Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Mundahl
Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Third Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl12)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

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

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

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

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

Sabbath is more than the absence of labor!

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

Sabbath is a dance of delight.

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

Sabbath is a time when all life is celebrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2012.

Third Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl14)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday June 19-25 in Year A (Mundahl)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year A (Mundahl)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Ormseth)

Jesus is the Faithful Servant of God’s Creation. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.

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

Readings for Sunday of the Passion, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Psalm 31:9-16
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Phillipians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

The processional Gospel presents Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Warren Carter notes that Matthew’s narrative of the event includes several “features common to traditions of Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions:” the appearance of the ruler, a procession into the city, welcoming and celebrating crowds, and a hymnic acclamation. Certain details in Matthew’s account, however, serve to mark Jesus as “a different sort of king,” in Carter’s phrase. First, there are none of the usual speeches of welcome from the local elite. Obviously, neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities in the city recognize Jesus as having any authority; in their place we hear “the whole city . . . in turmoil, asking ‘Who is this?’ to which the crowd with Jesus answers, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’” As Carter observes, “it is an ominous confession. Jerusalem is a city with a  reputation for killing prophets (Mt 23:37).” So Jesus enters a tense and divided city.

Secondly, the prophetic character of Jesus’ entry to the city is immediately demonstrated by the alteration of another customary feature: instead of a cultic act,  commonly a temple sacrifice, by which the ruler would take possession of the city, Jesus’  cleanses the temple (Mt 21:1-13). Thus in contrast to “the oppressive and tyrannical reign of Rome, which has claimed divine agency and overstepped the mark ( Mt 20:25-28),” Carter writes, the reign of Jesus . . .

“is not based on military violence and does not employ social and economic exploitation of legal privilege. It is merciful, inclusive, life-giving, and marked by servanthood and peace. This son of David enacts God’s reign, which protects the needy, supplies the weak (Ps 72), and heals the sick (Solomon; Mt 9:27). He comes not to fight for the city, but to serve it (Mt 20:28)” (Matthew and the Margins:  A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 413-15).

Jesus is the king who comes as a servant.

A third detail of the account powerfully symbolizes this servant character of his leadership: the animal on which Jesus rides to enter the city is a donkey. Matthew calls our attention to it by providing an extended account of its procurement (Mt 21:1-7). By tradition a royal animal (e.g. Solomon in 1 Kings 1:33-48), the donkey “is also an everyday beast of burden” and “a symbol of derision and scorn.” Instead of “a war horse . . . or ‘chariot of triumph’ . . . intended to demonstrate authority, to intimidate, and to ensure submission,” Jesus “chooses what is royal but common, derided but liberating” (Carter, p. 414-15). Its contrast with imperial style is not the only significant thing about this animal in reference to Jesus, however. Carter points to it as a sign of Jesus’ dominion in the creation: in his arrangements for the donkey and its colt, he suggests, “Jesus [again] exerts his lordship over nature (cf. Mt 8:23-27, 14:25-33) and exercises Adam’s authority over the animals in Gen 1:26-33” (Carter, pp. 415-16). More significantly, we note that the primary text from Hebrew scripture undergirding this account is the one we encountered on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, in connection with the healing of the man born blind. Jesus’ entry to the city on the donkey would remind readers of the Gospel familiar with Hebrew traditions, of the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the anticipated arrival in triumph of the messianic King from Zechariah Chapters 9 – 14. As we summarized the text there, drawing on Raymond Brown’s exegesis of the healing in the Gospel of John, as the messianic king arrives on an ass, Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Zechariah 12:10) and opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (Zecharariah 13:1) (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326; see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A 2014). Jesus’ arrival in the city as this humble messianic king portends the restoration of both nation and land  by Yahweh, when “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea” and “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:8-9). As we found in our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, flowing water is the sign of God’s restoring presence in the earth.

Thus at the opening of our Passion Sunday observance, the description of Jesus from our comment on the First Sunday in the Season of Lent is reaffirmed: as one who serves God faithfully, Jesus serves creation in the dominion of life. With the first reading from Isaiah 50, the church identifies Jesus as that servant, but now as one who suffers on account of that humble service. And with the famous hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the second reading, the church doubles down on that identification, placing it in cosmic perspective: ‘though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”” (Philippians 2:6-8). Indeed, this text is especially important for our understanding of Jesus as servant of creation, as can be seen by returning to our interpretation of the narratives of the two temptations, first of Adam and Eve, and secondly of Jesus, from the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. As we discussed in our comment on those texts, Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level, the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it, “When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).

The reading from Philippians 2 addresses the concern: to “regard equality with God as something to be exploited” is an appropriate way to characterize the primordial fault of humankind. Created with powers to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, Adam and Eve desire to know as God knows; they refuse to respect the limit set on their nature by their Creator. Thus humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75). In contrast, as we summarized our reading of Jesus’ temptation, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil “exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth.” These principles, we suggested, “go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God” (See our comment on the texts for the First Sunday in Lent). The prophet Isaiah speaks righteously for Jesus this Sunday in saying, “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5).

With these themes in mind, Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion reads as an account of his “passion” for the creation. Judas contracts to betray Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver,” apparently not a great amount of money, but sufficient to entice a man who doesn’t know how to value things more righteously; the pursuit of wealth, it would seem, has taken utter control of Judas’ life. As they gather for the meal that ritually represents and celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from oppression in Egypt, Jesus’ exposure of Judas’ betrayal destroys their sense of community in the company of the “Lord” whom they have trusted to defend them against all manner of evil: “diseases, demons, nature, and people” (Carter, p. 505). Their meal is shrouded with the threat of coming violence: the breaking of bread foreshadows the violence of Jesus’ death. Consequently, the meal which looks forward ritually to a flourishing life in the presence of God in the land God promised Israel, becomes an occasion for the betrayal of God’s purposes by those who govern the land as part of the dominion of death. 

