Tag Archives: Pope Francis

Sunday July 10-16 in Year B (Mundahl15)

Faithfulness Will Spring Up from the Ground Tom Mundahl reflects on God’s shalom trumping “royal theologies.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 10 – July 16, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Many have read with excitement Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’, issued in 2015. By the simple act of taking advantage of the magisterial (teaching) function of the papacy, Francis focused renewed attention on climate change as the most pressing issue of our time, which if unchecked will lead to unimaginable desolation.

Bill McKibben, who has been working on this issue longer than most, having written the first widely-available book on climate change, The End of Nature (1989), posted an excited blog about the encyclical on the New York Review of Books website. Among the comments McKibben shared was that “the heart of the encyclical is less an account of environmental or social destruction than a remarkable attack on the way our world runs: on the rapidification of modern life, on the way that economic growth and technology trump all other concerns, on a culture that can waste billions of people.”

McKibben marvels at how this encyclical draws on both the teaching authority of the church and the ‘magisterium’ of modern science to reach its powerful conclusions. However, even truth this compelling must reckon with the long record of failure by the international community in reaching enforceable agreements. As the Pope has suggested in his earlier encyclical on economic justice, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of the deified market; consequently the most one can expect (from political leaders) is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy, and perfunctory expressions of concern.”

The scriptures know well the conflict between power and the way of merciful justice, a conflict we see in this week’s appointed readings from Amos and the Gospel of Mark. Amos shows us the paradigmatic conflict between prophet and king, in this case, Jereboam. The prophet faithfully continues to deliver God’s message to the people, this time sharing the image of a “plumb line” which will reveal how ‘crooked’ the culture has become (Amos 7:8). Not only will this “plumb line” expose the level of corruption, but the result will be “laying waste” the sanctuaries and Jeroboam’s death. (Amos 7:9)

This is too much for Amaziah, the priest of Bethel. After sharing Amos’ prophecy with Jeroboam, he comes down hard on Amos. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:12-13). Here we see the power of royal theology, a pernicious ideology that we know all too well. In claiming Bethel for the king, Amaziah attempts to take away any future except that decreed by King Jeroboam “The present ordering, and by derivation the present regime, claims to be the full and final ordering. That claim means there can be no future that either calls the present into question or promises a way out of it” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 60).

As violent and threatening as Amos’ words are, they seem to be the only means of liberation from this “managed world.” Of course, this royal theology also contains threatening implications for God’s creation. Put simply, two understandings of the land are clearly presented. In the first, the land, like the temple, is ultimately the king’s to be managed for the good of the regime. Anyone who says differently, like Amos, must flee for their lives. “History is closed and land is manageable” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 102). Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies or watched the recent BBC film knows what this royal theology is about.

But Amos stands firm. While it is true he has no ‘royal commission’ to add to his vita, in fact, he is not even a hereditary member of the “company of prophets,” but simply a “herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), he has one advantage. It was the LORD who called him, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:15). With this authority he intensifies his first prophecy:

“Now, therefore, hear the word of the LORD. You say, do not prophesy against.
Israel, and do not preach against Isaac. Therefore, thus says the LORD:
Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters
shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; and you
yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land” (Amos 7:16-17).

For Israel has forgotten the second, but most basic understanding of “the land.” “The land is mine, with me you are but aliens and tenants” (Leviticus 25:23). A good reminder to Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and all of us.

A similar conflict between the blindness of ‘royal ideology’ and the prophetic message is found in our reading from Mark. Like Amos, John the Baptist is true to his calling to be an Elijah, speaking truth to power. Here, he has roundly condemned the political marriage of Herod Antipas, often called “king,” but in fact only one of the tetrarchs ruling Galilee and Transjordan (ca. 4 BCE-39 CE). This has especially angered Herod’s new wife, on whose account the tetrarch has John imprisoned.

While everyone knows the story, no one has dramatized it better than Richard Strauss, with his opera, “Salome.” Relying on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name as a libretto the most dramatic moment in this work comes with Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Drunken Herod is so moved by this erotic performance that he makes a promise common to folktales, a promise no one should ever make: “Whatever you ask me I will give you, even half my kingdom” (Mark 6:23). We know the result: after consultation with her mother, Salome asks for the John’s head, which, brought in on a platter, becomes the final course in this celebration of the irresponsibility of royal power.

