Commentaries on Epiphany Readings

Dennis Ormseth served from 1991 to 2005 as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that emphasizes care of the earth as part of its mission. In retirement, he has served on the executive committee of Congregations Caring for Creation, an interfaith network promoting care of the earth as integral to spirituality and social justice in Minnesota congregations of faith. Holding a Ph. D. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, Dr. Ormseth is also a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary in St. Paul. He taught religious history and the history of Christian thought at Luther Seminary and Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and was campus pastor for Lutheran students at Purdue University in Indiana.



Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutheran Restoring Creation

The Baptism of our Lord

Psalm 29

Isaiah 42:1-9

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-7

Robert Smith calls attention to the inaugural character of the account of Jesus’ baptism by John here in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew uses the encounter to tell us who Jesus is and what his mission is about: he is God’s beloved Son and his mission is “to fulfill all righteousness.” The baptism, as it were, initiates this mission (New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, ‘Epiphany”, pp. 103-111). Placed in the context of the other readings assigned for this festival, these few spare verses introduce us to a vision of that mission—which includes God’s love for all creation and our recruitment into its care.

At the center of the story is the epiphany of God’s voice as Jesus rises out of the waters of the Jordan. The Voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is a “creational” moment, we might say: as the water falls away from Jesus’ dripping body, the heavens open and Jesus sees the Spirit of God descending and alighting upon him like a dove. The voice is the voice of the Creator, speaking over the waters as at the beginning of creation. The reading of Psalm 29 reminds us that this voice sometimes speaks out of the thunderstorm, like those storms that would sweep in with great fury from the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea with energy sufficient to break the great cedars of Lebanon like matchsticks and splinter oak trees into whirls. Smith describes the psalmist’s vision: “The Lord is enthroned above the flood, over all the unruly powers of chaos, ordering all of life anew.” When that happens, the people are stunned with fear and then awe; the voice “shakes the wilderness,” and all those in the temple say “Glory.”

But that scenario is decidedly not indicated here in the Gospel: the waters are troubled only to extent that the act of washing in the river breaks them, and in a calm, all but windless moment, the Spirit of God settles dove-like on Jesus. The moment is no less magical, no less promising than when the dove returned to Noah’s ark with a green branch signaling the end of the flood and the restoration of creation.

The contrast between the charged serenity of the baptismal scene, on the one hand, and the violent and destructive “perfect storm” of the Psalm on the other, calls to mind the range of nature’s power in contemporary experience of Earth’s climate. A warming global climate will be marked by more frequent and more powerful weather events, we have been warned; and many scientists see clear evidence of a trend in that direction already. The creation’s waters are increasingly troubled and agitated, bearing energy into the heavens that would normally serve to distribute the waters more broadly and more

gently, so as to refresh the forests and sustain the fields into the time of harvest across the globe. A God who is understood to speak to humanity in and through both the storm and the quiet seems to be speaking more frequently and emphatically from within the storm about our misuse of the creation. Thus, Jesus’ baptism is by contrast a moment that shines for us with the beauty of a quiet day in the company of beloved friends down by the peaceful riverside. And just a few chapters further along in Matthew’s gospel, his terrified, faithless disciples describe Jesus in the calm after a windstorm at sea as one whom “even the winds and the sea obey.”

If Jesus’ mission is indeed to fulfill all righteousness, as Jesus himself said to the Baptist as they went down into the waters of the Jordan, then surely one can expect to observe manifestations of that healing power and practice along the way of his ministry. As Smith puts it, “All serious persons and not prophets alone are convinced that the deepest yearning of all peoples is for a world that is whole, with all wounds healed, all brokenness mended. And what is that but a world that is ‘all right,’ a world of righteousness or justice?” The two lessons for the day sketch out several aspects of his work of making the world, indeed the creation as a whole, “work right.”

The first reading is about the suffering servant of Isaiah. The God of this servant is the God of all creation. And in establishing righteousness, the servant demonstrates God’s loving care of that creation: the servant does not swing a rod of iron and smash the nations like so much fragile pottery, nor will he snap bruised reeds or quench dimly burning wicks (vv. 2-3; see Matt. 12:15-21). Gentleness pervades his character and his action; indeed, in the eyes of many, Smith notes, “the servant’s gentleness will be misread and mocked as miserable and maddening weakness.” But endowed with God’s reconciling spirit, he will persist and bring God’s righteousness to the ends of the Earth.

Just so, the baptism of the Gentile soldier Cornelius by the apostle Peter in the second lesson demonstrates the extension of God’s reign into the Gentile world as a peaceable kingdom, an alternative to the Roman Caesar’s cruel and violent empire, with its false peace and its penchant for turning fertile land into a desert. If a Roman soldier can be recruited into that kingdom, other barriers to its extension are likely to fall as well. But that reign of God on earth begins with the quiet moment at the side of the Jordan: God, God’s Son, and the Holy Spirit are framed together over the waters of creation running fresh and clear, as the Baptizer from the wilderness uses those waters as they were originally intended to be used, in the service of life. On this day, that reign begins anew for us as well: as we reaffirm our own baptism into Christ by the Spirit of God on this festival of the Baptism of Jesus, we share in that bright moment and so rededicate ourselves to the reconciliation of our species with God, and with God’s beloved earth.


Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011 (2)

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutheran Restoring Creation

Second Sunday After the Epiphany

Psalm 40:1-11

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Gospel 1:29-42

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Thus does the herald announce the entry of the sovereign Lord who brings light to all the Earth. How does John know who this is? He has seen what we saw from reading the account of Jesus’ baptism from the Gospel of Matthew last Sunday: “ . . . the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” Similar then to the way in which that account disclosed Jesus’ identity, from this moment on the reader of John’s Gospel also knows that Jesus shares inseparably in the very life and being of God. Jesus is “the Son of God.” Again in parallel with Matthew, John’s testimony informs us as to Jesus’ mission, but he frames that mission differently: if for Matthew that mission is to “fulfill all righteousness,” here the mission is to “take away the sin of the world.” That is what “the Lamb of God” does, and the repetition of this announcement to two disciples the next day underscores the importance of the title and the task. The community of followers, which begins immediately to form around him, shares in that identity and that mission. The relationship thus established endures: they go with him to see where he is staying; and just as the Spirit remained on him, so they also remain with him. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” we read in John’s prologue (1: 14). His dwelling among us has begun, with its entire embodiment in our animal physicality and engagement with our history of social division and political conflict—in short, with our world and its sin.

