repentance and “remembering” divine faithfulness (Isaiah 63: 11), especially in the Sinai event.

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah seems to have weakened, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams together by that very act of recalling God’s faithfulness, the only force capable of renewing what has been “dismembered.” That memory does more than face backwards; it recalls that this is a God who makes way for the new, one who is capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

Here, the prophet returns to  creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah. “Woe  to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter”(Isaiah 45:7). Recalling this earthy metaphor, the prophet goes on to affirm divine reliability. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” that provides a way through even in the midst of despair. This hopefulness is amplified as the prophet adds divine assurance of restoration and harmony to the land (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169). These promises encourage us as we struggle with issues of justice, threats of political violence, and pandemic fears during the twilight of Advent. Just as the thin gold foil in an illuminated Bible gives clarity to a text, so our thin threads of hope weave together the sturdy fabric of confidence and expectation.

With the foundation of this promise of re-creation, we are energized to take part in restorative ecojustice ourselves, whether that means resetting the climate-driven human-wildlife imbalance that has led to Covid-19 and prospective deadlier viruses (see Rachel Nuwer, “Nature is Returning,” Sierra, November- December 2020, pp. 28-33), or learning from soil scientists such as Walter Jehne about the role of hydrology in the climate crisis.

Not only do we need to continue study of the role of excess atmospheric carbon on biodiversity; we need also to study the restorative effects of biodiversity.  Jehne estimates that restoring one percent of the planet’s cooling capacity through repairing hydrological cycles (preserving marshy areas, forests, uncovering urban streams and planting in the riverbank areas they need), increasing regenerative agriculture that minimizes or eliminates plowing, composting everything…would offset the effects of current anthropogenic carbon gases” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration, Dark Mountain, 17, Spring 2020, p. 11). Of course, this is all the more reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “lighten our darkness” by continuing to learn from our terroir.

While these steps to restore a regenerative creation and human resilience must all be community-based, moving beyond denominational “silos” to maintain a deeply-rooted theological foundation is essential.  We learn this from Paul, who writes to the Corinthian assemblies in order to confront the challenge of internal division. As Hans Conzelman suggests, the very first word of the formal thanksgiving comprising our text, eucharisto, “I give thanks,” drives toward the assurance that all the gifts necessary to live out the community’s calling, including the strength to persevere, will be provided (1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Because these gifts are freely-given, there is absolutely no basis for status differential or discrimination: all are called to serve. Of course, this is the time of year when the word “gift” often carries quite different meanings. It has been suggested that some may compensate for virus-produced anxiety by “doubling down” on holiday gifts. Walter Brueggemann counters that such shopping sprees provide a false “achieved satiation” that sedates us into thinking that everything is just fine and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by more consumption (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower a servant community to nurture the mystery of hope, to build a community so inclusive it comprehends all creation. No other scaling of  koinonia is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1:9). Commenting on this text, Richard Hays warns: “We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale.  We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference….” (First Corinthians, Louisville, John Knox, 1997, p. 20).

We may conclude that chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel provides us with more of the cosmic than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), “fleeing to the mountains” (v. 14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere more suited to bad Halloween horror movies. But far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt  of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter documents  the struggle within the early community over which tack to take responding to this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (Mark 13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not come” (The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress, 1992, p. 82). Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with Zealots in military action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 2nd Ed., Orbis, 2008, p. 330).  This is a strong call to  embrace nonviolence in response to the climate crisis and the healthcare and racial justice reforms while we wait and watch during Advent.

This gospel offers no passive appeasement of Roman imperialism. The evangelist makes this clear in the first verse of the gospel. Historians remind us that emperors considered themselves great benefactors of their subjects as is made clear in the documents and pronouncements detailing their activities.  For example, the Priene Calendar Inscription found near Ephesus, dating from the early first century CE, claimed that the birth of the emperor, considered a “son of God,” “signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 18). Contradicting this imperial arrogance, our gospel writer starts: “the beginning of the good news (“gospel”) of Jesus Christ, son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Lathrop suggests that this clear statement should be considered the title of this anonymous gospel.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat producing nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological call is freed for helpful response to whatever assails us. A time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime ecojustice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick are seasonal watchwords.

