Tag Archives: William P. Brown

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

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

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace . . . .” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228) must be emphasized even more energetically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

New Creation Is Proactive: Regenerative and Restoring Dennis Ormseth reflects on becoming full participants in maximizing life’s creativity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

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

Why, exactly, is it appropriate to associate Jesus and “new creation”? The question calls for an extended Christological discussion far beyond the limits this commentary and the abilities of this commentator. Our taking of 2 Corinthians 5:7 as our epigraph for this series of comments on the Epiphany readings nonetheless gives us pause, if for no other reason than the rarity of the association. Of the two instances of “new creation” in the Bible (Galatians 6:15 is the other), this is the only one that specifically links the phrase with Jesus or Christ. As the authors cited in our discussion of  ‘new creation” in our comment on the Fourth Sunday note, the phrase “is generally seen—like the occurrences in intertestamental Jewish literature . . . as originating as a motif in the eschatological hope of the prophets, especially Deutero-Isaiah (see esp. Isa. 43:18-19)” and “developed in Trito-Isaiah into a depiction of the eschatological renewal of creation and specifically the idea of a “new heaven and new earth” (e.g., Isa 65:17-25, 66:22)” (David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt,and Christopher Southgate, Greening Paul:  Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis ; Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010, p. 166). Elizabeth Johnson explains the Christian extension of the concept (creatio nova)  as follows:

“Adapting this same pattern of interpretation, Christian theology makes protological and eschatological assertions of its own (Greek eschaton, the furthest end). Anchored in Christ, the life of the church in the Spirit offers ongoing experiences of a good and compassionate God amid the community’s own sinfulness and graced commitments. Proclaimed in word and sacrament, experienced in ordinary and extraordinary moments alike, the merciful presence of God, which grasps us at times even in the ache of its absence, gives grounds for speaking with gratitude of an original beginning and with hope of a blessed future. Considerations of the world’s ultimate origin and final end launch the mind toward the unknowable. For theology this is the deep mystery of the living God who bears us up in the present.”

Is this association then primarily a matter of faithful extrapolation, which as Johnson admits can “sound like wishful thinking” and can “seem like science fiction fantasies”?  “The unreality of it all can be a stumbling block for faith,” she cautions. “But there is one God, burning fire of divine love. The logic of belief holds that if this absolute holy Mystery can create life, then this same holy mystery in faithful love can rescue it from final nothingness (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. London:  Bloomsbury, 2014, p. 213).

It is no doubt by virtue of this dynamic that we have the first reading and psalm we do for this Sunday. The church in assembly makes the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and the God who creates all things: first with his exorcism in the synagogue, now in this Sunday’s Gospel with his first healing, followed by additional exorcisms and healing of “all who were sick or possessed with demons” until (in Mark’s Semitic hyperbole), “the whole city was gathered around the door of Simon’s house” (1:33). The church sees in these episodes the presence of the creator, and makes the bold claim that what happened of old is now happening anew. Creation in its fullness is being restored. More than simply miracle stories, the significance of these actions, in Myers’ view,

“can be seen only as a direct reflection of his social reality. Economic and political deterioration, especially in the decade prior to the upheavals of the Romano-Jewish war, had dispossessed significant portions of the Palestinian population, especially in the densely populated rural areas of Galilee. Disease and physical disability were an inseparable part of the cycle of poverty (a phenomenon still true today despite the advent of modern medicine). For the day laborer, illness meant unemployment and instant impoverishment. The “crowds” (ochlos) form the background to the story and represent a major aspect of its social location . . . . Jesus’ healing ministry is thus portrayed as an essential part of his struggle to bring concrete liberation to the oppressed and marginal of Palestinian society” (Myers, p.144).

These actions are what Myers terms “symbolic actions,” by which he does not mean that they were only of ”merely metaphorical significance,” “devoid of concrete, historical character,” but rather that their “fundamental significance, indeed power, lies relative to the symbolic order in which they occurred.” Such action has “divine power,” but not in the sense usually ascribed to them; their power lies “not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities” (Myers, p. 147).  In the language employed by cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, “his healing and exorcism functioned to ‘elaborate’ the dominant symbolic order, unmasking the way in which it functioned to legitimate concrete social relationships. Insofar as this order dehumanized life, Jesus challenged it and defied its strictures: that is why his ‘miracles’ were not universally embraced” (Myers, p. 147-48).

It is important to note, furthermore, that these symbolic actions have purchase not only with respect to “what Jesus does,” but also to whom and where he does them. In the period of this first day, Myers notes, “Jesus moves from a synagogue in Capernaum to a house (1:29) to an undetermined wilderness site (1:35). Similarly, later Jesus is portrayed as moving from synagogue (3:1) to sea (3:7 to mountain (3:13) to house and finally back to sea (4:1), an itinerary of “key symbolic coordinates.”  And it is perhaps especially significant that Jesus desires to proclaim his message, not only in the city of Capernaum, but even more so in the “neighboring towns” (1:38). The crowds (ochlos) are “people of the land,”  “lower class, poor, uneducated, and ignorant of the law” with whom, according to the rabbis “Jews should neither share meals nor travel together” (Myers, (p. 156). Jesus’ ministry relates in this way to all the people and the entire landscape of the entire region, “throughout Galilee” (1:39).