Mark portrays Herod Antipas as genuinely grieved at the outcome. No wonder when Herod hears of the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus and his disciples, he concludes, “John, whom I beheaded has been raised” (Mark 6:16). Adele Yarbro Collins writes, “The identification of Jesus with John suggests that Jesus will meet a similar fate at the hands of the authorities. But the mention of resurrection implies, ironically, that Jesus, not John, will rise from the dead” (The Beginning of the Gospel, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 62).

Yet the similarity needs to be retained. As Ched Myers reminds us, “The point of identification of Jesus and John is this: the political destiny of those who proclaim repentance and a new order is always the same . . . insofar as they inherit this mission, they inherit its destiny.” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 217)

This has been all true too among those seeking to serve creation. It is now twenty years since Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian government for his protest against Royal Dutch Shell’s petroleum waste dumping. Just this year, Fr. Fausto Tentorio and others in the Philippines have been killed because of their resistance to transnational mining and petroleum interests. Even (or especially) in the U.S. one thinks of the nearly 400 women and men arrested to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2014, or Tim Dechristopher, who protested opening the fragile red rock area of Utah for oil leases by the Bureau of Land Management by bidding on leases he never intended to pay for. This earned Dechristopher twenty-one months in prison, but it also nearly stopped this unwise exploitation of this beautiful natural area.

If our readings from Amos and Mark describe conflict all too common to our condition, today’s second lesson from Ephesians provides a welcome vision of unity. Following a conventional salutation, our text is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origin in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong trinitarian elements (Ephesians 1:3, 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, then, is creating a “new family” through “breaking down he dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for an expanded family of faith.

The widening scope of this home-building 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 common meaning at the time was “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, 1991, 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 recall that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οίκονομία, a word that implies an ordering of the household, and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for “the earth household” is the harmonious gathering of “all,” τα παντα, so that every member of this “buzzing blooming creation “can be “at home” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 161).

This blueprint or pattern for creation may be best summarized by the simple Hebrew word, shalom, a word that many of us have jettisoned fearing charges of naivete. Yet this is precisely how this week’s Psalm (85:8-13) summarizes our hope.

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. 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” (Psalm 85: 10-12).

This certain vision and the empowerment that comes from living it trumps even the “royal theologies” of our time that see God’s earth and its people as resources to exhaust in the pursuit of the false security of wealth and power. As I reflect on the recent gift of “Laudato Si’,” I recall a few times when this vision became real for me. It was in 2004 when my wife and I were visiting friends at Mariakloster, a newly established Trappistine community on the Island of Tautra, at the northern end of Trondheimfjord in Norway. In the midst of the Sunday Eucharist, I was suddenly asked to offer an extemporaneous reflection on the readings. As I stood in the midst of that small community and looked out the large window at the fjord, I was silenced by the immense harmony. While I cannot recall anything I said, the experience of suddenly being enfolded by this silent wholeness spoke most elegantly of the melody of creation—a tuneful οίκονομία.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2015.

 

The Second Sunday After Epiphany in Year C

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

By Tom Mundahl

Second Sunday After Epiphany, Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

As we continue the Season of Epiphany our festivity does not abate. This week’s readings point us toward an even greater focus on celebration. Perhaps an appropriate theme for our worship and preaching is suggested by the antiphonal verse for the appointed psalm: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8). Despite the power of self-interest and deceit described in 36:1-4, God’s steadfast love (hesed) carries the day (Psalm 36:5-10). And it is clear that this abundance is not limited to those who have mastered temple liturgy: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7b).

In fact, the scope is even wider: humans and animals “may take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36: 6, 7). This abundance of steadfast care has its source “in the fountain of life” so bright that “in your light we see light.” The creator is the one who makes the very notion of epiphany—the manifestation of God’s glory and steadfast love– possible.  Not surprisingly, the language (“the river of delights,” v. 8) points us to Eden and creation itself. (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 157) No wonder feasting is central.

This week’s reading from Isaiah (62:1-5) reminds its audience of festive joy in an oblique way. If Third-Isaiah (chapters 56-66) confronts the problem of a community that has returned from exile and is sagging in its efforts at rebuilding and renewing core religious practices, we are reminded that the prophetic poetry of the earlier Isaiah is still in play. Feasting and celebration are clearly integral to the community’s new beginning. For example, Second Isaiah alerts the freed exiles, “Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion!  Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, holy city” (Isaiah 52:1). The prophet continues, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! . . . for your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns.” (Isaiah 54:1, 3)  “For your maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name . . . .” (Isaiah 54:5). As a result, the prophet calls all to a festive celebration: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, and eat” (Isaiah 55:1) (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, pp. 148-150).

