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Preaching on Creation: Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 2) in Year B (Ormseth18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preaching on Creation: Fourth Sunday (April 25) of Easter in Year B (Ormseth12)

We do indeed have this “good shepherd” in whose presence we may dwell all our days. Dennis Ormseth reflects on being “at home” in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

The readings for this Good Shepherd Sunday in year B place the much-beloved Psalm 23 in the context of the conflict that is narrated in third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn again this Sunday. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple and ardently engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, in the conviction that he whom the leaders had crucified, “God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the gathered authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who ”does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13)—the one ‘who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick” and who ask “how this man has been healed (Acts 4:9). On the basis of this comparison, we see that Jesus, in whose name the beggar was healed, is rightly identified with the Shepherd of the Psalm, Yahweh, and “the Father” who knows and loves Jesus, who is to gather one flock under one shepherd (John 10:16).

What especially interests us here, with respect to our concern for creation, is the contrast between the qualities of the good shepherd and those of the temple authorities. The favored status of the Psalm in Christian piety grows out of its basis in the Scriptures. As Walter Breuggeman points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997 pp, 260-61). The imagery of the shepherd, Brueggeman emphasizes, “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel” (Brueggeman, p. 61).

At the same time, the metaphor of the shepherd is deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, and the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. One’s soul is restored just in hearing the psalm read. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature,“ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).

What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with this God, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba’s felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,

A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 60).

The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.” And as we have seen the previous two Sundays, eating and dwelling with Jesus is the heart of the Christian experience of the resurrection and, indeed, of the heaven that resurrection anticipates.

Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But on this Sunday, that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, who hold the disciples prisoner and bring them to trial. The rulers’ preoccupation with relationships of power and privilege render impossible the experience of “home place” in the very location where it should be expected to prevail.

Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of ‘”ecological degradation,” he suggests that

. . . “people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile” (Wirzba, p 89.)

Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days, both here on earth and in heaven.

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

Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth15)

Creation is our Home, the Abiding Place of Nurture and Sustenance Dennis Ormseth reflects on the manner with which we regard the creation around us.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

At the end of the week of Earth Day, this Sunday’s texts offer rich counterpart to those of the last Sunday, when we saw how the mode of Jesus’ presence with his disciples following his resurrection is full of consequence for the church’s care of creation: the meal they share becomes the touchstone for our orientation to the earth. This Sunday’s texts provide further occasion for reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, now considered as a whole, for its implications for care of creation.

For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of the God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. As the “good” or model shepherd, Jesus thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his]own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The model character of the Shepherd is elaborated further in the Psalm. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus ‘holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61). It is therefore significant that the metaphor of the shepherd is also deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature “ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).

What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with their Creator, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba’s felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,

“A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 60).

The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.”

Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But this Sunday that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, as narrated in the third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple where they engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death (Acts 4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the collected authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who “does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13); the one ‘who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick,” and ask “how this man has been healed” (Acts 4:9).

Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of ‘”ecological degradation,” he suggests that

“people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile” (Wirzba, p 89).

Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days. May his presence inspire us and guide us in loving care for the earth.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Preaching on Creation: Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 25) in Year B (Ormseth18)

All Creation Is Raised Up Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Great Economy of the Good Shepherd.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

A none-too-wise seminarian once remarked that he didn’t think he would use the metaphor of the shepherd in his work with confirmands, in as much as in his experience few of them knew what a shepherd did, and if they happened to know, they wouldn’t appreciate being compared to sheep who needed herding. Sheep were for them just very stupid animals. Granted the importance of taking context into consideration in preaching, the metaphor is probably still too valuable as comfort at the hospital bedside or the funeral home to abandon it, at least for older people and those who do have rural roots. Which is a good thing for preaching care of creation, actually, because the metaphor in fact has special value, as a means of linking not only such youth and their urban families, but us all, to the earth. The metaphor is intimately connected to images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. In the 23rd Psalm, for instance the pastures are green, the waters are still, the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. These pastoral images, Arthur Walker-Jones suggests, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity’s relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” Accordingly, he urges, the metaphor

“. . . could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).”

Walker-Jones’ point is well-taken, of course, but the condition he seeks to remedy needs to be considered more fully to take full advantage of the metaphor. Indeed, that very separation between humanity and nature is the more important issue raised by the readings this Sunday in the season of Easter.

The difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand, as John has it, is that the latter “does not own the sheep”, and “does not care for the sheep.” Those two assertions draw our discussion into the realm of economics. The relationship of the hired hand to the sheep is a matter of self-interested self-preservation: when it serves his interests, he is happy to receive his wage for tending them; when on the contrary, it goes against his interests, as when the wolf threatens, he runs. And so the metaphor discloses the lamentable condition that is close to the heart of the environmental crisis of our world. The sheep, as we commonly encounter them, are part of our human economy. As “hired hands” we know them as such, and perhaps only as such. The reality is that the way the hired hand relates to the sheep is pretty much the way we in our society relate to nature in its entirety. We don’t really know it, and we don’t take time and effort to get to know it, except in so far as we have special interest and occasion to do so as part of our quest for our own economic well-being. Consequently, in terms of a Senegalese environmentalist’s maxim, nature won’t really be for us something that we genuinely love: “We won’t save places we don’t love; we can’t love places we don’t know; we don’t know places we haven’t learned” (Baba Dioum, quoted from “Toolkit: Our Watershed Moment,” available for free download from Minneapolis Area Synod EcoFaith Network). We are, in this perspective, far and away the “hired hands” whose main interest in the sheep is a good supply of lamb chops to eat or wool to keep us warm, when we force them to render up their lives for us.

There is another economy at play in this narrative, however, one with significantly different principles. Like the human economy, this one, which Wendel Berry in his masterful essay “Two Economies” calls the “Great Economy,” which “includes principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” But these principles and patterns differ markedly: including all things, everything in the Great Economy is “both joined to it and everything else that is in it.” Its scope, in other words, is universal: “[B]oth known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility” (Wendell Berry, Home Economics, North Point Press: Berkeley, California, 1987, pp. 56-57). Because it includes everything, Berry observes, this Great Economy actually can’t be fully known by humans, which means that “humans can live in the Great Economy only with great uneasiness, subject to powers and laws that they can understand only in part” (Berry, p. 57). By necessity, they cannot choose not to live in it, although they “may choose to act as if they do not.” If humans do “choose to live in the Great Economy on its terms, then they must live in harmony with it, maintaining it in trust and learning to consider the lives of the wild creatures” which it also includes (Berry, p. 58). This inclusivity is temporal as well as spatial; “we cannot foresee an end to it: The same basic stuff is going to be sifting from one form to another, so far as we know, forever” (p. 59).

Both of these two economies concern values, but the values are derived differently: we participate in the “little human economy” by virtue of “factual knowledge, calculation, and manipulation; our participation in the Great Economy also requires those things, but requires as well humility, sympathy, forbearance, generosity, imagination” (p.60-61). And while the human economy “can evaluate, distribute, use, and preserve things of value, it cannot make value,” which originates only in the Great Economy. Indeed, “when humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value.” Recognizing that the values of the human economy are in this sense secondary, it must also be managed so as to “make continuously available those values that are primary or given, the secondary values having mainly to do with husbandry and trusteeship. A little economy is obliged to receive them gratefully and to use them in such a way as not to diminish them” (p. 61-62). Indeed, in a passage that leads to an observation crucial for restorative action, Berry remarks that,

“. . . a little economy may be said to be good insofar as it perceives the excellence of these benefits and husbands and preserves them. It is by holding up this standard of goodness that we can best see what is wrong with the industrial economy. For the industrial economy does not see itself as a little economy; it sees itself as the only economy. It makes itself thus exclusive by the simple expedient of valuing only what it can use—that is, only what it can regard as ‘raw material’ to be transformed mechanically into something else. What it cannot use, it characteristically describes as ‘useless,’ ‘worthless,’ ‘random,’ or ‘wild,’ and gives it some such name as ‘chaos,’ ‘disorder,’ or ‘waste’—and thus ruins it or cheapens it in preparation for eventual use (Berry, pp. 64-65).”

Like the hired hand of the metaphor, we abandon such goods to the wolves that shadow our industry and commerce.

The remedy of this absence of care comes when we acknowledge the existence of the Great Economy, and we are astonished and frightened to see how completely the industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy. The “invariable mode” of the industrial economy’s relation “both to nature and to human culture, we see, is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” In relationship to land, for instance, the industrial economy “removes natural fertility and human workmanship,” reducing the land “to abstract marketable quantities of length and width.” We would like to make our control of “the forces of nature” complete, without any limits on human capacity to employ them. We assume that such control and such freedom are our “rights,” which seems to ensure that our means of control (of nature and of all else that we see as alien) will be violent . . . . Nuclear holocaust, if it comes, will be the final detonation of an explosive economy (Berry, pp. 68-69).

Seeing the human economy “as the only economy,” we regard its errors as political failures, and we continue to talk only about “recovery.” When we think of the little human economy in relation to the Great Economy, on the other hand, we “begin to understand our errors for what they are and to see the qualitative meanings of our quantitative measures,” and the “industrial wastes and losses not as ‘trade-offs’ or ‘necessary risks’ but as costs that, like all costs, are chargeable to somebody, sometime” (Berry, p. 71). This changes everything in our reading of the economy:

We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption, which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a “side” that we can join nor are there such “sides” within it. Thus, it is not the “sum of its parts” but a membership of parts inextricably joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole” (Berry, pp. 72-73).

In the “membership of the Great Economy everything signifies; whatever we do counts. If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys. We can presume that we are outside the membership that includes us, but that presumption only damages the membership—and ourselves, of course, along with it” (Berry, pp.74-75).

