Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2021B

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary -- Sunday, July 24-30 in Year B


On Star Trek and Saving the Planet: Messianic Miracles in a New Key Amy Carr reflects on living toward a vision of right relations amid varying degrees of conflict.

Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year B (2021, 2024)

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

If you’ve ever seen any Star Trek series, have you ever noticed how the starships create a social world made up almost entirely of well-educated professionals? Everyone seems well-equipped to solve together the technological challenges that come their way, in space or in the worlds they visit. And while each ship has a leadership command structure, there is also a spirit of shared mission. Each person (whatever their species) understands not only the vital role they play, but also how everyone’s contributions work together to sustain the common good.

The biblical fantasy of a good king is not unlike today’s fantasy of a good technocracy. Then and now, we would like to trust that there is a leadership structure that can ensure everything will be all right: the hungry will be fed, the unjust will be held to account, and the planet won’t be destroyed.

Jesus both feeds and thwarts the expectations of a good king (or a competent technocracy), doesn’t he? On one hand, he reveals he bears divine authority by displaying his power over the non-human natural world: he makes bread and fish multiply to feed a hungry crowd! He walks on water! He calms a storm! He makes the ship instantly reach shore! He does things that might make us think today of an extraterrestrial from a more advanced civilization. Hindus might place Jesus in a lineage of adept yogis who do similar things. But these nature-controlling miracles of Jesus made Jewish followers think of the prophet Elisha’s own ability to multiply food, Moses’ ability to part the Reed Sea, and Elijah running faster than King Ahab’s chariot to Jezreel (I Kings 18:46). To those who witness Jesus doing such things, he looks to be a messianic king with the added zing of being a prophet with supernatural abilities.

Yet when the crowd that saw his food-multiplying miracle tried to forcibly make Jesus king, he ran to the hills. I am trying to imagine witnessing this scene: a teacher and healer we’ve all gone out to see reveals an ability to feed everyone (today we might notice his ability to feed without overusing the earth’s resources in the process) and then literally runs away from the leadership expectations this ability evokes. What exactly did we just see?

From the stories of YHWH in the desert to those of Jesus in the wilderness, the biblical deity is at once elusive and revealing, hidden even when made plain. What is absolutely clear is that divine authority comes to us on its own terms, not on our own. We cannot make God king, queen, or appointed manager of planet earth. We can only recognize divine authority and goodness when we spot them. As the singer notes in Psalm 145, we can notice and appreciate the generosity that comes from a God who provides for the whole of creation: “Patiently all creatures look to you to feed them throughout the year; quick to satisfy every need, you feed them all with a generous hand” (Psalm 145:15-16, Jerusalem Bible translation).

So often like the crowd that witnessed a particular feeding by God, we both see and do not see the sovereignty of God at work within creation.

On one hand, we have moments when we can perceive an order of things in which God’s “dominion endures throughout all generations,” in which “the LORD is just” in all ways (Psalm 145:13, 17). We witness signs of such things in the way the natural order transcends our small-minded desires, and in the history of human struggles to create societies based on principles of justice and fairness.

On the other hand, just like the crowd Jesus fed one day unexpectedly, we can’t help but notice all the creatures — human and otherwise — that are not fed throughout the year, even if those creatures appeared at all because untold generations of their species had found food. Harpy eagles in the Amazon are starving because once deforestation reaches a certain level, there are not enough sloths and small monkeys for them to feed upon.[i] Polar bears in the Arctic are getting skinny as sea ice melts, depriving them of seals. While the doe licking and feeding a spotted fawn last night in my yard in a west central Illinois town — with rabbits hopping around them — may be glad there are no wolves or loose dogs nearby, the massive and quota-exceeding slaughter of wolves in Wisconsin this past year means that more deer will be without predators, endangering humans and themselves instead through a greater likelihood of automobile accidents.[ii]

What is the gospel for us, then, if Jesus fed some crowds in the first century, but here and now there are still so many creatures unable to feed themselves, and too many entire species are being starved into extinction?

