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Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

The Story of Jesus the Servant of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the triune God of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

As we noted in our commenting on Jesus Farewell Discourse (see the “Sixth Sunday of Easter” in this series), the issues at stake in the development of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in the Church’s first four centuries are all adumbrated in the readings for the last four Sundays of Easter. Jaroslav Pelican summarizes them well:

“the question of unity of the God or monotheism that will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the churches relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that the church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics. (For the basis of this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172).

The doctrine of the Trinity, in the form of the Nicene Creed, serves to keep the church responsive to these issues. As we have seen, the issues are significant for understanding the Christian concern for care of creation. The bond between redemption and creation was part of our discussion on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The Holy Spirit figured importantly, of course, in our comment on the Day of Pentecost. And we explored the relationship of the Father and the Son with respect to its significance for the ongoing life of the church in the post-Ascension period. It remains, then, to take up the issue of the unity of God or monotheism, as it also bears upon our concern for the care of creation.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is the tradition’s guarantee that the story of Jesus belongs as part and parcel of the story of Israel’s God, who, as our first reading reminds us, is confessed to be the creator of all things. Thus the Sunday of the Holy Trinity provides occasion for a recapitulation of the narrative of the Gospel of the Servant of Creation, whose life and mission we have followed through the readings for the seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter. Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, perhaps even the authority and power of this God of creation? And if so, what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times?

The Gospel of the Servant of Creation which we have constructed on the foundation of lections from the Seasons of Epiphany, Lent and Easter begins with that “creational moment” of Jesus’ baptism, when the water “falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open, and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove.” Rising from gently troubled waters, he hears “the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation.” This is the one God calls “my servant. . . my chosen,” the one who will bring forth justice to the nations. He will see waters far more violently troubled, including those of our time stirred up by the changing of Earth’s climate. If it is the church’s expectation that Jesus will bring justice to all the Earth, will he bring justice also to those troubled waters? (See Matthew 3:13-7; Isaiah 42:1-9).

So, from the outset, the story of Jesus is about this “trinity”: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it is about the care for creation of this triune God. Instructed by the Spirit, John the Baptist hails this Son as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” His death, we have noted, will become “an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life, as well as with the victims of social competition” (Second Sunday after the Epiphany). He will call as his first disciples fishermen who are experienced with life at the edge of the wilderness, who are familiar with imperial strategies to dominate the economies of the Earth’s lands and seas and who will be able to envision ‘new ways of living in and with the non-human creation,’ ways that bring ‘the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs, and for the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood’” of the creation (Third Sunday After the Epiphany). Following the way first taken by Moses, he will ascend a mountain to teach these disciples; as representative of the ecology of the earth, the mountain attends to that teaching with an ear for wisdom that “tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community”—i.e. for a “land ethic” that might truly “constitute justice for the whole creation.”

The mountain is not disappointed, for here is teaching that buoys the spirit of people who, in our time, care passionately about an Earth in deep distress and who genuinely mourn its destruction. Jesus blesses those who give place to others, a fundamental principle of ecological awareness; and he also blesses those who live according to the purposes their Creator has installed within their very nature. The mountain rejoices to hear him reject the “bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’ in favor of the sacrifice of love that overcomes the ‘pattern of sin endlessly repeated’ of taking ‘creation not as a gift but as a violence—either the violence of order or the violence of chaos—an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty” (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany). As “salt for the earth” and “light of the world,” his followers will “carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time” (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany). With an ear for Moses’ admonition to “choose life,” Jesus prepares to descend the mountain of wisdom and walk the plains of Galilee with his disciples, whom he gathers as he goes; he will lead them in a “demonstration project of the power of God’s love” lived out in a community of relationships that include all that God loves, the whole creation (Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). He steels them for what lies ahead by envisioning for them the possibility that they might not only love what God loves, but love as God loves: “without expectation of reciprocity, without self-interested conditions . . . without qualifying distinctions”  (Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany).

With a full complement of eight Sundays, the extended season of Epiphany provided the occasion for an excursus at this last point, namely, on the real difficulties humans face in realizing such unconditioned, self-giving love for others, especially given our existential anxiety concerning the availability of the material resources we feel we need to sustain our lives. Noting that the texts implied a difference in the way God values human and non-human creatures, we asked, “Granted that God desires human flourishing . . . does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation?” Jesus would have us “not worry;” and so he assures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. Yet the creation provides for neither human nor other creatures’ flourishing consistently; our anxiety responds to a “deep insufficiency” that is “built into nature’s creative process.” Nevertheless, Jesus would have us refuse the master of wealth in favor of obedience to God—and for good reason from the perspective of the care of creation. For in its multiple aspects, the pursuit of wealth is easily the chief “driver of environmental deterioration,” in James Gustave Speth’s apt characterization.

