Tag Archives: Walter Brueggemann

Preaching On Creation: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn suggestions:

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

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

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

Living in Promises and HopeTom Mundahl reflects on land and the struggle to “till (serve) and keep” it to this day.

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

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

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

As we move from the Genesis pre-history (ch. 1-11) to God’s calling into being a new community, the centrality of creation and the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” (Genesis 2:15) remains.  The “events” of the proto-history — expulsion from the garden, the first murder, the flood, and the human effort to “make a name” at Babel–all lead to the situation of Abraham and Sarah—landless and without progeny.

Even though it is tempting to move away from creation issues into history, Brueggemann makes it very clear: “In its present form, the governing promise concerns the land.” (Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, p, 109) This is confirmed by the final promise in Genesis 12:3, “and in you shall all the families of the earth (adamah) be blessed.” We might translate this: “all the families belonging to the earth,” to remind ourselves that the Yahwist begins with the land as the key partner in creation’s dance. (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: an Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 127)

But it is the promise of the land which makes the lack of an heir even more poignant. Without a next generation the vocation to “till (serve) and keep” becomes meaningless.  Agriculture is a multi-generational commitment; without children “there can be no fulfillment in the land of promise.” (Brueggemann, ibid.)

God’s promises are both generous and outrageous.  Not only does their weight rest on Abraham and Sarah, but it requires that they uproot themselves from the security of a settled way of life– landless and childless as it may be– to travel on the basis of nothing more than this promise into an uncertain future. Perhaps it is like the choice between embracing a new economy based on clean and sustainable energy sources or looking backward to repristinate the past by “making America great again.”  Why give up the safe illusion of comfort in favor of an unknown future in a so-called “promised land”?

Perhaps the key to understanding Abraham and Sarah’s response is as simple as the identity of the One who promises, whose words fuel the Priestly creation account (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a): “Now the LORD said to Abram.” (Genesis 12:1) That speech creates the faithful response that follows.  Many have heard it as an echo of baptismal calling. And the LORD said, “Go and support water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Or, others have heard a call to teach or be part of an adult class struggling with ecojustice. Others have been lured to serve as counselors at church camps, our precious creation care workshops, where for nearly a week they live mostly disconnected from communications technology in order to help participants reconnect with creation.  The effectiveness of this calling is affirmed by Isaiah in vivid natural terms, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return  there until they have watered the earth…, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The lively speech of God is the source of hope for Abraham and Sarah. “To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.” (Brueggemann, p. 117)  As so many million refugees in the world today know, a word of hope propels and encourages. To refuse to listen to this calling is often to acquiesce in seeing the “Genesis story run backwards.” (Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: the Education of an Unlikely Activist, New York: Times Books, 2013, p. 156)

And, to move forward in response to this hopeful word is to experience blessing. As the generous currency that drives us forward with its vitality, blessing consists of the “ordinary” processes of life which come to be seen as indispensable gifts.  Far from being “mighty acts of God,” blessings are what sustain us on the way– good bread and soup, a warm sweater, a loving hug, a good friend.  And blessing is enough. (Claus Westermann, Blessing in the Bible and the Life if the Church, Philadelphia: Fortress, pp. 18, 41, 85)

Yet, blessing is framed by unexpected eruptions within the “ordinary” which cannot be predicted.  Brueggemann suggests that scriptures provide three primary ways of speaking such radical newness: creation, resurrection, and justification by grace through faith. (Brueggemann, p. 111)  And it is the latter which land Abraham and Sarah squarely in the middle of Paul’s argument in Romans.

In his effort to reconcile exiled Romans of Jewish background who affirm the Christ with Gentile believers, Paul can find no better model than Abraham.  Abraham certainly had no religious resume to boast about; he and Sarah only trusted promises of land and heirs. Because of this trust, not only was it “reckoned to him (Abraham) as righteousness” (Romans 4:3), but when the content of the blessings  (Genesis 12:1-3) is taken into account, Paul extravagantly suggests Abraham and Sarah were “to inherit the world….” (Romans 4:13)

Living by the gift of promise  means embodying the purpose for creation –care and blessing.  And, Paul argues, how much more so in light of the Christ event.  As Kasemann suggests in summarizing Paul’s thinking: “This means that justification, as the restitution of creation and as resurrection anticipated in the stage of trial (anfechtung), is the decisive motif of Paul’s soteriology and theology and these have always to be interpreted in terms of it.  That is, the world and history are always involved in God’s renewing activity.” (Ernst Kasemann, Romans, Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1980, p. 123.

Perhaps the struggle of this “renewing activity” is what Gerard Manley Hopkins had in mind with his poem, “God’s Grandeur:”

            And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell….
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lies the dearest freshness, deep down things….
(Poems and Prose, New York: Everyman’s, 1995, p. 14)

Our gospel reading shows Nicodemus embarking on a “faith journey” of his own. As one of those who “saw the signs that he (Jesus) was doing,” John 2:23), Nicodemus was both intrigued and disturbed. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, what was he to think of Jesus’ statement, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days?” (John 2: 20)  These threatening words and Jesus’ Passover cleansing of the temple (John 2:13-17) may have led Nicodemus to wonder about the meaning of his faith. Perhaps, like Sarah and Abraham, he was beginning to reach a “dead end” where new measures were necessary.

Nicodemus decides to interview Jesus, and, in the interests of protecting his reputation, he comes by night. Whenever I think of this late night meeting I am reminded of Edward Hopper’s arresting painting, “Nighthawks” (1942).  Inside a bright diner surrounded by the dark of night we see four figures, a couple in conversation, the server, and a man sitting with his back to the window. Eerie green shadows convey a sense of loneliness and desperation.  But the most alarming feature of this nighttime refuge is the lack of a door. (Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, New York: Picador, 2016, p. 21)  Perhaps Nicodemus seeks from Jesus a new “door” to his future.

At first, it seems that their conversation is going nowhere.  Even though Nicodemus must be conversant with scripture and tradition, Jesus’ mysterious double entendres referring to being born anothen — “again” and “from above,” and his playing with pneuma as both “wind” and “spirit” confuse him. The fact that this Rabbi prefaces his mysterious speech with “Very truly I say to you,” the “sentence of holy law formula,” only makes matters worse.

No wonder Nicodemus exclaims, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9) His quest to find a new path seems to have failed.  Yet this nocturnal meeting continues with Jesus reminding Nicodemus that here, too, is a kind of “exodus” where, instead of a serpent being lifted up to provide healing, here “ the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

That this will be a healing act of love is made clear by the familiar John 3:16 – 17, where the motive for this is is revealed — the Creator’s love for the creation and all its creatures, including Nicodemus.  Somehow, this mysterious meeting more than satisfies Nicodemus and sends him into the future embracing “the healing of the world.” (John 3:17)

When Jesus is threatened with death by the Sanhedrin, it is Nicodemus who reminds them of protections built into their procedure: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing, to find out what they were doing, does it?” (John 7:51) And, following Jesus being “lifted up,” Nicodemus is there, too.  John writes, “Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus by night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39)  With Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body with spices in linen.

Adjoining this tomb there was a garden. (John 19:20) May it not be that Nicodemus, this well-connected and transformed teacher, remembering words about love for the world (John 3:16) now saw the garden of creation from Genesis 2-3. (Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John (xiii- xxi), New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 945–one of the possible interpretations mentioned by Brown)  This certainly gives deeper meaning to Mary Magdalene’s “supposing” Jesus to be the “gardener” in John 20:15.  With John’s love of the suggestive richness of language, that may be even a richer messianic title than “my rabbi.” (John 20:16) As Nicodemus found, he is the one who gives growth and nurture to all who, like Abraham and Sarah, experience being “stuck” with no “doors” in sight.

(Refer to Margaret-Daly Denton’s [Trinity College, Dublin] volume in the Earth Bible series, John: An Earth Bible Commentary–Supposing Him to Be the Gardener, London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017.)

Perhaps many ecojustice advocates feel much like Nicodemus today.  Certainly, mutual support is crucial. Reading writings from difficult times can provide sustenance–e.g. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.  While re-reading Orwell’s 1984 and other dystopian novels may also be helpful, there still is nothing like the psalter.  In this week’s appointed Psalm 121, a Song of Ascents written for pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple, the psalmist affirms that “our help comes from the one who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121: 2) This One will “keep” us as we struggle to “till and keep” creation and build ecojustice.

Hymn suggestions:
Gathering—“Bless Now, O God, the Journey,” ELW 326
Hymn of the Day—“There in God’s Garden,” ELW 342
Sending—“ Will You Come and Follow Me,”  ELW 798

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

First Sunday of Lent (March 1, 2020) in Year A (Mundahl)

The Way of Ecojustice in a Dangerous TimeTom Mundahl reflects on our place in the world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Thomas Mundal in 2017)

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

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have also designated times of renewal centering on prayer and reflection. While Lent is certainly a period for baptismal preparation and rumination about what it means to live as a resurrection community, it also is properly a time of repentance — turning around and renewing the way we think about our identity and vocation.  We sing hymns that honor the Risen One, who “prayed and kept the fast.” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, No. 319)  On Ash Wednesday we were starkly reminded of our mortality as we heard 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 — singly and in community.

This Lent could not be more timely, for those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by a presidential regime that ignores the most elementary climate science, threatens water resources and Native culture by permitting unnecessary pipelines, and strips government agencies of the funds and qualified public servants to protect the web of living things. 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.

We need this liminal season of Lent to return to the threshold of faith, to retreat briefly to the high desert of quiet and rediscover our center.  For this time of threat requires that we once more discover the character of creation and our status as creatures so that we may be renewed in our baptismal calling to care for each other and “till (serve) and keep” all God has made. (Genesis 2:15)

This is the task laid down by our First Reading.  While the storyline beginning at Genesis 2:4b is often called “the second creation account,” it is much more a series of stories about the character of God’s earth and what it calls for from humankind, perhaps better referred to as “groundlings.” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 80.) Why “groundlings?” Our vocation is totally wrapped up in the name: “In that day that the LORD God made the earth and heavens, when no plant of the field had yet sprung up…there was no one to till (or “serve”) the ground. Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:5-7)

It is no surprise, then, that the central purpose of these “groundlings” is to “till (serve) and keep” the garden. To the gift of this vocation is added the invitation to enjoy all the fruits and delights of the garden with the exception of the “tree of good and evil.” Transgressing that ban leads to a death sentence. (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Louisville: John Knox, 1990, pp. 46-48) To be a creature, after all, implies limitation.

It is precisely this limitation that the partners charged with caring for the garden violate. They are persuaded by another creature, the serpent, that the Creator and owner of the garden is holding out on them by maintaining a monopoly on divine power. That this is false takes no more than a bite of the tree’s fruit, as the “groundlings” discover not omniscience but shame at upsetting the gracious harmony of the garden.

While this narrative is hardly an explanation of how evil came into the world, or of the origins of death (assumed to be part of the created order), it does illustrate the human drive for power, autonomy, and escape from responsibility. This is revealed especially during the investigation conducted by the garden’s owner as the “groundlings” defend themselves with “I” language, revealing a breach of this primal relationship.  (Brueggemann, ibid., pp. 41-42)

Because adam has not cared for adamah, the “groundlings” are expelled from the garden. As both the Yahwist author of this section of Genesis and critics of contemporary agricultural practice agree, “The land comes first.” (Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, Meeting the Expectations of the Land, San Francisco: North Point, 1984, p. 80) Not to “till (serve) and keep” the land brings dreadful consequences.

Today, ignoring care of the soil can be seen with a simple aerial view of the Mississippi delta where a “dead zone” the size of state of Connecticut has formed, the results of erosion and a catalog of chemical fertilizers and herbicides poisoning this watershed which drains 41% of the continental U.S. It is no wonder that Iowa’s rich topsoil which was once as much as fifteen feet deep now averages only four to six inches.

American agriculture has been transformed into an abstract set of economic and bio-physical transactions that see the soil as a mere “medium” for production, a “resource” that can be used indefinitely, not  a living organism in creation that must be “served” with all the agricultural arts. When the concern is winning the prize given by the National Corn Growers’ Association for maximum bushels per acre instead of the long term health of the soil, there is trouble brewing. Only care of the humus will make life human.

By falling for the abstract promises of the clever and neglecting their vocation to care for the garden, the “groundlings” lost the farm. That this continues is beautifully described in one of Wendell Berry’s short stories, “It Wasn’t Me.”  Elton Penn has just purchased a farm at auction, a “place” he can call his own.  He makes that clear in conversation with friends: “I want to make it my own. I don’t want a soul to thank.”  Wiser and older Wheeler Catlett responds that now Elton Penn is connected to a particular farm, things are different.  “When you quit living in the price and start living in the place, you’re in a different line of succession.” (in The Wild Birds–Six Stories of the Port William Membership, San Francisco: North Point, 1986, pp. 67-68)

The Genesis pre-history (chapters 1-11) is populated by actors who “want to make it my own” until Noah comes onto the stage.  Noah, “a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.” (Genesis 9:20)  This certainly makes him a “new Adam,” one whose faithfulness in preserving creation (“tilling [serving] and keeping”) shows what membership as a fellow creature means and paves the way for making creation a real “place,” wreathed with story.

