Tag Archives: Robin Wall Kimmerer

Fifth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

In Christ’s Resurrection the Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on creation acting on behalf of its Creator.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

In the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, creation speaks and acts on behalf of its Creator, as well as for itself. In the Gospel, a vine speaks about its place in the vineyard: ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit . . . . I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:1-5). And in the first reading, the wilderness provides water for a thirsty, spiritual traveler (Acts 8:37). No, this is not the way we usually read these narratives. The words, we know, are from Jesus, and the wilderness enters the story of the Ethiopian eunuch by virtue of his route home. But consider what this reading from the perspective of the participating creation does for our sense of the relationship between humankind and otherkind, of what nature does for us, rather than what we do with nature. A vine captures for us it’s essential place in relationship between the owner of the vineyard and those who enjoy its fruit, and how that relationship involves care of the plant. There will be no fruit without that vine and its caretaker. And a pond by the wilderness way provides what the wayfarer needs to receive, in order to know that he is already “at home” in God’s creation.

This reading is strange to us in part because we don’t usually think of nature as an active participant in our experience. Animals are, to a limited extent, perhaps, but not plants. Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests otherwise, and illustrates with a distant relative of the vine, the pecan trees that provided crucial nourishment for her people on the prairie of Oklahoma when it was still “Indian Territory.” The elders knew from “the old times” that “the plants and animals have their own council, and a common language.” The communication of the trees was especially important to them because they somehow knew when conditions were worst, and the hungry people needed their fruit. The trees are tuned to the cycle of fat squirrel population, increasing numbers of hungry hawks and foxes, and then a quiet landscape that signals “a good time to make some nuts;” then “all across the landscape, out come the pecan flowers poised to become a bumper crop again.” The feast to famine, “boom and bust” of what is known as “mast fruiting” was remarkable for its coordination: “if one tree fruits, they all fruit—there are no soloists. Not one tree in a grove, but the whole grove, not one grove in the forest, but every grove, all across the county and all across the state. The trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective . . . All flourishing is mutual” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Press, 2013, pp. 14-16).

The explanation for this phenomenon is elusive, Kimmerer notes, but the elders were perhaps close to the truth: “the trees are talking to each other.” In actuality, she explains, it is likely that trees communicate “via pheromones, hormonelike compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning.” Under attack by insects, for instance, “an upwind tree sends out a distress call, . . the downwind trees catch the drift, sensing those few molecules of alarm, the whiff of danger. This gives them time to manufacture defensive chemicals . . . . Trees appear to be talking about mutual defense.” The pecan trees, in particular, show a capacity for “concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees” and “ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive.” The synchrony of the mast fruiting of the pecan trees happens, according to one theory, “not through the air, but underground,” by means of “subterranean networks of mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots” and “form fungal bridges between individual trees, so that all the trees in a forest are connected.” As a “kind of Robin Hood, they take from the rich and give to the poor so that all the trees arrive at the same carbon surplus at the same time.” The moral insight: “They weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them. Through unity, survival. All flourishing is mutual.” And humans can easily enter this circle: “Soil, fungus, tree, squirrel, boy [who collects the nuts]—all are the beneficiaries of reciprocity.” As Kimmerer comments,

“. . . how generously they shower us with food, literally giving themselves so that we can live. But in the giving their lives are also ensured. Our taking returns benefit to them in the circle of life making life, the chain of reciprocity . . . . We reciprocate the gift by taking care of the grove, protecting it from harm, planting seeds so that new groves will shade the prairie and feed the squirrels” (Kimmerer, pp. 20-21).

Or not. When her people ignored the collective wisdom of the trees and accepted the offer of the federal government to own property as individuals, within a generation two thirds of their lands had been forfeited, as the new citizens found they could not pay taxes due, or sold their allotment when “offered a keg of whiskey and a lot of money, ‘fair and square’” (Kimmerer, pp. 18-19). Two generations later, “after removal, after allotment, after the boarding schools, after diaspora,” her family returns to Oklahoma and “what is left of [her] grandfather’s allotment.” They dance on the old powwow grounds near the pecan groves along the river. But the meaning of the trees has been largely reduced to metaphor:

The synchrony of our Gathering is determined by our leaders, but more importantly, there is something like a mycorrhizal network that unites us, an unseen connection of history and family and responsibility to both our ancestors and our children. As a nation, we are beginning to follow the guidance of our elders the pecans by standing together for the benefit of all. We are remembering what they said, that all flourishing is mutual.

