Monday, December 5, 2011
How do we plant seeds of hope for the environment with the money we spend? What kind of world are we buying? Is our institutional investing "environmentally responsible"?
We know that consumers can influence corporate behavior by what they purchase, and what they avoid. Boycotts influence policy (e.g., against apartheid, or on behalf of migrant farmworkers). We increasingly look beyond what is inside canned food by reading the label (amount of sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol, additives, etc.) and ask questions about what is inside a company---its corporate social responsibility (e.g., charitable giving and community outreach, women's and minority advancement, defense contracts, nuclear or renewable power, etc.).
Opposite "mindless consumerism" many people are conscious consumers, or consumers with a conscience. They look for a "made in the USA" and/or union label, to gain some level of confidence that workers producing the product do so in an environment that meets health and safety requirements. Some products meet standards, such as cruelty-free certification (companies that do not test on animals) or certified as sustainable forestry (or farming or fishing) derived products.
Looking at the web site of a company or by calling their toll-free phone number, can help us assess their effort to reduce their environmental impact, from their responsible stewardship of natural resources as raw materials, to the externalities (emissions from production and transportation to market, packaging waste, etc.).
For investors, either as individuals or as religious institutions, "socially" or "environmentally" responsible investing ("s-r-i"or "e-r-i") is the key search tool phrase for one to "Google" to begin to educate oneself on this issue. Just as churches historically have avoided investing in alcohol, tobacco and gambling, today we can look at an annual corporate report to shareholders to help us understand the environmental impact of our investments. What is the company environmental policy about risks and opportunities; energy efficiency efforts; what its products and services do to improve the environment; is their clarification/disclosure about greenhouse gas emissions; has it been sued in any lawsuit about environmental crimes, etc.?
In addition to choosing an "sri" or "eri" stock/mutual fund investment portfolio, another way to promote a social good, to earn a financial return on an investment that is compatible with ones moral/ethical values, is by using shareholder rights. Proxy votes can prompt companies to make changes. "As You Sow" (www.asyousow.org) publishes an annual "proxy preview" that compiles shareholder resolutions for major corporations. "According to Moxy Vote (www.moxyvote.com) a web site that lets shareholders vote on issues they care about, the most supported proxies in 2011 focused on hydraulic fracturing and coal combustion waste and sustainability reporting." (See "E" magazine, www.emagazine.com for Sept/Oct 2011, "Money Matters" column by Carrie Madren, p. 40).
Note: I was inspired to focus on this issue by having heard Green Earth Book Award Honor author Mara Rockliff at the late summer 7th annual Renewable Energy & Sustainable Living Festival (www.paenergyfest.com) sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association (www.themarea.org). Ms. Rockliff's book is: Get Real. What Kind of World are you Buying? Running Press, 2010. It has an excellent bibliography of print, video and Online resources. See http://mararockliff.com/getreal/html .
See web sites for Dow Jones Sustainability Index; Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility; and www.ceres.org as examples of efforts in this field.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Creation Corner Column, Nov. 2011: The Marcellus Shale: Where Would Jesus Drill? What Would Jesus Frack?
So how do we redeem that which has been drilled and fracked? How do we make whole that which has been broken? But wait: perhaps these are the wrong questions to ask, for as one secular quotation reminds us: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers" (attributed to Thomas Pynchon).
Maybe the more basic question is: Should we drill and frack the Marcellus Shale geologic deposits to exploit the natural gas that it holds? Do we need to?
A concept from the social sciences, that of "cultural lag" might explain why, in nearby states and watersheds, there is a temporary ban, a moratorium, on drilling. While the advertisements appearing in nationally-circulated periodicals and locally in our newspapers, from privately-held to transnational corporations with publicly-traded stock tout the supposed benefits from their efforts, less well-known perhaps are the efforts of underfunded environmental groups that alert us to the alleged dysfunctional consequences of the industrialization of our landscape.
Cultural lag proposes that there is a lag, a gap, between the introduction of new material culture (such as the unconventional drilling technology of hydraulic fracturing) and the surrounding non-material culture (the regulations for it, the infrastructure needed and affected by it, the social customs etc.). In our present case, we have seen debate occur after the natural gas industry has been in our midst for years as to if and how any severance tax and/or impact fee should be levied on the industry, to be returned to the affected communities. Also there are subsequent questions about the applicability of regulations against polluting emissions to the air and water. There are outcomes on the host communities as a result of the influx of employees from afar that need to be responded to. This is a mere sample of the examples of culture lag from the extractive industry coming into rural/forested northern Appalachia.
