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First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

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

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

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, 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 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. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

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,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. 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. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, 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).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

Sunday July 10 – 16 in Year C (Ormseth)

If we abide in the domain of divine love, care of all God’s creation is indeed within our reach.

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

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

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10 (4)
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday carries forward several themes from the previous two Sundays.  Once more, Jesus and his followers are in the hostile territory of Samaria. Once again, Jesus confronts the cultural and religious competition between Jews and Samaritans. Once more, he is challenged to clarify how the presence of God is brought near in the relationships between people who live in hostile relationships with each other. Once more, actually with climactic emphasis this time, we are called to “love the neighbor,” indeed, on this occasion, with central emphasis on the command “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Given this continuity, we might well expect that the readings should firmly underscore the learnings regarding care of creation we have developed those two previous Sundays.

There is one difficulty, however: the concept of the Kingdom of God is not specifically referenced here, rendering unavailable the eco-friendly translation of it as Great Economy that was crucial for our reading of those texts. Indeed, the topic introduced by the lawyer’s question seems to lead us in quite a different direction: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Accustomed as we are to hearing in this question an individual’s spiritual quest for salvation, we might expect to be disappointed with respect to our concern for creation.

That expectation is unfounded, of course. When the lawyer asks about “inheriting eternal life,” we notice, Jesus immediately redirects the question to the Torah and its greatest commandment. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, however, the Torah does not actually provide an answer to that precise question (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 173). Its main concern, as our first reading amply reminds us, is rather with the inheritance of the land and the life of the people there—“the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30:9)—and with the very presence of God as mediated through the Torah—the “word” that “is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart and for you to observe” (30:14). As Walter Breuggemann comments with reference to this passage in his discussion of Torah as  mediator of God’s presence, “Moses, the giver of Torah from Mount Sinai, provides both the commands of Yahweh that Israel is capable of obeying (Deut. 30;11-14) and the provisions of Yahweh wherein Israel may host the holy and enjoy God’s presence (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 583).

While those provisions normally have to do explicitly with Israel’s worship practices, there is also a profound sense in which Torah itself becomes the means of that communion. The completed Torah, Breuggemann argues, is “not simply a set of commands that determined the conditions of Israel’s existence,” as Christians are often inclined to see it. “[I]t is also a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God” (Theology, p. 590). As  the people turned to Torah as a source of guidance and instruction (note that the Psalm appointed for this Sunday is “a Prayer for Guidance and for Deliverance”; NRSV, The Green Bible, p. 529) it was . . .no longer simply the revelation of Sinai; Torah is now drawn more centrally into the large, wondrous realm of all of creation. The Torah is, for that, no less Israelite, but now it comprehends all the gifts and offers of life from Yahweh, which are everywhere signaled in the life of the world and in the experience of Judaism in a gentile world. Torah becomes, in this later venturesome development, a Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world. Thus, in Sirach 24, wisdom is food that nourishes (vv. 19-22) and water that sustains (vv. 25-31). That is, Torah is the very gift of life from Yahweh that permeates the world.  And Israel, in its Mosaic stance, are the people who are first of all invited to “choose life” (Theology, pp. 592-93).

Put differently, “practice of Torah is not only study; it is also worship. It is being in the presence of the One who lives in, with, and under this authoritative text, and who is present in the ongoing work of imagination from this text.” As such, Breuggemann insists, this practice is “a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy” (Theology, p. 599).

The exchange between the lawyer and Jesus about “eternal life,” it seems to us, is an instance of such “Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world.” In the company of the new Moses, the lawyer is prompted to explore whether Jesus knows not only about living according to the commandments, but also about living in the presence of God. Luke’s use of the term “eternal life,” which is relatively frequent in comparison with the other gospels, serves here to widen the circle of “inheritance” to the cosmic expanse of God’s own presence within the creation. What was a local conflict in the previous two Sunday’s gospels, albeit a conflict transcended in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, leads here to a question of universal applicability, namely, the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:15). And appropriate to the scope of that question, Jesus’ answer to him is presented in, as Johnson aptly describes it, “one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel parables, the moral tale (unique to Luke’s composition) of the compassionate Samaritan” (Johnson, p. 175). The exchange is about the full domain of God, after all!