This, according to Paul, is also the way of Jesus, who not only empties himself on behalf of all, but in resurrection life suffuses creation with the gift of overflowing grace which frees “groundlings” from sin and for “the exercise of just power” throughout the scope of creation. (Romans 5:15, 17)  Because the righteousness of God means “God’s putting things right” (Krister Stendahl, Paul Among the Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974, p. 31), believers are called to exercise “dominion in life” (Romans 5: 17) as Noah did in faithful care for the elements of creation he protected during the deluge.  The “deluge” we experience may be political, civilizational, as well as environmental,  but its effect is just as deadly.

It is based on what Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute calls “the uber-lie.” Simply put, “it is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet and never suffer the consequences.” (postcarbon.org/the-uber-lie/) That political candidates seeking votes fear “the limits to growth” is no surprise. In response to this central dishonesty, those who have received overflowing grace are called to join with all who recognize that curbing consumption so that all may have enough, population control, and public policy supporting these by curbing carbon emissions are elements of “exercising servant-dominion” and “putting things right” in God’s creation. This may have to begin at the local level where “soil” becomes “place” through stories of care and where “groundlings” affirm their “membership” in the whole creation which Paul promises will “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:23)

Just as the community of faith is freed by the overflowing grace of the Christ to care justly (“to exercise dominion”) and serve creation (Romans 5:17), so Matthew’s temptation narrative reminds us where the authority to carry this out rests.  In the course of this three-fold testing, the curtain is removed so that Matthew’s audience cannot help but recognize the awful truth: the Roman Empire and its colonial collaborators are in thrall to the evil one, the destroyer. (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 106)

That Jesus intends to move beyond the sump of Roman rule is signaled by the location and details of our reading. As the temptations intensify, so does the elevation — from the high desert (4:1), to the temple “wing”(4:5), to the top of “an exceedingly high” mountain (4:8). Not only do these locations reflect Matthew’s fascination with mountain settings, they put Jesus in what early modern philosophers (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) called “the state of nature” where what is basic about the human behavior can be discovered.

While these “wild states” may seem to indicate “advantage devil,” Belden Lane, drawing on Terence Donaldson’s study of the function of mountain imagery in Matthew, suggests something entirely different:

“An eschatological community takes shape on the boundaries, at the liminal place on the mountain’s slope. The established order breaks down, a company of the future is formed, new rules are adopted.” (Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Oxford, 1998, p. 45)

Even though this appears to be a one-on-one conflict, in fact it is the Spirit who has “led Jesus up to the wilderness” (4:1) where Jesus “affirms his baptism.” And, it is the Spirit who gathers the “new community.” (Luther, Small Catechism, Third Article, “What Does This Mean?”)

In his preparation for writing The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky had come to see atheist revolutionary terrorism as the greatest temptation to those seeking to bring change to Russia’s czarist autocracy. It is no surprise, then, that at the center of this vast novel we find “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, an imaginative retelling of Matthew’s text. Jesus suddenly appears in Seville, Spain, where after healing a child he is promptly arrested.  During the interrogation the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus for refusing the three temptations which would have lifted the burden of freedom from the masses, those who would say, “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Pevear and Volokhonsky tr., San Francisco: North Point, 1990, p. 253)

Ralph Wood suggests that the temptations of “miracle, mystery, and authority”—Dostoevsky’s shorthand for our narrative’s three challenges—sound only too familiar in a culture in love with the miracles of gadgetry, the thrill of amazing athletic feats, and willing to hand over freedom to authoritarian leaders.  He writes, “Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification, constitutes a yet worse kind of herd existence than the one …(Dostoevsky) describes—a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.” (Ralph Wood, “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake,” First Things, December, 2002, p. 34)

Rather than defining freedom as individual autonomy, Jesus gathers a new community where “our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network and shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises.” (Wood, p. 33)  In other words, as Wendell Berry would say: we discover our vocation largely through our “memberships.” The integrity of this vocation too often requires resisting temptation at heavy cost.

This is authentic freedom whose pathway is led by the one who resists temptation, who refuses the easy road to accomplish the will of the one who sent him. This is self-emptying love that we will recognize most fully on Passion Sunday when we hear the “Christ Hymn” from Philippians 2:5-11 with its blunt portrayal of kenosis. And it may be increasingly the way of ecojustice in an increasingly dangerous time.

In his recent Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture (named after the author of the important volume, The Fate of the Earth (1982), the decade’s most important warning about nuclear weaponry—available online at http://www.fateoftheearth.org), lecturer Bill McKibben compared the nuclear threat with the danger of climate change by describing a nuclear attack as something that “might happen,” while climate change is a process well underway. More importantly, McKibben suggested “learnings” from the anti-nuclear movement.

The first lesson referenced by McKibben is the power of “unearned suffering.” The anti-nuclear movement learned this from the civil rights movement. Now in the face of potential violent repression, “groundlings” of faith who advocate for strong governmental programs seeking ecojustice on the national level may pay a price previously unimagined.  Reflection on what needs to happen and its cost will be part of our Lenten pilgrimage. 

HYMN SUGGESTIONS

Gathering: “O Lord, Throughout These 40 Days” ELW, 319
Hymn of the Day: “Light Shone in Darkness, ELW, 307
Sending: “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord, ELW, 580

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (February 11-17) in Year A (Mundahl)

Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on our need to trust in God’s creation.

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

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

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 119:1-8
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

Even healthy memories can be buried deeply. It was only yesterday that what surely is a foundation of my creation faith “bubbled up” into consciousness. At every worship service I attended as a child, the pastor would intone: “My help is in the name of the LORD,” and the congregation would respond: “Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124: 8, “Confession,” Service Book and Hymnal, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1958, p. 15).

If I missed that important foundational statement, it is easier to see why writers of the Hebrew Bible felt compelled to emphasize in a host of creative ways the centrality of creation and its blessings. More recently, the church has had to break through the superstructure of a theology that has been aggressively anthropocentric, focusing primarily on “God’s mighty acts” and “human authenticity” (cf. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: the Ambiguous Promise of Christian Theology, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985, ch. 10, pp. 189-218).

This is especially important as we turn to our First Reading, the conclusion of Moses’ “Third Discourse.” Paging through Deuteronomy makes it clear that Brueggemann is right when he reminds us: “And if God has to do with Israel in a special way, as he surely does, he has to do with land as an historical place in a special way. It will no longer do to talk about Yahweh and his people but we must speak about Yahweh and his people and his land” (Walter Brueggemann, The Land, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 6).

Deuteronomy is filled with the humming fertility of the gift of land, the gift of creation: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, or vines and fig trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. . . .” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9a). As Westermann argues: “We can no longer hold that God’s activity with his people is to be found only in his ‘mighty acts.’ In addition to these acts, experienced in events, God’s work with his people includes things manifested not in deeds but in processes that are usually regarded as unhistorical—the growth and multiplying of the people and the effects of the forces that preserve their physical life. . . . No concept of history that excludes or ignores God’s activity in the world of nature can adequately reflect what occurs in the Old Testament between God and his people. . . . The activity of God that determines these events is not primarily deliverance but blessing” (Claus Westermann, Blessing, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978, p. 6).

Most characteristic of Deuteronomy is a series of “blessings and curses.” For example, in Ch. 28, the writer describes the results of harmony with God’s gracious instruction (torah). “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.  Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl” (Deuteronomy 28:3-5). That these blessings are synergistic—they multiply as they are lived out and received—is suggested by the notion that “these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 28:2).

But living out of harmony with God’s template results in curse, a “force” that carries its own negative synergy, bringing downhill spiral. In fact, the ultimate result of continuing to live lives of self-interested greed and obsession with control is a reversal of the Exodus itself! Should this reach critical levels, Israel will experience all the plagues the Egyptians suffered. (Deuteronomy 28:59-61). They shall be brought back in ships to Egypt “by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer” (Deuteronomy 28:68).

The conclusion of “Moses’ Third Discourse”—our appointed reading—summarizes the two diverging paths God’s people face. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). Even though the choice is clear and available, the Deuteronomist relies on a strong Wisdom tradition (a kind of “sophic hortatory imperative”) to call on everyone, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19b-20). It is as if the covenant promise pulls the people forward into the power of blessing.

While the language of blessing and curse may seem strange to us, their reality is not. For example, the psychologist, Erik Erikson sees the characteristic developmental challenge defining adulthood as the tension between “generativity”—using one’s gifts to care for the earth and each other—and “stagnation”—living as “one’s own only child” focused on self (cf. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed, New York: Norton, 1982). These psychological terms certainly remind us strongly of “blessing” and “curse.”

Seen more broadly, the whole panoply of reports describing the environmental crisis contain more than a little suggestion of “curse.” When we read about the need for Charleston, West Virginia, residents to use only bottled water because of a chemical spill, we cannot help thinking of “curse.” The recent spate of fires on freight trains carrying oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken Play” unveils a new kind of inferno-like consequence for our desire to extract oil at any cost. When we consider these consequences, we can understand why Philip Sherrard suggests that we look more closely at the basic technological environment we “swim” in. “There is . . . a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanized as our own, and this is that we can exist only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment” (Philip Sherrard, The Eclipse of Man and Nature, West Stockbridge, MA: Lindisfarne, 1987, pp. 70-71).

Confronted with a Corinthian community that is rapidly falling into factionalism, Paul employs a somewhat different dichotomy than blessing and curse—that of “flesh” and “spirit.” This should in no way be taken to devalue that which is created. Rather, Paul uses the term “flesh” to uncover the pretense that some in the community are “spiritual superstars.” What makes Paul confident of his assessment? “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving according to human inclinations?” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Being “of the flesh” means living with the self-assertion that becomes more important than God’s gift of unity (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 48).

But there is a way to “spiritual” unity that is described very concretely. Because the community, in fact, belongs to God (1 Corinthians 3:21-23), the way toward reconciliation is a matter of finding each one’s role within it. Using the familiar image of a garden, Paul writes, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7.  Not only do they now have a “common purpose,” but, in fact, the literal translation of v. 8 is “they are one.” This is simply the end of factionalism.

It is significant that this garden metaphor is used to promote healing imagination. As factional leaders and members begin to think of themselves as “working together” (v. 9– literally, synergoi, the root of “synergy”), they embark in a creation-connected project that is amazingly “synergistic.”  For example, corn kernels produce up to 200 ‘seeds’ apiece. Sunflower seeds multiply by a factor of 50, while lentils only multiply by a factor of 30. Even though gardening here is “only” a metaphor (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 73), the tremendous “increase” that may occur in growing things together suggests a kind of blessing that provides hope not only for the Corinthian assembly, but also for those called to creation care.

For God’s earth is divided into an almost incomprehensible array of “factions” when it comes to commitment to care for the earth. To adopt a version of Paul’s call to unity, where each person relinquished narrower interests in favor of the health of the whole, would be, at minimum, a kind of “spiritual breakthrough” that could hardly help bringing “blessing” to this earth and all its creatures.

If Corinthians believers were tempted to see themselves as “spiritual superheroes,” this week’s text from the Sermon on the Mount provides an antidote. In this section outlining the relationship between this new creation community and the torah, Jesus demonstrates how the law is fulfilled through finding its intention. At the heart of this section is the realization that both the new community and all of creation are made up of relationships that must be nurtured.

This can be seen in Jesus’ reconsideration of murder (Matthew 5:21-22) If vital relationships are to be maintained, murder must be stopped at its source—anger, insult and slander. Much the same could be said of the “lust” (Matthew 5:28). These are quite clearly both behaviors that betray insecurity that call for a deeper foundation of relationship.

Of course, one might argue that “swearing oaths” moves toward finding a firmer base for safety—the appeal to God to undergird messages. But as Carter reveals: “The practice, intended to guarantee reliable human communication and trustworthy relationships, ironically undermined them through evasive or deceptive uses of oaths and by creation a category of potentially unreliable communication not guaranteed by oaths” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 149)

Even though oath-taking is not as prevalent in current public communication, much the same thing occurs when statements are legitimated by appeals to “scientific ‘fact.’” Here science takes the place of the divine as a source of legitimacy. For example, a series of radio programs in the late 1940’s featured ads for R. J. Reynolds’ Camel cigarettes that claimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” This was allegedly based on a survey of 113,597 physicians!  Journalists did find, however, that those few doctors that were contacted had, the week before, all received complimentary cartons of Camels (Martha N. Gardner, “The Doctors’ Choice is America’s Choice,” American Journal of Public Health, Feb. 2006, p. 223). Of course, much the same misuse of “scientific oaths” has gone on among so-called “experts” casting doubt on the effects of greenhouse gases on climate change.

