Tag Archives: year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

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

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

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

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

Lent Calls Us to Serve the Flourishing of CreationDennis Ormseth reflects on the temptation of Jesus and what it says for us.

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

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

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

Our Lenten journey begins in wilderness and proceeds through the land we call holy towards Jerusalem. Jesus walks the land, headed for his decisive engagement with the religious and political authorities that hold control over it. The ecological footprint of this journey thus covers both wilderness and the territory of settled human habitation; it also provides context for questions of a more general nature involving the relationship between humans and the rest of creation overall. According to Christopher Southgate, these are the three broad contexts in which humans might exercise care for the creation: “One is that of the whole surface biosphere; another is the context of what is presently wilderness; the third that in which humans live alongside the nonhuman creation and cultivate or actively manage it” (The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, p. 113). During this Lenten journey, we might expect to engage in considerations concerning each of them. What intrigues this reader is that all three figure already in the story of Jesus’ temptation, here at the beginning of the journey. Indeed, read in conjunction with the other texts appointed for this Sunday, we want to suggest, the story serves as prologue to an adventure in the healing of all creation.

The story begins with the report from Matthew that immediately following his baptism “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). We are thus put on notice that the account to follow concerns a conflict of cosmic scope between the powers of good and the powers of evil, or more appropriately, the powers of life and death. The Spirit that leads Jesus and is at the very heart of the relationship between Jesus and God made manifest in the his baptism is confessed by the church as “the Lord, the giver of life,” His antagonist, “‘the devil,” as Warren Carter notes, “once a member of the heavenly court, accuser of humans (Zechariah 3:1-10, Job 1-2) and inciter of sin (1 Chronicles 21:1),” is the “evil opponent of God’s purposes, who tempts people to sin and thwarts God’s plans.” “The central issue,” of the temptation, as Carter characterizes it, concerns allegiance: Who will determine Jesus’ actions? Will Jesus be faithful in carrying out God’s commission, or will the devil, God’s opponent, define his actions and claim his allegiance?” (Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 106, 108). But as our second reading reminds us, at stake here is more than the question of allegiance. At stake is whether because of that allegiance the power of death to exercise dominion through sin will be decisively broken, so that “dominion in life” will be given “through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). It is a matter, in a word, of life and death: Which shall be victorious?

Wilderness is the designated setting for the initiation of the contest. What is it about wilderness that qualifies it for this role? Anthropologists will point, of course, to the “liminality” of the wilderness. It is space at the margins of human life, where human communities and their political and economic elites have neither privileged place nor power. There we are made freshly aware of our deep dependence upon the powers and resources that reside in creation beyond human habitation and control. In the wilderness, as it were, we revisit the primordial Garden of Eden. As with Moses and the people in the Exodus from Egypt, so now God employs the wilderness as testing ground for a relationship that bears immense significance for God’s restoration and renewal of creation. The forty days’ of isolation and fasting would bring Jesus to an acute sense of that dependence; the text puts it simply: “he was famished.”

The devil’s first temptation of Jesus is to suggest he could use his relationship to God “the Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth,” to overcome that dependence by “turning stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). Jesus’ response, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), is manifestly an act of allegiance to God. But it is noteworthy that his response also concerns the human relationship to the earth: “One does not live by bread alone” (Mathew 4:4). Life, one we might extrapolate, is more than a matter of having power to manipulate and transform the natural order of things for human benefit, which the making and breaking of bread so powerfully symbolizes. Changing stones into something else, even for human benefit, must take into account what God has declared for the right relationship between humans and the rest of creation. Jesus’ refusal of this temptation acknowledges a limit on the demands humans can make on the non-human creation of the wilderness.

What is that “right relationship”? Our first reading reminds us what the will of God for human beings was intended to be. True, Genesis 2 tells us, the human is given a measure of power over creation: God had taken note of certain deficiencies in the “good” creation: there were no plants, there was no rain, and there was no one to “till” or serve the ground (Genesis 2:5). The human was thus created as part of a package of ongoing improvements, so to speak, beyond what was already in place. As Terry Fretheim puts it, humans are placed in the garden  “not only for the maintenance and preservation of the creation but also for intracreational development,” that is, for “service of the non-human world” which involves “moving it toward its fullest possible potential” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 53).

This “development” is, to be governed, however, by the clear purposes of God. God put the human being in the Garden of Eden to “serve” and to “protect” it—the translation preferred by many scholars now, over “till and keep.”  Strikingly, according to Ellen F. Davis, the key words here are not drawn from the fields of horticulture and agriculture, as one might expect, but relate primarily to “human activity in relationship to God; to serve or work on behalf of or worship (e.g., Exodus 9:1, 13). To serve the land would thus imply ‘that we are to see ourselves in a relation of subordination to the land on which we live . . . deferring to the soil. The needs of the land take clear precedence over our own immediate preferences.’ And this is shown to be the case not least because, as Genesis 1:29-30 indicates, human beings are heavily dependent upon the land for their very life.” Furthermore, “[w]hat it means to ‘keep’ the soil is akin to what it means to keep the commandments. To keep the commandments has both positive and negative dimensions, namely, to promote the well-being of others and to restrain violence and the misuse of others. And so to ‘keep’ the land is to promote its well-being and keep it from being violated through human misuse” (Fretheim, p.53. The quotation from Davis is from her Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 192).

Jesus’ response to the first temptation thus manifests respect and care for creation as obedience to God’s will. For Jesus, his wilderness temptation offers opportunity for restoring the right relationship between humans and the non-human creation. In contemporary ecological terms, he conforms to the principal notion, suggested by Southgate, of humans as “fellow-citizens of wild nature,” according to which wilderness is a place where other creatures, even the stones, have a relationship to God that is independent of humans; that, indeed, sees that “they are loved for their own sake.” Even the Son of God “must quiet the thunder of [human] ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idol,” in order that the praise of those other creatures to God can be offered without our distorting it. Whatever powers the human has in relationship to other creatures must be used, as Southgate suggests, to ward off “certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most” of the richness of life in the whole surface biosphere, and “to conserve at the most general level what God’s loving activity over 4.5 billion years has made possible on Earth, to make sure indeed that the future is no worse than the present” (Southgate, pp 113-14).

In his response to the second temptation, Jesus formalizes this orientation as a religious principle, not only for wilderness, but for all the land in which they live. The location for this temptation, it should be noted, is the temple in Jerusalem, at the center of the people’s religious practice. Guarantor of the good order of creation against the threat of chaos, the temple grounds the people’s expectation that God will be present to them in the land to which God has led them. It is there in the temple that their relationship to God can be restored. Jesus is invited to demonstrate his claim on God’s blessing by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; God’s angels, his tempter suggests, will bear him up. Again Jesus declines, quoting scripture, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

The contemporary reader will note that by resisting this temptation, his act of allegiance to God again involves a refusal to act against the “laws of nature.” In non-scientific terms, it is a refusal of transcendence over the creation, a willingness to employ the power of the spiritual realm (the angels) for the purposes of securing his own glory. Appropriate to the link between worship in the temple and the good order of creation, Jesus will not use his intimate relationship with God to circumvent that order, even though doing so would seemingly alter dramatically his status and influence among the people. It would place him at the center of Israel’s worship, making him something of the “superman” Messiah that so many of his followers through the ages have wanted him to be. Jesus’ response shows that transcendence over creation is not what he is about, neither as human being nor as Son of God.

The third temptation takes place on a high mountain, where his tempter “shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” (4:8). The location provides an overlook for the entire habitat of Earth, where, as Southgate puts it, humans are “the ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation” (Southgate, p. 114). In terms of Jesus’ own teaching from his Sermon on the Mount, the choice Jesus confronts here is obedience to one of two masters, God or wealth. The unfettered pursuit of wealth, in all its complex ramifications and in concert with the drive to imperial control over other nations, we now know, is a chief cause of earth’s ecological degradation, and especially of global climate change and catastrophic extinction of species. We can imagine that this high mountain, like the mountains of his sermon and of his transfiguration before it, rejoiced, as the representative of Earth’s entire ecology, to hear Jesus’ refusal. Domination “of all kingdoms of the world” and the ecological devastation that accompanies it will not occur in Jesus’ reign (See our comment on the texts for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A).

Summing up, considered from within our ecological framework, Jesus’ responses to the temptations by the devil exhibit, one, respect for the limits of human transformation of nature; two, refusal of transcendence over nature; and third, refusal to join in the pursuit of power and wealth that is so destructive of the earth. These principles go a long way towards structuring a responsible relationship of humans to the earth. Allegiance to God and obedience to God’s will clearly involve service to God’s creation. To serve God is to serve God’s creation, and the service of God’s creation is service of God. At the same time, moreover, this perspective illumines the significance of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the meaning of his final confrontation there with the power of death.

Terry Fretheim insightfully shows that at its deepest level the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience is about mistrust of God and its consequences for the creation. Called to serve and protect the creation according to the good intentions of the creator, but mistrusting God, the humans instead seek to know “like God,” so as to better meet human needs and desires they didn’t recognize they had until their dangerous conversation with the wily snake. As Fretheim puts it,

The issue is not the gaining of wisdom in and of itself . . . but the way it is gained . . . . The issue is not the use of the mind or the gathering of experience, but the mistrust of God that the human move assumes. When mistrust of God is combined with possible new levels of knowledge, certain negative effects are forthcoming. The humans do not have the perspective or the wherewithal to handle their new knowledge very well (a recurrent problem); only God can view the creation as a whole and make appropriate decisions in view of that perspective. 

Not trusting the word of God that set limits to their use of creation, unlike Jesus, they went against God’s will for their relationship with creation.  Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, p. 75).

The text of Genesis 2 raises the possibility of a more drastic consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, of course, namely death, which appears to be the view of the Apostle Paul in our second reading as well: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned–. . . .” (Romans 5:12). Consideration of this possibility is important, first, because evolutionary theory—essential for an ecological understanding of the development of life—holds that all living creatures, human as well as non-human, come to fit their ecological niches by a dynamic process of selection that is driven by the survival or death of individuals with variations that do not serve the life of the species in question. To insist on the view that death enters creation as a consequence of human sin accordingly makes it difficult to hold together belief in God as creator and the foundational theory of biological development, with dire consequences for our ability to tend properly to the needs of living creatures as we participate with God in the ongoing creation. Additionally, it follows that if death is not a consequence of human disobedience, it cannot be regarded as a punishment for it either, which calls into question the meaning of Jesus’ death as a vicarious sacrifice for sin, as it has traditionally been understood. We will need to explore these issues more fully as we follow Jesus to Jerusalem and his death on the cross. Raising them here, however, allows us to anticipate the framework for interpreting the meaning of Jesus’ death, towards which concern for care of creation is leading us. As we suggested at the beginning of this essay, that meaning has to do with the cosmic conflict between the dominion of life and the dominion of death.

Fretheim and others contravene the traditional interpretation that links sin and death directly. A close reading of the text of Genesis, they argue, doesn’t support that view. As Fretheim observes, “If human beings were created immortal, the tree of life would have been irrelevant. Death per se was a natural part of God’s created world.” If death accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin, God’s exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death, and, in this, Fretheim argues, Romans 5:12-19 gets it right (Fretheim, p. 77). Seeing the full reality of death does give rise to an ever-deeper distrust of God. Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance, as the Apostle sees it. What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life. And as the Apostle says, to follow Jesus is to “exercise dominion in life” (5:17). The distinction between these two rival dominions, we note in conclusion, is helpful in addressing the vexed assertion on the part of environmentalists that Genesis authorizes the human domination of creation that is so terribly destructive of the environment. While scholars agree that the relevant texts do authorize dominion, what those texts mean by that is what we see here in our Genesis reading, namely, responsibility and power to promote the flourishing of life within the creation. That is the dominion of life and the way of Jesus does indeed fully support it; it just as fully rejects the dominion of death. In the readings for the Sundays to come, we will see further what that can mean, not only for us humans, but for the nonhuman creation as well.