The picture is thus one of a people dispossessed from the land by the dominating Hellenistic population of the cities, who suffer from diseases associated with that status, and are subject to demonic possession and alienated from the elite class that rules the community from the synagogue. “In sum, in his careful use of socio-symbolic space, Mark portrays Jesus as struggling against the dominant symbolic order as it manifests itself in each social sphere in his mission of liberation” (p. 152). But they is a new people in the making, in new relationship to each other and to the land in which they live. Jesus is the catalyst for this development, as it were, the energies of which are the gift of the Creator. The Gospel reading for this Sunday thus introduces us in paradigmatic fashion to what might plausibly be seen as “new creation:” the work of one who “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (Isaiah 40:23), and who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isaiah 40:29). Jesus does so precisely because his God is  the one who also “sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in” (40:22), “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28).

In our first reading, we have an exceedingly significant prototype of this “new creation.” Isaiah 40, William Brown observes, reaches back to the foundational experience of the people of Israel in the “trauma of exile brought on by the loss of land, temple, and king,” from which the prophet drew “a new theological vision, one that emerged from the fertile soil of religious polytheism.” The “God of Israel, YHWH, is the one and only God, the creator of all” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010, p.216). The crowning theological achievement of “Second Isaiah,” Brown suggests,

“was to have YHWH stand alone, but alone in manifold fullness. Stephen Geller identifies three originally separate aspects of divinity that came to be subsumed or integrated under Israel’s Godhead: ‘God as king, as warrior, and as protector.’ In ‘Second Isaiah,’ however, the list grows longer and more differentiated. YHWH is depicted as a warrior (40:10; 42:13; 51:9-11), shepherd (40:12), king (5:7); comforter (40:1-2; 49:13; 51:3, 12), lover (43;4), husband (54:5), potter (45:9), father (45:10a, 11), mother (45:10b,  11; 49:15), Holy One (41:14, 16, 20; 45:11), redeemer (41:14; 43:14; 44:6, 24; 54:5), and covenant-maker (42:6; 49:8, 54:10; 55:32) . . . .

God’s composite personality in ‘Second Isaiah’ cannot be reduced to any one attribute. Neither is YHWH simply a compilation of all them. God’s divinity is not measured simply by addition.  In the fullness of divinity, the prophet’s God stands utterly alone and fully transcendent, above all categories . . . .

YHWH’s transcendent status rises above the myriad attributes and roles that are ascribed to the deity. “Second Isaiah’s” conception of deity is more than the sum of its roles. Except for one. God’s most central role is also, not coincidentally, the one that fits God’s transcendent status most fully: creator. The creator of all is “above” all.  God creates both darkness and light, the old and the new. YHWH is a divine singularity, incomparably and exclusively divine, whose creativity knows no bounds” (Brown, p. 217-18).

This Creator creates anew in Jesus, but “new creation” doesn’t end there. Again in the present time, it is the hope of the church who in Jesus’ name would similarly seek to liberate the peoples of the earth and the earth itself from their destructive alienation, that the power of this God will manifest itself yet again and again. Thus with  Psalm 147 we praise this Creator with present tense, as one who heals the present world and is the origin of all that is and will be. Yes, Yahweh “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds,” and yet also “determines the number of the stars”; and “gives to all of them their names” (147:4). In Christ, we are privileged to participate in the new work of this God.

It is one of the most provocative aspects of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, that she is alert to the need for what we have referred to here as “creative” power. She doesn’t call it that, of course, and may not have in mind divinity. Yet she identifies as “one of the most important developments” of the resistance movement against the destructive forces of extractive capitalism “a new kind of reproductive rights movement”, one “fighting . . . for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole—for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water table, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the ‘cancer villages.’ All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  New York; Simon & Schuster, 2014, p. 443). A promising shift is underway, she observes:

“As communities move from simply resisting extractivism to constructing the world that must rise in its rubble, protecting the fertility cycle is at the heart of the most rapidly multiplying models, from permaculture to living buildings to rainwater harvesting. Again and again, linear, one-way relationships of pure extraction are being replaced with systems that are circular and reciprocal. Seeds are saved instead of purchased. Water is recycled. Animal manure, not chemicals, is used as fertilizer, and so on. There are no hard-and-fast formulas, since the guiding principle is that every geography is different and our job, as Wes Jackson says. . . . is to ‘consult the genius of the place’” (Klein, p. 446).

These processes, she observes, “are sometime called ‘resilient’ but a more appropriate term might be “regenerative.’” Resilience is passive; “regeneration, on the other hand, is active: we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.” The vision goes far beyond “the familiar eco-critique that stressed smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’ to embrace change of our actions “so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life.” We are, she concludes, what Gopal Dayaneni, a California ecologist and activist, describes as “the keystone species in this moment” and “have to align our strategies with the healing powers of Mother Earth—there is no getting around the house rules. But it isn’t about stopping or retreating. It’s about aggressively applying our labor toward restoration” (Klein, pp. 447-48). Although we might prefer to call the healing powers “Yahweh,” we can heartily agree with this prescription for “new creation.”