Such considerations have given rise to the aforesaid moratoriums (temporary bans) so that research and study and better preparations might be made in those places. A more basic question is: What is the county/state/national energy policy, and how does the extraction of a fossil fuel fit into that? For example, does it increase or decrease our "carbon footprint"?---a most pressing global concern.
One senses there is no policy, and in our state the latter-day "gold rush" supersedes all else, and "all else" needs to play "catch up" with the industrial technology that lures profit-seeking corporations here and lures the regional propertied class to lease their land for the royalties they can derive.
Lost in all this are more basic questions. Are we not to emphasize a more benign technology to secure and provide energy? Shouldn't we be developing renewable sources of wind, sun (solar) and water (hydro) to create less-polluting energy? What is the rush to promote gas?---it isn't going anywhere. If we are the conservationists we claim to be, (and don't we agree that we've all been environmentalists since the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, during the Republican administration of Richard Nixon?), shouldn't there be a plan, akin to the Marshall Plan or Apollo Project, to weatherize all buildings with Pennsylvania-sourced insulation materials, installed by PA workers, so as to prevent the loss of energy in buildings that leak as sieves? Do we not want to equip our built environment with energy-efficient appliances, so that whatever our energy source is, it is used efficiently. Are we pushing a natural gas source of energy to a peak of such abundance that we will waste it, and sell it abroad, thus depriving future American generations of its availability to them?
We as humans are given a creative nature, cognitive brains, rational minds. We could employ our air, water and sun, conservation and efficiency toward a brighter non-polluting energy source future, one that does not jeopardize a sustainable future for generations to come. Dependence on a non-renewable fossil fuel with all its attendant negative consequences (see notes below), seems to be the wrong policy direction to take. Is it greed (the rush to profit) and hubris (our "we've got it right" attitude) that prevents our state from placing at least a temporary ban, a moratorium, on this industry, so we might consider the issues raised above? To learn from Paul in his letter to the Romans 8:19-23, the whole creation has been groaning in travail, waiting to be set free from its bondage.
Notes: From the Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light group comes principles for considering an ethical analysis of Marcellus Shale drilling, September, 2011. See http://paipl.org/index_files/marcellus.htm.
From the (Pennsylvania) Citizens Marcellus Shale Commission (not the Governor's commission) comes "Marcellus Shale: A Citizens View" of October 2011. See http://pennbpc.org/sites/pennbpc.org/files/CMSC-Final-Report.pdf
Testimony from over 100 persons in five statewide hearings attended by over 400 people explored the following issues, and the commission made findings and recommendations in the following areas:
Marcellus Shale and our Public Lands
Regulations Governing Natural Gas Drilling in Pennsylvania
Property Rights, Pooling, & Eminent Domain
Create Revenue Sources from Gas Extraction
Job Creation & Employment
Pipeline & Compressor Stations
Quality of Life
Mr. Ochs first wrote about Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and horizontal hydraulic fracking in the "Creation Corner" column for the 11/2009, 12/2009 and 1/2010 issues of the monthly newsletter published by the 65-year old ecumenical United Churches of Lycoming County, Williamsport, PA . A condensed version of the above will be found on the UCLC web site(www.uclc.org) , and/or www.uclc.org/content/Newsletters .
Monday, October 10, 2011
Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Farming 21st Annual Farming for the Future Conference theme is "Breaking Ground for a New Agriculture: Cultivating Versatility and Resilience", Feb. 1-4, 2012, State College PA. http://www.pasafarming.org/
Green Festival, ten years as the nation's premier sustainability event, one million attendees (themes are: sustainable economy, ecological balance, social justice), sponsored by Green America and Global Exchange, six festivals, five cities: San Francisco (Nov. 12/13 & 4/9-10), Los Angeles 10/29-30 , New York 10/1-2, Seattle 5/21-22, Chicago 5/14-15. http://www.greenfestivals.org/
Carbon Smarts Conference: Learning Climate Change Science Anytime, Anywhere, October 20-21, www.uml.edu/carbonsmarts Univ. of Massachusetts, Lowell MA
http://www.greenbuildingexpo.org/ re: LEED and GBCs(Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Green Building Councils). Toronto 10/5-6
Holistic Moms Network's Natural Living Conference theme: Holistic Parenting: Mind, Body, and Spirit. 10/1/11 Long Beach, CA http://annualconference.holisticmoms.org/
http://www.motherearthnews.com/fair/home.aspx Held in Seven Springs, PA on Sept. 24-25, will be held there again Sept. 22-23, 2012, and in Puyallup, WA, on June 2-3, 2012.