Clearly the message of this week’s reading from Isaiah depends and builds on the power of this earlier tradition to support a community engaged in the tough work of rebuilding. Remember who you are: “My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you; and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”  (Isaiah 62:4-5)  No longer, suggests the prophet, will foreigners drink your bread and wine. That is surely reason for the feasting described with such energy in the final chapter of Isaiah. “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her—that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom” (Isaiah 66:10-11).

As we consider this week’s reading from 1 Corinthians (12:1-11), we hear a cautionary note seemingly unsuitable for festivity. Yet, Paul’s critique of a community infected by competition among spiritual superstars, where adepts boast of their spiritual gifts, is a necessary corrective leading to the restoration of wholeness. This competitive spirituality destroys any possibility of community cohesion.

To counter this dangerous tendency, Paul contrasts charismata (gifts of the Spirit) with pneumatika (alleged manifestations of the Spirit)) that create community tension. In a beautiful example of primitive functional trinitarianism, Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the same God who activates them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).

For Paul it is not a matter of achievement and recognition, but service resulting in the common good. This is no simple totalitarian unity; it is based on the amazing diversity of gifts (charismata) distributed by the Spirit. As Hays writes, “Paul is emphasizing the importance of diversity in the church. The creative imagination of God is so many-faceted that God’s unitary power necessarily finds expression in an explosion of variegated forms” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 210).

As we learn more about the mutual interdependence of the faith community, we cannot help but think of the ecological mutuality of the wider creation. One is reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of the natural community as he develops a “land ethic.” Leopold writes: “ . . . quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.” (A Sand County Almanac, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1966, p. 262)

This suggests that the Pauline notion of community must be extended to the non-human world since . . .humans are undoubtedly and inalienably dependent not only on each other but also on a whole range of other organisms. It has become increasingly evident that these networks of interdependence include not just our intestinal flora, the crops we might grow, and the animals we might keep, but relationships at great distances. To breathe we depend upon photosynthesis for our oxygen, to eat protein we are dependent ultimately  on the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, but far less obviously, for example, we are dependent also on the recycling of atmospheric sulfur  by marine algae.” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 212)

This interdependence based on a life of self-offering that uses the gifts of the Spirit for the building of the commons—human and biotic—frees us for festivity. Ironically, as we look farther ahead to Lent, it is also the basis for fasting. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “People should feast so they do not forget the grace and blessing of the world. People should fast so they do not degrade or hoard the good gifts of God. In short, we feast to glorify God and we fast so we do not glorify ourselves” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 137). This is “the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

We see this common good boldly affirmed in John’s narrative of the Wedding at Cana. It may be as Raymond Brown suggests that provision of wine was one of the obligations shared by guests at a Jewish wedding. Since Jesus and his followers had totally failed in this requirement, Jesus’ mother’s chiding may be understandable (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966, p. 102).

While the narrator does not share Jesus’ mother’s reaction when the water for purification becomes the choicest wine in prodigious quantity, we are able to share the joyful surprise of the steward of the marriage feast: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). The celebration of new creation in the Word made flesh (John 1:14) goes beyond calculation and represents a first step (“sign”) in the evangelist’s project to reveal Jesus replacing the Temple as the center of worship and meaning. (Brown, p. 104)

The Russian novelist, Dostoevsky, was so taken by this Johannine story that he devoted a chapter to it in his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. As the Elder Zossima lies on his bier during the monastery’s period of mourning, the monks are shocked that his body has begun to evidence the stench of decay, something not expected from such a holy man. Novice monk, Alyosha Karamazov, is initially in despair. But as he returns to the funeral vigil he hears Father Paissy reading scripture, this time the story of the Marriage at Cana. Suddenly Alyosha’s heart lifts as he understands, “Ah that miracle, that lovely miracle! Not grief, but human joy Christ visited when he worked that first miracle, he helped bring joy . . . . He loves us, loves our joy . . . .” And how many times had the Elder taught just this? (The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990, p. 360).

Young Alyosha now recalls that his mentor had shocked him by revealing that Alyosha’s calling was to bring joy by serving as a monk in the world. Suddenly all became clear. As he embraced his new vocation, he left the monastery and ran into the forest, joyfully falling to his knees to embrace the earth with its fecundity and decay. Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life . . . . Three days later, he left the monastery, which was also in accord with the words of his late elder, who had called him to ‘sojourn in the world’” (Pevear and Volokhonsky, p. 363).