Jesus’ blessing of the bread and wine, however, in turn restores the meal through its connection with release from sin and death to an anticipation of the future restoration of all creation. The decisive battle between the dominion of death and the dominion of life is joined. The wine Jesus directs them to drink bears the significance of the bloody sacrifice that Moses made to seal the covenant between God and the people in Exodus 24:8. It is blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin,” which also “evokes the release of Israel from Babylonian captivity” (Carter, p. 506). Jesus is the suffering servant of Isaiah, who bears the suffering and “releases the sin” of many. Carter explains that the translation “release from sins” is preferred over “forgiveness of sin’ because the Hebrew here “denotes much more than a personal restoration to fellowship with God (though it includes this).”  His detailed exegesis is important:

“In Leviticus 25 the noun appears at least fourteen times to designate the year of jubilee or forgiveness (see [Matthew] 5:5). Leviticus 25 provides for a massive societal and economic restructuring every fifty years, in which people rest from labor, land and property are returned and more evenly (re)distributed, slaves are freed, and households are reunited. In Deut 15:1-3, 9, the noun refers to the remission of the debts of the poor every seven years. In Jer 34 (LXX 41):8, 15, it refers to release of slaves (but note v. 17). In Isa 58:6 it defines part of God’s chosen fast, ‘to undo the thongs of the yoke . . . and to break every yoke,’ an image of ending political oppression (see 11:28-29). In Isa 61:1, God’s anointed is ‘to proclaim liberty/release to the captives, good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted’ (see Mt 5:3-6.) In Esth 2:18 and 1 Macc 13:34 it indicates relief from imperial taxes” (Carter, p. 507).

The sin to be released, this view maintains, encompasses the whole reality of the pursuit of power and wealth that has such destructive impact on the creation. The sin to be released, Carter concludes, is . . .

“a world contrary to God’s just purposes. Jesus’ death, like the exodus from Egypt, the return from exile in Babylon, and the year of jubilee, effects release from, a transformation of, sinful imperial structures which oppress God’s people, contrary to God’s will. His death establishes God’s justice or empire, including release from Rome’s power.”

Release from sins thus has “personal and sociopolitical and cosmic, present and future dimensions.” It renews the original promise of the Passover Meal, but extends it to encompass all creation: indeed, it anticipates a new creation: Jesus looks forward to the day when he will drink wine in the reign of God in the earth (Carter, p. 507). 

The disciples have a hard time trusting this promise, of course, as do we, still. The battle between the dominion of life and the dominion of death for their allegiance continues. As they leave the meal, their minds are fearful and set on escape, as Jesus knows too well; he will join their despair in the garden of Gethsemane. Before we follow him into the garden, however, one more comment on the meal is appropriate as we also look forward to the celebration of Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday. In view of the transformation of the meal from a feast that recalls a seemingly lost hope to one anticipating the future restoration of creation, we note that Christian congregations have in their Eucharistic service an incredibly significant resource for sustaining service to creation.  We recall a statement by Wendell Berry: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation.  When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively it is a desecration. In such a desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want” (Quoted from Berry’s Gift of Good Land, p. 281, by Christopher Southgate, in Groaning of Creation, pp. 105-06). In the Eucharist, bread and wine are fruits of creation put to sacramental use in the restoration of creation.

Strikingly, it is in a garden that Jesus once again confirms his role as the servant of creation who does God’s will. The setting provides distance from the threatening authorities, at least until they invade it, and from the sleeping disciples as well, as Jesus goes farther and farther into the garden. It ought also to be a place of access to God, but God is silent. As he was once tempted three times in the wilderness, now Jesus prays three times to the absent Father. His prayer is to be released from his mission; it is effectively the suffering servant’s prayer: “Yet not what I want but what you want.” He admonishes his disciples to stay awake, “that you may not come into the time of trial,” which echoes the sixth petition of the prayer he taught his disciples. Carter sees a striking similarity between this scene and Moses’ prayer at Massah, when Israel tested God by “doubting God’s presence and God’s promise to deliver them and supply water.” He comments: “The temptation to doubt God’s plans, goodness, faithfulness, and ability is not far from Jesus or the disciples in the story, or from Matthew’s audience” It is indeed a trial in the wilderness. His own prayer accordingly also echoes “the Lord’s prayer,” now from the third petition: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  We might add the missing phrase: “on earth as it is in heaven.” He is the faithful servant of God who serves God’s creation (Carter, pp. 511-12).

The narrative moves on to the confrontation with the religious and political authorities. Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss, and the mob lays hands on Jesus to arrest him. A disciple strikes out with a sword, and is rebuked by Jesus. He refuses to use violence; that is not his way. He will not participate in the dominion of death; his is the dominion of life. The contrast with his opponents is clear as Caiaphas probes Jesus’ identity and his claim to authority, looking for a reason to condemn him to death. The members of the Sanhedrin agree to seek Jesus’ death; the governor will execute him. Jesus is subject to the power of Rome. But is Pilate really the one who decides Jesus fate? As Jesus is handed over, the powers of death are united in a course of action that will kill the servant of life.