The reading thus invites the question: What does it mean to “take away the sin of the world”—that is, the sin of the cosmos. Since the concept of sin is normally restricted to human beings and their behavior, “cosmos” may also be taken to designate only the world of human affairs. Gail O’Day points out that the singular “sin’ here “emphasizes the world’s collective brokenness, not individual human sins (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 528).” Yet Robert Smith insists that for John sin is fundamentally “unbelief,” and that his Gospel “was written that people might get rid of their sin of unbelief and come to faith and so have real life, eternal life—an unobstructed and deathless union with God” (20:31) (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 118). We would nonetheless maintain that while the sin designated here is indeed decidedly human, that sin does bear cosmic significance—as does then also the removal of sin. In so far as human beings are part of the whole “package” of creation, the “sin” to be taken

away indeed belongs to the cosmos, and is thus the burden of the cosmos, not just of humanity.

This ultimately all-inclusive understanding of the world to be relieved of the burden of human sinfulness is admittedly not clearly indicated in these readings, only an expansive tendency moving in that direction. The psalm gives voice to a hopeful expectation that a “great congregation” will “see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord” (40:3b). So also Isaiah has God say to the servant (49:6), “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up (only) the tribes of Jacob.” He is instead given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation my reach to the end of the earth.” A fully inclusive interpretation of cosmos builds on this tendency, but it can also be inferred from the nature of agency by which sin is to be removed. Just how the world’s sin is to be taken away, that is to say, leads us to the conclusion that nothing less than the whole cosmos will be included in the work of redemption. Why is the servant given as a light to the nations? It is because a faithful God has chosen him to be the servant (49:7). And as the psalmist tells us, since it is God’s nature to “multiply . . . wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us,” we are empowered to share “that saving help” of “steadfast love and faithfulness” with a great congregation—indeed with a very great congregation, as great as possible.And that, finally, is what the Lamb of God does to brings redemption to an all-inclusive conclusion.

The metaphor of “the Lamb” draws deeply from the Hebrew literary tradition. As background to John’s use of the image, scholars point variously to the servant songs of Isaiah, represented amongst the readings for this day by the text from Isaiah 49; the lamb of the Passover meal, the cultic and liturgical symbol of Israel’s deliverance; and the conquering lamb found in post-biblical Jewish apocalyptic. Raymond Brown finds that they are all relevant here: the latter was likely adopted by John the Baptist and is a key figure in the Johannine Book of Revelation; the Passover lamb figures significantly in John’s presentation of the crucifixion; and the linkage of Jesus with the suffering servant of Isaiah was made by others writers in the early church, including Clement of Rome (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, pp. 58-65). What is without precedent in this background material is the association of the Lamb with the mission to “take away the sin of the world.” Neither the Passover lamb nor the suffering servant is a sacrifice for sin; it is the role of the Lamb of the Apocalypse, however, to destroy not sin, strictly speaking, but rather the powers of evil. We suggest, therefore, that a conflation of these resources serves to reframe the figure of the Lamb as a suffering servant who liberates the world by destroying the power of sin. Assuming that Smith is correct in his suggestion that for John the heart of the matter of sin is disbelief, then the role of the Lamb is to remove all grounds for that disbelief or, stated more positively, to manifest fully and unconditionally God’s love and faithfulness in relationship for the whole creation.

Grounds for disbelief differ from time to time; and disbelief manifests itself in a variety of ways. Of particular relevance to our discussion, because of its implications for our understanding and concern for God’s creation, is the fact that in contemporary American culture, the theory of evolution is often cited as grounds for disbelief in God in both

popular and academic culture by both its fundamentalist critics and its scientific and philosophical advocates. The fundamentalist concern for belief in God as creator has been fully and satisfactorily addressed by theologians who maintain that, as Niels Henrik Gregersen puts it, “if one believes in God the creator, then God must also be the creator of the laws of nature, including the principle of natural selection . . . . God can never be thought of as a competitor with the laws of nature.” (“The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World, dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall 2001, p.199). The greater challenge is the problem of theodicy to which the theory gives rise, again quoting Gregersen: “The struggle for life is prehuman in origin and is built into the very way in which the world is wired for complexification. Wired by God?” The pain and suffering that attend the natural development of life are no longer to be explained by human sin, but are rather seen to be the “price to be paid for living in a developing world with highly complex and intense forms of sentient life . . . In our world, ‘creation is coupled with annihilation, splendor with cruelty’” (from K. E. Logstrup, Metaphysics, quoted by Gregersen, p. 201). But a limitation of this modest theodicy, Gregersen points out, is that “only the presence of pain is explained, not the exuberance of pain in creation which is and should remain a challenge” not only to theology but to faith understood as trust: “an evolutionary theodicy assumes a global, systemic view of evil. It affords no comfort to the individual suffering person who asks, Why me? Why us?” Nor does it address the reality of the individual suffering of the lowliest, non-human creatures, entire species of which have been discarded along the way to the development of humans.

