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Sunday July 17-23 in Year B (Mundahl15)

Shepherds and Children Tom Mundahl reflects on restoring a healing relationship with the natural world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The readings for this “Shepherd Sunday” ask us to embrace an image problematic in a culture whose focus is too often on acquiring a new Apple Watch or wondering whether that Tesla electric car will finally become affordable. Yet, the power of this metaphor seen vividly in the sixth century churches of Ravenna, Italy, built in an eastern style teeming with colorful mosaics, is even more important today. For the image of the shepherd, portrayed so colorfully in the central dome of Sant’ Appolinaire in Classe, celebrates new creation and resurrection life with trees, streams, peacocks, lions, mythological creatures, and many sheep, depicting a fullness that robs these consumer baubles of their gleam. That fullness belongs to all.

For those of us struggling to serve creation, the importance of the image of “shepherd” cannot be over-emphasized. Is there a biblical role more appropriate to carrying out the call to “tend and care” for all that God has made? (Genesis 2:15) Historically, that metaphor soon was applied to kings who followed in the line of David, the “shepherd boy.” Shepherd-kings could be models of care and compassion. And, if they failed, there were prophets to illuminate their actions, exposing the actions of those who “fed themselves instead of the sheep” (Ezekiel 34:2), or “scattered the sheep of my pasture” (Jeremiah 23:1).

Jeremiah’s prophetic language makes it clear that recent monarchs called to serve their people and land have failed. They are the ones responsible for the “scattering of the sheep”—the exile in Babylon. Now, the only solution, according to Jeremiah, is for the LORD to assume the shepherd’s staff “and gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them . . .” (Jeremiah 23:3). Not only that, but this new divine “shepherd” will “raise up shepherds (kings) over them, who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, nor be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:4)

Here, Jeremiah gets uncomfortably specific. The LORD will begin this process by installing a new servant-king with the (to us) florid name, “the LORD is my righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Of course, this is the meaning of the name Zedekiah, the puppet king installed by Nebuchadrezzer before the beginning of actual deportations in 587-586 BCE. Since this “righteous one” will be anointed by the LORD and not Nebuchadrezzar, a new king is on the way. For the former Zedekiah’s name was public relations only; in fact, he continued to fleece his people (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible Commentary, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 143).

Yet, Jeremiah sees more than a new head of state coming. Jeremiah 23:7-8 (which should be included in this pericope) foresees a time when the return from exile will be seen as even more important than the first Exodus. Not only does this remind us of the landless lack of identity experienced by deportees, but it also suggests the stunning new embrace of the land that will occur when they return. Once more will those who return will experience as if for the first time what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “ a world charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose, New York: Knopf, 1995, p.14), a land community to tend and care for like a shepherd.

Failure of leadership is nothing new. American political culture too often rewards cabinet secretaries and those in high office with powerful positions in “the private sector,” where they can now dance through regulatory mazes with confidence as they earn handsome salaries. Of course, the reverse is often true: business leaders are appointed to positions of leadership where they carry mandates to regulate the very firms they have come from, and, perhaps, will return to. What would a Jeremiah have to say about the “shepherds” benefiting from this system of “interlocking directorates” stemming from this perverse “circulation of elites”?

James Luther Mays begins his reflection on Psalm 23 with a helpful discussion of metaphor. To use a metaphor, such as “the LORD is my shepherd,” says Mays, “conveys more and speaks more powerfully than it is possible to do in discursive speech.” (Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, pp. 115-116). While this seems to be invariably true, how much more so is it true in this powerful psalm celebrating God’s shepherding during a time of crisis.

Roman Catholic scholar John S. Kselman dates the composition of the psalm to the same period of early exile in which Jeremiah worked. As Kselman suggests, this ‘psalm of trust’ points to a “divine shepherd, who leads his people in a new Exodus through danger (vv. 1-4) to security (vv. 5-6).” (New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 23). The logic of the psalm begins with an initial statement: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want” (or, better, “nothing shall I lack”). (Psalm 23:1). The remainder of the psalm, then, describes in powerful poetry all that this people on their New Exodus journey do not lack.

In many ways, the psalm could read as a preferred alternative to Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” and finds an echo in Luther’s Small Catechism with the explanation of “The First Article” of the Apostles’ Creed. According to Luther, to confess “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth,” is, in fact, to say:

“I believe that God has created me and all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children livestock, and all property . . . . God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, 1162).

Notice that both the psalm and Luther’s “explanation” focus on needs, not the many created wants of contemporary consumer culture. These provide a model of shaping community and personal life so that we can ex-tend ourselves in “tending and caring” (Genesis 2:15) in service to the whole creation, a service that necessarily involves a redistribution of wealth in order to meet needs with justice.

That “extension” is clearly visible in our text from Mark’s Gospel. As Jesus’ disciples return from their preaching-healing tour, they all need a rest. Instead of welcome breathing space in the wilderness, the crowds keep coming. Even escape by boat proves impossible. According to Ched Myers, “Now even the wilderness is congested with those in need. Yet rather than responding in exasperation, Jesus demonstrates compassion, and proceeds to teach them until the late hours” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 206).

To react with compassion in such a difficult situation because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34) vaults this “human one” into clear shepherd status. And, in no way should this be seen as a safe exercise in pastoral sympathy. As Walter Brueggemann notes, “In the arrangement of “lawfulness” in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharoah, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. The norms of law are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 88). Jesus’ extension of compassion is a revolutionary refusal to countenance the numbness built up by decades of imperial rule in favor of authentic hope.