Still the dominion of life nevertheless makes its presence felt. As the first among the disciples to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah succumbs to the questions of servant girls with him in the courtyard, the crow of the cock reminds Peter of Jesus’ anticipation of his betrayal. As Jesus is left to face the authorities without allies, the call of the bird reminds us that as in the wilderness (Mark 1:13), non-human creatures are still with him; events are proceeding according to the Creator’s time. So also does Judas’ repentance provide counter-point to the judgment of the Sanhedrin; by the admission of his betrayer, Jesus is innocent, and his blood is “innocent blood.” It is too late to stop the course of events toward death, however; Judas succumbs to the power of death by taking his own life. Ironically, however, the Sanhedrin uses Judas’ “blood money” to purchase a field for the burial of foreigners. The process that leads to Jesus’ death is not without good consequences: this piece of earth bought by Judas’ repentance will receive strangers to the land and give them rest. It is a sign that, even in the midst of the dominion of death, preparation is made for the dominion of life, in which the Earth is home for God’s creatures.

Finally, as Pilate does what the Sanhedrin asks him to do, and what “the people” demand, he releases the violent insurrectionist Barabbas and condemns the non-violent Jesus to death by crucifixion. The one who has indeed proclaimed the coming of God’s realm of true and cosmic justice keeps his silence as the suffering servant of creation of Isaiah 52. Pilate washes his hands of the matter; ironically, this act of denial of responsibility exposes the truth: as Warren Carter puts it, “Roman justice is all washed up, It is not exonerated but exposed as expedient, allied with and co-opted by the religious elite who manipulate a crowd to accomplish its own end” (Carter, p. 527). In the cause of justice, water tells the truth. That the people take Jesus’ “blood” upon themselves and their children, is both an acknowledgment of their responsibility for Jesus’ death in concert with Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Pilate; and for the reading audience an ironic “recognition (echoing Exod 24:8) that God’s forgiveness is available to all, including the chief priests’ crowd,” both now and in the future establishment of God’s empire at Jesus’ return (23:39) (Carter, p. 529). Thus water and blood together are signs from the creation that this event bears both truth and hope for all creation.

As passersby deride Jesus on the cross saying “you who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt 27:40), the theme from the temptations returns. The chief priests and scribes mock him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the king of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” Jesus remains faithful to the rule of the servant of creation: it is not want he wants, but indeed what God wants: the healing and restoration of creation. And so as Jesus hangs on the cross, the creation marks his dying: “darkness came over the whole land” (Mt 27:45). Reflecting the pain of its Lord, the light of creation dims. As Jesus breathes his last, the Earth shudders. As Carter comments, “Just as God’s creation in the form of a star witnesses to his birth (Mt 2:1-12), so the sun and the earth attest his death and anticipate new life.” These signs belong to the time of tribulation (Mt 24:3-26); they “anticipate God’s coming triumph, which his return in glory will establish (Mt 24:27-31)” (Carter, p.  536). As Lazarus was raised from the dead, bodies are liberated from their tombs by the shaking of the earth. Their rising anticipates the new creation. Meanwhile, women look on from a distance; they are followers who have, as Carter notes, imitated “his central orientation (Mt 20:25-28):They serve him over a sustained period of time and distance in travelTheir service is not only a matter of providing food and/or hospitality, though that may well be an important dimension. . . The verb denotes Jesus’ giving his life in obedience to God and for the benefit of others (Mt 20:28; cf. 25:44). The term is all-embracing for Jesus’ ministry. Likewise for the women” (Carter, p. 538). The Earth, having been broken open by the earthquake, receives its Lord, and a stone is put into place at the opening of the tomb; the non-human creation witnesses that he is truly dead, and later, that he has risen from the dead.

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

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

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (February 4-10) in Year A (Mundahl)

We are Epiphany communities, being salt for the Earth and bearing light for the world. Tom Mundahl reflects on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 5:13-20.

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

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

Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Matthew 5:13-20

There are few things more satisfying than baking good bread. But that bread depends not only on quality of flour and the skill of the baker; its quality also is related to the right balance of ingredients. I remember the time I forgot the salt. Not only did the dough rise too quickly, this visually lovely loaf had no taste whatsoever!

This week’s First Lesson from Second Isaiah teaches us a thing or two about religious practice that has the appearance of a fine, fresh loaf, but has no taste. The prophet takes a hard look at what Paul Hanson calls “faith in the subjunctive mood” (Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 204). As the prophet reveals, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance (mispat) of their God” (Isaiah 58:2a).

Apparently, the most religious had transformed what they considered “religion” into private acts of prayer and ritual “leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the domination of ruthless, self-serving exploitation. . . .” (Hanson, p. 205). But the prophet stands firmly in the traditions of his guild, which reminded the people of their liberation from Egyptian slavery, their dependence on God’s sustenance in the wilderness, and the gift nature of their land. Because they had received these generous gifts, they were to be generous in sharing—especially with those in need.

This is the logic undergirding Isaiah’s definition of authentic religious practice. “Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not hide yourself from your own kin” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

The results of practicing honest religion point to a healing that extends to the whole creation. Not only will “your light break forth like the dawn” (Isaiah 58:8), but bones—the structure of personhood—will be strengthened and “you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (Isaiah 58:11). This integrity will result in a marvel of urban planning, repairing a city whose foundations will nurture many generations with the lure of “streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:12).