Still, there is restorative power in the metaphor. It is “a mast year” for her family, Kimmerer writes;

“We are all here at the Gathering, thick on the ground, like seeds for the future. Like an embryo provisioned and protected inside layers of stony shell, we have survived the lean years and flower together. I go walking in the pecan grove, perhaps the very place where my grandfather stuffed his pant legs full [of pecan nuts]. He would be surprised to find us all here, dancing the circle, remembering pecans” (Kimmerer, p. 21).

We note the similarity of the narratives here, nut tree and vine: the one, much later than other, a vehicle of “scientific insight,” countermanding a cultural bias against a communicative nature, in favor of the transfer of native, life-sustaining wisdom; the other, a narrative brought to light, perhaps, by the sustained observation of Palestinian peasants, guided by the Spirit of God into prophetic witness. Background for this understanding is found, of course, in the Hebrew Bible. As Walter Brueggemann observes, “Yahweh as Gardener-Vinedresser” is an “enormously supple metaphor” of great heritage. Already in Exodus 15:17 it is used “in anticipation of Israel’s reception of the land of promise: ‘you brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established’” And in what Brueggemann regards as the paradigmatic construction of the metaphor of the vine and vineyard, Isaiah 5:1-7, Yahweh “has been generous and attentive in caring for the vineyard that is Israel/Judah” (Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 255). And as Raymond Brown notes, it is “a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and in other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” The “whole symbolism of Israel as a plant or tree,” he suggests, “frequent in the OT, the Apocrypha, and Qumran, should also be brought into play here.” A golden vine with clusters as tall as a man, Brown observes, was a notable ornament of the Jerusalem Temple. Coins of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), struck to honor Jerusalem the holy, were stamped with an outline of a vine and branches. Rabbinical disciples who regrouped at Jamnia were known as a vineyard. Because John “sees the Christian believers as the genuine Israelites, the vine as a symbol of Jesus and the believers is, in a certain way, the symbol of the new Israel” (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI. New York, Doubleday, 1970, pp. 670-72).

Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the vine for the relationship of love encompassing God, Jesus and his disciples, so fully amplified in the second lesson from 1 John, is thus a contested reading, claimed by rival parties. The concern for the truth of the vine (“I am the true vine,” John 15:1) accordingly involves a much larger frame of reference than is commonly generated in pastoral reflection on the text. There is contention here between rival political movements, some of which have engaged in violence to defend their cause. Whether or not John here wishes to contrast Jesus and the church as the true vine as over against the false vine of Israel’s religious or political leadership need not concern us here; the more important point is that, with the vine as symbol for Israel of Jahweh’s gracious presence with respect to Israel’s existence in the land in the context of imperial domination, Jesus’ words lay claim to the metaphor for his followers’ relationship to the creation, without any recourse to any sort of human domination over it whatsoever: the true vine is the reality of right relationship—Creator, people, and creation taken together, for the sake of the fruitfulness of the creation.

The Spirit of Creation speaks clearly in both Gospel and Hebrew Scripture: God intends that the vineyard produce good fruit. Indeed, Brueggemann notes, failing that, “Yahweh the vinekeeper will destroy the vineyard:” “I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it”( Isaiah 5:6). This combination of generosity and destructive judgment is characteristic of the use of the metaphor in prophetic literature, as it expresses the relationship between God and the people in connection with “the loss of land and the re-giving of the land after exile.” The metaphor thus expresses

“. . . both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement. In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine. The vineyard must be productive, yielding in obedience the fruit intended by the planting” (Brueggemann, p. 257).

The principle holds: as with the people of Israel, so also with the church; those who abide in Jesus as he abides in them “bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

The metaphor of the vine is, accordingly, rich in implication for the church’s vocation in relationship to the creation. We, too, share in a circle of reciprocity. The life of branches is inseparable from the life of the vine: on this natural truth hangs the power of the admonition: “apart from me you can do nothing.” But a related truth, of course, is that vine can no more than the trees live without being rooted in soil; vine and branches together grow fruit when the vine is well rooted in the vineyard. The relationship of vine and branch is thus part of a much larger relationship that includes the vine-dresser, or the gardener, the vineyard in which the vine is planted, and its sustaining environs. Jesus, according to John’s account, is not unmindful of this larger frame of reference: on the contrary, could he be “the true vine” if “the vinegrower,” who brings all these elements together, is not his “Father”? Spirit of life, spirit of creation, prompting Jesus, John, and their community, to take note of the wisdom of relationships in what we referred to as the “Great Economy” in last week’s commentary, and to spread a good word about the relationship of love that pervades all creation. The creation is alive with the presence of one who feeds both body and spirit, fruit of the love of God, fruit of the vine of the earth.