5th Annual Natural Living Expo, 9/24-25, Sturbridge, MA http://www.naturalexpo.org/
Rootstalk Festival, a Benefit for Cascadia Wildlands, Salem, OR 9/22-25, http://www.rootstalkfest.com/
Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival (http://www.paenergyfest.com/) was Sept. 16-18 in Kempton, PA, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association (www.themarea.org) This is an annual event.
23rd annual EcoFest, by the Hudson River 8/29/11 http://www.ecofest.com/
Animal Rights 2011 National Conference, 7/21-25, Los Angeles, http://www.arconference.org/
7th Annual Alive: Expo Atlanta, The Natural Products and Green Living Expo., Georgia World Congress Center 5/21-22, http://www.aliveexpo.com/
"Doof-a-Palooza", (note: "doof" is "food" spelled backwards), a Family Food and Fun Festival, Oakland, CA 5/22/11 http://www.foodbackwards.com/ (a green and sustainable event)
Better Living Show: Home, Garden & Lifestyle. Portland OR 3/25-27, http://www.betterlivingshow.org/ also 3/23-25, 2012
Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital, 3/15-27, 140 films, 50+ venues, special focus on energy and the environment, discussions with filmmakers and scientists, most events are free . http://www.dceff.org/ also 3/13-25, 2012
Building Energy 11 Conference & Trade Show (Renewable Energy and Green Buildings) 3/8-10, Boston MA Northeast Sustainable Energy Association www.nesea.org/buildingenergy
BioCycle conferences: Renewable Energy (http://www.biocycleenergy.com/) 10/31-11/2 2011;
26th annual west coast conference BioCycle theme: Community Sustainability in the 21st century 4/16-19, (http://www.biocycle.net/) ; http://www.biocycleglobal.com/ conference San Diego 4/11-14, 2011 .
Note: Mr. Ochs was part of the Susquehanna River West Branch Bioregional Project that gave birth to the Pa. Association for Sustainable Agriculture noted above (http://www.pasafarming.org/), and recently attended the event cited above as http://www.paenergyfest.com/ .
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
PA-IPL is the Pennsylvania affiliate of the national www.InterfaithPowerandLight.org , which is 10,000 congregations strong. It is a national movement of communities of faith responding to climate change as a moral issue, through advocacy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, and the use of clean, renewable energy.
Resources are available to help congregations and individual homes become more energy efficient. Energy assessments are available to member congregations at a reduced cost.
An education clearinghouse lists films, books, speakers, monthly newsletter, blog, Facebook page and archival newsletters.
Advocacy for local, state and national legislation levels by PA-IPL focuses on energy efficiency (and preserving EPA funding) so as to reduce our contribution to climate change.
Conference speakers include Prof. Bill Easterling, Dean of Penn State University's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences as well as Rev. Jim Deming, Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ and author of "From Southern Fried Guilt to Spiritual Responsibility in IPL founder Rev. Sally Bingham's book Love God Heal Earth.
Reminder: The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Article 1, section 27 reads as follows: "The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
Michael Ochs chaired the Lutheran environmental task force for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Upper Susquehanna Synod's Committee for Church in Society for much of its existence from the late 1980s to 2007, and during that time Lutheran churches in the synod were encouraged to do energy audits and to re-lamp with energy efficient lighting (compact fluorescent lamps, or "cfl's") with a revolving no-interest loan fund made possible from the national ELCA and its then director of environmental stewardship, Dr. Job Ebenezer.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
For Lutherans, and anyone else, having trouble concentrating, cannot focus, perhaps diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), being mentally restless, unable to problem-solve, having mild memory loss, having "brain-fade" as our brains are being overloaded with our "multi-tasking" amidst a glut of information (sensory overload) in a complex world, all leads to our being "stressed out."
The "take-a-hike" solution comes from the therapeutic application of "attention restoration theory" (ART): a walk in the woods, perhaps sitting at the seashore, gazing at clouds, tending a garden (horticultural therapy). Nursing homes provide an "Eden" setting, trying to replicate some of the outside nature, inside. Post-surgical improvement may be enhanced in natural scene settings.
Spending time in some environmental or natural settings (nature, God's creation) potentially restores us. Green space within urban environments, green housing, urban forests, "certified" tree cities, parks, provisions for bike lanes, the relationship between how neighborhoods are designed with walkability and obesity in mind, anti-noise ordinances, architecture that is "open" to the outdoors, et cetera, may all point to what the field of environmental psychology says are "conditions under which people are more reasonable and more environmentally responsible" and "where the influence of fatigue-producing environments are reduced."