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

Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B (Ormseth15)

Planting Trees as Symbol and Expression of the Restoration of Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on God’s presence in creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 {11-20}
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

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

With the readings for Baptism of our Lord, we saw how care for creation is implicated in both Jesus’s own baptism and the ongoing practice of Christian baptism. In truth, “For those who are in Christ, creation is new.” We discover further implications of this assertion in the readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany in Year B of the lectionary: Care of creation belongs to the call to discipleship and testimony to Jesus as Son of God, primary themes in these readings.

To begin with, there is the strange business of the fig tree. Why does a fig tree figure so significantly in this story? Amongst the numerous suggestions listed by Raymond Brown (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 196, p.83), interpreters may see an allusion here to Zechariah 3:10: “When the Messiah comes, ‘you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.’” As Nancy Koester suggests, “Nathaniel wonders:  Is Jesus really the one whom the Scriptures promise? Jesus points to the promise coming true in Nathaniel’s own experience: Wasn’t Nathaniel under his fig tree when Philip called him?” (Craig Koester, “Epiphany,” in New Proclamation Year B, 1999-2000. p. 96). Readers also might recall that in the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent in year B (Mark 13:24-37), the fig tree is included in a list of cosmic signs that will mark the arrival of the Messiah: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mark13:28). With reference to this text and its associated account of Jesus’ curse of the fig tree in Mark 11, William Telford reminds us, in his Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, that “the Old Testament literature on the whole knows very little of non-symbolical trees.” After examining several texts, Telford concludes:

“The fig tree was an emblem of peace, security, and prosperity and is prominent when descriptions of the Golden Ages of Israel’s history, past, present, and future are given—the Garden of Eden, the Exodus, the Wilderness, the Promised Land, the reigns of Solomon and Simon Maccabaeus, and the coming Messianic Age . . . . The blossoming of the fig tree and its giving of its fruits is a descriptive element in passages which depict Yahweh’s visiting his people with blessing, while the withering of the fig-tree, the destruction or withholding of its fruit, figures in imagery describing Yahweh’s judgment upon his people or their enemies . . . . “(Cited in Ched Myers,  Binding the Strong Man; A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, pp. 297-98).

In this connection, it is particularly striking that Jesus’ sights Nathaniel under the fig tree, with his approving comment: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” This is followed in quick sequence by first, the account of the Wedding at Cana, also a picture of divine blessing, and then by the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, with which the fig tree is commonly associated as a sign of divine presence and blessing. The fig tree’s presence here in the Gospel of John, we want to suggest, provides a link between Jesus’ mission and concern for the well-being of creation. Care of creation is recognized here, however subtly, as a concern inherent in the call to discipleship.  Indeed, the future of that discipleship will take its course in cosmological context, with glorious traffic between heaven and earth.

The theme of divine presence relative to both the arrival of the Messiah and the Jerusalem temple, it occurs to us, is more important in these readings than is commonly recognized. In addition to the symbol of the fig tree, temple as scene and as metaphor is important as well, as the appointment of the story of Samuel’s call might alert us. Samuel’s call takes place in the temple at Shiloh, we note, at a time when the leadership of Eli as priest has been deeply compromised by the wickedness of his sons. In a development that foreshadows Jesus’ own attack on the temple state, Samuel’s call commences with the thorough rebuke of both Eli and the temple sacrifices: “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). While Yahweh will continue to appear at Shiloh for some time (3:21), in due course, God will act through Samuel to establish the house of David and eventually also a new temple in Jerusalem. Samuel, who knows himself in his calling to be God’s servant (3:9), becomes the agent of this relocation: The ark of the covenant will move on, such that the God whom Israel encountered in the wilderness will not be captured for one place or for one house.

So also with Jesus and his disciples: The presence of God, with its attendant blessing of land and people, is now being relocated from temple sanctuary to the person of Jesus. This is the import, we suggest, of Nathanael’s confession of Jesus as “Son of God” and Jesus’ response to him: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John l1:50-51). As Raymond Brown notes, interpreters have explained the saying with reference to a variety of texts having to do with the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:12, involving ‘the ladder, the shekinah, the merkabah, Bethel, or the rock;” it is “in the theme that they have in common” that “they are probably correct; . . . the vision means that Jesus as Son of Man has become the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth. The disciples are promised figuratively that they will come to see this; and indeed, at Cana, they do see his glory” (Brown, p. 91). Unfortunately, the sequence of the lectionary does not offer an occasion to follow up this suggestion with an examination of the story of the wedding at Cana; if the reader will refer to the comment in this series for the Second Sunday of Epiphany in Year C, however, its import for care of creation will be clear: The marriage at Cana, we argue there, is metaphorically the marriage of heaven and earth promised by the prophet Isaiah in the associated lesson for the day, Isaiah 62:1-5.