In fact, this restoration will be a return to the very intention of creation, celebrated with the creation of Sabbath on the seventh day. Isaiah’s account of the effects of authentic repentance (“fasting”) culminates in a vision of “life’s fecundity and fresh potential. Once the bonds of oppression that maim and destroy life are removed, then life can flower into the diverse and beautiful forms that God planted in the first garden” (Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: 2011, p. 166). As a result of this renewal, all creation enjoys the interdependent harmony of “Sabbath delight” (Isaiah 58:13), where all creatures celebrate the memberships of life as they share their bread (Wirzba, p. 165).

Because this week’s Gospel Reading immediately follows a sobering account of what those who are “blessed” to be joined to the “kingdom of heaven” can expect—being reviled and persecuted as the prophets were (Matthew 5:11)—one wonders if “delight” is even remotely possible.  But recall that the final beatitude concludes with a call to: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

This joy is clearly stronger than any persecution the Roman Empire or the elite religious opponents will provide. But it requires this new community to live in harmony with its gracious identity. The parallel statements “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:14) and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14) move them in this direction. While salt has many uses, its primary function has been to season food. As Ulrich Luz suggests, “Salt is not salt for itself but seasoning for food. So the disciples are not existing for themselves but for the earth” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 251). The purpose of the light metaphor is much the same, leading to the intended result (both with “seasoning” culture and the earth and “vision”) “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Clearly, Matthew’s Jesus is not advocating a “works righteousness” schema. For him, a person’s actions are integral to identity. Salt becomes effective only by salting. Light becomes valuable only when it shines. To indicate to the new community “you are the light of the world” confers both identity and the sense that it cannot but be realized in action. “Matthew speaks without embarrassment of good works, without meaning self-justification by works” (Luz, p. 253).

More important for us may be that the predicates of these two statements: “you are the salt of the earth” (5: 13) and “you are the light of the world” (5:14). For this new community embraced by a new kind of regime, the earth is the focus of its action. This is crucial, since Matthew’s narrative suggests that the kingdoms of the earth are under control of the devil, a nasty, but justified slap in the face for the Roman Empire (Matthew 4:8). It is this Empire that claimed to be able to provide “bread” for its people, but often gave them little more than “bread and circuses.”

Why these powerful images of salt and light? As Warren Carter suggests: “They emphasize the missional identity and lifestyle of disciples. While participation in God’s empire is blessed, it mandates an alternative way of life that challenges the status quo. This is a costly demand for a minority and marginal community, vulnerable to being overpowered by, or accommodating itself to, the dominant culture. The two images strengthen that identity and direct its way of life in a hostile context.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 139)

We began this commentary with a consideration of bread baking, where I shared a failed attempt to bake bread without salt. Not only was it tasteless; the dough had risen so much and so quickly, the bread had no “crumb,” no structure. To a faith community called to be “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), this has important implications for care of creation.

Without a limiting factor, humankind seems much like bread dough that is intent on fermenting—rising with no end in sight. Whether it is emitting carbon and other greenhouse gases, wasting increasingly precious water, or continuing the collection of often unneeded consumer items that overwhelm disposal capacity of land and sea and are recycled at an unsustainably low rate, especially in the U.S., the absence of limiting discipline is frightening. Not only does this dishonor the “material gifts of creation,” but it forgets, as William Rathje and Robert Lillienfeld have shown in their indispensable book, Use Less Stuff, that recycling has always been a way to maintain consumption and has never historically solved the problem of excess (Rathje and Lillienfeld, Use Less Stuff, New York: Ballantine, 1998, pp. 6-26).

Earth needs “salt” to limit all these dangerous increases. Wirzba suggests that faith directs our focus to being where we are and paying attention to community (including creation community!) needs. “As we dedicate ourselves to understanding our place in the wider world, we can learn something of a habitat’s or community’s limits and possibilities. . . . And we can draw upon the faculty of our imagination to envision possibilities for improvements” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford: 2003, p. 155).

Yet, Wendell Berry is right about the difficult balancing act that care of creation and sharing good bread involve. “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is desecration” (Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1981, p. 181). As an Epiphany community bearing necessary light, we must also be “salty” enough to provide a vision of limits that will, at minimum, slow down the destructive forces threatening God’s creation.

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany (January 14-20) in Year A (Mundahl)

We Are Home.Tom Mundahl reflects on the community of creation.

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

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

Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

As we considered the prologue to John’s Gospel in our comments for Christmas 2, it was suggested that its communal nature not be forgotten. The evangelist makes it clear that this new divine venture is profoundly social: “the Word became flesh and lived among us;” “we have seen his glory” (John 1:14). We claimed that because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation, in part, by forming a new community of faith.

The assigned reading from John not only continues the baptismal theme, it describes the beginnings of this new community. The very newness of this movement is made embarrassingly clear by the response of two of John the Baptist’s disciples. After hearing John testify to the significance of Jesus for the second time in as many days, these disciples take their teacher at his word “and followed Jesus” (John 1:37). When Jesus saw them following, he uttered his first direct speech in this Gospel: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).

Just as Jesus’ first words in Matthew revealed the obedience which shapes that evangelist’s understanding of new community, so this short phrase uncovers an important theme in John’s Gospel. The simple question, “What are you seeking?” underlines the basic need of humankind to turn to God. That is, human beings need to “dwell” or “abide” with God in order to escape the terrors of insecurity, always looking for something or someone that is trustworthy (Raymond Brown, John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 78). If humans constantly seek a community to belong to, a secure home, a “nest,” we may reflect “otherkind” more than we would admit.

And in this reflection, we may conclude one of the most important outcomes of faith is to learn to be at home. This should not surprise us. The author of Colossians describes Jesus this way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, visible and invisible . . . ” (Colossians 1:15 -16a).