This conversation about serving wealth, we noted, again took place in the presence of mountains, our ecological representative of the creation. Obviously, much is at stake in that conversation, for them and for their co-creatures. And indeed, it is fascinating to see how the struggle between these rival loyalties plays out in the culmination of Jesus’ story, to the benefit or to the adversity of the creation. The story from this point moves, as it were, from mountain to mountain: first to Tabor, the Mount of Transfiguration; then, by way of the observance of Ash Wednesday, to the ecologically provocative plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains,” which attends the people’s abandonment of the covenant; to the mountain of temptation in the wilderness; and so eventually to the conflict with the religious and political leaders on Mount Zion. These earthly witnesses to Jesus’ passage through the land provide consistent testimony regarding the importance of this story for the creation.  What happened to Jesus on Tabor, we noted, is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the “sign of things to come for the whole creation.” As the concerns of the disciples about status and power in the kingdom of God fall away, the Transfiguration draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world” to which the mountain’s “landscape of accessible and gentle beauty” invites them (Transfiguration of our Lord). The “blackness upon the mountains” of the text from the prophet Joel read on Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, prompts a call for repentance in our contemporary situation for the environmental crisis of our time, in response to God’s promise to restore the people to “the life and well-being that God intended for the creation” (Ash Wednesday).

The issues at stake here are focused most sharply, however, when the Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life,” leads Jesus “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” We summed up the significance of their confrontation this way: considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations exhibit: one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and three, 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 Earth. Wilderness is respected as a sanctuary for the non-human creation; the relationship of humans to non-human neighbors on the turf they share is characterized by self-limitation within the bounds of creation and regard for “otherkind.”

These eco-friendly decisions are not merely co-incidental bi-products of Jesus’ more obvious concern to be obedient to the will of God, we argued. When read in the context of the story of human temptation from Genesis 2 and 3, the account of the temptation shows that what Jesus does for God in his temptations is what God intended humans to do in and for the creation. “To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God.” In the struggle that is here joined between the dominion of life and the dominion of death, Jesus clearly chooses the dominion of life (First Sunday of Lent).

He will be faithful to that choice on his way to Mount Zion. As we saw in the readings for the Sundays of Lent, his words and actions on the way to Jerusalem fill out his role as Servant of Creation. In his conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus, Jesus evoked the power of the Holy Spirit who makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. In his conversation with the woman from Samaria at the well of Jacob, Jesus “brought ‘living water,’ i.e. water with Spirit, to heal the alienation of the woman from her neighbors and of Samaritans from Jews, but also to show how water can serve as the means for reconciliation of all things everywhere on this blue planet.” And with his healing of the man born blind, Jesus practiced what humans are for, serving God by serving the creation, while exposing the blindness of the Pharisees, who refused to see in his healing a truly holy use of water that would contribute to the flourishing of all God’s creatures. And even in the face of the death of his dear friend Lazarus, his actions were governed by what we have come to call the rule of the servant of God’s creation: “What he does is always shaped and determined. . , not by his own very human desires and loves, but by what God knows the world needs, what God wants for the world God so loves” (Fifth Sunday in Lent). This is true to the end of Jesus’ life. Even in his confrontation with the powers of temple and empire, his actions are not about what he wants, but about “what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation” (Passion Sunday).

As we proclaimed on reading the lections for the Resurrection of Our Lord, this service to creation is vindicated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The power of death’s dominion has been broken, even though not driven from Earth. So the meaning of the resurrection has to be about more than vindication. That is to say that the resurrection is also a first demonstration of the restoration of creation, of the “new creation.” A bulwark against all later attempts to “spiritualize” the meaning of the Resurrection, the readings for the Sundays of Easter consistently exhibit the conviction that Jesus’ service to the creation is for its restoration and perfection, not its abandonment. The new creation is already begun, and “is made manifest as the Risen Lord comes to the community of faith in the breaking of bread” (Fourth Sunday of Easter). As Risen Lord, Jesus provides sustenance in a meal that models human flourishing in the context of a restored creation, for which he will both locate place and provide way, truth and life in the company of his Father, the Creator of all things. As we wrote in summary comment on the readings for the post-ascension Seventh Sunday of Easter:

Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on Earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found, from time to time, more desirable and “wise,” from a human point of view (Seventh Sunday of Easter).

It is the reality of this New Creation that the church experiences and continues to foster, as we enter more deeply into the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the weeks of the season of Pentecost to come, we will explore the fruits, both early and late, of this New Creation.