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

Ash Wednesday in Years A, B, and C

Returning to Our Origins Dennis Ormseth reflects on the start of our Lenten journey.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2011, 2013, 3017, 2020, 2023)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51:1-17
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Potentially, the first text read to initiate the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, is a profoundly eco-theological text. The fact that note of this potential is rarely taken in commentaries for preachers is to be expected, given that exegetes are likely to focus on the call to repentance that is the central motif of the Ash Wednesday service: “ . . . return to me with all your heart. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:12-13).

That what precipitated this call was a crisis that we would today more readily describe as ecological than spiritual is admittedly not immediately obvious from reading the selected verses. Reading the entire book, on the other hand, makes this much more apparent. The description of the devastation striking the land and its inhabitants which precedes our reading in Chapters 1 and 2 is as ominous as any modern day forecast of the impacts of, say, habitat loss or climate change. And the subsequent portrayal of the restoration of the land in the latter part of chapters 2 and 3 would lift the heart of the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Read in this context, however, the selected verses clearly point to the creational significance of the prophet’s vision: the “great and powerful army,” is a great plague of locusts, “like blackness spread upon the mountains.” The great swarm is incomparable: “their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” Thus, the trumpet is sounded on God’s holy mountain (already a signal that will alert readers of this series in the comments for the season of Epiphany, in which the mountain regularly serves as representative of God’s whole creation), so that “all the inhabitants of the land” (and not just the humans) might tremble, as a “day of clouds and thick darkness” brings “darkness and gloom” over the land (2:1-2). The reading stops short, however, of telling us just how searing and absolute the devastation is: “Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them” (2:3). And astonishingly, we learn later that at the head of this “army” is none other than the Lord Himself: “The LORD utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?” (2:11). Verses 2:3 and 2:11can easily be added to the reading, should the preacher wish to bring this eschatological aspect of the text into focus for the congregation.

Scholars struggle to identify the precise historical setting of the prophet Joel. It perhaps suffices to observe that he is intimately familiar with the cult of the temple in Jerusalem, and that he lived in Judah sometime during the Persian period of Jewish history (539-331 B. C. E.). He lived, that

is, at the center of the Israel’s political and religious life. His description of the plague, however, is perhaps meant to remind his readers of an earlier great plague of locusts in the story of God’s people, the eighth of the great plagues that Moses called down from God on the Egyptian pharaoh and his people. Also, then, “such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever shall be again” covered the surface of the whole land, so that the land was black; and they ate all the plants in the land and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had left; nothing green was left, no tree, no plant in the field, in all the land of Egypt” (Exodus 10:14-15). As Terry Fretheim points out, in regard to the account of the Exodus and other similar incidents, locusts are “a symbol of divine judgment (Deut 28:38, 42; 2 Chr. 7:13; Jer 51:27; Amos 4:9; 7:1, Joel 1—2)” (God and World in the Old Testament, p.9). This time, however, the plague is visited on the people of Judah themselves, in their homeland. The purpose is the same as the Egyptian plague, however. Like Moses to Pharaoh, Joel’s call to the people is for repentance: “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (2:13).

This plea, as we have noted, is the primary reason for reading this text on Ash Wednesday. In the service, it serves to invite the general act of repentance, which in spite of the urgency suggested by announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming” and by delay of the assurance of forgiveness until Maundy Thursday, extends for the entire season of Lent. To recapture for this act the ecological significance of its original scriptural context would be, therefore, to initiate a season of repentance focused mainly, if not exclusively, on the “sinful” behaviors and policies that are responsible for the environmental crises of the present day.

Is there exegetical warrant for this strategy? Clearly, yes, in so far as the parallel between this plague in Joel and the other plagues from the foundational narrative of Israel is instructive. Fretheim argues that the plague narratives have an overarching creational theme. The ultimate focus of God’s liberating action in the Exodus is not Israel, but the entire creation. The “scope of the divine purpose is creation-wide, for all the earth is God’s.” He explains:

“The plagues are fundamentally concerned with the natural order; each plague has to do with various nonhuman phenomena. The collective image presented is that the entire created order is caught up in this struggle, either as cause or victim. Pharaoh’s antilife measures against God’s creation have unleashed chaotic effects that threaten the very creation that God intended . . . While everything is unnatural in the sense of being beyond the bounds of the order created by God, the word ‘hypernatural’ (nature in excess) may better capture that sense of the natural breaking through its created limits, not functioning as God intended. The plagues are hypernatural at various levels: timing, scope, and intensity. Some sense for this is also seen in recurrent phrases to the effect that such ‘had never been seen before, nor ever shall be again'” (Fretheim, p 120).

Substitute the plague described by Joel, and the characterization is still valid. The theological grounding for this approach to the plagues is an understanding of the relation between the moral and the created order that embraces both the Egyptians and the Israelites on their home ground: they have been “subverting God’s creational work, so the consequences are oppressive, pervasive, public, prolonged, depersonalizing, heartrending, and cosmic because such has been the effect of Egypt’s sins upon Israel [and later Israel’s sins in its own land]—indeed, upon the earth—as the pervasive ‘land’ language suggests” (Fretheim, p. 121).

If what pertains to the plagues of the Exodus pertains also to the plague of Joel’s context, it reasonably pertains to our situation of global environmental crisis today as well. As Fretheim concludes, “In this environmentally sensitive age we have often seen the adverse natural effects of human sin. Examples of hypernaturalness can be cited, such as deformed frogs and violent weather patterns. The whole creation groaning in travail waiting for the redemption of people needs little commentary today (Rom. 8:22)” (P. 123). Except, we would urge, as such commentary may in fact be relevant to preaching in the season of Lent. Lists of endangered species and ecosystems abound, that is true, and we do not need to add to their number here. Nevertheless, human responsibility for the causes is rarely acknowledged in the context of Christian worship. The prophet calls us to do just that: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation . . .Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep” (2:15-17).

Once the eco-theological potential of the Ash Wednesday service has been brought to the attention of the congregation by a slightly extended first reading, a similar refocusing of the second reading will reinforce its impact. Again the intent of the text seems straight forwardly spiritual: “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20b). Again, the appeal is made urgent by reference to the “day of salvation,” in this instance drawn from the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:8): “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (6:2). What follows is a list of critical situations and virtuous behaviors that the Apostle and our brother Timothy regard as their bona fides for their appeal to the Corinthian congregation as “servants of God”—a matter we will return to below. What the appointed text fails to bring out is that the Christ on whose behalf the appeal is made is the Christ in whom, according to Paul in 5:17, “God was reconciling the world to himself,” and “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17-19). Thus, if the lectionary lesson were to start at verse 17 instead of the present 20b, the preacher would have a second text with great significance for an eco-theological observance of Ash Wednesday.

2 Corinthians 5:17 is one of two Pauline texts (Galatians 6:15 is the other) that recent interpreters of Paul use to bring into focus the “green” aspect of Pauline theology. Although they are less frequently cited than Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, these “new creation” texts have traditionally been interpreted primarily as “anthropological conversion texts:” the new creation is a “new creature.” But David G. Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate in a new book on Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, make a strong argument against that reading. And we would urge adoption of their alternative understanding of these texts, as “referring to a cosmic eschatological transformation which the Christ-event has wrought.” Citing the work of Ulrich Mell, in their reading of Galatians 6:16, “The cross as an event of divine restoration is a world-transforming, cosmic event in that, in the ‘middle’ of history, it separates a past world before Christ from a new world since Christ . . .It is not the human being who is called ‘new creation’ but, from a soteriological perspective, the world!”

So also here in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul presents Christ “as the initiator of a new order of life (and a new order of creation),” who “represents a cosmic saving event, in which the human being is in principle bound up” (P. 167). Supporting this reading against the more individualistic, anthropological view, they suggest, is the fact that “apocalyptic” readers of Paul (since the work of Ernst Kasemann) have long emphasized “the epoch-making action of God in Christ; it is more properly seen as theocentric or christocentric than anthropocentric” (P. 168). When the concept of the “new creation’ is linked to the strong theme of “participation in Christ,” as we have it here in 5:17, Paul’s theology becomes strongly “amenable to an ecological rereading. . . [that is] centered on the act of God in Christ, which affects the whole cosmos and has inaugurated the renewal of that cosmos” (P. 172; For their full argument, see p. 166-178).

What implications for care of the environment follow from this view of Paul? Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate see no direct eco-ethical implications from the cosmic focus conveyed by the concept of the new creation in Paul’s writings. For them, it is rather the factor of “participation in Christ” that they find important in this regard, on account of which believers share in “the pattern of his paradigmatic story of self-giving for others,” summarized most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:5-11)”—which offers the paradigm of “one who chose not to act in a way to which he was entitled but instead chose self-denial for the benefit of others.”

We wonder, however, whether the concept of “new creation” does not itself suggest an ethical framework, one that reaffirms the Old Testament understanding of creation as fundamentally relational, as seen in the law developed within the covenant between God, God’s people and God’s creation. The “new creation” is a newly flourishing creation, like what the prophet Joel expected from God’s hand in response to the righting of the relationship between God and God’s people. The concept of righteousness is also of great importance for Paul, not only as a spiritual relationship between God and the believer, but also as a structure of right relationship within the creation. Fretheim makes a similar point with respect to the concept of salvation in the context of the Exodus: in that grand narrative, salvation means “the people are reclaimed for the life and well-being that God intended for the creation. As such, God’s salvation stands, finally, in the service of creation, freeing people to be what they were created to be and having a re-creative effect on the nonhuman world as well, as life in the desert begins to flourish once again” (God and World in the Old Testament, p. 126).

However, for an Ash Wednesday observance with its requirement that the preacher focus on what we have elsewhere referred to as “affairs of the heart” (see our comment on the readings for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany), an emphasis on “self-giving for others” will serve to anchor our concern for the care of creation in all three of our readings. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the LORD (Joel 2:13), and Jesus extends the instruction concerning outward displays of piety: practicing one’s piety before others, whether in the giving of alms, prayer, or fasting, threatens one’s relationship not only with the God, but with the creation God loves. How so? What God sees in secret is the fact that such “showing off’ of one’s piety, so to speak, compromises the integrity of what philosophers and sociobologists call altruism, or in Horrell, Hunt and Southgate’s terms, “other-regard.” “Showing off” corrupts altruism with the always-insistent self-interest present in the heart. Practicing one’s piety before others is dangerous because that self-interest is antithetical to the spirit of God’s love. God’s love for the creation is itself pure other-regard, the very essence of God’s relationship to the creation, both in bringing it to be and in its restoration. Such other-regard is absolutely fundamental to the relationships between God, God’s people, and God’s creation. Participation in that love is absolutely critical for engendering a strong, caring relationship between human beings, but even more so for their relationship with nonhuman beings, characterized as that relationship necessarily is characterized by more “otherness.”

It is worth noting that the Apostle himself struggles with this problem of genuine altruism in his relationship with the Corinthians. He recognizes that he might appear to them (as he certainly appears to us) to boast of his sufferings and privations on their behalf; so he pleads for them to accept his work as a manifestation of a heart “wide open to you,” that they might also “open wide your hearts also.” A definitively Christian response to the ecological crisis of our time will be wary of this corrupting dynamic of self-interest in appeals to the public. Certainly, cleaning pollution from the air is of benefit for all, but in this perspective it is more important, ethically considered, that the benefit we emphasize is “for others.” On the other hand, encouragement for altruistic behavior can be equally diminished by flaunting in public one’s eco-spiritual “purity.” More than one good effort to encourage a congregation in the care of creation has been confounded by the self-righteousness of those responsible for developing it. It is clearly better to do as Jesus’ says: “Store up for yourselves” the greatly satisfying “treasures” of effective acts of love for creation in heaven, where neither the moth of self satisfaction can cut at its fabric of relationship, nor the rust of over-heated advocacy weaken the communal structures of our love for each other and the creation around us. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

So, there is opportunity enough in these readings to advance a strong appeal for love of the creation. But one thing more occurs to us. The ritual action for the day is marking on the forehead of penitents the sign of the cross in ashes, accompanied by the words, “From dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” Somber action, somber words—too somber for one congregation, apparently. They wanted something more cheerful, more welcoming; so the pastors made the sign not with ashes, but with sparkling party dust and said an encouraging word to each person as they presented themselves. They might have said “you are made of stardust, and to stardust you will return” and not been so far wrong. But thinking of God’s act of creation, we might also this day remind people of their humble, but not the less glorious, origins: “you are from the Earth, and to the Earth you shall return.” That would put us in a good place, all the same, from which we can gratefully set out on our Lenten journey.

Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 20, 2020) in Year A

All Creation Looks Forward to God’s Glory Dennis Ormseth reflects on the mountain experiences of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

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

Readings for Transfiguration of Our Lord, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

Mountains matter.  Beginning with the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, in which the mountains were called on by the prophet Micah to witness God’s controversy with God’s people, we have sought and found in the sayings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount material grounding for an Earth-honoring faith. Now with the readings for the Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the mountains nearly speak for themselves, demanding our attention as part of some of the most important, defining narratives of the biblical tradition.

The texts constitute a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, extended over the ages.  God, as it were, summons to the high mountain of the Transfiguration “those two great ancient worthies,”  Moses and Elijah, the founding liberator and lawgiver from the exodus from Egypt, and the great prophet from the reign of Ahab and Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel, respectively (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171). Amplifying this look backwards, the first reading recalls Moses’ own encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. A comparison of these stories produces several elements held in common, which serves to tie them intimately together: each happens on a mountain, “six days later”, with a special select group; the shining face and skin, the bright cloud and voice from the cloud result in great fear on the part of the bystanders (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000, p. 348.)  Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai, as well. In the context of his conflict with Ahab and Jezebel and their priests of Baal, he ascends Sinai alone.  There he is caught up in a great wind, an earthquake and fire, and then hears out of the sheer silence the voice of God (1 Kings 19).  Belden Lane explores the connections here:

“The mountain narratives of Moses and Elijah had situated each of them within a context of loneliness and rejection.  In going to meet God on the mountain, the one had been scorned by his people, who demanded a golden calf to worship (Ex. 32:1).  The other had been threatened by Jezebel, who’d sworn herself to vengeance (I Kings 19:2).  In both cases, their ‘seeing of God’ on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real” (Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Desert and Mountain Spirituality.  Oxford:  Oxford Univeersity Press, 1998, p. 135).

Thus the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor lends political significance to the narrative of the Transfiguration. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power:

“Lying far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), the mountains defy the authority of the state, ‘clashing with every royal religion enamored of image, vision, appearance, structure.’  Coming to Sinai, Moses had witnessed the overthrow of oppression in Egypt.  Elijah came to the mountain fleeing the corrupt regime of Ahab, having just undermined the hegemony of Baal on Mount Carmel. The mountain of God necessarily brings into question all claims to political power.  Its iconographic imagery challenges every human structure. Similarly, at Tabor, the transfiguration reaches beyond the present failure of political justice in Jerusalem to affirm an unrealized future where Christ is king” (Lane, p. 135).

Jesus brings to the mountain assembly his disciples Peter, James and his brother John, the fishermen to whom we were introduced on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, as he called them away from their life by the sea and the hardships of fishing under the oppressive control of Roman imperial rule. Jesus has been traversing Galilee with them, teaching, healing, and feeding people as they went, a journey interspersed by repeated visits to remote areas, including both mountains and the Sea of Galilee.  Their journey culminates just prior to their ascent of the mountain in Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, followed almost immediately, however, by a bitter exchange between Jesus and Peter over Jesus’ future path to Jerusalem and the cross. It is the opposition of his disciples to his disclosure that he will face crucifixion and death before being raised up (Matthew 16:21-28) that leads to the divine instruction from out of the cloud,  “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

The second reading for this Sunday recalls the event of the Transfiguration in the voice of Peter from some time near the end of his life, apparently also in response to the religious challenge from an opponent, suggesting the continued immediate relevance of this instruction in the life of the young church:  “You will do well to be attentive to this [account] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” As indeed do we, also.  The older and wiser Peter sees what these narratives share:  each of these men has been in a dark place, but they are being drawn into the light.  Moses, Elijah and Jesus each went to the remote mountain after experiencing difficulty in the communities for which they are leaders. Away from the political and religious centers of society, each time the manifestation of God lends legitimacy to their leadership in a time of conflict, and empowers their future course of action.  All three emerge, as it were, from the darkness of those conflicts into the holy light on the mountain, before descending the mountain to resume their leadership according to the will of God.

Thus the presence of Moses and Elijah confirms for Jesus’ disciples his “high rank and holy task,” encouraging them “to follow him in his unrelenting journey to the cross” (Robert H. Smith, p. 171). But Jesus’ traverse of this passage from dark to light is in one key respect different.  Readers of our comment on the text for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany might recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address from Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people “to choose life” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him. Elijah’s adventure on Sinai followed on an opposite choice by the people and their leaders, once they lived in the land, of the way of death that is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land.  In contrast to both Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and Elijah’s conflict with royal idolatry there, Jesus has gone deeply into the land to engage its people, and has manifested there a benign and restorative presence among them.  He has been about the healing of the creation.

The conflict between Jesus and his disciples is particularly telling in this perspective.  As Robert H. Smith points out, in spite of their experience on the mountain, the disciples do not really hear what Jesus is saying. Matthew brings this section of his gospel to a close with an account of their dispute amongst themselves, as to who will be seated in positions of power and authority when Jesus ascends the throne of the kingdom (Matt. 20:20-27), an account that, as Smith notes, reverberates with damning significance for our own times:

“They all wanted to be in charge, to sit on seats of privilege and power.  It is not only pharaohs who build pyramids.  All the nations do it. Corporations do it.  Churches and schools organize hierarchies, and families and clans do it.  It all seems so natural.  It happens so regularly, so easily, so universally, that we find ourselves thinking, ‘of course the few were born to give orders, and the many were made to obey!’

But is it natural?  Where does it all come from?  From God?  Did God order the universe in such a way that humankind should exercise a ruthless dominion over the trees and rivers, over birds and beasts?  Did God’s voice really call out that men should rule over women?  The people of the Northern Hemisphere should dominate the poorer nations to the south?  Did the finger of God write that we should have social systems that are rigidly hierarchical, authoritarian, and patriarchal?” (Smith, pp. 172-73).

No, this pattern of domination does not come from God, as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has made clear.  It is those who are poor in spirit, those who lament the absence of righteousness in the land and desire above all its full restoration, the meek who give place to others in the full community of life and who seek peace, even to the point of refusing violence in return for persecution by their and Jesus’ enemies, who will be comforted and inherit the kingdom (see our comment in this series on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany). Indeed, Jesus’ passage through the countryside constitutes a foretaste of the healing of creation to come with his entry into the full reign of God as servant of all creation.  Followers of his way have been warned against “affairs of the heart” which contribute to the patterns of dominations that disrupt the good creation (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday). They will be salt and light for a sustained and illuminating demonstration of the kingdom, characterized by obedience to God’s creation-serving law and genuine and full-hearted love of the other, including non-human creatures (see our comment on the Fifth Sunday). But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth that will result in its ecological devastation and abandonment (see our comment on the Sixth Sunday).

As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, however, it is important that we take note of both the specific location and the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration. Again we would urge, the mountain itself matters. It has been observed that Mount Tabor, the presumed locus of the transfiguration, is a very different place than Mount Sinai.  Sinai is high and forbidding, “a place of dark and difficult beauty,” as Belden Lane experienced it on a climb to the peak.  For him, “it symbolized the wandering of the children of Israel, the experience of loss and the bread of hardness.  The Sinai wilderness is a place far from home, a ‘no man’s land’ of fire and smoke.” Mt. Tabor, on the other hand, is “a cone-shaped peak in Galilee,” appropriately captured in the words of Elisaeus, a seventh-century Armenian pilgrim, who described it as surrounded by “springing wells of water and many densely planted trees, which blossom from the rain of the clouds and produce all kinds of sweet fruits and delightful scents; there are also vines which give wine worthy for kings to drink.”  “If Sinai wins the soul by threat and leanness,” Lane comments, “Tabor compels by charm.” “In Jewish history,” he notes, “Tabor is associated with Deborah, the woman of faith and daring who led her people in defeating the captain of the Canaanites and his fearful iron chariots (Judg. 4-5).  This mountain is one possessed of an ancient, feminine energy.  It is Mother and Sister, one whose strength is bent toward nurture and wholeness.”  As he walked alone in cold rain on Tabor’s lower slopes, Lane found the mountain, “especially in the rain …a place of nourishment, a place to rest and be still” As he comments, in contrast to the landscape of Sinai, Tabor ‘offers a landscape of accessible and gentle beauty.  Like a wet, green breast rising out of the Plains of Jezreel, it is bathed in light, covered with woodland trees and wildflowers.” (Lane, pp. 124-25, 130-31.)

Belden’s contrast matches our expectation that Jesus would go to such a mountain as Tabor to help bring his disciples to a sense of the beauty of creation as it would be in a world freed from the pursuit of wealth and the associated all-encompassing pattern of domination.  “The sacred mountain, from Sinai to Tabor to Zion,” comments Lane rightly, “is a place where political priorities are realigned.  To flee to the mountain is to identify with the marginalized, with those denied access to the empowerment of the state and thus subject to its wrath.  Jesus and his disciples may well have contemplated such things as they walked down Tabor on their way back toward Jerusalem.”  But where the desert-mountain tradition “stringently insists that ‘moments of splendor’ serve the purposes of justice and responsibility in the ordinary life” (Lane, p. 135), the more ecologically harmonious experience of Tabor, we want to suggest, encourages the hope that somewhere ahead lies another mountain that instead invites us to ascend it more with the beauty of the infinite than the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

We in fact take that to be the deepest meaning of what happened to Jesus there on Tabor: that “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” is, as the Orthodox tradition understands it, the sign of things to come for the whole creation.  A recent visit by this writer to the sanctuary of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, outside of Ravenna, Italy, where the scene of the Transfiguration fills the apse, confirms this possibility.  Moses and Elijah rest on clouds to the left and right of the star-studded cosmic field which surrounds a cross that bears the face of Jesus at its center.  Below them, trees, flowers, birds and animals of the forest delight the eye, while sheep of the parish fold and their bishop walk amongst the lilies. Again Lane comments significantly:

“Tabor is the mountain of light, taking joy in the greening power of God’s spirit, as Hildegard, the twelfth-century Benedictine nun, described its impulse toward growth.  This is a mountain that thrives on abundance and redundancy.  It supports a plant life of variegated wonder.  The apocryphal Gospel of Hebrews connects its summit with the height of mystical insight; ‘The Holy Spirit, my Mother, came and took me by the hair and carried me to the great Mount Tabor.’  Here is effulgence, an excess of glory” (Lane, p. 140).

The Transfiguration, and the Eastern iconographic tradition that builds upon it, draws us forward with a vision of the “as-yet-unrealized but promised transfigured glory of the entire material world. Because of God having been made flesh in Jesus Christ, humans are able to glimpse the very face of God in matter itself” (Lane, p. 126).  God’s love of the creation, so amply exhibited in the readings of the Season of Epiphany, knows no final limit; all creation can look forward in joy to the culmination in God’s future of the reconciliation and incorporation of all things in the glory of God.  This is, indeed, an Earth-honoring faith.

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

Choosing LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on Moses’ Farewell Speech and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

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

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

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

As we continue to mine the readings of these Sundays of Epiphany for foundations of an “Earth-honoring faith,” the first reading is obviously most relevant. The reading from Deuteronomy is the end of Moses’ farewell speech to the people he led out of Egypt, to Mount Sinai and through the wilderness, to the banks of the Jordan river at the boundary of the land promised to them.  He will not enter the land with them, so the speech carries the full burden of his hopes for them as they enter and claim their heritage.  The choice they face is a stark one: in Moses’ words, it is between “life and prosperity,” or “death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). The choice concerns their relationship to God, but also their relationship to the land.  If they “obey the commandments of the Lord . . by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees and ordinances,”  they “shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless [them] in the land that [they]are entering to possess.”  On the other hand, if their “heart turns away and [they] do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [they]shall perish. [They] shall not live long in the land that [they] are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”  Significantly for our search for an “Earth-honoring faith,”  which we initiated the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany with Micah’s metaphor of God presenting God’s case against the people in the court of the mountains, Moses here calls both “heaven and earth” as witness to the choice he has set before them. The whole creation is to be aware and observe how the people choose.