Perhaps, then, to answer the question “What are you seeking, or looking for?” we need to be disarmingly honest and respond: “We are looking for a community to identify with, a community that can be part of making it possible for “all things in heaven and on earth” to be “at home” (see Shannon Jung, We Are Home: A Spirituality of the Environment, New York: Paulist, 1993, pp. 54-69)

But it is only when we are “at home” in God’s creation that we are free and secure enough to open our doors and make our ‘walls’ into windows. This is certainly the strategy of the community described in our reading from Second Isaiah. Even if many of its most important leaders remain in exile, the prophet delivers a startling message. Going home is not enough. The impact of this new word extends beyond traditional borders, from “coastlands” to “peoples far away” (Isaiah 49:1).

This places the prophet squarely in the center of the post-exilic debate between those who would build the walls high to prevent outside cultural influence (Ezra and Nehemiah) and those whose notion of God could not be so limited (Jonah and Ruth). This text makes it clear that Second Isaiah stands with those who would not limit the aspiration of this people only to becoming a “safe” and “pure” religious enclave.

But this is not only the prophet’s view; it is the word of the LORD, a word that “called” this people to servanthood before birth (Isaiah 49:1b). This is no half-cocked, vague internationalism, but divine purpose that has been determined beforehand (that is, before the foundation of Israel and/or the birth of the prophet). Since a sharp distinction between individual and community is alien to Second Isaiah’s thought, we can only conclude that the servant Israel (49:3), or the prophetic word bearer who becomes the “heart of Israel,” bears this task given in much the same language as the prophetic call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5).

Despite the language of lament with which people-prophet respond to this extraordinary universal charge (49:4), the call stands. Once more we have what amounts to a “messenger formula” directed to the whole people: “And now the LORD says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant . . . . ”It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of the Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6).

This task of being a “light to the nations” is invested in a complaining, rather unreliable people. By going beyond parochial limitations, however, even this bunch “glorifies God” (49:3). And this seems to be, according to Isaiah, the way to build a strong community, by sharing the LORD’s “cause” (mispat) with the nations of the world. (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 129).

This “scandal of universality” is completely understandable, however, when we recall that it “stems from the inseparability of creation and redemption in the thought world of Second Isaiah.  Since the compass of God’s redemptive activity is the entire created world and its scope is the restoration of all that exists to wholeness, the nations are included in God’s plan” (Hanson, p. 130). And, of course, so is the whole of creation!

What makes a strong community of faith today? How are God’s people to be “at home” in creation? There are certainly those who would argue that getting ‘dirty hands’ from anything other than what we narrowly construe as “religious activity” is the only safe path. But that certainly is not the direction these Epiphany texts send us.  This is not the way to reflect light for the world.

A local congregation I know well works very hard on caring for one another within the context of responsible worship and fine music. But hearing God’s word and sharing the meal in weekly assembly has strengthened this community to open its doors. Not only has it welcomed everyone regardless of background, race, or sexual orientation, it has given its land over to 24 community gardens, a restored prairie, and maintaining an urban micro-forest. This has created new friends in the neighborhood and helped to restore creation.

But the gifts of this community have not stopped there. Surprising connections have been made with Circle of Empowerment in southwestern Nicaragua, a health and education “ministry” that promotes bottom-up development. Whether it is financial sponsorship of students in the seven-village school, purchasing a new “used” bus to transport these students to school, or building a medical clinic, this has been a crucial part of “building community” in this small congregation. The more that has been given away, the stronger this congregation has become!

Or, the more “at home” with itself a community can be, the freer it is to share. And the freer it is to share, the more “at-homeness” it will experience. Wendell Berry calls this “the cultivation of a sympathetic or affectionate mind” (“Two Minds,” Citizenship Papers, Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2003, pp. 90-91). This “mind” differs from the “economic mind” in that “it refuses to reduce reality to the scope of what we think we know; it fears the mistake of carelessness more than it fears error; it seeks to understand things in terms of interdependent wholeness rather than isolated parts; it appreciates that a cultural landscape must grow up in faithful alignment with the natural landscape that sustains and inspires it . . . .”(Berry)

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

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

Sunday September 4 – 10 in Year C (Saler)

Following Jesus into Earth: A New Reformation? – Robert Saler reflects on Luke 14:25-33

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for September 4-10, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Lutherans Restoring Creation, as a movement, has been known to speak compellingly of the need for a “new Reformation” – one that moves Christianity towards care for creation in as far-reaching and epochal a sense as the European Reformation transformed western Christianity. In order for us to hold out hope for such a Reformation, however, we must first recognize a basic fact of history: every substantial transformation in the history of Christianity has deeply impacted the material and spiritual economies of its era.

Note that I am not here saying (as a kind of reductionist Marxist might) that changes in religious outlook are always CAUSED by changes in material conditions; the relationship between ideas and economics writ large is too complex for any such simplified causal claim. However, I am saying that, for a religious reformation to truly “stick,” it must have abiding implications for the material distribution of wealth.

This was profoundly true of the European Reformation that gave birth to Lutheranism and other strands of Reformation theology. The notion of “vocation” gradually shifted from religious orders (with concentrations of wealth in the monasteries) to the daily activities of the rising merchant class. Emerging nation-states consolidated wealth locally instead of sending money to Rome. The printing press allowed for lay participation in theological debate unprecedented in previous centuries of Christendom. And so on.