The solution is “Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’”—a call to simple truth telling that requires profound security, security that often comes from a strong sense of belonging to a community and a basic trust in creation. Perhaps this comes most powerfully in the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus’ teaching about prayer: addressing God as “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9) and asking with confidence for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Not only does this provide the courage “not to worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:25-34), but it sends us back to durable worship forms from more than 50 years ago: “Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 124:8).

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

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (January 28 – February 3) in Year A (Ormseth)

Empowered in God’s love for the creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Micah 6 and the beatitudes of Matthew 5.

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

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

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

“Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:2).   The prophet’s evocation of mountains and “enduring foundations of the earth” in the opening verses of our first reading this Sunday invites consideration of the texts for the day as material for the quest for what Larry Rasmussen calls an “Earth-honoring Faith.” (Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). With his metaphor of a trial in which God contends with God’s people, the prophet couples testimony concerning God’s works on behalf of Israel to the judgment of the mountains and the earth’s very foundations.  The significance of this linkage of God’s testimony and the mountains’ judgment lies deeper than mere rhetorical device, however.  The passage is one of three texts that Walter Brueggemann cites in an exposition of Jahweh’s “righteousnesses.” Following Paul Ricoeur, Brueggeman argues that the “matrix of trial-witness-testimony” provides a powerful perspective on the theology of the Hebrew bible.  Memories of past events are “all now regarded as acts of transformation wrought by Yahweh on behalf of Israel, all making it possible for Israel to have a chance of well-being in the world” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament:  Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp.131-32).  In its worship of Jahweh, Brueggemann writes,

“Israel engaged the great memories of its core testimony in which the God of Israel’s most elemental testimony is taken with definitional seriousness in the present.  That core testimony includes both Yahweh as the One who intrudes into Israel’s public experience in dramatic ways, and Yahweh as the One who sanctions and maintains Israel’s life-giving home of creation” (p. 679).

Here is faith, then, that honors the earth, even as it honors Earth’s Creator.  It is worth noting that according to Micah’s oracle, such well-being is not merely a matter of acquiring great wealth.  The cultic sacrifice of “thousand of rams’ and ten thousands of rivers of oil,”  which would presuppose such wealth, is not what God seeks from God’s people.  What God requires, and not just of Israel, but of all humans (“O mortal,” adam,) is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:8).  “It belongs to the character of the human creature, ” Brueggemann concludes with respect to the relationship of humans to the creation, that humanness means to hear and obey the elemental, world-defining, world-sustaining, world-ordering will of Jahweh for justice and holiness.

The practice of holiness concerns the disciplined awareness that life is to be ordered with the profound acknowledgment that the core of reality lies outside self and is not given over to human control. . . . The practice of justice, in concrete ways, is the enactment of Yahweh’s sedaqah, whereby the cosmos can be ordered for life, and whereby the human community can be kept viable and generative.

Accordingly, the verbs in Genesis 1 and 2 which authorize humans to “have dominion” over creation “suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures” (Brueggemann, p. 460-61).

Thus the prophet’s oracle does indeed adumbrate an “Earth-honoring faith”, a faith, in Rasmussen’s definition, that “is life-centered, justice-committed, and Earth-honoring, with a moral universe encompassing the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.” And it is the mountains of the prophet’s metaphor that carry this meaning. While the specific mountains which the prophet might have had in mind perhaps include only those from the great narrative of God’s works (the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Moriah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and prominently here in Micah, Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, “up from Egypt”) what renders them trustworthy judges of both human and divine affairs is not limited to such associations. It is in their universal nature that mountains transcend the plain where life is normally lived, and they endure through all generations as well. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols”, so that the mountains’ praise of God “can be itself without our distorting it.” Ideally, their witness can be counted upon to be free of human taint, as Southgate comments: “We should long to hear that praise as the earliest humans heard it, and make space in our lives and our world to ensure that we do” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008p. 114).

Indeed, when approached from the viewpoint of contemporary ecology, “making space” in nature is an essential aspect of what mountains “do.”  A mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic to subtropical and tropical—into a life-giving and sustaining whole that passes through the several ranges and seasons of life. What one learns from reading that ecology is relevant not only to the immediate site under examination, but can be extended to other regions as well, indeed in some aspects to the entire globe.  The measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them, for example, contribute to their understanding of the dynamics of global climate change. Thus to those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the possibilities of well being, in Rasmussen’s phrase,  of “the whole community of life, the biosphere and atmosphere together as the ecosphere.”

Does the mountain which Jesus’ ascends to teach his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel bear such significance?  The linkage of these texts in the lectionary suggests this possibility, and in Warren Carter’s view, the Evangelist appears to recognize this significance of the mountains as well. As Carter notes, the mountain is “a location invested with multiple meanings” in the Gospel.  Jesus’ ministry is in fact a mountain oriented affair: after feeding five thousand Jesus retreats “up the mountain by himself to pray” (14:23);  having passed along the Sea of Galilee, he again ascends “the mountain” where he heals “the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others’ and again feeds a great crowd, this time four thousand (15:29-39); it is “up a high mountain” that Jesus leads Peter, James and John where he “was transfigured before them” (17:1); he initiates the events of his final confrontation with authorities from “the Mount of Olives” (21:1 and 24:3); and it is from “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, that he commissions their great outreach “to all nations” (28:16-20).

Mountains thus signal dimensions of justice, mercy, holiness and universality in Jesus ministry.  Just previous to this ascent to teach, Carter emphasizes, from the mountain “the devil offered Jesus ‘all the kingdoms/empires of the world’,” and by contrast, “on this mountain, Jesus will manifest God’s reign/empire.”  As Jesus recapitulates Moses’ and Israel’s experience, escaping from Egypt (2:15), passing through water (3:13-17), encountering temptation (4:1-11),”  That Jesus now goes “up the mountain” to teach his disciples thus alerts us to the significance of the event: Jesus is to deliver a new law that will be as important for life in the coming kingdom of God as the law given to Moses was for the people of Israel, as they prepared to enter their promised land. Jesus’ followers will appropriately remember this teaching as “the Sermon on the Mount.”

If “the mountain” which Jesus ascends carries the significance of Micah’s “mountains,” as we have suggested, can we hope that the teaching he offers would also provide support for an “Earth-honoring faith?”  We of course cannot expect the teaching to directly address aspects of the environmental crisis of our day;  we seek rather to “interrogate” this particular “past tradition of spirituality,” as Rasmussen puts it, in a reexamination of the “’normative gaze’ that frames and guides feeling and thought alike” (Rasmussen, p. 45).”  Does the teaching “alert us to past pitfalls?”  Does it “illumine our responsibility, offer wellsprings of hope, and generate renewable moral/spiritiual energy for hard seasons ahead?” (Rasmussen, p. 81).

In order to carry out this “interrogation” with respect to not only this Sunday’s Gospel, but those of the following three Sundays which also belong to the Sermon on the Mount, and then the “summit” of the Sunday of the Transfiguration, it will be helpful first to draw out more broadly what Rasmussen means by “Earth-honoring faith” for our time.In his chapter on “The Faith We Seek,” he draws these several insights from the Christian theological tradition, represented preeminently here by Saints Augustine and Ambrose, and Reinhold Niebuhr: such a faith, he writes, not only savors life, but seeks to save life.  It sees in a “redeemed Earth as paradise” an alternative to the false paradise offered by human empires. It regards as fundamental to “common Earthly good” the “’minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.”  Such faith grants “moral citizenship” to all God’s creatures, as key to addressing our denial of empathy for them.  It acknowledges the “species pride and arrogance” of humans that denies the “profound interconnectedness of all life processes and creatures.” It sees that the great imbalances of power in society correlate strongly with the destruction of nature, as one group seeks to exploit nature for the resources to dominate over others. Often more covert than overt, the exercise of such power “nurtures self-delusion” on the part of those who wield it.  Such faith thus recognizes in democracy both the means of checking on “the ever-present imperial impulses in human nature,” but also a source of the delusion of innocence which fails to recognize that imperialism, as it flows from disproportions of power.  It will see in “our present Earth/human relationship” . . the modern/eco-modern version of perhaps the longest-lived and most oppressive ethic of all:  the ethic of master and slaves,” “applied now to other-than-human nature.  As it grasps the core reality that “the Earth belongs to all and all belongs to Earth, which belongs to God,” it will “rightly name the injuries of nature at our hands ‘sin’ and the abuse of power” Matthew will also report that Jesus “went up the mountain” six times, referring to Mt. Zion (Carter, Matthew and the Margins:  A sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York:  Orbis Books, 2000, p. 129-30). (Rasmussen, pp. 80-104). Finally,

Earth-honoring faith lives by grace.  Life is a gift and a sacred trust.  We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it.  It bears its own power, an energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life creates the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus we can ask: Does Jesus’ teaching constitute support for such justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for all creatures? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator?

Warren Carter, whose exegesis of the Sermon we follow here (Matthew and the Margins, pp. 130 –37), proposes that the beatitudes concern “primarily God’s favor for certain human actions and situations (Ps 1:1-2) . . . Beatitudes are directed to the present and future ages.” The nine blessings of the Sermon identify and affirm certain situations and actions as signs of the coming of God’s reign, present or future. They “reassure those who already experience the circumstances or manifest the particular behavior that God’s favor is or will be on them.” Our question, then, is does that favor reflect an awareness of the implications of those circumstances and behaviors, beyond the human, for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and the Earth which it represents?

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus begins. The poor in spirit,” argues Carter, “are those who are economically poor and whose spirits or being are crushed by economic injustice. They can see no hope, but they know the corrosive effect of hopeless poverty. They are described in several psalms as oppressed by the wicked” (Carter, p. 131).  We recognize here the imbalance of concentrated power, which renders “spiritless” those who suffer such deprivations. The issue here is one of totally negative expectations regarding the fulfillment of the promise of well-being, which from time to time dominates the spirit of an individual or community. This is a condition experienced by people who are “without resources and hope, subject to larger forces that seem beyond reach,” but also by their advocates which the powerful in an oppressive political arena refuse to hear. It is, significantly with respect to our concern for care of creation, the condition often experienced in our culture by people who care passionately about Earth and its non-human inhabitants. Their advocacy on behalf of the ‘non-human other’ seems so entirely futile, because the lives of the creatures that are the focus of their concern and love are threatened so relentlessly. The powerful appear so thoroughly indifferent to their fate, maintaining policies that are completely controlled by their own self-interests. The judgment articulated by Carter fits both oppressed humans and dominated nature equally well: “Denied justice, adequate resources, wholeness, and subject to the power of the ruling elite, there is no hope of change. Unless God intervenes” (Carter, p. 132).

Will God intervene? Jesus promises not only that God will, but that God is intervening: the poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is now theirs. The deficit of spirit is made up with the presence of God in the very company of Jesus’ in which they participate. The hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because in their very struggles God is in the process of liberating them.  Indeed, even as they mourn what they have lost to “the destructive impact of imperial powers,” they are lifted out of an oppression that is seen to be against God’s gracious will, and thus should be greatly and deeply mourned. Their mourning is in fact a sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. They mourn because they love, and have suffered the loss of what they love. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, comforts them in their mourning.

While these first two beatitudes thus respond to the spiritual deficit experienced by mourning humans, the next one addresses more squarely their embodied situation in creation, and suggests a course of action to address and remedy their loss. Jesus continues: “Blessed are the meek,” those who give place to others and thus show appropriate respect for their need of that place for their existence, or more precisely in Rasmussen’s careful phrase,  they act to foster that “minimal livability necessary so that [the] individual good’ of every creature can be pursued.” The behavior of “the meek” is an implicitly but nevertheless profoundly “ecological” way of being in community. It is the human analog to the manifold space-creating ecology of the mountain. Indeed, it is what God does in creation. The blessing is appropriate: “they shall inherit the earth.” As Carter insists, ‘this is not to be spiritualized. God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth (Ps 37:10-11).” But neither is this to be limited anthropocentrically. “The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships will end. The earth and its resources belong to God (Gen 1; Ps 24:1).” “humans are to nurture it (Gen 1:28-31) as a basis for a community in which all have access to necessary resources . . . Earth, then, refers not only to the land of Israel but to all of God’s creation” (p. 133).