For what might these witnesses be watchful?  In the chapter previous to our appointed text, Moses foresees what will take place if the people forsake the covenant:

the next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land and the afflictions with which the Lord has afflicted it—all its soil burned out by sulfur and salt, nothing planted, nothing sprouting, unable to support any vegetation, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Amah and Zeboiim, which the Lord destroyed in his fierce anger –they and indeed all the nations will wonder, “Why has the Lord done thus to the land?  What caused this great display of anger?” (29:22-24).

Moses also foresees an alternative future, however, in which “the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you . . Then [they] shall again obey the Lord, observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and the Lord your God will make you  “abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil” (30:9).

The contrast is thus sharply drawn:  people and environment either thrive or languish together. In accordance with Deuteronomic theology, the consequences described here are attributed to the divine wrath as punishment for their idolatry, or divine favor for their obedience. We would rather see a more directly causal relationship between their behavior and the consequence.  As Terry Fretheim explains, “The law is given because God is concerned about the best possible life for all of God’s creatures.” The intent of the law is to serve life, in accordance with God’s overriding interest that the creation as a whole should be served well by those who have responsibility for it.  There are three aspects to this concern. First, “the law helps order human life so that it is in tune with the creational order intended by God.”  Secondly, “because life in creation is not free from all threats, law is given for the sake of both the preservation of God’s creative work and the provision of the most welcoming context possible for ever new creational developments”. The law calls for “basic human respect for the earth” because “’the earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24:1) and the animals and land belong to God.” And thirdly, “law is given to serve the proper development of God’s good but not perfect creation.” There are “creative capacities built into the order of things and the charges given its creatures. . . God’s creation is also understood to be a work in progress.” Thus the law reveals God’s will for the creation God loves, and it is the God-given vocation of God’s image-bearing animal creature, the human being, to love the creation as God does, with an eye to its future perfection, not only its past integrity and present condition.  Failure to obey the law thus carries with it the destructive consequences of what might be deemed opposition to God’s creative love. (See his discussion of ‘Creation and Law,” in God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 133-56).

The choice Moses has placed before the people, we might therefore observe, is an affair of the heart, both God’s heart and the human heart. The decisive issue, as the text says, is whether or not the people “love the Lord their God, walk in his ways, and observe his commandments, decrees, and ordinances” — the choice of life — or turn their hearts away – the choice of death:  love God and so be sustained in their life in the land for generation upon generation, or refuse to acknowledge God as giver of the gift of the land and the law by which they shall live in it, and so perish from the land as the land itself dies beneath them. So choose, says Moses.  “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (30:19-20).”

We are familiar with a similar choice today, albeit one framed in much more secular terms.  Our relationship with the land in America is defined for our culture mainly in terms of the rights and freedom to take and dispose of it according to the contracts we have struck regarding possession of it, versus a deeper relationship with the land that is part of an older agrarian ethos that regards the land as living habitat for ourselves and the other non-human creatures with whom we share it.  For the one, the land has values to be exploited for our commerce; these values are assigned values, determined by those who have control over it.  For the other, the land is valuable in and of itself, a fund of value which can be drawn upon to sustain the life of the animal communities that are dependent upon it, as part of what makes it valuable, but which really do belong to the land itself.  For the one, the concern is to protect those rights of possession, and to preserve the self-interest of its owner; for the other, laws are sought that set out general principles developed within the interdependent community on how to safeguard and conserve the land’s inherent value.  The one relationship is in fact predominantly a matter of self-interest or self-love on the part of the people who own it; the other is a “love affair:” a love of that which is other than oneself.  For the one, loss of value in the land due to ecological degradation is at best a loss of wealth or potential wealth to the owner.  For the other, loss of value is destruction of some or all of life’s generative possibilities.

Aldo Leopold, a founder of the modern discipline of ecology, is well known for his formulation of a “land ethic” which acknowledges the inherent value in land:  “A thing is right”, he holds, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (From his Sand County Almanac).  Adherence to this ethical principle as a guide through the complex and difficult decisions our society faces might be one way of responding today to Moses’ challenge to “choose life.” It is a principle, we contend, that is genuinely “Earth-honoring.”  The choice of life, in this sense, leads to a way of living that exhibits consonance with the ecological and evolutionary relationships inherent in nature.  But attending to those relationships is not simply a matter of following scientific rationality.  As Leopold himself said, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value.”  It is for him, too, fundamentally an affair of the heart.  (See Norman Wirzba’s The Paradise of God, pp. 100-111 for the discussion that underlies this comment.)

When Moses finished his address to the people, we read in the closing chapter (34) of Deuteronomy, God led Moses from the plains of Moab, up another mountain to show him all the land promised Abraham’s descendents, and there Moses died.  God had let him see the land with his eyes, but said: “you shall not cross over there.” Thus did Mount Nebo become the resting place of the prophet whom “the Lord knew face to face,” the like of which has “never since arisen in Israel” (34:10).  Never, that is, until Jesus, according to Matthew, who was baptized at the Jordan, and coming away from the river, “went throughout Galilee” and, followed by great crowds from “Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan,” went up the mountain with his disciples, where he sat down and taught them (Matthew 4:25 – 5:1). Jesus has accordingly entered deeply into the land, and now from a new mountain, within the land, he returns to the law and commandments of Moses, as the section of his Sermon on the Mount assigned for last Sunday made clear: as he said, “whoever does [the commandments] and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (5:20).”  And indeed, far from abolishing Moses’ teaching, in the verses we read this Sunday, he lifts up selected provisions of that teaching to “radicalize” them, in Robert Smith’s term. Not only murder, for example, but anger, insult , and disparagement” are condemned. Not adultery only, but lust.  Not only false oaths, but any oaths at all, “either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King” (5:21-37).  His teaching at this point calls us, as Smith puts it, to “look into the depths of the human heart.”  At the same time, however, he “shares with us his vision of new human community.” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 158.)

The character of that community has been sketched out in the previous beatitudes. As we have seen in our discussion of earlier sections of the Sermon, he calls for a disposition of meekness (the meek give place to others in the community of life); he creates a thirst and hunger for righteousness (the purpose of his mission is the fulfillment of all righteousness); he promises mercy for the merciful. And to the “pure in heart” (those who render inwardly held conviction of God’s love visible in outward service to the cause of God’s love for the creation) he has promised nothing short of the vision of God.  But in the depths of the human heart vigorous forces of opposition fight against these provisions.  Refusal to give place to others, which leads even to murder, the absolute disrespect for life, bursts out of the deep dispositions of anger, hate, or disparagement of the other. Lust manifests itself in the drive to possess and dominate the other, as in the adulterous exploitation of women.  Deception of the other by calling on either heaven, or earth, or Jerusalem destroys the possibility of righting these relationships by making claims to sacred status, earthly power, or political privilege. Jesus’ vision of a new human community is one in which these destructive “habits of the heart” have no place.   Smith describes this community in a way that must give us pause at this point in American political life: it is a “wondrous world where personal and corporate transactions no longer require batteries of lawyers and reams of documentation, where such safeguards are no longer necessary, where deceit and half-truths and downright lies are unknown, where our speech is simple, direct, and completely honest (5:33-37)” (Smith, p. 159).

The relationships discussed here are obviously social and interpersonal. Is any of this understanding relevant to relationships with non-human others of God creatures?  Choose life, pleaded Moses, and the governing principle here is clearly the loving service of the life of the other.  Domination of every form, physical, sexual, verbal, has been displaced, as next Sunday’s gospel makes explicit, by genuine love for the “other,” even the one who is “the enemy”  (5:43-44). All actions are understood to involve love of the other, as love of relationships that God loves.  Such love of the other moves, not easily but faithfully, in the face of earth’s destruction, from the human community to that of the whole creation. Thus the life of the community becomes a demonstration project of the power of God’s love lived out in community relationships, including our relationships with our habitat, the earth. The reading from 1 Corinthians illustrates the point. The Apostle Paul’s challenge to the conflicted parties dividing the congregation in Corinth strikingly employs the metaphor of one who plants and one who waters, to characterize a relationship of interdependence between participants in the community:  “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.  For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:1-9).   What is said here of the congregation, could, and should, be said with reference to our relationship to of all God’s creation:  we are God’s servants, working together, in God’s original field, God’s original “building.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting  the “Creational Need” of Nature Dennis Ormseth reflects on salt and light in this Sunday’s readings.

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

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

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

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

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

Matthew 5:13-20

As the reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues for another eight verses this Sunday, we extend our exploration from last week’s comment, to see whether Jesus’ teaching provides further support for an “Earth-honoring faith” (See that comment for a statement of what such faith requires, following Larry Rasmussen’s description in his book by that title). Although this Sunday’s readings do not offer us an “Earth-honoring” metaphor comparable to last Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Micah’s “trial before the mountains,” there are nonetheless strong echoes here of themes we found significant for such a faith.

In the first reading, for instance, the prophet Isaiah similarly announces Jahweh’s rejection of the pretense of the wealthy who come seeking God’s presence, while they do nothing about removing the “bonds of injustice” and the “yoke” of oppression, poverty, and homelessness they place on the those below them.  The text thus again rejects the master and slave ethic, which, as Rasmussen suggests, in the industrial age has been extended from social and economic relationships to “other-than-human nature” in a “paradigm of domination that renders nature essentially a slave to humanity, its steward and master” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 100).  Those who choose to break with this pattern of domination and the false worship to which it is coupled, will be, in the prophet’s image, “light” that “shall break forth like the dawn” (cf. the Psalm, 112:4); they will share in a restoration of both body and habitat (The Lord will … satisfy your needs in parched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”  58:8, 11).  Their relationship with Yahweh will be fully restored, and as they “take delight in the Lord,”  Yahweh will make them “ride upon the heights of the earth.”  Thus in the end, here, too, with their abandonment of their rebellion over against God, the mountains receive them on behalf of the Earth. Their city restored, the people will be “called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (58:12).  Restoration of the people’s relationship to Yahweh is accompanied by restoration of the relationship with the creation in which they live.

The second reading, in turn, brings back the theme of the power of God.  Paul disavows human wisdom and power in favor of “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that [the Corinthian congregation’s] faith might rest, not on human wisdom, but on the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).  He speaks “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” he writes, which ‘none of the rulers of this age understood…, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  The wisdom and power of the crucified Christ, revealed by the Spirit, is accordingly contrasted to the wisdom and power wielded by the politically and socially powerful in pursuit of their imperial interests. With respect to our concern for care of creation, this contrast relates to perhaps the greatest imbalance of power in the modern world, that involving control over the development and flow of energy in the global fossil fuel industry, access to which, along a long chain of investor and consumer connections, is a major source of conflict and oppression in the world, much to the destruction of habitat for both humans and other-than-humans.  The development of climate science over the past century has brought about a revelatory disclosure of these great power imbalances and their destructive impacts on the communities of creation.

So how do the sayings of the Sermon on the Mount relate to this situation?  From last Sunday’s beatitudes, this is how:  blessed are the poor in spirit, who despair over their powerlessness to liberate the earth they love, no less themselves, from the domination of the fossil fuel industry; they know themselves enmeshed and even enslaved to it by virtue of their inescapable participation in the global economy. The power of God’s presence restores them. Blessed are those who mourn, and thus do not hide or deny their grief over such terrible losses to habitat and species. God shares their pain. And blessed indeed are the meek, who do what they can in their own place, to secure space for their neighbors, both human and other-than-human, that is free from all such diminishment of their shared well-being. Theirs is the future of the earth.

