Congregations who embrace care for creation will find joy in the initiatives they undertake.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year B 2012
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
“Whatever the watershed in which they gather, the congregation is in a place fully open to the healing presence of God,” we wrote in our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost—“whenever inhabitants of a place reach out with anxiety-banishing faith to acknowledge the presence of Jesus, they receive his healing power for the mending of creation.” This assertion, if valid, would seem to provide hope for every “hometown” congregation hearing that reading. So it is astonishing to encounter in the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost this disheartening exception: Jesus’ very own “hometown” synagogue is not so open. Indeed, his synagogue is the exception that proves the rule: something keeps them from reaching out with that “anxiety-banishing faith” to acknowledge Jesus' presence and his healing power. Jesus, Mark notes, “could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief” (6:5).
So congregations hearing this reading this Sunday will want to consider how it was that people who knew Jesus well were not truly open to his presence with them. A community seeking to demonstrate fully its care for creation might well ponder this text in order to understand and counter whatever it is that makes prophets in their own country “without honor.” Uncounted initiatives in environmental justice have fallen by the wayside after their passionate advocates have alienated precisely those hometown peers amongst whom they might easily expect to be trusted and heard.
The church's choice of Ezekiel 2:1-5 follows from Jesus’ self-identification as a prophet, one of those dramatic figures called by Yahweh to speak to the people of Israel. In a brief sketch of the profile of “the prophet as mediator,” Walter Breuggemann provides helpful background for interpreting this aspect of Jesus' ministry. The prophets were typically “uncredentialed individuals,” he writes, “who made 'out of the ordinary' utterances,” “and who were understood as having a peculiarly intimate connection with Yahweh.” Their speech is directed to specific circumstances of crisis “in which dangers are great and life-or-death decisions must be made” relative to the “dominant modes of power and dominant definitions of reality;” indeed, their utterance often “evokes a crisis circumstance where none had been perceived previously.” Gifted with powerful poetic imagination, they have the “capacity to construe, picture, and image reality outside of the dominant portrayals of reality that have been taken as givens.” With “acute awareness of distress,” they found “fresh and attention-getting ways of imagining Israel into the fissure of death that it chose to deny and disregard;” but they also “spoke about possible futures that invited Israel beyond its several fissures, when dominant Israel has arrived at despair.”
Key to the prophet's claim to revelatory speech, Breuggemann thus contends, was this sense of . . .
convergence or equation of uncredentialed human utterance and Yahweh's own utterance that debunks and dispels the social reality that Israel had constructed for itself by removing Yahweh from its center. Yahweh, however, will not be removed from Israel's center! One of the ways in which Yahweh returns to and remains at Israel's center is by the utterance of these odd, abrasive, mostly unwelcome voices (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, pp. 622-27).
Their seemingly very subjective claim to authority is regularly met with resistance, Breuggemann notes, on the part of those “who wish to remain undisturbed within certain beneficial construals of reality” (Breuggemann, p. 631). That their oracles survive as part of the heritage of faith is accordingly a powerful testimony to the inherent value of nearly universal significance, providing insight both for Israel and for other nations. The body of prophetic literature collected from the periods of Israel’s history, from monarchy through exile and post exile, contains a “metahistory,” in Brueggemann's view, which consists
in the claim that Israel's life, in its prosperity, is at most a penultimate assurance subject to the righteous intention of Yahweh. In like fashion, the successful life of other nations and empires that seem assured to perpetuity is at the most a penultimate claim, subject to the faithful resolve of Yahweh to make all things new.
Whatever strength the prophet's message lacks in terms of universal reasonableness, it regains in “the breadth and depth of the primordial word that constitutes the dialogical situation at the heart of which sin breaks forth” (Brueggemann, p. 641-420. The last quotation here is from Paul Ricour, The Symbolism of Evil [Boston: Beacon Press, 1969] p. 53).
