Tag Archives: Spirit

Sunday August 7-13 in Year A (Thompson)

All-Encompassing, Hopeful, and Embodied Faith

This week Lutheran’s Restoring Creation is excited to offer a guest commentary from Andrew Thompson, a young adult seminarian.  In his commentary, Andrew reflects on God reaching us through our surroundings and how God’s active presence, within and beyond us, forms us for sustained action for the sake of the world.

LRC is always looking for new voices and diverse perspectives on the lectionary. Send an email to our commentary coordinator (contact@katrinamartich.com) to reserve a Sunday for your voice to be heard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday August 7-13, Year A (2020, 2023)

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Introduction

It’s no secret that the United States’ narrative of individualism and self-sufficiency has and is devastating our environment and many communities who are underrepresented in systems of power. Lutheran ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda encourages an alternative way of understanding oneself and one’s spirituality which runs counter to these individualistic narratives that oppress our neighbors and God’s creation. Moe-Lobeda names this lens “Critical Mystical Vision,” which includes seeing “what is going on,” “what could be,” and “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 113-114, Kindle). Moe-Lobeda planting her ethic in this ground of critically acknowledging one’s experience, seeing new pathways to take for the journey ahead, and God’s continued guidance towards that longed-for state of affairs of dynamic relationality offers hope for the journey and energy towards making it a reality (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, 120 Kindle). By continuing to develop the portrait of God actively abiding within us through creation, we are provided perspectives and practices which cultivate inspiring hope. This hope grounded in faith acknowledges despair and pain and seeks to do something about it, moving the parishes we serve and beyond towards a more communal worldview and brighter tomorrows.

1 Kings 19:9-19: Embodied Faith in the Sheer Silence

The Kings reading for August 9th begins this week’s expansion of this Western-influenced perspective of God. This exploration of Elijah’s story follows Elijah’s lone prophetic witness against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, which resulted in the LORD being revealed boldly to the community as the giver of water and fire, primary elements of sustenance and life (1 Kings 18:17-46). While this demonstrated God’s sovereignty as greater than the perceived power of Baal affirmed by members of the Israelite community and leadership at the time, Elijah also unsettled the status quo in the process, leading him to flee after Jezebel threatened his life (1 Kings 19:1-8). We enter into the 9th verse of chapter 19 with Elijah spending the night in seclusion within a cave in Mount Horeb, the site where God had cared for the Israelites with water from a stone and provided guidance in the form of a new covenant from a fire (Exodus 17:6; Deuteronomy 4:9-15).

God reaches out to Elijah, asking him why he is there. Elijah responds, explaining that he has continued to answer his call, and even so the present oppressive system continues to exploit the agrarian culture at the time for their own gain and idolatrous practices, thus breaking the covenant with God for the Israelite people to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Gale A. Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53: The Ministries of the Prophets Elijah and Micaiah” in Fortress Press Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set, Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., Matthew J. M. Coomber, Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, David A. Sánchez, eds. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014, Kindle). By breaking this covenant and exploiting the agrarian culture at the time, they also “[deprive] the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice,” as these vulnerable populations especially relied upon gleaning practices in the fields, as outlined in Deuteronomy as well (Deuteronomy 26:12-13, 27:19; Yee, “1 Kings 17:1-22:53,” Kindle). Elijah’s response to God feels drenched in the question of “Why?”—Why does this pain and suffering continue to happen, and why do my neighbors and your people continue to suffer as the covenant continues to remain unacknowledged and they seek to take my life? Elijah shares his story and experience with hopes that the status quo may be changed and seeks guidance about how to make that happen. How often do we find ourselves asking these questions too, especially when like it feels as though justice is nowhere to be found and God does not seem close by?

In their first exchange, God commands Elijah to go outside the cave and listen, “for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11). We recall here that when Moses experienced God passing him by, he too was encouraged to stay by himself inside the cleft of a rock or a cavern (Exodus 33:20-23). At that moment, the very same signs that accompanied God’s presence listed in Isaiah 29:5-6 occur outside the cave, including a whirlwind so strong that it split the mountains, an earthquake, and then a fire (1 Kings 19:11-12). However, the writer(s) of 1 Kings reports that the LORD was not present in those spaces, and that after the fire there was “the sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:13 NRSV). Elijah seems to have discerned that God’s presence was not communicated via the classic mediums for the divine to be revealed. Upon hearing the silence, however, Elijah responds to God’s invitation to leave the cave and experience the LORD passing by. Upon arriving at the entrance of the cave, God asks again what Elijah is doing at Mount Horeb. Elijah repeats his response, and this time the writer(s) reports that Elijah discerns how God will restore justice to the land, namely in the means they understood at the time, which was by putting righteous leaders back into leadership positions.

So, what changed between these two sets of questions and responses? God reveals Godself and the will of God in a vehicle that is atypical to how God has been most clearly revealed in the past to God’s people. The prophet Elijah thus receives a broader lens that God’s movement is not limited only to the more easily perceptible movements of nature or in bold displays of divine intervention. Instead, even in the absolute stillness of the air, God is still moving and is still present with God’s people—hearing the cry of the oppressed, stirring people’s hearts towards ensuring justice for the sake of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, and unsettling oppressive systems which seek to silence the voices of prophets who are speaking truth to power. God’s presence is not limited only to the mediums themselves, but it is communicated into us through such means. Whether it be within the cave, within the clouds, within the fire, within the water, within the stillness—God also stirs within us, towards our very innermost selves, to remind us of God’s abiding presence. God’s presence does not just linger there either. God’s presence communicated through these creative means revealed to Elijah the means for how justice would be offered in his time. God’s revelation to Elijah appears to have encouraged him to continue the work he has been called to do, as in the very next verse he goes forth to anoint Elisha, thus continuing the process of unsettling and dismantling the oppressive political system at the time.

