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This is Church and You Are Needed Inside & Out

Watch this message from our churchwide leaders and fellow members across the country who recognize the tough, uncomfortable work of being “called out” into the world.  It is an empowering 7 minutes – worth the watch for all of us, not just the voting members who will be sitting in the conference rooms.

For those wanting to embolden their sense of calling to Creation Care for All as ministry inside and outside the church – you don’t need to have a resolution ready,  join a march, or preach on climate (yet). Start here:


First Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

First Sunday in Lent in Year C

by Dennis Ormseth

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:12, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as Luke Timothy Johnson suggests, “discloses the inner character of Jesus’ sonship as one of simple obedience.” Following so quickly upon the identification of Jesus as God’s Son in his baptism, Luke’s sequence of temptations and responses reveals the characteristics and quality of that sonship. In “winning this most fundamental battle of the heart,” Jesus shows himself to be “true minister of God’s kingdom, obedient to the one who commissioned him (Luke 1:16), so that in all he does “God is with him” (Acts 10:38)” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 75).

That is not to say that Jesus’ victory over Satan is merely spiritual, without external consequence. Each temptation, Johnson notes, “involves a seizure of palpable power: the theurgic ability to change the elements of creation, the political and military control of humans, the capacity to force God’s protection.” Read “against the backdrop of first-century Palestinian political upheaval and popular messianic expectation”’ we can “recognize that, in Luke’s understanding, Jesus eschewed the option of a violent, military, zealot vision of God’s kingdom in Israel.” Furthermore, of particular interest to our concern for eco-justice, Johnson suggests that Luke’s Christian readers can “learn something of their own path from the conscious decision of the ‘Lord Christ’ to choose other than a violent way to be Messiah, who rejected power over nature to serve his appetite, over humans for the sake of glory, over God for his own survival, in favor of the ‘path of peace’” (Johnson, 76-77). Applied to our racial and environmental crises, we might learn to resist unrestrained technological transformation of nature along with the oppression of those who are “other” than ourselves, by way of acknowledging that our status as children of God calls for trusting acceptance of our place amidst God’s creation and our human neighbors.

This last point is deeply significant. As Johnson points out, the placement of the third temptation on the high pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem leads to the “dizzying suggestion that Jesus test his sonship against the promise of God to protect him.” Noting that the devil quotes from Psalm 91 (appointed for congregational use this Sunday), “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone,” Johnson comments, “How clever, for what is the radical obedience of the servant except something very close to just such a blind leap? But Jesus does not succumb to this spiritual vertigo.” Anticipating the coming development of Luke’s narrative, Johnson observes that Jesus returns to the central text of Deut 6:13,“You will not test the Lord your God” not only to rebuke the tempter but also to state the conviction of authentic faith. Jesus will not force the Father’s hand. He will be the servant who “hears as those who are taught” (Isa 50:4), and who “walks in darkness yet trusts in the name of the Lord” (Isa 50:10), so that from a subsequent high place he can cry out while leaping, this time with his own choice of words from the Psalm, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Ps 30:6 [lxx]) (Johnson,p. 76-77).

Jesus’ refusal of the divine exceptionalism associated with the protection of angels as the meaning of his sonship, in other words, is driven by a central conviction of faith that will sustain him throughout his mission. That mission will not involve the domination of nature and nations that the temptations offer. The prospect of dominating nature, it is interesting to note, is addressed not only in the first temptation, but also at least implicitly here in the third. With his refusal to “test God,” Jesus has also sidestepped a second sign of divine favor mentioned by Psalm 91, although not quoted by Satan. The promised protection is extended in the psalm to his relationship to predators of the animal kingdom: “you will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (91:13). So Jesus’ refusal of the temptation avoids as inappropriate to his sonship the domination of these creatures, in spite of their inherent danger to human life.

The location of the temple suggests a fuller development of the significance of this third temptation, in terms of the relationship between the people of Israel and the land. The temple is the sacred site where pilgrims bring their annual offering in the ritual described in our first reading from Deuteronomy 26, part of Moses’ farewell address to Israel as they enter the land. As Frederick Neidner explains,

In the new land, the people must remember to give thanks for all they have as gifts from God, and the ritual prescribed here instructs them how to do that. They will give thanks for having become a mighty and populous nation (v.5); for release from affliction, toil, and oppression (v. 7); for the inheritance of “a land flowing with milk and honey” (vv. 1, 9); and for the fruit of that land and of their own labors upon it (v. 10).

