Tag Archives: racism

Third Sunday of Advent 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
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

Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr

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.

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?

Rev. Kwame Pitts

Womanist Kwame Pitts is Pastor of Crossroads Lutheran Church and WNY-LuMin Network, an STM Candidate at Chicago Theological Seminary.
Read: “Reclaiming Blackness: the Treasures of Blackness” her recent entry in AllCreation.org 
Listen to her podcast: Opposite Ends: Two Pastors in Unlikely Spaces Fighting for Justice.

“Being involved with LRC renews my commitment to the caring of Creation and also gives me the opportunity to be immersed in current issues that are impacting both urban and rural areas and to be that voice, and bring these public issues theologically to the Seminaries as well to the laity.” While Pitts earned her M.Div. from Lutheran School of theology at Chicago she co-founded Seminarians for Justice, a student social justice group dedicated to utilizing our academics towards practical theology with involvement with the community outside its walls. Pitts also worked for several summers at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Illinois. She joined 35 faith leaders at a workshop in June 2016 at Union Seminary in New York on the science of climate change, resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure, environmental justice, and climate communication, including training from former Vice President Al Gore. You can read her work via her blog: and see her interviewed as part of the video series, EarthBound.