Tag Archives: Tom Mundahl

Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wisdom from Gardening – Tom Mundahl reflects on the seed that dies to bear fruit.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Wisdom and witness from the garden.

The time for studying seed catalogues in the Midwest is nearly over. Now is decision time. What will we grow in our limited space? Even more difficult is choosing seeds. Which varieties of carrots or squash should we try this year? Do we experiment with new, hybrid varieties, or purchase heirloom seeds? Which will work best in our soil conditions and changing climate? These are fascinating but difficult choices for the avid gardener, who, in a few weeks will plant these seeds in the earth “to die.”

Everyone who has ever planted a garden understands the image used in our gospel reading: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain (literally, “alone”); but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Without the expenditure of the “life” that is stored in the seed—from genetic material to micro-nutrients—a garden simply will not grow.

Jesus uses this “parable” in response to a request from “some Greeks” who wanted to see him during the at the Passover Festival. While it may seem that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse, responding with a Zen-like koan less than helpful for these Gentile seekers, this short parable points toward the meaning of Jesus’ life and the future of the community enlivened by him.

To live real life is to give life away.

For it is not only gardening advice. With logic much like that used in the first Markan passion prediction (see Lent 2, Mark 8:31-38), Jesus argues that all attempts to find security on one’s own, or to protect oneself from the risks of life together, will lead to unfruitful death (the grain remaining “alone”). This is why Jesus continues: “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). To live real life is to give life away, to “spend” it.

Giving life away may seem like a waste of energy and resources to our culture. But Jesus digs deeper, seeking the very reason for receiving the gift of life. Once again, he puts it in vivid, but difficult words: “ . . . those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” That is, those who come to see that life is not a possession to be stored in a vault, but shared as needed in community, find that life becomes so rich it takes on a new quality that Jesus refers to as “eternal life.” (John 12:25)

Jesus gives his life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus is about to demonstrate with the cross. Resurrection life—the life implied from the very beginning of this gospel—is cruciform to the marrow. Yet, it is the way to the germination of new creation. What would possess one to risk this? Only one who is confident that self-emptying death is not final. Instead, Jesus breaks ground for a “way” that passes even through death into the creation and nurture of a new community celebrating the interdependence of the whole of creation. This is a giving of life in the very act of “dying” that enriches all, like ripe compost.

Wisdom from Dostoevsky: love of Earth and renewing of strength.

This is likely why the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, chose John 12:24 as the epigraph for his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. One of the brothers, Alyosha, has spent months attached to a monastery, mentored by the Elder Zosima. While the novel makes clear that Zosima’s wisdom is focused on life—the precious web of relations between God, people, and the created world, there are those who expect extraordinary miracles that will add to the status of the monastery upon his coming death. The most basic of these expectations is the conviction that, because of the Elder’s holiness, his dead body will not be subject to decay.

When Zosima dies, his body begins to give off “an unmistakable scent.” Many would-be saint-makers begin to scoff at this well-loved teacher. Even Alyosha is crestfallen. Yet, in the midst of his grief and disappointment, he recalls “the Miracle at Cana” (John 2). Alyosha begins to grasp that Zosima has showered him with liveliness comparable to the “best wine” created by Jesus to enliven that wedding party!

As he leaves the monastery carrying this new insight, suddenly:

“The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. . . . He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, 362-63).

There are many ways to embrace God’s creation and to water it with our tears. While these textual comments have focused on Lenten texts, they surely drive toward the Three Days and the celebration of the Great Passover from death to life. As we look forward to baptism(s) at the Vigil, we recall both the renunciation of the powers of destruction in that service and the promise of parents and sponsors to “care for others and the world God made.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Holy Baptism,” p. 228). This makes us ‘fighters,’ too.

The finite bears the infinite.

Of course, this celebration of victory over the power of destruction and evil by the one who “draws all to himself on the cross” (John 12:32) is continued throughout the year in our weekly celebration of the Eucharist. This meal reminds us that what we eat and drink in the midst of the assembly, gathered by the Spirit, and affirming the Risen One, is charged with life that honors all creation (finitum capax infiniti). This meal of radical sharing creates a community whose very reason to be is mutual care–”Go in peace, serve the Lord.”

By our self-denial, we make space for others to flourish.

And this caring mirrors the very act of creation. This is because the Risen One is the embodiment of God’s making space for that which is other, which is essential to creation. This becomes clearer in the even more explicit “self-emptying” we focus on this season (Philippians 2:5-11) As Wirzba reminds us,

“God’s original creation of the Garden of Eden was and continues to be an act in which God ‘makes room’ for what is not God to be and to flourish. Rowan Williams observes that it is when we practice the self-denial and self-dispossession that mirror God’s life that we are enabled to receive each other and the world as divine gifts rather than personal possessions.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2012, p. 69).

Whether it is caring for our gardens or “fasting” from automobile driving during Lent, this “making space for life” nourishes much like the “seed that dies to bear fruit.”

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 21) in Year B (Mundahl18)

Ending Our Exile from CreationTom Mundahl reflects on owning the responsibilities of our priesthood.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Finally we can begin to see our garden beds. Even though we have been able to celebrate a Minnesota winter in all of its beauty and challenge, after four months of snow we cannot help but experience a sense of exile from the rich smell of warming humus in garden beds and the ever-surprising growth of seeds into food and flowers. But that exile is also apparent as we begin to comprehend what it means to enter the Anthropocene Epoch where the relative predictability of life on earth has begun to disappear as a result of humans dumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. That is in addition to human resource use that has increased to the point where scholars at the Global Footprint Network in Oakland, CA, have estimated that for all humankind to live at the level of Americans, four planets would be necessary! (www.footprintnetwork.org)

Lent is certainly the season to face the arrogance of human “overshoot” and, reflecting on the re-creating mercy of God, to repent by turning our policies, practices and expectations around to learn how to live fruitfully and justly in balance with this blue planet. Like the people of Judah who were captured by the Babylonians, one of the most powerful and advanced cultures of its time, we have been enslaved by a set of axioms for living that cannot be sustained, nor should they. So it is a gift on this last Sunday in Lent to begin with a prophet of exile, Jeremiah, who may help us begin to see glimmers of freedom.

Jeremiah had no difficulty detecting human arrogance. Dragged kicking and screaming into his vocation, he not only exposed the culture’s contempt for truth, but experienced it directly in rejection. Given his faithfulness in delivering God’s message of judgment in both symbolic actions and words, we are surprised suddenly to come upon the “Book of Consolation,” one of the most profound statements of hope in the Jewish scriptures. This new word promises that the LORD will bring the exiles home in nothing less than a second Exodus (Jeremiah 30:3).

As this return to the land of promise begins, Jeremiah describes their future as a celebration of the richness of the land and its bounty. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” (Jeremiah 31:12-14).

That image of a “watered garden” is important for understanding this familiar text. Jeremiah’s call, after all, was not only “to pluck up and pull down,” but “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10).  It seems that in the face of Judah’s arrogance it was necessary for the leaders to return once more to the wilderness, even if that wilderness was the alien culture of Babylon. Hear Jeremiah: “Thus says the LORD: the people who have survived the sword found grace in the wilderness” (Jeremiah 31:2).  Only in this “wilderness experience” where dependence is total can the “planting of vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” (Jeremiah 31:5) be seen as gift, not merely the results of human effort.

Just as the return to a fertile land is now seen as something granted, so also is the restored harmony between God and people now experienced as gift. As Clements suggests, “The old covenant of the law is dead; instead there will be an inner power of motivation towards obedience on the part of Israel written on the very hearts of the people of God, not on tablets of stone. Although the word “spirit” is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law” (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah,  Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 190).

Not only does this provide a new basis of forgiveness, it seems to portend a new harmony throughout the land. The city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt from the rubble. Even fields that had served as burial places for the fallen will once more become fertile gardens (cf. Jeremiah 31:40, John Bright, Jeremiah, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 283). Quite clearly, “covenant restoration” includes not just humankind, but spills over to the land as well.

Even though the notion of Jesus as “high priest” seems strange during a year when we immerse ourselves in Mark’s Gospel with numerous uses of John, Hebrews holds a secure place in the canon and in piety. The purpose of this metaphor seems to be to establish Jesus’ identity as both the one who brings healing to creation and completes the Jewish system of sacrifice. The “high priest” according to the anonymous author is chosen and “put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Hebrews 5:1), one who mediates between God and humankind.

But Jesus is the final high priest: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:8-10). Much speculation surrounds the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, much of it coming from Qumran referred to in various scrolls. Apparently, the author’s strategy here is to bolster Jesus’ authority with reference to one greater than Abraham, “who blessed him who had received the promises” (Hebrews 7:6) and outranks all other priests (Thomas G. Long, HebrewsLouisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 66-67). Ultimately, because Jesus sacrificed his own blood, he has “opened for us a new and living way” (Hebrews 10:20).

While Hebrews can seem arcane, we are also reminded that the very notion of “priesthood” is something we share with all Christians through baptism. As Luther wrote in the Address to the German Nobility (1520), “For whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope.” Even though all baptized Christians are called to serve as priests—mediators between God, sisters and brothers, and the creation—not all are called to pastoral ministry. While Protestants have generally seen “the priesthood of all believers” as a critique of ecclesiastical hierarchy, we have all too rarely seen priesthood as an empowering vocation.

Orthodox perspectives help us here. “According to the Orthodox view, what a priestly role (not necessarily a priest leading worship) does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on Earth here and now. Heaven is not a far-away place, but rather the transformation of every place so that the glory and grace of God are fully evident. When in priestly motion we lift our hearts to God, what we are doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, the ‘new heaven and earth’ (Rev. 21:1) so that our interdependent need can be appreciated as blessing” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 206-207). Our shared priesthood in seeking eco-justice, then, expresses our prayer and action toward ending our arrogant exile from creation, insuring the wholeness and peace that is Sabbath delight.

Timing is everything.  Gardeners know that planting cannot be hurried— the soil must be fed with rich compost and its temperature must have warmed to proper germination levels. In much the same way, “Jesus’ hour” comes only when “certain Greeks” ask to see him (John 12:20), signaling that now with the addition of “other sheep” (John 10:16) the flock is complete. Now is the time for planting: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Jesus’ “parable” takes for granted ancient beliefs that with the loss of their original form seeds ceased to be what they were and died. Even though we understand the growth process differently, the image still conveys power. As James P. Mackey writes, “Every transformation in the universal process of evolutionary creativity involves a death of existing forms or a de-formation . . . (But what is this but) . . . the inevitable negative pole of the positive force of creative evolution that forever brings new or renewed forms into being” (quoted in Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 162). As Wendell Berry observes as he works in his hillside woodlots, “where the creation is yet fully alive and continuous and self-enriching, whatever dies enters directly into the life of the living . . . ” (“An Entrance to the Woods,” Recollected Essays 1965-1980, San Francisco: North Point, 1981, p. 240)

Berry’s view of transition in forests reminds us that even theologically, death is a self-offering movement in which an individual gives himself or herself to another for the expansion of life. As Wirzba suggests, “Rather than viewing life as a possession, one inspired by Christ understands that life is a gift to be received and given again . . . . All attempts to secure life from within or to withhold oneself from the offering that is the movement of life, will amount to life’s loss” (Wirzba, p. 112). This is why Jesus says, “Those who love their life will lose it” (John 12:25). Real life is expenditure.

This explains why Dostoevsky uses John 12:24 as the epigraph for his novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this earthy theological thriller we meet two religious protagonists: the Elder Zosima and Alyosha Karamozov, a novice monk. Zosima serves as starets (spiritual advisor) to the monks and to the multitude who come to him for advice and counsel. But he has not only lived inside cloister walls. Earlier he had been a dashing military officer, playing cards and challenging brother officers to duels. In fact, it was as he prepared for a duel that suddenly he was granted a vision of the unity and holiness of creation, a vision which sent him to the monastery. This tempering of piety with worldly experience serves as the basis of his holiness and humility. It is with the same humility that his life ends: suddenly he felt a pain in his chest, “silently lowered himself from his armchair to the floor and knelt, then bowed down with his face to the ground, stretched out his arms, and, as in joyful ecstasy, kissing the earth and praying, quietly and joyfully, gave up his soul to God” (The Brothers Karamazov, Bk. 6, Ch.3, trans. Pevear and Volokhonsky, San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 324).

The expectation is that because of Zosima’s unusual holiness, his body will not exhibit the odor of decay. To the delight of his monastic rivals, not only does the stench begin, but it seems to be especially pronounced. Young Alyosha is crushed. Does this mean that his mentor was nothing but a fraud? In his shock he finally returns to stand watch near Zosima’s bier where Father Paissy reads aloud from the scriptures. It is when Alyosha hears the account of the Wedding at Cana read aloud that he experiences once again Zosima’s voice celebrating the richness of new wine. Suddenly Alyosha runs out of the chapel and when he reaches the forest, like Zosima, he falls down and embraces the earth weeping tears of joy. As Dostoevsky writes, “He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life” (Ibid., Bk. 7, Ch. 4, p. 363). By falling to the earth as the seed that has died, as he leaves the monastery he becomes   part of a new community caring for the whole creation.

Dostoevsky here teaches that self-offering is not a waste leading nowhere. As Wirzba claims, “The giving of oneself, instead, leads to life as it really ought to be: ‘those who hate their life in the world’ (v. 25)—that is, those who realize that individual life is not a possession or an idol to be guarded and worshipped at all costs, those who categorically reject the isolating project of self-glorification, but instead willingly give themselves over for the good of others—‘will keep it for eternal life’ (v. 25)” (Wirzba, p. 114). Working for eco-justice with all one’s life may not be a good career choice, but it is an integral calling among the priesthood of all believers.

The high point of our gospel text occurs when Jesus describes being lifted up from the earth and “drawing all to myself” (John 12:32). Yes, the preferred NRSV reading is “all people,” but “all things” conforms more closely to 3:35 and 13:3, “all things have been given.” Why not, then, simply use “all” to avoid anthropocentrism and emphasize the creation interests of the Gospel. As Daly-Denton argues, “So to think of panta (“all”) being given into Jesus’ hands is to think of ‘all things’ being entrusted to the disciples as well. Their mission is to do the creating and sustaining ‘works of God’ (John 6:28), as modeled by the Good Shepherd, even  to the point of putting their life on the line as he did” (Daly-Denton, p. 166).

Because of the ecological situation we find ourselves in, it would be helpful to hear a confirming voice from heaven as did the festival crowd in our narrative (John 12:29-30). We may ask whether “the ruler of this world has been driven out” (John 12:31) as we admit that the wanton use of our freedom and technological power has led us to the brink of ruin and left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is unresponsive to “human interests.” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37)  Is our fate simply as Philip Sherrard has described: “There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourself to it.  That is the punishment.” (The Eclipse of Man and Nature, Stockbridge: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 71-72)

Every Sunday, even the Sundays of Lent, is a celebration of the resurrection. That does not mean that Christians are naively optimistic about the prospects we face. We would be fools to expect that a new technology or the sudden appearance of a new leader will solve the problems we confront. But as we come down to earth and plant the seeds of small gardens, teach children where carrots come from, and help sisters and brothers to see that eco-justice is central to our “priesthood,” we find hope. The one who sends Jeremiah to tear down our falsity and the Christ to draw all to him on the cross will certainly puncture every assumption of our arrogant culture—including our own personal favorites. Yet that same Creator will give us the courage to own our responsibilities, begin to mitigate climate damage, and work to find a place in the choir for all of God’s creatures.

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

How can we allow the religion of consumption to threaten God’s future? – Tom Mundahl reflects on turning from darkness to light.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

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

The Religion of Consumption

In 1955, American economist Victor Lebow wrote a prescription for the postwar economy that proved to be uncannily accurate.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing pace.” (quoted in Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? New York: Norton, 1992, pp. 21-22)

The impact of this “religion of consumption” is no surprise to those who care for creation, all struggling to live justly and humbly in “the belly of the beast.” The results of this postwar orgy of consumption are clear enough: massive waste of energy and material; increased degradation of air, water, and soil; use of thousands of chemical compounds whose effects are unknown, massive amounts of carbon dioxide and methane exhaust fueling climate change, and embrace of “magical thinking” trusting that these problems will be “solved” by the newest techno “trick.”

How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation?

How could this be? How could intelligent, sometimes well-meaning human beings threaten the future of God’s creation? Today’s readings provide clues that, even though they are nearly too blunt to miss, we too often ‘skate over’ to avoid offending what we might call the ‘spirit of the age,’ especially at a time when we do not want to rock the boat of a fragile economic recovery.

How could the church have bought into Victor Lebow’s clearly idolatrous way of thinking? Or, to echo Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). Is it, as Marxists used to claim, “false consciousness?” Are we simply so overwhelmed by the massive quantity of commercial messaging and allegiance to finding meaning in ‘branding’ that we cannot help but respond to these stimuli? Are we so overworked in an anxious job milieu that we take our rewards where we can get them –at the mall or by shopping online?

Light and Darkness / Old Life, New Way of Being in Christ

Our readings suggest that, while all of these carry explanatory power, it is worse than that. As the Nicodemus discourse winds down, Jesus, who in the Prologue has already been called “the true light, which enlightens everyone….” (John 1:9) describes how responding to his presence creates a “crisis” (translated as “judgment,” v. 19) that orients humankind to “the light” or “the darkness.” This parallels the distinction etched in our second lesson between the “old life” (Ephesians 2:3) and the “new life in Christ” that has created a new community of hope (Ephesians 2:4-10). No matter how those who do not believe have ended up in this situation, the result is the same—embracing of the darkness, living in the old ways where one must manufacture one’s own security and hope.