Does the Lamb of God address this source of disbelief, and if so how? A dominant view in traditional Christology is that the cross of Christ takes away the sin of the world by providing a substitutionary sacrifice: Christ pays the penalty for our sin with his death. The difficulties attending this theory are too many and too complex to be discussed here, but two need mentioning. First, in relationship to the consequences of the theory of evolution, death, as a biological fact of human existence, can no longer be regarded as a punishment for sin. So the theory doesn’t work. And secondly, in any case, this doctrine of the atonement deals only with the divine-human relationship: sin is removed from that relationship, but nothing happens with respect to its power within the cosmos. A different strategy is called for, and is indeed available in the person and mission of the Lamb of God. The “Lamb of God” addresses the challenge of the comprehensiveness of God’s love and steadfastness in a way very similar to how the Apostle Paul used the kenosis [emptying] of Christ in Philippians 2:6-8 (See our comment on the texts for the festival of The Name of Jesus). As there, it places the motif of the Suffering Servant in the context of a Christology of divine identity. As Gregersen writes, this is not about the two natures of Christ, but rather the comprehensiveness of God’s love. It is

“about God’s relations to two different spatial locations (high/low), about two different forms of status (being in power/being powerless), and about two different positions in relation to life and death (giver of life/ susceptible to death). Can God from the heights stretch out to the depths of creation, to put it in spatial terms? Can God, the cosmic ruler, reach the state of the degraded victims of God’s ruling, to put it in social terms? Can God the Spirit overcome the abyss between God and the suffering Jesus:

‘My God, my God, why did you forsake me.’ The Christian answer is quite unique: Indeed, God can be stretched this way!

In Jesus’ cross, “God’s heavenly glory is stretched so as to encompass the soil of the cruciform creation.” The cross is “like a microcosm in which the suffering in the macrocosm is both represented and lived out.” What’s more, Jesus, in dying the “death of a vital but unsheltered body,” is “an icon of a loser in the evolutionary arms race. With no genetic offspring, he was biologically speaking absolutely unfit.” What’s more, he taught us to act against the law of selection and to “pass on the gift of life to the needy, and even to the bad,” and “refused to play the game of honor and shame in social competition.” In identifying with a person who was finally scorned and ashamed,

God is thus seen as the one who compassionately follows the losers of cosmic evolution and the victims losers (sic) of social competition downwards into the very consequence that all is lost, even the bare existence. God, the giver of life, who produced the package deal of natural order and disorder, is also the co-carrier of the costs of creation.

How does this “take away the sin of the world?” This combination of a “high Christology” and a “deep incarnation” shows that it “was God who was present in Jesus, because Jesus eternally belongs to the divine identity. And wherever God is, God is not only passively enduring suffering, but is also in the process of actively transforming suffering” A “happy exchange” takes place

between the suffering Christ (who is one with the life-giving Spirit of God) and the creatures who are crumbling under the powers of evolutionary suffering, biological death and personal afflictions . . . . Just as light has the nature to spread the light, God will not and cannot do anything else than confer life and joy and courage to anyone who is united with Christ. The reality of God is in this respect so contagious that it makes God-like while preserving (not annihilating) the creatures that are absorbed into the unity with God. What is annihilated is sin, what is reserved yet transcended is the essence of the creature. This is the logic of superabundance that flows out of the divine Spirit who is always in exchange, always communicating with creatures, and always sharing itself with the creatures.

The “death of Christ becomes an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life as well as with the victims of social competition. God bears the costs of evolution, the price involved in the hardship of natural selection” (Gregersen, pp. 203-205). Accordingly, both in theory and in practice as this faith is shared and appropriated, the Lamb of God does indeed take away—no, destroy even—

the sin of the cosmos. God is in truth the faithful and steadfastly loving creator and sustainer of all things.


Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011 (3)

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutheran Restoring Creation

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

Isaiah 9:1-4

I Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). The ministry of Jesus opens in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, thus fulfilling, in Matthew’s view, the prophecy of Isaiah as set forth in our first reading for this Sunday. The reading repeats the first lesson for Christmas Eve, and as our comment on that set of readings suggested, reads the prophet’s contrast of light and darkness into the situation of Galilee under Roman occupation at the beginning of the first century C.E. The light of God’s reign of justice and peace shines into the darkness of imperial peace through victory, which is no true and lasting peace but rather the reign of violence, social disintegration, and environmental degradation (see our comment on the readings for Christmas Eve in this series).

The idea that Jesus calls his first disciples out of this context suggests that their mission, like his, is to bring light into darkness. As Robert Smith writes,

Matthew wishes to emphasize that Jesus is light and brings light, great light, not only by his individual, personal efforts but also through his community of disciples. He builds community and will not work alone. He called them and he still calls women and men to abandon old securities and old allegiances. He summons them to break free of old routine and join him as light-bearers (5:13) and as wooers of human being into new dignity as children of the living God. (New Proclamation Series A, 1998-1999, p. 129)

Except that the security out of which Peter and Andrew (and then also James and his brother John) are called is not necessary so very old. That security is rather of quite recent origin, following on the imposition of Roman authority on the territory. Warren Carter points out that being fishermen on the Sea of Galilee entails “involvement in the imperial economic and political monopoly. Fish were claimed as revenue for the empire. ‘. . . [E]very rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean . . . belongs to the imperial treasury’ (Juvenal, Sat 4.51-55)” The brothers, possibly as members of a cooperative that included James and John as well (4:21), would have purchased a lease or contract with Rome’s agents that allows them to fish and obligates them to supply a certain quantity of fish. They pay taxes on the catch and transportation. The elite—retainers like tax administrators and collectors . . . Herod Antipas (until 39 C.E.), the emperor—benefit. . . . The two characters have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control.” (Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins; A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 121)

It is tempting to appropriate these observations as an opportunity to critique an imperial policy that had to be harmful for the local Galilean fishing communities, but also for the fishery

on which both their livelihood and sustenance depended. The preacher might so proceed to lament the impact of modern industrial fishing practices on fisheries that are imperiled the world over. Carter advances a more salient point, however, namely, that although it is true that “Jesus’ call invades and challenges their everyday world controlled by imperial economics,” the significance of the selection of these fishermen for discipleship is more religious than economic. Their vocation places them at the edge of what we today call wilderness. Their location at the sea is itself “a threshold, a transition from death and darkness into God’s reign and presence,” Carter suggests. Jesus, like the prophets before him, uses “the fishing image to denounce the elite’s false worship (Jer 16:16) and unjust lifestyle of ‘oppressing the poor and crushing the needy’ (Amos 4:2).”