Jesus’ compassion is practical radicalism: he frees his listeners from the “exile” of infirmity and numb despair (cf. Jeremiah 23:1-6). By honoring their need for learning, healing, and food, he invites them to be “at home” even in a land ruled by Roman “stooges” and religious collaborators. By showing compassion and promising an ‘end of exile,’ Jesus engenders opposition, especially among those “who possess the most and have the most to lose” (Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 174).

While the numbers of homeless refugees and people without hope for healing undoubtedly is far greater today than could be imagined in the first century, Elizabeth Kolbert has pointed out a similar threat to the rest of creation (The Sixth Extinction, New York: Macmillan, 2014). Perhaps this crisis will intensify the compassion toward all of creation which E. O. Wilson calls “biophilia,” an innate tendency to focus on life forms and to affiliate with them emotionally. (Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, New York: Vintage, 2002, p. 134)

The studies that have been done in this area largely revolve around the nurture of children. In the groundbreaking The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration in Ecopsychology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Theodore Roszak complains that the handbook of mental illness, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual “defines separation anxiety disorder as excessive anxiety concerning separation from home and those to whom the individual is attached. But no separation is more pervasive in this Age of Anxiety than our disconnection from the natural world” (pp. 14-15). Yet, if E. O. Wilson is correct, humankind—especially children—has a natural affinity for connecting with creation.

Among those who have picked up this theme is Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). After participating in a study group focused on this book, a group of adults at Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, MN, initiated a children’s gardening program using two of the congregation’s community garden plots. One of the goals of Kids Crops, as this program was called, was to help children experience what Louv calls “attention restoration” (Louv, pp. 103-105), a way of learning to experience and fall in love with God’s creation and all its “critters.”

The “shepherds” in this case were church members who love gardening. Although children were often challenged with learning about soil preparation, compost, weeding, and watering, their excited response as they ate pizzas spiced with peppers and onions they had grown demonstrated that the rift between children and creation [nature-deficit disorder] could be healed with joyful learning. Fortunately, similar work is being done in Saint Paul (and around the country) with programs like Urban Roots, which employs its seven gardens and small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization to introduce children and youth in the East Side neighborhoods to gardening.

And that is as it should be. As the author of Ephesians celebrates “breaking down the dividing wall” between Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14), we recall that this is integral to God’s shaping “all things” (Ephesians 1:10) into a new pattern. Certainly breaking down the wall between children and nature is part of this process.

Intrinsic to this new pattern is being “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2: 19). This is the fruit of God’s gift of “reconciliation,” άποκαταλλάσσω, a verb form used only here (v. 16) and in Colossians 1. Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate suggest that this powerful verb “intensifies the sense of reconciliation, possibly with reference to the enormity of the claim being made, that the entire universe was to be reconciled to the creator through the work of Christ on the cross.” (Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor University Press, p. 100). Which is precisely what shepherds do.

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

Sunday July 17-23 in Year B (Ormseth12)

Who Will Shepherd the Shepherdless? – Dennis Ormseth reflects on a way of life where vices have been transformed into economic virtues.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17 – July 23, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

On hearing the readings for this Sunday after Pentecost, those gathered for worship might easily regard themselves also as “sheep without a shepherd,” for whom Jesus has compassion. Like the social world from which the villagers of Galilee came to Jesus in the wilderness, the world from which contemporary worshipers come to hear his teaching is all too frequently as badly governed and managed as was Galilee under Herod Antipas. As among those guests with Herod when the head of John the Baptist was served up for food, so also amidst the conspicuous consumers of our political and economic elites, death reigns (see our comment on the readings for last Sunday). If told to go “into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat,” as Jesus’ disciples thought to instruct the gathering in the wilderness, those gathered today would be fully subject to the anxiety of providing for themselves from a market dominated by the politically powerful and the materially wealthy. Indeed, if anything, we have made a science of creating the economic circumstances that generate such anxieties for most of the people of the world.

Particularly telling is the instruction “to buy something for themselves to eat.” What’s typically available for people to buy these days are the products of a system in which people, simply by “providing for themselves,” as Norman Wirzba puts it, often “work against the very memberships [of creation] that sustain them.” Following a finely drawn description of the ecological degradation of Earth’s atmosphere, forests, soil, water and fisheries by modern, industrial agricultural practices, Wirzba’s indictment is strongly worded but unfortunately too true:

“In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhood and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 89).

No mere unintended consequence of good practices, Wirzba insists, this state of affairs “has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile,” as he characterizes the situation, exile from the good garden of God’s creation. “In a variety of ways,” he writes,

“today’s global, free-market economy guarantees that we will disregard, diminish, and destroy the larger economy of creation, and so deprive ourselves of the experience of home. It does this by (1) encouraging patterns of life that keep us from seeing and correctly interpreting where we are, and by (2) forming groups of people who, because of their habits and dispositions, find it very difficult to live into any place with sympathy, affection, responsibility, and joy. Paradoxically, the economic disciplines and practices that are supposed to help us live long and well within our homes are now largely responsible for ensuring that we will live perpetually in a state of exile” (Wirzba, p. 90).