We will return to this expansive concern for life below, to consider its implications for care of creation. The details of the parable itself merit our attention, however, on the way to that discussion. The tale is highly provocative, Johnson notes; we are shocked on three levels. First, [t]he violence done to the traveling Judean is overt: he is stripped, beaten, left half dead. This is not a sentimental tale. Second, a deeper level of shock, however, is the recognition that Jews esteemed for their place in the people and dedicated to holiness before the Lord would allow considerations of personal safety or even concern for ritual purity (a corpse defiled) to justify their not even crossing the road to look. They “pass by on the other side.” If love for neighbor meant anything, it meant to care for the “sons of your own people.” But they cannot be bothered. A third shock is the discovery that a despised Samaritan, himself most at risk in this dangerous no man’s land of deserted territory, takes the chance of stopping, looking, and—increasing his own vulnerability—leading the man on his beast to an inn. It is the hated enemy who is the hero with a human heart (Johnson, p. 175).

We underscore: the graphic violence of the parable mirrors the possible consequences of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans, or for that matter, any other peoples in cultural and religious conflict. Furthermore, whether for reasons of ritual purity (symbolizing love of God through holiness) or “love of self” (manifest in self-concern for personal safety) persons expected to represent the presence of God in the land fail to keep the commandment. The Samaritan, on the other hand, risks much: not at home in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho, he nevertheless spares no expense—oil, wine, shelter, time (two days! and more later) and remuneration for the innkeeper’s care. Why? Because he “felt compassion” for him, “the emotion attributed to Jesus in 7:13,” Johnson notes. This sets up Jesus’ stunning reversal of the lawyer’s question: as Johnson puts it, “Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation (who deserves my love) to one of gift-giving (to whom can I show myself neighbor); and of this the despised Samaritan is the moral exemplar!” (Johnson, p. 173). The point, Johnson concludes is not who deserves to be cared for, but rather the demand to become a person who treats everyone encountered—however frightening, alien, naked or defenseless—with compassion: “you go and do the same.” Jesus does not clarify a point of law, but transmutes law to gospel. One must take the same risks with one’s life and possessions that the Samaritan did. One must, that is, if one wants to participate in the presence of God within the creation, and to share in God’s love for that creation.

If, as we suggested above, the exchange between the lawyer and Jesus, taken as a whole under the rubric of the quest for “eternal life,” is a demonstration of the  extension of the practice of Torah into all of creation, then the parable is an illustration of how that extension is to take place: not by holy people safeguarding holy things, not by the self-interested concern that seeks safety and well-being only for one’s own, an orientation to life which results in an incessant competition between peoples for the blessings of life, but by the risking of self and all that one holds holy, for the sake of another, action inspired and driven by compassion to care for the other, that is a mark of living in the eternal presence of God.

It was an extension unthinkable for the times, from Jewish neighbor (“sons of your own people”) to anyone in need of mercy whom the Jewish lawyer might encounter; and then surely as the  Christian community spreads out throughout the Roman Empire more fully—always on Luke’s agenda, from Jews and Samaritans to gentile pagans, caught up in their own quest for dominance. The need for this extension never ceases; and the impulse of compassion is also never exhausted. But in our time of ecological disaster, the challenge of extension clearly concerns our relationship not only with our human neighbors, those present now and those to inhabit the earth in the future, but our other-kind neighbors as well. They, too, lie brutalized in the ditch; and, without immediate aid, they will perish from the earth. Will the religious communities of the world also “pass by on the other side”? Or will we be inspired by the compassion of our God and Lord Jesus Christ to have compassion and do what it takes to restore them?

