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Preaching On Creation: Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 22, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

Epiphany of Our Lord in Years A, B, and C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Epiphany of Our Lord.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

The narrative of the church’s lectionary seems disordered. Last Sunday we considered Jesus in his childhood; with this Sunday’s story of the visit of the “wise men from the East;” however, we return to Jesus’ birth. For the congregation, this return will no doubt serve to complete “the story of Christmas”: as the Christmas trees are removed from the sanctuary, the last of the cookies are consumed, and gifts shelved in appropriate places, Christmas is “over.” In the introduction to a commentary on “The Season of Epiphany,” however, John McClure insightfully corrects this common perception, quoting  Ann Weems’ poem, “It is Not Over”:

It is not over,
this birthing.

There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

“The lectionary texts from Epiphany to the Transfiguration,” McClure observes, “shout emphatically, ‘It is not over!’” With these texts, McClure suggests, “ the church celebrates the manifestation or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus as Savior.”  (New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004, ed. by Harold W. Rast. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; p. 65). It is particularly noteworthy, then, that this first narrative of manifestation is comprehensive in scope, including within the orbit of that salvation  as it does both “the nations” and the cosmos. Christmas is indeed not “over”: we have just begun to spell out its significance for care of all creation.

Raymond E. Brown sums up the meaning of the story of the magi this way: “In the persons of the magi, Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York:  Doubleday, 1993; p. 199). With modest revision of Brown’s thesis, we propose that precisely because of their birthright of the revelation of God in nature, Matthew’s Gentile Christians would appreciate that the Scriptures of the Jews in fact promise the salvation, not only of Gentiles, but also of the cosmos which was indeed their means to knowledge of God. Their homage of Jesus as savior, we want to suggest, was an appropriate response to their discovery of what they saw as wisdom regarding the cosmos and its future in the plan of God.

The texts assembled by the church for this first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany set out resources for this discovery. The story of the visit of the wise men narrates the fulfillment of the promise from Isaiah 60, that in the midst of “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,” as the lesson reads, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:2).It is expected, then, that the coming of the Savior will be attended by cosmic signs such as the star of Bethlehem. More importantly, as part of the working out of the plan “of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), his coming will also lead to cosmic reconciliation, according to the plan which “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Prophet and psalmist join in describing aspects of this reconciliation in affirmations that portend what we would today consider ecological justice and sustainability, as well as social justice. His coming will cause hearts to “thrill and rejoice” because “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (60:5), and in Psalm 72:

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.<
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading).

With the Apostle Paul, the church is commissioned to bear “this wisdom of God in its rich variety” to all, even to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

What at the outset of this comment seemed a disordered sequence of texts is actually very well ordered with respect to our concern for care of creation. Last Sunday, we learned of Jesus “growth in wisdom” and explored the meaning of that growth with respect to his experience of God as creator; this Sunday, in turn, we are given a mandate to not only to explore more fully the content of that wisdom, but also to advocate for it publicly, in contention with “spiritual forces of evil” that are hostile to God (Ephesians 6:12; cf. McClure, p. 71.) We return briefly, therefore, to Larry Rasmussen’s argument for wisdom as “the biblical eco-theology and ethic,” as an illustration of what this mandate might mean for us in a time of global ecological crisis.

Rasmussen locates examples of wisdom in a great variety of genre, from didactic sayings to treatises that “grapple with life’s most difficult or perplexing circumstances–disease, calamity, boom and bust, the drama of good and evil,” along with “prayers, meditations, parables, and passages that invite a return visit over and again;” practices such as Sabbath-keeping and writing poetry also give expression to principles of wisdom. A more “ambitious and far-reaching” example of “wisdom-in-the-making” that directly addresses the global ecological crisis, however, is the Earth Charter.

After the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, a Charter Commission launched what turned out to be “the most inclusive process ever associated with an international declaration, with grassroots participation by communities and associations of all kinds across all sectors of society.” While not a formal treaty, the Charter “seeks universal recognition and international backing as a ‘soft-law’ document, morally binding upon those who subscribe to it.” Generated with “high levels of participation cutting across all sectors of society, with a determined effort to include historically underrepresented voices, two aspects of the charter in particular “command the attention of religious ethics:  the Charter’s high levels of representation and agency in the effort to realize the ancient dream of an Earth ethic; and its moral universe, with respect for the full community of life and its diversity as foundational.”