The ritual, that is to say, is recognition of the favor God has shown the people in the exodus from Egypt and settlement in the land. The “wanderers” were literally “’perishing,’ on the verge of being completely lost.” Each participant in the ritual confesses this as a present reality, “and not as one for whom that endangered state now resides in some hazy past.” “From such a threatened place and condition”, comments Neidner, “God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm rescued us from extinction. Surely all we have is purely a gift” (Frederick A Niedner, “First Sunday of Lent,” in New Proclamation, Year 2003 – 2004, Advent through Holy Week, Harold W. Rant, ed, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, pp. 147-48). It is important to note, then, that the feast that follows the ritual in celebration of the people’s well-being is to include those who have no inheritance in the land, namely the Levites and aliens who reside with them. They are to join equally with those who have wandered the wilderness and were “on the verge of being completely lost.” And as Niedner points out, Deuteronomy frequently stipulates that the people of Israel as a whole must look out for these groups who can claim no land of their own (12:18; 14:26-29; 16:11, 14).” The association of this reading with the Gospel suggests, then, that as well as rejecting domination over nature, Jesus’ refusal of the third temptation is clearly in line with this awareness of the land as gift and the inclusion of the landless aliens: one does not need to dominate the Earth or its creatures in order to gain assurance of God’s favor. As Niedner comments with reference to our own situation, “It comes naturally to think we brought ourselves here with our own mighty hand and determined arm. . . We engage in fatal deception when we allow ourselves to become gods and guarantors of life in the land of our own promises” (Neidner, p. 148).

Further consideration of the connection between the temple site of the third temptation and the ritual instructions given by Moses leads to a broader generalization of the point being made here. The site of the temple reminds us that in the creation account of Genesis 1, now commonly attributed to priestly authors, the assignment of kingly dominion in creation was a primary aspect of human responsibility. Jesus’ refusal of domination over nature and over nations would accordingly suggest that he rejects that understanding of dominion as the power to dominate, which Lynn White made a central critique of the Christian tradition’s anthropology. (For a brief and accessible discussion of White’s essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” see Leah D. Schade, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, lTheology, and the Pulpit, St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2015, pp. 23-26). It is also significant; however, that Moses’ instruction regarding the gift of the first produce of the land involves the farmer, whose anthropological interests are advanced in the creation account in Genesis 2 and 3, counterbalancing the dominion language of Genesis 1 with a vision of the human as servant of the soil. And if there is a princely presence in Moses’ reference to “house” at the end of his instruction, the structure of the ritual suggests that the agrarian relationship to the land, one of “serving and keeping,” would apply to the rule of the king (See Norman Wirzba’s fine argument for the servant motif in his The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 123-145).

Indeed, this counterbalancing of priestly and agrarian perspectives reminds us that seeking favor in the eyes of God is in general fraught with trouble. It belongs to the Genesis narrative of creation that the first offerings given by Cain and Abel became the occasion for the first murder, leading to alienation between humans and the ground they were to care for. As we read in Genesis 4:4-5: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.” Two consequences follow immediately: first, the episode introduces into the biblical narrative the theme of sibling resentment and rivalry so central to Israel’s story in its entirely. God’s admonition to Cain is good counsel that will apply repeatedly, including in Jesus’ teaching: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:6-7). And, secondly, when Cain fails to master sin and murders his brother, the alienation of the people from the land follows immediately: God says to Cain, “What have you done? Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:10-12).

The desire to dominate thus leads simultaneously to resentment and violence between humans, on the one hand, and the loss of the land’s ability to sustain the people, on the other. Moses’ instructions indicate that in some measure the entry into the land and the enjoyment of its first fruits meant release from this dual curse: their wandering has come to an end and the land is fruitful, so the ritual of the first fruits can be joyfully celebrated by all who dwell there. So when Jesus refused to test God’s favor, was he also sidestepping this whole area of conflict? Or, in refusing the temptation to dominate nature and nations, was he not actively preparing to restore the relationship between land and people? Might his sonship and his mission seek this restoration for the whole creation? These are questions we shall have occasion to return to later in this Season of Lent.