That Jesus represents a re-centering of the experience of God away from the temple, a theme we have developed in this series of comments on the lectionary, accordingly fits well with this view of the prophet in Israel. We also see why his home-town advantage turns out to be a detriment. Namely, if they know him, he also knows them, too well in fact. And in their rejection of Jesus, they disclose how un-centered in God they actually are. Moreover, the relevance of this prophetic voice for care of creation is laid out in Brueggemann's further analysis. The prophets, he notes, are “advocates of a Yahwistic ethic” and “practitioners of a Yahwistic eschatology.” At the heart of this ethic is a conviction of fundamental importance concerning care of creation:
There can be no viable future of well-being for the Jerusalem establishment, except on the condition of the well-being of the entire community. . . When the strong and powerful mobilize their resources and energy for the weak and vulnerable, peace and prosperity are generated for all. The prophets state these matters with Yahwistic specificity. The argument being made, however, is that this future, conditioned by justice, is not an arbitrary imposition of an angry God, but is a conditionality found in the very fabric of creation. It is indeed how life works, no matter how much the strong and the powerful engage in the illusion of their own exceptionality.
A protest against royal exceptionalism, this insistence that “all members of the community, rich and poor, urban and rural, wise and foolish, powerful and marginated, are bound strongly the individualism characteristic of modern culture, rooted as it is in an ideology that “views the neighbor as impediment” (Brueggemann, p. 645).
Coupled with this ethic, indeed, integral to it, is the “practice of a Yahwistic eschatology.” Hope for the realization of this vision of community Brueggemann writes, is,
rooted in a conviction of Yahweh's indefatigable resolve to bring creation, and all in it, to Yahweh's sovereign intention for creation. The prophets are not fortune-tellers or predictors, working with esoteric means or data. They are, rather, those who attend to Yahweh's resolve, which will not be defeated, even by the “end of history” that comes with failed ethic. Eschatology is simply Yahweh's capacity to move in and through and beyond the end of history, to reinitiate the life-giving processes of history (Brueggemann, p. 646).
It is this confidence in Yahweh's resolve on into any imaginable future on which the New Testament Gospel writers ground their witness that, with Jesus, the “prophetic promises continue to be generative and revelatory, for the shape of Yahweh’s promised newness is always yet again to be discerned and received” (Brueggemann, p.648).
It strikes us, accordingly, that the work of the prophet, as Brueggemann describes it here, contrasts sharply with the approach to engaging environmental crises typical of our culture. Leadership on environmental issues in our context tends to come from very different sources, mainly powerfully credentialed individuals, expert scientists from relevant disciplines. Few of these individuals are gifted with poetic imagination and therefore, as a group, they do poorly when challenging the dominant culture, which for all its dependence on science is increasingly anti-science. Trained in narrow, specialized fields, they may be able to communicate their deep concerns about that “corner” of creation close to them, and their love for it; they typically lack the imaginative power, however, to effectively communicate a convincing vision of the “death of creation,” or, for that matter, to envision the possibility of its restoration on a global scale. Theirs is a relativistic authority; their grasp on the future is in principle a matter of prediction, characteristically expressed in degrees of certitude. The shift to ethical pronouncement is a leap that few are prepared to make convincingly for those who do not already share their perspective. New studies always turn a new page, so few would claim to express convictions with anything approaching absolute certainty; their data is served up in large-scale abstractions, difficult for the untrained to understand and assess. Their mode of operation is that of an elite class of people whose life-style typically leaves them open to the criticism that they have little grasp of the struggles of ordinary people.
Given the consequent difficulty of the scientific community to make a compelling case for policies that respond powerfully to environmental issues, might the church come to their assistance with the voice of the prophet? What exactly might such a voice add to what is available from the secular, scientific community? And how might a congregation find its way through the kind of conflict that Jesus himself aroused in relationship to his hometown synagogue? Answers to these questions and an outline of an effective strategy for this work emerge from consideration of the reading before us in its entirety.