The significance of this relocation for discipleship doesn’t end there. Indeed, if “temple” designates God’s “down to earth” presence, the truly astonishing thing to be observed in these readings is that already by the time of the Apostle Paul, Christians were expected to know that their bodies, both corporately and individually, were temples “of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). God will indeed be an embodied God, incarnated as was Jesus in the very bodies so “intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). It belongs to the service of the servants of God to be the occasion, location, and agency of both this embodiment and its persistent renewal in the ever expanding “house” of earth and sky (See Jurgen Moltmann’s discussion of Friedrich Oetinger’s thesis that “Embodiment is the end of all God’s works,” in Moltmann’s God in Creation, pp. 244-75, for an extensive development of this theme).

Correlatively, we would call attention to the presupposition of this understanding of divine presence, that God is immanent  in the lives of those called by Jesus, lives according to the Psalm that are deeply grounded in the earth. God, the psalmist asserts, is truly “inescapable”:  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away” (139:1-2). “The inescapable God” (the title given to the Psalm in the NRSV) is a God who is everywhere and in all times present, not just to the one who sings God’s praise, but throughout the creation:

“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (139:7-10).

Stunningly, not even cosmic transformations can separate this human from the Creator: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me becomes night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (139:11-12). Unfortunately, verses 7 to 12 of the psalm are not assigned for the reading, but they are properly referenced in connection with the confession, at v. 13, that the God who is this human’s creator, who not only “knit me together in my mother’s womb” was also there “when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depth of the earth” (139:15).

The fig tree is a sign that binds confession of Jesus as manifestation of God to awareness of God’s presence in creation and the call of the disciple to care of creation. The story that when Martin Luther was once asked, “If you thought tomorrow might bring the Day of Judgment, what would you do?” He replied, “I’d plant a tree,” is  probably apocryphal; it is nonetheless relevant to these insights. “What is certain,” Larry Rasmussen notes, is “his use of the tree as metaphor for the Christian life in his ‘Lectures on Isaiah’ and specifically in his commentary on Isaiah 61:3C: ‘They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory’’”(Earth Community Earth Ethics, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p. 199).

In this age of environmental crisis, Lutherans could do much worse than to adopt the tree, fig or otherwise, as sign and inspiration of their discipleship. As we have noted, it’s an image with deep resonance in biblical tradition and Christian witness; it is also prominent, Rasmussen notes, in ancient Judaism, where the “Torah itself, the embodiment of divine instruction and the first emblem of Judaism, as a tree of life. It is even said that abiding by the words of Torah restores the tree of life lost in the primal act of disobedience in Eden.” But also now more than ever in our ecologically informed age, a living tree has become a sign of a healthy, fruitful earth, breathing in the carbon dioxide emissions that threaten to disrupt nature’s balance, breathing out the oxygen that is the essential requirement of all life on earth. As William Brown writes, reflecting on the results of over two centuries of intense study of nature,  “the tree of life remains the most suitable simile for describing the metanarrative of life on Earth” (William p. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation:  The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 114). Planting trees in the face of possibly catastrophic climate change makes sense for people of Christian faith of all traditions, as sign of hope and faithfulness, yes, but also as servant of the earth, following in the steps of our Lord Jesus, servant of all creation.

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

Baptism of Our Lord in Year B (Ormseth15)

Jesus Ushers in a New Creation Dennis Ormseth reflects on the new creation we experience in baptism.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

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

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

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

With the readings for the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, the church begins to tell its story of how it has come to see creation as “new.” With the ministry of Jesus, the old does indeed “pass away” and “all things are new.” As Mark’s gospel opens, we realize that this transition is already underway.  As God’s people are gathered by John the Baptist at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, the power and authority of the Jewish temple-state centered in Jerusalem, with its exclusivistic appropriation of the blessings of the God’s covenant and its sustaining cosmology, begins to give way to the reality of a new people dwelling with God within a renewed creation.

The readings draw this reality into view in dramatic fashion. In the tearing apart of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit as a dove over the waters, we are invited to see the opening of a new creation story, in which again, the “wind of God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Once again “the voice of the Lord is over the waters,” as wind and flame announce the enthronement of the Lord “over the flood” (Psalm 29:3-10). As the dove descends on Jesus, we are reminded of the “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth,” which was promised when Noah and the animals came out of the ark (Genesis 8:16). In the fresh light of this “first day,” the first born of a new humanity rises out of the waters. Having identified fully with our sinfulness in submitting to John’s baptism of repentance, this “son of God” begins to restore among us the imago Dei, and opens the possibility of our lives being regenerated by the Spirit in his name.

Thus is inaugurated, in Ched Myer’s characterization, Jesus’ “subversive mission.” Jesus’ baptism serves to mark the difference between John’s valid but incomplete “baptism of repentance” and the full  “renunciation of the old order” (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 129). We note that our second lesson suggests that this difference was deemed important enough in the early church to merit the Apostle Paul’s instruction that those baptized by John should be baptized again in the name of Jesus, so as to complete their baptism in the power of the Holy Spirit. In view of its cosmological accents, however, Jesus’ baptism also marks a parallel liberation of the biblical cosmology from its ties to the temple state, in favor of its restoration as part and parcel of the new reign of God in creation. New creation, and not merely repentance, this suggests, is the purpose of the Christian practice of baptism; this difference is also very significant, we want to suggest, relative to our concern for care of creation.