In his provocative essay on “Kenosis and Nature,” Holms Rolston argues that humans have the capacity beyond actualizing of self “to see others, to oversee a world.” This is “an exciting difference between humans and nonhumans,” in that. . . while animals and plants can defend only their own lives, with their offspring and kind, humans can defend life with vision of greater scope. They can sacrifice themselves for the good of humans yet unborn or, on the other side of the globe, the entire human community. Humans can also care for the biotic communities with which they share this planet; they can care for their biosphere. Here we recognize a difference crucial for understanding the human possibilities in the world. Humans can be genuine altruists; this begins when they recognize the claims of other humans, whether or not such claims are compatible with their own self-interest. The evolution of altruism and the possibility of kenosis is complete only when humans can recognize the claims of nonhumans (In The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, edited by John Polkinghorne. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001; p. 64).

The hazard of modern human culture is that our habit of managing nature tends mainly to escalate our “inherited desires for self-actualizing, tempted now into self-aggrandizement on scales never before possible,” now that we “are no longer checked by the long-standing ecological and evolutionary forces in which [we] have so long resided” (Rolston, p. 64-65). Our texts offer a clear alternative beyond this conundrum: love of neighbor as of self, which immerses us in the compassionate love of God which empowers love of the other. As our first reading assures us, that love is as close to us as the word of Torah and the word of the Christian gospel, which, is ‘”very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Wherever we are, whomever we are, we abide in the domain of divine love, the Kingdom of God; in Christ, we inherit eternal life. If so, care of all God’s creation is indeed within our reach.

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

Sunday July 3 – 9 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary

Series C: (2019, 2022)

by Amy Carr

Readings for Series C (2019, 2022)

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-9
Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Today’s readings are filled with images of nourishing and flourishing drawn from the natural world, as well as agricultural metaphors for divine judgment and demand. The former invite us to treasure creation as the very medium and means of God’s blessings for us, while the latter draw our attention to the very human means of promoting a good harvest of blessings for the earth and its inhabitants. God’s gifts, our labor: these appear in conjunction. In relationship to these scripture readings, I will suggest that one kind of creation care strategy involves sowing relationships that bridge urban and rural divides—relationships that might reap a richer possibility of forging just relations for both land and people.

We encounter earthy images of a God-given nourishing and flourishing in Isaiah and Psalm 66. Post-exilic Jerusalem is envisioned as a wet nurse who satisfies “from her consoling breast” (Isaiah 66:11). Because God is a “mother” who “comforts her child” (Isaiah 66:13), our “bodies shall flourish like the grass” (Isaiah 66:14), and God “will extend prosperity to [Jerusalem] like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream” (Isaiah 66:12). The healing and replenishment of our lives are utterly earthly in form and expression, yet divinely generated. As Luther put it in his Large Catechism commentary on the first commandment (“You shall have no gods”):

Creatures are only the hands, channels, and means through which God bestows all blessings. For example, he gives to the mother breasts and milk for her infant, and he gives grain and all kinds of fruits from the earth for man’s nourishment—things which no creature could produce by himself. . . . We must acknowledge everything as God’s gifts and thank him for them, as this commandment requires. Therefore, this way of receiving good through God’s creatures is not to be disdained, nor are we arrogantly to seek other ways and means than God has commanded, for that would not be receiving our blessings from God but seeking them from ourselves (Luther, Large Catechism, trans.Theodore Tappert, http://apostles-creed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/luthers-large-catechism.pdf, p. 8).

The psalmist urges the planet itself to give thanks for the ways that God acts in and through blessings that take material form (like a sea parting to make way for the Hebrews to pass over on dry land): “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth” (Psalm 66:1).

While the readings in Isaiah and Psalm 66 cast a vision of earthly well-being, in Galatians and Luke we encounter agricultural metaphors that bear a prophetic spirit of warning and admonition about threats to God’s harvest. Here the blessings spoken of in Isaiah are contingent not only upon our being open to receive what God provides through natural means, but also upon paying close attention to the shape of our human interactions and to whether or not we are discerning and heeding God’s call amid those interactions. Thus Paul commands the Galatians,

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all. . . (Galatians 6:7-10).

Paul associates sowing “to your own flesh” with his familiar theme of seeking justification by Jewish ritual works like circumcision (Galatians 6:12-15) instead of justification by faith in the “cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (6:14). But he associates sowing “to the Spirit’ with “doing what is right,” in order to reap “eternal life from the Spirit”—or what he calls “a new creation” (6:15).