Turning to this Sunday’s teaching, in so doing, the followers of this way will be regarded as “salt of the earth.”  As Warren Carter points out, the image of salt has considerable polyvalence in scripture: “Sir 39:26 identifies ‘salt’ as one of ‘the basic necessities of human life.’  It seasons food in Job 6:6.  In Lev 2:13 and Ezek 43:24 salt and sacrifice are linked.  Elisha uses salt to purify drinking water (2 Kgs 2:19-23).  In Ezra 4:14 sharing salt seems to suggest loyalty (so also ‘salt of the covenant’ in Lev 2:13 and Num 18:19.)”  As “salt of the earth,” Carter suggests, “the community of disciples, not the ruling elite or the synagogue, is to live this flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life committed to the world’s well- being and loyal to God’s purposes (Matthew and the Margins:  A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 137). Building on the image’s polyvalence, Robert Smith suggests that it is precisely “the people who hear his words and follow him” that are “‘salt of the earth,’ and that means salt for the earth” (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 148.  Emphasis added).  This is the second time the Earth is mentioned in the Sermon, the first being the reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). “Salt for the earth” can then in turn be understood as pointing to those who are loyal to the earth and help to sustain its life in all its rich diversity and beauty.  The Earth, Carter emphasizes, is where the “disciples live, in the midst of the poor in spirit, the mourning, the powerless, and the hungry and thirsty, dominated and exploited by the ruling elite (5:3-6).”  It is where the community embodies God’s empire as opposed to human empire, in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution, as it lives out its alternative existence (5:7-12; Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).  And as we’ve seen in our second reading, restoration of this “saltiness”, this “Earth-loyal” faith happens by drawing on the wisdom and power of God, as disclosed by the Spirit in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Just so, according to the Sermon’s teaching, with this Earth-loyal, Earth-honoring faith, the followers of Jesus “are the light of the world” (5:14).  For the second time, Jesus unexpectedly applies to the disciples an image that we have seen Matthew and the other evangelists use primarily for Jesus himself.  They are to continue the task first given to Israel, as our first reading reminds us (“light shall break forth like the dawn”; Isaiah 58:8, cf. Isaiah 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness.” The point of these two images of salt and light is clear:  as Robert Smith writes, “Through Jesus, God is laying healing hands on the world to make it ‘all right’ and to summon us to live lives of ‘all rightness” (Smith, p. 150). Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest, for all to see, the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness for all creation.  With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophet, as he claims in the closing verses of our reading (5:17-18):  gracious gift of God, fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character, meeting the needs of all creation, not a matter of abstract rules but rather grounded in the narrative of Israel’s experience with God that itself provides both guidance and encouragement for such action (For a description of these several aspects of Torah, see Terry E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 148 – 150). 

It is also shown, importantly we might add, to be highly consonant with the contemporary ecological understanding of life, which is likewise fundamentally inter-relational in character and meeting “the ‘creational need’ of nature. “

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

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

Matthew 5:13-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we turn around, we receive the unanimous approval of the mountains, the hills, and the foundations of the Earth. Tom Mundahl reflects on what God asks of us.

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

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

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

This week’s texts do nothing less than turn the world upside down. Their power stems from the gracious outpouring we call creation: “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it . . . .” (Psalm 24:1). For God to create is to open a place in the triune life for others, to offer hospitality in a circle dance of community which has no boundaries.

We can see the profound respect for creation in our First Lesson from Micah. Here, this late eighth-century prophet acts as “process server” delivering the indictment of a divine lawsuit (rib) to the people of Jerusalem. And “who” acts as the “Greek chorus” or “jury” witnessing this bill of particulars? The LORD, as prosecuting attorney, tries this case before the mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth (Micah 6:1-2).

This is a “jury” that cannot be bought. Here are witnesses that cannot be tampered with. Understandably, in a court this open and honest, Jerusalem cannot avoid responsibility for the centralization of land ownership (Micah 2:2) and judicial corruption described as “tearing the skin off my people” (Micah 3:2). No wonder the people cry in despair: “With what should I come before the LORD . . . ?” (Micah 6:6).

Naturally they suggest all sorts of ways in which they can placate the court without changing basic attitudes—low bowing, burnt offerings, offering of yearling calves, or even first-born children (Micah 6:6-7).

These suggestions are at once too manipulative and too simple. The prophet puts it plainly in a way that summarizes a century of prophetic faithfulness and creativity: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Although there is nothing new about these words (e.g. “kindness” is hesed, covenant loyalty and care) except their beautiful crystallization of faith, moving from a culturally approved set of norms to practicing justice changes everything! It defines repentance: turning around and getting a new mind. When that happens, the approval of mountains, hills, and the foundations of the earth is unanimous!

Paul’s message to the community in Corinth calls for a reorientation similar in scope. After his “indictment” for falling into factionalism, he offers a primer describing the very basis of the life of those “called to be saints” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This foundation is not the cunning of human judgment.

In fact, it is self-interested human judgment which has gotten in the way of unity. As Hans Conzelmann suggests, “Common to the parties is the demand for proof of divine truth. In this way they set themselves up as an authority that can pass judgment upon God . . . . They expect God to submit to their criteria” (Hans Conzelmann, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 47). Like the religious elite Micah confronted, Paul calls his audience to “give it up,” to relinquish expecting God to meet their standards!

Paul strips away the illusory power of human criteria. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). It is precisely this god-project, setting people, institutions, and governments up as ‘ultimate authorities,’ that has led to discrimination, violence, economic inequality, war, and ecological distress. For “our standards and criteria” are always partial and can never include the whole of creation. They always benefit only “us”—however that “us” is construed.

But there is another way, according to Paul, a way beyond the self-concern of people, communities, or institutions. This is demonstrated by the obedient One whose concern for renewing creation was not limited even by self-preservation. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom (standards and criteria), and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The Roman Empire and Jesus’ religious opponents responded to the threatening newness he brings with all they had—specifically, the cross. A recent “botched” execution by “lethal injection” in Ohio took nearly half an hour and caused the victim of this torture to gasp several times. Crucifixion involved a much longer public humiliation before death—from many hours to several days. It was the most persuasive argument Pax Romana had that no one should defy the powers that be. Yet, Paul’s message is that this act of violence failed miserably. The compassionate and just God triumphed over those powers. As Richard Hays suggests: “Rather than proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, it (cross and resurrection) shatters the world’s systems of authority. Rather than confirming what the wisest heads already know, it shatters the world’s systems of knowledge.” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 31).

Now Paul turns to his audience and asks them to consider their calling. None of them were called because they met adequate divine standards and criteria. That makes it clear that, using the logic of the cross, despite their membership in this motley assembly and their checkered histories, they have been made part of a new and unified community. It is nothing to “boast about!” For that reason, self-assertion or factional promotion have no place. Like the sheer graciousness of creation, belonging to this new community that lives by standards considered “foolish” by the kingdoms of the world is a gift. A gift full of promise and consequences.

These consequences become clearer in the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount—the Beatitudes. Now, Jesus, whom Matthew has introduced over his prologue as Emmanuel (Matthew 1:23), the “one who is more powerful” (Matthew 3:11), the Beloved Son (Matthew 3:17), and, later, one who brings the new counter empire, “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 4:17), climbs the mountain to teach. In Micah, the hills and mountains served as witnesses to the trial of God’s people (Micah 6:1-2). In Matthew’s temptation narrative (Matthew 4:1-11), the tempter offered Jesus control over “all the kingdoms of the world” with the proviso that Jesus worship the one making the offer (Matthew 4:10). Here the mountain continues to serve as a major character drawing both teacher and learners away from the demands of daily life in order to allow Jesus to act as composer whose “first movement” sounds the major themes that will shape this new community infecting all that Pax Romana stands for.

Beatitudes are not unique to the Sermon on the Mount. They go beyond describing personal qualities and emotions (“happy are…”) to declaring God’s favor for specific human behaviors and often declare “God’s future transformation or reversal of present dismal circumstances”  (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 130). What’s more, “They . . . mark out features of a faithful and favored or blessed and honorable group.  They constitute, affirm, and challenge a community’s distinctive identity and practices” (Carter).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3), then, becomes a thematic melody coursing through this entire “Sermon.” They are ones who are literally poor, ill, marginalized and outcast. They are victims of the power structure, much like the fishermen called to be the first disciples, whose trade was hampered at every turn by Roman regulations. They certainly do not set standards or criteria for acceptance in their worlds! Their very “spirits” are suppressed by the Roman Imperial System, and are poorly served by much of Jerusalem’s religious elite. Yet, they are named “blessed” because now that the status quo is fading; “theirs is” the kingdom of heaven.” Poverty and hopelessness are ending. “The beatitude blesses the ending of current imperial structures through God’s action” (Carter, p. 132).

The consequences of God’s action in bringing a “new order and community” are vividly described in the third beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). While “meekness” has been caricatured as passive incompetence  and laughable mildness, it actually suggests a combination of courage and patient hope that trumps all the attention-getting antics of the power elite. Perhaps more appropriate translations would be “humble,” with its connection to humus or “kind” with its suggestion of commonality and its relationship to hesed, covenant consideration for all (cf. Micah 6:8, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg: 1989, p. 236). “To be meek is to renounce retribution and to live faithfully and expectantly” (Carter, p. 133). Perhaps Paul’s “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5-11 describes the power of this humble meekness best.

“Humility” fits well because “the humble meek” are promised that “they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)  “God, not the meek, will overthrow the elite so that all may use the earth. The present inequitable access to land, based on exploitative societal relationships, will end” (Carter). Why? The earth and all its creatures belong to God.  With this new “humble empire” it will be nurtured and cared for. Certainly the sabbatical and jubilee traditions suggest ways forward.

But even though the promise is sure, this is not the end of struggle. The final beatitude, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” makes that clear (Matthew 5:11). That has always been the fate of the prophets (Matthew 5:12). But as disciples called to be “fishers for people” (Matthew 4:19), that is, those who follow in the tradition of the prophets shining a light on injustice and corruption that the powerful want concealed, they can this expect in this “not yet” time no less.

Recently, the President of the United States spoke to the concern of NSA surveillance, an issue that would surely not have been addressed had not Edward Snowden focused a huge beam of light on the scope of U.S. information gathering and its implications. During this Epiphany season, all those who live in the concrete hope of the Beatitudes are called to “let their lights shine” so that the creation damage that we do, and often are complicit in, is uncovered. We do this in confidence that the “criteria and standards” that have allowed Freedom Industries in Charleston, West Virginia, to avoid responsible care of toxic materials will disappear, and that a new and humble world, community, and neighborhood will emerge spearheaded by God’s people.

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

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Schade)

“Needing New Nets: Fishing for People in a Creation-Crisis Age”Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 4:12-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Sardines! Carp!  Comb-fish!  Biny-fish!  Every kind of fish!  This is what James and John should have been hauling in from the Sea of Galilee.  Their boat should have been full of fish, wriggling and slapping their tails, flipping and flopping, a mass of glassy eyes and shiny scales.  But what Jesus found was an empty boat and two men trying to mend their torn nets.

Let me give you a little background on what it was like to fish with these nets.  The fishermen most likely worked at night, which means they used something called a trammel net, which was actually composed of three nets.  A trammel net had two large mesh walls about five feet high with a finer net in between. The boat went out at night into deep waters where there are no rocks so that the nets would not be torn. One end of the net was let down into the sea, then the boat made a circle creating a sort of tub in the water. The net gathered in every kind of fish, as they were unable to escape through the three layers of netting.

Sometimes the boats worked in pairs so that the teams could drag in the net and its contents (hopefully a large number of fish), back to the shore. This would go on several times during the night until exhaustion set in or the sun came up, whichever came first.  But when Jesus came to this spot along the shore on this particular morning, he found James and John not out at sea, but sitting there empty of fish.

Why is the boat grounded on the shore?  Because, the text tells us, the fishermen were mending their nets.  They should have been out hauling in their fifth or sixth catch of fish, or at least settling down to extricate the sale-able fish from the throw-aways.  But no.  The fishermen in this boat obviously have caught nothing but nothing.  They’d given up.  Nothing left to do but wash and repair the nets and let them out to dry in the sun.