And there is plenty of support for living the old life of darkness! The Roman Empire could provide a complete syllabus of religious practices that would not only be socially approved, but provide a safe anchor in the community. Something like that seems to be true for all in our culture who prefer the darkness. Bill McKibben points out that a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” featured several climate science deniers, including five with ties to Exxon Oil (TomDispatch.com, February 9, 2012).

In fact, the darkness of a system that depends upon ravaging God’s creation has taken more than a century of “popular education” (read ‘propaganda’) to develop. As theologian Norman Wirzba argues:

“In fact, the vices of the great moral and spiritual traditions –pride, greed, and prodigality—first had to be transformed into economic virtues for Adam Smith’s ideas abut production, acquisition, and work to take hold. Today’s economies, in other words, are planned. They depend upon founding myths or assumptions that need to be seriously questioned if we are to make significant changes in the way we live.” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 98)

Let Light and Newness Prevail

But God’s purpose in sending the One who is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14) is to recreate and renew all of creation so that light and newness prevail. This is the goal we move toward during Lent as we look forward to lighting the “new fire” at the Easter Vigil and anticipate new baptisms into this community of care and love. What moves us cannot be better summarized than in John 3:16: “God so loved the world….” Even if the world contains a deep power of opposition embracing the old ways of darkness, this created world is in the process of being made new.

John connects this action to the old story of Moses lifting the serpent in the wilderness to bring hope to a community that has, in a sense, destroyed itself on the way to the Promised Land.

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14)

This cross now becomes the center of the world, the axis mundi , the locus from which the Son of Man will draw all to himself (John 12:32) in the process of driving out the ruler of this world…and the musty darkness.

We are called to be a new community of life and hope.

But that is not all. In the meantime, those already captured by the new light are very busy. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may clearly be seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21). This line is beautifully echoed at the end our second reading describing the purpose of creating a new community of light and hope. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life”(Ephesians 2:10).

Our task of good works is to care for creation.

Even in the face of a contracting consumer culture, filled with anxiety about what is coming next, our task is to continue to be about “the good works” already prepared for us. This is our life path. At times, I consider chucking this “care of creation struggle” in favor of walking the St. Olav Pilgrimage to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, or the El Camino Santiago Way to Compostela in Spain. Certainly, we all need to experience “sabbatical” time. But as Victor Lebow’s vision of “faith-based shopping” weakens us and our culture, the power of the one lifted up like the serpent frees us to continue to live out the way “prepared for us”—caring for creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy! – Tom Mundahl reflects on the continuation and completion of the Sabbath.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Thirds Sunday of Lent, Year B (1012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

As we continue our pilgrimage through the forty days of Lent, we are reminded of Israel’s forty year trek to the land of promise. This week, we will focus on the gift of “the ten words,” the Ten Commandments, on the way to that new land. But we will also see how these words connect with the institutional religion that developed there, especially ‘temple-focused’ religious life.

Perhaps what is most unique about the description of the giving of “the ten words” in our first reading is the immediacy of God’s presence. This is the only example in the Old Testament of direct, unmediated address by God to the assembly. Quite likely the purpose of this direct address is to insure that these “words” are heard correctly, not ‘watered down’ by mediators. Ironically, the assembly cannot take it! Immediately after hearing “the ten words,” they ask Moses to resume as mediator (Exodus 20:18).

Sabbath is more than the absence of labor!

For our purposes, it may be that “the word” most closely connected with caring for creation is the “third word” about keeping the Sabbath, the commandment given the longest elaboration in both versions of “the ten words” (See also Deuteronomy 5:6-21). This “word,” traditionally considered by Lutherans to complete ‘the first table’ of the law consisting of commandments focusing on the relationship between God and humankind, is much broader in meaning—because the notion of ‘sabbath’ as interpreted by the author of the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2.4a) is much more than a “day off” to rest from the heavy lifting required by the first six days.

Sabbath is a dance of delight.

In fact, creation continues on the seventh day. What was lacking from the first six days? Apparently, the ‘lack’ was rest, menuha, a Hebrew word suggesting far more than the absence of labor. Menuha, Sabbath rest, carries rich connotations of delight in sharing the harmonious interdependence of all that God has made. And, recall that Exodus 20:10 makes sure to include livestock in Sabbath observance. No longer can we hold that humankind is the “crown” of creation. Now it is Sabbath rest, menuha, a dance of delight, that crowns the Creator’s work.

Sabbath is a time when all life is celebrated.

Instead, Sabbath is kept when its integrity before God and before all life is celebrated. When that does not happen, all creation is in danger. As Norman Wirzba warns:

“Failure to understand God’s ownership and control of creation leads to human destruction of creation and a distortion of who we are as created beings. Sabbath observance, in other words, teaches us that we are not God, that we are finally not in control, and that the goal of creation is not to be found in us.” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 37.)

Failure to observe Sabbath rest leads to destruction and violence. Keeping Sabbath, on the other hand, opens the way to the mutuality and care sought by the “Second Table” of commands, focused on relationships among creatures.

“Sabbath keeping is an act of creation-keeping.”

Terence Fretheim puts it on the mark when he claims that this “third word” is a rich source for care of creation: “Sabbath keeping is an act of creation keepin.” (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 230). And, this creation-keeping that is rooted in Sabbath menuha (rest) leads us to embrace a perspective on creation care—called by Wendell Berry “the Great Economy.” (Berry, Home Economics, San Francisco: North Point, 1987, pp. 74-75.) This notion of “the Great Economy” is practically synonymous with earth-keeping. It views the integrity and health of the whole creation so broadly that it includes even ‘the fall of a sparrow.’ This perspective contrasts sharply with conventional economic views that mark species disappearance, decline in air or water quality, and even climate change as “externalities.”

Let’s have a Lenten fast from our consumer economy!

A sabbath-based embrace of “the Great Economy” is also rooted in a sense of responsibility and care, echoing the call to “till and keep” (Genesis 2:15). During the Lenten season when we are enjoined to consider ‘fasting,’ perhaps we have an opportunity to reduce consumption, freeing ourselves from unnecessary ‘shopping anxiety’ and reducing pressures on the natural world. This practice may liberate us for what E.F. Schumacher has called a “becoming existence” that provides “the maximum well-being with the minimum of consumption” (E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (New York: Harper, 1973, p. 57).

Sabbath is joining the choir of all creation in worship and praise.

Finally, an economy based on Sabbath menuha would join the whole creation in worship and praise. Psalm 19 certainly echoes this refrain we find throughout the scriptures: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament declares his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) But what kind of worship reflects true Sabbath keeping? This leads us to consider John’s narrative of Jesus’ Cleansing the Temple, our Gospel text. We move from “the ten words” to “the Word made flesh.”

John joins Matthew and Luke in describing a temple cleansing. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John comes near the very beginning of the gospel, at a Passover observance. Following the amazing story of ‘the Wedding in Cana” where Jesus provided massive amounts of wine to continue the party, we now see another eschatological sign regarding the temple.

Although a new and cleansed temple had traditionally been part of future hope, Jesus provides two insights that are significant. First, it is the Jewish leadership that will be responsible for destruction of the temple. When he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), “destroy” is imperative (“you destroy the temple”) and implies that the religious elite will accomplish this destruction themselves by not using this ‘cultural tool’ to promote Sabbath delight (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol. I, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 120). Second, the temple will be replaced by the Risen One, whose new being constitutes a ‘raising’ of the temple. Of course, this idea is carried on in the Johannine tradition with the vision of the new city in the Revelation to John: “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”(Revelation 21:22).

The vision of the New Jerusalem represents the fulfillment of creation.

“And there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21:25). This ‘feature’ of the new city is strikingly reminiscent of the first creation story’s description of the seventh creation of Sabbath rest, menuha. For, unlike the other ‘days’ of creation, there is no “evening” on the seventh day, a sign of fulfillment. Could it be that the embodied temple, Jesus the Risen One, described in the Revelation to John, constitutes the perfect fulfillment of Sabbath rest and delight?

Perhaps, then, we can see weekly Sabbath-keeping as the anticipation of creation’s ultimate redemption, the time when “all will be well.” That frees us to understand the work of Christ as the continuation and completion of the Sabbath. Wirzba claims: “The early Christian . . . understood Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God and his ministry to be the incarnation of God’s delight and peace in a world of pain and violence” (Wirzba, p. 40). In fact, Jesus’ making himself the sign of a new “temple” engenders hope that all of life will become a Sabbath feast. Because this is a feast of delight for all, it brings with it both hope for the future of creation and active concern and care for all that God has made.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Breathe in the Fragrance of Creation’s Renewal – Tom Mundahl reflects on faith and courage for the renewal of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

The first sentence of the appointed Prayer of the Day for the Third Sunday in Lent, Series B, sets the tone for our reflections. “Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 28). Our texts not only show how faithful and courageous living is enhanced by the gift of torah, especially the Sabbath. They also describe the challenges of living this out in a faith community that often forgets its very purpose in favor of factionalism and protecting institutions.

Although terms like “commandment” and “law” carry a coercive tone to modern ears, our First Lesson frames the “Ten Words” as liberatory. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Because God frees from bondage, this new instruction is aimed at enhancing life in a renovated community. As much as opening the sea, this torah is an act of saving liberation.

Even though eight of the commands (“words”) are apodictic, framed negatively, they function to open up life by focusing on those behaviors which destroy community rather than providing a detailed set of “rules” for life. That is, the commandment about “not bearing false witness” also suggests the freedom to speak well of neighbors and strangers in order to enhance and build relationships (Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Louisville: John Knox, p. 221). The two positive “words” regarding honoring parents and the importance of Sabbath guarantee identity for persons and community by providing both a sense of heritage and time to celebrate the unity of creation.

It is significant that the “word” given the most space in both this reading and in Deuteronomy 5 is “instruction” concerning the Sabbath. Far from being based on the need of the Creator for a “breather” after six days of “heavy lifting,” the Sabbath is a celebration of the “completion” of creation. Moltmann finds it curious that, especially in the Western Church, “creation is generally only presented as the six days of work. The completion of creation is much neglected, or even overlooked altogether” (Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985, p. 277).

While we usually think of creation in terms of origins, Wirzba suggests that we should rather think more in terms of the character of creation defining both the cosmos and God’s people. “The world becomes creation on the seventh day. In like manner, the nation of Israel testifies to its religious identity . . . as it keeps the holy day of rest, ‘the feast of creation.’ Humanity and earth become most fully what they are to be in the celebration of the Sabbath” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 35). He continues, “If we understand the climax of creation to be not the creation of humanity but the creation of menuha (rest), then it becomes possible to rethink the character of creation and its subsequent destruction in a more profound manner. How does our treatment of creation and each other reflect the menuha of God?” (Ibid.).

Sabbath, then, is a gift calling all creatures to live in harmony with God’s shalom. Fretheim suggests, “Even more, sabbath-keeping is to participate in God’s intention for the rhythm of creation. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230) For example, “keeping the Sabbath calls one to a hospitality that makes room for others to flourish and be themselves” (Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge, 2011, p. 45). To do this requires careful observation and study of the variety of creation, the kind of discipline characteristic of gardening. It also suggests that, rather than finding identity in consumption, humans develop the ability to nurture kinship among all the “citizens” of creation.

Psalm 19 could be considered a Sabbath festival in honor of the interdependence of creation. As “the heavens tell the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1), the psalmist echoes the notion common to biblical thinking that everything created shares the capacity to participate in praise of the creator. In this way, the non-human creation joins the worshipping assembly in praise. The power of this participation by non-human creation is all the more impressive because: “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out throughout all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (vv. 3-4). As Mays writes, “It is all very mysterious and marvelous. The visible becomes vocal. Seeing is experienced as hearing. The imagination is in the midst of an unending concert sung by the universe to the glory of God” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 99).

This concert is augmented by the words of the torah, which are metaphorically connected to creation as “sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb” (v. 10). While the familiar conclusion of the song (psalm) may remind us of prayer beginning or concluding a homily, the words fuse the divine role of creator of the natural world and pattern-maker for the human community. For the lyric “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (v. 14) is much more. The powerful images of “mouth/heart” and “rock/redeemer” suggest the warp and woof of weaving together the intimate connection of humankind, creation, and creator.

But Paul writes to a Corinthian community where that fabric has been dangerously frayed by factionalism. To remedy this tragedy for those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2), he calls his respondents to move beyond the cunning of human wisdom which has become a major obstacle to unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as the authority to pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47).

Paul strips away the illusory power of these human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting leaders, institutions, and governments up as “ultimate authorities,” that even today has led to division, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For human “standards and criteria” are all too often partial, reflecting only self-interest. They seem to always benefit only “us,” however that “in-group” is construed.

It should be no surprise, then, that our pretense to have discerned the necessary “signs” and gained sufficient “wisdom” has opened the door to the anthropocene epoch. Embracing our own selfish standards, we have wantonly used technological power to bring the earth to the brink of ruin. “The very cultivation of our powers has left us exposed to a nature that refuses to be tamed and is increasingly unsympathetic to our interests” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: the Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 37). The claim to pursue policies and economic activity to meet what we call “needs” has resulted in a techno-industrial system of monstrous anthropocentrism threatening the equilibrium of the earth. And, because we are slow to acknowledge this (that is, we are not anthropocentric enough because we do not accept responsibility and act on it), we foster a situation of chaos on this planet not unlike the disorder in the Corinthian church.

But, according to Paul, there is another way. This is demonstrated by the obedient one whose concern for renewing all things was not limited even by the instinct for self-preservation. The Roman Empire responded to this new form of servant-leadership with their most persuasive threat—death, a shameful, public death on a cross. This time, even the ultimate sanction was not enough. “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge” (Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Just as the Christ event shatters the imperial ideology, so entering the anthropocene exposes the failure of the techno-industrial system we live in, with, and under. What does it mean for us today to hear: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” (v. 25). If we have crossed this barrier, will not our responses seem weak and foolish? Wind power and solar instead of blowing the tops off mountains for coal and drilling like technological “prairie dogs” for fracked oil? Conservation, simpler living, and reuse instead of finding our identity as “consumers?” Sharing and learning from indigenous people instead of robbing their land and its riches? Relearning the “old technologies” and discovering contentment rather than worshipping at the altar of “more?” Finding a way of increasing cooperation as we refuse to “swim with the sharks”? We have shredded the fabric of the world; now we can only trust that God’s foolishness and weakness of the Risen One and his call to a new sabbath of all life will show us a “way” that will be a faithful and courageous response.

Perhaps the way will be as difficult as moving from the festivities at Cana to the Jerusalem Temple. In Cana, it was a time to celebrate—and not only the joy of the newly-married couple. Even deeper was the celebration of Jesus’ arrival “on the third day” (John 2:1), the day of creation when the Creator made earth appear and with it growing plants of every kind, including the grapevine! (Margaret Daly-Denton, John—An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury, 2017, p. 65). Just as the Hebrew Scriptures pictured “mountains dripping with wine” (Amos 9:13) as evidence of Israel’s restoration, so Jesus’ actions evidence nothing less than new creation. Here is the Wisdom of God appearing on Earth, inviting us to the banquet where we enjoy the wine she has prepared (Proverbs 9:5).

What a contrast between this celebration of the free gift of creation and the deterioration of the Temple precincts into an emporium—strip mall, where currency was exchanged and a great variety of sacrificial animals was made available. Of course, by this time in history Passover was a very big and important celebration in Jerusalem. Even if Josephus exaggerates in claiming a crowd of three million, it must have strained every resource of the city. And the resources of the many pilgrims, all of whom found themselves under the obligation to sacrifice a lamb (or a dove, if circumstances required). While we often look askance at animal sacrifice, as Wirzba observes, “The costliness of the offering expressed the recognition that even though human beings work hard to rear and cultivate the food on which their lives depend, it is still the gift of the creating Source of all life, growth, and fertility” (Food and Faith, p. 118).

For people who lived close to the agricultural and animal sources of life, this seven day festival of unleavened bread recalled the seven days of creation. “Passover was thus widely understood at the time of Jesus as a celebration of the renewal of creation” (Daly-Denton, p. 71). This helps us understand the Jesus’ anger. As the center of worship, the Temple was intended to symbolize the cosmos as God’s creation, the hub from which “rivers of life” flowed to the world (Ezekiel 40-42). Instead, it had become a mercantile center. “With its storehouses and treasuries, it had degenerated into a repository of large quantities of money and goods extracted from the surplus product of the peasant economy.” (Ibid., p. 72) The temple had become both an ideological support and a financial “cash cow” of the Roman colonial system and its local collaborators.

Essentially, the governing authorities and Temple elite were already desecrating it by turning it into a financial institution instead of a house of prayer for all people. Raymond Brown suggests that when Jesus says, “Destroy this temple” (v. 19a), he means, “Go ahead and do this and see what happens” (The Gospel According to John, i-xii, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 115). Brown continues, “Jesus is insisting that they are destroying the Temple, even as the disobedience of their ancestors provoked the destruction of the Tabernacle at Shiloh and of Solomon’s Temple” (Ibid., p. 122). This Temple will shortly be replaced by the Risen One.

But the meaning here is far richer. After the resurrection event, the disciples began to understand that Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me,” was more than a warning to “lighten up.” This passion cost Jesus his life. And the “raising up” of the Temple (v. 19b) is hardly reference to a new architectural project; it is a new bodily temple (naos) that becomes the axis of new creation. This accounts for the positioning of this “sign” at the beginning of John’s Gospel: to make it clear that the one who is “Word made flesh” (1:14), who on the cross, “draws all things to himself” (12:32), and brings the creation its “wedding celebration” (hieros gamos) in the form of a living and life-giving Temple, is the center of all creation.