The episode is thus instructive for those of us who desire to call the church to care of creation. Whether the issue be regulation of the local fisheries, a state’s agricultural policy controlling disposal of animal waste, or ‘job killing” restraints on drilling for petroleum, the economics and politics of policies that impact the livelihood of people in the congregation are difficult matters to address from the pulpit. They are inherently complex and they impact a variety of interests, with huge potential to promote factionalism amongst the members—a danger about which our second reading warns emphatically (1 Cor. 1:10). The preacher must be able to develop an approach that is firmly grounded theologically (such as the critique of false worship indicated here) and oriented by clear principles of ethics (what exactly constitutes a just or unjust lifestyle?).

Christopher Southgate argues that there are three broad contexts in which humans have responsibility for care of creation, and each of them is visible within Jesus’ calling of disciples from work as fishermen to work as “fishers of human beings.” First, Southgate says, we are “stewards of the whole surface biosphere, in that we know of certain scenarios that would eliminate all or most of that richness of life, and we have a responsibility to ward off those scenarios, 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.” This is the basis for a legitimate concern about the destructive impact of “imperial” fishing practices, first century or twenty-first, Galilee or Lake Michigan.

Second, we are also “fellow-citizens of wild nature. To hear other creatures’ praise of their God, to recognize that they are loved for their own sake, we must quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols, and we must protect places where that praise can be itself without our distorting it.” This is what Jesus could have expected Andrew and John to have known, from their life on the sea. This is what we can expect from those who live close to the earth and its non-human creatures, either because of their working engagement with them or ,alternatively, because of their scientifically disciplined knowledge about them and love for them. With them, 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,” even when our own work takes us far from the seashore, or the land, as the case may be.

And, finally, Southgate concludes, we are “ingenious innovators and managers of new ways of living in and with the non-human creation. Our calling is to bring this ingenuity, and the necessity of breaking the body of creation for our own needs and the needs of the future, humbly into our priesthood.” This was the vocation to which Jesus summoned his disciples: to a life lived “in the image of the God who in Jesus expressed lordship—dominion—in terms of servanthood (Mark 10:43-45) (Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, pp. 113-14, and see our previous comment in this series on the readings for the festival of The Name of Jesus). And so Jesus led them, going “throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (4:23).

Just so, the seas and all that is in them, “every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean,” belongs to God, not to Caesar, nor to “the locals” either. This creation belongs to the “good news.” As gifts from a creator who seeks to promote the fulfillment of all life, the seas and all that is in them are members of a community of life that is mutually and interdependently sustaining of itself, including the human community within it. As objects of God’s love, independent of human uses, they have their enduring value within the community of life God has created, but also individually as creatures that strive for fulfillment. All creatures seek God’s face, in the words of the psalm for the day. No market, whether imperial or local, can establish their true price. A truly sustainable fishing policy will respect such a divinely-created value even when it conflicts with the satisfaction of human needs and desires. (See Christopher Southgate’s discussion of “The Ethics of Extinction” in his The Groaning of Creation, pp. 124 – 132, in which he calls for “a great project to end extinction,” especially but not exclusively that of human extinction).


Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutheran Restoring Creation

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 15

Micah 6:1-8

I 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). Many events of crucial significance in the story of God’s people take place on mountains: the Ark lands on Ararat, God tests Abraham on the mountain in Mariah, God reveals Godself to Elijah on Mt Carmel and Mt. Horeb, and Moses receives the Decalogue on Mt. Sinai. That Micah in our first lesson for this Sunday pleads God’s case before the mountains as though they were judges in a courtroom therefore strikes this reader as an apt literary device. Who or what else is so well situated in that unfolding story to be God’s witnesses in the Lord’s “controversy with his people”?

Jesus’ ascent of a mountain to deliver his teaching conforms to this pattern. It is of course the precedent of Moses on Sinai that figures most significantly for the interpretation of the Gospel reading for this Sunday. For Matthew, Jesus recapitulates the adventure of Moses and the people of Israel in preparation for his entry into the reign of God: Jesus escapes the wicked king’s order to kill all the children, he escapes from Egypt, he passes through the waters, and he is tempted in the wilderness. That he now goes up the mountain to teach his disciples 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.”

What exactly is it about mountains that renders them appropriate sites for divine epiphanies and revelations? Why does one expect to encounter God there, and to obtain guidance as to how one should live? That the mountains manifestly transcend the plain where life is normally lived is obvious, as also is their seemingly eternal duration through time. Both aspects would seem relevant to Micah’s image: standing before them is an impressive experience; and awareness of their enduring presence greatly enhances their credibility as witnesses on God’s behalf. Additionally, their remoteness from human community is also surely significant. They are part of that “wild nature” that compels us to “quiet the thunder of our own ambitions, our own worship both of God and of idols” (in Christopher Southgate’s phrase), 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. 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” (p. 114). (See our comment on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany for Southgate’s observation that such places need to be protected as part of our responsibility for care of creation.)

In Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, the mountain does not speak. We can nevertheless reasonably presume it serves as support for what Jesus has to say! But what if the mountain did weigh in with an evaluatory comment or two? What would it say to us, not only as an ancient foundation of the Earth but also as a witness of human behavior through the ages, up to and including our time? And if it did speak, could we hear what it says “without distortion”? What, in addition to the factors discussed, would make the mountain’s “yea or nay” meaningful and credible? Since, like Micah, we must in some sense speak for the mountain, how do we avoid an anthropocentric shading of its meaning?

In contemporary ecological understanding, a mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from artic 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 measure to the entire globe,for example, by the measurements taken by ecologists of the decline of mountain glaciers and the river systems that flow from them in their search for understanding the dynamics of global climate change. To those who know how to listen, the mountain speaks, as it were, about the well being of the whole Earth. Thus, the bioregion of the mountain is one where it makes eminent good sense to apply the principle of Aldo Leopold’s land ethic: “A thing is right where it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of a biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Quoted from A Sand County Almanac by Southgate in Groaning, p. 107.