It is instructive to note, following William P. Brown’s discussion of biblical cosmology in his book on The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2010), that the cosmological elements we have identified here are drawn primarily from the cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3, a portion of which is therefore appropriately selected for our first reading. This cosmogony, Brown shows, is clearly modeled on the pattern of the temple in Jerusalem. With clearly and fully differentiated domains,” the account “gives form to creation” that “manifests a symmetry supple enough to allow for variation and surprise.” The narrative progresses day by day from the empty formlessness of “Day 0” through the differentiation of realms of light, waters above and below, and land, which are then in turn filled with lights, aviary and marine life, and land animals, including humans, with their food, to the fully differentiated fullness of the completed creation on Day 7. It is a literary version, Brown argues, of the three-fold structure of the temple’s portico, nave and Holy of Holies. “The first six days, by virtue of their correspondence, establish the architectural boundaries of sacred space.  The last day inhabits, as it were, the most holy space . . . . In the holiest recess of the temple God dwells, and on the holiest day of the week God rests” (Brown, p. 38-40).

What is particularly striking about this description is its inherent dynamic, which is hardly compatible with the rigidity and hierarchy commonly associated with the management of sacred space under the authority of a priestly governing elite, like what the reader will encounter later in the pages of Mark’s gospel. Here, differentiation of realms never becomes separation; dominion never implies domination. On the contrary, division is regularly overcome by generativity. As Brown puts it, “Genesis 1 . . . describes the systematic differentiation of the cosmos that allows for and sustains the plethora of life.” Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the narrative’s treatment of the very holiness of God. While adhering to the “aniconic” prohibition of divine images, the account nevertheless allows for the identification of an imago Dei with humanity.  “Cast in God’s image, women and men reflect and refract God’s presence in the world. The only appropriate ‘image of God,’ according to Genesis, is one made of flesh and blood, not wood or gold (p. 38).”  Whether interpreted in terms of an “essential resemblance” of son to father, the “universalizing” of the exercise of dominion, the displacement of the divine assembly unto human community, or the reflection as male and female of the “communal and generative dimensions of the divine,” the imago Dei shares with God in the “cooperative process of creation” (Brown, p. 44). Even as the waters and the earth share in that agency, so do humans participate in creation as “a cooperative venture exercised not without a degree of freedom,” and as “deemed good by God,” set toward the furtherance of life.

Mark’s Gospel, we suggest, while insisting on the displacement of the presence of God from the Jerusalem temple onto Jesus, by no means intends that this move renders irrelevant or obsolete the cosmogony of the temple. On the contrary, with his setting at the very beginning of the Gospel, of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, and filled with the cosmological reverberations as it is, the author opens up that cosmology to the restored embrace of the full creation. As all the people walk the land and move to the bank of the river and as they then experience the movement of the Spirit over the waters and the voice declaring a human being good (“my beloved”), the reader senses that this story opens one afresh to the wonder of the creation. As once before when Israel came out of exile, we are caught up in what Brown sees as the import of Genesis 1: there is here “a profound effort . . . to put the painful past of conquest and exile behind and to point the way to a new future.”

It is therefore exceedingly important to observe, as Gordon Lathrop has shown in his book on liturgical cosmology, Holy Ground, that a fully expressed practice of Christian baptism retains several key cosmological elements from the Genesis cosmogeny. Water, of course, takes central place here, combined with Spirit. Whether there is a pool or a bowl of it, the waters of the baptismal rite provide not only a center to the rite, but, as Lathrop points out,

“[t]hey also provide a center to the world. Here is a womb for the birthing of new life, as ancient Christians would say.  Here is a sea on the shores of which the church may be as a new city open to all the peoples. Here is a spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless gives a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people” (Holy Ground, p. 105-6).

Astoundingly, we note, the font in the local parish church can thus be seen to take the place of the temple in Jerusalem as the center of the universe, an omphalos. Set out in the gathering space of the congregation, it reminds us of both cosmological and ecological realities,

“that what goes on here is not only about human culture but also about cosmos. The water comes here from elsewhere in the world’s water system, from a river or lake or underground stream, ultimately from the rain itself. But then, what water does come here is gathered together in fecundity and force. If the water is before us in abundance, it may waken in us inchoate put powerful longings for both a cleaner earth and a widespread slaking of thirsts; it may give us a place for our reconceiving death and life within this watery world; it may give us a cosmic center” (Holy Ground,  p. 106).

Supporting the development of this baptismal awareness is instruction that includes a strong emphasis on the doctrine of creation and the faithful care of creation.

“Teaching the faith involves, as its first and basic move, teaching that there is a world and not just chaos, that this world is created, and that human beings have a compassionate and caring role within that creation. Christian faith is, first of all, trusting the creator, trusting, therefore, that the world is not some trick. Formation in prayer, then, involves learning to stand within this world in thanksgiving” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

Then, just as the temple in Jerusalem attracted various significant symbolizations of life in God’s creation (such as the cosmic mountain, the primordial hillock that first emerged from the waters of creation, the spring waters of life, and the tree of life}, so are other primal elements placed at the edge of the water of baptism to . . .