So also, accordingly, blessed are those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence in the community of creation characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)–they “will be filled.” And, we would add, fulfilled: “for those who show mercy will receive mercy,” not just from God, but reciprocally in a community of practical and active love. The “pure in heart,” humans whose external actions are consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also in relation to non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” as God inhabits these righteous relationships. And, finally, blessed are the makers of peace: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and prosperity”; nor, for that matter, the peace of the American empire with its exhaustive quest to secure resources that now extends out into the cosmos beyond Earth. Rather, the reference is to God’s “cosmic peace in which all things are in just relation with each other and their creator.” Called children of God, the identity of peacemakers is shaped by neither ethnicity nor species-being, but rather by conformity to the self-giving pattern of the triune God.

Which brings us to the final two beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-11). Jesus returns here to the power struggle identified in the first two beatitudes, that of encountering the overwhelming opposition which the forces of the status quo, with “its commitments, power structures, and beneficiaries,” mount against the just and reconciling way of life envisioned in these beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back” warns Carter. But the reward of those persecuted on account of Jesus is, again,  “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” that is, in God’s presence, God’s own righteous response to the faithfulness that such action exhibits. The reviled participate in the “completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire” (Carter, p. 136).  These last two beatitudes thus clearly anticipate Jesus’ own persecution and death, in which, as our second reading from I Corinthians reminds us, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,”  divine “foolishness” that is “wiser than human wisdom,” and holy “weakness” that is “stronger than human strength,”  are manifest in “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”   It is in this power that the restoration of all creation will be accomplished; and to share in this power is to be empowered in God’s love for the creation.

Sunday October 16-22 in Year C

God’s presence and blessing are the source of our care for creation – Tom Mundahl reflects on Jacob wrestling with God and the Parable of the Unjust Judge

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for October 16-22, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4: 5
Luke 18:1-8 

Caring for God’s creation is both a fascinating and a frustrating calling. It is fascinating because of the wealth of experiences it brings. I was awestruck at seeing a “hummingbird moth” drinking from the flowers in our alley garden, flowers that grow on a strip of land that only persistent composting has made viable. Yet, we all have cried, “How long, O Lord,” in frustration over the reaction of our so-called “advanced civilization” to climate change. And, we know how difficult it is to persuade our sisters and brothers in faith that creation care is constitutive of our common identity. Like Jesus’ disciples, we need to learn “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

Our road to understanding begins with Jacob, a character whose resume is full of deep frustration and worry, most of it self-inflicted. Now Jacob is on the road home—back to  the land of promise, back to meet his brother, Esau, whom he has ‘shafted’ more than once. While Jacob has made a variety of plans to make this meeting go as well as possible, at bottom he realizes—for the first time—that it all depends on God. And so Jacob prays with great intensity, a prayer in which he both shares his fear that Esau may kill him, yet casts his trust on the God of promise, who has said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number” (Genesis 32:11-12).

Having entrusted everything to this God, Jacob’s night is filled with wrestling. Brueggemann suggests that much of the power of this story rests in the uncertain identity of the stranger. “To be too certain would reduce the dread intended in the telling . . . . The power of the stranger is as much in his inscrutability as in his strength” (Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p. 267). Yet, given the desperation of Jacob’s prayer, it is most plausible that the hidden one is Yahweh.

While the score of this wrestling match is not available, the outcome is significant. Jacob will not let his adversary go without a blessing. At first, all Jacob receives is a new name, Israel, “the one who strives with God.” In response, Jacob wants to hear the name of this magisterial opponent. This time, he does receive a blessing, something he has been hungering after. “Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel.” (Brueggemann, p. 269)

We see this power in action in the Joseph Saga (Genesis 37-50), where, in spite of the evil intention of brothers, Joseph provides food for a significant Mediterranean population and ensures the continuation of the community of blessing, Israel. Surely, the power of that blessing is available to Israel—”old” and “new”—to care for God’s creation.

Edgar Krentz suggests that the curious parable of “The Unjust Judge,” this week’s Gospel reading, is Jesus’ version of Jacob’s wrestling with God (New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001, p. 236). If that is so, certainly the “wrestlers” and the issues dealt with are quite different.  For, no longer is it the trickster Jacob contending with a numinous combatant in a nearly equal contest. Now, it is a relatively powerless widow seeking justice from a shameless judge. Her best power resource seems to be dogged persistence. In fact, she is so determined that the judge fears that she may ‘blacken his eye’ (Luke 18:5).

The logic of this parable seems to be: if even a shameless judge will give in to this kind of pressure, how much more will God grant justice. Because the parable is framed as a response to those who were tempted to “lose heart” (Luke 18:1), this persistence is commended as a model of faith for the new community. Just as tricky Jacob bore the blessing as the forerunner of Israel, so this tireless widow models the faith of those making the ‘New Exodus’ journey.

Central to the identity of communities formed by the one who blesses is the care of those who have no one to stand up for themselves—widows, orphans, and Earth. In fact, Luke Timothy Johnson claims, “Doing justice for widows becomes shorthand for covenantal loyalty among the prophets” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 269). This is crucial in Luke’s gospel because his eschatological discourse (17:22-37) makes it clear that “the kingdom he (Jesus) proclaims is not yet the end-time” (Johnson, p. 273). Therefore, the durable and resilient faith modeled by this widow in Jesus’ parable will be absolutely necessary.

Perhaps this provides a clue to the final verse of the parable asking, will the Son of Man find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8). We could translate this poignant question to mean: Will this one find ‘widows’ pressing shameless judges for justice? Will this one find faithful people protesting mountaintop removal in West Virginia? Will those seeking divestment of funds supporting destructive oil companies be found actively pressing their case? Will teachers sharing the wonders of creation with children and teaching them to garden be found?

This begins to sound like the exhortation provided in our reading from 2 Timothy: “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” (2 Timothy 4:2). But this persistence must have a basis, or it becomes little more than ‘trying harder,’ or the mantra of the “Little Blue Engine”—“I think I can.”

Ultimately, it must go back to the notion of blessing, like the blessing given to Jacob and the blessing given to the new community formed around the Risen One. We saw in this blessing to Jacob that ” something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel” (Brueggemann, p. 269). “Israel is not formed by success or shrewdness or land, but by an assault from God. Perhaps it is grace, but it is not the kind usually imagined. Jacob is not consulted about his new identity” (Brueggemann, p. 269). Much the same could be said about baptism. It is a gift; it is also a task to be lived out, “walking in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4b)

What is the source of the widow’s persistence, the determination of the blessed Nancy Lund, the late member of Lutheran Church of the Reformation, St. Louis Park, MN, to drive the thirty miles to a Twin Cities area farm and buy 200 dozen brown eggs every week for ten years to donate to the local food shelf and help local agriculture? Or the resolve of Stan Cox of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, to seek ways to cool people without refrigerating vast internal spaces and warming the planet? (see Stan Cox, Losing Our Cool , New York: New Press, 2012). Is it not a sense of blessing that comes from “something of the power of God” entrusted even to us? 

 As we continue to “wrestle” with a new understanding of what God calls us to in caring for creation and each other (as if they could be separated!), it is this sense of presence and blessing ( “Go in peace. Serve the Lord!”) that will drive us on the way together.

 

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

 

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

Sunday July 10 – 16 in Year C (Ormseth)

If we abide in the domain of divine love, care of all God’s creation is indeed within our reach.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Readings for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-10 (4)
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

The Gospel lesson for this Sunday carries forward several themes from the previous two Sundays.  Once more, Jesus and his followers are in the hostile territory of Samaria. Once again, Jesus confronts the cultural and religious competition between Jews and Samaritans. Once more, he is challenged to clarify how the presence of God is brought near in the relationships between people who live in hostile relationships with each other. Once more, actually with climactic emphasis this time, we are called to “love the neighbor,” indeed, on this occasion, with central emphasis on the command “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27). Given this continuity, we might well expect that the readings should firmly underscore the learnings regarding care of creation we have developed those two previous Sundays.

There is one difficulty, however: the concept of the Kingdom of God is not specifically referenced here, rendering unavailable the eco-friendly translation of it as Great Economy that was crucial for our reading of those texts. Indeed, the topic introduced by the lawyer’s question seems to lead us in quite a different direction: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Accustomed as we are to hearing in this question an individual’s spiritual quest for salvation, we might expect to be disappointed with respect to our concern for creation.

That expectation is unfounded, of course. When the lawyer asks about “inheriting eternal life,” we notice, Jesus immediately redirects the question to the Torah and its greatest commandment. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes, however, the Torah does not actually provide an answer to that precise question (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 173). Its main concern, as our first reading amply reminds us, is rather with the inheritance of the land and the life of the people there—“the Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (Deuteronomy 30:9)—and with the very presence of God as mediated through the Torah—the “word” that “is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart and for you to observe” (30:14). As Walter Breuggemann comments with reference to this passage in his discussion of Torah as  mediator of God’s presence, “Moses, the giver of Torah from Mount Sinai, provides both the commands of Yahweh that Israel is capable of obeying (Deut. 30;11-14) and the provisions of Yahweh wherein Israel may host the holy and enjoy God’s presence (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 583).

While those provisions normally have to do explicitly with Israel’s worship practices, there is also a profound sense in which Torah itself becomes the means of that communion. The completed Torah, Breuggemann argues, is “not simply a set of commands that determined the conditions of Israel’s existence,” as Christians are often inclined to see it. “[I]t is also a rich, dense field of imagination in which Israel is free to receive its life, playfully, as the people of God” (Theology, p. 590). As  the people turned to Torah as a source of guidance and instruction (note that the Psalm appointed for this Sunday is “a Prayer for Guidance and for Deliverance”; NRSV, The Green Bible, p. 529) it was . . .no longer simply the revelation of Sinai; Torah is now drawn more centrally into the large, wondrous realm of all of creation. The Torah is, for that, no less Israelite, but now it comprehends all the gifts and offers of life from Yahweh, which are everywhere signaled in the life of the world and in the experience of Judaism in a gentile world. Torah becomes, in this later venturesome development, a Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world. Thus, in Sirach 24, wisdom is food that nourishes (vv. 19-22) and water that sustains (vv. 25-31). That is, Torah is the very gift of life from Yahweh that permeates the world.  And Israel, in its Mosaic stance, are the people who are first of all invited to “choose life” (Theology, pp. 592-93).

Put differently, “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.” As such, Breuggemann insists, this practice 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” (Theology, p. 599).

The exchange between the lawyer and Jesus about “eternal life,” it seems to us, is an instance of such “Yahweh-oriented pondering of and engagement with the life that is everywhere available in Yahweh’s world.” In the company of the new Moses, the lawyer is prompted to explore whether Jesus knows not only about living according to the commandments, but also about living in the presence of God. Luke’s use of the term “eternal life,” which is relatively frequent in comparison with the other gospels, serves here to widen the circle of “inheritance” to the cosmic expanse of God’s own presence within the creation. What was a local conflict in the previous two Sunday’s gospels, albeit a conflict transcended in Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, leads here to a question of universal applicability, namely, the lawyer’s question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:15). And appropriate to the scope of that question, Jesus’ answer to him is presented in, as Johnson aptly describes it, “one of the most beautiful of all the Gospel parables, the moral tale (unique to Luke’s composition) of the compassionate Samaritan” (Johnson, p. 175). The exchange is about the full domain of God, after all!

We will return to this expansive concern for life below, to consider its implications for care of creation. The details of the parable itself merit our attention, however, on the way to that discussion. The tale is highly provocative, Johnson notes; we are shocked on three levels. First, [t]he violence done to the traveling Judean is overt: he is stripped, beaten, left half dead. This is not a sentimental tale. Second, a deeper level of shock, however, is the recognition that Jews esteemed for their place in the people and dedicated to holiness before the Lord would allow considerations of personal safety or even concern for ritual purity (a corpse defiled) to justify their not even crossing the road to look. They “pass by on the other side.” If love for neighbor meant anything, it meant to care for the “sons of your own people.” But they cannot be bothered. A third shock is the discovery that a despised Samaritan, himself most at risk in this dangerous no man’s land of deserted territory, takes the chance of stopping, looking, and—increasing his own vulnerability—leading the man on his beast to an inn. It is the hated enemy who is the hero with a human heart (Johnson, p. 175).