We want to suggest, accordingly, that the mountain context of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew invites the question as to how well the new “law” delivered by Jesus on the mountain might stand up to the judgment of the mountain? Does Jesus’ teaching constitute justice for the whole of creation? Does it foster “a loving kindness” for the whole creation? Does it promote a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator? Or, using Leopold’s criterion, does Jesus’ teaching tend to promote the “integrity, stability and beauty” of the mountain and the realm of nature it represents? 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 for all creation? In other words, does God really care about the well being of the mountain and its creaturely inhabitants?

“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” (p. 131). The issue here is one of a totally negative expectation 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 also, significantly, 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 totally, and 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” (P. 132). But God will intervene, Jesus promises: The poor in spirit are blessed because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Already the fulfillment of the promise given with their creation is guaranteed to come to them, in the eschaton if not sooner.

And what then does the mountain say? We hear it say, “listen to that promise, trust the blessing.” It bears emphasis by repetition, as Carter write: “The declaration that the hopeless poor are blessed (see 5:3) because God is in the process of liberating them, is so startling that it is repeated. Blessed are those who mourn.” Yes, they are blessed precisely because they mourn “the destructive impact of imperial powers. . . . Oppression is not normative. It should be mourned.” Their mourning is in fact sign of the enduring vitality of their spirit, however diminished in strength. One might think of the cries of Rachel over her lost children; one might also have in mind the muted cries of seabirds trapped in sludge from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The Comforter, the Spirit who is the giver and sustainer of all life, will comfort them both. And the mountain says, yes, indeed, you who mourn are for me blessed.

With respect to the first two beatitudes, we have argued for the relevance of the blessing to non-human creatures by pointing to analogous circumstances and behaviors of human beings. With the next several beatitudes, on the other hand, the application is rather more direct. 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. Theirs is an implicit but nevertheless profound ecological behavior, and so 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). As stewards, 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, those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—understood here as existence characterized by right relationships, including adequate resources for living (space, water, energy, sustenance)--“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 must be consistent with internal commitments and motivations, but also non-humans whose external life conforms to the purposes God has installed in their very nature—they will all together “see God,” again a promise that necessarily points to an eschatological fulfillment that is open to all creatures. And, finally, the peacemakers: certainly not the peace of the Roman Empire’s “order, security, and

prosperity,” as we have seen in earlier comments such as those on the texts for Christmas Eve and the Third Sunday After Epiphany; and not 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 both God and Jesus (see our comment in this series on the lessons for the festival of Name of Jesus) The mountain again says, “yes, receive and trust the blessing!” This teaching indeed establishes a standard of justice for the whole of creation. It fosters ‘loving kindness’ for the whole creation and promotes a humility appropriate to life lived in the presence of its Creator. And, it tends to sustain the “integrity, stability and beauty” of the mountain and the realm of nature it represents.

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 in these two beatitudes to the struggle identified in the first two, that of meeting and dealing with 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 his beatitudes. “The empire will certainly strike back . . . and in a tradition of the persecuted righteous, who are ‘inconvenient to us.’ . . . The crucified Jesus belongs to this tradition” (p. 136). The sayings thus evoke from our figurative mountain an anxious question: What does it mean that God looks with favor on those who give up their lives in the struggle? Their reward, it notes, is “the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed, says Jesus, “rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” The syntax suggests that the reward might well be understood to be earned, as an exchange for the sacrifice of one’s life. The mountain is all too familiar with the tendency of this exchange to become subsitutionary, as it was across cultures in the ancient world, and the practice did not serve the mountain’s animal inhabitants and companions well. Juan Alfaro speaks for the mountain in saying that “it is a bad religion in which ‘people commit sins and animals pay the price’” (quoted by Robert Smith, p. 132, from Justice and Loyalty).

As Micah stood and spoke before the mountains, however, it seemed absolutely clear that God did not desire the sacrifice of creatures: “’Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” No! came the answer: as we have seen, what God requires is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Does Jesus’ beatitude compromise this firm negation in any way, perhaps by displacing animal sacrifice with human sacrifice? No, and our scholars agree. “God’s reward is not earned but is God’s just response to the faithfulness that the disciples exhibit. They will participate in the completion of God’s purposes, enjoying the fullness of God’s presence and empire,” Carter insists, and Smith agrees:

Jesus knows how powerful is the grip of evil on the world. So his final blessing is reserved for those who are ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (5:10). He blesses people who pray and watch and work for the coming of the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness is perfectly at home . . . . When people suffer for the sake of Jesus, who

speaks all these stunning beatitudes, they may still rejoice, confident that they are fellow citizens with the prophets, who greeted the new world from afar.

And David Bentley Hart closes the argument, citing Augustine in The City of God:

As opposed, then, to the blood-steeped sacrifices that so delight the gods of the pagan world (3:14), the sacrifice Christians offer is one merely of love (10.5) For Christian thought, the pattern of sin, endlessly repeated, is to take creation not as a gift but as a violence –either the violence of order or the violence of chaos – an aboriginal strife that must be governed; for to take violence as inescapable is to make of violence a moral and a civic duty. This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 346.)

And the mountain bows deeply in assent, with gratitude.


Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

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

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

Matthew 5:13-20

The reading of the Sermon on the Mount continues this Sunday from the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany; so also we extend our reflections on Jesus’ teaching from the point of view of the mountain, taken as representative of the whole creation. It is interesting to note that in the week after that first installment on this theme was written, an article which nicely supports our argument that the mountains represent a broad cross-section of the flora and fauna of creation appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (“At some point, species will have nowhere to go,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal for the New York Times, appeared in the Star Tribune for January 22, 2011).

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot” (5: 13). Warren Carter points to the polyvalence of the image of salt:

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, 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.)

Similarly noting this polyvalence, Robert Smith thinks it highly provocative that Jesus points, not to Torah and Wisdom as did ancient sages nor to his own teaching, but, to “ the people who hear his words and follow him as ‘the 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 on the Mount, the first being a reference to Earth as that which the “meek” will inherit (5:5). If, as we suggested in our comment on that portion of the Sermon, the meek inherit the earth in that they exhibit the ecologically sound habit of “giving place to others,” then “salt for the earth” can in turn be understood as defining those who in such a “flavoring, purifying, sacrificial way of life” help sustain and are loyal to the earth. 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 in mercy, purity, peacemaking and persecution as it lives its alternative existence (5:7-12, (Matthew and the Margins, p. 138).