The invitation from Jesus appears to come at just the right time for them.  Certainly they puzzled as much as we do at his cryptic words about “fishing for people.” But he obviously got their attention, because they followed him.  And in their ministry with him they came to learn what it means to reach out for people who are hurting, to heal children, women and men who were ill or dying, and to transform entire communities with God’s radical love of reconciliation.

Read in the age of the Anthropocene, this text takes on a different and more ominous tone.  If Jesus were to come upon fishermen with empty nets today, the reasons for their lack of fish would be cause for great alarm.  Overfishing, climate change causing ocean acidification, and pollution are threatening all life in the ocean.  And the kind of “fishing for people” needed today takes on a different kind of urgency.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, “Fishing efforts over the last 50 years as well as unsustainable fishing practices are pushing many fish stocks to the point of collapse.  More than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them. Several important commercial fish populations (such as Atlantic bluefin tuna) have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened. Target fishing of top predators, such as tuna and groupers, is changing marine communities, which lead to an abundance of smaller marine species, such as sardines and anchovies” (http://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishing).

As for ocean acidification due to climate change, fish populations have suffered as coral reefs are destroyed.  “Bleaching,” coastal over-pollution and development, global warming and ocean acidification as all having detrimental effects on our oceans’ coral reefs.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s reefs are threatened.  In some locations coral cover has dropped from 80% to 13% over the course of the last twenty-five years, (Bryan Walsh, “Ocean View,” Time, April 14, 2014).

Pollution is another strain on fish populations.  Did you know that approximately 1.4 billion pounds of trash per year enters the ocean?  From plastics to oil spills; from leaking pipes to deliberate discharge of industrial waste; from agricultural run-off to fertilizer from our yards – all these and more are causing incredible stress to our oceans and our food supply from these waters.  What they eat – we eat, with the toxins increasing exponentially up the food chain to humans.  (See http://www.noaa.gov/resource-collections/ocean-pollution for more information as well as lesson plans for solutions.)

Given this reality about empty nets, the kind of “fishing for people” we need now is engaging people in the work of caring for God’s Creation.  And for this, we’re going to need a trammel net, understand.  It’s going to have to be wide, and we’re going to have to cast it all around in a great big circle and let it sink deep.  And we’re going to need three layers of net so that we can catch people effectively.

One layer of our net is service to our communities.  Our churches need to understand what environmental issues are happening in our communities and offer to help.  Perhaps there is a local waterway that needs cleaned of trash.  Perhaps there is an abandoned lot that could be transformed into a community garden.  Maybe a dangerous incinerator is being proposed for your neighborhood and the group fighting against it needs a place to meet.  Whatever the need is, work with the people of your local community.  Listen to them, get to know who they are, invite local environmental groups to talk about their work. Go deep with them so that they will see the church as an ally in their work and a valuable member of the local community.  Any effort we make upstream will have tremendous impact downstream and in our oceans.

Another layer is sound biblical teaching.  This is the fine mesh in between.  Help people learn about the ways in which the Bible speaks about caring for Creation. Donate The Green Bible for the church library.  Offer a Bible study on care-of-Creation issues (see “Adult Forum and Bible Study” under the Education tab at the Lutherans Restoring Creation website for ideas).  If you are a pastor, commit to preaching about care-of-Creation issues (for ideas, visit www.creationcrisispreaching.com), including ecojustice concerns in the churches prayers, and designing worship services that help people make the connection between the sacraments of baptism and communion and the necessity for clean land, air and water.  Consider a book study of Ben Stewart’s A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology for ways to help people connect liturgy, Creation, and the Christian life (https://www.augsburgfortress.org/store/productgroup/674/A-Watered-Garden-Christian-Worship-and-Earth-Ecology).  Or Mark Wallace’s Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future for examples of faith communities that are doing the theological and scriptural work that leads to advocacy and action on behalf of God’s Creation (http://fortresspress.com/product/green-christianity-five-ways-sustainable-future).

The third layer of our trammel net is love – love for God’s Creation.  Help people fall in love with the world God has created.  Take the children outside and help them learn the names of the plants growing on the church grounds.  Lead a field trip to a local nature area guided by a trained naturalist.  Plan a camping retreat for families.  Worship outside, and even on the shore of an ocean if possible, to help this biblical text and others come alive for people.  God’s Creation has incredible power to minister to people and heal them in mind, body and soul.  Give people opportunities to connect with the natural world and let God take it from there.

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship
Lexington Theological Seminary, Lexington, KY
Author, Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2016)

Third Sunday after Epiphany (January 21-27) in Year A (Mundahl)

Christian care for creation will address chemical spills. – Tom Mundahl reflects on mending torn nets, community, and creation.

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

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

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

It was not long ago that we heard the more extended Christmas version of Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light . . . .” (Isaiah 9:2a). As we have moved through the season of Christmas and entered Epiphany, we have followed the journey of the one named Emmanuel back to Egypt, where, like Moses, he escapes the slaughter of innocent children. After his “exodus” from Egypt and return to Palestine, we have marveled at his obedience in “going through the waters” of baptism by John, a baptism which led him to forty days in the wilderness (reminding us of Moses’ 40 years of exile in Midian), where Jesus demonstrates the power of this obedience. Now, as he relocates in Capernaum, he prepares to unleash this light in teaching, proclamation, and healing. (Matthew 4:23)

The startling power of this eruption of light is best described in Jesus’ words, “Repent—get a new mindset, change your ways—for the Empire of God is drawing near” (Matthew 4:17, Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000, p. 119). This new order begins to be actualized in the calling of the first group of disciples, recruits chosen not from among a privileged elite trained for leadership, but from the fishing trade. News of a new ‘order of things’ must have been welcome to these fishermen, who had struggled for years to pay heavy license fees to Roman minions simply to retain the privilege of putting themselves at the mercy of the elements as they sought to provide food for their neighbors (Carter, p. 121). Even though fisherman were accounted the very lowest status among free workers, they become the core of the community that will serve as an alternative to the Pax Romana.

They are now called with the familiar words, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). Likely, there are few phrases more misunderstood than “fishing for people.” While we automatically assume that the reference is to traditional evangelism, “fishing for people” has a quite different biblical history, especially in prophetic literature.

Eighth century prophet, Amos, delivers words of warning to God’s people in Samaria because of their neglect of the poor and needy. “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2). Jeremiah writes to warn the people of Judah not to imagine that they will escape Babylon. “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them . . .” (Jeremiah 16:16). Far from the “saving of souls,” “fishing for people” seems to carry the meaning of uncovering that which is concealed, just as fish seem to be concealed in the water until they are netted or hooked. This is surely one result of “great light.”

All that has served to ‘cover up’ massive injustice in this Roman-Judean politico-economic system will be stripped bare. The corruption of the temple-based religious system will not be spared. As Ched Myers suggests: “The point here is that following Jesus requires not just the assent of the heart, but a fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom the personal and the political are one” (Mark, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 1988, p. 132). “Fishing for people,” then, is using the light to uncover that which oppresses and to illuminate the possibilities from this new community for “mending” and “healing” (Matthew 4:21, 23).

It is as James and John are “mending” the fishing nets with their father that Jesus calls them. Not only was mending the nets a constant necessity for fisher folk; it is a powerful image for care of creation. Feminist theologian Letty M. Russell has consistently spoken of the need to uphold this biblical critical principle of the mending of “God’s world house.” She relates: “I first heard this simple expression of eschatological hope from Krister Stendahl, who said that theology is worrying about what God is worrying about when God gets up in the morning: the mending of creation” (Letty M. Russell, Household of Freedom: Authority in Feminist Theology, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1987, p. 71).

Recently, people in nine West Virginia counties, located on the banks of the Elk River, have been threatened by a highly-toxic chemical spill which has temporarily poisoned the local water supply. People of faith, called to be “fishers,” certainly have the responsibility to provide emergency help and temporary assistance to those affected.  But, as the “crisis” and journalistic attention recedes, there is an even more important responsibility to shine the light of attention on the long-term impact of this situation. Why were there no inspections of the massive Freedom Industries facility from 1991 until 2010, when nearby residents complained about foul odors, which called attention to the plant? What are the long-term consequences of exposure to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) to humans and all of God’s creatures? That is, can “fish” even live in this river? And why do we not use the “precautionary principle” which holds that a chemical must be proven safe before use, instead of relying on vague “risk assessment” criteria? Finally, what other chemicals are stored by Freedom at that site? And what is the condition of storage tanks and the risks of spills?

It is only after the “tears” in the net of “God’s world house” (Russell) are examined that they can be effectively mended. But when they are mended—and through the very process—the light of hope will shine to provide the vision to imagine new options in “making a living” in a way that mends and honors creation. Then the healing that is part of this new “empire of peace”will be experienced.

But this process is not easy for any community. As we wrestle with Paul’s first letter to the new community in Corinth, we see how easily unity can be dissolved. Paul apparently writes before it is too late. As Conzelman suggests: “The split into groups has not yet led to the dissolution of the community; they still celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, and Paul can address the letter to the whole community” ( Conzelman, First Corinthians, Philadelphia: Fortress Hermeneia, 1975, p. 32).

That address follows the salutation (vv. 1-3) and the thanksgiving (vv. 4-9) with an appeal “that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10 b). It may be surprising that the Greek verb “be united” is the very same word Matthew employed for “mending” nets, namely, katartizo. Clearly, there is mending needed in this community. Factions have developed around important leaders. Members look to those who have baptized them as special benefactors, a result that moves down the path toward schism. Even those who claim “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12) “must have been claiming Christ in an exclusivistic way” (Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville: John Knox, 1997, p. 23).

Paul does not counsel faction members to stop bickering because it is inexpedient or looks bad; he points to the center of their faith, Jesus Christ, the bringer of new creation, as the common ground of unity. This source of unity will be tested further, because it is clear that Paul earlier failed to deal with problematic status distinctions and economic inequality, issues that reared their ugly head around the Lord’s Supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34; Hays, p. 24).

One can imagine similar congregational conflict emerging over responses to the chemical spill in the Charleston, W. Va. area. Some may call for serious investigation of Freedom Industries and suggest a new economic basis for the area. Others in the congregation, fearful of losing jobs during a weak economic recovery, may insist that the church “stick to religion” and not be involved in matters involving “mending creation.” Following Paul’s template is the only way to a unity that still may be difficult to achieve. But if church leaders have planned worship that encourages creation care and have modeled environmental stewardship in action, there may be the beginning of a consensus. But that consensus still must be based on what unites us at the deepest level. As the “prologue” to the ELCA Social Statement, “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” (1993), states it:

Christian concern for the environment is shaped by the Word of God spoken in creation, the Love of God hanging on a cross, the Breath of God daily renewing the face of the earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Mundahl)

Gentle justice for people and creation:  Tom Mundahl reflects on Jesus’ baptism and the first Servant Song of Isaiah.

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

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34 -43
Matthew 3:13-17

As we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we are reminded of the power of baptismal liturgy. As those called by the Spirit and trusting the grace of God gather around the font, the presiding minister invites the candidates and sponsors to affirm the responsibilities they are entrusted with. Among these gifts of responsibility is the charge “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006, p. 228). These words help us to understand that the gift of baptism is also a task, that “only those who obey believe” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Macmillan, 1963, p. 76).

Perhaps it is confusing as to why “the more powerful one” (Matthew 2:11) needs to be baptized by John the Baptist, who has freely admitted his inferiority. It certainly seemed to be incomprehensible to John, who “would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14). In response, we hear Jesus’ first words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Because this is the first direct speech in this Gospel from the one called Emmanuel, the words must have jumped out at readers and hearers. From the beginning, Matthew’s Jesus defines himself as the obedient one. He does this to “fulfill” all righteousness or justice. And what does this “fulfillment” mean but to “actualize” that justice through obedience in the midst of the community (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, pp. 178-179).