The Good Shepherd, it can now be recognized, is truly and fully at home in the Great Economy. For Jesus’ statement, “I am the Good Shepherd,” Raymond Brown argues, John offers two explanations: Jesus is the model, or noble shepherd, first, “because he is willing to die to protect his sheep” (John 10:11-13); and secondly, “because he knows his sheep intimately” (10:14-16). Both of these assertions, Brown shows, are grounded in Hebrew Scriptures: the latter is drawn from the image of God the shepherd in Ezekiel 34 and Isaiah 40:11; and his willingness to die from the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. The reading of Psalm 23 underscores this insight. As Walter Brueggemann points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves.” The metaphor of the shepherd, Brueggemann emphasizes, thus “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh’s inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997, pp, 260-61).

The “good” or model shepherd thus combines in his person the care and love that Yahweh as shepherd has for his people with the “power to lay [his life] down of [his] own accord and the power to take it up again” which he has from “his Father.” In both aspects, Brown urges, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is fully in accord with the character and will of Yahweh; as Jesus claims, “I have received this command from my Father” (10:18-19) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John I—XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 395-96). That Jesus is “the Good Shepherd” thus makes not only a social claim concerning his relationship with his followers, but also a theological claim about his relationship to Yahweh. In being the model shepherd, Jesus is fully identified with Yahweh, the true shepherd of Israel. In laying down his life for the purpose of taking it up again in the resurrection, he fully fulfills God’s command.

The Great Economy clearly participates in the divine economy of the Trinity, grounded in God’s active love for God’s people. We’ve already heard about this economy this Easter Season, as we took note of it in our comment on the readings for the Second and Third Sundays. It is the economy of “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” in the words of M. Douglas Meeks, which was manifest in the sharing of goods in the early Christian community (Acts 4:32-34). It is the economy in which

. . . God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated. The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving. The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113-14). It is the economy of love reflected in the great summation of the gospel in the second lesson, “we know love by this, that Jesus lays down his life—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17).

It also relates to the economy of the Triune God as described both by Mark Wallace in his Fragments of the Spirit and by Elizabeth Johnson in her Ask the Beasts, which we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter. As Wallace observed, “Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 136). It is filled by this Spirit that Peter addressed those authorities of the temple who objected to “a good deed done to someone who was sick” (Acts 4:8-9). And as Johnson argued, in the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization, Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.208).

Here in the Easter Season we in fact might well identify the Great Economy with the Economy of the Resurrection in which all creation is raised up. In this Economy, the separation of humanity from nature is overcome, and if we trust our metaphorical imagination, we can learn to see in moments of revelatory import signs of death and resurrection that are built into the creation. Berry’s favorite example is topsoil: We cannot speak of topsoil, he writes,

“. . . indeed we cannot know what it is, without acknowledging at the outset that we cannot make it . . . For, although any soil sample can be reduced to its inert quantities, a handful of the real thing has life in it; it is full of living creatures. And if we try to describe the behavior of that life we will see that it is doing something that, if we are not careful, we will call ‘unearthly’: It is making life out of death . . . . A healthy soil is made by the life dying into it and by the life living in it, and to its double ability to drain and retain water we are complexly indebted, for it not only gives us good crops but also erosion control as well as both flood control and a constant water supply.”

Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus wonderfully involves all creation. And no less wonderfully, there is also the mystery of the sheep who are so much at home in the creation that they virtually disappear into it: a small flock of ewes, Berry has observed,

“. . . fitted properly into a farm’s pattern, virtually disappears into the farm and does it good, just as it virtually disappears into the time and energy economy of a farm family and does it good. And, properly fitted into the farm’s pattern, the small flock virtually disappears from the debit side of the farm’s accounts but shows up plainly on the credit side. This ‘disappearance’ is possible, not to the extent that the farm is a human artifact, a belonging of the human economy, but to the extent that it remains, by its obedience to natural principle, a belonging of the Great Economy” (Berry, p. 64).

Not bad for “stupid animals.” We humans should do so well.

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

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.

Transfiguration of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

“. . . a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isaiah 32:15) Dennis Ormseth reflects on the cosmic Christ revealed in the Transfiguration.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

2 Kings 2:1-2
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

“For those who are in Christ, creation is new.  Everything old has passed away.  Behold, all things are new.”  2 Corinthians 5:7 (translation by David Rhoads)

In the Transfiguration of our Lord, we behold God’s new creation. The light that shines in darkness in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:3) now shines from Jesus into the darkness of the world that will crucify him. As the culmination of the Season of Epiphany, the event develops themes we have lifted up in our comments on the lectionary readings for the season’s Sundays. As in his Baptism, we are taken to a remote location where creation is the strong and sustaining witness to the meaning of his presence—at his baptism, in the water of the River Jordan; here on the high mountain. The disciples called from their work close to the earth are now challenged by the voice from the clouds to forsake their resistance to his announcement that he must suffer and die: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 8:31-36). As Ched Myers describes the event,

“The inner circle of disciples is taken up onto a mountain where they encounter a kind of salvation-history summit conference at which Moses and Elijah stand by Jesus, and where a cloud subsequently descends and the heavenly voice speaks. What is the meaning of the appearance of Moses and Elijah here? At the level of intertextuality, each of the two great prophets represents those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. In the story of Elijah, the great prophet has for his trouble become a man hunted by the authorities. He tries to flee, but is met by Yahweh who dispatches him back into the struggle (1Kgs 19:11ff). And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh’s envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must thus ascend the mountain a second time (Ex 33:18ff).” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 250).

Their shared experience entails a dramatic end to “business as usual,” in precisely that “fundamental reordering of socioeconomic relationships” which encompasses both people and land and so leads by a new way of life together to creation’s restoration. Supported by the vision of Elijah and Moses, Jesus and his disciples will now engage with demonic powers in a battle to heal creation.

Or is that not what the “mountain-top” experience is about?  Is the God who speaks from the cloud not the God of all creation? Is the mission into which they (and we) are called by Jesus not the liberation of all creation? Skeptics may well protest at this point that we have introduced a concern for care of creation which is not really there in the Biblical witness. We think that the event of the Transfiguration shows that the concern is indeed there, and significantly so, as a hope for precisely “new creation,” in the joint appearance of Moses and Elijah. As Ched Myers observes, their presence functions to “lend credibility to the teaching Jesus has just delivered; the cross stands now with ‘the law and the prophets.’ This is meant as a dramatic confirmation of Mark’s repeated claim that his story stands in continuity with the ‘old story’ (1:2)” (Myers, p. 250). Granted that the credibility lent to Jesus’ teaching is of first importance for the church, we would urge nonetheless that the continuity runs in both directions at this juncture. For the church, “Jesus transfigured” is an originary theophany which opens access to the authority of the “law and the prophets;” it also invites both their study and, consequently, covenantal loyalty and obedience to their God, who as our Epiphany readings have repeatedly affirmed, is the God of all creation. Our first reading suggests that a prophet’s power grows in strength in the degree to which he revisits the full story of redemption: Elisha gains a double share of Elijah’s spirit by first journeying with him to Bethel, Jericho, and a crossing of the Jordan that is reminiscent of the Exodus. So also does the story of Jesus gain much of the spiritual power it has in relationship to all nations and the cosmos by revisiting and drawing from the stories of the Exile, Exodus and Creation. (This is indeed a very important aspect of this commentary on the readings of the Lectionary, with their regular linkage between Hebrew and Christian scripture).

Walter Breuggemann urges the importance of this point in arguing that the “practice of Torah is not only study; it is also worship. It is being in the presence of the One who lives in, with, and under this authoritative text, and who is present in the ongoing work of imagination from this text.” Obviously true for Jews, it is also true, he insists, for Christians: “the practice of Torah as a practice of obedience and imagination that issues in communion is a way of thinking not only about Torah; for Christians it is a way of understanding Christ, who is both the one who commands and the one who offers self in intimacy” (Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 598-99).

With respect to creation, Torah looks to “a world beyond nullification:”’ there is something “ at work in Yahweh’s interior, something to which Israel boldly bears witness, that works against, disrupts, and mitigates Yahweh’s free exercise of wrathful sovereignty. Something moves against destructiveness, either to qualify it or to begin again post destruction” (Brueggemann, p. 542). In the prophets (specifically Hosea and Isaiah,) Brueggemann locates the voice of Yahweh, “who publicly and pointedly claims authority to replicate the initial creation, only now more grandly and more wondrously. This promised action of Yahweh is clearly designed to overcome all that is amiss, whether what is amiss has been caused by Yahweh’s anger, by Israel’s disobedience, or by other untamed forces of death.” The promised “newness of creation” encompasses all things: “All elements of existence are to come under the positive, life-yielding aegis of Yahweh . . . so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘All will be well and all will be well’” (Brueggemann, p. 549; the famous phase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).

“At Yahweh’s behest,” creation has three seasons:  first, “blessing,” in which Yahweh acts for “the well-being and productivity of the world. Yahweh has the power and the inclination to form a world of life-generating proportion”; second, “radical fissure”:  “Creation is not necessary to Yahweh, and Yahweh will tolerate no creation that is not ordered according to Yahweh’s intention for life. The world can be lost!”; and third, “a radical newness”: The reason? Perhaps it “is not in Yahweh’s character to be a God who settles for chaos. It is in Yahweh’s most elemental resolve to enact blessing and order and well-being” (Breuggemann, pp. 549-50).

Terry Fretheim shares Brueggeman’s view. In his persuasively documented study of God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005), he, too, uncovers the deep thrust towards “new creation” in the events of the Exodus and Exile. The return from Exile and the Exodus, Fretheim writes, are . . .