We underscore: the graphic violence of the parable mirrors the possible consequences of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans, or for that matter, any other peoples in cultural and religious conflict. Furthermore, whether for reasons of ritual purity (symbolizing love of God through holiness) or “love of self” (manifest in self-concern for personal safety) persons expected to represent the presence of God in the land fail to keep the commandment. The Samaritan, on the other hand, risks much: not at home in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Jericho, he nevertheless spares no expense—oil, wine, shelter, time (two days! and more later) and remuneration for the innkeeper’s care. Why? Because he “felt compassion” for him, “the emotion attributed to Jesus in 7:13,” Johnson notes. This sets up Jesus’ stunning reversal of the lawyer’s question: as Johnson puts it, “Jesus reverses the question from one of legal obligation (who deserves my love) to one of gift-giving (to whom can I show myself neighbor); and of this the despised Samaritan is the moral exemplar!” (Johnson, p. 173). The point, Johnson concludes is not who deserves to be cared for, but rather the demand to become a person who treats everyone encountered—however frightening, alien, naked or defenseless—with compassion: “you go and do the same.” Jesus does not clarify a point of law, but transmutes law to gospel. One must take the same risks with one’s life and possessions that the Samaritan did. One must, that is, if one wants to participate in the presence of God within the creation, and to share in God’s love for that creation.

If, as we suggested above, the exchange between the lawyer and Jesus, taken as a whole under the rubric of the quest for “eternal life,” is a demonstration of the  extension of the practice of Torah into all of creation, then the parable is an illustration of how that extension is to take place: not by holy people safeguarding holy things, not by the self-interested concern that seeks safety and well-being only for one’s own, an orientation to life which results in an incessant competition between peoples for the blessings of life, but by the risking of self and all that one holds holy, for the sake of another, action inspired and driven by compassion to care for the other, that is a mark of living in the eternal presence of God.

It was an extension unthinkable for the times, from Jewish neighbor (“sons of your own people”) to anyone in need of mercy whom the Jewish lawyer might encounter; and then surely as the  Christian community spreads out throughout the Roman Empire more fully—always on Luke’s agenda, from Jews and Samaritans to gentile pagans, caught up in their own quest for dominance. The need for this extension never ceases; and the impulse of compassion is also never exhausted. But in our time of ecological disaster, the challenge of extension clearly concerns our relationship not only with our human neighbors, those present now and those to inhabit the earth in the future, but our other-kind neighbors as well. They, too, lie brutalized in the ditch; and, without immediate aid, they will perish from the earth. Will the religious communities of the world also “pass by on the other side”? Or will we be inspired by the compassion of our God and Lord Jesus Christ to have compassion and do what it takes to restore them?

In his provocative essay on “Kenosis and Nature,” Holms Rolston argues that humans have the capacity beyond actualizing of self “to see others, to oversee a world.” This is “an exciting difference between humans and nonhumans,” in that. . . while animals and plants can defend only their own lives, with their offspring and kind, humans can defend life with vision of greater scope. They can sacrifice themselves for the good of humans yet unborn or, on the other side of the globe, the entire human community. Humans can also care for the biotic communities with which they share this planet; they can care for their biosphere. Here we recognize a difference crucial for understanding the human possibilities in the world. Humans can be genuine altruists; this begins when they recognize the claims of other humans, whether or not such claims are compatible with their own self-interest. The evolution of altruism and the possibility of kenosis is complete only when humans can recognize the claims of nonhumans (In The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, edited by John Polkinghorne. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001; p. 64).

The hazard of modern human culture is that our habit of managing nature tends mainly to escalate our “inherited desires for self-actualizing, tempted now into self-aggrandizement on scales never before possible,” now that we “are no longer checked by the long-standing ecological and evolutionary forces in which [we] have so long resided” (Rolston, p. 64-65). Our texts offer a clear alternative beyond this conundrum: love of neighbor as of self, which immerses us in the compassionate love of God which empowers love of the other. As our first reading assures us, that love is as close to us as the word of Torah and the word of the Christian gospel, which, is ‘”very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Wherever we are, whomever we are, we abide in the domain of divine love, the Kingdom of God; in Christ, we inherit eternal life. If so, care of all God’s creation is indeed within our reach.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday July 3 – 9 in Year C (Ormseth)

The kingdom calls for down-to-earth benefits for the entire community.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Readings for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 66:10–14
Psalm 66:1–9 (4)
Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16
Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

This Sunday’s scriptures provide a basis for extending our reflections from the previous Sunday on the concept of the Kingdom of God as an ecologically sustainable Great Economy. Wendell Berry’s translation of the Kingdom as Great Economy, we saw, envisions a realm inclusive of all things, in which everything is in principle “joined both to it and to everything else that is in it,” an order “that is both greater and more intricate than we can know.” We participate in this economy whether we acknowledge it or not, but certain behaviors, especially the competitiveness that is the foundational dynamic of our capitalistic economy, are antithetical to an order that offers “a membership of parts inextricable joined to each other, indebted to each other, receiving significance and worth from each other and from the whole.” Those economies that presume upon this membership or violate it need to expect that “severe penalties” will be exacted; in terms of modern environmental discourse, they are not sustainable and will result, in due course, in ecological disruption and even collapse.

Jesus’ words and action as he turned his face toward Jerusalem embodied a principled refusal to engage in a culture of competition dominant in his time. A church seeking to model an ecologically sustainable economy in the face of our environmental crisis will heed his example by promoting activities that demonstrate ecologically sustainable membership in its neighborhood. Love of neighbor is a major theme of this section of Luke (and the explicit message of next Sunday’s Gospel); as we noted in last week’s comment, quoting Berry, “the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and oneself as neighbor within it.”

Thus, when Jesus sends the “seventy” to go out into the harvest of the Kingdom in this Sunday’s Gospel, we understand that his followers are thrust into an arena of heightened “competitiveness” that has the potential to explode at any time in violence. They are, as Jesus tells them, “like lambs” sent “into the midst of wolves.” His instruction to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” might signal an obvious display of poverty that would forestall wayside robbery; so also the instruction to “greet no one on the road” would prevent unwanted provocation. On the other hand, the guidance concerning purse, bag, and sandals could signal the intention to create a condition of dependence upon those who welcomed them into their homes; and Jesus’ further instruction to “remain in the same house,” leads us to suggest that these emissaries are to enter into the economy of that village “eating and drinking whatever they provide,” for they are “laborers who deserve to be paid” (10:7). Moreover, they are also to engage in “curing the sick”; and the report of the seventy evokes from Jesus an acknowledgment of their success. We are reminded of the earlier freeing of the Gerasene demoniac from the destructive “spirituality of the people” (the phrase is from Walter Wink; see our comment in this series on the readings for the June 19-25 Sunday after Pentecost)Here even the chief demon, Satan, falls down in defeat.

By virtue of these behaviors, we are given to understand, the hosts might see that “the Kingdom of God has come near.” Their purpose is to embody the “peace” of the Kingdom that is the first word of the guests to their hosts. But this is no merely “spiritual” peace. Especially when read alongside Isaiah 66, we are reminded that as Moses once before chose seventy to provide for Israel’s welfare in the wilderness, so this new prophet “generates a world of blessing where none seemed possible,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it in a comment on our Old Testament lesson. Jesus “is perceived to be doing what Yahweh characteristically does,” transforming “situations of threat and distress into livable circumstances, wherein Israel surprisingly experiences joy and well-being.” The results of the actions of the seventy portend an astonishing transformation of cosmic import, bearing witness “to Yahweh’s capacity to bring life and fruitfulness out of circumstances of chaos and conditions of barrenness” (Walter Brueggeman, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997; pp. 204-205). Appropriately, Jesus’ blessing quickly follows: “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings desire to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it” (verses 23-24, not included in the assigned reading).

“Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth,” reads the expansive psalm for this Sunday, and the congregation will understand in this interpretation of our readings the grounds on which such all-inclusive praise is warranted. “All the earth worships” Yahweh in response to this narrative, because we have to do here with the God who “turned sea into dry land” to provide not only safety in the Exodus from Egypt, but land, the “spacious place” in which they dwell (Psalm 66: 1, 4, and 12). But let the congregation also be mindful of the possible power of their witness to their faith in this God, in such appropriate demonstrations as they can mount of their vision of the Kingdom that is also a truly “great” and accordingly fully sustainable Economy. As Paul’s letter to the Galatians reminds us, “God is not mocked, for you reap what you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.” Again, the words might suggest preoccupation with the Kingdom of God as heavenly realm; but this is not so. The Apostle’s counsel is for behavior that holds out the possibility of genuine down-to-earth benefit for the entire community of which we are members: “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” With the congregation at Galatia, we are to step out beyond the religious competition to curry God’s favor and enter “a new creation” (6:15), the sustainable harvest of the Great Economy.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday June 12 – 18 in Year C (Ormseth)

We must acknowledge that God is present in, with, and under all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C
by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

2 Samuel 11:26—12:10; 12:13–15
Psalm 32 (5)
Galatians 2:15–21
Luke 7:36—8:3

A noticeable lack of discussion of the concept of forgiveness of sin in works of ecological theology implies an irrelevance of this Sunday’s readings to care of creation, since forgiveness of sin is the theme that binds these readings together. While all theological loci clearly cannot be made relevant to our concern for care of creation, this lack is troublesome in view of the fact that for those traditions in which the forgiveness of sins is the defining issue of spiritual life, the Lutheran tradition obviously among them, care of creation easily falls into place as only one among many issues with respect to which the forgiven person might exercise their “faith active in love.” Our aim in this comment is to challenge this appearance of “irrelevance.”

Emphasis on the reality of personal faith as the basis for forgiveness of sins typically focuses on the relationship between the individual and Jesus or God. So here in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, one might focus on Jesus’ word to the woman “Your sins are forgiven” as his response to her faith, faith that is expressed in her extravagant acts of hospitality. David Tiede, for example, uses Luke’s contrast between the woman’s actions and those of his host and the others at table to show how the encounter reveals both her faith and his lack of faith in this “prophet.” Tiede avoids the trap of the “debate about whether her forgiveness was a ‘result’ of her faith or her love was a sign of her previous forgiveness” as a “scholastic confusion of the story.” Nonetheless, he wants to assure his readers that “the ‘loving” and “forgiving” that occur in the encounter “are all bound up in the kind of trust in Jesus which is truly saving,” and that her “implicit faith” in him “does not wait for the word of forgiveness (v.48) before displaying an extravagant love” (David Tiede, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 161).

What such interpretation generally leaves out of consideration is the impact of the conflict over her actions on the occasion in which they are all engaged, the banquet sponsored by Simon the Pharisee. With regard to this meal, we might ask, what exactly about her faith and Jesus’ response is “saving”? Over against the faith, or lack thereof, on the part of the Pharisee and his company—also implicit—the exchange is, at least in the first instance, seriously disruptive. It exposes the deep rift that divides those gathered. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, the event fulfills the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35 that Jesus would reveal “the inner thoughts of many:” “That a prophet can see the heart is axiomatic (see John 4:19). The irony here is not only that Jesus does know the woman’s heart, but also shows that he can read Simon’s thoughts!”  And those thoughts, we might observe, have as much to do with the significance of the meal as they do with whether or not Jesus is God’s prophet.

Indeed, the significance of the occasion of the meal and Jesus’ identity are two aspects of the larger question, one embedded in the narrative, of who is acceptable to God. As Tiede points out, questions about table fellowship

. . . are important to both Jesus and the Pharisees. As will become even more crucial in 14:1–15:3, the discussions about banquet etiquette are fundamentally about who is acceptable to God. Who are the “elect” on the guest list of the messianic banquet? The tension in the story over the behavior of the woman and Jesus is more than the violation of propriety, as if that were not enough. The separation of the elect from the sinners of the world is challenged by this “prophet” who knows full well what kind of woman is touching him (Tiede, p. 160).

Concern for faith gives priority to the woman’s acceptance of Jesus. As Johnson points out, “in the sinful woman we recognize again a member of the outcast poor, rejected by the religious elite as an untouchable, but like the poor throughout this Gospel, showing by her acts of hospitality that she accepts the prophet Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota:  The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 129). At the same time, however, in Jesus’ act of forgiving her sins, we see God’s acceptance of her, an acceptance which so startles those at table as to provoke them into wondering about Jesus’ identity.

In contrast to the woman, as Johnson also notes, “the Pharisee invites Jesus to table, but violates all the rules of hospitality, and thereby shows (as he does also by his thoughts) that he does not accept Jesus as God’s prophet.” Nevertheless, we further note, “those who were at table with [Jesus] began to ask among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’” (7:49). The import of the question will be recognized by the reader of Luke’s Gospel, who at 5:17-26 would have encountered an earlier exchange concerning the power to forgive sins, also with “Pharisees and teachers of the law,” in connection with the healing of a paralytic. “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?” the Pharisees ask. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” To which in response Jesus asserts his “authority on earth to forgive sins” as Son of Man.  Whatever the specific meaning of the title “Son of Man” has for Luke—an issue the complexity of which prohibits our discussion of it here—the irony of the exchange cannot be missed, nor will it surprise a Christian assembly that it occurs in Luke within the context of a meal. God’s presence in Jesus, characterized here by Luke in terms of his role as prophet, is what affords the woman’s awareness of being forgiven her sins. Participants in Christian assemblies gathered around the table of the Lord will recognize themselves in her, even as they acknowledge the presence of God in Jesus, and his authority to forgive not only her sins, but theirs.