In Luke 10, fields ripe for harvest symbolize cities and towns with people ready to hear and respond to the gospel news about the kingdom of God—a way of life together that promotes spiritual and physical healing for all. Here Jesus is like a farmer trying to gather together workers to do the reaping: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). So Jesus sends out 70 people, working in pairs, to visit “every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Luke 10:2). Jesus does not harvest alone. Indeed, in this story, Jesus seems to act behind the scenes in a contemplative manner (rather, perhaps, as we might experience the risen and ascended Christ doing today), for while the 70 went about healing the sick, releasing people from their demons, and announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God, Jesus sat and perceived the spiritual fruits of their harvest: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (Luke 10:18).

If we hold in green imagination all the various natural and agricultural metaphors we find in today’s scripture readings, we might ask ourselves: where is the Spirit sending us forth as laborers for a ripe harvest that nourishes both humans and the world in which we dwell? What kind of sowing might we do to promote a ripe harvest that fosters what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls the “kin-dom of God?”

As someone who lives in west central Illinois, one desire that keeps coming to mind in a Spirit-driven way is a hunger to connect farmers with urban or suburban dwellers who know nothing about farming or the agricultural industry. I began to have this thought one week when I witnessed two distinct expressions of youth leadership in my rural university town.

The first was a presentation at a Sunday luncheon at my Lutheran church by four high schoolers, all young women, about their participation in Future Farmers of America (FFA). I was amazed by how well FFA is preparing young people for a wide range of possible careers in agriculture, but also for leadership skills that include everything from taking responsibility for a self-designed agricultural project, to speech competitions, to knowledge of parliamentary procedure. At national conferences, they meet and stay in touch with fellow FFA members who hail from all 50 states and the US territories. Their clear enthusiasm left me confident about the future of agriculture, including a boldness about meetings its challenges.

The second presentation was a Saturday night fashion show, created largely by black university students who designed clothes and modeled them while telling a story. The woman who wrote the script for the modeling show is a Religious Studies minor from St. Louis who wants to work with people with disabilities, and maybe one day help them find creative self-expression through a fashion show of their own. Here, too, I witnessed initiative, drive, imagination, and leadership among young people.

While these two groups of young people may have quite different interests, I have found myself wondering how congregations can encourage meeting with and collaboration between people (young to old) who are deeply committed to their respective communities or fields, but share qualities like dedication and experience at organizing events. It is just the seed of a dream right now; and perhaps, like Jesus, I think it best for those in agriculture and in urban organizations to themselves go ahead to harvest the rich fields of possibility. Some of the fruits could be collaboration on public policy—from economic to environmental—that could be rooted in better mutual understanding between rural and urban or suburban communities.

“We reap what we sow.” What if we sowed the seeds of a genuine cultural exchange that doesn’t begin with the premise of privileged missioners helping those in need? A mission trip is not always the same thing as building cross-cultural connections among people who perceive one another as social equals. Whether they take one to the inner city, to disasters sites, to Appalachia, or to a Native American reservation, domestic mission trips are often premised on some sort of economic or class disparity. But what would happen instead if we cultivated rural-urban meet-ups between professionals, or people already active and experienced in organizations? Here the conversations have the potential to move beyond personal testimony, beyond direct service, into a mutual cultural understanding and respect that could bear fruit in the political arena. Instead of sowing ignorance and polarized jabs about rednecks or urban elites, instead of reaping a political culture that is sown in resentment of outsiders who fail to understand or respect “us,” perhaps we could sow mutual understanding and respect of different ways of life in relationship to land and to culture. There would still be arguments, still hard environmental and social problems to solve, but we would be better resourced for debating and imagining into their resolutions together.

If we send out harvesters adept at sowing bridge-building across the rural-urban divide, perhaps we can ultimately reap the flourishing of a new and renewed creation. We would be fostering the social capital for developing and supporting a public policy with regard to climate change that includes at the table those who work the land, as well as those who dwell in Jerusalem and other cities that need to be nourished by the fruits of that land.

Amy Carr amyreneecarr@gmail.com