Ecojustice Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Series C: 2018-2019
By Tom Mundahl
First Sunday in Advent
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-36
The season of Advent quietly opens the door to a new church year as assemblies focus on the coming of God. Not only do we celebrate the incarnation so beautifully narrated by Luke, we celebrate the continuous coming in creation, community, word and sacrament. Finally, we look forward to the mysterious advent that Moltmann calls “the sabbath of eternal joy” (The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, p. 338).
As we reflect on Advent readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, we will hear texts concerned with both the future and the incarnation, texts that are woven together by deep confidence in the presence of a Word that empowers our lives and gives us endurance to struggle for ecojustice.
Each week during this dramatic season we must ask the question voiced by film director David Mamet: “Where do we put the camera” (David Mamet, On Directing Film, New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 10)? This week’s Gospel text, which will be our focus, suggests that we position our “cameras” as best we can facing what can only be called a threatening future. Elizabeth Kolbert sounds the alarm: “This fiery summer has given us a glimpse of what climate change will look like.” She proceeds to describe not only all-too-common blazes in the western U.S., but also to remind us of deadly fires ranging from Greece to Sweden’s Arctic Circle (Kolbert, The New Yorker, September 10, 2018, p. 36). Then, in early October, the IPCC reported that a 2.0 degree allowable rise in temperature sanctioned by the Paris Accords of 2015 must be reduced to 1.5 degrees C. Eric Solheim of the UN Climate Programme said of this new report, “It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, October 9, 2018, pp. 1 and 10).
The reality of living in a new climate regime (labeled “anthropocene” by Earth systems scientists) intensifies our stance toward the future. Because of the Earth’s response to human release of greenhouse gases, we are learning that “in the anthropocene we may say that the present is drenched with the future…the unsettling presence of things to come” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 132). To double down on this, Bruno Latour suggests, “we have to position ourselves as though we were at the end of time” (Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 213).
Perhaps we can slacken the tension by taking a biblical cue offered by Latour. It comes from Paul’s advice to the Corinthian community: “Those who mourn should live as if they did not; those who are happy as if they were not; those who buy something as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7: 30-31, Latour). Not only does this orient us toward the future, but it reminds us that the end/purpose of our lives is to be about the down-to-earth task of worship, learning, and serving one another and the whole creation in expectation of renewal.
This new advent also calls our attention to Luke’s Gospel. Unique in sharing his methodology, the author proposes to undertake an investigation to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-4) so that worshipping communities will hear reliable truth. This new “history” reckons with “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b). Michael Trainor suggests that the verb translated as “fulfilled,” plerophoreo, might be better translated as “brought to fruition” (as it is translated more than 70 times in LXX), reflecting divine action to bear renewal for the Earth household (About Earth’s Child: An Ecological Listening to the Gospel of Luke, Sheffield Press, 2015, p. 65). That creational fruitfulness is central to Luke is underscored by his genealogy, beginning with “Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:38), not with Abraham as Matthew has it (Matthew 1:2). Creation, then, orders Luke’s Gospel.
As Luke orders the story of divine fruitfulness, concern for the future is unavoidable. Because this gospel stems from the post-temple era (after 70 CE) use of material from Mark’s “little apocalypse” is unique. No longer do we envision the elect being gathered in by angels (Mark 13: 27). Now the consequences of the coming parousia will be felt throughout the earth (oikoumene) (Luke 21:26, 35). What is more, this universal renewal of the fruitfulness of life is to be met not with fear but with eager joy: “raise up your heads” (Luke 21: 28) to “stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21: 36).
Just as Luke shapes the Markan tradition for the needs of his own audience, so must we interpret ‘sun, moon, and stars” (Luke 21: 25) in a manner more comprehensible to us. Influenced by the poetics of T. S. Eliot, Michael Trainor suggests that the meaning of a poem or verse is not fixed by the author’s milieu. “Its meaning continues and expands beyond the writer’s lifetime…and is the fruit of interrelated texts—earlier generational insights, cultural factors that influence the writer, the social world of the text’s original audience, previous texts and traditions, and the world which the interpreter brings to the text” (Trainor, p. 46).
While it is not the intention of this writer to literalize the metaphorical power of apocalyptic, the current despoiling of creation cannot help but influence our understanding. The sun and moon seen through the polluted air of Shanghai or San Francisco (or even the Twin Cities when choked by smoke from Canadian wildfires) offer a clear sign of threat. The distress caused in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, or the Gulf Coast of the U.S. by the “roaring of the sea” (Luke 21:25) during major storms fills living creatures with “foreboding about what is coming upon the world” (Luke 21:26). Advent of 2018 must still promise the Coming One—if only he can be seen through the cloud deck (Luke 21:27). Yet this is not a time of paralysis for the faith community. Instead, the call is to straighten up in confidence because of the divine commitment to creation, the same commitment shared by all seeking ecojustice.
Luke also transforms the “parable of the fig tree” (Luke 21: 29-33). Now we are invited to consider “the fig tree and all the trees” (v. 29). Because the fig tree is a common symbol for Israel (see Hosea 9:10), by referencing all trees the author signals an audience beyond the Jewish (or Jewish-Christian?) community. It is no longer that the Messiah is near, “at the very gates” (Mark 13: 29b), but that the more universalized “kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21: 31) and provides confidence in the integrity of creation.