“understood as redemptive events, forging the identity of the people of God. But the relationship is not so simple as to say:  just as God acted back then, so God is acting now. The exodus is also contrasted with what God is now about to do in returning the exiles home and planting them in the land: “Do not remember the former things . . . I am about to do a new thing’ (Isa 43:18-19; Jer 15:14-16). The “old” exodus event no longer stands on its own as a redemptive and cosmic event; indeed, it is sharply reduced in importance compared to the new. God is now creating something genuinely new; not only will Israel be newly constituted as a people of God but also the cosmic significance of the event will be more wide-ranging in its effects .” (Fretheim, p.192-93)

God, Fretheim insists, drawing particularly on the prophecies of Third Isaiah, “has a future in store for the entire created order, not just human beings. For the sake of that future—a new heaven and a new earth–God’s salvific activity catches up every creature” (Fretheim, p. 194). And it is important, Fretheim concludes, that this “new heaven and new earth” is not simply a return to Eden:

The most fundamental difference from Eden is that this new covenant does not have the possibility of being undercut by human failure; that cycle will never be repeated. This new day will come when the words of Isa 32:15-18, 20 will forever describe that new creation:

            a spirit from on high is poured out on us,

            and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,

            ……………………………………………………….

            Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,

               and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.

            The effect of righteousness will be peace,

               and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.

            My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,

               in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

            ………………………………………………………..

            Happy will you be who sow beside every stream,

              who let the ox and the donkey range freely

         (Fretheim, pp. 197-98).

Christ is this new creation to whom the “law and the prophets” give witness, and as our second reading from 2 Corinthians proclaims: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6). But as the disciples, having been silenced by Jesus on their way down the mountain, would struggle in subsequent days to comprehend, Jesus, too, would come into the fullness of “new creation” only after passing through the “radical fissure” of his crucifixion and death.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2015.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

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

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 October 2-8 in Year A (Ormseth)

A Parable about Caring for Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the parable of the vineyard.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday October 2-8, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

The readings for this Sunday after Pentecost remind us that, according to God’s purpose, the life of God’s people is securely grounded in the Earth. Our first reading, the Psalm, and the Gospel all have in common a key metaphor that brings this home, the metaphor of the vineyard:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; (Isaiah 5:1-7).

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land (Psalm 80:8-9)

Listen to another parable.  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. . . (Matthew 21:33-34).

In Walter Brueggemann’s judgment, the Song of the Vineyard in our first lesson is the “paradigmatic use of the metaphor in the Old Testament.” And the Parable of Matthew 21:33-41 is correspondingly “the most extended and complex usage of the imagery in the New Testament” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 257). In the commentary for these lessons, we explore the significance of this metaphor for our call to care for creation.

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

We have encountered the metaphor of the vineyard before in our reading of the selections from the Gospel of Matthew, most recently with the texts for Lectionary 25, with the parable of the “laborers in the vineyard.” There we pictured a God who cares passionately about his vineyard and is pleased to call laborer after laborer to the good work of caring for it. As the landowner explains to the laborers who criticize the equal pay they received for unequal time spent at labor, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” As we suggested, God’s generosity privileges the call to work in the vineyard over the wage paid, because work in the vineyard is the more essential blessing. While both Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard and Matthew’s rendering of the parable of “the wicked tenants’ evoke this same level of concern for the vineyard, these narratives also draw the reader into the deep anguish of God over what happens to the vineyard, when its inhabitants refuse to engage in their work in a righteous manner.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

In Isaiah’s narrative, God is envisioned, not as the manager of the vineyard but as its “Gardener-Vinedresser,” an image which links the narrative to the garden in the story of creation in Genesis 2, and as Brueggemann suggests, “connotes fruitfulness and the full function of creation (Num 24:6).” As the use of the metaphor in the accompanying Psalm 80 makes explicit, the image also links the story to the narrative of the Exodus, as it was expressed already in Exodus 15:17: “You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your possession, the place, O Lord, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hands have established” (Ibid., p. 255). God’s investment in the vineyard is made absolutely clear in the detailed accounting of the planting. The digging, the clearing of stones, the selection of choice vines, and the building of a watchtower all provide detailed substance for the claim reflected in the anguished question of v. 4a:  “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

The gardener’s expectations are high: the vat for the wine has been hewn out and is ready to receive the fruit. The gardener’s disappointment is equally great: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (5:4b). And his action is correspondingly astonishing. With no thought to trying another variety in another season (the standard modern gardener’s perennial response to a disappointing crop), the gardener resolves to destroy the whole vineyard: 

“I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.”

So serious for the gardener is this failure to produce good fruit. The gardener’s response goes beyond the passionate concern that the vineyard be well tended; he is angry enough to bring to bear the full weight of both enemy armies and cosmic forces against the vineyard and its occupants, an anger that is sustained, in the prophet’s telling,  until “the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust” (6:24a). Why so great and consuming anger? “For they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (6:24b).

Brueggemann notes that the metaphor of the gardener-vinedresser is what he calls a “metaphor of sustenance,” contrasted with “metaphors of governance,” according to which God is imaged as “one who nurtures, evokes, values, and enhances life,” as opposed to the concern “to maintain a viable order in which life is possible for Israel and for all of creation” (Ibid., p. 250).  But it seems then that there is a certain unexpected wildness about this gardener. The vine and the vineyard together are destroyed in his cataclysmic fury! What are we to make of this?

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

That the Song of the Vineyard has reference to the experience of the people of Israel in exile is obvious, of course; and the agenda of the prophet concerns not gardening but the lack of political and economic justice on the part of the leadership. The sour grapes that so anger the gardener are the unjust and uncaring actions of those leaders. As Brueggemann observes, the metaphor of the gardener and his garden or vineyard is:

“able to express both the destructive potential of Yahweh against a recalcitrant object of love, and the remarkable generosity of Yahweh, which becomes the source of hope for rehabilitation in time of displacement.  In the midst of destructive potential and remarkable generosity, we note that the gardener-vinedresser has firm, clear, nonnegotiable expectations for the vine” (p. 257).

But the metaphor guarantees that the fate of the vineyard cannot be separated from that of the vine. The vine and the vineyard are of one piece; people and land are caught up together in the destruction that the leaders of the people have brought upon them all. It comes, surely, of the deep rootedness of the people in the land, a rootedness that perhaps only a gardener who has dug soil, cleared stones, and planted with expensive “choice vines” can fully appreciate. 

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

Contemporary readers concerned with care of creation might see in this a warning that social justice and environmental concern are inseparably linked, however remote the connections may appear to be on the surface. This would suggest, at the least, that neither social justice nor environmental restoration should be pursued in isolation from or at the expense of the other; eventually the linkage will make itself manifest. We might also be struck by the fact that the vineyard, once so carefully tended by God, is, as it were, to be turned back into wasteland or wilderness. No wall shuts out wild animals; no knife or hoe disturbs whatever grows there; and it matters not that drought parches the land. There is an ironic sense of justice to this:  after all the care God extended, the vineyard yield’s only wild grapes. And so the land is returned to wilderness. It was Thoreau who famously said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” and the idea is perhaps no more prophetic than it is apt as a basis for setting aside tracts of land called “wilderness.” The wildness that haunts our culture’s disregard of calls for social and eco-justice pertains to energies that are far more comprehensive and threatening than anything that can be designated as a preserve. Such ideas need to be used carefully, of course, as has been demonstrated lately by the claims of politicians to know just exactly what “sins” are responsible for the environmental “wildness” we are experiencing globally in recent times. They seldom seem to have in mind acts of injustice that involve our relationship to the Earth. But the return of the land to wildness as envisioned here echoes themes from the story of Noah; and there is perhaps a sense that land degraded by human misuse needs to “go wild” and be devoid of human habitation before it is ready to be inhabited once again in the expectation of good fruit.

Does Jesus see the significance of the metaphor of the vineyard similarly? Brueggemann calls attention to the fact that in Matthew 21:33-41, the image is again “potentially positive toward Israel and a witness to Yahweh’s attentive generosity” but is “utilized as an assertion of judgment:  “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Matt 21:41). But there are interesting and perhaps significant differences in the details, as well. First of all, the gardener has become an absentee landowner, who lets out his vineyard to tenants. This social and economic distance opens up the possibility for people to have an impersonal financial interest in the vineyard; and the actions of the tenants seem to confirm this as part of Jesus’ understanding. They do not have the investment in the vineyard that the gardener does; they are not concerned about producing good fruits as much as they are concerned to gain control over the property, even though they acknowledge that it is another’s “heritage” they covet. Indeed, they both dishonor the owner and ignore whatever purposes he might have for the vineyard.

Warren Carter argues that the parable “utilizes a struggle over land and resources to raise questions about ownership and just use” as part of salvation history. Thus the parable:

“evokes a dominant economic practice of the Greco-Roman world where high rents, civic and religious taxes, acquiring seed and feed for the next crop and for livestock, and the need to trade or barter for other goods not produced on a farm, made subsistence existence difficult for many. The religious elite as tenants experience not only the desperation many experienced, but the desperation they helped to cause” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 427).

 Especially telling is their treatment of the son and heir; in killing him they destroy any possibility of the son taking charge of the vineyard and restoring it in accordance with the landowner’s purposes. The linkage between owner, people, and land implicit in the metaphor of the vineyard but weakened in the commercial transaction of renting, is thus willfully broken. The consequence again seems quite astonishing, if at the outset we assume that the landowner represents God. In Carter’s view, the “vineyard remains intact, owned by its owner. It is the tenants who are punished by losing their position as its caretakers,” a punishment which, Carter suggests, is “understood to happen in Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome in 70 C.E.” (Ibid., p. 429). 