Just as Mark describes the “ripping open” of the traditional Platonic cosmology which provided security, so the Johannine writer acknowledges the destruction of the Temple, the “home” of traditional worship. Now the “Word made flesh” invites followers to “come and see” in all the places where “signs” are performed and makes even the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany a proper place to breathe in the fragrance of creation’s renewal (John 12:3). So wherever we gather around this fragrance, we are at home because he is present both as host and servant of creation (John 13:1-38) to nourish faith and courage.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Expend your life for Jesus and the gospel of new creation, and you will save it. – Tom Mundahl reflects on the gospel paradox.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-15
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

While this week’s readings vigorously underline God’s faithful keeping of covenant promises made to Abraham and Sarah, including the strong affirmation in our psalm that this promise is for all (Psalm 22:27), our Gospel lesson challenges us to focus both on what threatens and on what sustains care for creation.

The disciples seek power to dominate. Jesus renounces it.

Once more, Jesus and his entourage are “on the way” on the very “edge.” They find themselves in the region of Caesarea Philippi, an area dominated by a city once named for the Greek god, Pan. With Roman imperial dominance, it has been redubbed “Caesarea Philippi” to honor the dedication of a temple there to Caesar Augustus and to recognize the influence of the Herodian tetrarch, Philip. This history not only suggests a fluid religious past, it also opens the door for a new understanding of “the way.” For as they travel, Jesus asks a seemingly simple question, reminiscent of Moses’ interrogation of the “burning bush:” “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)

This is only intensified by the follow-up: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers bluntly, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Our text begins—uncomfortably in medias res (v. 31)—as Jesus unpacks the meaning of “messiahship” as suffering, rejection by the religious elite, and resurrection after three days. Understandably, Peter cannot accept any notion of “messiahship” that includes this kind of treatment. “And Peter took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him” (v. 32). Jesus “returns the favor” by rebuking Peter with real harshness: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (v. 33).

What could be clearer? A “messiah,” an “anointed king” in the tradition of David, must be a political figure sent to restore Israel’s national identity (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 244). But notice that Jesus will have none of that kind of “messiahship!” Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus describes himself as “the Son of Man,” “the human one.” Just as a “messiah” would be drawn toward statecraft, so the “Son of Man” must suffer and come into conflict with power elites. Jesus describes this conflict “quite openly” (Mark 8:32).

It is this rebuke of Peter and Mark’s Jesus presenting himself as “Son of Man” that is crucial for deepening our responsibility for creation care. We are taken back to last week’s Gospel reading that describes Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness by Satan and his encounter with “the wild beasts” (Mark 1.13). When we recall Daniel’s apocalyptic language, it is precisely “one like a human being” (Daniel 7:13) who comes to deal with the wild “beasts” representing the empires that have plagued that area of the world. To be “Son of Man” is to transcend traditional politics in order to bring new creation and to declaw “the beasts” as political players. But it also reveals the great temptation Jesus has, “to get behind himself”—the temptation of political power.

The temptation to seek power can never be satisfied. It is destroying Earth.

The temptation of seeking power that can never be satisfied is all too familiar. In anticipation of seeing Peter Jackson’s unreleased film version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I have been revisiting Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films from nearly a decade ago. Not only do they hold up well as cinematic versions of Tolkien’s saga, but they also illustrate in the most graphic way the personal and environmental effects of obsession with power. Evil wizard Sauron and his lackey Saruman lust to capture the total power of “the One Ring”–with results that can hardly be imagined, even with special effects.

These are described by one of the most beloved characters, Treebeard, an ent or “tree shepherd.” He describes Saruman as. . .

“plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. Down on the borders they are felling trees—good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the smelting fires of Orthanc. Curse him, root and branch!” (Tolkien, The Two Towers, Grafton, 90-91)

The result of this deforestation based on an uncontrollable obsession with power is the kind of waste we have seen with deforestation around the world. It is the kind of “denatured” landscape that is familiar from suburban sprawl and in the massive chemically-fed fields of crop monocultures.

We de-create the world with our power to dominate.

This destruction and attempt to de-create the world in the service of power recognizes that evil is, as Augustine held, a force that leads to nothingness, the deprivation of the goodness of creation, privatio boni. Its ultimate goal seems to be the destruction of all things: creation, relationships, faith, and hope. So, when Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” the tempter who sets the mind on human things, not the things of God, there is a blunt recognition that this path to power-focused “messiahship” will have devastating results.

The opposite is to sustain life—to resist fear and pursue kingdom practice at risk of death.

But the other way, the way of sustaining life, seems at the outset ridiculous. It is the way and logic of the cross. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). This is the central paradox of the gospel. The other side of the lust for power is the willingness to punish by death all those who resist this powerful impulse. “By resisting this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history’ (Ched Myers, 1988, p. 247).

Embrace a priestly vocation.

Perhaps a more hopeful way of framing this reality is to listen to our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they uphold the priestly vocation. Paul Evdokimov suggests:

“In the immense cathedral which is the universe of God, each person, whether scholar or manual laborer, is called to act as priest of his (sic) whole life—to take all that is human, and to turn it into an offering, a hymn of glory” (quoted in Wirzba, 2012, p. 205).

When we broaden this anthropocentric focus, we see that a “priestly” view of the world comprehends all as gift of God to be celebrated by self-giving interdependence. This interdependence seems to cry for mutual regard and care. And this “priestly function” is not necessarily anthropocentric in practice. To return to Tolkien’s great love and concern for forests, throughout my life, trees have served as “priests” many times. Others may remember mediating comfort provided by dogs and cats, lakes and oceans, or the simple cry of a loon.

But the fact remains that those who resist the impulse for power, economic growth, and unchecked technological development are dealt deadly blows throughout the world. Whenever there is malnutrition in formerly subsistent food cultures that now have become exporters of “food resources,” this has happened. Those members of 350.org who protested the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline project in front of the White House found harsh treatment even during their short time in District of Columbia detention facilities. There were no “Letters from the Washington Jail.” Finally, Tim de Christopher, who attempted to disrupt the bidding process for oil and gas leases on public lands, did not receive a mere slap on the hand, but two years of hard time at Herlong Federal Correction Institution in California. (Orion, Jan.-Feb. 2012, p. 41)

Expend your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel of new creation—and you will save it.

For those called to care for creation, our Gospel text describes clearly “the way it is.” There is a clear cost to this path of care and service, but it is the way of life. “For those who want to save their life (by submitting to the way of power obsession) will lose it, and those who lose (or expend) their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel (of new creation) will save it” (Mark 8:35).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Second Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Turning Around and Rethinking the “Royal Theology” of Our Time Tom Mundahl reflects on the appeal of kingdom, power, and exceptionalism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

As we move from the Genesis pre-history to God’s forming a new community through Abram and Sarai, the centrality of creation and the vocation to care for the land and make it a home endure. Even though divine action “ruptures” safe worldviews in favor of living by promise, this week’s readings provide courage to continue even when this new community is at odds with power structures.

What is most striking about the Priestly account of the Abrahamic Covenant is that it is given in extemis. The narrator makes it clear that Abram and Sarai are so far beyond the age of child-bearing, that even to speak of posterity is ridiculous. But this Holy One, who is here introduced as El Shaddai, an early appellation that may mean “God with breasts” or “fertile God” ( cf. Genesis 49:25) is true to his name and enlivens hope in this couple with the promise of a child (Genesis 17:16).

This new covenant fulfills creation promises of fruitful multiplication (Genesis 1:28, 9: 1), providing for a future that is clearly dependent upon God’s gracious action and nothing else. “But the point of fruitfulness, of son, of enduring covenant is announced only in v. 8, an affirmation made not to either Adam or Noah, but only to Father Abraham. It is delayed until now, until the new history of Abraham, and it concerns land: ‘And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan.’” Brueggemann goes on to claim, “This is the focal verse of the tradition of promise history.” (Genesis, Louisville, John Knox, 1980, p. 21)

The promise of sons and daughters (a future) only makes sense in light of a land of where they can become a sustaining community (Which makes the omission of v. 8 questionable at best). But in no way can either the land or the progeny be considered “property.” As the Deuteronomist warns the people, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). These words and the Abrahamic Covenant must have been especially powerful to those in Babylon “barren” of land during their nearly half-century of exile.

Seeing children and the land as covenant gift was theologically crucial. As early as the reign of Solomon (970-930 BCE), a “royal theology” had emerged based on Israel’s affluence, as well as their diplomatic and military power. Unfortunately, proponents of “royal theology” began to see the land as property, wealth as something to be enjoyed by the few, and even fellow Israelites as subject to forced labor—all too reminiscent of Egyptian bondage (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, p.24). Not only did this religious decay lead to the emergence of the prophets, but it comes into play in this week’s Gospel reading as Jesus warns Peter to distinguish “human things” from “the things of God” (Mark 8:33). More importantly, the focus of “royal theology” on kingdom building neglects a question that every leader should ask in humility as she/he thinks about amassing power: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?” (Genesis 18:14)

The psalmist approaches this question from a better angle: the standpoint of a lowly one (ani, one of the aniwim) lamenting in words familiar from Good Friday, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). It is only in the midst of the worshipping community (v. 22) that this lowly one is empowered once more to reflect divine passion for the earth and its people in the peculiarly appropriate act of praise.  It is worship that stems not from a “royal edict,” but from a celebration of the goodness of a creation, where even “the poor shall eat and be satisfied” (v. 26).  Despite the earth’s cycles of living and dying, the LORD ensures the fruitfulness of creation.

This creational generativity is upheld by Paul as he writes to the churches of Rome to reconcile Jewish and Gentile believers. Equally important is his hope to extend the mission of the church as far as Spain. To accomplish both of these goals, he holds that “in the shameful cross, Christ overturned the honor system that dominated the Greco-Roman world and that provided support for the premise of exceptionalism for the Empire” (Robert Jewett, Romans, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 1). No longer can categories of exceptionalism be tolerated (cf. Galatians 3: 27-28).

In this takedown of Roman imperial theology, Paul can find no better model than Abraham. Abraham certainly carried no religious resume to boast of; he and Sarah simply trusted the nearly laughable promises of heirs and land. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but Paul suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world . . .”(Romans 4: 13). This cosmic inheritance drives powerfully to Romans 8, where Paul will claim that the entire world waits with eager longing for “the revelation of the sons of God” (8:19), who as Jewett claims “would take responsibility for the polluted world” (Jewett, p. 326). This is a direct effect of the faith God engenders in all—regardless of ethnicity or citizenship—faith that grows from the soil of promise.

That Abraham should inherit the world (Romans 4:13) comes as no surprise since the gift of faith grows out of the gift of creation. Abraham believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17b). Therefore, “if faith is a gift, creation is the greater gift” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 75).

Here Paul reminds us of Henry David Thoreau, who in his essay “Walking” wrote, “. . . in Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Lewis Hyde, ed., The Essays of Henry David Thoreau, New York: North Point Press, 2002, p. 162). By this he meant that creation has been given the capacity for renewal as part of its being. When that capacity for renewal is blocked,  through drought, through suburbanization, or through climbing earth temperatures, the “world”— human and all else—is threatened.

That threat is visible in the massive attempt of the Roman Empire with its explicit “imperial theology” to control reality in multi-faceted ways, ranging from the over-harvesting of timber throughout the Empire to proclaiming the emperor divine. Paul claims that real life is celebration and care of the gift of creation and promise through faith. In doing so, he tears a hole in the fabric of a system dedicated to maximizing human control.

As we enter the anthropocene epoch, we have begun to realize that the fruit of human attempts to control the natural world have failed and, in many cases, led to a “wildness” that no longer nourishes, but is “out of control.” Take the case of the Mississippi River and its tributaries in Dubuque, IA. Since its founding in the late 1790’s, this human settlement on the banks of the Mississippi has tried to control the river with levees, dikes, and a massive flood wall built after the devastating 1965 flood. The many smaller streams and creeks emptying into the river were simply paved over. None of this has worked: the flood wall simply intensifies the speed of water flowing to increase flooding downstream and the city storm sewer system has proven inadequate in coping with underground water flows.

Finally, residents have begun to preserve their city by learning from the “wildness” Thoreau referenced. Just last year, the first of several creeks to be “daylighted” (uncovered) was dedicated, Bee Branch Creek. This creek, along with others in planning stages, not only provides recreation and beauty, but it is important in flood control, especially in efforts to stop frequent flash flooding. In fact, living and working in the Bee Branch Watershed is becoming more attractive because of the beauty of the Creek and the flood prevention it has provided (Connie Cherba, “The Bee Branch Creek is Back,” Big River, Sept,-Oct. 2017, p. 37). As Thoreau might have said, “Learning from the Wild is the preservation of the World.” Faith and trust in creation, not control, is a crucial step in mitigating the disorder of our new age.

Our Gospel reading shows Jesus and the disciples in a place of intense control, Caesarea Philippi, whose villages surrounded the new imperial city in the highlands of northern Israel, formerly a center for the worship of the Baalim and the Greek god Pan. In this area with a long tradition of religious ferment, Jesus asked his students who they thought he was. The first to speak was Peter who answered, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29).  Not only did Jesus strongly silence his circle, but he used this as an opportunity for teaching.

What is most striking is that in the first of three “passion predictions” central to this gospel, he calls himself not “the Christ,” but the “Son of Man,” or, as some translate it, “the human one.” Even more surprising is his conviction that “it is necessary that the Son of Man undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise” (8:31).  Shocked, Peter protests and begins to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus rebukes  (the verb, “rebuke” is the same one used to silence demons, 1:25) Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but human things” (8:32).

Why did Peter react so strongly? Ched Meyers suggests it was because ”according to the understanding of Peter, “Messiah” necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor” (Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008, p. 244). Jesus’ self-identification as the “Son of Man” and his passion predictions “dismantle the dominant theories of power by asserting that all such would-be power is in fact no-power. Thus the passion announcements of Jesus are the decisive dismissal of every self-serving form of power upon which the royal consciousness is based. Just that formula, Son of man must suffer—Son of man/suffer!—is more than the world can tolerate . . . ” (Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002, pp. 96-97).

Following Peter’s rebuke, Jesus’ free and open teaching continues with the “crowd” included.  This has often been called a “catechism” for disciples; perhaps we could see it as the vocation of all who believe. The words are familiar and still shocking: they turn the “instinct” of self-preservation and the desire for wealth and glory upside down.  Why? These are the rules for confronting all authoritarian regimes which are ultimately based on fear of death.  The one “with the most stuff when she/he dies” actually wins nothing except the contempt of those who have to deal with “the remaining collection.” In fact, they (we?) have “forfeited our lives” (Mark 8:36b) in favor of standards of economic ease we entrust as life’s “the bottom line.” Real life is dangerous, often counter-cultural, but on the way, as poet W. H. Auden wrote, we are promised “unique adventures” (“For the Time Being,” Collected Poems, New York: Random House, 1976, p. 308).

Jesus unmasks the weakness of the power system.  If one of the definitions of a government is that agency exercising the “‘legitimate’ power of coercive violence,” all is revealed. For the most extreme threat, then, is the power of execution justified as a method of keeping order or, at the least, protecting interests. By being willing to “take up the cross,” the one called to follow contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history (Myers, p. 247). Discerning the legitimacy and proper methods of resistance must be done prayerfully within the context of the Christian community, a community that follows on this “unique adventure.” Yet, we do so in confidence because we have “been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Combining last week’s narrative of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness  (Mark 1:12-13) and this week’s calling out of Peter as a “satan” for defining Jesus as a power-playing Messiah in the highland villages, we see that Mark’s Gospel does contain a complete temptation story (cf. especially Matthew 4:8-10 and Luke 4:5-8). Just as the Son of Man rejects the way of messianic power, we are called to find real life in serving, including building eco-justice. The “royal theology” of our time is addiction to economic power that requires nothing less than endless growth, maldistribution of growth’s benefits, deregulation of those inconvenient measures to promote safety and health, and the denigration of education and culture. The result is a culture dedicated to intensifying the dangerous impact of the “anthropocene epoch.”

The cost of resistance is high, but this is the season for repentance—turning around and rethinking. Those to whom we preach expect faithfulness and honesty. Control over the natural world has backfired. Our vocation is no longer to be found solely in the realm of “freedom,” but also in the realm of necessity, “because our duty to care for the Earth must precede all others” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, pp. 52-53). And yet, is not this duty at the center of Luther’s definition of “Christian freedom: “not only royalty subject to none, but obedient service, subject to all.” (paraphrased from “The Freedom of a Christian,” Luther’s Works–Career of the Reformer: I, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957,vol. 31, p. 344) Today that “all” must include service to a fractious creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

Wilderness As a Place of Possibilities Tom Mundahl reflects on finding hope in barrenness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Forty days and forty nights. Time in the ark with waters from the upper and lower firmaments, held back at creation, once more meeting at “boat level.” Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness tempted by Satan. Forty  days and forty nights of Lenten “returning to the LORD.” It should be no surprise to discover that these Lenten texts that help us prepare to celebrate the Paschal Feast are also rich in themes grounding us in care for creation.

Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

How could there be a better place to start than with the tale of Noah and the Flood? As a result of human violence and corruption, God determines to destroy evildoers and the earth (Genesis 6:13). Yet this determination is not total, for Noah is commissioned to build an ark which is no less than a “floating seed-pod” ready to re-plant creation and human culture once more. Even though the opening of both the firmaments—below and above—could hardly be more menacing, Noah’s amazing ark portends an outcome beyond annihilation.