This insight provides help in uncovering the meaning of this difficult concluding sentence: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21: 33). While current cultural forms and exploitation are transient, when we remember that divine speech (dabar) is the very basis of creation, we claim without reservation that removal of creation from God’s care would be impossible (Trainor, p. 258). Luke remains very down-to-earth.
It is these very mundane issues that comprise the final part of our text, all distinctly Lukan. Because Luke continues to call believers to attend to creation and evidence of needs, paying prayerful attention is crucial. As always (a word appropriate to Luke’s longer time horizon), there are temptations dulling this careful awareness. “Be on guard,” Luke warns, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life….” (Luke 21: 34).
No doubt there have always been diversions that get in the way of faithful responsibility. But no time in history has provided the distractions available in the present age. Neil Postman has captured the power of communications technology to divert in his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 1985), now a generation old. While information technology can be a powerful tool of change (witness this website), there is no doubt that, as Postman argues, in the US the real danger to civic culture is not only the hard-nosed authoritarianism (think of immigration and prison policies) depicted by George Orwell in 1984, but the pleasure-driven polity painted by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a culture based on consumption, drug use, and self-absorption.
While the militarization of police forces and increasing surveillance technology do smack of Orwell, the mania of consumerism, advertising, and easy credit, especially this time of year, begin to resemble a hedonocracy. Naturally these have all infected the church where “entertainment-based worship” and messages promoting “adjustment” to this kind of culture are rampant. Recognizing this, Postman writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether” (Postman, p.121).
Perhaps the most significant form that “dissipation” takes today is the refusal to take climate change seriously. How do we explain this? Is it because of lack of scientific understanding, the likelihood that homo sapiens is hard-wired by our evolution for short-term thinking, a psychology of previous investment that ill fits us for major change, increased urbanization with decreasing contact with the natural world, the lobbying of wealthy carbon companies, or sinful selfishness—the heart curved in upon itself? Likely all of these play a significant role.
French theologian and philosopher, Bruno Latour, asks that we dig deeper. While Lutherans have just last year celebrated one of the catalytic events of the Reformation, Luther’s October 31, 1517 call to debate the nature of church authority, we often ignore the tragedy of a century of European warfare sparked by this movement. By the time of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), parties exhausted by war sought a basis for order beyond divisive claims of religious truth. What emerged was a firm agreement to respect the principal cuius regio, cuius religio first promulgated as part of the Peace of Augsburg of 1555. This meant that religion now was less a search for truth and free to be used as an ideological support for the new mercantilism aimed at adding to the wealth and military power of the state, vast acquisition of natural resources from colonial conquest, the new science, and, eventually, the all-powerful market to allocate wealth (Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 90).
In effect, states immanentized religious forces, giving a spiritual patina to the economic behemoths and empires that resulted. Although Karl Marx was wrong in many ways, he was dead right in his analysis of the ideological use of Christianity, a new gnosticism that gave divine authority to anything the Belgians did in the Congo or the English inflicted on child workers in what Blake called “the Satanic mills” (see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, chapters V and VI). Ironically, this ideological use of religion was precisely what was at the basis of Luther’s revolt—exposing the mis-use of the free Word of God as an “institutional mascot.”
Because human regimes were so confident of their arrogant divinely-approved goals, it was and is unthinkable that anything so mundane as the Earth system and its carbon-stuffed atmosphere should get in the way. The very notion that the earth could demonstrate agency, reacting to being treated like a cesspool, is unthinkable (Latour, p. 207). Is not the will of the Holy One that those created in the “image” of God produce and consume endlessly? To play on a well-known verse, “What use is it to save your soul, if it means losing the world? “ Even if it is God’s good creation.
Clearly, we are at a point where we have to listen to Luke and take the notion of “end time” seriously once more. Late in his life, Karl Barth wrote, “We do not know what Nature, what the cosmos in which we have lived and still live now, will be for us then; what the constellations, the sea, the broad valleys and the heights, which we see and know now, will say and mean then” (quoted in Hamilton, p. 133). Unfortunately, laments Hamilton, “we can indeed make out, through the haze of residual uncertainty, the future’s broad contours under the influence of this new human power” (Hamilton, p. 133).
As the shape of this anthropocene apocalypse becomes clearer, we are discovering where the cameras must be aimed: toward a people looking for freedom from all that “amuses us to death” and instead learning to live down-to-earth lives that focus on “where we are” (our home neighborhood) and “who we are” (servants of creation). This happens when we are alert at all times and pray that we have the strength not to flee our call to seek ecojustice.
By not fleeing, we embrace one of the richest themes in scripture: dwelling. “To dwell” means to make a commitment to a place, its people (neighbors), and its very humus. Even in Luke’s Gospel, which ends with the call to share the good news with all the world, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24:47-48), the purpose is to provide a home for all in this fruitful earth. This means that the greatest Advent surprise—echoing the Bethlehem birth—is John’s vision that at the fulfillment of all things we will:
See, the home of God is among humans (all that lives)
God will dwell with them…. (Revelation 21:3)
Not surprisingly, John’s apocalypse ends with the watchword for Advent: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22: 20).
Tom Mundahl firstname.lastname@example.org.