“You 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 (Isa 42:6), and then assumed by Jesus as “light shining in the darkness,” as we have seen repeatedly in the Christmas and Epiphany scriptures. The point is similar to that advanced by the image of salt: the disciples are to shine their light where they 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.” All the same, it is important to recall that the image of light refers to the reign of God shining in the darkness of life under imperial oppression, as when the Romans “created a desert and called it peace.” The light comes into the darkness that obscures the beauty and goodness of the whole creation, not just of the human community. (Again, see our comment for Christmas Eve and the third Sunday after Epiphany). In the context of the Sermon on the Mount, the image of light is rendered doubly provocative when it is coupled with that of the “city set on a hill.” Does a “city of light” fit on the figurative mountain that speaks for all creation? It would seem so, if it is the “mountain of the Lord’s house” envisioned by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 2:2), or even more, the “new Jerusalem” envisioned by the Revelation to John (21:9-27). Such a city our figurative mountain would be honored to lift up—so that glory is given to God (5:16). So also does a lamp placed on a lampstand give light to all creatures that dwell in the house of God’s creation.

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” (p. 150.) Those who follow Jesus up the mountain are called to manifest for all creation to see the life that leads to the fulfillment of all righteousness, for all. With this as his goal, the teaching of Jesus does indeed fully conform to the nature and purpose of the law and the prophets (5:17-18), as he claims in the closing verses of our reading. Terry Fretheim sketches out what this conformity or “fulfillment” might mean in terms of the implications of the interweaving of law and narrative in the Hebrew bible, which we outline here from his book, God and World in the Old Testament (pp. 148 – 150)

* One, the law is a gracious gift of God. . .

* Two, the law given by God has a fundamentally personal and interrelational character. .

* Three, God’s gracious gift of law meets a creational need. . .

* Four, the basic shape for a life lived in obedience to law is drawn most basically from Israel’s narrative experience with God, rather than from abstract ethical argument or even divine imperative. . . . That the law is developed as an exegesis of divine action means that believers are always being called to go beyond the law. . .

* Five, God does not simply give the law to the people by divine fiat; God accompanies the law with motivations to obey the law. . . The most basic motivation given Israel for obeying the law is drawn from its narrative experience with God as deliverer. . .

* Six, God’s giving of the law, understood in vocational terms, means that God has chosen to use human agents in carrying out the divine purposes in the world.

Isaiah said it more poetically in the chapter from which our first reading is taken. But translated into terms that respond to our figurative mountain’s evaluation of the teaching of Jesus, we can suggest that the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is a gracious gift that, like contemporary ecological understanding of life, is fundamentally personal and inter-relational in character. It

meets the “creational need” of the whole creation of God. It is grounded in the ongoing narrative of God’s involvement with Earth; fixed legal provisions (such as those often promoted by the Pharisees and scribes) fail therefore to fully capture its restorative purpose. God is always doing something new in the creation, and especially so in Jesus: he will deliver “the new creation,” “the new heaven and the new earth,” meaning a renewed earth, a restored creation, to which process the law and the prophets will always be relevant until all righteousness is fulfilled. Being salt for the earth and light for the world is to carry out God’s dynamically unfolding purposes for the whole creation until the end of time.

A final comment on the second reading from 1 Corinthians: Robert Smith calls attention to the deep focus on “Christ Crucified” in this letter, as contrasted with the focus on creation, which Paul had stressed in his preaching on the Areopagus in Athens. There he had spoken of the mystery of God in whom “we live and move and have our being, as even some of your [i.e. the Greek’s] poets have said.” Amongst the Corinthians, on the other hand, he “decided to know nothing . . . except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2). Is this reading therefore of no interest to our figurative mountain, with it’s focused concern for the creation? On the contrary, as Smith’s discussion wonderfully demonstrate..“God is indeed ‘the world’s mystery,’” he writes. “All creatures experience the gift of life welling up, creating, giving, enlivening. And love sometimes oozes, sometimes erupts out of the depths, embracing and gracing our existence.” But God’s creation is ambiguous: the human “hope that springs eternal” in “spite of crushing blows and terrible evil” must be “coaxed out of bitterness and despair.”

So we have to ask: Can we trust that mysterious and inescapable depth out of which life and love and hope flow into our lives? Will it one day run dry? Is it too weak or too fickle for us to trust? Is it anywhere near as strong as the flood of evil that continually sweeps through human history?

When we name the wellspring of life “God” and begin to trust, we do so not because of our probing intelligence, our sensitive wisdom, but because of the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is for us a sure, if paradoxical, sign that the mystery of God is an unfathomable well of grace. Paul stands before the cross like Moses before the burning bush. He takes off his shoes, for he knows that he is in the presence of holiness. The holy and life-giving mystery of the cross speaks to Paul’s heart, embracing him in the divine agape.

Following Fretheim’s conviction, noted above, we affirm that “God does not simply give the law to the people by divine fiat” but accompanies the law with motivations to obey the law, “the most basic motivation . . . drawn from its narrative experience with God as deliverer.” Here we find that Christ Crucified is the motivating power that inspires, encourages and activates the steps on the way of life set out in Jesus’ teaching on the mountain. As Smith concludes, the cross calls Paul “and us to participate in God’s own suffering love on behalf of the life of the world” (Smith, pp. 146-47). The readings for the remaining Sundays of the season of Epiphany will provide ample opportunity to develop this theme further.