Indeed, he argues, “the success of today’s consumer economy depends on the inattentiveness of its consumers. Very few people appreciate the extent to which their shopping decisions contribute to the degradation of the world’s ecosystems. Fewer still understand how this ecological degradation has the potential to catastrophically jeopardize long-term food safety and sustainability.” Meanwhile, as global food production becomes ever more securely tied to the profit-driven interests of multinational corporations, “land, water, minerals, energy, genetic diversity, as well as the many forms of social capital, are consolidated and then managed by a small number of elites. Because poor people cannot afford to enter the global economy, they are easily abandoned and forgotten, or they are made the objects of charity and relief efforts.” (Wirzba, p. 95).

Quoting Wendell Berry, Wirzba colorfully suggests that our economy is

“an anonymous economy of the “one-night stand”: “‘I had a good time,’ says the industrial lover, ‘but don’t ask me my last name.’ Just so, the industrial eater says to the svelte industrial hog, ‘We’ll be together at breakfast. I don’t want to see you before then, and I won’t care to remember you afterward.’” We don’t want to know the social, ecological, or health costs associated with our ignorant consumption because if we knew them we would need to give up the idea of “cheap” food “on demand.” Meanwhile, . . . the real costs to places and communities around the world are mounting” (Wirzba, p. 97).

The key point is that this whole development of the way we “provide for ourselves” is a long-term, intentional transformation of human culture. People have been taught “to think differently about human behavior and the aims of a good human life.” What “the great moral and spiritual traditions” once regarded as vices “—pride, greed, prodigality—“ have been “transformed into economic virtues,” so that “Adam Smith’s ideas about production, acquisition, and work “ could take hold. In a fundamental “redefinition of self-interest” people have come “to measure personal worth in terms of private wealth”; then it “is a short step from the legitimation of self-interest to the enshrinement of competition and destruction as the normal, even necessary, courses of economic life” (Wirzba, p. 99).

In light of this analysis of the world from which we come to Jesus for sanctuary and healing, how are we to understand the significance of this Sunday’s gathering around Mark’s teaching? Is the feeding of the five thousand a model of charity, as though Jesus’ compassion is mostly about “feeding the hungry?” Beyond that possibility, the commonly invoked alternative of teaching people to provide for themselves is clearly inadequate. Mark’s purpose with this feeding narrative, we need to recall (and with the associated one that follows when Jesus and his disciples “land at Gennesaret” and draw a similar crowd, this time of Gentiles), is informed by narratives from Israel’s prophetic tradition. As Ched Myers points out, Mark “is working with several images from the Hebrew scriptures here. The Exodus account of Yahweh’s sustenance of Israel in the ‘wilderness’ obviously comes to mind.” Mark’s narrative is more directly patterned on “an episode in the Elisha miracle cycle “(2 Kings 4:42-44), however, occurring as it does“ in the context of “famine in the land (2 Kings 4:38),” and the bringing of first fruits. And of course a “third Old Testament allusion is the phrase ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mark 6:34),” which the prophets used “to criticize the leadership of Israel.” Our first lesson from Jeremiah 23:1-6 is one of several possible citations from this tradition (cf. Numbers 27:17; I Kings 22:17; Ezekiel. 34:5-6). In Myers’ view, Ezekiel 34 is particularly significant: it spins a parable around the phrase “that specifically condemns class stratification: ‘I will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep” (Ezekiel 34:20). The ruling class protects its privilege rather than the collective prosperity of the people, becoming predator instead of shepherd.” And for similar reasons, the motif occurs again in the apocalyptic section of Zechariah 11-12. “Clearly,” Myers concludes, “linking Jesus—as one who attends to the hunger of the crowds in the wilderness—with these prophetic traditions is meant as a criticism of the political economy of Palestine and the ruling class who profits from it. And, as we shall see, Mark will again draw upon the Zechariah parable at the end of the story (Mark 14:27)” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 206-08.)

In other words, Mark’s narrative contains a political critique that provides a basis for addressing the circumstances of “exile from God’s creation” described above. More is called for than either charity for the unfortunate or enhancement of their technological mastery of resources. Governance is the central concern and the question is: Whose governance? Who will shepherd the shepherdless in our ecologically destructive time into a healthy relationship with Earth? Accordingly, note must be taken that the text resonates with deep theological considerations. As Gordon Lathrop reminds us in commenting on these texts, the metaphor of the “shepherd for shepherdless people” is a metaphor for God. And while on the one hand, “to the hearers of this gospel-book, the isolation and hiddenness, of course, function as a narrative reminder of the crucifixion of Jesus, his greatest isolation, where he was most kat’ idian” (by himself), on the other hand, “the crowd which streams to this isolated one and the compassion and food which come from him are narrative presentations of the resurrection.” And the crowd, he notes,

“includes also the present assembly of hearers of the story. Once again, even this fragment of the feeding story is a secret epiphany of the Crucified and Risen One—indeed, an epiphany of the shepherd God –present in the midst of the church. . . . . the ‘shepherd’s’ profound compassion is already the beginning of food for the crowd, a food radically different from anything that Herod served in the immediately preceding narrative[p. 114]. . . . Can given-away, mercy-filled food lead? Yes.” (“Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year B, 2000, pp. 113-14).

So, “let the sermon announce the judgment of God on false leadership, including the preacher’s own,” admonishes Lathrop, while announcing the gathering, wall-destroying, death-destroying leadership of God, present in the grace, leisure, and life—in the food-–that is here given away. And let the assembly be a temple for that God, for the holy Trinity, the God of boundless compassion” (Lathrop, p. 115).