Alertness and watchfulness are more than a strategy; they replace the world of temple cult with trust in the word of the Risen One (Mark 13:31). The old fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) representing temple culture  no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care, a fig tree-tree of life that will sustain servants of creation in carrying out what is necessary (Mark 13: 28-31).

As we approach Advent 2020, we know our task is daunting–almost unthinkable. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has said that the next months of the pandemic will be by far the darkest (Osterholm Update Podcast, Episode 29). “Lighten our darkness” continues to be our prayer. And, when we are able to, we will join together in song.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday June 26 – July 2 in Year A (Mundahl)

Fake News Tom Mundahl reflects on the alternative.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

While there have always been questions about the accuracy of journalism, only in the past few years have charges of “fake news” and adherence to“alternative facts” gained prominence.  This development is chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which begins “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (Signet Classic, 1949, p. 5). Immediately we recognize that we are entering a world where the very idea of truth is called into question. Instead, everyone lives off-balance in a political culture whose creed is “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, p. 17).

Linguist Winston Smith soon realizes he lives in a society based on raw power, not truthful information. “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (Orwell, 69).  Even though Orwell’s Oceania is fictional, it is easy to see how much — with the denial of climate science and lies about the danger of the novel coronavirus — it resembles our own. This very question of truthfulness also was central to one of the most dramatic episodes of Jeremiah’s life — his conflict with the prophet Hananiah.

This conflict and its background plays out in Jeremiah 27:1-11 and the entirety of chapter 28. In order to help the assembly to comprehend the appointed First Reading (28:5-9), the lector needs to read this narrative whole or employ a storytelling approach. Because we are once again dealing with the early events leading to the 587 BCE siege of Jerusalem, the focus is on grief, for we are witnessing the end of Judah as a self-determining polity. Terence Fretheim is right in calling this nothing less than God’s mourning a dead child (The Suffering God, Fortress, 1984, pp. 132-136). Into this unfolding grief comes another prophet, Hananiah with news too good to be true.

The essential facts are these: from 604 BCE, Babylon had controlled Judean life, and to demonstrate that power had kidnapped King Jeconiah and “borrowed” precious artifacts from the Temple. This was in addition to demanding substantial annual tribute. By 594/593 BCE, several tribute-paying kingdoms were beginning to consider revolt in the form of stopping these payments of “protection money.” In this context the prophetic word came to Jeremiah instructing him to make an ox-yoke to wear and say to the leaders of nations contemplating rebellion, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him” (Jeremiah 27:4-6). The ox-yoke symbolizes just that servitude.

Into this volatile situation comes Hananiah with a completely contrary message sure to please Judean leaders: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.  Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah….” (Jeremiah 28:2-4a). Who is the true prophet and who is peddling fake news?

Jeremiah responds without a trace of defensiveness.  “Amen! May the LORD do so, may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied…. “(Jeremiah 28:6). But then he goes on to say, in effect, that prophecy is neither wish-fulfillment nor propaganda.  Prophets are sent when there is a need, not as official cheerleaders.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Jeremiah spoke to a people with glazed eyes that looked and did not see.  They were so encased in their own world of fantasy that they were stupid and undiscerning. And so the numbness was not broken and they continued in their fantasy world” (The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, p. 55).

By the time a scroll of Jeremiah was available, everyone knew that Jeremiah’s words were authentic; after all, there is no “Book of Hananiah.”  Then why go into the detail of Hananiah’s destruction of Jeremiah’s yoke (Jeremiah 28 :10) and the fact that although he had prophesied only two more years of Nebuchadnezzar’s dominance, in exactly two months Hananiah was dead?  Clements answers, “No doubt many prophets like Hananiah, offering the same spurious appeal, were still known to the book’s readers. Hananiah’s grim fate was to be a warning to them” (Jeremiah, John Knox, 1988, p. 167). There was a price to be paid for pushing “fake news.” When the choice is between power and truth, Jeremiah would concur with Orwell: truth is the loser.