The 1 Kings passage invites readers to reflect over two questions: How do you see God moving in this world and within you, and how are you going to respond? On the road of activism, silence can sometimes be viewed as a scary wall, indicating that one’s actions they once believed were in line with their vocation are actually running off track or are not making a difference. The question people in this position may encounter next is “What comes next?” This seems to be a root of the response Elijah offered to God’s question: “What are you doing here?” Through Elijah’s encounter with God in and through nature, he seems to have found an expanded perspective that is grounded in his continued faith and results in new directions to explore. While we treasure the narratives where God is moving in big and bold ways because they are exciting and often deliver the justice we long for on a daily basis, we are invited to expand our lens like Elijah so we may remember that milestone moments are not the only places where God is active. God is also present and moving in those moments which seem like anything other than momentous; we see here that God can use the stillness, the space we inhabit, the things we perceive and experience each as leaping off points to move us, and in the process reveals God’s will of compassion and justice. So, once the LORD passes by you in this way, what will you do next?

Psalm 85:8-13 and Romans 10:5-15 – God Revealed and Moving, Within and Beyond Ourselves

The readings for this week from Psalm 85 and Romans 10 offer more rich imagery which help us better engage Moe-Lobeda’s third aspect of Critical Mystical Vision: “seeing ever more fully the sacred Spirit of life coursing throughout creation and leading it—despite all evidence to the contrary—into abundant life for all” (Resisting Structural Evil, 114, Kindle). The psalm reading this week carries on the theme found in 1 Kings 19:9-18 of listening for God, who “…will speak peace to [God’s] people, to [God’s] faithful, to those who turn to [God] in their hearts” (Psalm 85:8 NRSV). This conception of God includes the idea that God’s glory (another term often associated with God’s abiding presence) dwells in our land, which the writer perceives as causing love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace to also be gifted to the world by extension. What hopeful imagery associated with the fruits of listening and discerning God’s active presence amongst us! The writer perceives the world as being infused with the Spirit of life, and by extension finds hope in God’s presence.

In Psalm 85:11, we are treated to another set of rich imagery: “Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” It first casts an expansive view of the extent of God’s presence, as God’s presence is associated with both parts of the binary of up and down. This sentiment in Psalm 85:11 resonates with the ideas shared in the opening verses of the Romans reading, which encourages readers to not pin Christ’s presence to one place by assuming the righteousness associated with faith is found in one precise direction or space. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Romans 10:8). The English translation offered by the NRSV here makes sense but misses out on just how connected the word is to God’s people, as the “on your lips and in your heart” literally translated from the Greek is “in your mouth (stoma) and in your heart.” The Greek presents God’s presence here as being very much internalized here. This internalized focus presents yet another dynamic portrait of God’s abiding presence within us while also including how God offers faith to us right where we are and that the righteousness of God saturates the very air we breathe. These images resonate with the comforting sentiment that our justifying, reconciling, and renewing faith itself is “sparked” by God, which orients the life we live in response (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4.73-74, 110-116 in Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 132, 138-139). Yet again we see how God oftentimes reveals God’s movement within us through these external means and empowers us to live in an awe-inspired and hope-filled manner if we remain tuned into God’s embracing movements.

We can see through these verses images which reflect the ongoing nature of God’s life-giving presence, whether it be within the rhythmic beats of our heart internally or a seed’s continued growth through the dirt. Both of these images are similar in the fact that they represent internal, life-giving processes which make action possible in the future. So too does the faith which springs up from the ground of our very being make possible the work we are called by God to do in this world. Such work is often hard and exhausting, and sometimes can feel as though we are stuck in the dirt; however, when we look out at the large trees and the many blades of grass tenaciously growing up and out in the air, we can see little reminders of God’s creative work in this world continuing every moment, with every breath we breathe, with whatever growth is sustained, and with every heartbeat, as the Word abides in each and every one of those spaces. We can go forth, knowing God has deeply rooted and nourished each of us in the ground from which faithfulness springs through the waters of our baptism and the Word. To use the words from the close of the Romans reading for this week, we are rooted yet are also sent as those beautiful messengers proclaiming God’s steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace for the sake of the broader web of life, of which we too are a part and have been called to tend. The question remains, “How is God stirring you to live out the rooted-in-faith-life you have been freely given by God?”

Matthew 14:22-33 – An Invitation to Trust and Walk Upon the Mysterious Waves

The Gospel reading for this week continues our exploration of how cultivating Moe-Lobeda’s “Critical Mystical Vision” allows us to see the world through a hopeful, spiritually rich lens which informs bold action. This passage takes place in a chapter where Jesus finds out about John the Baptist’s execution at the hands of the corrupt political system run by King Herod, and seeks rest in solitude while in a boat upon the waters. He later returns to the crowds, and in his time with them communicated his compassion by curing the sick and showcasing the abundance of God by multiplying the small amount of food they had for the nourishment of all in attendance. Yet again, we see how God chooses to move through physical means to provide insights about God’s character and movement towards life for all.