Central to the Earth Charter is a vision of sustainable community that accords well with the expectations for social and ecological justice proposed in this Sunday’s texts. According to the charter, sustainable community is the effort to preserve or create all together or in part: greater economic sell-sufficiency locally and regionally, with a view to the bio-regions themselves as basic to human organization; agriculture appropriate to a region and in the hands of local owners and workers using local knowledge and crop varieties, with the ability to save their own seeds and treat their own plants and soils with their own products; the preservation of local and regional traditions, language and cultures and a resistance to global homogenization of culture and values; a revival of religious life and a sense of the sacred, in place of a way of life that leaches the sacred from the everyday and reduces life to the utilitarian; the repair of the moral fiber of society on some terms other than sovereign consumerism; resistance to the full-scale commodification of things, including knowledge; the internalization of costs to the local, regional, and global environment in the price of goods; and the protection of ecosystems and the cultivation of Earth, in the language of the Charter, as ‘a sacred trust held in common.’ (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 347)

The Charter qualifies as genuine wisdom, Rasmussen contends, because it is “attentive to questions that global capitalism, even as sustainable development, rarely asks: What are the essential bonds of human community and culture, as well as the bonds with the more-than-human world? What is the meaning of such primal bonds for a healthy, concrete way of life; what are cultural wealth and biological wealth and what wisdom do we need to sustain them in the places people live with the rest of life’s community?” (Rasmussen, p. 348).

“Wisdom,” Rasmussen concludes, “has found a home here.” Has God, we might well ask, thrown a new star in our sky? And will the church pay proper homage to it, and follow it?

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

The “great gathering” of Earth community encompasses the material world of God’s good creation. – Tom Mundahl reflects on our use of the gifts of God’s creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A (2013/4, 2016/7, 2019/20, 2022/23)

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

Gathering is at the heart of our celebration of the Christmas season. Not only do we gather for worship to wonder at the incarnation, we gather often with groups of friends and family. What’s more, Christmas is a time both to give and “gather” creation’s gifts, whether the beauty of a tree, a long ski through the woods, or the giving and receiving of food, drink, and presents.

If I ever forgot the importance of Christmas presents to the gathering, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. As a result, we engage in a more mundane sort of “gathering:” attempting to save wrapping paper and bows for reuse, and, finally, gathering up the new “stuff” that we mostly don’t need and have to find room for.

By now, you have guessed that these comments will focus on the “gatherings” revealed by this week’s readings. Surprisingly, we will find that this variety of ways of coming together suggest an intensification of care for God’s creation.

This theme cannot be missed in our reading from Jeremiah. In this chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of Jeremiah’s authentic work (Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, Volume 21, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), the prophet delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8) and “lead them back.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

This new Exodus-gathering takes place with what appears to be altered terms of relationship.  No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or on the work of the temple.  Now it appears that what is primary is gathering the exiles from their diaspora and restoring them to the land. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 186)

That gathering once more in this land is at the center of this return is emphasized by the images of natural abundance we find in this passage.

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again (Jeremiah 31:12).

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

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

Therefore, this new gathering will also bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies.  As the familiar canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Today’s Psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once more, the song is occasioned by restoration from exile in Babylon. As is the case with many Christmas carols, it uses a particular act of grace—deliverance from Babylon in this case—as an occasion for an even more wide-ranging expression of God’s relationship with all creation. The one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2) is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of the stars” (v. 4).

Because of this gracious activity, the community responds with psalms, carols, and hymns. Among the most telling evidence supporting Robert Putnam’s research with its conclusion that U.S. citizens are much less involved in community associations (cf. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) is the decline of singing, especially among younger males. While it can be almost impossible to persuade many Americans to sing, in African worship or at an Italian wedding, it is almost impossible to stop the singing.

During this season of gathering to sing familiar carols and bringing them to nursing homes and to the home-bound, we also need to hear the good news of this season in relation to the song of the Earth. As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 7).