“call our attention to their world center, this spring, this birthplace:  a fire burns—that most widespread phenomenon of our universe, creative and destructive burning—here as a paschal candle giving light, evoking in a small way both the warmth and the danger of this new life; olive oil is poured out or marked upon those baptized, fruit of the life-giving trees of the temperate regions of the earth, evoking healing, festivity, and, here, the sacred office given to the baptized; new clothing is put upon the baptized, great white robes, as if those immersed here came forth a whole new sort of humanity, making a fully new beginning; and the whole community then leads these newly baptized ones to a meal, a sharing of the sources of life within the world, sustenance for this new humanity, for these new witnesses to the order of the cosmos” (Holy Ground, p. 107).

If linkage of the church’s baptismal practice to Jesus’ own baptism thus orients us to the creation, it is important to remember that it does so always by taking us first to the margins of human life, away from our social and political centers, indeed, to the edge of the wilderness. These marks of creation serve to relocate us to the wilderness experiences of the people of God where new creation always begins, and what naturally follows for us, as for Jesus, is an experience in the wilderness where the basic reorientation to God’s creation is first fully actualized.  We note that in Mark’s narrative, following his baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1:12-13). In the narrative of the liturgical year, we return to this exodus on the First Sunday of Lent; in the meantime, we look to see what impact this reorientation to creation has on the calling out of a community of the new creation, and indeed, what “new creation” actually might mean for us.

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

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

Do we see God’s work in all creation?Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.

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

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

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

The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced  in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.

When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.

Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.

Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’

The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:

The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).

Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).

Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).

Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam.  Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.

So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.

With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?

Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of CreationGod, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well. 

All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ”  Global warming, Brown notes,

“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it  But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption?  A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation

Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and  the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year C (Ormseth)

What if we thought of Christ as Wisdom, God’s playmate who leads us into joyful dance?

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

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

Holy Trinity Sunday in Year C
First Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8 (2)
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus’ promise of truth to come hardly forecasts the bitterly conflicted history of development of doctrine of the Trinity. As Robert Wilken writes, “how the trinitarian religion of the Bible, the liturgy, and the early creeds was to be expressed in light of the biblical teaching that God is one provoked a fervent and prolonged debate that occupied the church’s most gifted thinkers for two centuries” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2003, p.83). The readings appointed for this Sunday do both exhibit that religion as it came to expression in the writings of the New Testament, however, and provide significant markers for the debate that followed. The Gospel sets out the relationship between Jesus, his Father, and the Spirit of truth upon which the promise itself is grounded: communication between the three of them will lead to glorification of Jesus and reception of the whole truth of the Father among Jesus’ followers (John 16:12-15). Similarly, in the reading from Romans 5, the saving grace of “peace with God” comes to the hearts of those justified by faith, into whose hearts “God’s love has been poured . . through the Holy Spirit.”  These readings represent a recital of the relationships within the Trinity set out in the readings last week for the Day of Pentecost.

The Old Testament readings, on the other hand, represent sources of conflict in the development of Trinitarian doctrine. A footnote in the NRSV reminds us that the heavens of the ancient world were populated by divine beings of diverse kinds and varying status, in Hebrew the elohim, or as commonly translated in English, “the divine beings or angels.” Their existence raised for the church the question framed later by the great historian of Christian doctrine, Adolf von Harnack: “Is the divine that has appeared on earth and reunited man with God identical with the supreme divine, which rules heaven and earth, or is it a demigod?” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971; p. 172). And the answer of the theologians of the church hung largely on the interpretation of our first reading from Proverbs 8.

What was at stake in the interpretation of Proverbs 8 is far more complicated than we can review here. We are concerned to show only how that debate brings into play (an apt metaphor, as we shall see) further development of the particular understanding of creation which the readings for the Day of Pentecost brought forward a week ago. Jaroslav Pelikan argues that while early on in the encounter with pagan thought, the “Spirit Christology” of the New Testament, which we encountered in those readings, sufficed to more precise definitions were needed. The concept of the Logos, together with the title of “the Son,” began to supersede in importance all earlier usages. Rather remarkably, however, Proverbs 8:22-31 figured even more significantly in this development than John 1-14 (Pelikan, p. 186). As Robert Wilken observes, because the New Testament identified Christ with Wisdom (e.g., 1: Cor. 1:24), references to the figure of Wisdom were deemed instructive concerning the existence of Christ prior to his incarnation. “Read in light of the Resurrection those passages from the Old Testament that depicted the activity of Wisdom helped Christian thinkers to fill out what it meant to call Christ God” (Wilken, p. 95). Faced with the challenge of the creation-negating movement of Marcion and other gnostics, theologians used Proverbs 8 to argue that Christ as Logos provided a correlation between the creation and redemption, as can be seen in our reading, where Wisdom says, “when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (Proverbs 8:29-31).