After these acts of care and time spent with the community, the Gospel of Matthew reports that Jesus sent the disciples on a boat to go to the other side to Gennesaret, where Jesus and the disciples yet again engaged deeply with the community and Jesus provided care for them (Matthew 14:34-36). The journey in-between the two shores is our focus for this week, as the disciple’s boat is buffeted by what Bible scholar Douglas R. A. Hare refers to as waves which “tortured” the disciples. Hare minces no words about the dire predicament set before them, and that it is crucial to the narrative that this is when Jesus appears to the disciples, revealing that care and guidance are key aspects of Jesus’ activity as the Messiah (Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew. Interpretation: Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. James Luther Mays, Patrick D. Miller Jr., and Paul J. Achtemeier, eds. Louisville: John Knox Press, 169). We see revealed through Jesus that God is caring and present with those amidst the storms of life, encouraging us to look out upon our respective communities for those we may accompany on the journey as well.

As we continue surveying the disciples experience upon the sea, we find the disciples looking out upon the roaring waters after a full night of wrestling with these waves to see a figure moving towards them. The disciples together “cried out in fear,” and immediately Jesus offers words of comfort (Matthew 14:26-27). At this point, Peter alone responds, asking Jesus to invite him on the waters too if his Lord is in fact there. Jesus offers the requested invitation. Peter then steps out upon the waves, begins to walk towards Jesus, and as he recognizes a strong gust of wind, he becomes frightened and begins to sink. As he sinks, he cries out to Jesus for deliverance, and Jesus immediately reaches out to catch him. Jesus encourages him to hold onto the faith he had which encouraged him to step out onto the water in the first place and then guides him back onto the boat, at which point the storm ceases and the disciples worship Jesus.

Hare’s analysis of this passage uplifts that Peter’s stepping upon the waves is unique to Matthew’s telling of the disciples’ storm experience, suggesting that Peter represents a key representation of “…what it means to be a Christian caught midway between faith and doubt” (Matthew, 169). Put another way, Peter represents to the reader the life of someone engaging in Critical Mystical Vision. The group on the waves originally saw Jesus as a ghost. Upon hearing the figure on the waves, Peter chose to see things differently, trusting in Jesus’ presence and asking to step out onto the risky waves with him. Now, this does not mean that Peter was ignorant of the surroundings he was in. The fact that he requested that Jesus himself command him upon the tempestuous waters suggests that he was critically aware of the space he was in, yet hoped through his faith that God’s power would be sufficient to carry him on the way (Hare, Matthew, 170). Even when the situation shifted and his faith was shaken by the wind, Peter again cried out in hope that Jesus would hold him up when Peter alone could not. Jesus immediately responded, and upon returning with Peter to the boat, the disciples cried out in worship, claiming Jesus as the Son of God.

And why these immediate turns to praising Jesus? My guess is this is not only because the storm had subsided. Instead, Jesus communicated clearly to these disciples that he is there to continue providing care for them, even when he had perhaps appeared distanced from them when he went away to the mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). Moreover, Peter stepped out in hope, and although the journey took a different path than he perhaps had expected, he encountered Christ. Peter chose to see with hope, and his life and the disciples lives were changed by the experience that followed. Even though he fell into the waters, had he not trusted in his faith and seen the figure only as a specter or something to tempt him, then he likely would not have had the experience which revealed a whole new relational dimension between him and Christ. Their awareness of Christ’s presence and care for them deepened immensely through his accompanying them in the storm and upon the very waters that threatened their boat. This is not to say that Peter saw everything as safe or rosy. It is clear that Peter was abundantly aware of the stormy waves; however, he fixated upon Christ for the first steps into new understanding (Hare, Matthew, 170). Through Peter’s hope and through the storm God revealed new depths to Peter’s faith. Yet again, God moves amidst nature and the discerning heart towards communicating new truths about who God is and who we are called to be in response.

The waves can represent the mysterious, presently-uncharted places for us. As we continue wrestling with how we are to answer our call to love our neighbor amidst this complex world, we find hope in the truth revealed in this passage that Jesus is already ahead of us in those currently mysterious spaces. We experience the tug to move just as Peter was called by Jesus upon the waters. We trust that Christ is with us upon those waves, ready to catch us if we begin to sink. We believe Christ still invites us to live into the faith sparked within us for the sake of those experiencing the pain and fear associated with the tumultuous waves of this life. So, where is Jesus ahead of you, providing hope for the journey ahead and calling you to join him amidst the storms which visit us in this life for the sake of those whose are being engulfed by the waves?

Questions to Ponder and Embody in Hope

Elijah, the Psalmist, Paul, and Peter each saw the world with hope and faith that God was moving and was encouraging them to move as well. They each experienced hardship and saw that the road towards living out their call was one that had obstacles and risks along the way. However, they also saw the dynamic presence of God moving on the road, both within their very bodies and alongside them in God’s creation. Out of this deeper perception and God’s reminder of God’s compassionate presence, they continued to move forward in hope that God’s will might be done through them, not for their own sake, but because they were obligated to do so by our Creator and Sustainer, and because they saw the world needed it. The questions raised by these readings before us then as called and claimed children of God are: What do we perceive? In what ways is God moving within us and within our surroundings? Where are the stormy waves God invites us to walk upon? What will we do in response as we live rooted and fixed upon the faith offered to us by God? We live out of our embodied faith and experience. We reflect on what could be with hope inspired by God’s will of justice, compassion, and dynamic relationality. We continue to step out upon the waters to which we are called, listening for God’s continued presence and guidance, whether it be found on the waves, in the fires, in the wind, in the silence, in our words, or within our very hearts. May we view the world through the “Critical Mystical Vision” Moe-Lobeda describes, trusting that God is renewing us as faith springs up from the ground to which we have been rooted, that God sends us with hope, and that God invites us to embody the insights gained from God’s movement in nature towards our very internal selves for the sake of the world.