For us, too, then, the metaphor in the Gospel reading for this Sunday offers “hope for rehabilitation in times of displacement,” such as the broken relationship between people and Earth characteristic of our time of ecological crisis. It is for us, too, that the Spirit of Creation is enlisting the wisdom of the vine to restore for us a healthy earth. What more appropriate communication could the Spirit bring to us than one couched in the richly green metaphor of the vine and its branches? It beautifully expresses the needed mutuality of nature and Spirit, and the cooperation required for that restoration.

Readers may object that there is no explicit reference to the land anywhere in John 15:1-8. Might this not mean that only the vine and its branches matter now, along with the pruning of the branches by the gardener, because the land is no longer relevant to the life of the Christian community? The rooting of the vine, then, might not need to concern us. We would argue that, on the contrary, with the Creator who is part of the metaphor, comes the land now writ large to encompass all creation, which the Creator provides. As we have sought to show in our comments on the texts for the previous four Sundays, the Resurrection of Jesus is an event that involves not only all humanity, but the creation in which humanity exists. One needs, we propose, to think holistically about the structure of the original metaphor. As we noted above, the vine needs soil, it needs to be rooted. No less than the absence of the vine grower, displacement of the vine from the soil of the vineyard would in fact entail the elimination of the very possibility of life for the vine. Given the context of the Gospel’s composition, the claim that Jesus is the true vine retains for the future of his community the Hebrew heritage of the land, although now not limited to the specific land of Israel. Against the dualisms and gnosticisms of the religious context of the Gospel’s author, Jesus the true vine is rooted in the earth. If humans are “fundamentally rooted in this world, . . . earthbound,” as David Rhoads puts it in introducing Earthbound: Created & Called to Care for Creation, “most importantly and surprisingly, so is God.” (St. Paul, Seraphim Communications DVD, 2009, Episode 1: Created/Called). And if God, so also God’s people raised in Christ to participate in the vine.

Jesus’s use of the metaphor of the vine does presuppose the active presence of the Yahweh the Vinedresser/Gardener. And so necessarily will the church’s interpretation of the metaphor. But is our insistence on that presupposition, in part for the sake of inclusion of the reality the Earth in the narrative, at cross purposes in our cultural context with achieving a hearing for the healing of the earth and the preservation of its real soil? In his recent work, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton suggests so. In what he calls “An Enlightenment Fable,” Hamilton thinks through the consequences of “the death of God” in which humankind, relieved of

“. . . the individual preoccupation with salvation and damnation, was at the same time born into the role of master of its own destiny. And the essential question became whether it would make worlds that defy the constraints of the Earth or make worlds in which nature flourishes too, that is, worlds in which humankind takes responsibility for the Earth’s healthy evolution” (Hamilton, pp122-23).

Now “those for whom God lived on would have to act etsi deus non daretur, as if there were no God.” Our destiny could no longer “be read from holy books but from our own understanding of the world and its history.” “No longer a spiritual journey,” the

“. . . path to realizing our destiny had become an intellectual and physical one, building on the “epistemic distance” opened up by the scientific worldview. Ultimately, however, it was a power struggle between contending social forces, the forces of neglect—power-hunger, greed, growth fetishism, hedonism, and psychological weaknesses—against the forces of care: self-restraint, respect for the natural world, love of one’s children, and the desire for civilization to flourish.”

Nature’s disenchantment and God’s withdrawal initiated the development of “a new justification for human existence”: “the struggle to learn how to live collectively on the Earth and within its limits is the way, the opportunity for humankind to find its place in the cosmos” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Polity Press: Malden, MA, 2017, pp. 122-125).