In a sermon given on this text at St. Andrews University, Richard Bauckham claims that this sign reminds us that salvation is more than healing; it is also enlivening. He goes on: “To live life more fully is to love all life, to care for all living beings against the threats to life: against poverty, sickness, enmity, death” (St. Salvator’s Chapel, January 15, 1995). Kierkegaard’s scathing critique of the church allegedly included this aphorism: “Christ turned water into wine, but the church has succeeded in doing something even more difficult: it has turned wine into water.” But Jesus’ enlivening sign remains and points toward the source of all life and celebration.

This theme of joyful festivity is picked up by Pope Frances in Laudato Si’. In the context of reflecting on being at home in creation, he suggests that the integrity of the ecosystem needs to be reflected in home and community. “An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us” (Laudato Si’, 225). Perhaps this may move us to a more festive embrace of the Earth!

Hymn suggestions:

            Gathering: “Rise, shine, you people”  ELW 665

            Hymn of the Day: “Jesus, Come! For We Invite You” ELW 312

            Sending: “The Spirit Sends Us Forth to Serve”  ELW 551

Petition for Prayers of Intercession:

Creator God, you enlivened the celebration at Cana with the gift of wine. Teach us to love one another and all that you have made so that this shared joy may be of the richest vintage.

God, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.

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

Sunday July 3-9 in Year B (Mundahl15)

A Costly CallingTom Mundahl reflects on the courage and action required to be prophetic for creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In 2015 the Twin Cities received the gift of an early spring. Instead of the threat of May snow, by late March the snow had disappeared, making way for warmer days with moderate rains—a gardener’s paradise. Tempted by these nearly too-good-to-be-true conditions, we not only planted spinach, lettuce, and radishes, crops which thrive in cool weather; we decided to plant our squash beds with heirloom Lakota, Kuri, bush butternut, backed up by reliable acorn.

Even though our soil temperature thermometer provided assurance that, yes, the topsoil was ready, we were anxious to see the first signs of germination and emergence. A week passed, then a second, and only at the end of the third did we see our first blue-green set of double leaves rise from the earth. Our frustrations lessened and our faith in seeds was restored.

During this Ordinary Time of the church year, the tension between frustration and looking for small signs of hope seems to be the norm, especially for those seeking to serve creation. Just as lower oil prices reduce incentives for fracking, the sales of relatively inefficient SUV’s and light trucks go through the roof. Given the track record of the international community in crafting firm and responsible climate change agreements, the anticipation of this year’s Paris talks are guarded at best. Like gardeners, we have learned that ‘hope is not a policy.’

This frustration is clearly visible in our readings. Here we meet three ‘prophets’—Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus—charged with what could broadly be called “repair of the world,” tikkun olam. Yet, each one meets significant roadblocks on the way. No wonder the psalm chosen for the day features the cry:

“Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for we have had more than enough contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123: 3-4).

Perhaps this comes as no surprise to Ezekiel, who is warned of the poisonous atmosphere he will work in as part of the truncated call narrative that comprises our First Lesson. The people of Israel are painted as “a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day” (Ezekiel 2:3).

To persist in the face of their resistance, Ezekiel is given two important tools. The first crystallizes the dramatic “throne vision” the book opens with. It is the gift of the spirit which enables Ezekiel to regain his “footing” after a cinematic experience that would tax even special effects gurus at Lucasfilms (Ezekiel 2:2). Added to the gift of the spirit and empowered by it is the force of the prophetic office itself. The one who calls assures Ezekiel, “I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). That is, as this contemptuous people hears the authorization coming from the traditional “messenger formula,” at the very least “whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know there has been a prophet among them” (Ezekiel 2:5).

Both the institutional and imaginative aspects of Ezekiel’s calling and career are important for people of faith struggling to serve creation. For example, it is crucial that disciplined and faithful voices make the case—especially to the boards of church related institutions—for divesting from stocks held in carbon producing corporations. And the point needs to be made that tired excuses of “fiduciary responsibility” based on a misunderstood “two kingdoms” doctrine are no longer good enough.

But even more important for these decision-makers to hear must be the visionary and imaginative possibilities for reinvesting these funds in alternative energy infrastructure on campuses and in local communities (and not just “showpiece” items like barely- functional wind turbines!). For example, institutions might connect food services to CSA farms or even take part of college farmlands out of rental agreements to teach small-scale organic production. Instead of buying into the subtext behind higher education with its promise of “upward mobility” subtly teaching students to become upscale consumers, required basic science and economics classes could teach “the story of stuff”: where the resources of manufacturing come from, how the energy is sourced, how products are marketed, how they are distributed, and where these high input “goods” land after they are no longer in use. That is, to show the entire cycle of our use of creation, how we fit into it, and how we can change it for the sake of equity and justice.