One angle of the gospel is expressed in Jesus’ lifelong pattern of revealing the power to promote flourishing, then withdrawing. Jesus resisted being owned by the temptations of Satan, by crowds or Jewish leaders or the Roman empire, or his disciples’ own efforts to prevent his dying. Throughout his ministry, he moved back and forth between attentive crowds and solitude in the wilderness. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey – not a war horse – and was crowned (mockingly this time) only while being crucified. His resurrection was an event with witnesses but no public enthronement. He disappeared once again by way of ascension into heaven, promising to send the Holy Spirit as guide.

We can see this present-hiding power of Jesus when we read John 6 in a Eucharistic key. Jesus is present in the bread and wine of Communion, his very self now multiplied and distributed like those few loaves and fishes by the Sea of Galilee. Invisible as a human being yet present in grain and grape, Jesus unites us with himself by means of the fruits of the earth itself. How might such communion be good news for hungry crowds of creatures, human and otherwise?

In the epistle reading from Ephesians, Paul voices the mystery of the risen, ascended Christ’s leadership in and through those of us united with him. The prayer is Triune: Paul asks the Father, the loving source of all of earth’s families, to empower us through the Spirit to grow with Christ living in our own hearts:

“Out of [the Father’s] infinite glory, may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith, and then, planted in love and built on love, you will with all the saints have strength to grasp the breadth and the length, the height and the depth; until, knowing the love of Christ, which is beyond all knowledge, you are filled with the utter fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16-19, Jerusalem Bible translation).

If not exactly democratized, this is still a sovereign authority diffused throughout the body of Christ. Perhaps only a messiah who runs from the mob’s attempts to crown them can so distribute the power of monarchy itself. If Jesus is monarch of a Kingdom of God that is within us (Luke 17:21), then Christ continues to reveal and vanish, hiding within our own “hidden self,” leading by enabling us to perceive and dwell in the unfathomable love of Christ and the “fullness of God.”

Perhaps the appeal for some of Star Trek is precisely that it is an emblem of a community living out one form of well-distributed, effective leadership that coordinates the technologically-adept skills of many. At a time when the US Congress is divided about the size of an infrastructure bill and how much to support a speedy shift to alternative energy sources, some among us might hunger for a top-down but harmonized technocracy. We could then move more rapidly beyond hammering out statements of value (like the current international movement to declare ecocide a crime[iii]), and toward the actual, radical reordering of our land and power use that we need to prevent global temperatures from rising too high.

But in Paul’s day, like our own, the best of visions cannot prevent struggles over power and strategy. Paul’s prayer speaks to a perception of Christ’s authority in the life of the church that co-exists with the actual tensions he addresses in his letters to churches caught up in their own issue-oriented infighting. Undoubtedly, Christians have always lived toward a vision of right relations amid varying degrees of conflict over leadership and the specific direction to take, in church and in society at large.

I have long sensed that the heart of congregational life is the way worship draws us into a perspective on the whole of our lives before God. To be sure, the pandemic has multiplied how many of us experience worship itself as divided up into a mix of in-person and virtual, synchronous and asynchronous spaces. We don’t entirely know who does or will remain in our congregations. But as we think about our own global context, when the need to feed hungry crowds of people without overusing the land mingles with the need to protect the bees when we are not sure we know how to do so, it is no small thing to stay attuned to the invitation of this week’s scripture texts into a meditation on the revealed yet hidden nature of monarchy, of leadership, of authority—divine and human—with regard to plants, animals, wind, sea, time and space.


Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com


[i] Helen Briggs, “Amazon eagle faces starvation in ‘last stronghold,’” BBC, June 30, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-57665575

[ii] John Flesher, “Study says hunting, poaching reduce Wisconsin wolf numbers,” AP, July 5, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/wisconsin-science-environment-and-nature- government-and-politics-3347835f7bebf46163b23fbdcabb8718

[iii] Josie Fischels, “How 165 words could make mass environmental destruction an international crime, NPR, June 27, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/06/27/1010402568/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime-criminal-court