We learn the fate of the land owners, but what about the fate of the vineyard?

This conclusion seems strange in the mouth of Jesus. And Bernard Brandon Scott is less certain about the fate of the vineyard. The threat of displacement is, after all, first voiced by the authorities, for whom this is an entirely ordinary way of thinking. With allusions to the patriarchal stories of Joseph, however, and to the conflict over inheritance classically represented by the story of Esau and Jacob, the fact that the parable “provides no ready identification models, no clear metaphorical referencing, an audience is left in a precarious position: In the plot, the kingdom fails and the inheritance is in doubt.”  Even worse, the parable seems to recall Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven is breaking out by violence and violent men are raping it.” The kingdom is an object of violence. The owner is a fool, the tenants are bandits, and the messengers are beaten or murdered. . . [The]  parable challenges the predictability of the kingdom’s heirs as good and the apocalyptic assumption that the kingdom’s true heirs will in the end triumph.  In the parable, the final fate of the vineyard is unresolved because the owner is still alive, but no evidence is given for its eventual liberation.  The owner’s fate may be that of his son.” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, pp. 252-53.)

Following this line of interpretation leads inevitably to the question whether Jesus (or Matthew) intends to prefigure Jesus’ death in the telling of the parable in the face of his opponents, who are in fact the party that will be responsible for his death. For reading of the parable in Christian worship, this identification seems inescapable. The one who first enters our company at worship appears in the narrative of the Psalm as “one at your right hand,” on whom the hand of God will rest, “the one whom you made strong for yourself” and then reappears here as the son sent by the father from a far country. And so the fate of the vineyard is made to lie in the same grave as the son, awaiting some great reversal at the end of the story.

 The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

Again we can ask, what does all this mean for care of creation? Carter comes close to what we think it means when he writes that this parable of the vineyard “repeats the condemnation of the religious leaders by depicting the fateful consequences of their persistent rejection of God’s purposes, especially in Jesus the son. They are rejected as caretakers of the vineyard. It identifies another group to take over the role of the displaced leaders as God’s agents to ensure the fruitfulness of the vineyard Israel” (Carter, p. 426).

Finding good caretakers for the vineyard is what this is about. However, as we have seen above, people and vineyard are not that easily separated. Or to put it differently, they are only separated so easily in the covetous minds of the thieving tenants and in the coveting minds of those incensed authorities who proclaim that the tenants should be replaced! But the ambiguity of the parable suggests another reason to resist Carter’s conclusion and to close the gap of the imagination with this:

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

If the landowner is God the creator and Jesus his beloved son, then the Vineyard is not simply the limited space of Israel but extends to the whole creation that God loves. And the new tenants are those who will care for that vineyard as the passionate gardener would care for it, or indeed as his son will, when he returns from the wildness beyond the broken walls to reclaim his heritage and restore both the vine and all others, with their vineyard, their proper places in the Earth. Isn’t this very likely what Jesus’ anticipated in saying, The Kingdom of God will be . . . given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom”? (Matthew 21:44).

God’s relationship to the vineyard parallels to God’s relationship to creation.

God is invested in the vineyard as gardener and vinekeeper.

The gardener’s expectations are high and his disappointments are great.

Justice and care for the vineyard go hand in hand.

Social justice and environmental concerns are inseparably linked.

The caretakers reject God’s purposes for the vineyard, and we reject God’s purposes for creation!

The parable of the vineyard is about caring for creation.

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

Sunday July 17-23 in Year A (Ormseth)

Desist from Ecological Destruction, NOW! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the ecological integrity of all things.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 17-23, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 88:12-25
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Notice the ecology of these parables!

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat follows immediately on the reading of the Parable of the Sower and its explanation, both in Matthew’s narrative and in the lectionary last Sunday and this Sunday. Comparison of the two parables is instructive. The parables share important elements of interest to the reader concerned with care of creation. Although Jesus’ purpose in telling the story is to instruct the disciples concerning the growth of their community, the story locates that community in relationship to Earth. The parables share a narrative structure that moves from sowing to sprouting to harvest. They both have a very simple, relational, if not explicitly ecological, perspective, namely, seeds need to be matched to soil, and roots hidden beneath the soil are intertwined and cannot be separated without killing the plant. Finally, in both parables, the seed represents the potential growth of the community of Jesus’ followers. The kingdom of heaven on earth, we might conclude, conforms in important ways to the regular processes of creation. Like the parable of the Sower, the parable of weeds among the wheat is a story that the Lord, the Servant of Creation, would have loved to tell.

There are significant contrasts between the parables as well. Here the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat is explicitly introduced as a means to understanding the kingdom of heaven, a point that was only an unspoken assumption in relation to the parable from last Sunday. Warren Carter plausibly suggests that the aim is “to direct the audience to think about the story in relation to God’s empire, but leaves it to the audience to discern connections” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 288). Here the seed is declared good, and the field is the sower’s own property—both factors unmentioned in the first story. The new parable involves more human characters: a lone sower in the first parable, here a landowner with his household slaves, and also the unidentified “enemy” who comes in the night to sow weeds among the wheat and then disappears. The more complex operation of the household economy contrasts significantly with the simple agrarian image of the solitary peasant sower.

 This comparison illumines an important feature of the context implied by this Sunday’s parable.  It is a context in which considerable control over the land is presupposed:  it is land that is owned as part of an estate with slaves. The land is under regular, organized cultivation, where care is taken to see that the seed is good quality, and slaves or servants appropriately share the landowner’s concern about the yield. One suspects that the careless sower of last Sunday’s parable might not last long in this company. And, notably, the slaves expect to be directed into the field to violently uproot the weeds. Carter’s point about empire is well taken: the social location is an organized economy, which is being disrupted by an alien agent, in a conflicted cultural environment.

In contrast to the Roman Empire, the Empire of God is creative and life-giving.

Yet the empire of God is different: evocative of a highly organized economy though the narrative might be, the images remain agrarian. As Carter observes, “The scene of growing wheat suggests that God’s empire is creative and life-giving in providing food to sustain life, in anticipation of the abundance that will mark its full establishment” (Ibid., p.288-9). Furthermore, when the weeds sown by the enemy are discovered, the landowner restrains the slaves, saying “let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (13:30).  The point is clearly to keep the plants in the earth until they are ripe, well beyond the time their true character has been revealed, so that the harvest of the yield of the good seed can be as full and complete as possible.

As before, Jesus is not instructing his followers in agronomy; he makes use of what would be largely common sense for most everyone in an agrarian culture, to set out what would be uncommon sense under an imperial regime.  The powerful typically get rid of those in opposition to them by “rooting them out” without regard to collateral damage, in the phrase of our day. We have the technological means to do this now: well-designed herbicides can do precisely what mechanical row hoes have done clumsily. But political applications of the policy are still very costly of life. For example, some do it with no concern for collateral damage, like the well-intended but unthinking slaves in the parable, do the damage by incurring unintended consequences. Others heedlessly and deliberately “do what is necessary” to eliminate whatever threat the opposition poses, up to and including “scorched earth” warfare and genocide. The destruction of both human communities and their natural environment continues, the opposition seemingly ineffective against the newest juggernaut.

Things are different in the reign of the Son of Man, the parable promises. As Jesus’ subsequent explanation to his disciples makes clear, in what is now revealed to be a cosmic struggle between the powers of good and evil in the world, the good children of the empire are encouraged patiently to wait out the season of growth and the ultimate denouement of the children of the enemy (those who sowed weeds), in confidence that God’s purposes will prevail at the harvest.  The imperial cycle of violence will stop. True, the image of that harvest is itself violent: “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42). As Carter observes, ‘the gospel borrows imperial and violent images to depict the final triumph of God’s purposes,” although we might suggest alternatively that as every good gardener or farmer knows, weeds need to be burned to prevent them from regenerating, and ashes help renew the soil. It is nature’s way.

The final judgment marks the end to imperial violence—not replication of it.

What is in view here, in any case, is a final end to imperial violence—not replication of it. As Carter explains, “The evil that is overcome includes all causes of sin, a cognate of the verb ‘cause to stumble/sin.’ These causes include anything that diverts or destroys disciples (5:29-30; 18:6-9) and anything that rejects Jesus rather than recognizing his identity as God’s commissioned agent” (Carter, p. 294).  And whatever the implications of this violent image for the end of the ages beyond the triumph of God’s purposes, the mandate for time forward until God brings the world to fulfillment is to follow the policy of the wise landholder, or Son of Man, namely, to act so as to sustain and to fulfill life as fully as possible, even for those who oppose the purposes of God, and let God bring all things to their appropriate, God-determined end. And as the Son of Man, in our view, is also the Servant of Creation who does what God wills for the entire creation (see our comment in this series on the readings for The Holy Trinity), what God wills for the sake of the “children of the empire,” namely to “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father,” (13:43) is more likely to be the final purpose of God’s creative activity on behalf of the rest of creation as well, and not its utter destruction, as a literalistic application of the parable’s conclusion might be taken to suggest.