On first reading, the Second Lesson from 2 Corinthians could not seem more removed from institutional action to care for creation. Paul alludes to himself as an ανθρώπος εν Χριστϖ (a “person in Christ”) who was “caught up into paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Corinthians 12:4). But just as Ezekiel’s more detailed “throne vision” spilled over into being called to the institutional role of prophet, so does Paul refuse to boast, but calls attention only to what all may see and hear (2 Corinthians 12:6). In fact, the very event which the church has called Paul’s “conversion” is a prophetic call, where Paul understands himself in the mold of Jeremiah, describing God as the one “who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace . . . so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16, Jeremiah 1:4-5).

As he lived out his call, Paul was confronted by a deep and frustrating challenge—the mysterious “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Earlier Paul had experienced “the third heaven,” the ultimate in ecstatic transcendence. Now, in desperate symmetry, he appeals three times for the removal of this impediment (2 Corinthians 12:8). The divine response at first seems disappointing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Ernest Best suggests that this, not the vision of a “third heaven,” is the real confirmation of Paul’s calling (2 Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 120). Not only is this paradox communicable in a way that mystical experience is not, but it captures the essence of cross and resurrection. As Paul discovers, “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ: for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Reflecting on Paul’s kenotic discovery of faithful living, I cannot help but think of Pete Seeger, who literally “poured out” his voice building community and seeking peace and justice for all creation. When he finally was freed from the ‘blacklist’ in the 1970’s, the first thing he did with new earnings was to build the sloop Clearwater to sail up and down the Hudson River promoting clean water and green communities. I am also reminded of 398 women and men who were arrested in demonstrations held at the White House in 2014 protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline and the tepid climate change policies of the U S Government. This was the largest act of civil disobedience since the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Our texts remind us that being a prophet is a costly calling. Ezekiel relinquishes priestly comfort to serve as a messenger to an audience of “scorpions” (Ezekiel 2:6). Paul gives up the warm glow of visionary beauty for the weakness necessary to share the strength of new creation and cosmic reconciliation. Not surprisingly, we also see Jesus torn away from the mooring of kinship, household, and hometown in order to realize the fullness of the reign of God (Mark 1:14).

This shocking loss of traditional identity occurs as Jesus returns to what should be a source of great comfort—home. As Jesus begins to teach in his home synagogue, he astounds the congregation. How could he teach with this power? Isn’t he the one we know all too well, the one who should be supporting his family as a carpenter, the one who likely is illegitimate? (Ched Meyers, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 212).

Jesus concedes the truth of the old proverb, “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (Mark 6:4). But this cutting “ties that bind” also frees him and the disciple community for a new and broader mission where all travel light because in the words of the prophet-apostle Paul, “grace is sufficient.”

As we have seen, each one of this week’s readings has called for a cutting off, a self-emptying, or kenosis that is necessary to continue the prophetic task. Surely serving creation as ανθρώπος εν Χριστϖ involves kenosis. As Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate propose:

“…a paradigm of ethical kenosis might well stand at the heart of an ecological ethics that stands in faithful continuity with the Pauline tradition” (Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 197)

Considering this week’s readings we could perhaps expand this self-emptying to serve the whole of creation (τα παντα) to help make visible the reconciliation that leads to new creation (2 Corinthians 5:16-19).

Southgate suggests that crucial to living out this ethical kenosis are: a kenosis of aspiration or “snatching” (Philippians 2:5-11) which frees the heart set on a future of unlimited having; a kenosis of appetite which admits the idolatrous temptation to consume more than is equitable; and a kenosis of acquisition which focuses life on increasing and curating one’s ‘goods’ instead of sharing and living out of the coming new creation (Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, London: Westminster–John Knox, 2008, pp. 101–103).

This could be seen as part of a new “purity code” based on a repressive via negativa. On the other hand, it seems consistent with the prophetic role, a role that rarely called for cultural cheerleading. This frees us to listen to Pope Francis as his encyclical, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” is released. One cannot help but notice that the title comes from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun:” “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruits with coloured flowers and herbs” (vatican. va). Today I give thanks that this creative energy is visible in our garden, especially among the squash plants.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2015.
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com