For Hamilton, the advent of the Anthropocene is a moment of great peril: “human beings have yet to realize that freedom can no longer operate independently of necessity, and so continue to act as Moderns, free to play out their agency on a compliant Earth.” What might rescue us, he proposes, is a new understanding of human freedom as a possibility that “always resided in nature and once manifested must be bound to it, networked into nature.” “[K]nowing freedom’s source within nature-as-a-whole comes with a heavy responsibility, to protect and enhance nature, to live within its limits as we make new worlds.” We have then become “the key” to nature-as-a-whole: “In that case, our activities in bringing on a new epoch in the geohistory of the planet should not be regarded only as an ethical lapse, with no function in the unfolding of nature-as-a-whole; they tell us something fundamental about the nature of the whole and the arc of its narrative” (Hamilton, pp. 140-41). In this view, Hamilton writes,

“. . . the coming of age was not an accident, or an event triggered by a few intrepid men, or the inexorable evolution of a process in train for millennia. Our coming of age was the manifestation of the agency latent in nature-as-a-whole, when humans, alone in a disenchanted world from which the gods had withdrawn, were ceded the opportunity to earn the right to “inherit the Earth. The concentration of agency in humans is not without meaning; freedom with Earth-changing power put us in the position where we had to decide how humans could flourish without destroying the Earth” (Hamilton, p. 144).

“[B]eyond all purely human-oriented aspirations must be the cultivation of our relationship with the planet to the enduring benefit of both.” Now, the “duty to care for the Earth is the meaningful goal as well as the prudent one.” All along the question has been our relationship with nature, conflicted or consonant, “that would prove decisive“ (Hamilton, pp. 144-45):

“And so, after the death of God, respect for the integrity of the Earth can grow only from the sense of gratitude for the gift of freedom and an acute awareness of its dangers. Such an orientation arises not from obligations to other humans (as in all conventional ethics), which is to say, not from the realm of freedom as such; it arises out of an understanding of freedom emerging from nature-as-a-whole” (Hamilton, p. 149).

Accordingly, the evaluation of the use of our freedom is no longer so much a question of good and evil in our interaction with humans, as it is a matter of care and neglect of the earth. In the latter option, it is no longer merely the benign neglect of an ill-informed humanity, but the “wanton,” “reckless and self-indulgent” neglect of not attending to the consequences no longer unknown and unintended, but rather based on knowledge that “enables us to see, with amazing if far-from-perfect clarity, how the physical world works” (Hamilton, p. 151).

In summary, as to the question of whether belief in God as Creator helps foster the care of the Earth in the Anthropocene, Hamilton’s argument compels us, he argues, to

“. . . confront the most difficult truth—in the Anthropocene we have no ethical resources to draw on. The cupboard is bare. For all of their worthiness, appeals to “responsibility” have no heft, no ontological substance. Where once we could fear and love God and truly believe in him and his saving power, now we can only fear Gaia. But Gaia is no messiah, which leaves self-preservation as the only motive, a negative motive that seems much too weak. Unless, that is, we can become beings guided by a new cosmological sense rooted in the profound significance of humankind in the arc of the Earth” (Hamilton, pp. 155-56).

Is there a possibility, he asks finally, of the emergence of “new human beings who embody another future, who allow themselves to be appropriated by the next future, who are willing to think eschatologically—that is, to think the end of the world of techno-industrial appropriation in an era of trial and struggle, to accept that the Enlightenment did not banish all darkness and that the lamp of Reason shines too dimly to guide us through the night falling over us?” (Hamilton, pp. 156).

Our answer is yes, there is. It is the possibility inherent in the belief in the God raised Jesus from the dean, in an event that involved not only all humanity, all creation. It is the possibility embedded in the belief in the God who enters the narrative not only as “heavenly Father,” but also as Spirit of Creation. It is, once again, God encountered as Mark Wallace describes her, as the Spirit who abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable, the Spirit who inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) that is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, and speaks to us through Jesus’ word about the true vine, but also, independently, through the story of the pecan tree. Said differently, it is the eternal God who, as Elizabeth Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” As Bishop Ambrose of Milan put it, “in Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose,” which marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos (Adapted from our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, based on Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136; and from Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

From the point of view of creation, which is where we began this comment, this outlook would seem both natural and hopeful, contrary to Hamilton’s skepticism. As evidence for this, consider our second reading, which as we suggested presents creation not only speaking, but also acting on behalf of its Creator. As the story goes, an Ethiopian eunuch had gone up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple, although cultic rules would have limited his access to an outer courtyard. Now on his way home he encounters an apostle led by the Spirit of God, who teaches him how he can enter fully into life with God, in and through the relationship with the Christian community in the body of Christ. If Ethiopia was then understood to be “at the ends of the earth,” this exchange of good news already illustrates the liberation of the experience of God’s love from the temple and its governing authorities, which makes possible the reorientation to the earth—all the earth—as the gift of God’s love in which the true vine-dresser plants the true vine. Thus we appropriately sing in today’s psalm, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations” (For this reading of the lesson, see Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998, pp. 290-301).