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

This portent is fulfilled in a reading that stuns us with the scope of this covenant of promise. Not only does the Creator promise never again to destroy the earth by flood, but God also provides a natural sign as a reminder—the rainbow. No longer an instrument of war, this bow points to God’s victory over both the temptation to retributive justice and the chaos brought by humankind. The divine relationship with creation is now based on nothing less than “unqualified grace” brought about by a revolution in the heart of God (Brueggemann, 1982, p. 84).

The scope of this grace travels with such wild energy that it includes “every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (9:16), reminding us of our co-participation with creation in the gifts of God and the opportunity not only  for us to care for the non-human, but also to learn from our encounters. As Christopher Southgate remarks so bluntly, “God’s purposes with creation are not wholly bound up with humanity” (Southgate, 2008, p. 37).

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

This tsunami of promise concluding Noah’s watery forty days spills over into the lesson from 1 Peter. No matter whether this letter functions primarily as a “baptismal sermon,” it is clear that the power of baptism takes center stage. What will give these “resident aliens” in Asia Minor the courage to stand and make their defense before the authorities? It is the primal power of baptism (3:21) which contains those who gather (in later times a “nave,” from navis, ship or boat) as an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and to all creation amplified  to  become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation. This is the unparalleled “confluence” of story and creation that will encourage and guide these communities under pressure. It is the same energy that will free us on behalf of all creation’s constituents to speak truth to those afraid to face the science of climate change and to unmask those who claim plutocracy and democratic justice to be identical.

Jesus’ forty wilderness days are drier. Yet, there are powerful themes that resonate in this Gospel lesson from Mark. As Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, “he sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10). Just as in the flood, the firmament is pierced, but this time there is no destructive deluge: only a healing breach in the barrier between God and creation.

Jesus’ vision of this new immediacy is confirmed by the words he hears: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased” (1:11). If the gap between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ can be ‘torn open,’ so can an equally great divide—that between royalty and servanthood. Yes, Jesus is “the Son, the Beloved,” as kingly as can be (Psalm 2:7); but he is equally servant (Isaiah 42:1) who is “well pleasing.” Clearly, as has been claimed in these commentaries, he is Servant of Creation.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

With language that matches his description of the “tearing of the heavens,” Mark describes Jesus being “driven by the Spirit” into the wilderness, where he is tempted for the biblical forty days. Not only do we hear echoes of the forty years of wilderness wandering by the people of God, we sense that this wilderness offers a new frontier, new possibilities in its very barrenness. It seems to be that “luminal place” or “threshold” where new doors are open and new hope is born.

This is not to turn this desert retreat into a trip to Palm Desert. While it may be tempting to see “the wild beasts” (1:12) as creatures straight out of Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, it is more likely that they are creatures of temptation that we meet most graphically in apocalyptic, especially Daniel and the Apocalypse of John. Since this menagerie is usually taken as a graphic representation of “the kingdoms of the world,” it seems likely that they have a deeper connection with the temptation by Satan than the Noah Covenant. As Mark’s Gospel unfolds, it becomes clear that the real temptation is for Jesus to understand himself not as Servant of Creation, but as “conventional Messiah” taking power in the usual ways, as elaborated by Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13).

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

The hopeful irony is that in Mark, sometimes called a “desert Gospel,” all is turned upside down. What was seen as a place of death and waste (before Ed Abbey and others helped us see the beauty and complexity of desert ecosystems) becomes a locus of nourishment and hope. The forty days is central to Jesus’ ministry. Throughout the Gospel, “lonely places” provide opportunities for teaching, healing, and feeding thousands (Mark 6:8) as a new community is formed. Jesus continually seeks “wild places” as a refuge for prayer (1:36, 6:30-32) for himself and his disciples. And, the ultimate action in this Gospel takes place in the desperate and lonely forsakenness of the cross.

We are reminded most forcefully that these lonely, desert places where new life sprouts are a contrast to the aridity of the seemingly “civilized” religious establishment operating in the service of Imperial Rome in Jerusalem. On the “edges” of things, new life and community grow; the illusory stability of Jerusalem leads only to attempts to “plug” the breach in “the heavens” in denial of the new creation that this Gospel promises (1:1).

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

When Thoreau wrote that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking”), he was far from packaging “the wilderness” as a commodity to be enjoyed in perfect comfort with all the right gear by wealthy folks.  Instead, he saw “wildness” as that deep down quality of creation that leads to surprising renewal. If there is a hint of that in our Gospel reading, there is even more of a sense that this one who embodies “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1) removes focus from “the-powers-that-be” in Jerusalem and Rome. This happens even in the “desert” far from the Tiber Valley of the Temple. What is more, it is described in language that not only reminds us of creation (“the beginning”), but it is the beginning of the good news, the “Gospel”—the kind of news that is the special province of the Emperor.  No wonder Jesus tangles with the “beasts!”

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

Beasts continue to make their presence felt in our own day. Refusal to build the Keystone XL pipeline is maintained by the most tenuous combination of courage and political expediency, regardless of the fact that James Hansen of NASA has said that its building and encouragement of “tar sands oil” will mean “game over” for a swiftly heating planet. Fear moves 2/3 of American parents to transport children to school by car, where only a generation ago that same fraction walked, biked, or took the bus. Today, some of our “most abandoned” places are found not in the Mojave, but in decaying cities where deserted buildings and lots await transformation. Our readings suggest that even these desert challenges may end in new life and concrete hope.

 Noah’s ark is a “floating seed-pod.”

The scope of the Creator’s promise encompasses all creation.

The courage to stand firm is rooted in the water of baptism.

The wilderness is a place of new possibilities.

The place of death becomes a locus of hope.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.

We are called to have the courage to make the hard decisions to care for creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Coming Down to Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on our vocation to make earth a hospitable household for all.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have been called to interpret them in new ways that speak to the community of faith today. This opportunity is especially afforded by the season of Lent, when not only do we prepare candidates for baptism and ruminate on what it means to live as a resurrection community, but we also take seriously the call to repentance—turning our lives around and developing new mindsets. On Ash Wednesday we are starkly reminded of our mortality as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives: our vocation.

This Lent could not be more timely, because those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by government and corporate leaders dead set on ignoring the most basic climate science, privatizing public lands, and extracting any “natural resource” that could turn a dollar’s profit. What we do to nature we do to people; so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

In recent years,  we have experienced a series of storms and wildfires of nearly unparalleled strength and duration, wreaking environmental damage and costing human life. While the economic costs of these storms is great, the message these events conveys is far more ominous. As Earth system scientists have pointed out, these events reveal a rupture in planetary history requiring us to recognize that we live in a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,” an unprecedented epoch in which human activity is impacting the ongoing course of evolution. It has become clear that the aim of industrial technology to bring the natural world under human supervision has produced quite the opposite effect.  Even though human alteration of the natural world has reached unimagined levels, “we are now more vulnerable to the power of nature in a way we have not known for at least 10,000 years since the last great ice sheets finally retreated. The climate system, in response, is becoming more energetic, bringing more storms, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 45.) In a sense, “Gaia” has become enraged and is fighting back.

It is crucial to make clear that to call this new epoch “the anthropocene” in no way is to make a normative claim for human superiority.  Quite the contrary, it is a descriptive, scientific term attesting to how far our species is affected the planet. If we are to look at our time from the standpoint of value and responsibility, humans are “special” only in our “special responsibility” to recognize where we are and to respond appropriately. As French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests, “Either we deny the evidence of the problem or we look to come down to earth. This choice is what now divides people much more than being politically on the left or right.” (“The New Climate,” Harper’s, May 2017, p.13)

We need the season of Lent to help us “come down to earth,” to retreat to the desert to rediscover our identity and vocation that comes from a renewal of our baptismal calling. We will begin this journey by looking back at the story of Noah, the focus of this week’s First Reading.

The complex narrative of Noah begins with divine disgust at the violence and corruption of those who threaten the good creation (Genesis 6:11-13). The Priestly writers detail the instructions to Noah: build an ark of very specific dimensions and fill it with a male and female of every living thing.  Even though we are given no inkling to what lies ahead for Noah and the creatures, Noah is obedient and prepares for the flood. Echoing other flood stories circulating in the ancient middle east, this flood effectively blots out all of life except for Noah and all the genetic treasure contained in the ark, a “seed pod” for renewing creation.

In the face of this watery dismemberment of creation, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark (Genesis 8:1).” As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “God is no longer angered but grieved.  He is not enraged but saddened. God does not stand over against but “with” his creation. Tellingly, the pain bequeathed to the woman in 3:16 (‘asav) is now felt by God” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.79). The crisis is not so much the flood but the pain that God endures for the sake of a wayward creation, pain transformed into promise in remembrance of the very purpose of creation.

The promise forms the content of this week’s lesson, and if it is a covenant, it is a covenant of promise for the renewal of creation.  Its features are clear: it is a covenant with Noah and his descendants (all humankind) and all living creatures, a covenant that promises never again (Genesis 9:12, 15) shall a flood destroy the earth. This covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, the signature of God’s “unilateral disarmament” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p.18).

Indeed, this qualifies Noah to be the “new Adam.” “He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God” (Brueggemann, p. 80). Not only is he the first to embody faith, but “he is righteous because, like God, he took upon himself the maintenance of all creation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2006, p. 33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah becomes the first planter of a vineyard, one of the richest sources both of fine drink and of a biblical metaphor (Genesis 9:20).

This covenant of promise provides courage and comfort for those who work for ecojustice.  William P. Brown puts it this way: “With the rainbow as its sign, God’s covenant, like the Sabbath, sets an example: it offers a model of human conduct, for only by covenant, by the resolute work of the human community working in consort, can life be sustained amid a new onslaught of destruction, this time wrought by human hands, against the community of creation” (The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 234). Writing in 2010, Brown’s warning was prescient. If the natural world is “fighting back,” what is the place of the rainbow covenant of promise?

As Brueggemann considers the Noah tradition, he reflects: “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain the world, not withstanding the sorry state of humankind. He is God. He takes as his vocation not judgment but the resilient work of affirmation on behalf of the death-creature” (Brueggemann, p. 81). Just as God’s people in the Babylonian exile were not abandoned, so the promise continues its validity. And it is no surprise that much of the Noah narrative comes from this period. But the capacity of humankind to physically alter the very Earth systems underlying earth functioning during the 12,000 years of the Holocene period, when the climate proved stable for what we call “development,” is beyond the imagination of even biblical writers.

How can we continue to model “down to earth” ecojustice in the tradition of Noah when a hole has been torn in the fabric of creation?

The psalmist reminds us that continued trust in the mercy and steadfast love (Psalm 25:6) of the creator is key to living fruitfully in the land. Because the theme of “waiting” is repeated (vv. 3, 5, 21), it is likely this psalm stems, like much of the First Reading, from the time of exile (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 125). The ultimate result hoped for is that the humble who learn the paths of the LORD will “abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land “(Psalm 25:13). As Ellen Davis argues, “For God, earth is mortal—for God, humans are earthy, both earth and its inhabitants are mutually destructive when their relationship with God is severed” (Davis, p. 19). The way past this “shame” and back to their homeland (Psalm 25:2, 3) is active walking in God’s paths (v. 4), another “down to earth” approach to holistic community health, health that includes care for the land.

The Second Lesson from 1 Peter also stems from a time of great pressure, this time on the early community of the Risen One, dispersed as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 1:1-2) throughout the regions of what today comprises Turkey. While the level of persecution is not specific, it is clear that believers have been arrested and required to give an account of their faith (1:6) in a “judgment to begin with the household of God” (4:17).

But this oppression is to be met with confidence: in baptism believers have been “built into a spiritual house” (2: 5) and been transformed into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that . . . proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light “(2:9). With this strong foundation, community members are alerted  to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  reverence” (3:15-16).

What is the basis of this bold courage? The author finds it in the baptismal imagery of Noah and the great flood (Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James and Jude, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 65). He does this to describe Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits responsible for creation’s distress at the time of Noah (3:19-20). And, because Jesus did this, the resurrection community which, like Noah, has gone through the water—this time of baptism—and landed in the ark of the ecclesia now has spiritual power to do the same in a situation where, all too often, informers and secret police agents were eager and ready to pounce (Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 73). Their power has been broken. (Ibid., p. 111)

That is, baptismal creation of the new “household of faith” corresponds to Noah’s planting a vineyard—planting a new kind of community with the resilient confidence to flourish even in the face of oppression (John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 692). That Christ’s work is cosmic in scope and truly trans-historical is made clear by this reading, the central text in the letter which gives a theological basis for the confident hope of the believers’ experiences in the face of persecution. For this text makes it clear that by going through the “baptismal flood,” every Christian is Christianus alter Christus, a second Christ (Ibid.).

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “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) must be emphasized even more energetically.

In their 2014 manifesto, Uncivilization, leaders of the predominantly UK-based Dark Mountain movement focused on countering the headlong destruction of the planet affirm: “We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality (that is, the normative “right” humans have to benefit at the expense of creation), and the myth of our separation from nature” (Uncivilization, Dark Mountain Project, 2014, p. 30). The Christian story, when seen from the standpoint of creation, provides the right alternative, bringing us through the flood to plant new vineyards and nurturing new communities that gives us vision and courage even in the face of an angry Gaia.

We see the power of the Christian story in the very first words of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  In this simple phrase, the author rips an iceberg-size gash in the side of the Roman Empire where “the good news” was the birth of “the most divine Caesar” which is a “new beginning for the world” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 147). As we can see from the text, even though Mark describes Jesus’ entry onto the world stage with less fanfare, he comes as “the stronger one.”

Leaving Galilee for Jordan River, the site of John’s ministry, Jesus’ arrival is almost unnoticed. But he, too, is baptized and as he emerges from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1: 10). Here we see the result of Jesus’ baptism: a new tearing of the heavens. Not only does this satisfy the longing cry from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), but this violent verb of tearing is repeated at the moment of his death, when he “breathes out his spirit” and the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38). Clearly, the one who brings new creation is on the loose, unconfined by humanly-engineered sacred spaces (Donald Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 34).

To educated readers of the Hellenistic world, the notion of a tear in the fabric of the world was shocking. Had they not steeped themselves in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the most-studied Greek text after Homer?  According to the Timaeus, the earth is a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision. Of course, that eliminates those who were blind. Anyone who could not see was incapable of being a philosopher and attaining the good life (Peter Kalkavge, Plato’s Timaeus, Newburyport, MA, Focus Publishing, 2001, (47 b,c), p. 78).

But in Mark’s Gospel, with its massive tear in Timaeus’ perfect world, it is precisely the blind who are able to see most clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ three passion predictions, he encounters a blind man named Bartimaeus. Not only is this a name not found in his culture, it takes very little to realize that symbolically he is bar-Timaeus, the “son” of Timaeus. As Jesus passes bar-Timaeus’ begging corner in Jericho, the beggar shouts out to the embarrassment of the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Somehow this son of Timaeus can “see” that Jesus is Son of David, the expected one. After this cry is repeated, Jesus calls him to get up and approach him. “Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (v. 50).

So is it his “philosopher’s cloak” he is throwing off, or simply his need to beg, as he engages in the ritual performance preceding early Christian baptism? (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, p. 33). Whatever we conclude, Bartimaeus gains his sight and, as a new catechumen-disciple, he “follows Jesus on the way” (v.52). Even though he is blind, he has found the path toward the “best life.”

Mark’s cosmology breaks the cosmological structure of the Timaeus.  Everywhere the Greco-Roman world (including Judea) is full of the blind, the possessed, and the hungry, those demanding a “sign” to validate their religious opinions. It is no wonder (or, is it a great wonder?) that God’s action tears a hole in the fabric of Timaeus assumption that the world is only beautiful, balanced, and perfect. For now even the blind and the centurions on “the other side” can find a sense of belonging. “A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus” (Mark 10:30).

The broad compass of this new beginning is made clear by the voice heard as Jesus emerges from the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The first part of this powerful sentence refers to Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, where the psalmist contrasts the king about to be enthroned with the “kings of the earth (who) set themselves . . . against the LORD and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). This royal one emerging from the water, however, rules not as tyrant, but as a servant, indicated by God’s pleasure in his humility (Isaiah 42:1). While servanthood is often given lip service by royalty, it has never been demonstrated as fully as it has by this newly baptized one, who shreds the job description of all royalty.

And then he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where, as one who seems native to the ragged edges of the official world (e.g. Galilee), he is tested. The tempter is there; and so are the “beasts” perhaps representing the kings and other powers opposing him (Daniel 7). Despite these challenges, not only is he served by the angels, but there seems to be a kind of desert refreshment that propels Jesus on “his way.” As Belden Lane writes, “The place of death in the desert becomes the place of miraculous nourishment and hope, while the place of order and stability of Jerusalem leads only to the chaos of the cross.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 44)

We began this reflection confessing that we humans are responsible for the massively powerful systems that have pushed the climate God’s earth beyond the point of equilibrium, with even more desert being created—the Sahel in Africa and the increasing size of China’s Gobi. This “rupture” requires more serious action than the Paris Accords of 2015 have called for, even though this agreement is a beginning.

What people of faith cannot do is sit back and rest on the graciousness of the Noachic Covenant.  For this covenant only promises that God will never again destroy the earthnot that human beings cannot do so. During this Lenten season of repentance—turning around and being renewed in our thinking—where is hope?