It is worth noting that a similar dynamic is involved in the accompanying two lessons. The prophet Nathan speaks the word of God to David, first to uncover his sin by means of the  parable of corrupted hospitality of the rich man, but then also more directly in the voice of God to assure David of the forgiveness of his sin. God is present in and through the action of the prophet. So also in the controversy reflected in our second reading from Galatians. Again the question is, who is acceptable to God, as manifest in shared meals: those who do works of the law or those who have come to believe in Christ Jesus? In Paul’s view, it is those who have faith. It can’t be those who do works of the law because “no one will be justified by the works of the law.” Those “acceptable to God” are instead those in whom Christ lives by of virtue their faith in the Son of God, “who loves them and gives himself for them” (Galatians 2:20). Again it is the presence of God in and through faith in Jesus that makes the person of faith acceptable in the company of God’s people. Though lived “in the flesh,” such a life is clearly lived in the presence of God (Galatians 2:19-20).

The significance of the exchange in the Gospel for care of creation comes into view in light of further consideration of Simon’s “thoughts of the heart,” namely the criteria by which Simon and the Pharisees would have judged her presence at the meal as unacceptable. In the background of the Pharisee’s concern is the Levitical principle of unclean touch, according to which “when you touch human uncleanness—any uncleanness by which one can become unclean—and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall be guilty” (Leviticus 5:3). Jesus knows that in Simon’s mind, he has indeed transgressed on this principle; as Luke emphasizes in vivid detail, he has allowed her to touch him: “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment” (Luke 7:38). On the other hand, in Simon’s view, if Jesus was aware of the woman’s uncleanness, as he would be if he is God’s prophet, he as according to this understanding himself become unclean and therefore unacceptable to God until he has participated in the temple ritual of atonement (Leviticus 5:5-6). We are reminded that central to the faith of ancient Israel was their access to God in the temple. As Walter Brueggeman puts it, in the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant, Yahweh had astonishingly provided “a vehicle whereby Israel’s sin is regularly and effectively overcome, both to make Yahweh’s presence possible in Israel and to make communion between Yahweh and Israel possible.” (Brueggeman,Theology of the Old Testament, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997; p. 666.). But equally astonishing, Luke’s claim in this narrative is that in the person of Jesus God has now done the same thing for the world beyond privileged access to the temple, where a woman such as came to their meal could not go. Here is the sharp division of the house that pervades the text: In Simon’s view, the touch initiated by the woman’s washing of Jesus’ feet, kissing and anointing them with oil is a source of contamination. In Jesus’ view, on the contrary, the woman’s touch is an expression of her trust in him, and her actions were an expression of her joy of being in the company of God. Such joy as is expressed in Psalm 32, appointed for this Sunday’s worship.

Which is it, here at this meal? Whose perception of what happens is correct? By what criteria would one come to a decision? Or is the reality perhaps only a matter of perception, that of Simon and his friends over against that Jesus and the woman? Is the distinction perhaps finally a matter of a purely subjective “faith,” and not reality? How does one tell? Answers to these questions, it strikes us, are relevant to both the relationship between members of the human community and the larger community of creation, otherkind as well as humankind. If such human touch would render Jesus himself unclean, and indeed threaten the purity of the entire company, it is important to note that also other kinds of touch could be a source of uncleanness as well, “any uncleanness by which one can become unclean,” as specified in Leviticus 5:2: “when any of you touch any unclean thing–whether the carcass of an unclean beast or the carcass of unclean livestock or the carcass of an unclean swarming thing–and are unaware of it, you have become unclean, and are guilty.” What Jesus has run up against in this meal, in short, is the notion that things in creation, whether human or other kind, can be divided into clean and unclean. Contact with them can accordingly also either contaminate or purify. Which it is rides, by analogy with the corruption of human relationships, upon whether God is truly present in and through the actions and the elements involved in those actions, here the woman’s tears and her alabaster jar of ointment:  If God is present to the situation, there cannot be a contamination; if God is not present, there can. How then, lacking the weighty power of sacred space and covenantal tradition attached to the temple, are we to decide the question?

In our comment on last Sunday’s readings, we discussed a principle that is at least the beginning of an answer in the pattern manifest in the life of the people involved in our readings: It is the pattern discerned in last Sunday’s readings, the “drama of brokenness and restoration, which has Yahweh as its key agent,” and which “features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life.” The pattern is that which the Apostle Paul identifies both with Jesus’ life and his own that of death to sin and resurrection to new life (Galatians 19:20). It is the pattern which, as Walter Brueggeman observes, is also the pattern that the Christian church claims for itself, albeit too often in supercessionist mode, in its view that Jesus is God’s new “sacrifice of atonement” (Romans 3:25), whereby alienation is overcome  And it is finally the pattern encountered by a Christian congregation at worship in the presence of its risen Lord  and placing itself under the authority and within the sacramentally enacted dynamic of his death and resurrection, which, in Brueggeman’s apt summary, “like ancient Israel, affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair” (Brueggemann, p. 563).

Within this pattern, the forgiveness of sins is significant as that moment in the relationship between God and people when, as Psalm 32 indicates, the community, through its leaders, acknowledges “its communal pathologies,” without which acknowledgment “healing is impossible and death comes” (Brueggemann, p. 254; cf. our comment on the readings for last Sunday for a fuller development of this theme). The point to emphasize here, however, is that the pattern applies to the relationship both between people and between people and all God’s creation, a coupling that regularly takes place when we are at table with Jesus in worship. Our incredible communal pathologies in relationship to God’s creation cannot be truly and fully healed apart from full acknowledgment that God is present in, with, and under all creation.

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday June 5 – 11 in Year C (Ormseth)

“Generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair.”

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11-24
Luke 7:11-17

The continuity of this Sunday’s gospel with the reading for last Sunday serves to underscore the significance of the affirmations regarding divine authority of Jesus and the healing of creation we presented in last week’s comment. To reiterate: The purpose of these stories of healing and resuscitation is to manifest the presence of God in Jesus, a presence which brings healing not only for the centurion’s servant and the widow’s son, but to the community. “Here self-interest, care for others and “faith” merge in an alliance that transcends barriers of culture and power and promotes the common good of all parties.” Jesus’ resuscitation of the widow of Nain’s son amplifies the recognition of divine authority and leads directly to the acclamation of Jesus as “great prophet” and the glorification of God by all the people. And while the lessons and the psalm for last Sunday provided a basis for developing the significance of these events for the whole community of creation, this Sunday’s lessons and psalm extend and deepen their significance for addressing the current ecological crisis.

It is important to note that in these two encounters, Jesus demonstrates divine power over death. The centurion’s servant was said to be “ill and close to death” (Luke 7:2). The widow’s “only son” was already dead and was being carried out on a bier. As David Tiede observes, the raising of the widow’s son is “one of three Lukan stories of the resuscitation of a dead person (see also 8:40-42, 49-56, Jairus’ daughter; Acts 9;36-43, Tabitha),” which “indicate the evangelist’s conviction that these resuscitations are displays of the authority and power of the kingdom [of God] over death itself (see 12:5).” Moreover, comparison with our first lesson in this regard shows that Jesus’ authority over death is even greater than that of Elijah: he raises ‘the dead by his word alone,” which ‘outdoes Elijah’s or Elisha’s stretching themselves out on the corpse” (David Tiede, Luke.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; pp. 151-52). The God we encounter in Jesus is the God who creates by speaking all things into being.

It is precisely this authority over death of the Creator that explains the appointment of Psalm 30 for this Sunday’s worship. God’s presence in Jesus is thereby acknowledged as the power by which the psalmist is not only shielded from foes (v. 1) and healed (v. 2), but “restored . . . to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (v. 3).” The psalmist has cried out in deep anguish:

What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you?

Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!

   O Lord be my helper” (vv. 9-10.)

The psalmist here represents homo laudans, “the praising human” we discussed in our comment on the readings for the Day of Pentecost, whose vocation according to Psalm 104 is the unceasing praise of the Creator. Like Psalm 104, Psalm 30 significantly shades its praise of God by recognition that “a dark cloud looms on the horizon.” Accordingly, his rescue can “turn mourning into dancing;” Yahweh has “taken off [his] sackcloth and clothed [him] with joy, so that [his] soul may praise God and not be silent.”

Walter Brueggemann interprets the significance of these verses in terms of their address to Yahweh. . . in the life-denying fissure of exile-death-impotence-chaos, to which Yahweh’s partners seem inevitably to come. This affirmation may be one of the distinctive surprises of Yahweh as given in Israel’s testimony. To the extent that the fissure is an outcome of Yahweh’s rejecting rage, or to the extent that it is a result of Yahweh’s loss of power in the face of the counterpower of death, we might expect that a loss to nullity is irreversible.  Thus, “when you’re dead, you’re dead,” “when you’re in exile, you’re in exile.”

But the “unsolicited testimony “of Israel moves through and beyond this. . . irreversibility in two stunning affirmations.  First, Yahweh is inclined toward and attentive to those in the nullity.  Yahweh can be reached, summoned, and remobilized for the sake of life.  Beyond Yahweh’s harsh sovereignty, Yahweh has a soft underside to which appeal can be made.  Israel (and we) are regularly astonished that working in tension with Yahweh’s self-regard is Yahweh’s readiness to be engaged with and exposed for the sake of the partner (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997; p. 557).

And secondly, “the mobilization of Yahweh in the season of nullity characteristically requires an act of initiative on the part of the abandoned partner.” This is what the voice of Psalm 30 is articulating. Breuggemann concludes:

Indeed, Israel’s faith is formed, generated, and articulated, precisely with reference to the fissure, which turns out to be the true place of life for Yahweh’s partner and the place wherein Yahweh’s true character is not only disclosed, but perhaps fully formed. The reality of nullity causes a profound renegotiation of Yahweh’s sovereignty vis-a-vis Yahweh’s pathos-filled fidelity.

Yahweh “is known in Israel to be a God willing and able to enact a radical newness . . . for each of Yahweh’s partners, a newness that the partners cannot work for themselves” (Brueggemann, p. 558).

[Lutheran hearers of the second lesson this Sunday, we may note parenthetically, may recognize this quality of radical newness in the Apostle Paul’s clear disassociation with the church in Jerusalem and his insistence that the gospel of Jesus Christ which liberated him from his former life of opposition was not “from a human source, nor was [he] taught it.” Brueggemann heightens the significance of this quality, furthermore, in noting that “because of this inexplicable, unanticipated newness is the same for all [Israel’s] partners, it is with good reason that H. H. Schmid has concluded that creatio ex nihilo, justification by faith, and resurrection of the dead are synonymous phrases.” These phrases, he insists, “are not isolated dogmatic themes. They are, rather, ways in which Yahweh’s characteristic propensities of generosity are made visible in different contexts with different partners (Brueggemann, p. 558).]

It is precisely with respect to this affirmation of radical newness, according to Brueggeman, that the biblical narrative contrasts sharply with the dominant metanarrative available within contemporary culture for those concerned with addressing the ecological crisis. “Insistence on the reality of brokenness,” Brueggemann insightfully suggests, “flies in the face of the Enlightenment practice of denial. Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form, teaches that with enough reason and resources, brokenness can be avoided.” Within this narrative,

. . . there are no genuinely broken people. When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilt. The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this. When denial is transposed into guilt—into personal failure—the system of denial remains intact and uncriticized, in the way Job’s friends defended “the system.”

       The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics—it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility.

Like the psalmist who said in his prosperity “I shall never be moved,” (30:6), the foundational assumptions of our society cannot be challenged. Alternatively, “the drama of brokenness and restoration, which has Yahweh as its key agent, features generosity, candor in brokenness, and resilient hope, the markings of a viable life. The primary alternative now available to us features scarcity, denial, and despair, surely the ingredients of nihilism.” (Brueggemann, p. 562).