Andrew Thompson
athompson5@capital.edu

Andrew Thompson is a second year Master of Divinity, Word and Sacrament Track, student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University. Andrew graduated from Capital University in 2019 with a BA in Religion and Philosophy, and much of his work embraced an eco-theological framework. Andrew presented eco-theological work at several undergraduate conferences, created an eco-theologically-centered campus ministry outline and program content for his senior thesis, and also served as a camp counselor at a Lutheran Outdoor Ministries in Ohio camp. Andrew hopes to serve the world and the church as a campus pastor, and as a continued advocate and ally for environmental justice.

Sunday July 3-9 in Year A (Carr)

Taking on Rationalization Amy Carr reflects on donkeys facing war horses.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 3-9, Year A (2020, 2023)

Zachariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-14
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

There is both utopic political imagination and Machiavellian rationalization at play in today’s scripture readings. We need the former if we are to minimize climate catastrophe, and ways of reckoning with the latter if we are to enact the kind of collective transformation we need to bring down global temperatures.

On one hand, in our first reading, we have Zechariah’s ludicrous vision of a coming humble king who will exercise dominion while riding a donkey, on whose back he somehow defeats enemies riding mighty war horses. Jesus casts his own authority likewise as that of one who is “gentle and humble in heart, even as “[a]ll things have been handed over to [him] by [his] Father” (Matthew 11:29, 27). The juxtaposition of immense authority and humility is jarring, yet abruptly trust-evoking. Koan-like, the pairing of dominion and humility startles us into a new awareness—a tangible sense of how collective security can be based on mutual trust rather than coercive force.

On the other hand, Jesus wryly observes that “this generation” rationalizes its opposition to the prospect of God’s emerging humility-rooted kingdom by making whatever argument seems to suit the person or the moment: John the Baptist’s calls to repentance are hushed because he was weirdly austere (“neither eating nor drinking”), so he must have “a demon” (Matthew 11:18); yet Jesus’ calls to repentance are ridiculed as hypocritical warnings of a “glutton and a drunkard” because he enjoys “eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19). Indeed, in every generation, we can be blind about the shifting ways we rationalize a cynical complacency, especially about a call to turn in a radically new direction as a species. We can be tempted to portray every visionary as somehow dangerous or corrupt, and thereby dismiss their message.

If Jesus keenly names the kind of hypocrisy that might drive a Machiavellian will to power, Paul gets at why we might be drawn to going along with those who speak of securing the current order of things, even if we know it’s less than ideal for all. Paul peels back the mask to call out the sheer absurdity of rationalizing our resistance to acting for the common good:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members (Romans 7:21-23).

Perhaps rationalizations that are rooted in selective, belittling observations of prophetic leaders are themselves a mask for despair about our individual or collective ability to act more justly toward one another and toward creation. We see there is a better way, but we feel unable to pursue it—so we justify our sense of stuckness.

It is precisely this inability that Paul believes is healed by baptism into the corporate body of Christ: “Wretched man that I am! Who will heal me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). When we who “are weary and are carrying heavy burdens” come to Jesus for “rest,” and take Jesus’ “yoke” upon us and “learn from” him as  one who is “gentle and humble in heart,” we will “find rest for [our] souls,” for his “yoke is easy, and [his] burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). To walk in the way of the Torah, to walk with Jesus as the living Word of God, is to be empowered to do that which we cannot do on our own—or when we are addictively in league with the “law of sin” that we express in entrenched, institutionalized patterns of injustice in our lives together.

Taken together, today’s scripture readings testify that a vision of a just and peaceful creation—and the resistance to that vision—are both collectively negotiated. The current climate crisis only intensifies an awareness that the prophets, Jesus, and Paul are calling us not to an individual escape from the tensions of this world, but to living together from the power of peace that cannot be broken by—but can begin to crumble—the powers that sustain collective paths to destruction.

What deeper corporate call to repentance have we ever had than one that asks us to reorient our everyday material world so that we can live more lightly on the planet—so that all species can keep breathing? The call is corporate because it requires wide-scale technological transformation—not simply a collection of individual choices to reduce, reuse, or recycle. Only government policies will enable the particular “monumental shifts historians call ‘energy transitions’” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Although the shift is more possible and affordable today than it was ten years ago, we still need $800 billion of “investment in renewables . . . each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2ºC of warming.” And politicized rationalizations for a failure to invest persist—such as in the decision of the Trump administration to roll back EPA monitoring of air pollution in the name of not overburdening companies amid the pandemic. (Quotes are from “Not-so-slow burn: The world’s energy system must be completely transformed,” The Economist, 5-23-20, https://www.economist.com/schools-brief/2020/05/23/the-worlds-energy-system-must-be-transformed-completely).

In the summer of 2020, maybe we can draw ecojustice inspiration from two places we can perceive the Spirit’s breathing today in winds of swift collective change: through our global calls to let fellow human beings breathe, by preventing deaths from the coronavirus whose symptom is difficulty breathing, as well as deaths by racist ways of policing that manifest in unnecessarily suffocating or killing people of color. Responses to both the pandemic and racist police brutality have found expression in a global sensibility. We have watched ourselves transform the texture of our social relations almost overnight through lockdowns and social distancing. We have witnessed a sudden surge in multiracial protests around the world demanding an end to systemic racism—sparked by the humble witness of 17 year old Darnella Frazier using her cell phone to film a Minneapolis police officer suffocating George Floyd.

Frazier is riding a donkey against the war horses of systemic racism in policing, as Greta Thunberg has done against the more invisible resistance of governments to enacting the kinds of rapidly intensive changes in energy infrastructure that we need to mitigate the disaster of climate change. Like Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem amid Passover crowds, both Frazier and Thunberg have cheering crowds attending them and the vision to which they bear witness. Both also come up against rationalizations for the status quo, and efforts to dismiss them or their prophetic messages.

The protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, like the 2019 school walkouts for climate change, express an eschatological vision—a glimpse that another way of being is globally contagious and possible, and grounded in a more accurate vision of our shared humanity and planetary condition. We stand with Zechariah in our capacity to behold human beings—and our belonging to creation—without the distortion of a kyriarchical hunger for power over resources and people.

But as Jesus and Paul suggest in today’s readings, those who stand with Zechariah come up against the subtle war horses of minimization and rationalization that prevent meaningful policy changes, be they about the environment, racism, or public health. On these fronts, to take on the yoke of Jesus is to engage in both the humbling inner soul-searching and the persistent collective organizing that address each of these manifestations of sin. Then indeed “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”—or by her “children” (Matthew 11:19).

Dr. Amy Carr
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

Pentecost in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver of Life! Dennis Ormseth reflects on Pentecost.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23

Pentecost is the “Birthday of the Church.”

The Day of Pentecost is commonly celebrated as “the birthday of the church.” Emphasis will be placed on the communal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. That so many people heard their native tongue being spoken, and yet understood a common message, will be “demonstrated” as individuals talented in diverse languages simulate the cacophony of a United Nations social gathering and the preacher is called on to set out the shared meaning. Spiritual seekers will be encouraged by pastors who are alert to our contemporary cultural context to abandon their suspicions of established religious communities. As Diane Jacobson would put it to them, “You are not in this alone; the Spirit is with you. You are not alone—this is God’s promise and invitation. But know as well that you cannot experience this gift in isolation. The Spirit is also with all those around you joined by Christ’s name as one. The Spirit is God’s communal gift” (“The Day of Pentecost,” in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, ed. by Marshall D. Johnson, p. 76).

Celebrate the Spirit as a renewal of the whole creation

All of which certainly belongs to the meaning of the Day of Pentecost, and yet it represents a many faceted “opportunity missed” to celebrate the renewal in the Spirit of the whole creation and to characterize the mission of the church as a newly energized care of creation. The community created and renewed by the Spirit of God, these texts allow, includes all creation. It is “Earth community.” As is typically pointed out by way of explaining why a multitude of languages was heard, there were “devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem” (Acts 2:5). They were there because Pentecost is another name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, one of the three great festivals of the Jewish calendar for which Jews from the Diaspora return to the city. In Jesus day, the focus of this festival was on God’s gift of the covenant, which was given to Israel in the wilderness. Originally, however, the Feast of Weeks was observed as a harvest festival: thanks were given for the first fruits of the ground as a way of remembering the first harvest from the land after Israel returned from the Egypt (Leviticus 23:9-21).

Celebrate the first fruits of the Spirit as the first fruits of restored creation!

So now, also Christians give thanks for first fruits, but it is the first fruits of the Spirit—ironically “spiritualizing” a festival that in its origin had to do centrally with the flourishing of the people living in the land under the covenant God made with them at Sinai. We suggest an alternative understanding of the Christian Pentecost, namely, this: by the power of the Holy Spirit we enter into the new creation in which people of all nations begin to flourish anew under the Lordship of Jesus. As he promised, Jesus, God’s servant of all creation who has now been raised to live in glory with his heavenly Father, sends the Spirit upon the Church. In this understanding, Pentecost celebrates the first fruits of a restored creation.

Creation in wind, fire, tongues, the spirit on all flesh, marks in hands and side.

The lectionary lessons for the Day of Pentecost firmly support this alternative reading. The famous signs of Pentecost, a violent wind and tongues of fire, are creational. Yes, they recall the theophanies of Sinai and the burning bush. But also, experientially, they say that “something new is happening here.” The wind is the primordial breath of the Spirit at creation. The fire marks off holy ground as the God of creation draws near.  The “last days” of Joel, when the Spirit is poured out “upon all flesh” have begun (Acts 2:17). The resurrected Jesus is identified by the marks on his hands and side as the servant of creation whom the Father sent to save the beloved cosmos, and he breaths the breath of God’s Spirit upon the disciples who are to put aside their fears and go in peace into that creation (John 20:19-22). And, in the words of Paul from the second lesson, the Spirit authorizes the proclamation of Jesus (who died on the cross as the servant of creation) as the Lord of the creation, along with granting the variety of gifts, services, and activities that are the Spirit’s means for bringing about the “common good” of the one, newly created “body of Christ” in the world (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).

Psalm 104 marks the ecological renewal of all creation

The text that authorizes this reading of the meaning of Pentecost most forcefully, however, is the psalm appointed for the Day of Pentecost, Psalm 104. The selection of this psalm was no doubt made because of the mention of the Spirit in v. 30: “When you send forth your spirit (or breath) . . . .” Psalms that speak so appropriately for this Feast of God sending the Spirit are exceedingly few. Astounding, however, is the serendipitous and theologically fortuitous statement of the reason for this sending:  “they”—meaning all the extended list of earthly creatures named in the first 26 verses of the psalm –“are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” In point of fact, the psalm is a more perfect fit for the original Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, than for the Pentecost that Christians typically celebrate. God is praised as the provider for all creatures of whom the psalmist speaks in saying: “These all look to you to give them their food in due season.” But the truly remarkable thing is that the Psalm also exhibits a powerfully ecological understanding of the creation; and, quite by itself, provides sufficient grounding for our reading of the Christian festival.

Psalm 104 as “ecological doxology”!

