Tag Archives: Robert Saler

Second Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Look for God downward, deep into the soil of the “crucified Christ”
by Robert Saler

Reading for Series C: 2013
The Second Sunday in Lent in Year C

Genesis 15:1-18
Philippians 3:14 – 4:1
Luke 13:31-35

The readings for this Sunday hinge on two of the most powerful biblical motifs for citizenship in the Christian canon. The vision experienced by Abram in Genesis is that of “the land”—the geographic stability that gives God’s people Israel not only a place to live and flourish, but also an identity. Meanwhile, the Philippians text presents what appears to be a contrast to this rootedness by describing the Christian’s “citizenship in heaven,” even to the point that “earthly things” are seemingly dismissed.

And indeed, Christian exegetes have played up this contrast throughout Christian history—often with perilous results. The notion that, while the Israelites were tied to a physical “land,” Christians must yearn for a higher, more “spiritual” land (a notion often filtered through Augustine’s discussion of the earthly vs. heavenly “cities” in his City of God) became a staple of medieval exegesis, with its fourfold method of literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical interpretations of scriptural texts. In this schema, the literal or “physical” sense of the text often was considered to be the lowest and least profound, while the anagogical sense (generally related to a spiritualized eschatology) was the most sublime. For instance, exegesis treating “Jerusalem” as a literal geographic location was insufficiently pious for most Christian exegesis; interpreting it instead as “heaven” was the more sophisticated option. The notion that Christians’ loyalty was to a disembodied heavenly ideal and NOT the Earth in its fecund physicality thus was buttressed by Platonic exegetical strategies that linked the “letter” of the text with matter and the “spirit” of the text with ethereal and incorporeal verities.

Lutherans bear a special burden for the ill effects of this history. Many of Martin Luther’s later, polemical writings against the Jews of 16th century Germany (writings which have been repudiated by the ELCA) accused Jewish exegetes of being insufficiently sophisticated precisely along these lines—that is, he accused them of holding on to “physical” readings of Hebrew Biblical texts instead of spiritualizing them along Christian lines (cf. Mark Edwards, Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics 1531-46, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005). It is thus particularly incumbent upon contemporary Lutherans to appreciate this historical fact: when the physicality of Biblical imagery—including that of “land”—is denigrated, this often becomes legitimation for violence.

In this Lenten season, we can take this insight and realize that understanding Christian “citizenship in heaven” as somehow disembodied from Earth, as separated from “the land” that God has given to all citizens of Earth, is indeed the first step towards legitimating the violence that threatens us all today. Ecological degradation is in fact a form of violence—not only against animals, trees, and non-human ecosystems, but also against those poorest human populations that suffer most immediately from the impact of pollution and global climate change. For this reason alone, Christian preachers should avoid the temptation to further the contrast between “citizenship of the land” and “citizenship in heaven” in their preaching.

But the value of good exegesis is not simply a matter of promoting the right praxis–it’s also about identifying the right source of hope. As Barbara Rossing has pointed out in her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004), the eschatological vision of Revelation is one in which “heaven” and the earth in all of its physicality merge—the fullness of the kingdom is the redemption of the earth AS earth. Meanwhile, Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has argued forcefully throughout his writings that Christian should not entertain any notion of salvation that does not take as primary Paul’s vision (in Romans) of Gentile Christians being grafted by grace onto the tree of Israel. The boldness of the Christian claim is that, in Christ, we Gentiles are inheritors of the promises given to God’s people Israel. “Land” is our future and present hope.

To have as one’s eschatological orientation (encompassing both the present and the future) “citizenship in heaven” should, therefore, make us MORE attuned to Earth as the site of God’s redemption. Exegeting scripture—and preaching Christian loyalty to “the hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15)—should direct our eyes, not upwards to an incorporeal heaven, but down deep into the soil of God’s beloved land, the land promised to Abram and granted to us by grace through faith.

In our day, when God’s earth and God’s children cry out for relief from the ecological violence to which we all have been party, the preacher—acting in the prophetic mode embodied by Jesus in the Luke passage—might have to take the risk of confronting directly our Christian tendency to dismiss “earthly things” in favor of the panacea of cheap spiritualism masquerading as eschatological hope. If God is the God of love whom Christians proclaim, and the cross is the shape of God’s salvation in this world, then surely God is at work deep in the soil of the “crucified Earth.” And where God’s cross is at its redemptive work, there also should God’s church be.

 

 

 

First Sunday in Lent in Year C (Saler)

Blessed are those who walk lightly on the Earth.

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

Reading for Series C: 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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