Part of the point here is that we cannot envision paradigm shifts in theological consciousness that do not implicate themselves deeply into the economic (oikos) life of those who call themselves Christian. If we are to think in terms of a new Reformation that calls Christianity to its vocation of caring for Earth, we must take seriously the fact that the preaching, theology, art, and culture-creation required by such a Reformation will need to tackle “economic” questions head on.

The gospel lesson for this week is one of many occasions in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus sharply mandates that his disciples enact a new relationship to wealth (as blunt, in this case, as “give up all your possessions”) as a requirement of following his way. Apropos to what was said above, anyone who labors under the misapprehension that Jesus is concerned only with “spiritual” and not material matters must inevitably—and salutarily—founder on these passages where Jesus describes discipleship in deeply material terms. It is striking how often those who insist upon “literal” readings of the Bible follow medieval Christendom in assuming that such stark passages must themselves be allegorical or symbolic—thus, “sell all you have and give to the poor” becomes “give some percentage of your net income to charity regularly.” Thus, under Christendom, discipleship becomes a buttress of the status quo, and the radicality of scripture’s economic vision is domesticated.

What would a reclamation of this radical vision look like as part of a theological reformation calling Christ’s church to creation care? At the conclusion of his seminal essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry describes reclining on the ground of a forest in his native Kentucky:

I have been walking in the woods, and have lain down on the ground to rest. It is the middle of October, and around me, all through the woods, the leaves are quietly sifting down. The newly fallen leaves make a dry, comfortable bed, and I lie easy, coming to rest within myself as I seem to do nowadays only when I am in the woods.

And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt about the third button below the collar. At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence—that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breeze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstances, happed to be lying. The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history. Portent begins to dwell in it.

And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground. Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay. Other leaves fall. My body begins its long shudder into humus. I feel my substance escape me, carried into the mold by beetles and worms. Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves. For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling—and then that, too, sinks away. It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.

Berry’s words here hit on something fundamental about the intersection between our economic and spiritual sensibilities: the locus of this intersection is the body. Our own bodies. The drive to possess, to claim bits of the earth as private property, is tied to our own misplaced desires to extend and preserve our bodies into immortality—an immortality of endless consumption. To give up our bodies into Earth, to allow ourselves to join the rest of creation in the cycle of death and resurrection (even as we long for the day in which that cycle is finally broken by unending resurrection) is to reconfigure our relationship, not just to OUR possessions, but to possession itself.

It may be, then, that a theological reformation towards creation care might involve a deep recovery of how intimately our bodies are tied to the earth itself, and how giving up our delusions of sovereignty around our own bodies might free up a new kind of Christian discipleship. As Paul makes clear, to follow Jesus is to follow him into the grave—only then can resurrection be a genuinely salvific reality. As we go deeper into the earth, it may be that we blaze new trails of “the way” of Jesus.

If we can embody this discipleship in our own flesh, then the continual Reformation of our faith towards love for what God loves becomes more viscerally possible than ever before.

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 August 28 – September 3 in Year C (Carr)

Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C: Amy Carr reflects on Luke 14:7-14 and Hebrews 13

Readings for August 28 – September 3,  Series C (2019, 2022)

Proverbs 25:6-7 [or Sirach 10:12-18, alternate]
Psalm 112
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus uses the occasion of a high-status dinner party to provoke reflection about humility and about what company we value. It is an interesting story to ponder in a non-anthropocentric way, by extending our sense of company to include a wide range of creaturely life. Yet I wonder if the many-sidedness of Jesus’ message challenges us also to be aware of how we can royalize our encounters with the natural world—seeing ourselves as its awe-filled guests in a way that is good, but not in itself good enough to nourish God’s most vulnerable and neglected creatures. We are both guests and hosts with regard to non-human creation.

The setting of the gospel passage immediately draws hearers into a contemplation of their own search for place and the status of their belonging. We step into a Sabbath meal at “the house of a leader of the Pharisees,” who were “watching [Jesus] closely” (Luke 14:1). That Jesus was invited suggests he is regarded as a social equal by the host; that he is being closely watched suggests that he is being evaluated with regard to his precise status: Is he more opponent or ally? In what unfolds, Jesus speaks into this tense, attentive space by at once outing and redirecting the motivations of both guests and the host at the meal.

Let’s imagine how Jesus’ commanding observations might sound if we think about our relationship to non-human creation as guests and as hosts, respectively.

To the guests, Jesus echoes an old proverb about seeking places of honor not by scrambling to sit near the host, but by humbling oneself: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the palace of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Proverbs 25:6-7). The analogy Jesus uses in Luke 14:7-11 is of a wedding banquet rather than a royal meal, but Jesus does not deny that it is a privilege to dine in the presence of a host who is radiating splendor.

Here we might imagine a wilderness space itself as our host, and we the guests visiting it through a hike or a camping trip. In such settings, many human beings witness the splendor of the holy in the natural world; they long to visit repeatedly, to be near to majesty and grandeur. And because the non-natural world is not looking back at us, it may be easier to accept Jesus’ teaching that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). Even the most assertive of us are humbled by the transcendent vastness of the Grand Canyon; before such a royal host, joy and humility mingle together readily.

Conversion to environmental concern begins for many with a realization that wilderness spaces are endangered, and we are snapped into an awareness that we have a responsibility to them—that we are hosts as well as guests in relationship to the non-human natural world. It is not enough for us to enjoy the goodness of basking in the beauty of God’s creation, when we feel called also to protect it.