Further development of these theological themes awaits as for the next five Sundays we turn to the narrative of the feeding by the “Bread of Life” from chapter six of the Gospel of John. Lest we leave too quickly the down-to-earth implications of the prophetic critique of leadership, however, our second lesson from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the shepherding of God has implications for the gathering’s understanding of itself: as Lathrop summarizes the remarkable images for the church contained in the reading, “The church is a union of the far-off and the near, with the wall torn down and the law which divided abolished (2:14-15). It is indeed the ragged crowd of the Gospel. The church is the ‘household of God,’ the gathered people, a single body, and yet a new-built temple (2:19-20)” (Lathrop, p. 115). That perspective is present in Mark’s narrative as well: Jesus feeds both Jew and Gentile in the wilderness, where God is clearly and unquestionably the host. If, as we have been arguing in this series of comments on the lections for year B, Mark’s narrative is about the displacement of the presence of God from the temple in Jerusalem to the person of Jesus, this “ragged crowd” is privileged by being newly at home with him in the creation given to sustain their lives.

Wirzba describes well what this means for the community, drawing on the prophet whose voice we heard in our first reading, although at another place:

“If we are to enjoy the abundant, delectable life God makes possible, we must first become disciples or apprentices of God the gardener. Perhaps this is why the prophet Jeremiah, speaking to people who knew intimately the pain and place of exile, admonished them to plant gardens and seek the welfare of the city as a sign of hope (Jeremiah 29:5-7). Insofar as people practice the attention and discipline of good work, work that honors the Creator and affirms the need and nurture of creation’s memberships, they share in the life-giving ways of God. The crucial point, however, is that human hope for a good life and a healthy home depends on the affirmation of creatureliness and the embrace of the memberships of life. The path out of exile is a path inspired and directed by God’s own care-full, life-creating work in the world” (Wirzba, p. 76).

If “all around us the memberships of creation are coming apart” (Wirzba, p. 80), what creatures “need is the healing and strengthening of memberships, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on Earth of Christ’s practice or way of being, has a vital role to play (Wirzba, p. 147).

Originally by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Christ the King Sunday in Year A (Ormseth)

We are the sheep of God’s pasture. We are the people of God’s Earth. Dennis Ormseth reflects on  the inclusion of land and water in God’s reign.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Pentcost), Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Jesus identifies with “the least of these.”

The long awaited king comes in glory, accompanied by God’s angels. He comes to judge “all the nations”—which includes “all people, Christian, Jews, and Gentiles” He comes as a shepherd, separating out his sheep from the goats, those who follow him in care of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, the naked, the ill, and those imprisoned and those who do not follow him. He comes as “the humble, not conquering, king of the triumph.” Indeed, he comes as one who identifies himself with “the least of these,” and now judges on their behalf according to the purposes and authority of his Father (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, pp. 493-95).

The sheep have followed Jesus in service to the least.

In themselves, the six actions listed—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison—are, as Carter notes, “traditional (Job 22:6-7; Isaiah 58:6-7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Tobit 4:16-17; Sirach 7:32-36; Testament of Joseph 1:5-7). Jesus performs them to manifest God’s reign/empire or saving presence in a world of sinful oppression . . . He has taught disciples to perform them as they carry out their mission of manifesting God’s reign/empire.” It is significant that as compared with “dominant cultural practices,” these actions “are nonreciprocal and are concerned for the needs of the other, not the honor and social credit of the giver” (Ibid.  p. 493). Remarkably, Jesus, as the powerful Son of Man, enacts the judgment which involves actions done to Jesus, the suffering servant. The righteous and the unrighteous alike are surprised by this strong identification of the king with the poor. Judgment of the people is based on whether they have taken on his role as their servant. The final verb of the judgment, as Carter notes, is “to take care,” which

“literally means ‘to serve.’ It is the verb by which Jesus sums up the mission of the Son of Man in 20:28 (‘not to be served but to serve’). It denotes actions by angels (4:11), and by women disciples (8:15, giving him food and drink, welcoming him; 27:55). Its cognate noun ‘servant’ names the identity of disciples as a marginal, low-status community in 20:26; 23:11 (cf. 24:45-51; 25; 14-30). The condemned have not lived as disciples. They have not recognized Jesus’ authority over their lives, despite calling him Lord” (cf.7:21-23) (Ibid., p. 497).

Followers of the king who is to be revealed in the remaining chapters of Matthew’s Gospel as the suffering servant of God will follow him in this service, and their service will be vindicated as such in the final judgment. Like those saints identified in our reading from the Sermon on the Mount, they are blessed by Jesus’ Father, and they will inherit the kingdom of God.

The needy have an ecological context, as they have a socio-political context.

Given the finality of this vision and this strong emphasis on the role of the servant, we could wish that care for the non-human creation was among the six actions in which the servant is to be encountered. As we have demonstrated in our comments on the lectionary for Year A, the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is appropriately seen as the Lord, the servant of all Creation. The focus here would seem instead to be exclusively anthropological, typically so, one might lament: once more the needs of the human creature are privileged over those of the non-human creature. This focus is probably unavoidable, however, since the emphasis here is on Jesus: the human Jesus will be present in and among the representative human needy. And, in any case, these needy do have real social, political, and even ecological contexts. As Carter points out, the actions Jesus calls for are directed to meet the very real practical needs of people who were likely to be found

“among the majority (non-elite) population of a city such as Antioch, the likely place of Matthew’s audience. Among the unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions, the uneven and inadequate food and water supply, limited sewage disposal, the epidemics and infections fed by urine, feces, trash, corpses, decay, and insects, and the general misery of poverty, lack, and debt, disciples are to use their limited resources to meet these basic human needs of the poor” (Ibid. p. 495).