In the subsequent conflict with the Arians, however, use of Proverbs 8 to explicate the divine in Jesus became highly problematic. The Arians used 8:22, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago” to argue that the Logos was subordinate to the Father, and accordingly not fully divine, being himself a creature; combined with the words of Hebrews 1:4, the passage could be seen to assign the Son of God to the “category of the angels, although, to be sure, he was preeminent among them” (Pelikan, p. 197). The Arians’ chief interest here was in preserving, in Pelikan’s words,

. . . an uncompromising view of divine transcendence.  No action of God, neither the creation of the world nor the generation of the Logos, could be interpreted in such a way as to support the notion that “the Father had deprived himself of what he possesses in an ungenerated way within himself, for he is the source of everything.” God was “the monad and the principle of creation of all things,” and he did not share this with anyone, not even with the Logos.  Any other conception of God would, according to Arius, make the Father “composite and divisible and mutable and a body” (Pelikan, p. 194).

It was an a priori of the Arian position that God must at all costs be represented in such a way that he did not suffer the changes affecting a body. This meant that God in his transcendent being had to be kept aloof from any involvement with the world of becoming. His “unoriginated and unmitigated essence” transcended the real of created and changeable things so totally that there was not, and ontologically could not be, a direct point of contact between them. Such a total transcendence was necessary not only for the sake of the utter oneness of God, but also because of the fragility of creatures, who “could not endure to be made by the absolute hand of the Unoriginate” (Pelikan, p. 195).

God the creator was accordingly seen to be of an essentially different nature from this lessor divine, the angelic Logos, and the link between creation and redemption in the being of the Logos, so important to the faith, was severed.

In response, the orthodox teachers of the church rebutted the Arian interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 by arguing that the word “created,” as applied to Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22, had to be taken in the sense of “begotten,not made.” Indeed, this is how the relationship came to be defined in the creed promulgated at the council of Nicea in 325: Christ was to be confessed as begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the ousia of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, homoousios with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who for the sake of us men [sic] and for the purpose of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man [sic], suffered and rose again on the third day (Pelikan, p. 201).

What particularly interests us here is that in making this argument, the theologians rescued for the church not only the teaching of the true divine in Christ, but also re-secured the linkage between creation and redemption. They contradicted the Arian teaching of the eternal and radical transcendence of God in relationship to the creation. Christ, they insisted, was of the same being as the creator of all things, even though he “came down and became incarnate, becoming man [sic], suffered and rose again on the third day.”

As they did this, moreover, they also rescued for the church the relevance for future believers of Proverbs 8:22-31. So it is that we can read the passage this Sunday not simply as exhibit A in an ancient and bitter controversy, but as instruction for the faithful about the relation and the activity of the triune God in creation. With William P. Brown, our guide in last week’s comment to the creational significance of Psalm 104 in relationship to the gift to the church of the Holy Spirit, to lead us again, we turn to the teaching about creation contained in the text. Like Psalm 104, Proverbs 8:22-31 is one of “seven pillars of creation” on the basis of which Brown builds a comprehensive view of the Bible’s teaching about creation. Indeed, there is striking consonance between these two “pillars:” the “joyful” and even “playful” God of the psalm would be entirely at home in the cosmic “playhouse” of Brown’s interpretation of Proverbs 8. While the sayings of Wisdom cover both “the ethical ideals that promote the communal good and the personal ideals that promote individual standing within the community,” with “reverence of the creator as its starting point,” the search for wisdom is particularly “oriented toward the created order.” Wisdom, observes Brown, is instrumental in the creation of the cosmos; it is reflected in creation’s integrity and intelligibility. The sages discerned order, beauty, and wonder within the natural world. For them, the wisdom by which God established creation, the wisdom reflected in nature, is the same wisdom found in the bustling marketplace, city gates, and street corners. In Proverbs, cosmic Wisdom makes her home in the day-to-day world of human intercourse (Brown, Seven Pillars of Creation:   The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2010; p. 163).

According to Wisdom, “Every step and facet of creation is graced by Wisdom’s joyful presence. She is ever-present physically ‘beside’ God before, during, and after creation. She is preeminently alive as much as she is uniquely engendered. Wisdom is life in principium” (Brown, p. 166). Strikingly, her role corresponds well with that of Leviathan in Psalm 104: she is always to be found at play.

Wisdom remains a player throughout, and her play serves double duty. Wisdom’s activity engages both God and the world in the mutuality of play, holding creator and creation together through the common bond of delight. She is no child left inside. Rather, she is let loose in creation to explore and play. Wisdom is

. . . “delight” of the world. . . Wisdom’s hymn is in itself a tangible testimony to her continued delight in creation and in God. She is God’s full partner in play, and creation is hers to enjoy.  Wisdom is no mere instrument of God’s creative abilities; she is more than an attribute, divine or otherwise (cf. 3:19). Wisdom is fully alive, interdependent and interactive with God and the world.  All the world was made for her, and her delight affirms it all (Brown, p. 166).