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus deepens the teaching about humility by turning to address not the guests and their behavior, but the host. The host may be accustomed to inviting friends, family, and “rich neighbors” to a “luncheon or a dinner,” because of the expectation of a gift exchange in which the host will be invited in turn to be “repaid” by his or her guests with an invitation to a feast at their own homes (Luke 14:12). It is not as if the host is scheming, perhaps; more that when we host, we tend to invite peers who are our social equals, or relatives with whom we already share bonds of mutual obligation. “But when you give a banquet,” Jesus suggests, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).

Jesus here addresses us insofar as we ourselves are royalty, seeking not the adulation of economic social equals, but the deeper calling of all with the power of royalty: to utilize our resources to expand who belongs at the banquet that satisfies both our physical need for nourishment and our social need for connection. And once again, Jesus doesn’t deny the goodness of the gift-exchange that is expected from invited guests who are peers; instead, Jesus redirects the desire of the royal host to a longer-term gift exchange—one in which we sacrifice for a future fulfillment that is beyond our immediate glimpse.

As royal stewards of God’s creation, we might widen our hosting responsibilities in a couple of directions. The first flows (with an odd comfort) from the recognition of our own mortality, in a way that is familiar to every homeowner and gardener. At the end of his poem “Planting Trees,” Wendell Berry writes of practicing hospitable attention to the non-human life that will outlive him:

Let me desire and wish well the life
these trees may live when I
no longer rise in the mornings
to be pleased by the green of them
shining, and their shadows on the ground,
and the sound of the wind in them.

In planting trees we expect to survive us, we tap once more into the sense of being guests of the wider creation, with whose future flourishing we are identifying.

A second way to widen our hosting responsibilities with regard to the natural world is to engage in the hard work of going out to discover how—and why—creation is rendered poor, crippled, lame, and blind by all the threats not only to wilderness spaces, but also to the sustainability of all the lands our species populates. This calls for us to move beyond amazement at the natural world to the labor of protecting it with activism and political action; only then can we invite limping and wounded plant and animal species to continue to persist as part of earth’s banquet.

The equation of being good hosts with engaging in political action is particularly apparent in countries, like the US under Trump and Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro, where denial of climate change goes hand and hand with policies that increase the production and use of fossil fuels and open tropical forests to increased deforestation.

Nowhere are the stakes higher than in the Amazon basin—and not just because it contains 40% of Earth’s rainforests and harbors 10-15% of the world’s terrestrial species. South America’s natural wonder may be perilously close to the tipping-point beyond which its gradual transformation into something closer to steppe cannot be stopped or reversed, even if people lay down their axes. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is hastening the process—in the name, he claims, of ‘development’” (“Deathwatch for the Amazon: Brazil has the power to save Earth’s greatest rainforest—or destroy it,” The Economist, 8-1-19, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/08/01/deathwatch-for-the-amazon ). Part of the proposed action is not only a domestic policy in Brazil of reforestation while it still matters, but of global consumer pressure on food companies to “spurn soybeans and beef produced on illegally logged Amazonian land, as they did in the mid-2000s.” More broadly, we are starting to hear how much it could slow global warming if we each shifted to a largely vegetarian diet, eating meat only once a week.

The exhortations in Hebrews 13 are like cheerleaders urging on those running the marathon of individual and collective efforts to avert catastrophic climate change (and respond to the climate crises already emerging). “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” who may be angels of God (Hebrews 13:1-2). “Remember those who are . . . being tortured, as if you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3). Instead of loving money, “be content with what you have,” for God will “never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5): what we most need we already have, at the heart of things; thinking otherwise leads us to scar the earth and its inhabitants in our grasping for more.

It is hard also not to think of Swedish teenager climate activist Greta Thunberg, when we ponder Hebrews 13:8: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” She models the kind of humility—of knowing one’s place—that is grounded in facts rather than prideful presumption that it does not matter what we do to or draw from the earth. She leads by asking everyone to start with knowing and heeding the scientific facts: to read the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“16-Year-Old Activist Greta Thunberg on Climate Crisis: ‘Please Listen To The Scientists,” Here and Now, July 25, 2019, https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/07/26/greta-thunberg-climate-crisis ).

Great Thunberg shares the vision of the psalmist: “It is well with those who . . . conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). Well-being and prosperity are bound up with obedient responsiveness to ineluctable facts. Here the old-fashioned spirit of obedience, of Deuteronomy’s theme of “if you obey, then you will flourish,” very much has its place as our generation takes its turn in hosting a planetary banquet of secure belonging for all earth’s species.

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 26 – July 2 in Year C (Ormseth)

Love the neighborhood as yourself!

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

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

1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21
Psalm 16 (8)
Galatians 5:1, 13–25
Luke 9:51–62

The learnings for care of creation to be drawn from this Sunday’s readings hinge on an interpretation of the concept of the “kingdom of God” from the Gospel and second reading. Would-be followers of Jesus, we are told, should “let the dead bury their own dead” and “go and proclaim the kingdom of God. . . . No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:60-61). Luke Timothy Johnson suggests that “the meaning here depends on the understanding of conversion as a ‘new life,’ with those not sharing the new life being in effect ‘dead.’” We are to understand that the preaching of the kingdom of God requires “a sense of direction and concentration” infused with prophetic urgency like that imaged by our first reading (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991; p. 163).