But the clincher is that the creation itself joins in agreement and acts to raise the Ethiopian into new life. Noticing the water alongside the wilderness road, the Ethiopian observes, “look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And the answer being obviously “nothing,” thanks to the wilderness, he was baptized right there, and was from then on at home with God in God’s creation. The Spirit of Creation, comes, passes by, and goes on across the earth, so that the holy vine grows wherever the vine-grower plants it, and its branches, pruned, trimmed as they may be, but also fed, bear good fruit. It happens for the good of humanity, but also the greater good of all the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Loving the Cosmos as God DoesTom Mundahl reflects on repenting of the “windigo” way.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024)

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Each Ash Wednesday we make an unusually comprehensive community confession of sin. We confess “our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our exploitation of other people,” “our indifference to injustice and cruelty,” and “our waste and pollution of creation and our lack of concern for those who come after us” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 253). While the starkness of these petitions may strike some as excessive, in light of the state of our planet one may also wonder: how could they be so mild?

Not only are we struggling through the aftermath of the eighteenth U.S. school shooting in the first couple months of 2018, but already residents of the Ohio River watershed are experiencing severe flooding. In my own Twin Cities, residents of the eastern suburbs of St. Paul are wondering if “3-M’s” nearly one billion dollar fine for polluting groundwater with the chemical components of Teflon will be sufficient given the 100 square mile toxic underground “plume” that has developed. And, once more the residents of California are beginning to worry about the low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, one of their most important water sources. Will this year bring more fires, mudslides, and greater stress to farms and city residents alike?

The gravity of issues like this was on the mind of Wake Forest University’s Fred Bahnson as he attended Good Friday services last year. He arrived at worship hoping to have quiet time to reflect on the cross, the state of his life, and the state of the world. What he experienced was quite different. “Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, but more ‘sackcloth and ashes’” (“The Ecology of Prayer,” Orion, Vol. 36, No. 4, Thirty-fifth Anniversary Issue, 2017, p. 85).

To the wandering Israelites described in this week’s First Lesson, “sackcloth and ashes” may not have sounded so bad. Not only was the first generation of leaders dying, the wilderness wanderers continued to be frustrated by continued detours forcing them to rely on Moses’ leadership and a divinely provided menu. It is no wonder that once more the people complained, this time directly to God, “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5).

No longer does “out of Egypt” seem to be a punch line for a freedom dance. Now Egypt seems to represent a time without endless wandering and, despite bondage, a time of relative economic security. In their imaginations, Egypt may have become what Maggie Ross once referred to as “the mall across the Red Sea.” Especially to the second generation of those on this extended trek, stories detailing life in Egypt would likely have become attractive. How easy it was to forget the cultural humiliation and painful work of brick-making for harsh Egyptian masters, slavery which seemed to consume their unique gift to the world (Dennis Olson, Numbers, Louisville: John Knox, 1996, p. 135ff.).

The desperate attraction to the horrors of life in Egypt reminds me of one of most powerful of Algonquin legends—the tradition of the “windigo,”a being who has developed an appetite for food, wealth, and power that can never be satisfied. Not only had the Israelites been victims of this “windigo” power in Egypt, but in many ways, so are we. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes how contemporary culture has “spawned a new breed of “windigo” that devours Earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” This mind-set proposes to improve our “quality of life,” but eats us from within. “It is as if we’ve been invited to a feast, but the table is laid with food that only nourishes emptiness, the black hole of the stomach that never fills. We have unleashed a monster” (Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Minneapolis: Milkweed, 2013, p. 308).

The consequences for the Israelites attracted to this nostalgic security monster are dire.

Poisonous serpents are deployed that quickly produce a high body count. When the desperate Israelites seek Moses’ help, he prays to the LORD, who commands him to make a bronze casting of a poisonous serpent, put it on a pole, so that, “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Numbers 21:9). No longer did they long for the storied days of imagined ease brought by the Egyptian “windigo;” now by looking at the very source of death they find healing and restoration of communal trust. It is no surprise that the Johannine evangelist uses this image (John 3:14) to portray the cross, that brutal instrument of Roman torture, as the sign pointing to cosmic renewal of life. God transforms the very instruments of death (serpent/cross) sub contrario, into tools for life.