Among those needs, in short, are conditions that we would indeed describe today as “environmental,” conditions that impact in every way the quality of the people’s life. The servanthood of Jesus recognized by the righteous encompasses care for neighborhood as well as neighbor, to draw on another metaphor we have encountered in our readings and, finally, for all creation.

Indeed, above all, sheep need land, good pasture!

Attentive listeners to the first lesson read this Sunday will be prepared to receive this more inclusive, ecological understanding of human need. This human Jesus, servant king of the poor, our reading of Ezekiel 34 asserts, is also a shepherd, and indeed, not just any shepherd, but God, the true shepherd who addresses the need of his sheep in comprehensive scope:

As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel (Ezekiel 34:12-14).

In this vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the preeminent need of the sheep, we note, is land: fertile, well-watered mountainsides where they can rest and feed “on rich pasture.”  We have also encountered this metaphor earlier, in the Season of Easter. It’s inclusion here as part of the statement of the church’s eschatological conviction underscores the importance of care of creation in the future witness of the church; if Jesus the Good Shepherd is properly part of the vision of how God will bring all things to conclusion, not only his sheep, but also the pasture in which his sheep graze belongs to that vision.

Note the rest of Ezekiel 34 dealing with pollution.

That being said, we can regret all the more that the appointed reading from Ezekiel 34 does not include verses 17-19. The problem between the sheep, these verses make clear, is that not only do the fat sheep refuse to give place to the lean sheep (“you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide” [v. 20]), but they harm the pasture as well: “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?” And they foul the water: “When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?” (v. 18). The point is repeated for emphasis: “And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?” (v. 19). A contemporary analogy comes quickly to mind: the feed lots of industrial agriculture not only foul the air, water, and soil of the pasture, but drive out the environmentally-sensitive, small farmer, who struggles to compete in a market structured to favor the large scale operator. This is a vivid metaphor and very much to the ecological point: there are those who make place for others in which to live; and there are those who do not, who indeed on the contrary lay waste the space that others need for life. Social justice and ecological justice are clearly coupled to each other in this picture. God’s servant David was one of the former; so also, we confess, was Jesus. And so also, our readings insist, shall be those who follow him.

And, the promise of a natural covenant of peace

It will help to bring this insight forward in this Sunday’s sermon, if Ezekiel verses 17-19 are included in the reading, and the reader would do well to extend the reading further to include verses 25-31. The additional verses show why these servants of God do what they do; they do, quite simply, what God does; namely, they serve and keep the garden of Earth:

I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods secure. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid.  I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God (Ezekiel 34:25-31).

We are the people of God’s pasture!

Allowing that in biblical ecology the banishment of wild animals does not mean their extermination, but rather their restoration to a place in which they also can live in peace, this covenanting God promises to restore all creatures to their appointed place in the creation. God will sustain them there, in accordance with God’s purposes, in the kingdom prepared “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). There, we might imagine, they will join the angels of God in the hymn of praise appointed as the psalm for this Sunday—a truly ecologically sensitive hymn, in the view of one commentator (see Arthur Walker-Jones, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, pp. 135-36). Thus does the year end with all God’s creatures, saints and servants, joining in praise of their Creator and his Servant: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!” (Psalm 95:6-7).

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

Sunday June 12-18 in Year A (Mundahl)

A Community to Serve the Whole Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on support, endurance, and hope for the challenges we face.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 12-18, Year A (2020, 2023)

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

The arrival of the novel coronavirus has shaken our culture to the foundations. In a matter of a few months, trust in endless economic expansion and progress has all but disappeared. The vaunted American medical system — the “best in the world” — has been unmasked as a disorganized boutique  set of arrangements designed to treat illness among the economically advantaged, not a resilient institution designed to provide public health for all. And the food system with its deadly and exploitative meat processing plants has not only sickened its workers and failed those in animal husbandry; it has led to search for new models.  No wonder we hear discussions of “the collapse complex societies” and how to live through a “long emergency.”

This is all reminiscent of the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where the now-convicted murderer, Raskolnikov, as he begins his seven years of hard labor in Siberia, dreams that a pandemic plague had killed nearly all humans, leaving those remaining badly shaken. “Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part — but immediately begin something completely different from what they had just suggested, begin accusing one another and fighting….” (New York, Vintage, 1992, Pevear and Volokhonsky, trans., p. 547).

Among the multitude of dangers described by the author and mirrored in our current situation is the shredding of all that binds community.  This week’s readings focus on just that question.  In the face of threats to disintegration: what is the purpose of the faith community and what holds it together?

Too often creation accounts have been dismissed as mere stage scenery providing the setting for what really matters, the historical drama of the Exodus.  Close attention to the Book of Exodus, however, shows how closely creation and liberation from Egypt’s oppression are connected. As Terence Fretheim suggests, “The deliverance of Israel is ultimately for the sake of all creation” (Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 13). In fact, the harrowing narrative of crossing the sea on “dry land” points directly to Genesis 1:9-10 with its separation of water and dry land.