Perhaps hope lies in the fact that the community of faith often discovers new hope at “point zero.” The stable world of the holocene epoch (11,700 years!) may be over, but even in the face of climate change, over-population, and rapid species extinction (Richard Heinberg, “There is No App for That,” Post-Carbon Institute, 2017 (www.postcarbon.org), new ways of coming down to earth and serving creation may be discovered. But even though God often works sub contrario (under the appearance of opposites), bringing new life out of deluge, finding insight and sight in blindness, or puncturing the safety of an old cosmology to usher in new creation, as creatures we have no choice but to own our limitations, mitigate climate damage, and care for this earth as best we can. It is, after all, our home; and our vocation is to make it a hospitable household for all.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl15)

Coming Home Tom Mundahl reflects on a return from exile.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

“Coming home” is at the heart of the Christmas season. To gather with family, friends, and congregation members, to celebrate the wonder of the incarnation, to share good food with its many traditions around a common table, and to tell stories sustains us and forges our identities.

This is true even when coming home is not possible. A recent PBS documentary, “American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” made this clear. When, to the surprise of the producers of the 1942 film, “Holiday Inn,” the song “White Christmas” became a “hit record,” Crosby was initially reluctant to sing it as part of his many appearances for military personnel serving overseas during WW II. He thought the song’s inherent nostalgia would be too much for those with no hope of celebrating Christmas at home any time soon. What he found was just the opposite: that the longing for home was so central to human being that these “exiles” in this horrible war had  special need for just such a song.

The power of home and homecoming is certainly a unifying theme in this week’s readings. It is especially so in the “song” we call Psalm 147, one of the doxological psalms (Psalms 146-150) that close the Psalter. The psalmist shows us a God whose creative power is so comprehensive that not only are the heavens covered with clouds and the hills covered with grass, but this Holy One also “builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2, 8).

This week’s reading from Jeremiah echoes that homecoming. In this section from the Book of Consolation (30:1-31: 37), the prophet delivers a message of comfort, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from all the farthest parts of the earth” and “lead them back” (Jeremiah 31:8-9).

This new exodus and homecoming takes place in the context of altered terms of relationship. No longer is the focus on lost Davidic kingship or on the destruction of the temple. Now it appears that what is primary is bringing the exiles home and restoring them to the land (R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 186). Land now becomes a covenant partner producing amazing abundance in response to the human return. “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.” (Jeremiah 31:12)

That this homecoming should suggest the land as a covenant partner is no novelty. Even the compilers of Leviticus made this clear: “I shall remember my covenant with Jacob, and yes, my covenant with Isaac, and yes, my covenant with Abraham I shall remember—and the land I shall remember” (Leviticus 26:42). Since the ancestry is stated in reverse order, it stands to reason that the land is the first ancestor! (Ellen Davis, public lecture, Prairie Festival, the Land Institute, Salina, KS, September 27, 2014)

But this celebration of homecoming also reminds us that the gifts of the land—grain, wine, oil, and meat—also depend upon the most disciplined care of the soil and attentive shepherding. The model for this servanthood is none other than the Creator. As Jeremiah announces in the boldest prophetic speech:

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it to the coastlands
far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him
as a shepherd a flock.” (Jeremiah 31:10)

It is precisely homecoming that will bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the breadth of relationships its fertility implies. As the canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations,” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Following a conventional salutation, this week’s reading from Ephesians is characterized by a hymnic quality that may have its origins in the berakah of synagogue worship. However, the content has been transformed to emphasize strong Trinitarian elements (vv. 3, 5, 13).  This structure, concluding with “the praise of God’s glory” (v. 14), strongly suggests liturgical song.

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism—“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is creating a “new family” through “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14) between Jew and Gentile. This architectural image involves building a new home for a newly-extended family of faith.

The expanding scope of this home-building (traditionally described with terms such as “election” and “reconciliation”) is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the centuries-spanning work of Irenaeus and Gustav Wingren—builds a new foundation.

“The nature of that plan is now stated.  It has as its grand objective the summing up of all things in Christ.  The verb anakephalaiosthai is difficult. The root meaning is ‘to sum up,’ to gather under a single head as a tally at the end of a column of numbers or a conclusion in an argument (kephalaion) and so present as a whole (cf. Romans 13:9). Here it probably means that in Christ the entire universe will one day find…its principle of cohesion” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend the phrase, “God’s plan,” in a helpful way? It is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated as “plan” is οικονομια, a word that implies a form or law for the household and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s intention for the “earth household” is a harmonious gathering so that all creation can 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 creatures in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “as a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

On this final Sunday of Christmas homecoming, we hear once more the marvelous prologue to John’s Gospel (it should be read whole, not dissected!), a poem that continues the song of Christmas. As is widely acknowledged, this is prologue is likely crafted after a familiar hymn from the Johannine community (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I – XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 20). Because this is a hymn from the community, the emphasis on response is necessary and unmistakable: “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14) and “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16).  In fact, the very incarnation implies shared social experience: “And the Word became flesh, and lived among us….” (John 1: 14a; Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, pp. 130-131)

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time its communal nature can be highlighted. Certainly, the sense of the Incarnate Word “dwelling” with us has deep implications for being “at home” in God’s creation.  As Norman Wirzba suggests:

“In the Christian traditions the presence of God in creation is made even more striking in the teaching of the incarnation. God becomes a human being and, in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Oxford, 2003, p. 16).

Because of the incarnation, the promise of the end of our exile, the community responds with psalms, carols and hymns—even, and especially, on the last Sunday of Christmas. One of the most alarming indicators of social isolation in American culture is the decline in community singing. We need to learn once more the joy of singing together—and there is no time like the season of Christmas.

No matter whether we are “at home” or not, singing what is familiar, or even what newly tells the familiar story, gives us a sense of rootedness. As we sing, we also learn to hear the good news of the season in relation to the song of the earth—”let heaven and nature sing!” As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 7.).

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Mundahl14)

Join the Hymn of All Creation Tom Mundahl reflects on ministering to creation as priests of God.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

The Coming of God in Christ at Christmas changes everything.  It should be no surprise, then, that the psalmody for Christmas Eve echoes the joy of all creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and everything that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord….  (Psalm 96: 11-13)

In a greeting to the 20th International Ecumenical Conference on Orthodox Spirituality focusing on ecology, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “If humanity is in God’s image, and if that image is fully realized in the coming of the Word in the flesh, humanity’s calling is to love and nourish the true meaning and form of every aspect of the creation, not to try and subordinate it to some passing version of what seems to be the interest of humanity in isolation.” (Monasterio di Bose Blog, September, 2012)

That is, far from being a “free pass” to dominate non-human creation, to live out the “image of God” must mean to begin a long listening session. Perhaps “imaging God” is an apprenticeship for learning servanthood to the rest of creation, a lifetime of being opened up “to multiple avenues of reciprocal interaction between human beings and other species” (Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 267). We may even come to understand that, during this season of Christmas, it is we humans who are the latecomers in joining  nature’s chorus.

We certainly hear “heaven and nature sing” in Psalm 148. As the centerpiece of the final five “Hallelujah psalms” (Psalm 146-150), it divides the chorus of praise into “the heavens” (vv. 1-6) and “the earth” (vv. 7-14). Given this division, the psalmist seems intent on providing the greatest variety of voices from each sphere. Angels, sun and moon, and even the waters above the firmament, comprise the heavenly choir. In the earthly chorus, sea monsters from the deep lead the voices of “mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!” (Psalm 148:8-10). To these are added, finally, the human voices ranging from royalty to men and women, young and old.

Why? As appropriate as this psalm is for the Christmas Season, it certainly predates its celebration and points to a continuing melody.  Elizabeth Johnson suggests a simple answer to this question: “Because God commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148:5). All exist as the fruit of the powerful good will of the Giver whose name is exalted beyond heaven and earth” (Johnson, p. 276).

This “choir festival” is echoed in today’s First Lesson from Isaiah. The prophet, drawing on the earlier Isaiah, revisits the marriage imagery from Isaiah 52:1-2. When creation is spiced with this celebration, “righteousness and praise spring up before all nations” as naturally as the seeds in a garden sprout (Isaiah 61: 11).

Yet, as Paul D. Hanson suggests, “The optimism conveyed in the reaffirmation of Second Isaiah’s vision of restoration in chapters 60 and 61 is tempered in chapter 62 by another motif. Somber intimations of impending crises begin to lead the prophet to a different posture, a more aggressive stance vis-a-vis those perceived as doubting God’s purposes” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 228). The prophet vows not to “shut up” until “vindication” and “salvation” are completely expressed by the giving of a “new name” (Isaiah 62:1-2). To fully appreciate this change of mood and prophetic response, it is necessary to consider Isaiah 62:4-5.

“Third Isaiah follows Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in utilizing the marriage metaphor to express the new name, that is, the new status of the people in relation to God” (Hanson, p. 229).

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married (Isaiah 62:4).

Even though they have completed the return from Babylon, the people have a long way to go. This new journey finds its climax as the people appropriate their new name, a name that pronounces renewed blessing on both people and land. With the new name, not only is the past forgotten, but the bloom of life spreads before them. Despite past exile and an uncertain present, the future is as hopeful as that of a newly married couple, or of a new CSA gardener planting her first crop of kale.

Like the Isaiah prophet, Paul also writes to a community that needs the terms of its  freedom and hope reinforced. Not only does this week’s Galatians text provide one of the earliest textual references to the nativity, it continues Paul’s argument for unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. It is preceded by his reminder that before faith came (“when we were minors,” all were “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Galatians 4:3). These “elemental spirits” are no shaggy Druidic forces to seek woodland harmony with. Instead, they were widely thought to be “demonic entities of cosmic proportions and astral powers which were hostile towards man” (Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Series, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979, p. 205)

But because in the fullness of time, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4-5), the situation has changed. The first purpose clause (“in order to redeem those who were under the law”) clearly refers to Jewish members of the community. Since Paul commonly uses the formula “Jew first and then Greek,” it is likely that the second purpose clause (“so that we might receive adoption as children”) encompasses all in the early Galatian community (Betz, p. 208). Not only does this incarnation provide unity for the group through the Spirit, but it affirms that slavery for a Christian of Jewish or Gentile origin is over.

Surely this liberation must include freedom from being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” Instead of desperately trying to alter the course of “fate” through a laundry list of sacrifices, astrology, and magic—all part of the old and widely syncretistic worldview—now it is possible to live in freedom. Once more, humankind is freed to deal with the whole creation with the respect and service that is fitting.

Just as our readings from Isaiah and Galatians demonstrate the wholeness God intends for creation, so the new freedom brought by the incarnation is demonstrated dramatically in the life and lyric of Simeon. That Simeon’s entry onstage is vital is signaled by the opening words “And behold” (και ιδου). While there is no evidence that Simeon was an older man, he is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2: 25b). This “consolation” (παρακλησις) is related both to the “comfort” of Isaiah 40:1-2 and to the Spirit of God (cf. Acts 9:31), which we learn “rested on him” (Luke 2:25b). The Spirit had assured Simeon that “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2: 26)

That Simeon is painted in the prophetic tradition inspired by the Spirit is clear. Now, in the tradition of Jeremiah’s “symbolic actions,” he takes the child into his arms and praises God in the final “song” of Luke’s birth and infancy narrative, “the Nunc Dimittis” (from the Latin translation of the first words, “Now dismiss….”). In fact, Simeon is celebrating his “manumission,” being released from his patient service as a “slave” (δουλος) by the divine “master” (δεσποτης) after a long wait. As prophesied by Isaiah, this celebration takes place “in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:31, Isaiah 40:5). Just as Paul wrote to bring unity to Jew and Gentile, so Luke ensures full inclusion: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).

If God is fully present in the child in the lap of Mary, this One is also present in the arms of Simeon. Similarly, “this child is also fully present in the waters of Baptism and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so known by the faithful, whenever these sacraments are shared according to the cosmic Word” (Paul Santmire, Nature Reborn: the Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000, p. 84). Certainly it is just that “cosmic Word” that faithful Anna shares with the faithful people coming to the temple.

But there is more to Luke’s narrative. Following the blessing, the prophet Simeon shares a hard truth with Mary.

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against, (and a sword will run through your life also)so that the calculations of many hearts may be exposed (Luke 2: 34-35, author’s translation).

At first, this warning seems to echo Mary’s own song, the Magnificat, which describes a reversal that includes the fall of the powerful and the lifting up of the lowly (Luke 1:52-53). But it moves beyond this sense of reversal by identifying “this child,” in the words of Isaiah 8:14-15, as a “stone of stumbling” which breaks to pieces everyone who falls on it. What’s more, this one is also “The stone that the builders rejected (who) has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Both senses of meaning are used to interpret Luke’s crucial parable of the landlord and the tenants (Luke 20:17-18). When Jesus’ opponents hear the parable and its interpretation, immediately they seek” to lay hands on him . . . .” (Luke 20:19). Simeon’s warning, then, exposes the “calculations” of the “scribes and chief priests” and prepares us for Jesus’ passion. No wonder Luke comments parenthetically to Mary, “and a sword will run through your life also.”

Have we lost the celebratory tone of Psalm 148 and our Christmas carols entirely? Of course not, but neither are we so naive as to claim that the age of wonders and fulfillment has completely arrived. In fact, we know that the incarnation of the Servant of Creation still exposes “the calculations of many hearts.”

A recent e-mail from the people who put together the fine short film about consumption, “The Story of Stuff “ reminded me of this. The message referred to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch created by the interaction of the North Pacific Gyre currents and gross human plastic dumping. The size of this “patch” outstrips the very word used to describe it: estimated to be anywhere from the size of the state of Texas, on the small side, to the size of the continent of Africa (cf. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, New York: St. Martin’s, 2007, pp. 121-128).

While the vast majority of this atrocious mess comes from marine vessels, the problem of disposing of plastics is global, but most intense in so-called developed countries. However, since plastic containers have a long life and can be reused many times, there is an opportunity simply to return empty shampoo bottles or olive oil containers to co-ops to be refilled. Unfortunately, refilling options are not always available and, “to expose the calculations of many hearts,” this often requires personal effort. But to move this ‘cardiac exposure’ to the public level, are there not public policies that would both educate and regulate to confront this problem? But what is the level of political contributions of plastic manufacturers in the U.S., so intimately connected with the petroleum industry?

We continue to sing Psalm 148. All creation sings the song of God’s praise together. But we also are called to remember our priestly role in mediating the vision of the intention of God’s creation, priests who both imagine and serve (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2003, p. 135). But, in a way, that continues our listening to God and the whole creation.

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Courage Tom Mundahl reflects on beholding versus seeing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16:25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God.  As poet Denise Levertov writes:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,”
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov,
New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)

As he narrates the births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary.  Zechariah  finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous.  With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross-examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.

What a contrast Mary provides!  She is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy.  All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39).

That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)  From the Rosary’s “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” to  “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child.  Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b)

Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you….” That this is a movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High.  This sense of the looming presence of God appears in the Exodus story (Exodus 40:34-35) and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” ridiculous.  What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here the evangelist suggests we are dealing with nothing less than new creation that, with this “deep incarnation,” includes the life of all creatures (Niels Henrik Gregersen, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Fortress, 2015, pp. 20-21).

That his birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transcends all notions of status is  made evident by the fundamental reversal demonstrated by Luke’s language.  Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, brave Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) This theme blossoms with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique common to Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by recreating speeches given by major actors to advance the narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this technique that match the Song of Mary in richness of poetic image. Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, but the fact that it has been set to music  throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry.  To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”

Part of that impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001, p. 141). This stems primarily from Gabriel’s assurance, “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102).  This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary”(Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32), following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?

Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements.  The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for the faithful over the generations (1:50),  continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions between the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that all of this fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” “he has looked,” “has done great things,” “shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” “has brought down,” “has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped;” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

This narrative structure in no way compromises lyric freedom. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order.  As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (p. 104).  “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37).

The wonder of this  may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation — vv. 31, 36, and 38.  The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.”  While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak?  It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls.  Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological — an ontology of creation community– that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler goes on to suggest: “‘To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” ( p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it.” (Ross, pp. 11-12)

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, it may be that as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to build justice and health for each other and the earth household.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014; edited and revised by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Living the Anticipation, with Joy and New Light Tom Mundahl reflects on what it means to be whole.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 6:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Traditionally, the Third Sunday in Advent has been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. As the title, Gaudete, originally stems from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“rejoice in the Lord always”), this week’s readings do not neglect this joy.

As a result of the prophet’s appointment to bring hope to the people of God, the faithful are pictured in the tradition of the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 52:1-2), donning garments for the wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating the bond with God. “I will rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God . . .” (Isaiah 61:10a). Because this joy explodes with energy, it can only be described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)

In much the same way, Psalm 126 gives voice to Jerusalem pilgrims (a ‘Song of Ascent’), who particularly wish to remember the return of exiles with poetry rich in natural metaphor. They recall, “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy . . . .” (Psalm 126:1-2a). Now they ask to be refreshed just as the dry watercourses of the Negeb region in the south run with water during the rainy season. Like Isaiah, the psalmist prays that the one who brought them back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves.” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox, 1994, p. 400)

This week’s Second Lesson calls the community to rejoice with as much eloquence and passion as the Philippian correspondence. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). Likewise, John the Baptist in our Gospel Reading continues to point toward the Coming One as the “true light which enlightens everyone” as the locus of joyful new creation.