Failing in his hometown, Jesus proceeded to other villages, while at the same time enlisting his disciples in the mission. He began to send them out, equipping them as they went with “authority over the unclean spirits,” and directing them to enter fully into the table fellowship of the houses where they were welcomed. The assignment of these two aspects of their activity, Ched Myers points out, is not unique to this one occasion. Jesus' directions are rather “for 'the way'—paradigmatic of discipleship lifestyle.” His directions correlate exactly with a pattern we have encountered in recent Sundays as elements in the mission of Jesus. On the second Sunday after Pentecost, we heard it said that if “a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus' house is clearly divided, and indeed, is “unable to stand” in the sense that one of its own is rejected. The episode actually encapsulates the situation with regard to the entire kingdom of Israel: on two levels, the community is bound by the anxiety they feel in the face of the religious and political circumstances of their society. On the third Sunday after Pentecost, we sampled the teaching that Jesus might typically have addressed to the assembly, inviting them to abandon their trust in the powers that dominated them in favor of trusting the God who, according to the parable of the sower, is manifest “within the ordinary processes of life,” as we put it, and whose true kingdom is like a mustard bush that gives more than adequate shelter for the birds, an image of a “new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation.” With this teaching, Jesus has in standard prophetic fashion surely raised the level of anxiety to a fever pitch, because what he does is clearly outside the bounds of acceptable practice. The community is on the verge of chaos, but they have no experience of Jesus' stilling the storm, as the disciples have (see our comment on the readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost). And particularly problematic for them, if they know about it, would have been his healing of the Gerasene demoniac on that “other side” of the Sea of Galilee, given what a reversal it represents to the dominant ordering of the cosmos in relationship to the temple in Jerusalem. As Ched Myers points out, exorcism was a “key episode in Jesus-the-stronger-one's struggle to 'bind the strong man” of Satanic despair (see our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost).
Presumably, the disciples could expect similar reactions as they told about these events in the villages to which they were sent. But what could not be expected to happen in Jesus relationship with his own synagogue because of his kinship ties and responsibilities there becomes plainly visible as the disciples come amongst entire strangers. Like Jesus, who has just forsaken his home village and family, the disciples are to be “completely vulnerable to, and dependent upon, the hospitality extended to them.” If the community is bound up by its anxiety regarding its future under Roman domination and religiously-structured class stratification, joining them in the solidarity of a common table is a sign of their own faith in the God who is “'manifest within the ordinary processes of life.” Thus does “extending and receiving hospitality” become a defining mark of a new community that is “'unbound” from its anxieties about empire and religious observance, and ready to enjoy “the ‘new and restorative ordering of life within the great ecology of the creation’” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books,1988, p. 214).
What this episode is about in the final analysis, we want to suggest, is becoming “practitioners of a Yahwistic eschatology,” in Brueggemann's phrase. What these disciples do, as it were, is create small-scale instantiations of the eschatological shalom of God, in which the prophetic word of promise is allowed to “reinitiate the life-giving processes of history,” again from Brueggemann's sketch of the prophet's profile. The itinerant disciples and members of the village are to be united in faithful dependence upon the God who is present in their midst, not only as provider as always, but now also as revealer and healer. In so doing, they render the teaching of Jesus “believable.”
What Christian congregations can do to address the crisis of creation in their communities, we are suggesting, is to become faithful caretakers of the prophetic critique and vision, as we have in the prophetic literature of the Bible. “Faithful” is the key word here: in contrast to the mode of operation of the scientific community, according to which citizens are addressed primarily in terms of their rational self-interest, the community of faith speaks to the “interest” or will of the creation's Creator for the creation. As we have seen, the “utterances of uncredentialed individuals” have become an authoritative, literary heritage, which the church inherits by virtue of its fidelity to the prophet Jesus. But this heritage is not merely literary; it involves social and material activation of the promises it contains, as members of a congregation join together as a community of faith to demonstrate in their own community's life what their trust in the prophet's promise actually means for the restoration of creation. As it embodies the will of God for the creation in “the fabric of creation,” which God has conditioned to receive it and enfold it, the congregation knows itself as centered in the presence of God, and indeed experiences in some good measure Jesus' healing power for the restoration of creation.
This is why the current movement to “green” congregations is so significant, in our thinking: whatever actual easing of the environmental crisis they achieve, for example by conserving energy or installing rain-gardens, is in one sense less important than the witness they give to the hope for the creation that is in them. But congregations who accept this mission with all seriousness will also find joy in the many specific initiatives they might undertake. They might imagine the community-sustaining, “servant's garden” of the future (as opposed to the wartime 'victory garden' of the past, because they are not agents of a nation seeking to dominate the world), and begin working to create it in their neighborhood. They might work to become “carbon free,” forsaking as far as possible our society's deeply destructive dependence upon fossil fuels, with its pollution of the air and warming of the climate. They might become more attentive to the many poets of the creation, e.g. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, and others, who speak afresh of God’s love for creation out of the context of modern, science dominated culture. They might find that features of nature that they regard as a “thorn in the flesh” turn out to be the stimulus for a more intense focus on service to the community, the grace of “power made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:2-10). But above all, they might find themselves drawn to the God who is at the center of life; in so doing, they will find themselves caught up in the passionate love God has for all God's creation.