In fact, what happens at Sinai can only be understood as an affirmation of the goodness of creation, in sharp contrast with Pharoah’s death-dealing use of the Hebrew slaves as mere instruments of production. This suggests that the Sinai Covenant assumes both the coherence of creation’s interdependence and the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12 and 17). What’s more, any new Torah is preceded by a reminder of gracious dealing: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Just as a mother eagle both prods eaglets to try their wings, rescuing the chick when flight fails, so the Creator may be trusted.

Again, the basis of this echo of the Abrahamic promises, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples,” is anchored by creation: “indeed, the whole earth is mine” (Exodus 19:5). But this election is rooted in generous purpose. “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” ( Exodus 19:6). While the notion of “priesthood” may seem alien to us, it is central to biblical thinking, especially the tradition that the Jerusalem temple is where heaven and earth meet.

More helpful today is the Orthodox view where the role of the priest is to lead worshipers in “lifting up our hearts” to God so that the earth can be transfigured.  As Norman Wirzba writes, “When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation…so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as a blessing (another priestly function)” (Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2019, p. 264).  As all creation is lifted up, persons may no longer can be seen as mere “machine parts” and the fruits of creation become gifts, not commodities. So even before the Torah is given, we see that “Israel is commissioned to be God’s people on behalf of the earth which is God’s” (Fretheim, p. 212).

Just as all creation is “lifted up” in priestly service, so humankind recognizes that we join the community of all creation in continuous worship. Psalm 100 makes this clear, for as the place of worship is entered, praise is unison.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness;
come into his presence with singing (Psalm 100:1-2).

Here the psalmist reminds us that there can be no worship apart from the sabbath community of interdependent creatures whose highest priestly function is never-ending praise (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 319). This is exactly what happens when the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds with their creation affirmations are professed.  We commit ourselves as a community to perform in earth care exactly what we confess.

Initially it may seem that nothing could be further from the notion of priestly service than a gospel reading detailing healing and the sending of disciples. But when we recognize the “compassion” Jesus views the crowds with, we see nothing more than a slightly different form of “lifting up.” Those elevated are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). These are personal problems, to be sure, but also afflictions that cannot be separated from the corruption of the religious elite, the “so-called shepherds,”and Roman oppression of Judea (Warren Carter, Matthew at the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 230).

Jesus reframes this as kairos, a time full of opportunity–”the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Without a doubt, there is an element of judgment here that cannot be avoided, judgment of the false shepherds and Roman oppressors. But “harvest” is hardly a time for grim judgment alone; it is a time of nourishment and celebration of a new and different kind of empire.  In a commissioning that foreshadows the final sending (Matthew 28:19-20), the named apostles are empowered to heal and spread the news of the new “imperial order.”  It may seem odd that Matthew’s Jesus limits the mission to Israel. But they are the very ones foundering “like sheep without a shepherd.” Beyond that, as we recall from the First Lesson, Israel is the people called to be a blessing to all the earth, the instrument channeling hope to the nations and the whole creation.

The spirit with which Jesus sends the disciples to participate in this harvest festival of care, is further evidenced by the “easy yoke and light burden” Jesus describes (Matthew 11:29-30). Following the seemingly weighty instruction  to “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons,” Jesus reminds the Twelve, “You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10:8). This new community spawned by compassion, runs on a gift economy.  Just as “the sun rises on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45), so no one earns the benefits of this new creation. For it is as productive as the mysterious seeds which yield ”some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:8), and as generous as the vineyard owner who pays a full days’ wages for one hour of work (Matthew 20:1-16).

Another way of describing living out this harvest festival we celebrate and share, the one we have been welcomed to “without payment” (Matthew 10:8) is “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Too often, while reading Paul–especially Romans–we forget that he is writing about the same realities that occupy our other readings. “Peace with God,” then, is no pale abstraction. It is a result of having been “made right” with God  and is the active participation in the interdependence and care necessary to maintain the “peace–shalom” intended for all.

Just because believers are welcomed into this community graciously through baptism into the cross and resurrection (Romans 6:1-6) and live this out in worship, learning, and care for creation, does not mean that they will be applauded by the dominant culture. Because this culture tends to idolize competitive struggle for wealth with little or no regard for the fate of “the losers,” opposition is guaranteed.  When sisters and brothers live out their calling to join Native American “water protectors” in protesting building an oil pipeline through the Missouri River, they are classified as domestic terrorists. When teenagers of faith follow the lead of Greta Thunberg and commit to the “school strike” to change views and behavior toward the climate crisis, many adults still believe they should “not waste their time, but stick to their studies.”

No wonder Paul responds to the inevitable opposition of those who find their security in wealth, power, and success with the logic of the cross: “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5a). Despite how successful our efforts to build ecojustice appear, this endurance –another gift–has its source in openness to God’s trustworthy future, a new creation (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 135).

As we began this essay, we looked at what to all of us just six months ago would have seemed only a nightmare illuminating the troubled psyche of one Rodion Raskolnikov.  As violent as this  dream was, we could hardly have imagined that we would find ourselves in what may be a multi-year pandemic. But we still can learn from this rich, but troubling novel. For as this young Siberian exile recovers, taking a break from producing gypsum he looks across a river and sees the black specks of the yurts of the nomads of the steppe. “There was freedom, there a different people lived, quite unlike those here, there time itself seemed to stop, as if the centuries of Abraham and his flocks had not passed away” (Crime and Punishment, p. 549).