The ecological character of Psalm 104 was highlighted by Joseph Sittler throughout the development of his theology of creation. He commonly described it as an “ecological doxology” (Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Evocations of Grace, p. 83; cf. “Essays on Nature and Grace, Ibid, p. 183, and “Evangelism and the Care of the Earth,” Ibid., p. 204). Early on, Sittler identified Psalm 104 as one of two primary texts (Romans 8:19 is the other) that support his conviction that responsibility for care of the earth is a contemporary theological imperative:

Beginning with the air, the sky, the small and then the great animals, the work that humans do upon Earth and the delight that they take in it, the doxological hymn unfolds to celebrate both the mysterious fecundity that evermore flows from the fountain of all livingness, up to the great coda of the psalm in which the phrase occurs—“These all hang upon Thee.” The word “hang” is an English translation of a word that literally means to “depend,” to receive existence and life from another. These all hang together because they all hang upon Thee. “You give them their life. You send forth Your breath, they live.” Here is teaching of the divine redemption within the primal context of the divine Creation. Unless we fashion a relational doctrine of creation—which doctrine can rightly live with evolutionary theory—then we shall end up with a reduction, a perversion, and ultimately an irrelevance as regards the doctrine of redemption (Ibid., p. 83).

The reading of Psalm 104 on the Day of Pentecost is an opportunity not to be missed for lifting up God’s love and care for creation as an essential part of the church’s Spirit-driven mission. The limited verses appointed for the reading will suffice to make the main point of this message, while a reading of the entire Psalm would provide a basis for exploring the ecological theology of the psalm in greater detail.

The psalmist praises the God who cares for all creation.

In his recent book, The Green Psalter:  Resources for an Ecological Spirituality, Arthur Walker Jones provides helpful insights that deepen Sittler’s appreciation. Jones couples Psalm 103, which celebrates the “steadfast love and compassion” of the Creator that “is experienced in the life of the individual in healing, salvation, and justice,” with Psalm 104, which praises “the God who cares for all creature.” “The same Creator has acted through nature in the exodus and wilderness wandering. After this extensive praise of God’s wonders and works as Creator, they confess that Israel had forgotten the Creator, and pray for a return from exile” (The Green Psalter, p.99).

Psalm 104 imagines a world of social and ecological justice

Psalm 104, Jones notes, is “one of the longest creation passages in the Bible,” and it is subversively lacking in reference to king or temple, as compared with other creation texts:  “Verses 27 to 30 portray the direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures. . . .God is the spirit of life in all creation. Therefore, God’s presence is not mediated by king or temple but is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (Ibid., p. 119-20). Written in the context of the great suffering of the exile, Jones suggests, Psalm 104 reflects an awareness of the steadfast love and power of God in the goodness and reliability of creation. Israel has experienced national chaos; and, on the other side of chaos, Israel is able to see that such chaos (Leviathan) has a place in creation. They recognize humans as an integral part of a creation cared for by the Creator. They recognize the dangers of identifying God with king. And they have an understanding of their relationship to God as Creator apart from and perhaps in opposition to human empires. Similarly, in contemporary contexts of empire, Psalm 104 may have the potential for imagining a world of social and ecological justice (Ibid., p. 123).

We are all interrelated and interdependent in God’s creation.

Jones profoundly agrees with Sittler’s assessment: the Psalm, Jones writes, is far more ecological than Genesis 1-3. Its “depiction of the role of humanity in creation is less anthropocentric,” and “creatures and parts of creation . . . seem to have intrinsic value independent of humans” (Ibid, p. 140). Jones traces the web of ecological relation through the verses of the Psalm:

This ancient celebration of Creator and creation has similarities to modern ecology’s understanding of the interrelationship and inter-dependence of all species in the web of life. While the number of species named is limited, the passage does, by the species it chooses to mention, represent in symbolic, poetic form the abundance and diversity of species and their interdependence. The species represented move from mountains to valleys, up into the mountains again, and then out to sea. They include domestic animals that humans need and animals that are of no use—like wild goats and rock coneys—or are dangerous to humans, like lions.  Thus, habitats and species are chosen to represent a world of diverse habitats teeming with creatures or, in the language of praise and awe, “How manifold are your works . . , earth is full of your creatures” (Ps 104:24).  While all the complex interrelationships are not portrayed, enough chains of life are traced in poetic form to indicate the interrelationship and interdependence of various species and their habitats. Springs provide water for wild animals and wild asses (verses 10-12). Springs flow into streams that water trees (verses 12, 16), which, in turn, provide habitat for storks and other birds (verses 12, 17). Mountains provide habitat for wild goats and the rocks for wild coneys (verse 18). The poetry portrays a world similar to that described by modern ecology—abundant, diverse, interrelated, and interdependent (Ibid., pp. 140-41).

The goodness of the creation is celebrated without reservation. Creation is unmarred by the “fall” of Genesis 2 and 3. ”Far from being cursed, creation has goodness and blessing that includes a sense of beauty and joy,” without setting aside an awareness of nature that is “red in tooth and claw”—an understanding so essential to the modern theory of evolution (Ibid., p. 142).

Creation is juice and joy and sinful human beings.

Amidst all this “juice and joy” in creation, Psalm 104 presents a final reminder that, on account of the presence of humans within it, not all is well with it (as expressed at verse 35): “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Sinful humans are also part of the beloved creation. Again, the verse is unfortunately omitted from the reading. Coupling this psalm with Jesus’ gift of the Spirit as told in John 20:23 will serve to provide one more reason for us to broaden the focus of Pentecost from church to creation—for it is in the power of the Spirit that the church forgives, or takes away, the sin of the world, including all the sin that bears so destructively on the creation.

The Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life”!

And here is one final encouragement to engage the texts for Pentecost in this manner. We recall that the ecumenical church confesses in the Nicene Creed that the Spirit is “‘the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” A theology that is adequate to this triune relationship is one that lifts up for the faithful the eternal love God has in the Spirit for the whole creation in Christ Jesus. Along the way in this extraordinary journey from the First Sundays of Advent through to the Day of Pentecost, we have had several occasions to lift up the importance of the Holy Spirit as a driver of ecological awareness and of care of creation, not only inside the church, but out in the world as well. Elizabeth Johnson aptly notes that, although the Spirit has been badly neglected in the history of the church’s teaching, the

“world will tell of the glory of God. Anyone who has ever resisted or mourned the destruction of the Earth or the demise of one of its living species, or has wondered at the beauty of a sunrise, the awesome power of a storm, the vastness of prairie or mountain or ocean, the greening of the Earth after periods of dryness or cold, the fruitfulness of a harvest, the unique ways of wild or domesticated animals, or any of the other myriad phenomena of this planet and its skies has potentially brushed up against an experience of the creative power of the mystery of God, Creator Spirit” (She Who Is, p. 125).

First fruits of the Spirit and the first fruits of Earth—in springtime.

And, accordingly, I offer a suggestion. In the northern hemisphere, let us celebrate Pentecost as a season of the “first fruits” of the Earth. Farmers markets are newly reopened; gardeners rejoice in the harvest of asparagus and rhubarb, young lettuce and spinach; gatherers hunt for the elusive morel mushrooms. We easily miss the joy of first harvest in an age when we permit supermarkets—the retail outlets for our fossil fuel driven—industrialized food system, to provide us with their year-round supply of every season’s produce. And we probably miss a good deal of that sense of divinely dependent flourishing for which the Psalmist gave thanks. Might not the church do well to help recover this joy by including within the symbolism of Pentecost an offering of the first fruits of the season as among the important gifts of the “Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life?”

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

Can These Bones Live?Tom Mundahl reflects on the cost of transitioning to a creation-normed economy.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

As we worked to increase interest in our Easter Vigil, the decision was made to invite children to act out one of the readings each year. Whether it was the creation narrative, the story of Jonah, or Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, they did it with gusto. I remember when the reader asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3), seeing children sprawled on a dark floor, unmoving, gave Ezekiel’s words intense contemporary gravity. As the lector continued, “I will lay sinews on you, and cover you with skin” (Ezekiel 37:6), the children began squirming, stood, and started a slow zombie dance, something they were very good at. Finally came the words, “Prophesy to the breath….” (37:9) and the dance of life began. Both the reading and the bones came to life.

But this text is far more than child’s play. It captures the grief of a people in exile, a people who wonder whether the God of promise has forgotten them and consigned them to permanent captivity. This desperation is clear in their communal lament: “Our bones are dried up, our hope has perished, our life thread has been cut” (Ezekiel 37:11). So the question posed by the LORD to the prophet, “Mortal can these bones live?” does more than score points on “trivia night; ”it is even more than a consideration of the possibility of resurrection. To the exiles the question is: Do we as a community have a future?

It is in the language of this dramatic parable that we find a clue. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, “the narrative is held together by the key term ruah. It occurs ten times in all, and here, as elsewhere, can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” according to the context” (Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, p. 73). All three are gifts of God bringing new life in even the most extreme predicament.

Not only is God’s presence through the gift of ruah celebrated; in this parable the primal act of creation is reenacted, “when God formed humanity from the dust of the ground and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life” (Ibid.). Just as that creation responded to the need of someone to care for land (adamah), so this new beginning marks a return and new relationship with the land of promise (Ezekiel 37:11).

Walter Brueggemann makes it very clear that covenant renewal and the land belong together. Once again land becomes a gift “to till (serve) and keep” (The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 142). The importance of entering the land as if for the first time is the burden of much of the remainder of Ezekiel with its description of Yahweh’s return to the temple (Ezekiel 43:1-5), redistribution of the land (47:13-48: 29), and the associated rebuilding of Jerusalem. It is important to note that as exiles return (from being “aliens” themselves) even aliens will have a place. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel with you, they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel” (47:22b).

With the increasing ratio of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, wild weather swings, and fear of government protections (regulations) disappearing, the question, “can these bones live” is remarkably timely. Philosopher Glenn Albrecht has coined a term describing this particular state of longing for past environmental predictability and safety, “solastalgia.” That this impacts a substantial portion of the population finds support in a recent article published in the British medical journal, Lancet, describing health risks coming from discomfort and stress caused by fear of rapid climate change. (Nick Watts, et al,”Health and Climate Change: Policy Responses to Protect Public Health,” Lancet, No. 386, pp. 1861-1914)

Those who seek ecojustice long to escape from “solastalgia” and hopelessness. “Out of the depths” we cry to the LORD (Psalm 130:1). But as we wonder about life in the depths and whether our “dry bones” can live, we continue to trust in the God who gives us patience “to wait for the LORD more than those who watch for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Yet, the one we wait for also reveals the vision of a city whose river is pristine, whose vegetation is rich in food, with trees whose leaves bring healing, an urban center that even welcomes aliens (Ezekiel 47:7-12). The pattern and inspiration are God’s gift; the work is ours.