Perhaps our experience of "flow", a psychological concept proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "a mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and success in the process of the activity" can be facilitated by attention restoration therapy in nature.
Perhaps we are genetically "hard-wired", given our origin "in the garden," to seek and experience benefits that are stimulated by our exposure to, and involvement with, creation (aka nature, the natural environment).
More study is warranted, of course. One "ecopsychology project "seeks to unravel the factors that either enhance or detract from an individual's sense of feeling connected to nature." There is the biophilia hypothesis to explore: it posits, according to Edward O. Wilson, that there is an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems (a "love of life" that would lead us to protect what we love?).
What role does an environment have in prompting people to be more reasonable, effective and psychologically healthy? What are the implications of sprawl or non-sprawl on our psychological well-being and sense of community? How can the municipal planning process anticipate the consequences? What results from window-less environments, and does it make a difference to us what we see from a window? Is our identity improved through environmental stewardship?
Much of this work in the field was stimulated by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their 1989 book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Today there is the International Association for the Study of People and their Surroundings. And many readers are acquainted with the phrase popularized by Richard Louv, nature-deficit disorder.
Note: ODE magazine, is according to the publisher, "the first independent, international magazine for positive change. ODE reports on whatever works in our world. It may seem strange but that is an exceptional editorial mission in today's world where most media focus daily on whatever, wherever wrong. ODE presents itself as the magazine 'for intelligent optimists'---for the people who know that there is (the beginning of) a solution for every problem.
ODE was founded in The Netherlands in 1995 and launched its first English edition in the United States in 2003. ODE is currently published monthly (except February and August) in Dutch and English from offices in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and Mill Valley, California.
The Creation Corner Column compiler, Michael Ochs, earned a B.A. degree from Gettysburg College in 1965.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Following Jesus as Servant of Creation is for more than Self-Centered Reasons. It is pure Altruism!!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Readings for Year A 2011
In our comment on the lections for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost we presented an argument for the appropriateness of our identification of Jesus as “the Lord, the Servant of Creation.” Authorization for this new title, we suggested, grows out of Jesus’ promise that he would build his church on the basis of Peter’ confession and that it’s use constitutes a proper use of the powers vested in the church “to bind and loose” such matters as arise in the manifestation of God’s empire. The argument we have presented provides strong encouragement for the work of caring for creation on the part of the church, we believe, with the caution that this Sunday’s Gospel needs to be taken into consideration as one engages in such care.
What might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?
Our concern is this: when ecological awareness and political action on environmental issues become part of the ethos of the Christian church, they should be governed by principles that Jesus laid down for his followers for their ministry. It follows, with respect to the Gospel reading, that just as Peter’s confidence in his confession of Jesus as Messiah is challenged in this Sunday’s Gospel by Jesus’ announcement that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” so also does the authorization of care of creation entail an expectation that those who draw on Jesus for support and guidance for their care of creation will conform to the counsel set forth in his response to Peter’s rebuke:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Or what will they give in return for their life? (16:24-26).
What, then, might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?
“Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’”
Our answer will of course be shaped by what we understand it to have meant for Jesus to take up his cross. Warren Carter explains the necessity of Jesus’ suffering in terms of two broad themes. First, there is the political imperative: “He must suffer in Jerusalem because the center is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and who promote an alternative empire. His suffering is the inevitable consequence of this collision course with the political, socioeconomic, and religious elite.” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 341). To care for creation as Jesus cares for it, accordingly, carries an expectation of coming into conflict with the economic and political structures of our society, with an awareness that this conflict will be costly to one’s status and power in relationship to the community where one lives. As we suggested in our comment on the readings for Passion Sunday, Jesus, who serves God by faithfully serving creation, suffers precisely on account of that service. “Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’” In Jesus’ words from the Gospel, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” For, to follow Jesus, as Carter puts it, “is to renounce the practice of telling God and God’s agent how God’s purposes are best accomplished. It is to refuse to place oneself ahead of, or in the place of, the revealer.” It was in holding to this rule that Jesus came into conflict with the religious and political authorities. And so will we.
Will we face the cost?