 Constitutive of this joy is living out the call to belong to this community of a renewed exodus and creation. This ‘new Isaiah’ (Trito-Isaiah), likely one of the circle of Second Isaiah’s disciples, clearly finds identity as “an instrument of reconciliation and healing, passing those qualities on to others in the community open to God’s call” (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 224). Belonging means far more than a simple fact of association. Just as the speaking of the prophetic word summons it into existence ( Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 366), so it also moves the community to re-form. They do this as “oaks of righteousness” grown to display God’s glory. And how is this displayed? By building up the devastated cities and repairing the ruins (Isaiah 61:4).

That urban renewal will not take place overnight is underscored by the natural metaphors. What is described here is the steady process of blessing, imaged by “oaks of righteousness (Isaiah 61:3) and the growth of a garden (Isaiah 61:11). This natural time frame requires a community of renewed vocation, one of the most important “blessings” (Isaiah 61: 9b) of Isaiah’s proclamation of “the year of the LORD’s favor (Jubilee), and the day of vengeance of our God . . .” (Isaiah 61:2). It is absolutely crucial  to note that “vengeance” here carries its original meaning as “restoration to wholeness!” (Westermann, p. 367).

This connection to a community that “sets its clock” to the rhythm of oaks and gardens is key to enjoying this healing renewal. The result of an artificial and technical culture divorced from creation’s ebb and flow is what Wendell Berry has called a “wound that cannot be healed because it is encapsulated in loneliness, surrounded by speechlessness.” That is, when the human body—singly and corporately—lives only by and from its own productions, when vast periods of time are spent in cubicles facing screens, we are confined by what we “produce” and our mode of production. Then, as Berry continues,

“our works do not liberate us—they confine us. They cut us off from access to the wilderness of Creation where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we are part of Creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us “(The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, San Francisco: Sierra Club,1977, p. 104).

Paul echoes this theme of living what our culture might call ‘holistically’ in a roundabout way. We have seen above how the final appeal in the structure of the letter has called the Thessalonian community to live in rejoicing, prayer, and thanksgiving (1 Thessalonians 5 16-18). In fact, Beverly Gaventa has called vv. 16-22 an “early form of church order” preceding even the Didache (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, First and Second Thessalonians, Louisville: John Knox, 1998, p. 84).

To maintain this order requires a very strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5: 23-28), which contains a prayer that the recipients be made “wholly (ολοτελως) holy” and enjoy  spirits, souls, and bodies that are “sound” (NRSV: ολοκλρον) or “wholly functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Since it is difficult in 2014 to maintain the heightened awareness of the parousia that Paul calls for in 1 Thessalonians 4:1- 5: 11, perhaps we may be free to reinterpret playfully what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

Larry Rasmussen suggests “we must create ‘anticipatory communities’ as part of the successful negotiation out of the fossil fuel interlude.” (Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 183). As he concludes his book, Rasmussen calls for a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Rasmussen, p. 364). Such a community or set of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping Earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” While this may seem like a tall order, Paul makes it clear that the One whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, he will keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

The author of John’s Gospel joins Mark in seeing the coming of Jesus as a new beginning (αρκη) for the whole creation. Like Mark, John begins this process with the work of John the Baptizer, whose role is abundantly clear: He is the one who comes to testify to the light coming into the world.

It is not long before his testimony begins. In a scene suggesting a courtroom trial, John is confronted by priests and Levites from Jerusalem asking him, “Who are you?” (John 1: 19). In answer to their examination, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, nor Elijah the forerunner, nor the prophet like Moses to come at the fulfillment. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1: 23).

It is likely that John’s response to this interrogation is designed not only to refute those who would see John as Messiah, Elijah, the Prophet, or even “the light” and follow him, but also to clarify his significant, although subsidiary, role. He baptizes with water and testifies to the “one who is coming after me,” the “one who stands among you whom you do not know” (John 1:26-27). That John also functions as something of a ‘revealer’ in giving testimony to the light is shown when, on the next day, he declares, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

This is not the end of the courtroom drama in this gospel. As the testimony of John the Baptizer concludes, the Evangelist adds his evidence—as a community is formed, signs are enacted, and the passion drama is reached (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XIII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 45; see also Gerald Sloyan, John, Louisville: John Knox, 1988, p. 19f.).

This drama continues for all who live in Advent expectation. The Prayer of the Day for Advent 3 puts it well:

Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light . . . . (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 19).

That is, through baptism we are called to join John the Baptizer in testifying to the light.

Let’s face it: light as metaphor is difficult for those of us who live in so-called “developed societies.” Light is not only available twenty-four hours a day; we can hardly escape it even when we seek respite in the darkness. Sadly, those who live in urban areas without easy access to a planetarium can hardly teach children the wonder of constellations to help them appreciate the mystery of a starry night.

This has not gone unrecognized by environmental writers.  As he toured the U.S. promoting his book, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Boston: Little, Brown, 2013), Paul Bogard projected satellite maps of the U.S. from the late 1950’s, the mid 1970’s, 1997, and (as anticipated) in 2025, showing the spread of lighting. While the map from the late 1950’s shows a country mostly dark except for the Boswash conurbation, the Chicago area, and the Los Angeles basin, the map projecting 2025 light quotas reveals a country bathed in light with the exception of the mountain west. The ancient prayer, “lighten our darkness,” is harder to make sense of in this environment.

But the transformation of night affects more than the beauty of the night sky. It has become clear that so-called “blue light” from electronic devices reduces the production of melatonin necessary for sleep. Excessive light during the melatonin production cycle also correlates with increased rates of breast cancer among women (Bogard, 104-109). Now we need studies on the effects of lighting a continent on non-human plants and animals. We need to recognize that all this light, indeed, has become metaphorical “darkness.”

Therefore, while we continue to light Advent candles each week at home and in the assembly to demonstrate our joyful expectation of the Coming of God, we need to discover new images and metaphors to fit our call to be active and watchful, serving creation in way that is “wholly sound” and “fully  functioning” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). In the meantime, we celebrate our life together with its call to serve the whole creation and to let our lights shine—but perhaps not too brightly.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Rejoice? Tom Mundahl reflects on joy in the midst of grief.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

The Third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been called “Gaudete Sunday,” a Sunday to “rejoice” as we turn in hope and expectation toward the Coming One. While gaudete (“rejoice”) originally comes from the Vulgate translation of Philippians 4:4, “rejoice in the Lord always”, this week’s readings do not neglect this theme.  For example, this week’s Second Lesson calls Thessalonian community members to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), while our First Lesson proclaims the “the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isaiah 61: 2). But how can we rejoice in the face of a quarter-million Covid-19 deaths, another record year of hurricanes and forest fires (during the hottest year recorded), while just a few miles from my home blocks of burned-out buildings stand empty in the aftermath of the Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.

Reflecting on this week’s readings, it is clear that the intended audiences for these writings did not spend their lives continuously doing the “happy dance.” They are the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, those who mourn, and those surviving with a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3). Return from exile has not guaranteed comfort. In fact, arrival to a semi-destroyed Jerusalem apparently has led to renewed fissures in this wounded community. If the people had “wept by the waters of Babylon” (Psalm 137), is being oppressed in one’s homeland any better? Into this painful situation comes the Isaiah prophet (or the students of the “Isaiah school”) with a message of intensified hope (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169).

Now all will be engaged in a process of rebuilding, a process that will be as slow as the growth of an oak tree. But because “the spirit of the Lord God” (Isaiah 61:1) is the motive force, all that is necessary for renewed life will gradually be done. These “oaks of righteousness” will rebuild ancient ruins and repair essential services.  While the strategy offered by the Ezekiel prophet was to focus on renewing the Temple priesthood, here the whole people “shall be priests of the LORD” (Isaiah 61:6, Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic, Fortress, 1979, pp. 65-68). By sharing a calling to the priestly task of rebuilding the city, even the  fog of collective grief will begin to disappear.

Now this wave of shared responsibility will bring so much joy, the prophet can only describe it in terms of a wedding party (hieros gamos) celebrating a deepening bond between the divine and all creatures. Because the gift of joy explodes with energy, it is best described in terms of the fecundity of creation: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the LORD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61: 11). Is it any wonder that Jesus read just this text at his home synagogue (Luke 4:18-19 )?

At first glance, Psalm 126 seems only to celebrate the joy of temple pilgrimage by travelers, who on their way remember the return of exiles. “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy….” (Psalm 126:1-2a). But they cannot suppress a “blue note,” recalling weeping and asking to be refreshed, just as southern deserts are refreshed by spring rains. They pray that the one who brought exiles back from Babylon will “bring them home rejoicing, carrying the sheaves” (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 400).

In much the same way, Paul’s first letter to the assembly in Thessalonika appears to be little more than a friendly letter of warm support. That this is not the case is revealed by the apostle’s frustration that he cannot be with them as he continues his mission. In fact, this separation has made him feel like an “orphan” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).  That is a feeling that must be familiar to many of us during the many months of the current pandemic. Being cut off from family, friends, fellow worshippers, co-workers has created potentially dangerous isolation, making the call to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) seem like a cruel joke.

Beverly Gaventa suggests Paul’s conclusion of this letter goes far beyond warm exhortation. Instead, it appears to be “an early form of church order,” preceding the Didache by decades (First and Second Thessalonians, John Knox, 1998, p. 84). Maintaining this order then and now requires a strong sense of identity. We find this in Paul’s “epistolary closing” (5:23-28) which contains a prayer asking that the hearers be made, literally, “wholly holy” and enjoy spirits, souls and bodies that are “sound” or “wholly functioning” (5:23). Despite the threatening events of 2020, it is difficult to maintain Paul’s heightened awareness of the parousia, we are responsible for reinterpreting what it could mean for the community of faith to be “completely sound” and “fully functioning.”

One thing is sure: as faith communities we need to attend to the dying and the bereaved. At a time when too many have had to die alone, connected to the latest medical technology but disconnected from family, friends and faith community, we need every gift of the Spiritus Creator to affirm our ties with one another and keep them sound.  On a public scale, we need to consider Kenneth Feinberg’s proposal to establish a “national office of bereavement” to provide emotional, community, and financial support, as the office he led did in the aftermath of 9-11 (NPR Report, Weekend Edition Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020). But congregations also need to compensate for the absence of public funerals by using all means consistent with health protocols to support the “grief work” of those suffering loss. Perhaps one good unintended consequence of the pandemic will be to recover and acknowledge the tearing separation of “the empty chair at the table” and move away from naive and death-denying “celebration of life” services.

As we recover sensitivity to the power of loss in our lives, we also need to acknowledge our grief over damage to the earth.  Whether it is the prohibition from eating Mississippi River fish that my brother and I caught for dinner more than 60 years ago, the housing development built through our former cross-country skiing trail, or the fact that urban children will never see the Milky Way and learn the constellations, the loss is real. Of course, this is nothing like the asthma and other health problems experienced especially by those in poverty and people of color, victims of environmental racism.

In 2003, Australian geologist, Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to denote this loss. Seeing “the existential melancholia experienced with the negative transformation of a loved home environment,” he saw that new language was necessary. (“The Age of Solastalgia,” The Conversation, August 7, 2012, p. 2). While we have all experienced this, no group has suffered as acutely as climate refugees from Central America and Africa who have been forced to find new homes at a time when they rarely find a welcome. When solastalgia and nostalgia (the “longing for home”) intersect, that is painful loss indeed. The UN conservatively estimates that each year 21.5 million people are added to this group. And this is not even to consider the loss of plants and animals during the current “sixth extinction.”

How can we respond? Larry Rasmussen suggests developing a community of “sacred strangers in a secular society” (Earth-honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford, 2013, p. 364). Such a network of communities might take as its charter responsibility for keeping the earth with all its creatures “completely sound” and “wholly functioning.” Part of this must include attending to bereavement in all it forms, including solastalgia. While this seems like a tall  order, Paul makes clear that the one whose Advent we await “is faithful, and he will do this;” that is, keep the community faithful to the task (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

John affirms this as he accepts his role as a witness who testifies to the light that comes in the midst of our darkness. This role becomes more than metaphor when he is “put on trial” by Temple authorities from Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, the central question is, “Who are you” (John 1:19)? Responding to their grilling, John makes it clear that he is neither Messiah, Elijah the forerunner, nor the Moses-like prophet to come. In the language of Isaiah, he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

The evangelist confirms John’s importance by including additional testimony. When asked later in the gospel about his identity, John again denies that he is Messiah, but calls himself the bridegroom’s friend. “The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3: 29-30). As the plot in the gospel moves from John’s baptizing in the wilderness to its climax, we recall that “the voice” Isaiah describes sees the blooming of the wilderness (Isaiah 51:3). It is no surprise, then, that we move from forensic interrogation in the bleak desert to utter astonishment in the garden of resurrection (John 20), for when the Logos/Sophia is deeply incarnated, it brings a wedding feast for the whole creation (See the important work of Margaret Daly-Denton, John–An Earth Bible Commentary: Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 43-50).

Feasting hardly seems appropriate as 2020 comes to its brutal end.  Perhaps we need to hear  this week’s Prayer of the Day once again. “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light….” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006, p. 19). Through our baptism we are called to join John in testifying to the light. That testimony can be a challenge for it calls us to enter the deepest darkness with honesty and courage.

Facing exponential increases in Covid-19 cases, continued indifference to the climate crisis, and virulent racism, all too often we can only respond with lament.  Yet as we share this lament together something happens. As we feel frozen in crises that have no clear pathways through, together we discover the dim light of new routes for response.. That is certainly the witness of the Black Church. It is also the teaching of blues singers, a message captured by African-American poet Nikki Giovanni:

We stirred the blues in our stews to give us the strength to go on
And Lord Have Mercy we used The Blues to give us joy to make us laugh
To teach us how to love and dance and run
Away
And so much more
Thank The Lord
How to stay until the next day
The Blues is our history
Our quilt
(“The Blues,” Make Me Rain, William Morrow, 2020, pp. 28-29)

Perhaps learning to “sing the blues” will sharpen our eyes so that together we begin to see the light.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Thinking about the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our desert struggle in the time of climate crisis.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more forcefully during Advent than the promise of comfort.  We are moved by Handel’s oratorio, “Messiah,” as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Many of us will invite congregations to echo that message with Olearius’ hymn, “ Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, No. 256). Whether that message will hit home among so many of us who are already quite comfortable is a question that must be asked.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war was on everyone’s mind (it remains a great danger), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a small, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable, New York: Horizon Press, 1962. In this volume, Kahn went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding nuclear war and asked: How would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that openly discussing this horror was dangerous, not only did this work change military strategy, it likely moved major nuclear powers to begin negotiations to reduce arsenals.

To God’s people exiled to Babylon, comfort and freedom were just as “unthinkable.” They were as unimaginable to those experiencing loss of homeland and sense of comfort that comes with it, as those voting on November 4, 2014 could imagine strong political decisions responding to climate change. Yet, the unthinkable prophetic word went out from Isaiah: Captives will be free to return home!

Sounding a new message of freedom and renewal of cultural life is the strategy of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). The prophet begins with a series of strong verbs designed to get the hearers back into motion—not an easy task. For it is likely that, even before the captivity, the leaders of Judea had become resigned to living under a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What is most needed is what is most unacceptable –an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophet Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

In such a situation, life-goals are often reduced to just getting by, mere survival. This makes for a culture vulnerable to takeover and manipulation since it is dying from the inside. In many ways, it is not different from contemporary US culture where dreams and imagination seem to have shriveled. The capacity to grapple with large issues seems atrophied. “When we try to define the holding action that defines the sickness, the aging, the marriages, and the jobs of very many people, we find that we have been nurtured away from hope, for it is too scary” (Brueggemann, p. 63).

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is simply managing lowered expectations acceptable; God is operating in a new way. And that is why the first word to the prophet is: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” It is a word of forgiveness so powerful it carries with it a New Exodus. Now all questions about being abandoned by the Holy One are at an end. A new and clear “enthronement formula”—”say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40: 9-10)—now becomes the source of courage and imagination (Brueggemann, p. 72).

All of this from a prophet who clearly admits very little self-generated vision. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:6-10), he admits his imaginative poverty. “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . .” (Isaiah 40:6-8a).  Westermann reminds us that . . .

“The exiles’ greatest temptation –and the prophet speaks as one of their number was precisely to be resigned to thinking of them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that perished: all flesh is grass” (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p.41).

But there is something that trumps this fatalism: “The Word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b). This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with the final verses, a doxology describing the joy of all creation in the return of the exiles.

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Only God’s creative word is an adequate basis for this New Exodus. To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation would guarantee only anxiety. It is the necessary answer to Isaiah’s query: “What shall I proclaim?” It frees the community to trust in a divine presence that not only “comes with might” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10 -11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why Mark turns to Isaiah’s song of hope as he pens “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” in the “eschatological historical monograph” we call the Gospel of Mark. (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007, p. 18)

This simple beginning immediately subverts the Roman imperial order where “good news” was the reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the Son of God” only made matters worse. Not only was this a jealously-guarded imperial title  applied to an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, he had been executed as a brigand by the emperor’s colonial administrator.  Another exercise in “thinking the unthinkable” (see Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012, p.61). Yet this powerful beginning is no less than another “enthronement formula!”

Following this announcement, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the appearance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple reference to Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a conflation including references to Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way . . . ” (Mark 1: 2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promised, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Exodus 23: 20). Here we have a midrash on Isaiah 40 which suggests that this new messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 125.).