Suggested Hymn of the Day: “O Christ, What Can It mean for Us” ELW 431

Prayer Petition: Gracious God, you are source and goal of all creation, both humankind and otherkind together. In this season of Lent, strengthen our hearts to resist the dreams and habits of domination that alienate us from each other. Lead us into Jesus’ way of peace so that we might reconcile with our neighbor and seek the restoration of your creation. In your mercy, hear our prayer.

First Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Blessed are those who walk lightly on the Earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013

The First Sunday in Lent in Year C
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Romans 10:5-15
Luke 4:1-13

The most distinctive contribution that Lutherans bring to care for creation is the same distinctive contribution that Lutherans bring to Christian ethics generally, and it is a paradoxical notion: being saved by grace through faith apart from works is a doctrine that, far from discouraging works of justice and mercy in the world, actually FREES Christians for such works.

This was the thesis elaborated by Luther in his celebrated 1520 treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian.” While that treatise’s famous early lines (“A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone”) have become famous as a Lutheran slogan, it is worth remembering the logic that stands behind that formulation. According to Luther, when we feel that we must compile a list of praiseworthy works done for God and neighbor – a kind of spiritual CV – in order to merit salvation, then the works that we perform are not REALLY for the sake of God or neighbor; they are for ourselves and our own self-interest. However, when we realize that God does not require such a compendium of works from us, that indeed our salvation is soteriologically prior to our own efforts and thus renders moot any attempt at self-justification, then we are truly free to do works of kindness for the neighbor FOR THE NEIGHBOR’S sake. Freedom from self-justification frees us for service.

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is a story of how our Savior eschews finite, unsatisfactory “freedoms” in obedience to higher freedom. Satan offers Jesus a series of highly perishable freedoms, all related to displays of power and ownership. With his refusal to turn bread into stone or to demonstrate his favored status with God by casting himself off of the cliff, Jesus offers a demonstration of the power of humility as favorably compared with “miraculous” displays of magic—a demonstration captured even more poignantly when the one whom the church regards as “Lord” of the very cosmos refuses the ironic offer of a relatively paltry prize (“all the kingdoms of the world”). While the church has often read this story as a paradigmatic instance of spiritual trial and overcoming, the more profound philosophical point is one of freedom—Jesus, by refusing to acquiesce to self-justification, is freed to carry out his ministry of service and mercy.

And we, who are Christ’s body, have a similar chance to participate in this freedom. When Paul in Romans describes the benefits that accrue to those who are justified in their belief in the Lordship of Christ, the undercurrent of freedom is apparent. If Luther is reading Paul correctly (which Lutherans believe he was!), then to believe that justification comes through Christ and not through our works is to unburden ourselves from being self-creators, and to embrace the authentic freedom that comes with being creatures in the graciously humble sense of that term (cf. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003). Such humility—the humility that frees, the humility that allows for genuine service—is a powerful theme for us to ponder as the church begins its Lenten journey this Sunday.

Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian who was one of the first to turn the attention of Christian ethics to creation care, was fond of recounting a story of his grandmother’s Bible’s translation of Matthew 5:5 (often translated into English as “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”). Sittler was stymied as to how it could be said that the “meek” would possess the Earth in an age when oil companies, multinational corporations, and aggressive governments are busy slicing and dicing the Earth into owned turf. He received insight, though, when he realized that his French-speaking grandmother’s Bible translated the verse as “blessed are the debonair.” It is the debonair that shall inherit the Earth. Further word study on Sittler’s part disclosed that, in its original connotation, to be “debonair” is to walk lightly upon the earth; to grasp things lightly, without too much concern about owning them. For Sittler, the lesson of Matthew 5 became a countercultural lesson about gospel freedom: to walk lightly on the earth, to live on earth in such a way as to receive its gifts without grasping them too tightly, is to be free (cf. Sittler’s video “The Debonair Giant,” available at http://www.josephsittler.org).

How powerful, then, to read Deuteronomy 26 in that light! As Gentiles grafted onto the tree of Judaism (“for there is neither Jew nor Greek”), graciously received in baptism as God’s children and God’s people, we are inheritors of “the land”—and as followers of the Lord of the cosmos, we are free to understand “the land” as the entire ecological matrix that sustains us; the web of nature that is, as Sittler would have it, the “placenta” in which all humanity finds its life. When we, following Jesus, refuse the temptation to exert lordly power by relating to the land in terms of “ownership” and instead receive it lightly, as God’s gracious gift—it is then that we are free. And Christian freedom is freedom to serve. Freedom to care. Freedom to be on the side of life and all that sustains it.