Much the same can be seen in this week’s Second Lesson from Ephesians, where the author frames the text with the Greek verb peripateo, “to walk,” the source of the English “peripatetic.” This “inclusio” describes contrary ways of life: in v. 2 walking the “windigo” way of death; in v. 10 walking the way of service and care. “Following the course of this world” (Ephesians 2:2) suggests that “human life is under the malign influence of celestial powers thought to rule the universe, akin to ‘the elemental spirits’ of Col. 2:8, 20” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991 p. 26). The result is a warped understanding of life that leads to boasting (v. 9), misplaced confidence in human capacity, and being caught in the maelstrom of “windigo” lust.

The results of this kind of living are familiar to us today. According to Clive Hamilton, “The Great Acceleration began at the end of WW II and inaugurated both globalization and the Anthropocene. The rapid acceleration of economic growth, along with booming consumption and its profligate resource usage and waste, drove human destabilization of the Earth System. The pursuit of the American Dream at the same time brought the Anthropocene nightmare” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 84). That this accelerating, self-augmenting, out-of-control system reminds us of the “windigo” should be no surprise. And, it is certainly not to automobile drivers trapped in nearly identical smog-producing traffic jams in Los Angeles, Cairo, Moscow, Beijing, and Addis Ababa.

Fortunately, the author of Ephesians reminds readers of the mercy of God, “who has made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:55). “In effect, God has done for Christians what God has already done for Christ” (Martin, p. 27). This results not in a new status of “holiness,” since it is all done “by grace as a free gift” (Ephesians 2:8), but in an explosion of servant-care. “For we are what he made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). This amazing verse pulls no punches: the communal gift of grace flows through us as a way of continuing the renewal of creation and healing. Integral to this new way of walking (the closing of our “inclusio” frame) is building eco-justice.

This week’s lesson from John’s Gospel continues this emphasis on God’s action to heal and renew creation through the Son of Man (John 3:14) and the new community he calls into being (John 3:21). Once more we see a figure lifted up as Moses lifted the serpent, but this time the result is not only the healing of those bitten by fiery serpents. Here the result is a new quality of life not only for those who believe, but for the whole creation (John 3:15-16).

Despite the uniqueness of John’s Gospel, Raymond Brown reminds us that the three statements describing Jesus being lifted up (John 3:14, 8: 28, and 12:32-34) function as the equivalent of the three synoptic passion predictions (The Gospel According to John, New York, Doubleday, 1966, p. 146). While John does not describe a specific response to each of these, the consequences are clear. In our text, even though the Son was “not sent into the world to condemn the world” (John 3:17), those who have seen and do not believe have already condemned themselves (John 3:18). “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). What is this if not a sense of being trapped in the “windigo” energy of “the virtue of selfishness” which has led to everything from out-of-control ecological devastation to power addiction and genocide? And this does not even begin to measure the energy required to “cover up in the darkness” responsibility for these deeds!

John describes the life of faith as producing even greater energy. But this energy is directed toward “doing the truth” (John 3:21a). Because these deeds come into the light, visible to the entire cosmos, they contain an entirely different kind of generativity. Just as the author of Ephesians refers to “good works which God has prepared beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10), so the works coming from faith-active-in-love are “deeds performed in God” (Arndt, Bauer, Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, p. 307). Certainly ecojustice and Earthcare are among them.

The motive force behind “doing the truth” is the “life of new creation”/”eternal life” that comes from the lifting up of the Son of man, the word made flesh. This energy easily surpasses competing powers, including “Eternal Rome.” While Roman ideology claimed divine paternity for Augustus and his successors, who assumed political permanence, the gift of the one lifted up on a Roman cross could be grasped “only by faith” (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 78). Still, a “life that bears endless newness” is the audacious claim of the early community, an assertion intensified in his gift of peace “not as the world (here read “Caesar”) gives” (John 14:27).

The center of this text is John 3:16, an echo of the prologue with its allusion to creation—”In the beginning . . . .” (John 1:1). Note well that Jesus does not say, “God loved humankind so much.” The life of the new time is not just for human beings; it envelops the entire Earth, the cosmos. Margaret Daly-Denton calls attention to the rich meaning of “cosmos” with etymological connections to “beauty,” the root of “cosmetic.” In this case, however, the word points to beauty that is rooted deeply within the creation and integral to the harmony of its endless interconnections (Ibid., pp. 78-79).