This reading of the parable is strongly supported by the lessons that accompany it. Indeed, the lessons provide a basis for sketching out a theology of creation that fully grounds the reading we have given. The reading from Isaiah is an example of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Old Testament’s “rhetoric of incomparability:”  “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god; Who is like me?” (Is. 44:7). This kind of statement, he notes, comes early in the tradition “and yet is a most sweeping generalization,” so that “we may regard it as the most poignant spine and leitmotif of all of Israel’s testimony concerning Yahweh” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 139). The point is not so much that there is no other god like Yahweh (“Israel did not know or care that other peoples made similar claims for their gods.”),  “but that Yahweh really is as said—in extreme form a God of astonishing power and reassuring solidarity” (Ibid., p. 143). Specifically, in this instance. the incomparability concerns God’s ability to know the future he has promised: “Who has announced from of old the things to come? Let them tell us what is yet to be.” This future, strikingly, is the renewal of the land and people together upon their return from exile: “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendents, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams” (44:3-4; not included in the assigned verses). Yahweh is, according to this first lesson, the one to bring about the renewal and restoration of creation envisioned as the culmination of the narrative of the parable. God knows the future, because God creates it (Cf. Isaiah 40:28-31; 45:12-13.)

It is the second lesson, however, that draws our greatest interest here. The second half of the reading, Romans 8:18-25, is what David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate regard as an “ecotheological mantra text.” The text has come to be cited widely by writers on ecotheology, as they make their appeals for creation care and Christian environmental concern. But the text has received new attention from Pauline scholars without special environmental agendas as well. Horrell, Hunt and Southgate locate a significant change in the weight the passage is given in the interpretation of Romans and in the Pauline literature more generally. “The changing readings of this passage . . . give a clear indication of the way in which the issues and challenges of the contemporary context shape the questions brought to the text and in turn shape the interpretation on the meaning of the text.” The development is similar to what happened to the interpretation of Romans 9-11 when Jewish-Christian relations became a significant aspect of the interpretive context. “Under the influence of a context in which the magnitude of the ecological challenge is increasingly a point of public and political consensus,” these authors write, Romans 8:19-23 “may come to be seen as a (even the) theological climax of the letter.” In their recent book, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, they devote an entire chapter to the interpretation of this passage, and they carefully weigh the question of whether or not the text can sustain the importance that is being placed on it by ecotheologians (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, pp. 69-70).

See the excellent book, The Greening of Paul, by Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate.

In this reader’s estimation, this book is absolutely essential for anyone engaged in our quest for biblical underpinnings for the care of creation, and we therefore present the argument of this chapter is some detail. The key steps in their argument are as follows:

  1. The narrative approach to the interpretation of Paul’s theology, for which the authors present a strong argument in the opening chapters of the book, is particularly appropriate to interpretation of this passage. “While itself brief and frustratingly allusive,” the passage “depends on a certain story about the past, present , and future of creation in God’s saving purposes. Creation ‘is waiting with eager longing’. . , ‘was subjected to futility’. . , in hope that it ‘will be set free’ . . .” (Ibid., p.71; the elided words are the corresponding Greek terms, which we are not able to reproduce here.) The account has “a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it also entails a transformation,” which allows the authors “to construct the outlines of a narrative trajectory, while the employment of [gar] and [hoti] indicates causal links between the elements, thus constituting a plot.” Furthermore, they note, Paul introduced the comment about creation groaning, saying “we know that . . ,” thus apparently “appealing to knowledge that he can reasonably presume his readers share” (Ibid.).
  2. The narrative’s “past” includes some event of “making/founding/creating” the object of which is in a condition of  “current, and presumably prior . . . bondage to decay.” This “creation” has, additionally, “been subjected to futility, of an unspecified nature, not of its own choice, though the subjector is not named.” Bondage and subjection represent “the negative dimensions of its past and present experience, which are transformed with the resolution of the story” (Ibid., p. 72). The “present” is the co-groaning in co-travail of creation and Paul’s community. The “future” anticipated in the longing of creation for the revealing of the “sons of God,” the hearers “who have the ‘first fruits of the Spirit’ and “wait for adoption as God’s sons”, and the hope of creation to be “liberated from bondage to decay” and to “obtain the freedom of the children of God.” Thus, as the authors see it, “the plot looks forward to a final transformation which resolves and surpasses the negative state of decay and futility” (Ibid.).
  3. Turning to a more detailed analysis of key phrases, Horrell, Hunt and Southgate argue that “creation” refers here to “nonhuman creation, whatever precisely is or is not included in Paul’s implicit definition” (Ibid., p. 73).  “Bondage to decay” refers, they think, not to death as the consequence of the Adamic fall, but more comprehensively to the ‘unfolding story of Genesis 1-11, in which corruption affects all flesh. “Subjection to futility” refers, similarly, not to any specific act or cause, but to the fact that “the existence of creation (and of humanity) is futile and frustrated, since it is unable to achieve its purpose, or to emerge from the constant cycle of toil, suffering, and death” (Ibid., p. 77.)
  4. With respect to the present, the creation’s groaning is “a co-groaning with Paul and other Christians and the Spirit, a shared travail that also represents a shared hope, though some aspects of that hope are distinctive to the ‘sons of God,’ who are described here as those who have ‘the first fruits of the Spirit’” (Ibid., p. 79.) The creation, specifically, is “awaiting the revelation of the Christian believers,” and this “unveiling is related to their adoption as sons spoken of in verse 23” (Ibid, pp. 79-80). The “adoption as sons” probably includes “redemption of their bodies” in a resurrection from the dead which in Pauline eschatology is “the initial event in a series that will eventually encompass all creation. . .” The adoption is “important not simply in itself, but insofar as it heralds a wider process of eschatological transformation. The hope that always accompanied the creation’s subjection to futility was and is the hope that the creation itself will be liberated” (Ibid., p. 80-81).

In summary, Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate hold that Paul teaches that an “enslave-too-decay creation has been subjected to futility by God.”  But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co-groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning, and, similarly, a shared hope” (Ibid., p. 82).

The highlight in Romans is the moment when the groaning creation will welcome the revelation of the “children of God” who will care for creation.

Focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons of God,” the passage presents “the sons/children of God” as “leading characters, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused.” But of course the character of the story whose presence is “most crucial to the progress of the plot” is actually God, whose actions are “hidden within the force of the so-called divine passives” of the “creation was subjected . . .  will be liberated” (Ibid, p. 82-83.)  Romans 8, the authors conclude, “is a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17), a narrative in which verses 19-23 so enigmatically include the whole of creation as co-groaning” (Ibid., p. 83).

What strikes us so forcefully relative to the interpretation of the assigned texts for this Sunday is the parallel structure and themes between the narrative of the parable of the weeds among the wheat and this Pauline creation narrative. The unexpected and unexplained seeding of the weeds, the command of the landowner to the servants of the household to desist from destructive separation of the weeds from the wheat, the promised future rescue of the wheat at a future time when the Son of Man will act to end the competition for land by removing all causes of sin and evil; here in a “down to earth version is the narrative of bondage to decay, subjection in hope, and future redemption” in which “children of God” play an important if not a decisive role of bearing hope and assisting the (non-human) creation to its ultimate restoration in Christ. To be sure, the narratives differ in language and accents, appropriate to their narrative settings and social context. But it seems reasonable to suggest that when Paul wrote that this narrative is something that “we know,” it is not difficult to imagine that they knew because Jesus himself had told the story, in different words, at an earlier time.

At minimum, the texts urge us to desist from ecological destruction—now!

What this correspondence might mean for the practice of the Christian church in its care for creation is, of course, another whole discussion. While Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate caution their readers that “there are reasons to be more cautious and careful than much ecological appeal to this favorite text has been,” they find that there are “significant ethical implications” to be inferred from the passage “when its narrative genre is taken into account. . .and when it is related to the wider contours of Pauline theology and ethics,” as they do in the concluding chapters of their book (Ibid, p. 85). We would suggest, for starters, that following the command of the land-owning Son of Man, the ethic of the parable is to desist from the ecologically destructive action of “rooting out” our enemies. Or, expressed positively, we should maintain respect for the ecological integrity of all things. Expressed in positive terms, this conforms well to the ethics of “other-regard and corporate solidarity” as the authors envision it emerging from the Pauline literature (See their chapter 8, “Pauline Ethics through an Ecotheological Lens” pp. 189-220). But for the Apostle, it is more simply a matter of “by the Spirit” putting “to death the deeds of the body” so that one may live. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God—the Lord, the giver of Life”—are children of God . . and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (8:13-17).

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

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

Righteousness and Justice for All Creation! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on true prophets.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 26 – July 2, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

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

We disciples make present the Lord, the Servant of Creation.

Welcome is a warm word of hospitality, a word that offers place in which to dwell. Mindful of Jesus’ Easter promise in his Farewell Address to his disciples to “go and prepare a place for you (John 14:3),” we hear this anticipation of the disciples’ outreach with the joyful awareness that we, too, have been prepared to be able to be “home” for these witnesses to the Servant of Creation, in our place, and with them Jesus himself and his Father. That is indeed what Jesus promised them:  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40). With those who have been sent out in the power of the Spirit of Life, comes the Servant of Creation and the God of Creation.

 Acclaiming Jesus as King may compromise his role as Servant.

Thus we find ourselves this Sunday gathered for our worship of the God of creation whose steadfast love, according to Psalm 89: 1-2, sustains all generations. What was promised in covenant with David, we are given to understand, is now being extended, through Christ, to all nations. Care must be taken, however, to note the ambiguity inherent in this use of the psalm, lest we welcome a view of God that is subversive for care of creation. In verses excluded from the assigned reading of the psalm, the Hebrew monarch is presented as mediator of God’s gracious presence in and through all creation.