This analysis fits all too well with the inability of American society and, increasingly, global industrial society more generally to respond effectively to the multifaceted ecological crisis we face. Denial occurs, in this analysis, on three levels. First and fundamental, we refuse to entertain the possibility of a complete collapse of our relationship with nature, in terms of the destruction of biodiversity and global climate change and its damage to our agricultural systems. But secondly, amongst those who see the dangers, remedies of technological innovation and adaptation are usually considered sufficient to address the problem: strategies and resources, it is assumed, can be developed to forestall major disaster. And thirdly, the needed behavioral change is considered achievable on the basis of corporate self-interest and individual guilt in relationship to that interest; it seems important to assign fault to individuals who resist change, but our corporate complicity in alienation from creation is generally ignored. Change on a societal scale remains beyond our cultural and political reach. In this situation, a Christian congregation at worship in the presence of its risen Lord and placing itself under the authority and within the sacramentally enacted dynamic of his death and resurrection, offers the world the alternative that, in Brueggeman’s apt summary, “like ancient Israel, affirms generosity over scarcity, brokenness in the face of denial, and hope in the place of despair” Brueggemann, p. 563)

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

Sunday May 29 – June 4 in Year C (Ormseth)

Join all the Earth in a new song to the Lord.  

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-9 (3)
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

The encounter in Capernaum portrayed in the Gospel for this Sunday is a model of communal interaction. The Roman centurion has a desperate need for healing of his beloved but ailing servant, on account of which he is willing to seek the help, not only of the elders in the Jewish community whom he has patronized with support for the building of their synagogue, but also of the itinerant teacher who has newly entered the city. The elders support his plea, commending it as a proper return for the “worthy” centurion’s generosity; as David Tiede notes, “Luke depicts this officer as a genuine friend of Israel” (Luke. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988; p. 149). Surprisingly, however, the centurion sends additional emissaries, “friends” whose task is to make clear that the centurion did not base his plea on that worthiness. On the contrary, he declares himself as “not worthy” to have Jesus come to him, and proposes instead that Jesus, as a person like himself, “under authority,” need only speak the word and the servant would be made well. Tiede insightfully explains: “The episode now escalates into a story of the ability of someone who deals in authority all the time to discern real authority when he sees it, even if he has only heard about Jesus from afar” (Tiede, p. 150). And just so: Jesus in turn escalates the exchange yet another step, astonishingly praising the centurion for faith the likes of which he has not encountered “even in Israel.”

Can the reader be blamed for being puzzled by the course of this exchange? What, exactly, is “such faith”?  Again, Tiede offers a helpful explanation: “The faith of the centurion is a discernment of Jesus’ authority and an implicit trust in it” (Tiede, p. 150). We are moved to ask, then, what precisely is the nature of that authority and why should the centurion, or more to the point, Luke’s readers, including ourselves, place trust in it? Luke’s own answer follows later in the chapter, after a second story of resuscitation: “Fear seized all of them,” he writes, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’  and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” (8: 16). Clearly, the purpose of the story is to manifest the presence of God in Jesus, a presence which brings healing, to be sure, but not only for the centurion’s servant. Here self-interest, care for others, and “faith” merge in an alliance that transcends barriers of culture and power and promotes the common good of all parties.

What significance might this narrative have for care of creation? Besides confirming the above interpretation, the accompanying readings for this Sunday provide a basis for developing that concern. While scholars point to other interpretive antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures such as the resuscitation performed by Elijah and the healing of Naaman the leper by Elisha, our first reading suggests the relevance of an alternative framework: Solomon’s prayer of dedication in the temple. He prays that the presence of God be accessible in the temple not only to the people of Israel but to “the foreigner” who “comes from a distant land because of [Yahweh’s] name” (1 Kings 8:41-42). As Walter Brueggemann explains, Solomon claims for Yahweh an incomparability that “begins with reference to ‘heaven above or on earth beneath,’ thus taking in all of creation as witnesses to Yahweh’s enormous power,” but which, with his reference “to covenant and steadfast love,” also emphasizes solidarity (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1997; p. 142). What Solomon prayed for happens in this Sunday’s Gospel narrative, only not in the temple, nor even in Jerusalem. It happens instead in the presence of Jesus, in the Galilean city of Capernaum, bringing together with the Roman centurion both elders of the people and Jesus’ Jewish followers. Read in the assembly on this Second Sunday after Pentecost, moreover, it is a first enactment in the Season of the Spirit of the power of the resurrected Jesus in the community of faith, which by Jesus’ intent now embraces not only all peoples, but also all creation.

Why else should the congregation join “all the earth” in a “new song to the Lord”?, as the psalm for the day invites (96:1)? And how else shall God’s glory be declared “among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples?” (96:3). “Worship the Lord in holy splendor,” the psalmist insists; “tremble before him, all the earth.” And the following verses list out the several members of the community of creation:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord; for he is coming,

for he is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world with righteousness,

and the people with his truth (96:11-13, not included in the appointed reading).

The psalm thus clarifies what is at stake in the Capernaum exchange. The declaration of “the glory of Yahweh” in the psalm, Walter Brueggeman explains, “refers to the claim and aura of power, authority, and sovereignty that must be established in struggle, exercised in authority, and conceded either by willing adherents or by defeated resisters” (Brueggemann, p. 283). The purpose of the psalm’s. . . narrative recital and liturgical enactment is to make visible and compelling the rightful claim of Yahweh to glory. The temple where Yahweh abides and from which Yahweh enacts glory (=sovereignty) is a place filled with glory. But even in its cultic aspect, we must not spiritualize excessively, for glory has to do with rightful and acknowledged power. . . .

      From this political dimension of glory as the right to wield authority over all rivals, the testimony of Israel takes care to affirm and enhance temple presence as a way in which the presiding power of Yahweh is a constant in Israel (Brueggemann, p. 285; cf. Psalm 29).

A “pivotal and characteristic affirmation” of the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple, reflected in Psalm 96, is to assert and to enact Yahweh’s legitimate governance over the nations and the people of the world (v. 10), and over the “gods of the peoples” (v. 5). This liturgical exclamation asserts the primary claim of this unsolicited testimony; that Yahweh holds sovereign authority over all the nations and that all the nations must come to accept that rule, which is characterized by equity (v. 10), righteousness, and truth (v. 13.) This assertion, critically, is a rejection of any loyalty other nations may give to any other gods and a rejection of any imagined autonomy on the part of any political power. Positively, the assertion promptly brings the nations under the demands and sanctions of Yahweh’s will for justice.

This claim to universal sovereignty, cautions Brueggemann, is “never completely free of socio-economic-political-military interest.” But that does not mean the claim “is reduced to and equated with Israelite interest, for this is, nonetheless, a God who is committed to justice and holiness that are not coterminous with Israel’s political interest. In the process of working out this quandary, moreover, Israel makes important moves beyond its own self-interest” (Brueggemann, p. 493).

The exchange in Capernaum in today’s gospel is an instance of such a move. Acting on the basis of enlightened self-interest, the elders of the community facilitate action that leads to the healing of the centurion’s servant. In so doing, however, they (perhaps unwittingly) subsume that interest under the authority of the God who is sovereign over all nations. This is the authority under which Jesus acts, as was recognized by the centurion in his “unsolicited testimony” to God’s glory manifest in the locality of Capernaum, which brought Jesus’ affirmation of faith. Strikingly, it is also the authority cited by the Apostle Paul , “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities,” when he wrote to the churches of Galatia, albeit now explicitly naming that authority: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever” (Galatians 1:3-5).

Our challenge is this: how can the congregation that confesses itself to be under that same authority and experiencing such liberation “from the present evil age,” so act within its local context to bring healing not just to individuals, but to the communities in which they live, and ultimately, to the whole earth. If, as Norman Wirzba suggests, the aim of our worship “is to reorient our busy, increasingly frantic, lives around the truth of God’s creative and sustaining presence,” thus “returning . . .  ourselves and the creation to the presence of God so that we might enjoy God’s grace,” might not a healing transformation of the community to which the congregation belongs be expected to follow? It is important to stress here that, as in Capernaum, the cooperation that resulted in the healing of the centurion’s servant comes about by way of neither a covert exercise of power nor overt coercion. As Wirzba points out,

. . . the heart of community is expressed in our “mutual serviceableness” to each other. Community is not built up around the fact that all its members share the same vision, as when clubs are formed around political platforms,hobbies, or social causes. In fact, sameness or similarity is not the key factor at all. What matters is that each member be able to serve another and thus help another flourish in ways that it could not if it were alone. Rather than requiring the difference of another to be sacrificed for the sameness of the group, [this] vision encourages the difference of another so that it can be most fully what it is (The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003; p. 175.  Wirzba is discussing the vision of Thomas Traherne, from his Centuries of Meditations).

What the Christian congregation can bring to the larger community is an awareness that communal life is “the dynamic upbuilding and care for difference that is rooted in the sort of love that nurtures and encourages others to flower into the beautiful beings that God intends.  It is the vast interconnection of difference as difference held together by divine love, the mutual serviceableness of one to another” (Wirzba, p. 177).

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

The Day of Pentecost in Year C (Ormseth)

God’s love of life and delight in creation should serve as a model for humanity’s role in the world.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year C by Dennis Ormseth

Reading for Series C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Day of Pentecost in Year C
Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b (30)
Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21
John 14:8–17 [25–27]
Acts 2:1-21 and Psalm 104:24-34, 35b are coupled for reading on the Day of Pentecost in all three years of the lectionary cycle. In addition, as in year B, the second lesson is from Romans 8. Our comments in this series on the readings for Day of Pentecost in Year A, and especially in Year B are accordingly helpful background for appropriating the care of creation dimension of the readings for this festival Sunday.  As we noted there, Arthur Walker-Jones characterizes the psalm, “one of the longest creation passages” in the Bible, as a portrayal of the “direct, unmediated, and intimate relationship of God with all creatures.” In as much as “God is the spirit of life in all creation,” there is no need for mediation by either King or temple, because God’s presence “is as close to every creature as the air they breathe” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year A; the quotation from Walker Jones is from his The Green Psalter, p. 120). “First in Jesus,” we suggested, “then in the Spirit of Jesus, access to God is open everywhere” (See our comment on Day of Pentecost, Year B). Once again, the significance of this universal availability of God’s presence will not be lost on those who have followed our argument concerning the displacement of the Jerusalem temple as the locus where heaven meets earth onto Jesus, as key to understanding how the narrative concerning Jesus comes to provide fundamental orientation to creation.

The second reading from Romans 8:14-17 provides the bridge from that universal presence of the Spirit to God’s care for all creation. As we also noted in our comment on the Day of Pentecost for Year B, Romans 8 is embedded in a major Pauline narrative according to which the hope for creation is focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons/children of God.” As David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate argue in their Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis,  Romans 8 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).” The children of God are leading characters of the narrative, they argue, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused. Thus are the children of God “led by the spirit of God,” “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14, 17)” are crucial agents for the progression of the story of creation from groaning to freedom (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, Greening Paul.  Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010; p. 83).

Read in the context of this narrative of liberation, a key insight to be drawn from the readings for the Day of Pentecost in Year C is that while the Spirit who is the source of the church’s life is clearly the Spirit of Christ, that Spirit is also the Spirit of the Creator of all things. The reading from John asserts the identity of Jesus with the Father, an identity that is revealed more in his works than in his being (John 14:11) (Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI. New York: Doubleday, 1970; p. 632). But the works of the Father, Psalm 140 reminds us, are “manifold” (v.24)—all that the psalmist has listed out in his first twenty-three verses. And as v. 30 expresses so smartly, if poetically these works are to the benefit of all creation:  ‘When you send forth your spirit, they”—i.e. “your creations,” “living things both small and great (vv. 24, 25)—are created, and you renew the face of the ground” (v. 30.) The psalm, in other words, praises God for both creation and the restoration of creation, sounding a great theme for the day, to be sure, but also for the ongoing life of the church, living, as it must, by the creative power of the Spirit.

Following an argument of Walter Brueggemann in his Theology of the Old Testament, we saw earlier in this series of comments on Year C that the worship of God in biblical perspective provides right orientation to creation. For Israel, Brueggemann suggests, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced” is public worship. Creation should not be “understood as a theory or an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” While “creation” may thus be an experience of the world, ‘in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman urges, “permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament. Minneapolis:  Fortress Press. 1997; pp. 533-34).

The repeated use of Psalm 104 as the psalm for the Day of Pentecost affirms that this understanding holds true also for the new community of Christ. Indeed, the act of reciting the psalm serves to transmit the capacity for restoration of the relationship between the children of God and God’s creation from the worship of Israel to the worship of the church. The psalm is itself an act of worship that models this reorientation. As William P. Brown shows in his excellent book, Psalm 104 presents the creation “not from the creator’s perspective but from the creature’s, specifically from the standpoint of Homo laudans, ‘the praising human.’” With poetic energy, the psalm “bursts at the seams with joy as it celebrates creation’s manifold nature,” moving from a delineation of ‘the broad structures or domains of creation” to “detail various life forms and their habitations.” Descending from the “divine realm (vv. 1-4 to the earthly domain, including the watery depths (vv. 6-9, 25-26) and the land (vv. 10-18), the psalmist emphasizes “God’s provision for all life (vv.27-30; cf. Gen 1:29-30)” (Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 144).