But this conflation also refers to Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me . . . .” (Malachi 3:1). The evangelist suggests here that a renewal of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! John does recapitulate Elijah. But the message that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the temple is no longer the case. Now the action is far from Zion; it is in the desert, the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3). As we learned from last week’s gospel reading, the temple is no longer the center of action. This new Advent arrival will take place on the periphery, in the desert.

Why the desert?  As Belden Lane suggests:

“The desert as metaphor is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195.).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps John the Baptizer. At first glance, John seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him . . . .” (Mark 1:5). Significantly, instead of “all the people” gathering at the Jerusalem temple, they are gathering “in the wilderness” (ερημος—used four times in Mark’s “prologue” Mark 1:1-14). Mark wastes no time laying out the tension between “wilderness” and “temple” so crucial to comprehending the New Exodus announced by John.

That John the Baptizer is Elijah is made clear by his attire and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). But we are tempted to forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the royal court of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah vigorously pronounced judgment for violating the covenant with Yahweh, an action that forced Elijah to flee to the wilderness to save his life (Myers, p. 126). But there is even more in the image of Elijah. For Malachi projects Elijah as the one sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).

But this “day,” which now is not the “end,” but a “new beginning” in the tradition of Isaiah 40, will not come until “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power greater than even the Roman Emperor can imagine. Perhaps, to “riff on” Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

That Advent expectation brings blessing and hope for renewal of the whole creation is underscored by this week’s Psalm (85). It is a communal lament seeking restoration so authentic that it encompasses both land and people. Here, the psalmist clearly recognizes that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25)

This lament is answered by an oracle (vv. 8-13) that not only promises the sought-for renewal but describes it poetically.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps (Psalm 85:10-13).

Prospects for significant change at the scale needed to confront our largest ‘environmental problem’—climate change—seems to hover near zero. But many avenues to love creation remain open. They need to be embraced. As we are comforted: In our desert struggle to serve creation, we are comforted to know that God’s future always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps this will still move us in this Advent “to think about the unthinkable.”

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

Stay Alert with Hope; and Beware the Consumers of Christmas. Tom Mundahl reflects on hope, watching, and serving.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

In a recent review of new books on climate change, British  environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth shares his fear that stopping warming is nearly impossible; the very best that can be done is controlling how bad it will get. This pessimism is reinforced by a conversation Kingsnorth had with Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in a New York cafe. Because Kahneman, an economist and a lifetime student of human decision-making, is convinced that no amount of psychological awareness will overcome people’s reluctance to lower their standard of living, he concludes:  “So that’s my bottom line: there is not much hope” (London Review of Books, October 23, 2014, p. 18).

Despite that increasing consensus, the community of faith insists on calling Advent a season of hope. But this is not a naive hope. As William and Annabeth Gay wrote their annual Christmas letter in 1969—in the midst of the worst of the Vietnam War –as always they included a hymn, whose middle verse puts it best:

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows Older,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

This hope is especially critical for those of faith called to serve a creation rent by the Ebola virus, drought from another record year of heat, water shortages, and rising oceans –all challenges met by paltry human response. As we begin a new church year, we look for signs of hope where they always have been, in our Advent readings from scripture.

It may be surprising that our first reading from Isaiah addresses those who have returned from exile in Babylon and have resumed a corporate life together. Yet things have not gone so well; the very promises of a New Exodus seem to have been empty. No wonder the people ask, “Where is the one who brought them from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this LORD  “harden our hearts, so that we do not fear you?” (Isaiah 63: 17) (see the discussion by Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, pp. 234-235).

Out of this sense of frustration and failure comes a desperate cry: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1).  While this image may call to mind the old tradition of the Divine Warrior, it goes even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Not only does this cry occasion a turning around –repentance—by the people, it roots what is to come in “remembering” God’s faithfulness. (Isaiah 63:11)

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah (40-55) now seems to be fantasy, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams and defeated hopes together by remembering God’s action, the only power capable of healing what has been ‘dismembered.’ That memory does more than face backwards: it recalls that this is the God who clears the way for the new, capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

In fact, now the prophet reminds listeners of the creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah.

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter!  Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, “What are you making?” (Isaiah 45:7)

This earthy metaphor serves as a timely affirmation in spite of the freed peoples’ faithlessness: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the ‘maker of heaven and earth’ that is the source of hope in the midst of hopelessness. And this hope is justified, for the prophet goes on to share a “divine speech” in Isaiah 65 that offers a promise of radical newness and a vision of shalom. (see Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 169)

For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth….I will rejoice in Jerusalem and delight in my people….They shall build houses and inhabit them;         they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit….for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be (Isaiah 65: 17, 19, 21-22).

Paul writes with just this sense of hopefulness to a Corinthian community faced with the challenge of cultural diversity and internal division. Even though our text comprises the formal thanksgiving in the letter, it is hardly formulaic. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, the very first word of this thanksgivingευχαριςτω—“I give thanks”—drives toward and includes everything in this section, culminating in the promise of strength to live out the community’s calling (Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia Commentaries, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Clearly, this community is not without resources as it continues to serve under pressure. Nor are these resources self-generated. The Corinthian community has been “enriched” by God’s gifts.  Despite the NRSV translation, the Greek word “spiritual” does not appear in 1:7. The grace of God simply provides what is required for life and service.

These gifts, χαριςματι, could not differ more from the great hunt for holiday gifts in the race beginning on so-called “Black Friday.”  Brueggemann deftly characterizes this “holiday shopping spree” as the “achieved satiation” of a “royal theology” aimed at sedating ‘consumers’ into thinking that everything is “all right” and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by economic exchange (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower this new servant body to nurture the mystery of hope, to ‘get its hands dirty’ as part of a community so inclusive it ‘comprehends’ all creation.  No other scaling of community, κοινωνια, is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God. (1 Corinthians 1: 9)

Richard Hays, in his comment on this text, puts it nicely:

“We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale. We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us instead to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference…. “(First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p.20).

Ironically, it is cosmic vision which frees us to see what is at hand locally with new eyes: every child, every one of Grandpa Ott’s ‘Morning Glories’ in the alley, every city council meeting, and even every diseased ash tree as holy, a gift of God.

Chapter 13 in Mark’s Gospel may provide us with more of the “cosmic” than we bargained for.  Description of “wars and rumors of wars” (13:7), “fleeing to the mountains” (13:14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere of terror and anguish. Far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter “documents” the struggle in the Markan community over what tack to take in this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not yet come” (Collins, The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 82).

Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with ‘Jewish patriots’ in rebel action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988, p. 330). This call is to say “no” to false messiahs, military violence, and predictions of the end of hostilities. It is a call to active watching and waiting, the call of the whole faith community during Advent.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat that produces nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service within the web of creation. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological “call” is freed for this very activity: watching and serving. The time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime, wakeful care is the watchword, as it indeed is for the season of Advent.

This attention and watchfulness is more than a strategy; it replaces the world of the temple cult with trust in the “word” of the Risen One. (Mark 13:31) The old fig tree (Mark 11:12 -14)—representing temple culture –no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care. This crop will provide the sustenance servants of creation need to carry out their calling (Mark 13:28-31). This is true for us as we are challenged by an economic culture that uses shopping and buying to sedate us so we cannot see the way things really are.

When Wendell Berry wrote, “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed” (“Faustian Economics,” Harpers, May, 2008, p. 35), he could just as well be speaking of the North American celebration of “the holidays.” Much as the earliest community was tempted to embrace military violence to easily solve the problem of Roman rule in Palestine, so we are tempted to forget any discipline of waiting and watching and, instead, to jump “whole hog” into the arena of “getting the goods.” In this kind of culture there is no hope that “consumers” will cut themselves off acquiring the latest toy and risk social disapproval, little chance that steps to deal honestly with the causes of climate change will be taken. But when we “keep awake” (Mark 13:37), who knows what new doors may open.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014.
St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Thinking the Unthinkable Tom Mundahl reflects on our communal lament and hope for wholeness.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Few themes sound more powerfully during Advent than the promise of comfort. We cannot help being moved by Handel’s Messiah as the tenor takes up the prophet’s voice with the clear tones of “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” During this “Covid year,” we will likely miss lifting our voices together in Olearius’ hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, No. 256). We will miss this because of the threats of the pandemic that has been horribly mishandled in the US, paralleling our response to climate change and systemic racism.

Half a century ago, when the danger of nuclear war seemed to be the principal threat on the horizon (that danger remains), Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute wrote a short, but shocking book entitled Thinking About the Unthinkable (Horizon, 1962). The author went beyond strategies aimed at avoiding a nuclear holocaust and openly asked: how would such a war be fought? Although some expressed fear that public airing in this explicit way would be dangerous, it was among the factors moving nuclear powers to arms reduction negotiations.

To the community living in Babylonian exile, the notion of comfort must have also seemed unthinkable. Comfort was as unimaginable to those who had lost their promised homeland as those voting in the US on November 3, 2020 could envision quick, scientifically- based action to control the novel coronavirus, reduce carbon emissions, and summon the courage to move toward the Beloved Community of racial harmony and justice. But the prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) is called to deliver a message of hope and renewal.

The difficulty of his task cannot be overestimated. For it is likely that even before the defeat of Jerusalem (587-586 BCE), the Judean religious elite had continued to live with a “royal theology” that stifled imagination and hope. for change. As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “What was most needed is what was most unacceptable — an articulation that redefines the situation and makes way for new gifts about to be given” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Augsburg, 2001, p. 63).

Powerful covenant promises about serving as a blessing to all creation (Genesis 12:1-3) had shriveled to mere survival, just getting by. This produced a culture that was dying from the inside, vulnerable to extinction. In many ways, the Judean situation is not so different from 2020 America, where common values of equality and interdependent freedom have been traded for illusions of consumer satisfaction, tribal identification as Red or Blue, acceptance of extreme economic inequality, and refusal to acknowledge science — whether climate science or epidemiology. For us, turning around to take an honest look at our predicament, a deep Advent gaze illuminated by candlelight is scary. It is also the path to newness.

Isaiah signals the end of these “holding actions.” No longer is managing lowered expectations acceptable. The Holy One is operating in a new way. The exile is over; it is time for that which is least expected: comfort, a New Exodus, a new beginning of communal life. For those who doubted divine faithfulness, Isaiah offers a new enthronement formula, “say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God’” (Isaiah 40:9-10). This is nothing less than a new birth of imagination and courage.

All of this comes by way of a prophet who confesses that his vision had dried up. In what amounts to a “call narrative” for this Second Isaiah, he admits his prophetic version of writer’s block: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass and their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades….” (Isaiah 40:6-8a). Claus Westermann reminds us: “The exiles’ greatest temptation — and the prophet speaks as one of their number — was precisely to be resigned to thinking them as caught up in the general transience of all things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence, and to saying ‘just like countless other nations destroyed before our time, we are a nation that has perished: all flesh is grass’” (Isaiah 40-66, Westminster, 1969, p. 41).

But there is something that trumps the prophet’s fatalism: “the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8b).  This theme sounds throughout Second Isaiah, concluding with an affirmation of the intricate and reliable involvement of that word in the workings of the earth household.  “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s creative word is the only adequate basis for a New Exodus.  To say, “Fear not,” with any other foundation, guarantees only anxiety. And it is the necessary response to Isaiah’s forlorn, “what shall I cry?,” for it frees the community to trust in a presence that not only “comes with might,” but also as the loving one who “will feed his flock like a shepherd” (Isaiah 40:10-11). It makes “thinking about the unthinkable” a hopeful enterprise.

Which suggests why the evangelist turns to Isaiah’s song to follow immediately after what was likely considered the gospel’s title: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1, see also Adele Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, Fortress, 2007, p. 18). This simple beginning immediately subverts Roman imperial order where “good news” was the exclusive reserve of the emperor’s benevolence. Naming Jesus “the son of God” only made matters worse. How could these imperial attributes flow from an obscure figure from troublesome Judea, who had been executed by the empire’s duly-appointed colonial governor (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 61)? Yet this subversive gospel title is nothing less than a new kind of “enthronement formula”–especially when read aloud in the assembly.

Following the announcement of this gospel-title, we hear an offstage voice anticipating the entrance of John the Baptizer. Rather than a simple rehash of Isaiah 40, however, we are presented with a creative conflation which includes references to Exodus and Malachi. “I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…” (Mark 1:2a) contains deliberate echoes of the Exodus tradition where the Holy One promises, “I will send an angel in front of you, to guard you on your way and to bring you to a place I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). Here we have a midrash on Exodus 40, suggesting that this messenger will indeed continue the Exodus tradition (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 2nd Ed., Orbis 2008, p. 128).

We also hear echoes of Malachi, the last of the prophets, who writes, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3: 1). The evangelist suggests here that a resumption of prophetic action is taking place before your eyes! The Baptist does recapitulate Elijah, but that this messenger will prepare for the appearance of the Holy One at the Temple is no longer the case.  Now the action is far from Zion; all focus is now on the wilderness (Isaiah 40: 3).  Why the desert? Belden Lane suggests: “The desert is that uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the seemingly secure and structured world in which we take such confidence, a world of affluence and order we cannot imagine ever ending. Yet it does. And at the point where the world begins to crack, where brokenness and disorientation suddenly overtake us, there we step into the wide, silent plains of a desert we had never known existed“(The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 195).

As the “world begins to crack,” out steps the Baptizer. At first glance, he seems to present nothing beyond the ordinary, a mere “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). But it is the response that clues us in that something extraordinary is happening. In what Myers calls “typical Semitic hyperbole,” we read that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…”(Mark 1:5). Notice, they are not gathering at the Temple; they are gathering in the wilderness (eremos–used 4 times in the gospel’s “prologue,” Mark 1: 1-14). This tension between Zion and the periphery will only grow as this fissure suggests a future so surprising that it will center in Galilee (Mark 16: 1-8).

Not so surprising is the evangelist’s strong identification of John with Elijah, especially in terms of wardrobe and diet (2 Kings 1: 8). With our tendency to domesticate Advent in order to present an even tamer Christmas, we forget that Elijah was nothing if not a political prophet. In his struggle with the corrupt court of Ahab and Jezebel, he pulled no punches and was forced to flee to the wilderness to save his life. But the Elijah-figure portends more. Malachi envisions Elijah as the sent “before that great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4: 5).

So this “day” is not the end, but a new beginning in the tradition of Isaiah 40, renewal which will come when “the stronger one” arrives, the one whose sandals John is unworthy to loosen (Mark 1:7). He will baptize with the Holy Spirit, a power even greater than Imperial Rome.  Perhaps, to “riff” on Malachi, even bringing blessing to the land.

But for us for whom the world has more than “begun to crack” with skyrocketing pandemic cases and deaths and yet another record hurricane approaching, no facile scriptural interpretation is half enough. Yet through our exhaustion, fear, and doubt we are upheld and strengthened by a community held together by a Spirit who can transform our “sighs too deep for words” ( Romans 8:26) into living toward a future for the whole creation so powerful it pulls us through with creative courage.

This is exactly what the psalmist sings. In Psalm 85, a communal lament seeking restoration to both human heart and land community, there is a recognition that “humans are bound to the earth in an integrity that is biological, moral, and spiritual, as well as political and economic” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 25).

This lament is answered by an oracle of hope envisioning the advent of wholeness.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Justice will go before him, and will make a path for his steps. (Psalm 85:8-13)

Whether it is the challenge of healing broken bodies during a pandemic, listening to and learning from a creation that actively resists degradation in the anthropocene era, or working to bring racial justice, scripture is clear: it all belongs together. God’s future which we expect during Advent always includes what Aldo Leopold called “the land community, the substance of what biblical writers call ‘heaven and earth’” (Davis, 25). Perhaps the unthinkable sounds we hear this Advent are the cracking of the world –the shell of the old falling away.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Let’s Just Start Over! Tom Mundahl reflects on the start of Advent in the midst of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial violence.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Advent marks a new beginning, entry into a new church year.  What a luxury it would be to face the future by erasing the challenges of the last year as easily as a child does by shaking her Etch-a-Sketch. Unfortunately, as we restart the liturgical year — our framework for telling and living the story of faith — the persistent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic,  the climate crisis, and the raw wounds of systemic racism will not let go. Any naive hope for exemption from these is dampened by what the psalmist calls “the bread of tears” (Psalm 80:5).

That we are not the first generation to face such intractable problems is revealed by one of the earliest Advent collects which begins, “Lighten our darkness.” This prayer dates at least to the Fourth Century C.E. when it was described by St. Basil as “the candle-lighting hymn” (liner notes for the CD “Lighten Our Darkness,” various artists, Hyperion, 2006). It should come as no surprise, then, that during this season of new hope, we light candles.

Because we cannot “just start over,” we light another candle each week, not for aesthetic reasons or even to help find our way through this inconvenient season, but so we can take a new look at ourselves and our surroundings, away from the false illumination of a still powerful, but collapsing culture. During this season of darkness when we navigate by candlelight, we remember German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, reflecting on a decade of resistance to the Nazi regime, celebrated the surprising discovery that “we have for once learnt to see the great events of world history from below” (Letters and Papers from Prison, Macmillan, 1971, p. 17). No longer can we take the clinically-detached view embodied by a gorgeous shot of our planet from space. Because our hands are “dirtied” by our responsibility for climate, pandemic, and racial violence, we must refocus our attention and, with Bonhoeffer, “dig in.”