Epiphany Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany

Psalm 131

Isaiah 49:8-16a

I Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

The readings for the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany make a good bookend for the series of comments on selections from the Sermon on the Mount that began with the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. To recapitulate, in the readings for that Sunday, we discovered God calling on the mountains as witness to God’s acts on behalf of the people, which provided our thematic question for this series: How well does Jesus teaching on the mountain stand up to the judgment of the mountain, taking the mountain as the representative ecology for the whole of creation? In our view, the teaching has thus far fully embraced justice for the whole creation [see our comments for the Fourth through the Seventh Sundays after the Epiphany]. The Gospel for this Sunday is the final selection from the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. Appropriately, in the first reading, the mountains return—demonstrating obedience to God in service to God’s people and offering praise to God on account of God’s gift of the Servant (Isaiah’s suffering servant) in covenant with God’s people. Thus, in the context of the church’s liturgical readings for this Sunday, we have assembled God before the mountains, Jesus--God’s Son—on the mountain, and the mountains themselves fulfilling their vocation of service and praise (for a discussion of earth’s vocation see Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 249 – 266, and our discussion in the comment in this series on the First Sunday of Advent.)

The question we want to raise in this assembly relative to the church’s mission of care for creation is an exceedingly important one: Granted that God desires human flourishing—the first reading would appear to equate such “favor” with salvation itself—does this desire trump God’s concern for the flourishing of the non-human “other” creation, not withstanding the strong case that we have made for the care of all creation on the basis of the texts of the previous four Sundays?

The question is actually provoked by two passages in the readings. First, at verse 49:11 in the reading from Isaiah, God promises to “turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up”—not a benign image of respect for the mountains, especially in an age of the massive transportation projects across mountains the world over for human travel and commerce. While the image could be interpreted as “merely a metaphor” for God’s will to “ease the way” of the people, so to speak, we want to be consistent in our reading of such metaphors to include something of the reality to which they refer (See Fretheim on the creation’s praise of God, as above). And secondly, in his sermon Jesus suggests that we, his human hearers, are “of more

value than” the birds of the air whom God feeds even though “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns (Matthew 6:26) and by extension also the lilies of the field, which are merely “grass of the field that is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven.”

Clearly, a hierarchy of value is implied by these metaphors. Just how much more does God value humans over other creatures? And what precisely is the basis for that valuation? By playing with the metaphors a bit, we can bring that hierarchy into focus. We do indeed engage productively with the earth, sowing and reaping to then “gather into barns,” and thus we accumulate wealth for ourselves. We do so, however, at least in part precisely because we are aware of being, like the grass of the field, “alive today and tomorrow” and as such subject to the threat of death by all sorts of causes, natural as well as human. Are the birds and the lilies so aware?

Thus framed, the problematic of our situation is exposed. Its underlying anxiety is of course the target of Jesus’ teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. Clearly, he would have us “not worry,” and so reassures us that God does indeed know that we need food, drink, clothes and shelter. And the reading from Isaiah concurs. That God does indeed desire the flourishing of his people is not to be doubted, according to this reading. The servant of God is given in covenant to the people in order to ‘establish the land” and “apportion the desolate heritages.” Prisoners are called out to “feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pastures; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, and he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them” (49:8-10). One hears echoes here of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” The tranquility thus evoked is also reflected in the psalm for this Sunday: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.” (Psalm 131:2)

But what then of the birds and the lilies? Further play with the metaphors posits some negative outcomes: what if our sowing precludes the possibility of either birds or lilies flourishing? And the mountains? What if the mountains are in the way of our pursuit of well-being? What if turning a mountain into a road for the sake of human development precludes, say, the feeding of birds, as in the notorious case of the white spotted owl? How many roads can be built through the vast stretches of mountains on the Earth before we are no longer able to behold the “beauty of the lilies”? Astonishingly, this would seem to be something contemplated by God for the sake of his people. It seems that even the mountains are expected to give way to accommodate the people’s movement, and to do so joyfully even, on account of the comfort God is now giving the people. (“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth, break forth, O mountains into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (Isaiah 49:13).

Which goes to the point we are raising. There is suffering on both sides of the relationship between humans and nature, and even in those aspects of the relationship that are brought into focus by Jesus’ metaphors of the birds and the lilies. Indeed, we can cite Scripture against his reading of nature. As Job reminds us, “A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last” (Job 14:1). The plight is in fact the worse for humans:

For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep (Job 14:7-12).

The problem is that the creation does not provide for either human or other creatures’ flourishing consistently. Indeed, it seems that deep insufficiency is built into nature’s creative process. Want of resources and death are actually part of that process, as any combination of belief in creation and Darwinian natural selection must comprehend. As we have observed earlier in this series, since the suffering, pain, and death that accompany the history of natural evolution can therefore no longer be consigned theologically to Adam’s fault, the goodness of the creation is therefore ambiguous. Why God chose to create in this way probably needs to be listed amongst the “mysteries of God,” of which the Apostle Paul says the Christian community is the steward and is called to be trustworthy in that stewardship (I Corinthians 4:1). But in light of all this, is not our anxiety to some extent justified, if on no other account, because of the mystery?

Still Jesus insists: Don’t worry! To worry is simply not what the children of God do. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Yes, the Gentiles do “strive for all these things” but they serve another master. Indeed, such worrying leads ineluctably into servitude to wealth, the piling up of goods to preserve ourselves against the contingencies of life. The extent of that servitude in our generation and its consequences for the care of creation can be seen in James Gustave Speth’s discussion of the “ten drivers of environmental deterioration” in his book Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. We provide here a brief summary of his discussion:

* Population growth: Recognizing the “great burden and severe risk of life that childbearing has on women in developing societies,” the reality is that “children are needed as productive assets.” “Little hands are needed” for the hard work of securing the supplies of fuel and water needed to sustain life. And “as the resource base declines—and, for example, as women and children have to walk farther each year in search of water and fuel wood—the need for even more children to do the work increases” (pp. 121-22).

* Consumption increases with development: while population went up fourfold in the twentieth century, affluence increased fourfold, so that the world economy grew twenty fold. Beyond meeting basic needs, modern patterns of consumption are driven significantly by needs artificially created by advertising. “Economic inequality . . . contributes to ever new consumer demand.” The pressure for the greatest number of goods at the lowest price drives manufactures to exclude the “full environmental cost of the products, use and disposal” (pp. 124-25).