As Walter Brueggemann observes, the psalm reiterates an affirmation of the monarch expressed in 2 Sam 7:12-16, which may “be regarded as the beginning point for graciousness without qualification as a datum of Israel’s life and for the assertion of messianism wherein this particular human agent (and his family) is made constitutive for Yahweh’s way with Israel” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, p. 605). But while efforts to qualify the absoluteness of this claim are made in the Old Testament by making the monarch subject to the Torah, Brueggemann suggests that the tension between these commitments is not easily maintained. If “the purposes of Yahweh have now been entrusted to a human agent . . . what is from Yahweh’s side a singular intention becomes complicated both by high aggrandizing ideology and by uncurbed self-service.” For the church, he notes, there is a temptation to “take the high lyrical claims of oracle and royal psalm and ‘supersede’ the narratives of sordidness, so that kingship takes on a somewhat docetic flavor.” Christians appropriate “for Christology the highest claims of kingship and assign to Judaism the demands of the Torah,” which both distorts “the way in which Jewish interpretation kept Torah and messiah in fruitful tension,” and “overlooks the way in which this same tension continues to swirl around Jesus” (Ibid., pp. 609-10).

 The Warrior God (Psalm 89) is opposite to the God who sustains creation (Psalm 104).

The selection of verses from Psalm 89 for this reading nicely illustrates this temptation. The implications of this ambiguity of the psalm’s images of God for our relationship to the creation are significant. The God who “rule[s] the raging of the sea” (89:8), the psalm proclaims, “set[s] the hand” of his servant David “on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (89:25). As Arthur Walker-Jones points out in his book on The Green Psalter, the images here reflect the continuing influence in Israel of the ancient mythology of the warrior god, who creates by destroying Leviathan, the symbol of chaos, which will compete in the tradition with the more ecologically oriented images of God’s relationship with creation exemplified by Psalm 104 (Walker Jones, pp. 155-57). The relationship of the warrior god to creation is clearly one of domination and control, which is inconsistent with the Trinitarian view of God as relational (cf. Terry Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, pp. 43-48). The selection of only versus 1-4 and 15-18, serves to conceal this concern from the congregation, but it does not manage to remove from the reading the triumphalist spirit of the monarchical ideology. It also hides the fact that the psalm, taken as a whole, is a lament for the failure of the monarchy to keep the covenant of David, the failure that itself manifests the brokenness of that ideology.

 We welcome visitors who bring gifts—and “baggage”

The presence of Christ as the Servant of Creation, in any case, brings about a decisively different reality. The gospel lesson for this Sunday, we have suggested, is concerned with the extension of the Christian community out into the world, as gatherings of those drawn to Jesus welcome his disciples. We find ourselves amongst those so gathered, and are delighted by the company we share with them around the word of their testimony and we are delighted by the meal that they have taught us to share as a sign of our communion with Jesus in the presence of God. As a congregation, we are of course pleased to welcome newcomers of almost any kind. The growth of a congregation is naturally seen as a sign of success in meeting people’s needs, whether spiritual or social, and perhaps even material. The growth is likely to be credited to the spiritual gifts of the congregation’s leaders and those with whom they amply share these gifts, the local disciples, as it were. Such growth is typically rewarded by heightened confidence in the future of the congregation, greater pride of the members in their choice, and their collective prestige in the larger community, not to forget higher salaries for the staff.

So, at least in a general way, we have some sense for what Jesus is talking about when he suggests that those who welcome a variety of newcomers into their gatherings receive the rewards associated with the arrival and welcome of assorted outsiders. Strangers bring gifts; the disciples bring gifts of word and sacrament, and the blessings that go with them. But sometimes strangers also bring “baggage,” in the metaphor of our times. They bring baggage of different kinds; and the congregation has to deal with that, as well. So we might often find ourselves asking, “what are we letting ourselves in for, as we welcome these newcomers? What, specifically, are we letting ourselves in for, in welcoming these disciples of Jesus?”

 If we welcome prophets, what is the reward?

Jesus suggests a few instructive analogies. First, of special interest to us in view of our discussion about of the character of the monarchy, he says “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matthew 10:41a). The trick here is that, as our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah conveniently reminds us, prophets come in different kinds, with different agendas relating to the reigning powers in the land. There are prophets of a rosy future, like Hananiah; and there are prophets of doom, like Jeremiah, who wears the wooden yoke of obedience to Torah. As Diane Jacobsen puts it, it’s a “Case of the Dueling Prophets.”

 Who are the true prophets and who are the false prophets?

At issue is: How can one distinguish true prophesy from false prophecy, a subject taken up in Deut. 18:9-22? Which of us, given a choice, would not choose good news over bad? We will want to believe the bearer of good tidings; and we will tend to dismiss the harbinger of woe. So it was throughout biblical history. The people were wont to choose Hananiah and to dismiss or even to kill Jeremiah.  Jeremiah responds to Hananiah’s smug assurance with the same clear and obvious message as Deuteronomy—time will tell (Jacobsen, p. 115).

 The rewards of the prophets vary, depending on the prophet!

The prophet’s rewards: Hananiah’s promise that the exiles in Babylon will return in two years, irrespective of the people’s disobedience, Jeremiah insists, is a lie; instead, he “has broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them;” Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will continue in absolute control (Yahweh has “even given him the wild animals”) until the people turn and repent of their disobedience. The prophecy will end in death, in the first instance, Hananiah’s own. By way of contrast, Jeremiah foresees “days surely coming” when, Yahweh promises, “I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it.” Before then, however, the nations will be convulsed with “warfare, famine and pestilence,” as the “fierce anger of the Lord” works itself out and “he has executed and accomplished the intents of his mind” (Jeremiah 30:24).

 Prophecy always embraces all creation—animals, vegetation, land and people.

The prophet’s mention of “wild animals” reminds us that Jeremiah’s prophecy embraces the wide net of all creation. As Terry Fretheim writes in an illuminating essay on The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12:

“God’s purposes in the world must be conceived in relation to the story of all of God’s creatures, including the land. Using Isaiah’s language (65.17-25; see 11.6-9), God is creating a new earth and it will be populated by animals, vegetation, and people (see Hos. 2.18-23). Comparably, the salvation oracles of Jeremiah are remarkably inclusive in their orientation, including non-Israelites (e.g. 3.17; 12.14-17; cf. 29.7) and the land itself (31.5, 12, 14, 27; 32.42-44; 33.10-13; 50.19).

When the trumpet sounds, and God rides the cloud chariots into a new heaven and a new earth, the children will come singing, leading wolves and leopards and playing among the snakes. They will not hurt or destroy, for God will, finally, ‘give rest to the earth’ (50.34; see Isa. 14.7; 51.3)” (Fretheim, The Earth Story in Jeremiah 12, in Readings from the Perspective of Earth, ed. by Norman C. Habel, p. 110).

The reception of Jeremiah’s vision, in sort, will be rewarded with confidence in the restoration of the whole creation.

 Who are the true and false prophets in climate change? Will we listen?

We find ourselves in something of a similar contention between prophecies these days in the debate regarding climate change. Prophets on the right promise peace, with only modest adaptations needed to adjust to the more or less natural changes in climate they foresee taking place in the next half-century. Prophets on the left see instead a doomsday of sorts, climate changes that will engulf whole cities as well as alter habitat for uncounted species. Which prophets do we prefer? Politically it is clear that the American people are choosing the Hananiahs of our time, in spite of the weight of scientific evidence that the prophets of the left have tied around their necks. It is a choice for economic development, over against the restraints of ecologically disciplined policies of sustainable growth.

Economic growth is the Earth-destroying idolatry of our age. And, each year, that choice makes more likely the results foreseen by the prophets of doom. Setting the reputed uncertainties of scientific prediction aside, the church of Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, will have to decide on which basis the rule of that Servant will be upheld: Will we do what we want? Or will we instead look forward to what God the creator and Jesus the servant of creation will do, and so enlist in their cause? Will we choose a course that follows the imperative of economic growth, or will we turn around and re-vision our future? Those who welcome a prophet, receive a prophet’s reward.

 If we welcome righteous people, what is the reward? Justice for the whole creation!

The second saying, “whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous,” broadens the scope of the discussion of rewards, but with the same results. “Righteousness,” in the Gospel of Matthew, we recall, refers to “actions that are faithful to commitments and relationships.” We welcome Jesus as the one chosen by God to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus’ mission embraces righteousness and justice for the whole creation. The reward for those who receive Jesus as the Lord, the Servant of Creation, is re-direction toward the purposes of God for God’s beloved creation. Our second reading, Romans 6:12-23, is relevant here as well: the “righteous ones” are those who do “not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” They present themselves “to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present [their] members to God as instruments of righteousness.” In Christ, the Servant of Creation, they belong to the dominion of life for all creation. Those who receive a righteous person, receive a righteous person’s reward.

 If we provide (a cup of) “water” to the poor, will it be polluted or pure?

And so, finally, the special relevance of the third saying: “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, truly I tell, you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:42).  The phrase “little ones” refers here to the disciples and points, Warren Carter suggests, to their “vulnerability and danger as a minority group. . . . It recalls the context of persecution and exhortation to persevere which is evident throughout the chapter” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 245). It suggests to us also those made vulnerable in society by the struggle with the conditions of poverty, for whom a mere cup of water is a precious gift of life. Jesus, we remember, is more than a little aware of the importance of water as necessary to the flourishing, not only of human beings, but also of all creatures. “Water,” as we put it in our comment in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, (see our comment on Third Sunday in Lent; cf. John 4:5-42) is “the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God.”

It probably should go without saying, (but won’t) that to provide the stranger with a “cup of water’ that is beyond proverbial and therefore truly and completely righteous and life-giving, the water will be pure and safe for all to drink, whatever it takes to bring it to the scene. And with that availability, the congregation does indeed, at a minimum, have its reward. As metaphor for the source of all life, furthermore, the cup of water carries astonishingly greater significance: it represents the whole of the creation in its capacity to fulfill the purposes of God, so that all of creation might be freed to flourish in its time. It is indeed a sign of the presence of the Lord, the Servant of Creation. And those who give that cup in the name of Christ, truly, none of them will lose their reward.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@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

Sunday June 19-25 in Year A (Mundahl)

It Can’t Happen Here Tom Mundahl reflects on prophetic voice and lament.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday June 19-25, Year A (2020, 2023)

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69:7-10 (11-15) 16-18
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

When I read Camus’ novel The Plague during my freshman year in college, it never occurred to me that I would live to see a global pandemic. Nor did I expect that this novel would describe so accurately our reaction to this “new plague.” Here is Camus providing a picture of how the residents of the Algerian city of Oran first met this brewing disaster.

“Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything was still possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible.  They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views.  How should they have thought of anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views.  They fancied    themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences” (Modern Library, 1948, pp. 34-35).

Perhaps no culture has been trapped by the illusions of freedom from necessity and exceptionalism as ours. This has not been helped by the ineptness of current political leadership in understanding that the federal government has leadership responsibilities in responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic. There has been a naive assumption of special American “immunity” — it can’t happen here.

But there is a corollary to this magical thinking as we move from political culture to personal life: “it can’t happen here” becomes “it can’t happen to me.” As a parish pastor working with hospice programs, I have witnessed first-hand just how powerful the fear and denial of death can be. From the preference for terms like “passed away,” which now has been shortened to “passed,” to the medical establishment’s preference for jargon like “expired,” it is clear how very frightening it is to say, “she died.”  After organizing several discussion groups on “Death and Dying” and “Grieving Together,” it has even become evident that one of the ulterior motives for being involved with these topics may even be “finding a way out.” It is “one out of one except me.” And, as all who work for ecojustice know, everything we have concluded about the magical thinking surrounding Covid-19 and personal mortality applies to the threat of the climate crisis. It even applies to systemic racism, where despite no racist bones ever admitted personally, people of color die as a result of government action or inaction at a shockingly higher rate.

Jeremiah also struggled against living in illusion. Only for him, illusion had a royal imprimatur and even the appearance of divine sanction. Beginning with Solomon, kings had ignored the Exodus tradition, replacing the “manna” sense of “just enough” (Exodus 16:18) with the economics of affluence and a temple-based religion even Egyptians would be proud of (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 2001, pp. 31-32).  Building projects, military defeats, the rise first of Assyria, then Babylon, led to religious syncretism which  King Josiah’s Deuteronomic reforms couldn’t quell. It was a time that required prophets.

That living out the prophetic vocation was no easy task is made clear from reading Jeremiah. In fact, making sense of the lament which constitutes our First Lesson requires that the lector do some storytelling, summarizing the human slaughter that went on in the Hinnom Valley (Gehenna), the instructions to break an earthenware jug to show the fate of Judah, and Jeremiah’s arrest by Pashhur, the head of the Temple’s secret police (Jeremiah 19:1-20:6). Only then can this lament make sense.

It is ironic that as part of his call to be a prophet Jeremiah is promised that he will be an “overseer of the nations” (Jeremiah 1:10, Hebrew text). Being arrested by a mere “overseer” of the temple police must have been the last straw (John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, 1965, p. 132). No wonder his lament is filled with anger at the One who called him with generous promises, most of which now appear empty. Jeremiah complains that he was both seduced and overpowered, and the results of his work are nowhere to be seen (Jeremiah 20:7). “For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long” (Jeremiah 20: 8).

Still there is power in his call.  Even when he has had enough, he cannot keep from prophesying. Deep down, far beyond any possible level of comfort, there is a barely-conscious confidence that “the LORD is with me like a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail” (Jeremiah 20:11).

Yet, there is also power in a royal theology so confident of its unique possession of divine support that it can no longer hear a prophetic voice. Since the regime possesses an “eternal” institutional truth through the monarch, real change is not necessary; it is only a matter of problem-solving and management. It is no surprise that Jeremiah’s “street theater,” using pottery to depict Judah’s future, is unthinkable and cannot be tolerated. It violates an “official religion of optimism” (Brueggemann, p. 37). There is not even a momentary question whether this message might be the word of the LORD. The real problem is Jeremiah, who must be dealt with by a beating  and humiliating time in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:2).

That Judah with its royal theology is unable to hear or see the truth Jeremiah brings cannot help but feel eerily familiar to us. While we claim to have outgrown royalty, the current form of American exceptionalism, mixed with a form of patriotism that claims a perverse form of Christian nationalism as a foundational element, functions similarly to block discussion and action to bring real change.  “Change,” isn’t that what the freighted biblical term, “repentance,” really means?

What stiffens Jeremiah’s audience to reject this turn-around and embrace magical thinking,  preventing them from seeing the way things really are?  Put simply, it is fear of death, the death of the religio-political system they rely on for meaning, economic security, and physical safety. Like all prophets, because he tells an inconvenient truth, he is dangerous.  To them, what Jeremiah’s words and street theater point to can’t happen here.

In the U.S. the results of the global pandemic, the reality of the climate crisis, and the seemingly endless level of racist police brutality threaten a culture based on endless economic growth requiring the exploitation of natural resources and inequality.  Despite claiming to be a culture honoring science, the warnings of epidemiologists (whose work has been underfunded) and even fine science writers like Laurie Garret (The Coming Plague, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995) and David Quammen (Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, Norton, 2012) have too often been ignored. While acceptance of climate science has grown in the past five years — especially on local and state levels — implementation of policy on the national level has been undermined by the current administration which embraces the “royal theology” of growth at any cost. Similarly, the racial inequality so obvious in the U.S. has been exploited as politically advantageous. As I write, sections of the Twin Cities, my home, are burning.

Like Jeremiah, we ask: why this resistance to truth? Much of the answer lies in our bondage to finding security and identity through possession (cf. Arthur McGill, Death and Life — An American Theology, Fortress, 1987, p. 54).  Whether it is property, wealth, glamour, or intellectual achievement, what we control gives us the illusion of safety and integrity. That is equally the case on the societal level where Gross Domestic Product, a Defense Department budget larger than the next ten countries and necessary to support 800 military bases worldwide, and a massive advertising industry to keep the “consumer faith,” all serve to promote what we have been led to believe is our “well-being.” The results are anything but that — a climate crisis, community and family disintegration, and always the search for scapegoats to bear the blame for the inevitable failure of life lived this way.

So we join Jeremiah in his lament, especially as we consider Psalm 69. Unfortunately, the committee responsible for the Revised Common Lectionary has cut the heart out of this powerful lament.  During this time of pandemic, climate crisis, and racial upheaval, we need also to hear the beginning cry:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God (Psalm 69: 1-3).

Why this need? By sharing in lament, our grief, pain, and the threat of chaos are transformed into language. And as we are reminded by the first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a), just as God spoke all into existence, so something new and creative occurs when we join our speech and song (Current hymnals may feature a section of “hymns of lament,” e.g. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pp. 697-704). This communal voice assures us we are never cut off from holy presence. As poet Gregory Orr contends, “words make worlds” (On Being, American Public Radio, May 31, 2020).

It is also important to honor Psalm 69 because traditionally it has been associated with Jeremiah  (James L. Mays, Psalms, John Knox, 1994, p. 232).  Not only does the lament echo Jeremiah’s language, but the details resonate with his experience of being thrown into the “deep mire” (Psalm 69:2) at the bottom of a Judean cistern (Jeremiah 38:6). Cut off from the support of family (Psalm 69:8) and the larger community, he can only look to God’s steadfast love and mercy (Psalm 69:16).

The freedom to grieve and lament together is a gift of shared faith. Without that, humankind is reduced to living by possession as a hedge against anxiety and fear of death. Paul writes to make it crystal clear that “God is the enemy of all life by possession” (McGill, 54). Of course, what is meant here is the power of sin that is washed away by word and water in baptism. In baptism, death, the very reason we surround ourselves with what we convince ourselves that we control, is central.  Paul’s rhetoric shows his sensitivity to just how shocking this is: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3) It is the end of allegiance to empires, whether Roman or the tottering system of contemporary consumer capitalism that seems bent on destroying this green earth. Baptismal faith removes the scales from our eyes to see, yes, it is happening here.

But out of this death comes a share of resurrection that launches “walking in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). As Ernst Kasemann claims, baptism actualizes the cross-resurrection event so that “walking in newness of life” becomes “participation in the reign of Christ” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Eerdmans, 1980, p. 168). This changes our fundamental identity and “pledges” our first allegiance to another “community.” Instead of living by possession, we are freed together to live by gift, especially as we are continually recharged by what Kasemann calls “a constant return to baptism” (Kasemann, p. 163).

Wendell Berry describes this more simply in one of his “Mad Farmer” poems, where he suggests “practice resurrection” (The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 1998, p. 87). Our Gospel Reading reminds us just how costly this can be. Living by gift, nourishing the earth, and practicing resurrection are guaranteed to bring opposition. It will happen here. This text makes it clear that those who “practice resurrection”will be maligned (Matthew 10:25), will know the division of families (10:34-37), and, as they endure, will know the cross intimately. Yet the promise persists: “Those who find their life (live by possession) will lose it, and those who lose their life will find it” (Matthew 10:39). During this time of pandemic, racial oppression, and climate crisis, lament offers a path to this discovery.

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

Survival Is Insufficient Tom Mundahl reflects on the Trinitarian model of “making room.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for The Holy Trinity, Year A (2020, 2023)

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

This week the church begins the season known as Ordinary Time.  But there is little ordinary about what we have experienced in 2020. The outbreak of the Coronavirus Pandemic has not only ravaged much of the world; it has prompted questions about the effectiveness of medical systems, distributive justice, and the resilience of  economies grasping for endless growth.