Far from isolating Jesus from the discipleship community, his baptism unites them in the service of a “meta-legal” righteousness that is integral to the call to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Next to the title Emmanuel, which serves as an inclusion for Christological identity (1:23 and 28:20), it is the obedient “Son, the Beloved” who gives shape to Matthew’s story. Jesus’ identity consists not so much in pre-existence or in miraculous conception; rather, in Matthew, that identity is found in unique obedience (Luz, p. 180).

This obedience, then, colors the shape of the community. Members will share in this new life (“be called children of God”—Matthew 5:9) when they “actualize” justice through peacemaking or, even care for God’s creation.  The opening of the heavens not only responded to the cry of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down . . . ” (63:15), but demonstrated that here is a greater prophet (“a more powerful one”) than Moses or John, one whose New Exodus moves far beyond a mere parting of the seas. Now all that separates humankind from Creator and creation is torn away. This freedom is now to be lived in the “simple” obedience of everyday life.

How this freedom is lived is also suggested by the unfolding of Matthew’s baptismal narrative. As Jesus comes through the waters, the heavens opened, and the Spirit descends, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). While Mark (with Luke following) reports the voice as saying, “You are my Beloved Son . . . ,” Matthew uses the third person. Clearly, the voice does not speak for the benefit of the Son, but to John the Baptist (and all who might follow him), as well as to the crowds (which surely include the Christian community).

However, the meaning remains the same: here is one who is both royal figure (Psalm 2:7) and servant (Isaiah 42:1). For the community, this implies that living in free obedience is both a royal privilege and test of servanthood. It reminds us also of the richness of our first reading, the text that introduces this notion of servanthood.

It may be wise at the outset to assume that many layers of meaning are unleashed by this “Servant Song.”  Westermann suggests that our understanding is impeded by the question, “Who is this servant of God?” Instead, more helpful is retaining a sense of mystery by focusing on how the identity of the servant is formed and what the servant is called to do (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 93). In much the same way, Hanson suggests that these servant passages fire the imagination of the community in exile so that a new self-understanding and life response is called forth (Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p.41)

If the identity of the servant cannot be pinned down, the servant’s task is clearer. This one is called “to bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1b). This very task has become “an invitation to reflect on the responsibility of all those who acknowledge God’s sovereignty and recognize the dependence of all creation on God’s order of justice” (Hanson). When this “order of justice” is ignored, the result is chaos and oppression affecting both human history and the natural world. When Indonesian agricultural land traditionally farmed by small holders is expropriated in favor of large corporate plantations for the production of palm oil, not only are farm families displaced, but massive tree cutting causes soil erosion and removes vegetation capable of absorbing carbon.

But the servant brings forth this justice in a gentle, careful way.“He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:2-3). This non-violent approach is the path to “faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3b). With this approach, the “end” does not justify the “means.” Instead, justice and peace are not only the goal; justice and peace are also the way. As Hanson suggests, “To live consistently in the service of the justice of God is to pattern one’s life on the nature of God. Only in this way is a mortal empowered faithfully to bring forth justice” (Hanson, p. 46).

This is the way to bring “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6b-7). Perhaps it is the deep connection with creation (Isaiah 42:5) that gives Second Isaiah a view of justice as light, light which cannot be contained by political or parochial religious boundaries. This Servant Song, then, is a description of the kind of “servant” that all who are chosen and obedient to God are challenged to become. It is a helpful template for living our baptismal life.

Fred Kirschenmann has lived baptismal obedience through connecting farming and faith. As Director of the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Farming at Iowa State University, he also took over management of his North Dakota family farm of more than a thousand acres. While neighbors warned him that moving to organic agriculture would result in lower yields, Kirschenmann persisted, knowing that in the long run it was the right thing. Imagine his surprise when, after five years, crop yields began to increase as the naturally enriched soil became more fertile (Interview with Peter Pearsall, www.yesmagazine.org  February 22, 2013).

Kirschenmann acknowledges the pressure to become more “efficient” through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-modified seeds. Yet, he also knows that the best chance for people throughout the Earth to achieve food justice is with a decentralized farming culture that invites people to stay on the land and learn “local ways” of regenerative agriculture. And, there are surprising benefits of more traditional farming. At first, typical, relatively compacted farm soil will absorb a half-inch of rainfall per hour. But after five years of organic care, that same soil may absorb up to eight inches of rainfall per hour. That soil not only can handle drought better, but sends less runoff, including toxic chemicals, through the Mississippi watershed to the Gulf of Mexico (Pearsall interview). That is obedient gentle justice for the nations.

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

Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13) in Year A (Schade)

Inauguration by Water – The Baptism of Jesus:  Leah Schade reflects on Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Leah Schade in 2017)

Readings for the Baptism of Our Lord (January 7-13), First Sunday after Epiphany in Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

On this Sunday we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus and the gift of baptism itself. As Jesus emerges from the Jordan River after being immersed by the prophet John, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, NRSV). The words echo those heard in Isaiah, who foretold a divinely-appointed servant: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations,” (Isaiah 42:1).

Jesus chooses to begin his ministry on the banks of the Jordan River seeking baptism from John. Water is central to Jesus’ ministry. He is, in a sense, inaugurated in the water and by the water. As our country prepares for a different kind of inauguration in the coming weeks—one that is marked with ascension to the highest political office in the United States, and, perhaps, the world—it’s worth noting the stark contrast between these two different scenes.

The presidential inauguration is the epitome of worldly power, with the one assuming the office standing high on a platform on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building. Thousands of people will flock to Washington D.C. while the event is televised to millions around the world. The ceremony bestows the authority of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government on this one individual. Military, judicial, economic and cultural dominance are just some of the aspects of power enjoyed by the one sworn in at this inauguration.

In contrast, Jesus’ inauguration to his earthly ministry took place in an out-of-the-way place, a wilderness.  Jesus was not on a high platform, but went down into the water, letting himself be washed by the river. People were gathered at that place as well, though the numbers were certainly less than a hundred.  John’s message of baptism was about repentance and aligning with God’s purposes of justice, righteousness, ethical integrity, and courage in the face of evil. For Jesus to submit to this baptism meant that he was eschewing the worldly trappings of power and dominance. The test of this decision to follow God’s way will immediately follow when Jesus faces temptations in the place of wildness and danger.  Such tests require introspection, self-reflection, and a willingness to face down the demons.  One hopes and prays for the incoming president and the nation as he approaches his own tests of character.

For Christians, the tests of character that come with being baptized have important ramifications because they are linked to both the Matthew and Isaiah passages. It’s worth noting that for the Israelite people, the call to be God’s servant wasn’t necessarily for one person—it was for their whole nation. God empowers people to do the work of building the peaceable kingdom; it’s a divine transference of power. This is a commissioning.  God is telling the people: I have given you as a covenant—you are a sign of the covenant. You are blessed in order to be a blessing.

As Christians, can we as a baptized community of faith be a people who do this? Can we be blessed by our baptism to be a blessing to others? And can we be a blessing for the very water with which we were baptized?

Just consider the gift of water itself for a minute. Water covers about 70% of the earth’s surface. But of all the water on the earth, potable water for human use is only about .3% of the world’s water and is found in groundwater aquifers, rivers, and freshwater lakes.

In North America we take this gift of water for granted. We can enter any house, virtually any building, turn on a faucet, and clean water comes pouring out for us. In countries without access to clean water, people (usually women and girls) walk for hours a day back and forth from a water source, carrying heavy jugs, being careful not to spill a single precious drop. At the same time, industries, fossil fuel extraction and human pollution endanger the very waters that give us life. Chemical run-off, discarded pharmaceuticals, fracking, and fertilizers are just a few of the issues that threaten the health and safety of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and oceans.

One of the most ubiquitous symbols of our disrespect for water is, ironically, bottled water. We spend millions of dollars for water bottled in places where the natives don’t have access to the water we’re taking from them. We shell out a dollar for a bottle of water when we could simply put it in a reusable cup or bottle. According to the “Ban the Bottle” website, about 38 billion plastic bottles end up in landfills and incinerators each year. “Making bottles to meet America’s demand for bottled water uses more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year. And that’s not even including the oil used for transportation. The energy we waste using bottled water would be enough to power 190,000 homes. Last year, the average American used 167 disposable water bottles, but only recycled 38.3,” (https://www.banthebottle.net/bottled-water-facts/).

Perhaps what is most frightening is the potential of future wars over water. With populations exploding and water scarcity increasing, there have already been conflicts over water resources in Bolivia, California, Mozambique, and yes, even over the Jordan River. Between climate disruption leading to drought and decades of gross mismanagement of water resources, a regional crises over water resources will become more frequent and potentially violent. And it’s the poorest and most vulnerable people who will suffer the most.

In the midst of this suffering, Psalm 29 declares: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.” This voice of God is the same one that called upon the people of Israel to do justice, righteousness, in the Isaiah text. It’s the same voice that commissioned Jesus to his ministry of righteousness. And each of us in our baptisms is called by God’s voice to establish justice and righteousness in the earth. We have important work to do on behalf of the water.

Our baptisms conferred on us the duties and responsibilities that being a servant of God entails. We are to protect those who are vulnerable – like the fragile ecosystems—a “bruised reeds,” if you will (Isaiah 42:3). We are to open the eyes of the blind, share the truth about environmental degradation with those ignorant of the ramifications. We are to confront those in power who wantonly abuse water and speak courageous truth in order to establish ecological justice. The coastlands do indeed wait for God’s teaching—they wait for us to learn how to care for them. And we are to teach—on the coastlands, on boats, on mountains, in houses, and anywhere else people are gathered.

The God who is described in verse 5 of the Isaiah text, the God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it—this God entrusts it all to us, and we are commissioned to care for it. Isaiah is clear:  God will not hurt the weak. If we are servants of God, we will not hurt the weak either. We will bring justice to all the earth—even to Earth itself.

Because when we do justice for Earth, it has a flow-through effect for the entire human community, and particularly for the poor and those living in the most fragile of circumstances. People in rich countries use 10 times more water than those in poor ones. The connection between poverty and poor environmental conditions can be seen throughout the United States and the world. It is those who have no resources who cannot afford to move, much less fight against industrial pollution, landfills, and toxic dumping sites, often right in their neighborhoods. Two-fifths of the world’s people already face serious water shortages, and water-borne diseases fill half its hospital beds.

As one person put it in a BBC online commentary: “If water is life, we must learn to treat it not as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder or as an entitlement to the privileged, but as an essential component of human existence. We must learn not only the methods and habits of sharing equitably, but also the technologies and values of protecting the environment that makes fresh water available to us.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm)

I said earlier that John’s baptism was about repentance and being a servant of God. If we’re going to take that seriously, then each of us, and each of our congregations, needs to change our habits in order to do at least some small part in establishing justice for the Earth. Perhaps on Inauguration Day, your congregation can undertake a different ceremony—an Affirmation of Baptism where each person recommits themselves to the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ.

Maybe your church can look at ways to educate your congregation and community about water conservation and water justice issues. Plan a water clean-up for a local stream, river, or ocean front. Encourage youth to make a donation to the Walk4Water (http://elca.org/walk4water) campaign that was begun at the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering. To date, over $1 million in gifts have created healthier families and stronger economies through projects that provide clean drinking water through spring boxes and boreholes, support for irrigation systems, education about sanitation in rural villages.

Or perhaps you can encourage people to “give up the bottle” (water bottle) for Lent and use water pitchers in their homes, and reusable bottles at work, at school, and on the sports field. It won’t change the world overnight. But it will be one small drop freed from the bottle. And it may be part of God’s ripple effect that spreads out over all the Earth.  Amen.

Source:

Kirby, Alex, “Why world’s taps are running dry” BBC News Online, June 20, 2003; Accessed Dec. 29, 2016.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/2943946.stm

 

Epiphany of Our Lord in Years A, B, and C

We need wisdom to sustain us as we live with the rest of Earth community. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Epiphany of Our Lord.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary

Readings for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Years A, B, and C

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

The narrative of the church’s lectionary seems disordered. Last Sunday we considered Jesus in his childhood; with this Sunday’s story of the visit of the “wise men from the East;” however, we return to Jesus’ birth. For the congregation, this return will no doubt serve to complete “the story of Christmas”: as the Christmas trees are removed from the sanctuary, the last of the cookies are consumed, and gifts shelved in appropriate places, Christmas is “over.” In the introduction to a commentary on “The Season of Epiphany,” however, John McClure insightfully corrects this common perception, quoting  Ann Weems’ poem, “It is Not Over”:

It is not over,
this birthing.

