The Hospitality of the World.
Eco-justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Year B—2014-2015
By Tom Mundahl
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year B (2015)
1 Kings 19: 4-8
Psalm 34: 1 - 8
Ephesians 4: 25- 5: 2
John 6: 35, 41-51
The power of membership is at the center of Wendell Berry’s thinking. Whether it is in his fiction such as The Wild Birds -- Six Stories of the Port William Membership (San Francisco: North Point, 1985-1986), where he probes the small farming community on the Ohio River he knows so well, or in essays like “Health is Membership” (Another Turn of the Crank, Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995, pp. 86-109), community is central. “I believe that the community in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms” (“Health is Membership,” p. 90).
A friend of Berry’s, Duke theologian Norman Wirzba has borrowed this notion of membership, reflecting on it in his work promoting servanthood for creation. “The bodily understanding that creation is a membership is of the highest significance. For a variety of reasons we have come to believe that the attribute we call ‘life’ is a feature of an isolatable organism. The problem is that when we focus on individual organisms we forget about the memberships and the grace that circulates throughout creation and bind us together” (Food and Faith, Cambridge: 2011, p. 59). The readings we focus on this week will not let us ignore membership, for they remind us that carrying out our vocation is done together.
That is certainly true of the work of Elijah. While we can only assume that Elijah, like his prophetic heir Elisha, worked closely with the company of prophets, we have direct textual evidence of his cooperation with Obadiah (1 Kings 18). Elijah’s career comes to a head during the reign of Ahab (873-852 BCE). As the son of King Omri, who transformed the city of Samaria into an urban showplace, Ahab continued centralizing royal power by transforming Israel’s economy from one based on local subsistence to a state-controlled system designed to generate surpluses of key crops for international trade. (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture and Agriculture—An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Cambridge: 2009, p. 113). In the face of this new royal policy, Ahab faces a drought so serious that there is not even enough water for the royal stables.
As we recall, it is only after an epic contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel that the drought ends. Jezebel is so angry at Elijah’s victory that she vows that Elijah will suffer the same fate as her dead prophets (1 Kings 19:2). Ironically, it is after this crowning success that Elijah has to flee for his life. He runs as far as he can, finally stopping across the border in Beersheba—Judean territory (Brueggemann, First Kings, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.87).
But even Beersheba is not far enough. Elijah journeys another day into the wilderness and sits down under a broom tree. There he asks for exactly what Jezebel had in mind for him: that he might die. Whether one attempts to understand this psychologically as a reaction to the exertion of being a fugitive or views it as the ultimate way to resign from prophetic responsibility, it is an attempt to “resign” one’s membership in the project the Holy One has in mind. Elijah discovers that there are no “escape clauses” from prophetic vocation.
As he collapses into the sleep of total exhaustion, twice he is awakened by an angelic messenger. The first awakening (1 Kings 19: 6) provides nutrition. But the second awakening includes instructions for a new beginning for Elijah: “He got up, and ate and drank; then he went on the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (1 Kings 19: 8). There Elijah experienced both a renewal of calling and covenant in the mystery of the “sound of sheer silence”(1 Kings 19: 12) empowering him to begin the last phase of his life’s work—anointing a new king, Jehu, and naming Elisha as his prophetic successor, all acts confirming his membership in community of truth tellers (1 Kings 19: 16).
For those reading these comments and called to serve creation and build eco-justice, Elijah’s utter frustration will come as little surprise. While we celebrate the membership we have in the Body of Christ, the membership we share in ecojustice work seems smaller and more fragile. That may be explained by the fact that the power of this particular “calling” may seem strange in a culture described accurately by Brueggemann: “The ideology of our time is to propose that one can live “an uncalled life,” one not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self” (Hopeful Imagination --Prophetic Voices, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986, p. 19).
Because the powerful cultural voices of our time promote autonomy, self-actualization, and consumer fulfillment, all wrapped in a powerful “psychology of adjustment,” countercultural commitments are seen as dangerous. Yes, we are asked about our “passions.” But woe to the one whose passions do not fit the dominant paradigm! This is where the power of “membership” becomes most crucial. No wonder the “company of prophets” was so valued.