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

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism –“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is a “gathering” that effects  “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). Baptism gives non-Jews a share of this blessing.

This ever-expanding scope of election and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (v. 9) “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 work of Irenaeus and Wingren—is described by Martin.

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

Martin continues by describing this goal as much like the movement toward an “omega point” described by de Chardin (Martin, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend “God’s plan” in a helpful way? For us, it is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means something like “rules for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s ‘rule’ for “the earth household” is connected with gathering all together. This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond Jew and Greek, past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6: 12), to include all creatures (the whole creation) in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

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

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. This will free us to return to the creation theme the prologue begins with. Because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation (“All things came into being through him” v.3) in part, by forming a community of faith. And, because this community of faith is rooted in creation and a Word become flesh who draws “all to himself” (John 12:32), we can celebrate the very “fleshiness” of all that is.

Perhaps this means a festive Twelfth Night celebration by the community or with friends, where extra presents that have no room in house or apartment are collected to be shared with agencies that know who can use them. Yet, in no way should this be seen as a denial of the “material” or “fleshy” side of this season.

In fact, we may learn from a British group promoting what they call a “new materialism.” Noticing that religious “put downs” of materialism are not helpful for all of us who live in a “material world,” they have developed a “New Materialist Manifesto” that suggests: liking ”stuff “is a healthy way of enjoying the material world, but it requires lasting relationships with material objects that should be fewer and better—designed to last no less than 10 years. Appreciation of “material” is enhanced when things acquired are purchased with knowledge—who makes them, where they are made, and under what conditions (Factory conditions in Bangladesh?). These material “goods” need to be “loved” –maintained, repaired, or mended, and then repurposed. Finally, this may move us to “reskilling,” where we learn to make, repair, or repurpose “stuff.” And, as we find we need less, we may become freer to share (Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, available through: www.breadprintandroses.orgwww.therealpress.co.uk; or www.schumachercollege.org).

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

The Day of Pentecost in Year C (Ormseth)

God’s love of life and delight in creation should serve as a model for humanity’s role in the world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Day of Pentecost in Year C
Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b (30)
Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21
John 14:8–17 [25–27]
Acts 2:1-21 and Psalm 104:24-34, 35b are coupled for reading on the Day of Pentecost in all three years of the lectionary cycle. In addition, as in year B, the second lesson is from Romans 8. Our comments in this series on the readings for Day of Pentecost in Year A, and especially in Year B are accordingly helpful background for appropriating the care of creation dimension of the readings for this festival Sunday.  As we noted there, Arthur Walker-Jones characterizes the psalm, “one of the longest creation passages” in the Bible, as a portrayal of the “direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures.” In as much as “God is the spirit of life in all creation,” there is no need for mediation by either King or temple, because God’s presence “is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year A; the quotation from Walker Jones is from his The Green Psalter, p. 120). “First in Jesus,” we suggested, “then in the Spirit of Jesus, access to God is open everywhere” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year B). Once again, the significance of this universal availability of God’s presence will not be lost on those who have followed our argument concerning the displacement of the Jerusalem temple as the locus where heaven meets earth onto Jesus, as key to understanding how the narrative concerning Jesus comes to provide fundamental orientation to creation.

The second reading from Romans 8:14-17 provides the bridge from that universal presence of the Spirit to God’s care for all creation. As we also noted in our comment on the Day of Pentecost for Year B, Romans 8 is embedded in a major Pauline narrative according to which the hope for creation is focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons/children of God.” As David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate argue in their Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis,  Romans 8 is “a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17).” The children of God are leading characters of the narrative, they argue, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused. Thus are the children of God “led by the spirit of God,” “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14, 17)” are crucial agents for the progression of the story of creation from groaning to freedom (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, Greening Paul.  Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010; p. 83).