There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.

When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.

“The lectionary texts from Epiphany to the Transfiguration,” McClure observes, “shout emphatically, ‘It is not over!’” With these texts, McClure suggests, “ the church celebrates the manifestation or ‘showing forth’ of Jesus as Savior.”  (New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004, ed. by Harold W. Rast. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003; p. 65). It is particularly noteworthy, then, that this first narrative of manifestation is comprehensive in scope, including within the orbit of that salvation  as it does both “the nations” and the cosmos. Christmas is indeed not “over”: we have just begun to spell out its significance for care of all creation.

Raymond E. Brown sums up the meaning of the story of the magi this way: “In the persons of the magi, Matthew was anticipating the Gentile Christians of his own community. Although these had as their birthright only the revelation of God in nature, they had been attracted to Jesus; and when instructed in the Scriptures of the Jews, they had come to believe in and pay homage to the Messiah” (The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York:  Doubleday, 1993; p. 199). With modest revision of Brown’s thesis, we propose that precisely because of their birthright of the revelation of God in nature, Matthew’s Gentile Christians would appreciate that the Scriptures of the Jews in fact promise the salvation, not only of Gentiles, but also of the cosmos which was indeed their means to knowledge of God. Their homage of Jesus as savior, we want to suggest, was an appropriate response to their discovery of what they saw as wisdom regarding the cosmos and its future in the plan of God.

The texts assembled by the church for this first Sunday in the Season of Epiphany set out resources for this discovery. The story of the visit of the wise men narrates the fulfillment of the promise from Isaiah 60, that in the midst of “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,” as the lesson reads, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:2).It is expected, then, that the coming of the Savior will be attended by cosmic signs such as the star of Bethlehem. More importantly, as part of the working out of the plan “of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Ephesians 3:9), his coming will also lead to cosmic reconciliation, according to the plan which “with all wisdom and insight he has made known to us . . . as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Prophet and psalmist join in describing aspects of this reconciliation in affirmations that portend what we would today consider ecological justice and sustainability, as well as social justice. His coming will cause hearts to “thrill and rejoice” because “the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (60:5), and in Psalm 72:

May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
May [the king] defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth  . . .
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.<
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  (Psalm 72:1-8, 11-14; note that verses 8 and 9 are omitted from the reading).

With the Apostle Paul, the church is commissioned to bear “this wisdom of God in its rich variety” to all, even to “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10).

What at the outset of this comment seemed a disordered sequence of texts is actually very well ordered with respect to our concern for care of creation. Last Sunday, we learned of Jesus “growth in wisdom” and explored the meaning of that growth with respect to his experience of God as creator; this Sunday, in turn, we are given a mandate to not only to explore more fully the content of that wisdom, but also to advocate for it publicly, in contention with “spiritual forces of evil” that are hostile to God (Ephesians 6:12; cf. McClure, p. 71.) We return briefly, therefore, to Larry Rasmussen’s argument for wisdom as “the biblical eco-theology and ethic,” as an illustration of what this mandate might mean for us in a time of global ecological crisis.

Rasmussen locates examples of wisdom in a great variety of genre, from didactic sayings to treatises that “grapple with life’s most difficult or perplexing circumstances–disease, calamity, boom and bust, the drama of good and evil,” along with “prayers, meditations, parables, and passages that invite a return visit over and again;” practices such as Sabbath-keeping and writing poetry also give expression to principles of wisdom. A more “ambitious and far-reaching” example of “wisdom-in-the-making” that directly addresses the global ecological crisis, however, is the Earth Charter.

After the failure of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, a Charter Commission launched what turned out to be “the most inclusive process ever associated with an international declaration, with grassroots participation by communities and associations of all kinds across all sectors of society.” While not a formal treaty, the Charter “seeks universal recognition and international backing as a ‘soft-law’ document, morally binding upon those who subscribe to it.” Generated with “high levels of participation cutting across all sectors of society, with a determined effort to include historically underrepresented voices, two aspects of the charter in particular “command the attention of religious ethics:  the Charter’s high levels of representation and agency in the effort to realize the ancient dream of an Earth ethic; and its moral universe, with respect for the full community of life and its diversity as foundational.”

Central to the Earth Charter is a vision of sustainable community that accords well with the expectations for social and ecological justice proposed in this Sunday’s texts. According to the charter, sustainable community is the effort to preserve or create all together or in part: greater economic sell-sufficiency locally and regionally, with a view to the bio-regions themselves as basic to human organization; agriculture appropriate to a region and in the hands of local owners and workers using local knowledge and crop varieties, with the ability to save their own seeds and treat their own plants and soils with their own products; the preservation of local and regional traditions, language and cultures and a resistance to global homogenization of culture and values; a revival of religious life and a sense of the sacred, in place of a way of life that leaches the sacred from the everyday and reduces life to the utilitarian; the repair of the moral fiber of society on some terms other than sovereign consumerism; resistance to the full-scale commodification of things, including knowledge; the internalization of costs to the local, regional, and global environment in the price of goods; and the protection of ecosystems and the cultivation of Earth, in the language of the Charter, as ‘a sacred trust held in common.’ (Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2013; p. 347)

The Charter qualifies as genuine wisdom, Rasmussen contends, because it is “attentive to questions that global capitalism, even as sustainable development, rarely asks: What are the essential bonds of human community and culture, as well as the bonds with the more-than-human world? What is the meaning of such primal bonds for a healthy, concrete way of life; what are cultural wealth and biological wealth and what wisdom do we need to sustain them in the places people live with the rest of life’s community?” (Rasmussen, p. 348).

“Wisdom,” Rasmussen concludes, “has found a home here.” Has God, we might well ask, thrown a new star in our sky? And will the church pay proper homage to it, and follow it?

Second Sunday of Christmas in Year A

The “great gathering” of Earth community encompasses the material world of God’s good creation. – Tom Mundahl reflects on our use of the gifts of God’s creation.

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

Readings for the Second Sunday after Christmas, Year A (2013/4, 2016/7, 2019/20, 2022/23)

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

Gathering is at the heart of our celebration of the Christmas season. Not only do we gather for worship to wonder at the incarnation, we gather often with groups of friends and family. What’s more, Christmas is a time both to give and “gather” creation’s gifts, whether the beauty of a tree, a long ski through the woods, or the giving and receiving of food, drink, and presents.

If I ever forgot the importance of Christmas presents to the gathering, our grandchildren have effectively reminded me. As a result, we engage in a more mundane sort of “gathering:” attempting to save wrapping paper and bows for reuse, and, finally, gathering up the new “stuff” that we mostly don’t need and have to find room for.

By now, you have guessed that these comments will focus on the “gatherings” revealed by this week’s readings. Surprisingly, we will find that this variety of ways of coming together suggest an intensification of care for God’s creation.

This theme cannot be missed in our reading from Jeremiah. In this chapter that John Bright suggests is at the core of Jeremiah’s authentic work (Jeremiah, Anchor Bible, Volume 21, New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 285), the prophet delivers a message of consolation, promising all who are in exile that nothing is surer than that the LORD will gather those dispersed “from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jeremiah 31:8) and “lead them back.” (Jeremiah 31:9)

This new Exodus-gathering takes place with what appears to be altered terms of relationship.  No longer is the focus on Davidic kingship or on the work of the temple.  Now it appears that what is primary is gathering the exiles from their diaspora and restoring them to the land. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988, p. 186)

That gathering once more in this land is at the center of this return is emphasized by the images of natural abundance we find in this passage.

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again (Jeremiah 31:12).

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

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

Therefore, this new gathering will also bring a renaissance of attention to the land and the panoply of relationships its fertility implies.  As the familiar canticle suggests, “Like a garden refreshed by the rain, they will never be in want again” (John W. Arthur, text, “Listen! You Nations” Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Canticle 14).

Today’s Psalm (147) stems from the same “life situation.” Once more, the song is occasioned by restoration from exile in Babylon. As is the case with many Christmas carols, it uses a particular act of grace—deliverance from Babylon in this case—as an occasion for an even more wide-ranging expression of God’s relationship with all creation. The one who “gathers the outcasts of Israel” (Psalm 147:2) is involved with activities ranging from “healing the brokenhearted and binding up wounds” (v. 3) to determining the “number of the stars” (v. 4).

Because of this gracious activity, the community responds with psalms, carols, and hymns. Among the most telling evidence supporting Robert Putnam’s research with its conclusion that U.S. citizens are much less involved in community associations (cf. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000) is the decline of singing, especially among younger males. While it can be almost impossible to persuade many Americans to sing, in African worship or at an Italian wedding, it is almost impossible to stop the singing.

During this season of gathering to sing familiar carols and bringing them to nursing homes and to the home-bound, we also need to hear the good news of this season in relation to the song of the Earth. As Larry Rasmussen suggests, “This time, however, the song we sing must learn humbly and deeply from the changing Earth we inhabit. Its melodies and harmonies must be earth-oriented in ways matched to our sober responsibility for a contracting planet in jeopardy at human hands” (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 7).

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

Confirmation of blessing is found in the emphasis on Gentile election manifested in baptism –“adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5). One of the core themes of Ephesians is a “gathering” that effects  “breaking down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). Baptism gives non-Jews a share of this blessing.

This ever-expanding scope of election and reconciliation is revealed in the unveiling of the mystery of God’s will (v. 9) “set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him . . . .” (Ephesians 1:10). This powerful statement—crucial to the work of Irenaeus and Wingren—is described by Martin.

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

Martin continues by describing this goal as much like the movement toward an “omega point” described by de Chardin (Martin, p. 17).

In a culture where planning seems to have insinuated itself into every corner, how do we translate and comprehend “God’s plan” in a helpful way? For us, it is crucial to remember that the Greek word translated “plan” is oikonomia, a word that literally means something like “rules for the household” and is related to “eco” words like ecology and economics. God’s ‘rule’ for “the earth household” is connected with gathering all together. This divine architectonic takes the breadth of unfolding beyond Jew and Greek, past the threat of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6: 12), to include all creatures (the whole creation) in a cosmic hymn of blessing that frees us to see ourselves “like a watered garden” (Jeremiah 31:12).

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

If we have used this text at Christmas Eve midnight or on Christmas Day, perhaps this time the communal nature of this great mystery can be highlighted. This will free us to return to the creation theme the prologue begins with. Because the Word became flesh, that Word is capable of continuing the process of creation (“All things came into being through him” v.3) in part, by forming a community of faith. And, because this community of faith is rooted in creation and a Word become flesh who draws “all to himself” (John 12:32), we can celebrate the very “fleshiness” of all that is.

Perhaps this means a festive Twelfth Night celebration by the community or with friends, where extra presents that have no room in house or apartment are collected to be shared with agencies that know who can use them. Yet, in no way should this be seen as a denial of the “material” or “fleshy” side of this season.

In fact, we may learn from a British group promoting what they call a “new materialism.” Noticing that religious “put downs” of materialism are not helpful for all of us who live in a “material world,” they have developed a “New Materialist Manifesto” that suggests: liking ”stuff “is a healthy way of enjoying the material world, but it requires lasting relationships with material objects that should be fewer and better—designed to last no less than 10 years. Appreciation of “material” is enhanced when things acquired are purchased with knowledge—who makes them, where they are made, and under what conditions (Factory conditions in Bangladesh?). These material “goods” need to be “loved” –maintained, repaired, or mended, and then repurposed. Finally, this may move us to “reskilling,” where we learn to make, repair, or repurpose “stuff.” And, as we find we need less, we may become freer to share (Andrew Simms and Ruth Potts, The New Materialism, available through: www.breadprintandroses.orgwww.therealpress.co.uk; or www.schumachercollege.org).

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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