When we affirm God’s love for the cosmos, broken as it is, we discover surprising depth. What faith sees is seldom simply an object of vision, but even more the unseen reality that brings it into being. As Wirzba writes, “Our gaze at a creature . . . does not stop at the creature’s surface but extends beyond it to its dependence upon and source in a Creator. The Logos through which all things in the world came to be is also the light and life within each thing” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 32). This attitude requires us to live “together with” the whole of creation in a respectful way, or, as John would have it, “living in the light” (John 3:21).

That this is not the way we see the world God loves in our consumer-driven culture is clear. As Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard reveals, “We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we see things in an inhuman, god-forsaken way. And we see things in this way because that is basically how we see ourselves” (Human Image–World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology, Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992, p. 2). In order for us as to serve Earth and build ecojustice for all, we need once more to recognize God’s love in each other and in all that the Creator has made.

Yes, Fred Bahnson is correct in calling for us to put on the “sackcloth and ashes” of grief when we consider what we continue to do to this planet. Our actions are based primarily on how we see the cosmos—as a “mine” of resources to satisfy our endless desires, the “windigo” way from which it seems impossible to extricate ourselves. While the new-mindedness of Lenten repentance requires action, public policy change, hard work, and all of our energy, it also suggests the need for Lenten time to breathe and remember the depth of God’s love, a memory that may open us once more to be “channels of justice.”

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Utphall21)

God’s Plan –  Nick Utphall reflects on the order(s) of the universe and a baby.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Second Sunday of Christmas, Years A,  B, and C 

Jerimiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21 
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“What has come into being in him was life…but [they] did not accept him” (John 1:3-4, 11).

We’ve spent months explicitly close to and aware of the sense of not accepting what makes for life. It has been a persistent reiterated theme of the pandemic. How many times have you been told to wash your hands? Remember nine months ago when you were constantly told to sing happy birthday twice to fulfill the proper precaution? And how much has that continued to influence your practice? Or consider recommendations from Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S. Coronavirus Task Force member and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that are repeated ad nauseum on social media about the beneficial health impacts of mask-wearing. All of that eager-emphasizing of a simple and yet possibly life-saving practice seems not to do any good in convincing those who would resist and rebel. Or, to dig a bit deeper, we recognize that the long-trending erosion in our funding of public health infrastructure leaves us closer to death. We end up not accepting life that is right in front of us, practically begging for us to understand.

Those might seem like an echo of the line from the Prologue to the Gospel of John.

As we’re considering that, I suggest we don’t fall into a ditch on either side. There are plenty of examples and instances portraying faith and science antagonistically, as opposed to each other, with a big VS between in the fight. But on the other side, there is also the risk of making faith and science synonymous, equating them with each other. Following Jesus is not identical to following health guidance, nor is the coming of life the same as the arrival of a vaccine. The Gospel of John will go on to convey that life is not just a biological characteristic, not just having a pulse, not a prescription for an exercise regimen, not a doctor’s visit for a clean bill of health. Death is not the end or absence of life, not a failure. Even through death, still there is something of life.

That means that some of the knee-jerk reactions in the face of this pandemic need to be held faithfully and not simplistically or secularly. Faith is neither so separate from health guidance that we ignore it because life and safety are assured by Christianity, nor is faith so combined with science that obeying protocols to keep the coronavirus at bay mean we’re living faithfully.

To glimpse this through another lens, this is the first Sunday of a new year. It’s a new year for which people have been especially yearning and wishing. But, of course, there is nothing that magically changes with turning to a calendar page that restarts simply because it now is labeled “2021.” There is no finish line or lap marker in earth’s orbit around the sun. It is arbitrary. On the other hand, this isn’t the start of a new year for church. This finds us in the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. And in some way while much of the world has moved on, we are still celebrating the 10th day of this short season, marking not a default reset attitude of January but what a certain birth long ago means, what that change and reset meant for our world to have God born among us, as the Word became flesh.

The reading from Ephesians marks this epochal distinction as “the fullness of time” (1:10). That phrase is paired with one of the passages that point us to a notion of the “cosmic Christ,” that God’s plan is to “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). If all things are gathered in Christ, that includes calendars and masks and anti-maskers and COVID-19 deaths and disturbed Christmas traditions…as well as, of course, the orbit of planets and expansion of the universe and light and dark and sheep and storms and irrigated gardens and wilderness areas.