Read in the context of this narrative of liberation, a key insight to be drawn from the readings for the Day of Pentecost in Year C is that while the Spirit who is the source of the church’s life is clearly the Spirit of Christ, that Spirit is also the Spirit of the Creator of all things. The reading from John asserts the identity of Jesus with the Father, an identity that is revealed more in his works than in his being (John 14:11) (Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI. New York: Doubleday, 1970; p. 632). But the works of the Father, Psalm 140 reminds us, are “manifold” (v.24)—all that the psalmist has listed out in his first twenty-three verses. And as v. 30 expresses so smartly, if poetically these works are to the benefit of all creation:  ‘When you send forth your spirit, they”—i.e. “your creations,” “living things both small and great (vv. 24, 25)—are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (v. 30.) The psalm, in other words, praises God for both creation and the restoration of creation, sounding a great theme for the day, to be sure, but also for the ongoing life of the church, living, as it must, by the creative power of the Spirit.

Following an argument of Walter Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament, we saw earlier in this series of comments on Year C that the worship of God in biblical perspective provides right orientation to creation. For Israel, Brueggemann suggests, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced” is public worship. Creation should not be “understood as a theory or an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” While “creation” may thus be an experience of the world, ‘in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman urges, “permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press. 1997; pp. 533-34).

The repeated use of Psalm 104 as the psalm for the Day of Pentecost affirms that this understanding holds true also for the new community of Christ. Indeed, the act of reciting the psalm serves to transmit the capacity for restoration of the relationship between the children of God and God’s creation from the worship of Israel to the worship of the church. The psalm is itself an act of worship that models this reorientation. As William P. Brown shows in his excellent book, Psalm 104 presents the creation “not from the creator’s perspective but from the creature’s, specifically from the standpoint of Homo laudans, ‘the praising human.’” With poetic energy, the psalm “bursts at the seams with joy as it celebrates creation’s manifold nature,” moving from a delineation of ‘the broad structures or domains of creation” to “detail various life forms and their habitations.” Descending from the “divine realm (vv. 1-4 to the earthly domain, including the watery depths (vv. 6-9, 25-26) and the land (vv. 10-18), the psalmist emphasizes “God’s provision for all life (vv.27-30; cf. Gen 1:29-30)” (Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 144).

Psalm 104, Brown shows, can be particularly effective in the church’s response to the global ecological crisis. The psalm stands alongside Genesis 1:1-2:3 and five other major texts (Genesis 2:4b-3:24, Job 38-41, Proverbs 8:22-31, Ecclesiastes 1;2-11; 12:1-7, and Isaiah 40-55) as pillars on which biblical teaching on creation can be aligned with contemporary biological science and an ecological ethic. The “most extensive creation psalm in the Bible,” Brown suggests, significantly shades its praise of God by recognition of the existence of suffering and evil in the creation. “The psalm acknowledges the ever-resent possibility of famine (v. 29), as well as earthquake and volcanic activity. It’s “wide-eyed wonder over nature’s goodness and God’s grace” is balanced by recognition that “a dark cloud looms on the horizon.” “After celebrating the sheer diversity of life, the psalmist exhorts God to vanquish the wicked.” Often considered a blemish on a perfect poem, this aspect of the psalm made sense for the ancient listener “in a less than perfect world;” “By cursing the wicked, the psalmist transfers the evil chaos traditionally assigned to mythically monstrous figures such as Leviathan and places it squarely on human shoulders. Conflict in creation, the psalmist acknowledges, is most savage among the distinctly human beasts.” This “grim petition” thus. . . rescues the psalm from seeing the world through rose-colored spectacles. The psalmist acknowledges, moreover, both predator and prey.  Here is an authentic assessment of creation as it stands, not as it once was in some pristine state or as it will be in future fulfillment. It is a world in which the purveyors of chaos are not mythically theriomorphic—monsters made in the image of animals—but monstrously human.

Consistent with Brueggemann’s description of the function of worship in relationship to a “world experienced as not good,” the psalmist “aims not to provide information about how the world works but to motivate the reader to praise God and . . . to sustain God’s joy in creation (v. 31b)” (Brown, Seven Pillars, p. 145).