This is well documented in the case of climate science. In July of 1977, James Black, an Exxon senior scientist, addressing a conclave of top scientists at the energy corporations’ New York headquarters, warned that there is a growing scientific consensus that carbon dioxide release is warming the planet in ways that would have profound impacts on the ecosystem (Bill McKibben, Falter, Henry Holt, 2019, p. 72). This was ten years before James Hansen’s testimony before the Senate, often considered the first warning of what was then called “the Greenhouse Effect.” Exxon continued to do research which confirmed these findings. How were these findings used by the richest company producing the most valuable substance on earth? The next year, 1978, one Exxon executive said, “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind” (McKibben, p. 75).

As we well know, this did not happen.  Instead, looking to protect profits, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Amoco and others joined forces to form the so-called “Global Climate Coalition,” using their economic power to claim falsely that there was “another side” to a set of scientific findings and research. Essentially, they were following the tobacco industry’s playbook, basing “fake science” on another widespread addiction, this time not to nicotine but to carbon fuels. As we suffer the effects of forty years of relatively unabated carbon emission with the floods, fires, heat waves and diseases of the climate crisis, it is difficult to disagree with McKibben’s conclusion that this is “the most consequential cover-up in human history” (McKibben, p. 73).

Paul writes to make sure that there are no “cover-ups” when it comes to the significance of baptism. Baptism means belonging to a new creation of truth and justice. “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness (literally, “injustice”), but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (“justice”) (Romans 6:13). Therefore, “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) provides a communal “crap detector” helping us to discern falsehood. For this is not a mere change of opinion.  As Ernst Kasemann reminds us, “With baptism a change of lordship has been effected” (Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 179).

It follows that the extensive discussion of sin in this text denotes a power that seeks allegiance, not a laundry list of offenses.  As a power, sin lures us to a life of self-sufficient finitude: trust in our own strength, military power, economic growth, and especially technology. As Laszlo Foldenyi suggests in his book, Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears (Yale, 2020), “The true god of the modern age is technology; we are tremendously, imperially successful, but we have ‘murdered God’ with our ambition. And it is none other than our drive to find an answer to everything. When we began to seek solutions for things for which there are clearly no solutions, this ambition became transformed into hubris” (quoted in James Wood, “In From the Cold,” review essay, The New Yorker, June 1, 2020, p. 65).

Ironically, the same technology that has allowed diverse peoples of the earth to get to know one another, communicate instantly, and cure diseases previously thought of as “death sentences,” has also created the climate crisis and conditions favorable for new zoonotic pandemics. And, the unequal distribution of technology’s benefits has been an important factor leading to the racial roadblock we are experience today.

Not only that, but “progress” in technology carries the risk of changing the very meaning of truth. Instead of the storytelling, poetry, and “community history” genres familiar from the scriptures, new industrial technology produced what Walter Benjamin called information (we would include digital data) as the organizing center of capitalist culture. While information claims to be verifiable, all that is really necessary, argues Benjamin, is that it seems “socially plausible”(The Storyteller, New York Review Books, 2019, pp. 53-54). That low standard has paved the way for propaganda and advertising messages whose only plausibility is the reaction of the message’s recipients. To counter the constant dangers of the waves of media washing over us, the community of faith still remains committed to storytelling, washing, and eating together in the presence of the One who “makes room” for truth that is heard, touched,  shared, and lived out.

It is this sharing which is central to this week’s Gospel Reading. Although Matthew 10 is an extensive teaching block aimed primarily at training disciples, it clearly applies to all people of faith who by baptism share this calling in their own unique circumstances. If Matthew is the “Emmanuel Gospel” celebrating Jesus as “God with us,” we participate in this process by being “with others.” The act of receiving and extending hospitality provides an experience of deep connection. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).  By welcoming others, what could be mere words is authenticated; no “fake good news” here.