The impact of Jesus includes but far exceeds wellness tips for living. It includes but is not limited by scientific understanding. It ranges far beyond what we know of life.

There’s an old book by J.B. Phillips called “Your God is Too Small.” I’ve not read it and cannot comment on the approach or contents, but the title alone is applicable with today’s readings. God is not restricted to our pet projects, neither about morality or physical fitness. God isn’t out to save a few individual souls who have conformed to a religious framework. God isn’t conveying blessings that are about us having an easier day, feeling more satisfied and happier, making a profit.

The immensely unbelievable import of our faith is that God has been working for you to be brought up into all of God’s pleasure and love and goodness since “the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), “in the beginning” (John 1:1), since creation began, since the Big Bang or whatever came before that. How can we imagine or begin to conceive of that? How can we get on board with implications of this vision of life that out-stretch all spacetime?

Some of that is the sense of the organizing principle for all creation – the Logos, the Sophia, the Wisdom of God that is mentioned in these readings. That’s especially the theme of the alternate first reading from Sirach, of Wisdom herself (also as a spoken word/Word in 24:3) that preexists and is beyond all the created order.

That logic of God’s Wisdom in the alternate psalmody from Wisdom sees a goal of exodus and freeing God’s people from slavery and oppression. There is a guiding plan that the weak and injured and disabled are not lacking life or left to die, but rather are especially singled out to be brought along, and that includes helpless infants and their vulnerable and anguishing mothers (Wisdom 10:21 and Jeremiah 31:8).

With a nod to the awareness that the Logos underlies all our studies and –ologies, there’s been a sense for a couple hundred years of the so-called Enlightenment defining our perceptions of zoology and biology (“life” studies) and even cosmology. We subscribe to a saying that nature is “red in tooth and claw” (in words from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson), with survival of the fittest. Now, first of all, if we’re looking at evidence around us and thinking that is the order of things, the planned logic of creation, then either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who came as a frail baby, who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”

So how do we compare our scientific and natural understandings of competitive and violent predator/prey perspectives with what our Bible readings today tell us is God’s order and plan and Wisdom, which binds up the broken and cares for tiny children and seeks not to leave any behind?

Maybe we at least need to be willing to incorporate the sort of understanding and wisdom that comes from Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass,” which identify how species cooperate and thrive by symbiosis (living together) and practice mutual sustenance, and how even trees may share with the weaker and needier.

Or maybe such conflicting accounts merely confuse us on God’s intended order of things, obscuring rather than elucidating our studies and logic. Are volcanoes and forest fires creative or destructive? Is a lightning storm a sign of God’s violent power or life-giving potential in fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere? If God intends to give snow and cold (Psalm 147:16-17), is winter a time of stark, severe lifelessness or a moment of preparation and continuance of life? Or should we not try to categorize in binaries of good/bad, either/or?

If that can indicate the challenge of trying to discern God’s Wisdom and not being stuck with a God who is too small, then the next part of the paradoxical challenge is that we also strive to make our God too big, where the Prologue of John very specifically wants us to zero in on a small God, a God who is maybe about eight pounds when his diapers aren’t wet, a God who is not far beyond our finite comprehensions but is very locally contained to a crib in Nazareth.

Ignoring the scandal of particularity, we constantly go searching off to discover and peel back divine masks, making our own efforts at apocalypse (revealing, unveiling) of the mystery of God (Ephesians 1:9), conjuring our self-made spiritual fantasies, all the while creating God in our image. But much more mysterious is that this proclaims it is only Jesus, God the Son, who makes God known to us; the rest we simply cannot see (John 1:18). Are we willing to accept that the truth of God’s mystery and its impact on our existence has been or is being made known to us in Jesus, as a baby and on through his life and death?

For me, as much as I love studying and learning science and noticing these connections, at the heart I need to cherish that this is not about my understanding or acceptance, but is that we’ve been chosen (Ephesians 1:3), given the Holy Spirit (1:13), a pledge to be brought along in redemption with God’s people (1:14) and all those things in heaven and on earth. Toward the end, I trust that the one who is close to God’s bosom (John 1:18 in the closer and more maternal translation) also brings us into that proximity, that intimacy of love and life.

Nick Utphall
nick@theMCC.net

Originally written by Nick Utphall in 2021. Read more by Nick Utphall at https://utphall.wordpress.com/