The apparent tension in the text between valid concerns of everyday life—the obligation to bury one’s father, the slaughter of precious oxen to provide meat for a farewell feast, for example—and following the prophet whose face is set toward Jerusalem, might suggest that preaching the Kingdom has little if nothing to do with practical, economic considerations, however much it might have to do with “new life.” We propose here, on the contrary, to adopt Wendell Berry’s insistence, in his essay on “Two Economies” (Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), that “the first principle of the Kingdom of God is that it includes everything; in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not.” Furthermore, although we “do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them,” nonetheless in principle everything in the Kingdom of God is “joined both to it and to everything else that is in it” (Berry, p. 55). Berry makes this argument in order to assert the appropriateness of calling the Kingdom an “economy”—indeed the “Great Economy”—which “includes principles and patterns by which values or powers or necessities are parceled out and exchanged.” In this view, the Kingdom of God and the preaching of it can hardly be disconnected from the “concerns of everyday life.” There is urgency here, to be sure, but the Kingdom has everything to do with such concerns, which we might in fact properly characterize as at least implicitly “ecological.”

This follows from Berry’s understanding of the “Great Economy.” We find ourselves in the precarious condition of living “within order and that this order is both greater and more intricate than we can know.” And while we “cannot produce a complete or even an adequate description of this order, severe penalties are in store for us if we presume upon it or violate it.” The special situation of humans is that while “fowls of the air and the lilies of the field live within the Great Economy entirely by nature . . . humans, though entirely dependent upon it, must live in it partly by artifice. The birds can live in the Great Economy only as birds, the flowers only as flowers, the humans only as humans. The humans, unlike the wild creatures, may choose not to live in it—or, rather, since no creature can escape it, they may choose to act as if they do not, or they may choose to try to live in it on their own terms. If humans choose to live in the Great Economy on its terms, then they must live in harmony with it.”

(While Berry develops his argument with reference to Matthew 6, we see no reason not to apply his understanding to the concept in these readings as well). A good human economy will define and value human goods so as to conserve and protect them, as does the Great Economy.  Nevertheless, certain differences pertain: the dependence of a human economy on the Great economy means that humans can only add value to things in nature, not originate value. A human economy must “also manage in such a way as to make continuously available those values that are primary or given, the secondary values having mainly to do with husbandry and trusteeship” (Berry, p. 61). “The Great Economy,” Berry insists, is “both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious. It is, thus, the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience, and it imposes on our consideration of those questions an extremity of seriousness and an extremity of humility” (Berry, p. 57).

Given this understanding of the Kingdom of God as Great Economy, what can we draw from this Sunday’s readings concerning Jesus’ possible orientation to ecological concerns? The narrative, Luke Timothy Johnson observes, begins the “great middle section” of Luke’s Gospel.  With his face set to go to Jerusalem, he immediately encounters resistance from a Samaritan village and has to respond to his disciples suggestion that they bring down fire to “consume” them. The conflict relates to the ‘ancestral antipathy between Judeans and Samaritans based in the rivalry between the shrines of Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Zion, and on a whole cluster of disputes concerning the right way to read the sacred books, messianism and above all, who was a real Israelite” (Johnson, p. 163). That he was headed toward Jerusalem would have been interpreted in the village as a choice for the competing shrine, a competition in which the disciples were only too happy to engage. Jesus’ rebuke was meant to dissuade the disciples from engaging in such competition; instead, as the following exchange reveals, they should “go and proclaim the Kingdom of God,” which would entail transcendence of that conflict in an embrace of and advocacy for the inclusive reality of the Kingdom. As the disciples will soon understand, that his face is set to go to Jerusalem with prophetic urgency shows that he is equally against the choice of Jerusalem  and its authorities over Samaria.

The significance of this narrative is further illumined by our second reading. The Apostle Paul is also concerned about the “kingdom of God,” for which he proscribes an ethic of life in the Spirit. He insists that the freedom to which Christians are called cannot be used as “an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Galatians 5:13) because it leads to those “works of the flesh” that preclude one from participation in the “kingdom of God.” His long and dreadful list of such behaviors is notable for their inherently selfish orientation within basically social or even economic relationships. “If you bite and devour one another,” he warns with graphic metaphor, “take care that you are not consumed by one another;” “let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:15; 26). Paul in fact generalizes here on the ethical principles of the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The freedom to which we are called, he insists,  instead requires, paradoxically, that we “become slaves to one another” in a life in the Spirit characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” all virtues that are inherently and positively social, in accordance with the commandment to “love one’s neighbor as oneself” (5:14, 22).

While neither Luke nor Paul has in view anything specifically related to the ecological crisis of our age, there emerges here an ethos that brings the human economy into consonance with the Great Economy.  Again, Wendell Berry sees the connection. When the existence of the Great Economy is acknowledged, he notes, “we are astonished and frightened to see how much modern enterprise is the work of hubris . . . based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy (Berry, p. 65). While Jesus forbids competition in favor of the transcendent Kingdom, and Paul warns against its reciprocal “consumption,” it is Berry’s observation that as the “ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy,” competitiveness “imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control.” That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our “wastes” are toxic, and why our “defensive” weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between “free enterprise” and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? (Berry, p. 762).

In the Great Economy, on the contrary, “all transactions count and the account is never ‘closed,’ so “the ideal changes:”

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

Loving one’s neighbor as oneself, we might say, necessarily requires a community of neighbors, or a neighborhood. And within the context of the “kingdom of God” as a Great Economy, that neighborhood would be comprised of all relationships between existing creatures, however known or unknown, visible or invisible, comprehensible or mysterious. For a human, Berry concludes, “the good choice in the Great Economy is to see its membership as a neighborhood and oneself as a neighbor within it,” as indeed, a neighbor who loves the neighborhood as oneself.

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