* Development of technology is also largely market driven; the large corporations that benefit from it are clearly guided by profit, not interest in environmental improvements. Thus the “current market fails to guide technology toward good environmental choices, and governments have failed to correct poor market signals” (p. 131).

* Poverty deprives people of access to resources and the power to get that access; they are therefore forced “to eat their own seed corn,” metaphorically and sometimes actually” (p. 134).

* Markets driven by supply and demand fail to adequately price environmental resources and social goods.

* “Political failure perpetuates, indeed magnifies, market failure.” The will to impose such costs on the market through political institutions is severely diminished by the combination of powerful economic and political interests arraigned against it.

* The scale and the pace of the expansion of global economic enterprises outstrides the development of social and political institutions needed to place limits on environmentally destructive practices (p. 135-36.)

* The “growth-at-all-costs imperative” is what draws this whole complex of factors together. According to world historian J. R. McNeil, the idea of “growth-at-all-costs” was “easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.”Indeed it was more than an idea, in his view: it was a matter of religion. The quest for economic growth is a more “flexible and seductive religion,” he writes, than the communism that aspired to become the universal creed of the twentieth century. “Capitalists, nationalists—indeed almost everyone, communists included—worshipped at this same altar because economic growth disguised a multitude of sins . . . Social, moral, and ecological ills were sustained in interest of economic growth; indeed, adherents to the faith proposed that only more growth could resolve such ills.” Thus did economic growth become “the indispensable ideology for the state nearly everywhere” (p. 137). It is interesting to note in this context that in Speth’s view, the world’s religions have all ‘inveighed against material desires and pointed out the perils of wealth” in vain, although it is difficult to see from his discussion how seriously he has investigated their resources for the task (p. 124).

* Two specific values and habits of thought characteristic of our culture firmly support this “war against effective environmental protection:” anthropocentrism, the “self-confident belief in the human ability to dominate nature” and the view “that nature belongs to us rather than we to nature;” and contempocentrism, the habit of thought that discounts the future in favor of the present.”

* Finally, tenth on Speth’s list of drivers is globalization, by virtue of which most of the previous factors in deteriorization of the environment are exacerbated (p. 145).

Speth’s solution to this multifaceted crisis is to attack these root causes; but the task is daunting. It is, he suggests, nothing short of creating a culture that is no longer from Mars, but rather “from Venus—caring, nurturing, and sustaining” (p.191.) We would commend to him further consideration of the resources of the Christian faith.

Simply put, he has not adequately considered what it takes to break through the underlying anxiety that holds the world in bondage to the pursuit of wealth. The situation confirmed the truth of what Jesus said: “no one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” The alternative, says Jesus, is to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” This is good counsel, and especially so if it is understood that for God’s children to serve God is, according to the argument we have made throughout this series on the readings for the Epiphany Season, to take

care of God’s creation. It makes an enormous difference to know that the reason God values the human being more than the birds and the lilies is that care for the other-than-human creation is the uniquely-given, God-intended vocation of the human. Anthropocentrism and contempocentrism are thereby excluded from the story of creation. Jesus is the model servant, given by God as promised, not just to the people of Israel, but in and through them to all the Earth and its creatures, so that God’s righteousness can be fulfilled for the whole creation. Jesus knows what Jesus is talking about. And so also does the mountain, by the way, as we will see on the Sunday of the Transfiguration.


Readings for Year A 2011

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common lectionary

By Dennis Ormseth

For Lutherans Restoring Creation

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Psalm 2; 99 (alternate)

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

With the readings for last Sunday, the Eighth after Epiphany, we imagined an assembly of God the Father, God’s Son, and the mountains—God and the mountains from the first reading, Jesus teaching on the mountain in the Gospel. As we observed there, this assembly has implicitly served to frame our comments on the readings for the Fourth through the Eighth Sundays of the season. Now, in Matthew’s story of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, these very same principals are again gathered, only this time in one text, with an enlarged company and on a new mountain. It is quite a gathering, and its significance clearly transcends our capacity to comment fully on it here. We focus, according to the purpose of this series of comments, on its implications for the care of the creation.

The assembly represents a thick conflation of several events in the history of God’s people, and evokes a strong sense of being embedded in their life together, extended over the ages. God, as it were, summons to the mountain “those two great ancient worthies” (Robert H. Smith’s phrase, from New Proclamation, Series A, 1998-1999, p. 171), 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. 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 “six days later” on a mountain 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, p. 348). It also seems significant that Elijah brings to the scene an experience similarly connected to Sinai. 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). As Belden Lane observes,

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, p. 135).

Among other things, the pairing of Moses and Elijah on Sinai with Jesus on Tabor carries political significance. Tabor is thereby associated with a challenge to entrenched political power. As both mountains lay . .

“far from the corridors of influence in Jerusalem (or Egypt, for that matter), they 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).

In our view, the relevance of this political element for Jesus cannot be ignored. 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 Jesus 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 we do. The older and wiser Peter sees the pattern shared by these, in our treatment, interlocking narratives: these men have 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 exceptional. Readers of our comment on the text for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany might

recall that we have recently heard from Moses’ farewell address on Mt. Nebo, in which he exhorted the people ‘to choose life’” as they prepared to enter the promised land without him (See our comment on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany). 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, which is manifested in a pervasive drought in the land. In contrast both to Moses’ prior exclusion from the land and to 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’ teaching 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 and Seventh Sundays).

But for all that to take place he needs first to go to Jerusalem to confront the authorities that hold the land in destructive, desert-causing bondage to the pursuit of power, privilege and wealth (See

our comments in this series on the readings for Christmas Eve and the Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany). As we prepare to leave the mountain with him and take the Lenten road to Jerusalem, it is important that we take note both of the specific location and of the actual event of Jesus’ transfiguration.

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” In contrast to the landscape of Sinai, he comments, 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 from the related, 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 with the terror of injustice, more fascinans than tremendum, more love than dread.

In fact, we 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. 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 reading 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.

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