Psalm 104, Brown shows, can be particularly effective in the church’s response to the global ecological crisis. The psalm stands alongside Genesis 1:1-2:3 and five other major texts (Genesis 2:4b-3:24, Job 38-41, Proverbs 8:22-31, Ecclesiastes 1;2-11; 12:1-7, and Isaiah 40-55) as pillars on which biblical teaching on creation can be aligned with contemporary biological science and an ecological ethic. The “most extensive creation psalm in the Bible,” Brown suggests, significantly shades its praise of God by recognition of the existence of suffering and evil in the creation. “The psalm acknowledges the ever-resent possibility of famine (v. 29), as well as earthquake and volcanic activity. It’s “wide-eyed wonder over nature’s goodness and God’s grace” is balanced by recognition that “a dark cloud looms on the horizon.” “After celebrating the sheer diversity of life, the psalmist exhorts God to vanquish the wicked.” Often considered a blemish on a perfect poem, this aspect of the psalm made sense for the ancient listener “in a less than perfect world;” “By cursing the wicked, the psalmist transfers the evil chaos traditionally assigned to mythically monstrous figures such as Leviathan and places it squarely on human shoulders. Conflict in creation, the psalmist acknowledges, is most savage among the distinctly human beasts.” This “grim petition” thus. . . rescues the psalm from seeing the world through rose-colored spectacles. The psalmist acknowledges, moreover, both predator and prey.  Here is an authentic assessment of creation as it stands, not as it once was in some pristine state or as it will be in future fulfillment. It is a world in which the purveyors of chaos are not mythically theriomorphic—monsters made in the image of animals—but monstrously human.

Consistent with Brueggemann’s description of the function of worship in relationship to a “world experienced as not good,” the psalmist “aims not to provide information about how the world works but to motivate the reader to praise God and . . . to sustain God’s joy in creation (v. 31b)” (Brown, Seven Pillars, p. 145).

In the verses that precede our reading, the psalm presents a complex sketch of the “character of creation.” Light is viewed not as the first act of creation but rather as an attribute of God: “every dawn could be construed as an act of self-clothing.” The unfurling of the fabric of the heaven “is tantamount to ‘clothing’ that God cannot afford simply to shed without donning something new. No naked God is the creator. According to the psalmist, creation is not God’s body, but neither is it disposable rags.” This intimacy of God’s participation in creation is reflected also with respect to the waters: divine action to restrain them (vv. 7-9) “makes possible the provision of flowing streams for quenching thirst, providing habitation, and ensuring the earth’s fertility. The combination of stream and soil results in the provision of life and enjoyment.” Amidst the fulsome reference to animal creatures, trees are prized here not for the lumber required for human empire but rather for the hospitality they provide for birds. So also God “provides drink to the wild animals” (v. 11), “waters the mountains” and “the trees” (vv. 13, 16), causes “grass to grow for the cattle” (v. 14), provides bread, wine, and oil for human beings (v. 15, and supplies “prey for the lions” (v. 21) as well as food for all creatures “in due time” (v. 27). God’s “open hand” and “renewing breath” are evocative images of such provision (v. 28) (Seven Pillars, pp. 145, 146).

Thus, Brown concludes, “the earth is not just ‘habitat for humanity’ but habitat for diversity.” The psalm “views creation in thoroughly eco-centric terms; the earth is created to accommodate myriad creatures great and small, people included. The earth is host and home to all living kind, and as such it is a source of joy.” The joy creation gives to its Creator is perhaps the most striking aspect of this reading. “Novel to this biblical psalm,” Brown urges, “is the claim that creation is sustained not by God’s covenantal commitment but by God’s unabashed joy.” “The solemn formulation of self-restraining order” of covenantal fidelity is replaced here by “joy-filled poetry of praise.” Consequently, the “psalmist’s commendation of divine joy in v. 31b smacks of urgency. By ceasing to rejoice, God could at any moment turn creation back into a quivering mass of chaos.” Enter a new role for Leviathan, the monster of the deep: “more than any other creation” Leviathan elicits “God’s rapturous joy.” With no hint of animosity in the relationship, “Leviathan is God’s playmate!” Indeed, the monster. . . brings out God’s playful side.  But godly play is no isolated moment in God’s engagement with the world. To the contrary, it supports all creation.  Play makes for creativity. Were this monster of the deep to resume its traditional role as primordial adversary, then God’s delight would cease and the ancient script of chaos battle (Chaoskampf) would be replayed. The joy of play would be replaced with violent struggle, like children turning an innocent game of cops and robbers into something far too serious (Seven Pillars, pp. 149-150).

Humanity, take note: “From the psalmist’s perspective, it is the ‘wicked’ who refuse to play and choose instead to struggle against God and the created order. They are the purveyors of chaos, not Leviathan.” “ As the choirmaster of praise, the psalmist calls readers to take on humanity’s true nature not simply as Homo sapiens but as Homo laudans, the praising human, in the hope that God remains the Deus ludens, the God who plays to sustain creation” (Seven Pillars, p. 151). At home in an earth “uncannily fit for life”  but threatening the very diversity that God so enjoys, humanity risks . . . destroying precisely that which the psalmist celebrates and commends to God’s enjoyment: habitats and their diverse inhabitants. By eliminating habitat and inhabitant, we are diminishing creation’s rich diversity, reducing creation to one big godforsaken bore and in so doing, turning God’s “Joy to the World” in God’s grief for the world (Seven Pillars, pp. 158-159).

With the sixth great extinction of earth’s biological species looming on the horizon of earth’s future, we might suggest, the tongues of fire of the Pentecost experience take on new meaning. Marks of divine love, they signal that God’s biophilia [love of life] should serve as a model for humanity’s role and presence in the world:

[T]o feed the flame of biophilia, both God’s and ours, we must preserve and sustain creation’s biodiversity.  If Leviathan falls, then so do we all. If creation’s wondrous variety is diminished, then the psalmist’s worst fear is realized: creation left to wither away. It is incumbent upon God’s most powerful creatures to ensure that divine delight is sustained so that the world be sustained. As long as the psalmist rejoices in God and God rejoices in creation, the delight shared between creator and creature continues to sustain the world (Seven Pillars, p. 159).

With the worship of the church on the Day of Pentecost and after, it does continue!

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288

 

 

God in Forests: Who is Jesus for Chipmunks?

A Service In and For the Forests – Feel free to share this worship service or get ideas – we appreciate acknowledgement!

Click here to download bulletin.

Pentecost Creation/Forest — July 15, 2018
Homily by Pastor Susan Henry, House of Prayer Lutheran Church

Who Is Jesus for Chipmunks?

For maybe twenty-five years, I’ve mulled over a theological question that makes me feel a little foolish. I never raised it in a seminary class or talked about it with a professor, and when I’ve tentatively mentioned it to a colleague or two, they’ve looked at me like, “What???” But this question keeps coming up for me, and that kind of insistence in my life is sometimes God’s way of nudging me to stick with something that matters. So, even though you’ll probably laugh or give me the “What?” look, I’m going to share my theological question with you: “Who is Jesus for chipmunks?”
Stated more broadly, I guess this is a question about Jesus’ relationship with life other than human life – with chipmunks and vultures, worms and whales, Easter lilies and Queen Ann’s lace, cornfields and baobab trees. Who is Jesus for the rest of God’s created world? Does other-than-human life need Jesus, just as we do?

Martin Luther taught that “God writes the Gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Luther must have thought that something important about being saved, about being made whole, is written right on creation itself. And Luther perceived God as “entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field.” Imagine that! In suggesting that the gospel is not only proclaimed in Jesus but also revealed somehow in creation itself, maybe Luther too had been wondering about who Jesus is for chipmunks.

I don’t have a definitive theological conviction about this chipmunk thing yet, but over the past couple years I’ve felt something shifting in me that makes me way more attentive to all of life, not just human life, and to God’s relationship with life itself on the planet we all call home. Where I’ve been, who I’ve met – especially Phoebe, and what I’ve read has given me new and helpful vocabulary about “the web of life” and about “other-than-human life” and about how everything belongs, everything is connected, every kind of life matters.
Throughout my ministry, I’ve talked about the Bible as the long story of God’s loving way with God’s people, and although that’s true, it doesn’t seem quite sufficient anymore. I see how I’ve skipped over the part of the Flood story where the rainbow is a sign of the covenant God makes not only with humankind, but also with all the creatures of the earth. God saves life. People matter, but we’re not all that matters to God.

When I was on sabbatical a couple years ago, I invited you all to “notice and note” the created world around you with the hope that you (and I) would really see more, would care more about what we noticed, and would be moved to care for God’s creation more faithfully and intentionally. While you were here noticing the world around you, I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan noticing and noting the national forest in which I could drive at least ten miles in every direction and maybe only cross one road. It was amazing, dense, dark, humbling. I was fascinated by all the life around me at Carrie’s cabin – the jackpines with cones that only open under intense heat so that new life can begin after a forest fire, the trees with straight rows of woodpecker holes in them – like corncobs, the eagles that dove for fish in the lake in front of the cabin and took their catch home to the eaglets in their massive nests. I saw more, I learned more, I cared more. I felt more connected to creation and to all life.

For days, I tried to identify some other huge birds that I knew weren’t eagles and didn’t seem like osprey or hawks, either. Finally, I saw one – then another, and then a third — land in a couple dead trees fairly nearby. I grabbed the binoculars, zeroed in on those birds, and discovered that they were huge, ugly, disgusting, bare-headed, hunched-over vultures. Ha! I laughed out loud because I was expecting beauty and grandeur but I got these less-than-lovely scavengers who nevertheless are a really important part of the web of life. We need those vultures!

In the UP, I saw the startling, bare, ruined earth where land was being clear-cut for the sake of more and more new construction, for joining house to house to house, despite its cost to the life of the forest community. I learned a little about woodlot management where mules or horses are used to haul out what is selectively cut, instead of using massive machinery that makes it necessary to cut more in order to sell more in order to pay back the massive loans on that incredibly expensive logging equipment. It’s a pretty vicious cycle and a pretty grim story.

Right alongside all this, I was reading Earth-Honoring Faith, Lutheran ethicist Larry Rasmussen’s urgent call to sing faith’s song in a new key – an unfamiliar key that no longer treats the earth only as something to be used, even exploited, by humankind, but in ways that foster the well-being of all creation, ways that “sing to the Lord a new song.” Spirituality and ecology become allies in this transformation, for the sake of the world God created and loves.
Back in 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote The Lorax, and it’s still a call for voices that will speak for the trees and for people who will act for the sake of nature’s well-being. In a way, it’s even a call to what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann names as “a new ecological perspective in which the earth and all of the creatures of the Earth are treated like covenant partners who are entitled to dignity and viability. Every acre,” he says, “every squirrel, every radish, every whale, every cornstalk is entitled to viability and respect.”
The Lorax calls us to speak for the trees and act for the sake of creation, but scripture, creation itself, theologians, and ethicists call us to do so because we are people of faith, because we know Jesus, because we love the world that God loves. “God so loved the world” – the cosmos, the planet, the people, the trees, the oceans, the creatures, even the chipmunks – that God came and lived among us on this beautiful blue marble that is life’s home. And not just for our lives, but for all the life we know.

When our fallenness, our sin, our very human unwillingness to let God be God in our lives compromises other life and maybe the life of the planet, God’s saving work in Jesus matters, and our faithful response to God’s grace matters, too. Never before has human life had so large an effect on our planet, and that just might call for an enlarged understanding of what it means to live faithfully. Our assumption that human life matters most to God might be challenged by the gospel written in trees and flowers and clouds and stars; in beauty, wonder, well-being, fullness of life, and harmonious relationship with God and all creation; in life together that’s more like life in the kingdom Jesus came preaching.

It may be quite a shift for you to take that “new ecological perspective” Brueggemann describes “in which the earth and all of the creatures of the Earth are treated like covenant partners who are entitled to dignity and viability.” I’m still in the midst of that shift myself. You might wonder about, be drawn to, challenge, or even resist such a new perspective, but perhaps we can’t sing in a new and unfamiliar key without a new perspective. It won’t be easy, but it might be necessary for us as people of faith. If Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly, such abundance surely includes respect for the life of, as Brueggeman puts it, “every acre, every squirrel, every radish, every whale, every cornstalk.”
Every chipmunk, too.

Amen

Sources: 

Attributed to Luther, cited in Awakening to God’s Call to Earthkeeping, elca.org

 LW 37:61, ibid.

Genesis 9:9

Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Larry L. Rasmussen, Oxford University Press, 2013

 Walter Brueggemann, “Jesus Acted Out the Alternative to Empire,” posted June 22, 2018, sojo.net