What’s more, at a time when necessary social-distancing policies make physical gathering for worship impossible, questions emerge about the reliability of creation, or even the faithfulness of God. It is tempting for individuals and congregations to limit the horizon of hope to mere survival. Emily St. John Mandel warns us of aiming that low in her post-pandemic novel, Station Eleven. Set in a world where barely 1% of humankind remains, the narrative revolves around the Traveling Symphony, a company of itinerant actors and musicians who move in horse-drawn wagons from one settlement to another. Painted on the front of each wagon is their credo, “Survival is Insufficient” (New York: Vintage Books, 2015, p. 119). For the resurrection community, that is a minimal standard.

The creation account which constitutes our First Reading aims much higher than “survival mode.” Written in response to the Exile, this liturgical poem provides hope to those who have wondered whether the violent Babylonian “gods” behind the enslavement of Judah might be more powerful than the one who who had formed their very identity (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), pp. 25,29). Designed for public worship, this ordered litany assures its hearers that not only is creation a realm of peaceful fruitfulness; it is “very good”(Genesis 1:31). In a time of questioning much like our own, this provided pastoral assurance to those whose world had fallen apart. They could rely on the one whose very speech brought all things into being.

But the author does not leave it there. By repeating the phrase, “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,21,25,31), hearers are invited to see and care for the earth as the creator would. Ellen Davis reminds us, “Contemplation and action are not separate strategies, nor is the latter a corrective to the former. They are part of a single complex process: accurate perception leading to metanoia….’To change one’s mind is to change the way one works,’ says Wendell Berry” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p. 47).

This provides a clue to the mysterious phrase: “So God created humankind in his image….”(Genesis 1:27).  May it not be that to “image God” is precisely to see the goodness of creation through the eyes of the creator. This seems to be a necessary qualification for having “dominion” (Genesis 1:28). This notion is supported with the word choice made immediately following this grant of responsibility. While the NRSV translates “see” (Genesis 1:29), far stronger is the RSV/KJV “behold.” To “behold” the gift of plants, trees, and beasts implies a way of reflective, almost prayerful, vision that prevents rapacious use. From this standpoint, it should be no surprise that dominance here “is that of a shepherd who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals” (Brueggemann, p. 32). This is far more than sentiment; the shepherd is one who exercises the“skilled mastery” (Davis, 58) essential for animal husbandry, or, today, healing cases of Covid-19, or even confronting the climate crisis.

Failure to take this responsibility seriously can damage the whole enterprise, as we see in Genesis 3 where the actors neglect to see as the creator sees. Linguist Robert Bringhurst writes, “The Hebrew text of the Book of Genesis has suffered a lot of editorial meddling…but the character of the underlying material is clear.  The stories are full of foreboding.  The narrators know they are dealing with hubris, not beatitude. And in spite of, or because of, the foreboding, the Hebrew text is laughing to itself….” (Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die–Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis,University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 9-10). This should be no surprise: for a poem stemming from the experience of exile to be without irony when considering “dominion” would be strange indeed.

Yet this liturgical poem is completed hopefully, with the additional creation on the seventh day of menuha, sabbath rest. While Genesis 1:1-2:4a is often considered to be a description of the creation of the world, much more significant is comprehending this world’s character, which is crystallized in sabbath. As Norman Wirzba suggests, “Sabbath is not an optional reprieve in the midst of an otherwise frantic or obsessive life.  It is the goal of all existence because in the Sabbath life becomes what it fully ought to be.  It is an invitation to paradise understood as genuine delight” (Food and Faith, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2018, p.86). Sabbath is for the whole creation, all of which is deemed “good” and equally “blessed.” However, because all is “very good,” sabbath rest may be especially important for humankind that needs to experience the radical interdependence (shalom) that alone can teach “seeing as God sees.” This journey is necessary to learning the skilled mastery of shepherd care.

And it is a communal pilgrimage.  This is made clear by Wendell Berry in his poetry, fiction, and many essays, where he consistently returns to the theme of membership in the comprehensive community of creation. In fact, one of his most telling essays (vital during this time of Covid-19) is entitled, “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109).  As Berry’s friend, Noman Wirzba, writes, “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (Wirzba, p. 89).

Because the character of the world consists of memberships, sabbath rest finds its source in a Trinitarian understanding of God who continually makes room for what is not God (creation) to be and grow. No grasping is allowed! “Trinitarian theology asserts that all true reality, as created by God, is communion, is the giving and receiving of gifts.  This means no living thing is alone or exists by itself or for itself” (Wirzba, 198).

Today’s Gospel Reading is the culmination of community formation in Matthew.  Amazed by the empty tomb, the faithful women are sent with a message to the rest of the followers instructing them to assemble in Galilee where they will see the Risen One (Matthew 28:7).  It is not surprising to discover that the place of meeting is a Galilean mountain, for throughout Matthew “mountaintop experiences” are crucial. The tempter’s offer of total power (Matthew 4:8-9), Jesus’ most comprehensive teaching for the faithful (Matthew 5-7), the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1-9), and, now, the commissioning of the followers all take place in mountainous terrain.

Not only do these echo the biblical tendency to locate significant events on mountains; they also provide away-places where teaching happens and community identity is formed. As Belden Lane contends, the mountain is the place where “the established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.  Jesus repeatedly leads people into hostile landscapes, away from society and its conventions, to invite them into something altogether new” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998), p. 45). From this Galilean mountain, the Risen One sends followers to nurture new memberships throughout the world.

Preceding this new direction, Jesus assures followers that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” (Matthew 28:18).  This is genuine authority, not the grasping for power dangled teasingly by the tempter (Matthew 4:8-9).  We know that this authority is different, because in keeping with Trinitarian “making room,” Jesus immediately uses it to empower the disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” (Matthew 28:19). Just as the Father-creator makes room for all that is made, now the Son shares the dynamism of new life to build networks of trust throughout the creation.

All of this is affirmed by a Spirit who enables deep connection between the unity we call God and those branches nourished by the roots of this vine. In his reflections on the Trinity, Augustine called this bond the vinculum caritatis, the “vine of loving grace.” As Mark Wallace suggests, “In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life–divine, human, and non-human” (Fragments of the Spirit, Trinity, 2002, p. 145).

Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism by John (Matthew 3:13-17); now it continues by the disciples “making room” for new followers and learning about the unity of creation. And this in a Mediterranean world based on the Pax Romana where the Empire brooked no competitors.  Had not the Roman historian, Livy, claimed that the mythical founder, Romulus, had ordered, “Go and declare to the Romans the will of heaven that Rome shall be the capital of the world” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2008, p. 550). Rome offers no room for options, but grasps for total control. But having failed to silence Jesus, imperial success in stopping his enspirited disciples appears unlikely. They listen to the new direction: “Go therefore and make disciples” (Matthew 28: 19).

Too often this call to go beyond boundaries to build communities of new life has degenerated into an ideology justifying colonial empire-building.  This neglects the insights of Mission on Six Continents and other movements that have discovered to their surprise that when they arrived in “other cultures” God’s presence was already there, requiring new understandings of what “being sent” means.

The enormity of this task can only be based on the power of the final verse, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”(Matthew 28:20, RSV).  This verse completes the framing of Matthew as the Emmanuel gospel–identifying the incarnate one as “God with us “– and providing assurance that this presence will always accompany the memberships of the baptized. While NRSV translates the initial word as “remember,” we prefer the older, literal, “behold.” As Maggie Ross suggests, “The word the NRSV uses instead of ‘behold’–‘remember’–has nothing of this covenant of engagement or self-emptying required” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p.10).  Beholding calls forth the necessity of seeing the whole creation as God saw it, a deep beholding perhaps best nurtured in silence and sabbath rest.

To say God is with us in the context of the Trinity leads us to recall that the breadth of this promise includes the whole Earth community (Elaine Wainright, Habitat, Human, and Holy: An Eco-Rhetorical Reading of the Gospel of Matthew, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2017, p. 218).  After all, as our First Reading makes clear, all creation was blessed. Wirzba puts it best: “The goal of life is to enact relationships with each other so that the life people experience here and now can share in the divine, Trinitarian life that creates, sustains, and fulfills creation” (p. 198). Whether the “others” are garlic plants grown in well-composted soil, goldfinches at the feeder, or the new neighbor, we are called to “go,”“make room,” and connect.

This is not the way we have been acting as we have entered the anthropocene era, where no longer is there anything purely “natural,” untouched by human action. As a result, says Michael Klare:

“Mother Nature, you might say, is striking back.  It is, however, the potential for ‘non-linear events’ and ‘tipping points’ that has some climate scientists especially concerned, fearing that we now live on what might be thought of as an avenging planet. While many climate effects, like prolonged heat waves, will become more pronounced over time, other effects, it is now believed, will occur suddenly, with little warning, and could result in large-scale disruptions in human life (as in the coronavirus moment). You might think of this as Mother Nature saying, ‘Stop! Do not go past this point or there will be dreadful consequences!’” (resilience.org/stories/2020-04-14)

So is it “Stop!” or “Go!?”  Because “survival is insufficient,” we must answer, “both.” Easing the greedy “grasping” we have made our favored style of interaction, we are called like the persons of the Trinity to “make room,” to learn from the non-human others and cultures that teach us to live within earth’s limits.  We learn to exercise creation care with the skilled mastery of a shepherd. But we also stop to revel in sabbath rest, where we behold and enjoy the mystery of all things. Like the pandemic-stricken world of Station Eleven, we discover that all that can be counted or collected is not enough: we need the beauty of music, drama, and even worship. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the season of Ordinary Time (the term refers to the “ordinal” numbering of Sundays after Pentecost), we will find living out our gracious baptismal calling is more than enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn suggestions:

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

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