This powerful sense of hospitality follows directly from the verse preceding our text: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). The baptismal grace that takes us from the font to the street frees us to “empty ourselves” (Philippians 2:5-11) through hospitality, not only to familiar figures of piety (prophets and the righteous), but to those outside the “lines,” even to the whole of creation. The “reward” is realized not only at the fulfillment of all things, but with the increasing fullness of life diversity brings (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 246). This is concretized in the beautiful image — “a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42).

Unfortunately, in a divided and warming world, a cup of cold, potable water is rarer than we often think.  Even in rich countries like the US, cities like Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ, have struggled with lead in tap water which will impair children for a lifetime. Time will bring more instances to light, most based on inequity in distribution of resources, often based on race. Similarly, in the so-called developing world, easily available water for drinking and irrigation is a common problem.

At a recent Global Earth Repair Conference, one of the speakers was Rajendra Singh, a medical doctor carving out a successful career. One day Singh was challenged by an indigenous villager who told him that if he really wanted to help the villagers he would “bring them water” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration,” Dark Mountain, Issue 17, Spring 2020, p. 7). This farmer went on to explain the old methods of harvesting rains, practices discouraged over a century and a half of the British Raj. Rains were held for use, not with giant dams, but with traditional catchments called johads. “Once held, the water would drain down, recharging aquifers, feeding vegetation and calling back lost weather patterns.” In time, soil health was improved, flooding was moderated, and the regional climate cooled by 2 degrees C. (Was British standard water management “fake news?”)

This is a difficult time for truth. A young playwright, Heather Christian, complained recently, “I feel like we are bombarded with information, but none of it feels right any more…facts don’t carry weight any more. And this, for me, personally, has driven me to the edge” (NPR Morning Edition, June 9, 2020). 1984‘s Winston Smith was also driven to the edge and beyond during his months of interrogation in the Ministry of Truth. But one day he felt a new sense of peace as he unconsciously doodled in the dust of his table 2 + 2 = 5 (Orwell, p. 239).  It was only a short step to total surrender to all that was false. Now, writes Orwell, “he loved Big Brother” (Orwell, p. 245).

There is no surrender as the congregation begins to gather in person around the central symbols of bath, meal, and story, where we discern together what we have called “the word of truth.” The gift is free, yet think of the price paid by Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus for bearing it. Falsehood, “fake news,” and deception are popular, profitable, and politically appealing. But not among us.

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

Sunday June 19-25 in Year A (Mundahl)

It Can’t Happen Here Tom Mundahl reflects on prophetic voice and lament.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15) 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

When I read Camus’ novel The Plague during my freshman year in college, it never occurred to me that I would live to see a global pandemic. Nor did I expect that this novel would describe so accurately our reaction to this “new plague.” Here is Camus providing a picture of how the residents of the Algerian city of Oran first met this brewing disaster.

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  How should they have thought of anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.  They fancied    themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences” (Modern Library, 1948, pp. 34-35).

Perhaps no culture has been trapped by the illusions of freedom from necessity and exceptionalism as ours. This has not been helped by the ineptness of current political leadership in understanding that the federal government has leadership responsibilities in responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has been a naive assumption of special American “immunity” — it can’t happen here.

But there is a corollary to this magical thinking as we move from political culture to personal life: “it can’t happen here” becomes “it can’t happen to me.” As a parish pastor working with hospice programs, I have witnessed first-hand just how powerful the fear and denial of death can be. From the preference for terms like “passed away,” which now has been shortened to “passed,” to the medical establishment’s preference for jargon like “expired,” it is clear how very frightening it is to say, “she died.”  After organizing several discussion groups on “Death and Dying” and “Grieving Together,” it has even become evident that one of the ulterior motives for being involved with these topics may even be “finding a way out.” It is “one out of one except me.” And, as all who work for ecojustice know, everything we have concluded about the magical thinking surrounding Covid-19 and personal mortality applies to the threat of the climate crisis. It even applies to systemic racism, where despite no racist bones ever admitted personally, people of color die as a result of government action or inaction at a shockingly higher rate.