At the same time, it is precisely this “cost” that can be expected to generate the spiritual power and churchly social capital needed to stand in steadfast opposition to the community’s disregard for creation, and the courage to await vindication. Coinciding with this first necessity is a second, more explicitly theological one: his suffering is “also inevitable because through Jesus’ suffering and death, God will expose the limits of the elite’s power to punish and control. God will raise him to show that while the political and religious elite trade in death, God’s sovereignty asserts life over death. They do not have the last word” (Ibid.).
The appeal to care for creation is here grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of the consequences for one’s self.
The difference of approach here, in comparison with standard appeals for action on environmental issues, is clear. The latter generally appeal to rationally calculated and/or emotionally awakened self-interest. Utilization of new technologies, it is urged, save a congregation money as well as reduce pollution; or, it is said, we must act so that our grandchildren can enjoy the same quality of life we enjoy, or better. Such appeals have their place, to be sure. But the appeal here is instead grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of consequences for one’s self. Again, in Jesus’ words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” Or, as Carter puts it, “Jesus’ scandalous call . . . is a call to martyrdom, to die as Jesus does . . . . Such is the risk of continuing Jesus’ countercultural work of proclaiming and demonstrating God’s empire (10:7-8).” Because the calculation involved here is a matter of life and death, both one’s own and others, the action provides the occasion for the manifestation of the living God’s creative sovereignty over life and death; only so can one actually hope for defeat of the demonic powers operative in the oppressive systems of the social and political order, which—because they are deeply rooted in self-concern and presuppose the existence of the self in unbroken continuity and undiminished power—cannot otherwise be overcome.
Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.
The second lesson, Romans 12:9-21, provides an illuminating comparison of different ways of developing an ethic of care for creation. The ethical counsels offered by Paul also express a degree of altruistic regard for the other, informed as they are by the quest “to discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” offered in 12:2 as the basic principle of Christian life. Carol Dempsey appropriately characterizes the two main themes of the counsels as follows:
. . . first, the ways that Christians are to manifest genuine love (vv. 10-13), and second, the obligations that one has towards one’s enemies (vv. 14-20). The final verse summarizes Paul’s comments: Christians are not to succumb to evil and evil’s ways but are to deal with evil according to the ways of goodness (Dempsey, ‘Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, in New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 188).
However, notably missing from the counsels in this passage is the eschatological life and death thrust of Jesus’ teaching. David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt, and Christopher Southgate make the argument that while Paul’s ethical teaching represents (in this and other passages such as Romans 12:14-17; Galatians 6:10; Philippians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:12, 5:15)
an ethic of universal human concern’ that offers the potential to undergird some forms of ecological reflection, since the injunction to love or do good to all (human) neighbors can promote action to mitigate the effects of environmental degradation or change where this influences human health or welfare, for example, in flooding exacerbated by global warming. But this remains a theological ethic that is essentially anthropocentric (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul: Rereading the Apostle in a Time of Ecological Crisis, pp. 195-95.)
Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!
These authors propose to go beyond this exclusively anthropocentric concern by reading such passages in the light of Romans 8:19-23 and Colossians 1:15-20, where Paul more “clearly encompasses the whole creation” in his story of redemption. More helpful, as we look to developing a message for Christians gathered in worship, we suggest, is to read it in the light of today’s Gospel. This scripture supplies the missing kenotic and eschatological dimensions of the narrative of Jesus’ life that provide for the inclusion of the whole of creation as a proper object of Christian ethical concern.
What might “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus” mean for the care of creation?
“Jesus does for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus as a human being might find more desirable and ‘wise.’”
Will we face the cost?
The appeal to care for creation is here grounded in a radically altruistic regard for others, irrespective of the consequences for one’s self.
Paul challenges us to oppose evil with goodness.
Paul encompasses the whole creation in the story of redemption!
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Sunday, July 31, 2011
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Jesus calms the storm—not dominating nature but restoring a relationship of peace!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Following “immediately” on the story of the “feeding the five thousand” as this Sunday’s Gospel does, the text provides opportunity for extending our consideration of the relationship between Jesus’ care of humans and the ecological contexts in which that care occurs. There we saw how placement of the story in “a deserted place” illuminates Jesus’ care for human well-being as part of his care for the whole of creation. And we made a few suggestions about how this relationship might be reflected in the life of a congregation. The narrative of today’s Gospel redoubles the learning, except that now it moves in the opposite direction. Here the movement of the story is from mountain wilderness to the disciples on the sea and it illuminates the significance of Jesus’ relationship to creation in his care for human creatures.