As we advance into the murkiness of all that makes us anxious, we come to rely even more on the word of hope we hear from the scriptures, a word that has provided mooring during troubled times throughout the history of God’s people. The candles we light point precisely to this strong narrative. Because I was privileged to live near St. John’s University and Abbey during my pastoral service, I was able to see the Saint John’s Bible as it was crafted by Donald Jackson and his team. As the first handwritten Bible authorized by a monastic community in 500 years, the displays of the first sections with illuminations were breathtaking. But, as an advocate of frugality, I was taken aback by what I saw as the profligate use of gold leaf. Then one of the project’s directors explained that the gold leaf was used to catch candlelight so that reading scripture was possible–by reflective illumination. During the darkness of our time also, the Advent candles illuminate the scriptures so that we can rediscover the confidence and courage they provide. As we  consider the readings for the season of Advent we will be on the hunt for clues and surprises that will “lighten our darkness.”

Despite a gracious “New Exodus” providing return from captivity in Babylon, hopes for a resurgence of a just and vibrant corporate life in Judah had dimmed. The people began to ask, “Where is the one who brought us from the sea…?” (Isaiah 63:11) and why does this God “harden our hearts…?” (Isaiah 63:17) It is out of this frustration that the desperate people cry, “O that you would open the heavens and come down….” (Isaiah 64:1). While this image calls to mind the Divine Warrior tradition, it drives even deeper to the Creator’s power to make new. Renewal includes both the “turning around” of repentance and “remembering” divine faithfulness (Isaiah 63: 11), especially in the Sinai event.

Even if the hopeful imagery of Second Isaiah seems to have weakened, the prophet and people hold their broken dreams together by that very act of recalling God’s faithfulness, the only force capable of renewing what has been “dismembered.” That memory does more than face backwards; it recalls that this is a God who makes way for the new, one who is capable of “tearing open the heavens and coming down.”

Here, the prophet returns to  creative imagery from the earlier Isaiah. “Woe  to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter”(Isaiah 45:7). Recalling this earthy metaphor, the prophet goes on to affirm divine reliability. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father: we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8). It is this trust in the “maker of heaven and earth” that provides a way through even in the midst of despair. This hopefulness is amplified as the prophet adds divine assurance of restoration and harmony to the land (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge, 2009, p. 169). These promises encourage us as we struggle with issues of justice, threats of political violence, and pandemic fears during the twilight of Advent. Just as the thin gold foil in an illuminated Bible gives clarity to a text, so our thin threads of hope weave together the sturdy fabric of confidence and expectation.

With the foundation of this promise of re-creation, we are energized to take part in restorative ecojustice ourselves, whether that means resetting the climate-driven human-wildlife imbalance that has led to Covid-19 and prospective deadlier viruses (see Rachel Nuwer, “Nature is Returning,” Sierra, November- December 2020, pp. 28-33), or learning from soil scientists such as Walter Jehne about the role of hydrology in the climate crisis.

Not only do we need to continue study of the role of excess atmospheric carbon on biodiversity; we need also to study the restorative effects of biodiversity.  Jehne estimates that restoring one percent of the planet’s cooling capacity through repairing hydrological cycles (preserving marshy areas, forests, uncovering urban streams and planting in the riverbank areas they need), increasing regenerative agriculture that minimizes or eliminates plowing, composting everything…would offset the effects of current anthropogenic carbon gases” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration, Dark Mountain, 17, Spring 2020, p. 11). Of course, this is all the more reason to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to “lighten our darkness” by continuing to learn from our terroir.

While these steps to restore a regenerative creation and human resilience must all be community-based, moving beyond denominational “silos” to maintain a deeply-rooted theological foundation is essential.  We learn this from Paul, who writes to the Corinthian assemblies in order to confront the challenge of internal division. As Hans Conzelman suggests, the very first word of the formal thanksgiving comprising our text, eucharisto, “I give thanks,” drives toward the assurance that all the gifts necessary to live out the community’s calling, including the strength to persevere, will be provided (1 Corinthians, Hermeneia, Fortress, 1975, p. 25).

Because these gifts are freely-given, there is absolutely no basis for status differential or discrimination: all are called to serve. Of course, this is the time of year when the word “gift” often carries quite different meanings. It has been suggested that some may compensate for virus-produced anxiety by “doubling down” on holiday gifts. Walter Brueggemann counters that such shopping sprees provide a false “achieved satiation” that sedates us into thinking that everything is just fine and that there are no problems that cannot be “fixed” by more consumption (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Ed., Fortress, 2001, pp. 36-37).

The gifts Paul refers to are given to empower a servant community to nurture the mystery of hope, to build a community so inclusive it comprehends all creation. No other scaling of  koinonia is comprehensive enough to do justice to the faithfulness of God (1 Corinthians 1:9). Commenting on this text, Richard Hays warns: “We are apt to think of the church’s life and mission on a small, even trivial scale.  We tend to locate the identity of our communities within some denominational program, or within local politics, or within recent history. But Paul urges us to understand the church in a cosmic frame of reference….” (First Corinthians, Louisville, John Knox, 1997, p. 20).

We may conclude that chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel provides us with more of the cosmic than we bargained for. Description of “wars and rumors of wars (v. 7), “fleeing to the mountains” (v. 14), false messiahs, and astronomical irregularities combine to create an atmosphere more suited to bad Halloween horror movies. But far from being otherworldly, this dramatic language seems to describe the life situation of the earliest community and its response to the Jewish Revolt  of 66-70 CE.

If scholars Adele Yarbro Collins and Ched Myers are right, this chapter documents  the struggle within the early community over which tack to take responding to this violent popular uprising.  Collins suggests that “wars and rumors of wars” and the warning that “the end is yet to come” (Mark 13:7) fit best with the situation early in the Jewish War. “If the war were already over, it would hardly have been necessary to point out that the end had not come” (The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context, Fortress, 1992, p. 82). Myers goes further, suggesting that this chapter is written for an audience in the resurrection community tempted to join forces with Zealots in military action. “In such a moment, there was only one voice that could match the persuasive call of the rebel recruiters: Jesus the living teacher” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 2nd Ed., Orbis, 2008, p. 330).  This is a strong call to  embrace nonviolence in response to the climate crisis and the healthcare and racial justice reforms while we wait and watch during Advent.

This gospel offers no passive appeasement of Roman imperialism. The evangelist makes this clear in the first verse of the gospel. Historians remind us that emperors considered themselves great benefactors of their subjects as is made clear in the documents and pronouncements detailing their activities.  For example, the Priene Calendar Inscription found near Ephesus, dating from the early first century CE, claimed that the birth of the emperor, considered a “son of God,” “signaled the beginning of good news for the world because of him” (Gordon Lathrop, The Four Gospels on Sunday, Fortress, 2012, p. 18). Contradicting this imperial arrogance, our gospel writer starts: “the beginning of the good news (“gospel”) of Jesus Christ, son of God” (Mark 1:1). In fact, Lathrop suggests that this clear statement should be considered the title of this anonymous gospel.

“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:33). This strong imperative sentence could be heard as a threat producing nervous foreboding. Instead, it is an invitation to faithful and attentive service. A community that no longer lives in anxiety about making the right eschatological call is freed for helpful response to whatever assails us. A time of fulfillment will come; in the meantime ecojustice, feeding the hungry, and caring for the sick are seasonal watchwords.

Alertness and watchfulness are more than a strategy; they replace the world of temple cult with trust in the word of the Risen One (Mark 13:31). The old fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) representing temple culture  no longer bears fruit. A new crop is coming to nourish this community of attentive care, a fig tree-tree of life that will sustain servants of creation in carrying out what is necessary (Mark 13: 28-31).

As we approach Advent 2020, we know our task is daunting–almost unthinkable. Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has said that the next months of the pandemic will be by far the darkest (Osterholm Update Podcast, Episode 29). “Lighten our darkness” continues to be our prayer. And, when we are able to, we will join together in song.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath and be transfixed by faith.
So even as the sun is turning to journey to the north,
the living flame, in secret burning,
can kindle on the earth and bring God’s love to birth.
(“Each Winter as the Year Grows,” No. 252, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg-Fortress, 2006)

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday June 26 – July 2 in Year A (Mundahl)

Fake News Tom Mundahl reflects on the alternative.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

While there have always been questions about the accuracy of journalism, only in the past few years have charges of “fake news” and adherence to“alternative facts” gained prominence.  This development is chillingly reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which begins “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (Signet Classic, 1949, p. 5). Immediately we recognize that we are entering a world where the very idea of truth is called into question. Instead, everyone lives off-balance in a political culture whose creed is “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength” (Orwell, p. 17).

Linguist Winston Smith soon realizes he lives in a society based on raw power, not truthful information. “Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy” (Orwell, 69).  Even though Orwell’s Oceania is fictional, it is easy to see how much — with the denial of climate science and lies about the danger of the novel coronavirus — it resembles our own. This very question of truthfulness also was central to one of the most dramatic episodes of Jeremiah’s life — his conflict with the prophet Hananiah.

This conflict and its background plays out in Jeremiah 27:1-11 and the entirety of chapter 28. In order to help the assembly to comprehend the appointed First Reading (28:5-9), the lector needs to read this narrative whole or employ a storytelling approach. Because we are once again dealing with the early events leading to the 587 BCE siege of Jerusalem, the focus is on grief, for we are witnessing the end of Judah as a self-determining polity. Terence Fretheim is right in calling this nothing less than God’s mourning a dead child (The Suffering God, Fortress, 1984, pp. 132-136). Into this unfolding grief comes another prophet, Hananiah with news too good to be true.

The essential facts are these: from 604 BCE, Babylon had controlled Judean life, and to demonstrate that power had kidnapped King Jeconiah and “borrowed” precious artifacts from the Temple. This was in addition to demanding substantial annual tribute. By 594/593 BCE, several tribute-paying kingdoms were beginning to consider revolt in the form of stopping these payments of “protection money.” In this context the prophetic word came to Jeremiah instructing him to make an ox-yoke to wear and say to the leaders of nations contemplating rebellion, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever I please. Now I have given all these lands into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him” (Jeremiah 27:4-6). The ox-yoke symbolizes just that servitude.

Into this volatile situation comes Hananiah with a completely contrary message sure to please Judean leaders: “Thus says the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon.  Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah….” (Jeremiah 28:2-4a). Who is the true prophet and who is peddling fake news?

Jeremiah responds without a trace of defensiveness.  “Amen! May the LORD do so, may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied…. “(Jeremiah 28:6). But then he goes on to say, in effect, that prophecy is neither wish-fulfillment nor propaganda.  Prophets are sent when there is a need, not as official cheerleaders.  As Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Jeremiah spoke to a people with glazed eyes that looked and did not see.  They were so encased in their own world of fantasy that they were stupid and undiscerning. And so the numbness was not broken and they continued in their fantasy world” (The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, p. 55).

By the time a scroll of Jeremiah was available, everyone knew that Jeremiah’s words were authentic; after all, there is no “Book of Hananiah.”  Then why go into the detail of Hananiah’s destruction of Jeremiah’s yoke (Jeremiah 28 :10) and the fact that although he had prophesied only two more years of Nebuchadnezzar’s dominance, in exactly two months Hananiah was dead?  Clements answers, “No doubt many prophets like Hananiah, offering the same spurious appeal, were still known to the book’s readers. Hananiah’s grim fate was to be a warning to them” (Jeremiah, John Knox, 1988, p. 167). There was a price to be paid for pushing “fake news.” When the choice is between power and truth, Jeremiah would concur with Orwell: truth is the loser.

This is well documented in the case of climate science. In July of 1977, James Black, an Exxon senior scientist, addressing a conclave of top scientists at the energy corporations’ New York headquarters, warned that there is a growing scientific consensus that carbon dioxide release is warming the planet in ways that would have profound impacts on the ecosystem (Bill McKibben, Falter, Henry Holt, 2019, p. 72). This was ten years before James Hansen’s testimony before the Senate, often considered the first warning of what was then called “the Greenhouse Effect.” Exxon continued to do research which confirmed these findings. How were these findings used by the richest company producing the most valuable substance on earth? The next year, 1978, one Exxon executive said, “This may be the kind of opportunity that we are looking for to have Exxon technology, management and leadership resources put into the context of a project aimed at benefitting mankind” (McKibben, p. 75).

As we well know, this did not happen.  Instead, looking to protect profits, Exxon, Shell, Chevron, Amoco and others joined forces to form the so-called “Global Climate Coalition,” using their economic power to claim falsely that there was “another side” to a set of scientific findings and research. Essentially, they were following the tobacco industry’s playbook, basing “fake science” on another widespread addiction, this time not to nicotine but to carbon fuels. As we suffer the effects of forty years of relatively unabated carbon emission with the floods, fires, heat waves and diseases of the climate crisis, it is difficult to disagree with McKibben’s conclusion that this is “the most consequential cover-up in human history” (McKibben, p. 73).

Paul writes to make sure that there are no “cover-ups” when it comes to the significance of baptism. Baptism means belonging to a new creation of truth and justice. “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness (literally, “injustice”), but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness (“justice”) (Romans 6:13). Therefore, “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) provides a communal “crap detector” helping us to discern falsehood. For this is not a mere change of opinion.  As Ernst Kasemann reminds us, “With baptism a change of lordship has been effected” (Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 179).

It follows that the extensive discussion of sin in this text denotes a power that seeks allegiance, not a laundry list of offenses.  As a power, sin lures us to a life of self-sufficient finitude: trust in our own strength, military power, economic growth, and especially technology. As Laszlo Foldenyi suggests in his book, Dostoevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears (Yale, 2020), “The true god of the modern age is technology; we are tremendously, imperially successful, but we have ‘murdered God’ with our ambition. And it is none other than our drive to find an answer to everything. When we began to seek solutions for things for which there are clearly no solutions, this ambition became transformed into hubris” (quoted in James Wood, “In From the Cold,” review essay, The New Yorker, June 1, 2020, p. 65).

Ironically, the same technology that has allowed diverse peoples of the earth to get to know one another, communicate instantly, and cure diseases previously thought of as “death sentences,” has also created the climate crisis and conditions favorable for new zoonotic pandemics. And, the unequal distribution of technology’s benefits has been an important factor leading to the racial roadblock we are experience today.

Not only that, but “progress” in technology carries the risk of changing the very meaning of truth. Instead of the storytelling, poetry, and “community history” genres familiar from the scriptures, new industrial technology produced what Walter Benjamin called information (we would include digital data) as the organizing center of capitalist culture. While information claims to be verifiable, all that is really necessary, argues Benjamin, is that it seems “socially plausible”(The Storyteller, New York Review Books, 2019, pp. 53-54). That low standard has paved the way for propaganda and advertising messages whose only plausibility is the reaction of the message’s recipients. To counter the constant dangers of the waves of media washing over us, the community of faith still remains committed to storytelling, washing, and eating together in the presence of the One who “makes room” for truth that is heard, touched,  shared, and lived out.

It is this sharing which is central to this week’s Gospel Reading. Although Matthew 10 is an extensive teaching block aimed primarily at training disciples, it clearly applies to all people of faith who by baptism share this calling in their own unique circumstances. If Matthew is the “Emmanuel Gospel” celebrating Jesus as “God with us,” we participate in this process by being “with others.” The act of receiving and extending hospitality provides an experience of deep connection. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).  By welcoming others, what could be mere words is authenticated; no “fake good news” here.

This powerful sense of hospitality follows directly from the verse preceding our text: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). The baptismal grace that takes us from the font to the street frees us to “empty ourselves” (Philippians 2:5-11) through hospitality, not only to familiar figures of piety (prophets and the righteous), but to those outside the “lines,” even to the whole of creation. The “reward” is realized not only at the fulfillment of all things, but with the increasing fullness of life diversity brings (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 246). This is concretized in the beautiful image — “a cup of cold water” (Matthew 10:42).

Unfortunately, in a divided and warming world, a cup of cold, potable water is rarer than we often think.  Even in rich countries like the US, cities like Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ, have struggled with lead in tap water which will impair children for a lifetime. Time will bring more instances to light, most based on inequity in distribution of resources, often based on race. Similarly, in the so-called developing world, easily available water for drinking and irrigation is a common problem.

At a recent Global Earth Repair Conference, one of the speakers was Rajendra Singh, a medical doctor carving out a successful career. One day Singh was challenged by an indigenous villager who told him that if he really wanted to help the villagers he would “bring them water” (Rob Lewis, “Walking to the Restoration,” Dark Mountain, Issue 17, Spring 2020, p. 7). This farmer went on to explain the old methods of harvesting rains, practices discouraged over a century and a half of the British Raj. Rains were held for use, not with giant dams, but with traditional catchments called johads. “Once held, the water would drain down, recharging aquifers, feeding vegetation and calling back lost weather patterns.” In time, soil health was improved, flooding was moderated, and the regional climate cooled by 2 degrees C. (Was British standard water management “fake news?”)

This is a difficult time for truth. A young playwright, Heather Christian, complained recently, “I feel like we are bombarded with information, but none of it feels right any more…facts don’t carry weight any more. And this, for me, personally, has driven me to the edge” (NPR Morning Edition, June 9, 2020). 1984‘s Winston Smith was also driven to the edge and beyond during his months of interrogation in the Ministry of Truth. But one day he felt a new sense of peace as he unconsciously doodled in the dust of his table 2 + 2 = 5 (Orwell, p. 239).  It was only a short step to total surrender to all that was false. Now, writes Orwell, “he loved Big Brother” (Orwell, p. 245).

There is no surrender as the congregation begins to gather in person around the central symbols of bath, meal, and story, where we discern together what we have called “the word of truth.” The gift is free, yet think of the price paid by Jeremiah, Paul, and Jesus for bearing it. Falsehood, “fake news,” and deception are popular, profitable, and politically appealing. But not among us.

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