Is Jesus recognizable as one who shares the will, the purposes, and even the authority and power of this God of creation? On the basis of this narrative, we have to answer “yes”—decidedly so! And it is consistent with this judgment that in the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday that the disciples went “to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, to receive the great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’” (Matthew 28:18). Again, the mountain is the ecologically responsible witness. And Jesus is the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given,” meaning thereby that he is responsible for all thing contained within the cosmos. His is “the dominion,” which, in Greek, is the same word as “authority,” Warren Carter notes (in Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 551) that both the reading from Genesis and the reading from Psalm 8 remind us that what was granted to humankind in the beginning of creation was the responsibility to care for the needs of all the non-human creations, both wild and domestic, both on land and in the sea. Jesus is the human image of God, who, as we suggested in our comment on the readings for Name of Jesus in the Season of Christmas, “does what humans were created to do: care for Earth by exercising their God-given powers of mind and spirit to the benefit of all creation” (Name of Jesus).

Then what are we to make of the fact that this aspect of his life and mission has been so sorely neglected in the teaching of the church until very recent times? The text tells us that when the disciples saw him, some worshiped him, but others doubted. There is room in this story for those who have difficulty accepting Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation. Certainly, misunderstandings and misapplications of the claim of “dominion” have contributed to a resistance to accept Jesus on the part of advocates for Earth. (For our brief discussion of this issue, as raised by cultural historian Lynn White, see our comment on the Name of Jesus.) Of deeper and more general significance, perhaps, is what Norman Wirzba describes as the “culture as denial of creation.” The problem, he suggests, is that in modern culture, we no longer share what he calls “the experience of creation:”

Though many people still profess a vague belief in a higher power that created the universe, there are almost no signs indicating that people have thought seriously about themselves as created being enmeshed in a common redemptive fate with the rest of the created order and that this belief should have any effect in practical, day-to-day decision-making. For the most part, our assumptions about reality, its ontological status, reflect modern scientific, economic, and technological views that place humanity and its interests over and against the natural world. Nature, rather than being the realm of God’s creative work and plan, the object of God’s good pleasure, is the foil for human technique and desire (Wirzba, The Paradise of God, p. 62).

Thus, it is important that we get “clear about how changing concrete and social conditions mitigate or promote our capacity for attention, care, and responsibility—all virtues central to the divinely mandated vocation that we till and keep the earth,” and seek understanding of “those features of modern life that compromise our experience of the world as creation and thus distort our vocations as servants of it” (Ibid., p. 64).

First on the list of Wirzba’s culprits is the demise in modern culture of the practice of an allegorical method for the interpretation of scripture. “Allegorical interpretation,” he observes, “reflected a mental milieu in which words, the world, and God together formed a whole through which meaning and sense could circulate.” Collapse of this approach was due, not to the influence of an alien force of secularization, as one might think, but rather to the efforts of faithful “Protestant reformers to “establish the authority of scripture in terms of its literal and historical sense.” Nonetheless, the loss to the faith was real. As Wirzba explains, “allegory presupposes that the whole of reality forms an organic unity in which humans, because they participate in the material and spiritual realms, play an important role. As creatures made in the image of God we are exemplars, a microcosm of the universe, and thus form a bridge or conduit that mediates this world and the divine intention.”

The combination of the readings from Genesis 1 and Psalm 8, we might note, provided authorization for this view. Faithful understanding is part of the dominion given, lost, and restored (Ibid., p. 66). When on nominalist epistemological grounds, this linkage no longer made sense, both God and the human being were liberated from its constraints and responsibilities: God becomes an “inscrutable, unpredictable being, massively large and powerful, that exists, if God exists at all, beyond this life and world.” Humanity was left to construct life’s meaning on its own, and the world of things was demoted to the status of objects for human manipulation. “Whereas premodern cultures understood value to be embedded within the world, the modern mind separated fact and value, housing the former in an objective world and the latter in a form-giving subject. The sense of the world as creation, as ordered in terms of a divine plan, is largely gone” (Ibid, p.68-70).

Other factors in this “loss of creation,” according to Wirzba, include the “eclipse of agrarian life,” which comes as a result of the fact that as the practice of farming has been industrialized. Technology more generally transforms our access to the reality of the world from one of participatory engagement to a spectator observer of “bits of data, which means that the context for understanding is limited to the moment of the glance” (Ibid., p. 79). “The modern technological mind, in short, destroys the sacred, divests the world of its sanctity or integrity, since its overriding goal is to transform the world into means for decidedly human ends” (Ibid., p. 81). Our culture has become abstract:  “interdependencies are either forgotten, denied, or scorned, the assumption being that persons float above their life-giving context, dipping in and out as consumption patterns dictate” (Ibid., p. 85). The processes that sustain human life are increasingly severed from the processes of the earth, as money becomes the medium for all interaction between them.