What was Raskolnikov seeing?  Community. Real community based not on the fevered longings  for personal greatness, but on a deep promise, a promise that enables him to hold the hand of his friend, Sonya, for the first time with assured fidelity.  Although we will depend on the best science to focus on the global problems of Covid-19 and the climate crisis, we equally will need resilient and dependable communities to provide support, endurance and hope.  This week’s readings assure us that this is a gift God’s people can provide.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
tmundahl@gmail.com

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

All of the Baptized Are SentTom Mundahl reflects on our call to serve.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundhal in 2017)

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

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

In a TED Talk, Terri Trespico, former editor and radio host for the Martha Stewart “empire,” confessed that she had been deceived by one of the most powerful platitudes currently circulating in the world of work. She had bought into the notion that life devoted to one’s job and the success of the corporate structure, no matter what was demanded, would provide deep meaning and satisfaction. She had been bewitched by “passion” for a job rather than a commitment to enhancing life. Like so many who expend their lives on behalf of organizations, she was cheated by being denied the central purpose of life, “tilling (serving) and keeping God’s creation.” (Genesis 2:15)

For decades the relationship between work and the purpose for living has become increasingly tenuous. Partly this stems from the division of labor, the increasing complexity of technology, and its machine analog—organization—developed in response. As Bonhoeffer wrote: “It (organization) has its own soul: its symbol is the machine, the embodiment of violation and exploitation of nature. . . . But with this domination of the menace of nature, a new threat to life is created in turn, namely through the organization itself” (from notes for Ethics, quoted Larry Rasmussen, “The Lutheran Sacramental Imagination,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Winter 2015, p.5). In other words, organization itself becomes so powerful, its original reason for being is forgotten (“goal displacement”); and the survival and growth of the organization itself becomes paramount.

We need to recover the power of calling inherent in baptism. Luther put it simply, but paradoxically: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (“The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957, p. 344). To describe this freedom in service, Luther continues by saying that the believer “should be guided in all his works by this thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor” (Ibid., p. 365). It should be no surprise that this concern beyond self is echoed in the baptismal promise “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228).

Few biblical characters match Samuel in experiencing God’s call. From his gracious birth to his nighttime calling (1 Samuel 3), Samuel was marked for prophetic service. Often, his vocation seemed at odds with popular opinion of the day. For example, as Samuel grew old he was confronted by a population that demanded a king. Even though he was quick to point out the disadvantages—forced military service, forced labor, expropriation of crops, and heavy taxation—this clamor continued. Finally, the LORD commanded Samuel “to set a king over them” (1 Samuel 8:22). Samuel listened and anointed Saul as king (1 Samuel 10:1).

This only became more difficult when in the face of Saul’s failures and erratic behavior, the LORD instructed Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel’s reaction was quick: “How can I go?  If Saul hears of it, he will kill me” (1 Samuel 16:2).  But the die was cast. As Brueggemann puts it, “it is Yahweh who engineers the subterfuge” (Old Testament Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, p. 368). Directed by this “divine trickster,” Samuel filled his horn with plenty of oil and began the process of a royal coup under the guise of going to sacrifice in Bethlehem with Jesse and his family.

The drama unfolds as one after another of Jesse’s likely sons is rejected as royal candidate. “Are all your sons here?” asks Samuel. Jesse responds that there is only the youngest left; he has been left behind “to keep the sheep.” Samuel replies, “Send and bring him here, for we will not sit down until he comes” (1 Samuel 16:11). Of course, ruddy David is the one, and he is anointed.

Beyond the mystery of divine freedom, one important clue to David’s selection is the simple fact that he was tending to business, “keeping the sheep.” In other words, he was following his calling (and his future vocation, since “shepherding” is a principal metaphor for royal rule). As we reflect on creation accounts, it is intriguing that the most literal translation of the call to “have dominion over” (Genesis 1:27- 28) can be rendered “the traveling around of the shepherd with his flock” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 55).

The royal humility shown by David seems to be at the heart of his being called to kingship. In describing the kingly qualities of the rough ranger Aragorn in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Helen Luke suggests that “Royalty of nature is a clearly recognizable thing. It shows itself in a kind of dignity, a natural acceptance of responsibility in great things and small; an assured authority that never seeks to dominate, but is rather an attribute of character” (Helen Luke, “The King and the Principles of the Heart,” in The Voice Within, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 47). This humble royal generativity is often seen in those who care for God’s earth and seek ecojustice.

Few more powerful images of royal shepherding and nurture can be found than Psalm 23. As a “psalm of trust” it begins with the simple affirmation that in the care of this shepherd nothing is lacking. While the psalm is often used in times of grief and mourning (and appropriately so), this blunt admission of satisfaction flies in the face of American consumerism driven by an entire industry dedicated to manufacturing “wants.” Perhaps William Wordsworth had this familiar verse in mind when he wrote, “in getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” (“The World is Too Much With Us“)

And, in the same way, we lay waste the Earth, developing financial systems that reward only productivity, not care. In his early novel, The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry relates the agonizing near loss of a farm during the Great Depression, and the lengthy uphill crawl to buy it back at unfavorable terms. As he reflects on a lifetime of navigating the underbelly of American agricultural economics, Jack Beechum recalls hearing Psalm 23 over the years and its role in providing courage. Even though it was usually read by young seminary students who couldn’t wait to get to a big city parish, the power of the psalm could not be suppressed. “Old Jack” reflects that, “The man who first spoke the psalm had been driven to the limit, he had seen his ruin, he had felt in the weight of his own flesh the substantiality of his death and the measure of his despair . . . . He saw that he would be distinguished not by what he was or anything he might become but by what he served. Beyond the limits of a man’s strength or intelligence or desire or hope or faith, there is more. The cup runs over” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, pp. 161-162).