Jeremiah also struggled against living in illusion. Only for him, illusion had a royal imprimatur and even the appearance of divine sanction. Beginning with Solomon, kings had ignored the Exodus tradition, replacing the “manna” sense of “just enough” (Exodus 16:18) with the economics of affluence and a temple-based religion even Egyptians would be proud of (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, pp. 31-32).  Building projects, military defeats, the rise first of Assyria, then Babylon, led to religious syncretism which  King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms couldn’t quell. It was a time that required prophets.

That living out the prophetic vocation was no easy task is made clear from reading Jeremiah. In fact, making sense of the lament which constitutes our First Lesson requires that the lector do some storytelling, summarizing the human slaughter that went on in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), the instructions to break an earthenware jug to show the fate of Judah, and Jeremiah’s arrest by Pashhur, the head of the Temple’s secret police (Jeremiah 19:1-20:6). Only then can this lament make sense.

It is ironic that as part of his call to be a prophet Jeremiah is promised that he will be an “overseer of the nations” (Jeremiah 1:10, Hebrew text). Being arrested by a mere “overseer” of the temple police must have been the last straw (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, 1965, p. 132). No wonder his lament is filled with anger at the One who called him with generous promises, most of which now appear empty. Jeremiah complains that he was both seduced and overpowered, and the results of his work are nowhere to be seen (Jeremiah 20:7). “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20: 8).

Still there is power in his call.  Even when he has had enough, he cannot keep from prophesying. Deep down, far beyond any possible level of comfort, there is a barely-conscious confidence that “the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (Jeremiah 20:11).

Yet, there is also power in a royal theology so confident of its unique possession of divine support that it can no longer hear a prophetic voice. Since the regime possesses an “eternal” institutional truth through the monarch, real change is not necessary; it is only a matter of problem-solving and management. It is no surprise that Jeremiah’s “street theater,” using pottery to depict Judah’s future, is unthinkable and cannot be tolerated. It violates an “official religion of optimism” (Brueggemann, p. 37). There is not even a momentary question whether this message might be the word of the LORD. The real problem is Jeremiah, who must be dealt with by a beating  and humiliating time in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2).

That Judah with its royal theology is unable to hear or see the truth Jeremiah brings cannot help but feel eerily familiar to us. While we claim to have outgrown royalty, the current form of American exceptionalism, mixed with a form of patriotism that claims a perverse form of Christian nationalism as a foundational element, functions similarly to block discussion and action to bring real change.  “Change,” isn’t that what the freighted biblical term, “repentance,” really means?

What stiffens Jeremiah’s audience to reject this turn-around and embrace magical thinking,  preventing them from seeing the way things really are?  Put simply, it is fear of death, the death of the religio-political system they rely on for meaning, economic security, and physical safety. Like all prophets, because he tells an inconvenient truth, he is dangerous.  To them, what Jeremiah’s words and street theater point to can’t happen here.

In the U.S. the results of the global pandemic, the reality of the climate crisis, and the seemingly endless level of racist police brutality threaten a culture based on endless economic growth requiring the exploitation of natural resources and inequality.  Despite claiming to be a culture honoring science, the warnings of epidemiologists (whose work has been underfunded) and even fine science writers like Laurie Garret (The Coming Plague, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995) and David Quammen (Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Norton, 2012) have too often been ignored. While acceptance of climate science has grown in the past five years — especially on local and state levels — implementation of policy on the national level has been undermined by the current administration which embraces the “royal theology” of growth at any cost. Similarly, the racial inequality so obvious in the U.S. has been exploited as politically advantageous. As I write, sections of the Twin Cities, my home, are burning.