This work is nothing if not countercultural. In this week’s Second Reading, Paul lays out two modes of human orientation—“flesh” and “spirit.” “To set the mind on the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6a), or what Paul Tillich called “self-sufficient finitude” (Francis Ching-Wah Yip, Capitalism as Religion, Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2010, p. 85). Arthur McGill describes life centered in “the flesh” this way: “What is the center, the real key, to sinful identity? It is the act of possession, the act of making oneself and the resources needed for oneself one’s own. This act can be described with another term: domination. If I can hold on to myself as my own, as something I really possess and really control, then I am dominating myself.  I am the Lord of myself” (Death and Life: An American Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987, pp. 54-55)

Since living by the flesh is propelled by fear of losing one’s identity in death, it could not contrast more with “setting the mind on the Spirit which is life and peace” (Romans 8:6b). This is living by the gift of faith, beyond self-concern, trusting that daily bread and all that we need from day to day will be provided. This is no individualistic presentism. As Kasemann suggests, “The Spirit is the power of new creation of the end-time and as such links the present of faith to the future” (Commentary on Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980, p. 215). We live together from God’s future.

Beyond this time dimension, Paul’s theology drives immediately to praxis: “We are called to be who we are” (Horrel, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 191). Because the Spirit “dwells in us,” we are also infused with life (Romans 8:10), life which takes form in “specific service, since the Spirit wants to penetrate every corner of the world in all its breadth and depth” (Kasemann, p. 223).

This is true both in action and understanding.  In one of his early essays wondering why, with all the attention to “Christ and culture,” creation seemed neglected, Joseph Sittler made this vow:

“While I cannot at the moment aspire to shape the systematic structure out
of these insights, I know that I shall as a son of the earth know no rest until
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
I have seen how they, too, can be gathered up into a deeper and fuller
understanding of my faith. For these earthly protestations of earth’s broken
but insistent meaning have about them the shine of the holy, and a certain
‘theological guilt’ pursues the mind that impatiently rejects them”
(“A Theology for the Earth,” (1954) in Bakken and Bouma-Prediger, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, pp. 25-26).        

If we are motivated at all by residual Lenten guilt, it could be put to good use by working to include all of creation in preaching, worship, and outreach — service.

As we conclude with John’s “Book of Signs,” the question “can these bones live” takes on a unique form in the Lazarus narrative. We recall that as he welcomed the formerly blind man into a new community, Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man” (John 9:35). While that title certainly indicates a rank outclassing all historical rulers, it does not mean that Jesus is a remote figure. Brueggemann comments, “He is not the majestic, unmoved Lord but rather the one who knows and shares in the anguish of brother and sister” (The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p.92). He is also “the human one.”

Jesus is shown as a figure who weeps openly and expresses anger at the separating power of death—emotional transparency that contrasts sharply with norms for leaders of his time. Jesus is unafraid of expressing grief openly because he is engaged “in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the very pain and grief society must deny” (Ibid.). This novel action threatens so intensely that the religious elite reacts by concluding “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Thankfully, the divine commitment to healing the earth is far stronger than the leadership’s trivial use of utilitarian logic.

The issue is a life far more powerful than biological death. The “abundant life” (John 10:10) Jesus brings forges strong connections of care and service among people and otherkind. This life flows in the expenditure of energy, time, and emotion to build strong membership communities—human and ecological. Beyond the threat of biological death is the much more fearful loveless isolation which prevents us from offering ourselves as caregivers to creation or recipients of that care. (see Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 115).

The raising of Lazarus, then, is far more than a simple resuscitation.  It completes the Book of Signs by demonstrating how complete is Jesus’ commitment to healing the cosmos (John 3:16-17). Our narrative fulfills what is promised when Jesus says, “Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes” (John 5:21). But he takes this even further, saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my voice and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5: 24) Not only is this living from God’s future; it is living God’s future.

To say one participates in what we translate as “eternal life,” “denotes entry into life that partakes of God’s purposes, wherein all God’s creation is transformed from sin and death to live according to God’s purposes . . . . John does not use language of a ‘new heaven and new earth’ but the affirmation of somatic (bodily) resurrection (John 20-21) shows concern for the re-creation of the physical world.” (Warren Carter, John and Empire, London: T and T Clark, 2008, p. 213)

This also suggests the kenotic freedom of servanthood freeing the faith community to lay down life in building ecojustice (John 10:17-18). Recently, a group of residents of Winona County in Minnesota worked for nearly two years to achieve the first countywide ordinance banning the mining of sand for hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in the U.S. Led by members of the Land Stewardship Project with origins at Faith Lutheran, St. Charles, MN, they expended hours of effort to nourish the land, waters, and people of this Mississippi River county by influencing local policy (Johanna Ruprecht, “Anatomy of a Grassroots Campaign,” The Land Stewardship Newsletter, No. 1, 2017, pp. 12-15.).

“Can these bones live” in a time of discouragement and frustration?  Not one of the texts for this Sunday in Lent was written by those enjoying great ease and comfort. Anyone who thought that transition to a creation-normed economy would ever be easy—especially in the face of global capitalism—is naive. Perhaps Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s analysis from 1943 fits our situation: “We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, and the reviled–in short, from the perspective of those who suffer” (“After Ten Years,” in Eberhard Bethge, ed., Letters and Papers from Prison, New York: Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). And “from below,” where creation is fouled and creatures—including people—suffer, there is no shortage of opportunities for ecojustice effort.

Hymn suggestions:

Gathering: “Around You, O Lord Jesus,” ELW, 468
Hymn of the Day:   “Out of the Depths, I Cry to You,” ELW, 600
Sending: “Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW, 326
 

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

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 29, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.

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

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

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).

Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus  seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”  

Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death  early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found,  Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation.  The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation:  each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).

The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life.  Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself”  (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust. 

But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose: 

What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).

There is deep irony to this, of course.  As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” 

The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

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

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

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).