In the verses that precede our reading, the psalm presents a complex sketch of the “character of creation.” Light is viewed not as the first act of creation but rather as an attribute of God: “every dawn could be construed as an act of self-clothing.” The unfurling of the fabric of the heaven “is tantamount to ‘clothing’ that God cannot afford simply to shed without donning something new. No naked God is the creator. According to the psalmist, creation is not God’s body, but neither is it disposable rags.” This intimacy of God’s participation in creation is reflected also with respect to the waters: divine action to restrain them (vv. 7-9) “makes possible the provision of flowing streams for quenching thirst, providing habitation, and ensuring the earth’s fertility. The combination of stream and soil results in the provision of life and enjoyment.” Amidst the fulsome reference to animal creatures, trees are prized here not for the lumber required for human empire but rather for the hospitality they provide for birds. So also God “provides drink to the wild animals” (v. 11), “waters the mountains” and “the trees” (vv. 13, 16), causes “grass to grow for the cattle” (v. 14), provides bread, wine, and oil for human beings (v. 15, and supplies “prey for the lions” (v. 21) as well as food for all creatures “in due time” (v. 27). God’s “open hand” and “renewing breath” are evocative images of such provision (v. 28) (Seven Pillars, pp. 145, 146).

Thus, Brown concludes, “the earth is not just ‘habitat for humanity’ but habitat for diversity.” The psalm “views creation in thoroughly eco-centric terms; the earth is created to accommodate myriad creatures great and small, people included. The earth is host and home to all living kind, and as such it is a source of joy.” The joy creation gives to its Creator is perhaps the most striking aspect of this reading. “Novel to this biblical psalm,” Brown urges, “is the claim that creation is sustained not by God’s covenantal commitment but by God’s unabashed joy.” “The solemn formulation of self-restraining order” of covenantal fidelity is replaced here by “joy-filled poetry of praise.” Consequently, the “psalmist’s commendation of divine joy in v. 31b smacks of urgency. By ceasing to rejoice, God could at any moment turn creation back into a quivering mass of chaos.” Enter a new role for Leviathan, the monster of the deep: “more than any other creation” Leviathan elicits “God’s rapturous joy.” With no hint of animosity in the relationship, “Leviathan is God’s playmate!” Indeed, the monster. . . brings out God’s playful side.  But godly play is no isolated moment in God’s engagement with the world. To the contrary, it supports all creation.  Play makes for creativity. Were this monster of the deep to resume its traditional role as primordial adversary, then God’s delight would cease and the ancient script of chaos battle (Chaoskampf) would be replayed. The joy of play would be replaced with violent struggle, like children turning an innocent game of cops and robbers into something far too serious (Seven Pillars, pp. 149-150).

Humanity, take note: “From the psalmist’s perspective, it is the ‘wicked’ who refuse to play and choose instead to struggle against God and the created order. They are the purveyors of chaos, not Leviathan.” “ As the choirmaster of praise, the psalmist calls readers to take on humanity’s true nature not simply as Homo sapiens but as Homo laudans, the praising human, in the hope that God remains the Deus ludens, the God who plays to sustain creation” (Seven Pillars, p. 151). At home in an earth “uncannily fit for life”  but threatening the very diversity that God so enjoys, humanity risks . . . destroying precisely that which the psalmist celebrates and commends to God’s enjoyment: habitats and their diverse inhabitants. By eliminating habitat and inhabitant, we are diminishing creation’s rich diversity, reducing creation to one big godforsaken bore and in so doing, turning God’s “Joy to the World” in God’s grief for the world (Seven Pillars, pp. 158-159).

With the sixth great extinction of earth’s biological species looming on the horizon of earth’s future, we might suggest, the tongues of fire of the Pentecost experience take on new meaning. Marks of divine love, they signal that God’s biophilia [love of life] should serve as a model for humanity’s role and presence in the world:

[T]o feed the flame of biophilia, both God’s and ours, we must preserve and sustain creation’s biodiversity.  If Leviathan falls, then so do we all. If creation’s wondrous variety is diminished, then the psalmist’s worst fear is realized: creation left to wither away. It is incumbent upon God’s most powerful creatures to ensure that divine delight is sustained so that the world be sustained. As long as the psalmist rejoices in God and God rejoices in creation, the delight shared between creator and creature continues to sustain the world (Seven Pillars, p. 159).

With the worship of the church on the Day of Pentecost and after, it does continue!

For additional 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