Like Jeremiah, we ask: why this resistance to truth? Much of the answer lies in our bondage to finding security and identity through possession (cf. Arthur McGill, Death and Life — An American Theology, Fortress, 1987, p. 54).  Whether it is property, wealth, glamour, or intellectual achievement, what we control gives us the illusion of safety and integrity. That is equally the case on the societal level where Gross Domestic Product, a Defense Department budget larger than the next ten countries and necessary to support 800 military bases worldwide, and a massive advertising industry to keep the “consumer faith,” all serve to promote what we have been led to believe is our “well-being.” The results are anything but that — a climate crisis, community and family disintegration, and always the search for scapegoats to bear the blame for the inevitable failure of life lived this way.

So we join Jeremiah in his lament, especially as we consider Psalm 69. Unfortunately, the committee responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary has cut the heart out of this powerful lament.  During this time of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial upheaval, we need also to hear the beginning cry:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69: 1-3).

Why this need? By sharing in lament, our grief, pain, and the threat of chaos are transformed into language. And as we are reminded by the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), just as God spoke all into existence, so something new and creative occurs when we join our speech and song (Current hymnals may feature a section of “hymns of lament,” e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 697-704). This communal voice assures us we are never cut off from holy presence. As poet Gregory Orr contends, “words make worlds” (On Being, American Public Radio, May 31, 2020).

It is also important to honor Psalm 69 because traditionally it has been associated with Jeremiah  (James L. Mays, Psalms, John Knox, 1994, p. 232).  Not only does the lament echo Jeremiah’s language, but the details resonate with his experience of being thrown into the “deep mire” (Psalm 69:2) at the bottom of a Judean cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). Cut off from the support of family (Psalm 69:8) and the larger community, he can only look to God’s steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 69:16).

The freedom to grieve and lament together is a gift of shared faith. Without that, humankind is reduced to living by possession as a hedge against anxiety and fear of death. Paul writes to make it crystal clear that “God is the enemy of all life by possession” (McGill, 54). Of course, what is meant here is the power of sin that is washed away by word and water in baptism. In baptism, death, the very reason we surround ourselves with what we convince ourselves that we control, is central.  Paul’s rhetoric shows his sensitivity to just how shocking this is: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) It is the end of allegiance to empires, whether Roman or the tottering system of contemporary consumer capitalism that seems bent on destroying this green earth. Baptismal faith removes the scales from our eyes to see, yes, it is happening here.

But out of this death comes a share of resurrection that launches “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). As Ernst Kasemann claims, baptism actualizes the cross-resurrection event so that “walking in newness of life” becomes “participation in the reign of Christ” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 168). This changes our fundamental identity and “pledges” our first allegiance to another “community.” Instead of living by possession, we are freed together to live by gift, especially as we are continually recharged by what Kasemann calls “a constant return to baptism” (Kasemann, p. 163).

Wendell Berry describes this more simply in one of his “Mad Farmer” poems, where he suggests “practice resurrection” (The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 87). Our Gospel Reading reminds us just how costly this can be. Living by gift, nourishing the earth, and practicing resurrection are guaranteed to bring opposition. It will happen here. This text makes it clear that those who “practice resurrection”will be maligned (Matthew 10:25), will know the division of families (10:34-37), and, as they endure, will know the cross intimately. Yet the promise persists: “Those who find their life (live by possession) will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). During this time of pandemic, racial oppression, and climate crisis, lament offers a path to this discovery.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

Survival Is Insufficient Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)

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

This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time.  But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of  economies grasping for endless growth.

What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.

The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.

But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).

This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27).  May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.

Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear.  The stories are full of foreboding.  The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.

Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life.  It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be.  It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.

And it is a communal pilgrimage.  This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109).  As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).

Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts.  This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).

Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew.  Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7).  It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.

Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.  Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.

Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18).  This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9).  We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.

All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life–divine, human, and non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors.  Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).

Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building.  This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.

The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV).  This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10).  Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.

To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218).  After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.

This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:

“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back.  It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)

So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?”  Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits.  We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.

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