To receive the land is gift; to receive, in Christ, the freedom to walk lightly as creatures and not gods upon that land is vocation.

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

Introduction to the Season of Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary for Lent in Year C 2016
by Dennis Ormseth

Introduction to the Season

Towards the end of Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter on racism to his son, the author encourages the young man to continue the struggle of his people. “Struggle for your ancestors . . . for wisdom . . . for the warmth of the Mecca [a reference to Coates’ experience of African American community at Howard University] . . . for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name,” he writes. “But do not struggle for the Dreamers,” meaning the white community with its pervasive assumptions of privilege and domination. “Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved,” he allows his son, having disavowed any religious convictions of his own. “But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015, p. 151). In their Dream, he has explained, the white community are “Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers,” “an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans . . . built on the destruction of the body” (Coates, p.143). And, in a statement of potentially great consequence and interest for this series of ecojustice commentaries, Coates further observes that the Dreamers’ technological progress has freed them “to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.” In Coates’ view, that is, the crisis of American racism and the crisis of the earth are in reality of a piece: The Dream “is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos” (Coates, p. 151).

Coates’ low expectation that Christian faith might constitute a resource for overcoming racism aside, the texts for the Season of Lent in this year C of the lectionary provide a compelling opportunity to test the validity of this observation. If there is a common root to these crises, as he suggests, it would give the church a common focus to address in its work on creation care and racial justice, concerns that are often in competition with each other for attention and resources. And the texts for the season do speak powerfully to the situation he describes as the white context of his son’s struggle. The mythic narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, the Gospel for the First Sunday, constitutes something of a counter-dream, in which Jesus refuses domination over both creation and the nations of the earth. And in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ body is anointed for death at the hands of the Roman Empire. Between these bookends, Jesus encounters the domination of his people by King Herod; he laments the brutality and destruction his people suffer, but he encourages them to hope for new life with the parable of a fig tree rescued by its patient farmer; he teaches them in parables about a shepherd who refuses to accept the loss of a single sheep from his herd, a woman who resists the loss of the smallest coin, a father who welcomes home a lost son and refuses to accept the resentment and alienation of the elder brother. With these images drawn from life on the farm, from the life of the poor in the city, and from life in a troubled family, he resists the view that there is no hope for his way of peace. Applied to our situation, can we believe that a God imaged in this way would accept the loss of whole species from creation, or the waste of wealth meant to sustain in life all a nation’s people? Wouldn’t such a God also act to remove the resentment and violence that plagues all human families, including our own?

The extended narrative of these texts selected by the church for reading on its Lenten journey, this is to suggest, squarely addresses the habit of domination that Coates perceptively identifies as the common cause of the dual crisis we face today, of a world in conflict about racial and religious difference and of a dying habitat that endangers all creation, humankind and otherkind. We will develop this argument in the commentary on the lectionary readings for the six Sundays of Lent and Passion Sunday. As we turn to that task, it is important to note that the lectionary also provides a second narrative track drawn from the Hebrew scriptures, with which we can further develop our proposal and assess the widely shared assumption, expressed by Coates, that the biblical narrative holds little relevance or power for a response to these crises that bridges our cultural divides. We will see Moses giving counsel to the people of Israel on how to live in the land to which he has brought them out of the wilderness; we will revisit the prior promise to Abraham concerning the gift of that land and the deeply conflicted history of its possession; we will hear the prophet Isaiah’s vision of restoration signified by deep, flowing waters in the desert; and we will share in the people’s joy as Joshua celebrates the Passover and, for the first time, eats produce of the land. And finally, as Mary anoints Jesus’ body with precious oils, we will lean in to learn of the “new thing” promised by Isaiah. With the summation of these readings occasioned by the climactic account of Jesus’ passion, we should be able to see whether our thesis “holds water,” so to speak—the water of new life promised along the way in the Psalms appointed for these Sundays. Does the narrative of Jesus’ life and death speak powerfully to the human and environmental crises of our time or not? And if so, what does our observance of this season offer by way of well-grounded hope that the church, as body of Christ, might now be inspired to participate actively in addressing simultaneously both racial injustice and the restoration of God’s creation?