But what kind of membership is this? Today’s Second Lesson offers clues that provide the courage we need. In the verse immediately preceding our pericope, the author describes the power of baptism “to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true justice and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Living out that baptism entails living out new creation.
This results in an entirely new social attitude: “speaking the truth to neighbors” because we now are gifted to see ourselves as “members (μέλος) of one another” (Ephesians 4:25). Again we are under the influence of body metaphor, this time emphasizing the utter interdependence of all members. This interdependence requires honesty and mutual care for the “building up” of the community (Ephesians 4:29). That is, just as the garden needs application of compost to amend the soil, so the design (οικονομία) (Ephesians 1:10) of new creation requires continual nurture (οίκοδομή).
Just as Noah’s family in the ark containing the elements of life was a “seed pod” signaling a new beginning for creation, so this “membership community” is seen by traditional commentators as “typifying the re-created society as a microcosm of renewed humanity” (Ralph Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, Louisville: John Knox, 1991, p. 58). But humankind is renewed only as it becomes aware of its membership in a vastly wider community, the community of creation. Which is precisely what the author of Ephesians with the emphasis on “the recapitulation of all creation (τα πάντα) in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10) intends. Perhaps we comprehend this best in the Eucharist, which, as Alexander Schmemann suggests, “is the sacrament of unity and the moment of truth: here we see the world as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view” (For the Life of the World -- Sacraments and Orthodoxy, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1973, p. 44)
Expanding a limited point of view is the challenge that those who have followed Jesus as he feeds them and unveils the true meaning of bread with which they are confronted. From their traditional standpoint, to hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 48), the “inclusio” bracketing our gospel text, constitutes a shocking act of blasphemy. No wonder they echo the Exodus travelers in their “complaining” or “murmuring” about him (Exodus 16: 2, 7, 8). They had wanted bread for the day. Now they are offered bread that gives life far beyond the body’s nutritional requirements.
Their complaints echo other narratives that turn on Jesus’ identity and authority: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’”(John 6: 42). Yet Jesus simply asks them to stop complaining, offering to “draw them” to himself (cf. John 12:32) in order to give them “resurrection life” (Raymond Brown, John I - XII, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1966, p. 277). To help them comprehend this all in more traditional terms, he reminds them of the prophets’ saying, “And they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45, Isaiah 54:13, Jeremiah 31:34).
As Jesus draws a community to himself, we begin to grasp that the full meaning of bread is membership in a new community where those drawn will never be hungry or thirsty (John 6: 35). They live a new quality of life (eternal life) “where no life is merely fuel to be absorbed. All life becomes sign and sacrament of God’s love, a witness to the costliness and mystery of life and death, and so becomes the inspiration to greater attention and care” (Wirzba, Food and Faith, Cambridge: 2011, p. 158). They are invited because of the bread of life to experience what Celtic believers called “the hospitality of the world” (Esther DeWaal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, New York: Doubleday Image, 1997, p. 4), and called to share that primal welcome.
As Schmemann suggested above, it is particularly at the table that believers are welcomed to receive the gift of new identity focused on the needs and celebration of the memberships which comprise their lives. The bread of life nourishes us to nurture life, not only through ecclesiastical connections, but also through the diverse panoply of memberships that comprise a world. Even Augustine approved Terence’s dictum, “I consider nothing human alien to me” (E. M. Atkins, ed., Augustine: Political Writings, Cambridge: 2001, p. 97).
Often the liveliness of the bread of life reveals itself when those holding different sorts of memberships meet. This is certainly what happened when Northfield, MN area farmer Dave Legvold, concerned about the health of his fields after years of heavy tillage and application of fertilizer and herbicides, found that his soil no longer absorbed sufficient water (The Land Stewardship Letter, Vol. 33, Number 2, 2015, p. 25). With the help of Saint Olaf College biology professor Kathleen Shea and students, Legvold has found ways to improve soil structure, reduce water runoff, and still maintain good crop production—all at a lower cost. In fact, Legvold’s farm has become a living laboratory for Shea’s students, serving as a new kind of ecological field resource. This experience has been so powerful that Saint Olaf biology grad, Katie Seybold, has put off grad school to develop an on-site research service, Farming Forward, to help farmers make soil- healthy changes appropriate to their locales. Once more the bread of life nurtures more life—and new, vital memberships.
Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN firstname.lastname@example.org