This overflow of “goodness and mercy” (Psalm 23:6) is echoed by the Pauline author of Ephesians. “With all wisdom and insight God has revealed to us the mystery of his will . . . , as a pattern (“plan” — NRSV) for the fullness of time, to reset and renew all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:8b-10, author’s translation). It is important to note that the Greek word translated as “pattern” or “plan” is oikonomia, meaning form or shape for the household, a word related to “eco” words like “ecology” or “economics.” God’s intention for the “Earth household” is a harmonious gathering which frees all creation to be “at home.” This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond ethnicity (Jew and Greek), past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12), to include all in a cosmic prayer celebrating the “fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:9).

Because “what God has achieved is a cosmic new creation: anyone who is in Christ belongs to, participates in this new creation, in which former distinctions no longer count for anything. The work of God in Christ is a renewal of the cosmos, an inauguration of the promised eschatological new creation, not merely the transformation of individual believers” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor Press, 2010, p. 169). It is precisely this communal newness that baptism brings: membership in a new community called to “live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:8b-9).

That this is more than “happy talk” is made clear in the challenge to “expose” works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). This admonition clearly applies to our setting where a ruling elite denies a long held scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, all to preserve the economic interests of carbon-producing corporations.  To say “yes” to creation, God’s people must embrace our calling to say “no” to embracing the destructive works of darkness. The daily recollection of our baptism continuing to overflow with grace in our lives together provides the necessary courage. No wonder our pericope lesson closes with a fragment of what must have been a familiar baptismal hymn.

Sleepers awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
(Ephesians 5: 14)

This week’s Gospel Reading demonstrates the artistic subtlety of the evangelist with a gripping saga of moving from blindness to sight and insight. Not only are we presented with a healing story, but we follow an investigation by religious authorities, perhaps the Sanhedrin, into what that healing signifies. Despite the energy with which this inquiry is carried out, it is Jesus who reveals the truth of the matter.

No longer can a direct causal relationship between sin and illness be entertained. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9: 3-4). Sloyan sees this as a call to John’s audience to continue works of mercy and service whenever opportunities present themselves. (Gerard Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 114)

Jesus models this earthy service. Here we see him spit on the ground to combine saliva with clay to produce a healing poultice for the blind man. It is no surprise that Irenaeus, with his deep attention to creation, “sees here a symbol of man’s being created from the Earth . . . .” (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 372). Likely, we are being reminded of John’s Prologue where the evangelist sings, “All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). Not only do we see the close connection between creation and healing, but we witness an outcast beggar given an opportunity to be reintegrated into the community.

But not for long. In a series of interrogations worthy of the FBI, it becomes evident that religious authorities do not wish to recognize this healing because of the threat posed by the healer. Both the formerly blind man and his parents are dragged in for questioning, but the real focus seems to be on Jesus, whom the authorities are as yet reluctant to touch. They legitimize themselves as disciples of Moses, to whom God has spoken, “but as for this man (Jesus) we do not know where he comes from” (John 9:29).

If the decision-makers fear Jesus, they have no such issue with the formerly blind man, whom they summarily expel from the community. Fortunately, Jesus soon finds the outcast, asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35). After the poor man’s probing what that might mean, Jesus responds, “You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he” (John 9:37). In this case, seeing is believing. “Lord, I believe.” (John 9: 38). Not only does the blind man now belong; this membership is not merely to a group giving allegiance to Moses, but to the Son of Man who comes to heal not only blindness, but the whole of creation (John 3:16-17).

In fact, the image of the Son of Man is nothing if not explosive. Warren Carter asks, “To what or to whom has he (the formerly blind man) committed himself? He has pledged loyalty to the one who, according to Daniel 7: 13-14, ends all the empires of the earth, including Rome, and to whom God has given everlasting dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him . . . .” (John and Empire, T and T Clark, 2008, p. 277).  Again, in Jesus, the personal is also the cosmic.

This is all accomplished within the context of baptism.  It is significant that “the story of the man born blind appears several times in early catacomb art, most frequently as an illustration of baptism” (Brown, p. 381). It is conjectured that the catechumen’s examination concluded with the question answered by the formerly blind man. Then, just as in our narrative the man went to the Pool of Siloam to wash and complete recovery of sight, so the baptismal candidate was immersed in water, the result being often called “enlightenment” (Ibid.).

For our purposes, it is also significant that “Siloam” means “sent.”  Not only may this refer to Jesus sending the blind man, it also implies that all of the baptized are “sent” by the Son of Man. As we renew our baptism during this Lenten season, we recall that just as Jesus is the one deeply incarnate—the Word made flesh—so we become truly incarnate as we remember that, no matter what a job occupies us, we are “sent” to serve each other and to build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Light Shone in Darkness,” ELW, 307
Hymn of the Day:   “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” ELW,  815
Sending: “Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death,” ELW, 452
( or, Marty Haugen’s version, “Awake, O Sleeper,” 813, Hymnal Supplement, Chicago: GIA, 1991)
 

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