And finally, the meaning of creation is made difficult by “the growing irrelevance of God:” As we have become controllers of our own fate, God has simply become an unnecessary hypothesis. We, rather than God, run the world. Talk of God as a creator who is intimately and concernfully involved in the daily affairs of existence is simply quaint, a reflection of the refusal to deal with the naturalistic assumptions of modern science. How, then, can we think of ourselves and the world as creation, when the idea of a creator has been so severely compromised? (Ibid., p. 91).

If there is still much “God-talk,” the reality to which the talk refers is seriously compromised:

“Whereas the God of former times may have arisen in a context in which the feeling of our dependence was palpable and clear, the God of our consumer society is dependent upon us for its reality and significance” (Ibid., p. 91). . . . “God is not so much dead, as absent: God has been banished by us in the drive to fashion a world according to our own liking or, failing that, the liking of corporate, global, economic forces. In this divine banishment, it is not surprising that the nature of the divine power as being-for-another should be entirely lost on us. We cannot be the caretakers of creation because the divine model for such care has been systematically denied or repressed by the dominant cultural trends of the last several centuries” (Ibid., p. 92).

At best, God becomes our personal friend, and Jesus a ‘soul mate’ who feels our pain and encourages us in our distancing ourselves from engagement in the web of nature. The idea that God is the God of creation and Jesus the servant of creation would appear, in view of this cultural situation, to be excised from the teaching of the church simply because it no longer makes sense within a culture that has no experience of creation, and probably cannot have one, given the way our minds and our society are structured to interpret and interact with the world.

What then are we to do? Or more to the point here, does what we have done in constructing this narrative of Jesus the Servant of Creation address the situation at all effectively? Readers will have to judge this matter for themselves and, in doing so, will profitably draw on the many other interpreters of both scripture and culture that have become engaged in this conversation. But we would hope that we have at least made a good beginning, and we would point to several aspects of our commentary that give us hope in relationship to Wirzba’s analysis. In the first place, Wirzba argues for the difference that ecological science is making in our understanding of the world as fundamentally relational (Ibid., pp. 93-122).  At several points we have been in conversation with ecological science and its foundational theory of evolutionary development and we have drawn on writers who are themselves in such conversations. That conversation with the science of ecology actually shapes our discussion at some depth.

Working back through Wirzba’s list, we may also note that biblical scholars are finding new insights on which to base a “relational theology of creation.” In particular, we have found the work of Terry Fretheim extremely helpful in this regard. For example, his interpretation of Genesis 1, which is of interest for this Sunday, pays attention to the multiple modes of God’s creative activity. God not only originates creation, but also continues creating, which “enables the becoming of the creation;” and God completes creation, by which action “something genuinely new will come to be” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 5-9). God is creator/maker, speaker, evaluator, and consultant of others; in interaction with one another. Fretheim suggests that “these images provide a more relational model of creation than has been traditionally presented.” On the other hand, he disallows imaging God as “victor” over the powers of chaos; while chaos is, to be sure, tamed in the process of creation, it remains an element in the creation that God considers to be “good;” and “a key human responsibility set out in the command of Gen 1:28 is to work creatively with that disorder,” as contrasted with authorization to dominate it and bring it under control. Neither does Fretheim hold in high regard the interpretation of God in this text as “king,” because a decisive argument against it is the “democratization that is inherent in the claim that every human being is created in the image of God. If royal language as been democratized, then royal links that may be present have been subverted and non-hierarchical perspectives prevail.” (God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 36-47.)  Here is a God with whom people in contemporary culture informed by ecological and evolutionary science can much more easily relate!

Additionally, in the development of our narrative, we have worked to keep our discussion relevant to real world situations, where the interdependencies of “life-giving sources of food, energy, and water” are at stake” (Ibid., p. 85). We have emphasized the need for non-anthropocentric understandings of the human/nature relationship. We find the thought of agrarians such as Waldo Leopold and Wendell Berry helpful for translating the meaning of the story of Jesus into our context.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we think that this commentary’s search for the Servant of Creation amidst the appointed texts for the Sunday’s worship services serves to bring us back into something like that allegorical imagination that allows for a sense of creation to be part of a congregation’s shared experience. It is within the conversation between the texts—in the presence of water that can be the bearer of Spirit, and of bread and wine that are acknowledged as gifts of the Creator, even as they are also nature transformed by human hands—that we find the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One who invites the community into the experience of creation and moves it toward assuming responsibility for its care. The story of the Servant of Creation becomes our story, even as our story of the abandonment of creation has become his. And he is with us, to the end of the age.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Ormseth)

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2017)

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

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

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023) 

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

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