Like God’s joy in Psalm 104, Wisdom’s delight “makes possible the world’s flourishing.” She “informs humanity’s role and place in the world .  . . .  Her position in the world sets the context and catalyst for those who desire to grow in wisdom . . . . And so all the world’s a stage for Wisdom’s play” (Brown, p. 167). “Playing in the streets, playing in the cosmos: such is Wisdom’s vocation. Born of wonder, Wisdom’s play shapes and sustains the just community, her beloved community. Wisdom’s homage to God and to creation highlights the inhabitable and, hence, political (from polis, “city”) nature of the cosmos, a world full of fully-living agents, all thriving and playing together (Brown, p. 168)

In Browns view the cosmos is a playhouse to be enjoyed by Wisdom. This teaching about creation, he thinks, ought to find resonance with the best thinking outside the church. “The psalmist trembles before the vastness of the universe,” he notes, referring to Psalm 8:1-3. And “like the ancients, many scientists admit to being struck by an overwhelming sense of wonder—even ‘sacredness’—about nature and the cosmos.” “The need to engage science and biblical faith” he rightly insists, “has never been more urgent.” We desperately need a new way in the world that is both empirically and biblically credible.” Specifically, with respect to Wisdom’s hymn in Proverbs 8, he has in view the physical theory of quantum mechanics. “Wisdom’s all-encompassing play,” he observes, “interconnects all creation, dynamically so” in much the same way as “quantum entanglement” of quantum theory does.” “More fundamental,” he adds, “Wisdom’s ‘play’ resonates with the quirkiness of the subatomic level of reality, where uncertainty is the name of the game. Wisdom’s’ subatomic dance is more improvisational than choreographed” and “amid these two contrastive levels, of play and stability, a certain ‘historical’ primacy is evident.” Just so, “in the beginning was playful Wisdom, just as one could say about the birth of the cosmos” (Brown, p. 170). It follows that we live in an open universe, characterized not only by genetic adaptation but ever more powerfully by intelligent learning, which with its capacity for “multiple representations of the world” is able to resolve social conflict and foster cultural innovation (Brown, p. 173). What the biblical concept of wisdom adds to this is “religious and moral valuation:” Wisdom seeks both the common good and the common God; it fosters reverence of the creator of all and cultivates “justice, righteousness, and equity.” (1:3). Wisdom is as fully emotive as she is cognitive. It is by her that kings rule and children play (Prov. 8:15-16, 30-31) (Brown, pp. 173-74).

As we saw in the readings for the Day of Pentecost, we are called to engage in the reorientation that the Spirit promotes in the worship of the Christian community. As in the case of God and Leviathan in Psalm 104, Brown concludes,

Play requires partnership, and Wisdom has two partners: God and creation. Her world is more relational than referential. Who else, in addition to the “offspring of adam,” occupies creation for the sake of Wisdom’s delight?  Frolicking coneys, roaring lions, breaching whales, and flapping ostriches? They, too, inhabit creation, and thus have a right to play.  And then there is God, with whom Wisdom shares a particularly intimate relationship.  As God’s partner is play, she is “beside” the creator of all as she is beside herself in joy. (Brown, p. 176).

What if the church, following the lead of the ancient church’s theologians and under the guidance of the Spirit, were to begin to think of its Christ as Wisdom, God’s playmate, who leads us into joyful dance? What would happen if in our worship we celebrated with him/her the establishment of righteousness in a world that is an absolute delight to God, a world that God cannot get enough of, and cannot let go of? Here is Brown’s proposal:

God so loved the world that God gave daughter Wisdom, so that everyone who plays with her may gain enlightened life. Proverbs boldly claims that human beings exist not for themselves but for Wisdom, specifically for her play and enrichment. Yet, reciprocally, Wisdom’s play nurtures and enriches all conscious life. Her play is mutually edifying, and there are no losers, except those who refuse her invitation or simply quit, much to their impoverishment. Wisdom’s play, moreover, is no otherworldly, mystical exercise. Both Proverbs and Psalms declare God creating the world in and by wisdom (Ps 104:24; Prov. 3:19). However, more than creation’s intelligibility, more than its orderliness is meant, as science so powerfully demonstrates. Creation in wisdom reflects its joie de vivre, a vitality reflected in its interactive, self-regulatory, life-sustaining processes.

       Creation according to Proverbs is made for Wisdom’s play, and to play is to discover and cherish creation made in wisdom. It is what scientists do best in their quest to understand the wonders of creation. It is what people of faith do best in their quest to cherish and care for creation. (Brown, p. 237).

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

The Day of Pentecost in Year C (Ormseth)

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

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

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

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

The second reading from Romans 8:14-17 provides the bridge from that universal presence of the Spirit to God’s care for all creation. As we also noted in our comment on the Day of Pentecost for Year B, Romans 8 is embedded in a major Pauline narrative according to which the hope for creation is focused on the “moment of the revelation of the sons/children of God.” As David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate argue in their Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis,  Romans 8 is “a particularly developed and powerful depiction” of the Pauline narrative of “a process, decisively begun yet still to be worked out through suffering and struggle (e.g., Phil 3:10-14; cf. also Col 1:24)” with “its insistence that it is only in conformity to the sufferings of Christ that a sharing in his glory and inheritance is attained (8:17).” The children of God are leading characters of the narrative, they argue, since it is their liberation on which that of creation depends and onto which the hopes of creation are focused. Thus are the children of God “led by the spirit of God,” “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:14, 17)” are crucial agents for the progression of the story of creation from groaning to freedom (Horrell, Hunt and Southgate, Greening Paul.  Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2010; p. 83).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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