Jesus sends his disciples out on the sea to meet him on the other side, while he moves more deeply into wilderness and then ascends “the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:23). Jesus’ movement, Warren Carter suggests, “evokes Moses’ ascent of Sinai, where he prays (Exod 32:30-34; 34:8-9). It also alludes to worship on Mt Zion (Isa 2:2-3)” (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p.309). Of course, this is not the first time Jesus ascends “the mountain.” Just as the story of the feeding of five thousand in “a deserted place” reminded us of his first temptation in the wilderness, so also does this ascent to a mountain recall the third temptation, in which Satan took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s purposes for the creation, affirmed by that story, may be assumed here also, as the ascent recalls not only the mountain of temptation but also the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount (5:1). Indeed, as Carter notes, this is the first scene involving a mountain ever since Jesus’ descent in 8:1 at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Carter, p. 309).
We have argued earlier in this series that Jesus’ frequent “return to the mountains” carries much significance for care of creation. Our comment on the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount is relevant here as well:
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. . . . [S]tanding 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). (For Southgate’s observation that such places need to be protected as part of our responsibility for care of creation and the reference of this quotation, see our comment on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany).
Jesus joins in the mountains’ praise of God.
Jesus’ return to the mountain at this point thus underscores his intimate relationship with God, for which the remoteness of the mountain from daily life provides social space and psychological distance. Jesus, as it were, joins in the mountains’ praise of God.
In Matthew, the mountain stands for all creation
Jesus’ ascent of the mountain serves an additional purpose, however, in that it reintroduces the mountain to the narrative as a complex metaphor for creation, understood as an entire living system. As we noted in our comment on the assigned lessons for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, for today’s readers of the Gospel,
a mountain constitutes a special, whole ecosystem that incorporates in a representative way many biotic subsystems—ranging in some instances from arctic 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.
What was Jesus praying on the mountain?
Jesus’ ascent of the mountain at this point in the narrative of the Gospel thus underscores his relationship not only to God but also to the mountain and the creation that it represents. Again Carter insightfully points to Jesus’ action as obedience to “his own teaching on secret prayer (6:5-6). Presumably from 6:7-15, he prays for the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of God’s empire, the doing of God’s will, the provision of food and forgiveness, and for trust that God will accomplish God’s purposes. The subsequent miracle derives from his relationship with God (cf. 11:25-27), hallows God’s name, and expresses God’s empire and will” (Carter, p. 309). We would sharpen the point, because we think Jesus’ prayer for the coming of God’s empire would specifically include the request that God’s “will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”—in conformity with his role as Servant of Creation. Indeed, his very presence on the mountain, understood as the representative of the entire creation, already represents something of a realization of that prayer. And the encounter that follows upon his descent does so even more dramatically.
God’s presence is in the silence.
The text admittedly says nothing of Jesus’ time on the mountain, other than emphasizing his solitude there. The reading from 1 Kings 19:9-18, however, suggests a pattern of action that is supportive of our interpretation. When Elijah, also alone, on the mountain of Horeb, encounters God in the silence after wind, earthquake, and fire, his conversation with God spells out God’s will for Israel. As Carol Dempsey points out, as Earth quiets itself, “God gives Elijah a series of directives that offer the prophet hope (vv. 15-18) and, more specifically, that deal with the problem of covenant infidelity” (Dempsey, New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 160). What follows in the narrative of 1 Kings is a working out of those directives. Similarly, we would suggest that what happens upon Jesus’ descent also serves to respond to the problem of faithfulness (considered somewhat more generally than covenantal fidelity) as a crisis in the relationship between God as creator and human creatures.
In the Elijah narrative, we note that God’s presence is emphatically not identified with the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, but rather with the subsequent silence. So also, when Jesus rejoins his disciples and finds them in peril, the sea similarly quiets itself. In both narratives, the presence of God—for surely Jesus here stands in for God, as the disciples confess him to be “Son of God”—is signaled by the quieting of creation’s turbulence. So also, in both narratives, the resolution of the crisis comes as a restoration of faith.
The relationship of God to the creation is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm.
Why is this significant? It suggests that the relationship of God to the creation, in such moments of decisive significance as these epiphanies are, is typically characterized by the quiet after the storm, or a state of rest like that which followed God’s creative activity on the seventh day of creation, or like the peace that followed the raging of the storm in the narrative of the great flood. In the moment of that stillness, the people are freed from their fear of the God they encounter in the experience of creation’s awesome energies. Jesus’ approach breaks the power of the fear that so easily casts our relationship to nature in a conflicted, oppositional mode. Thus, in his descent from the mountain, Jesus brings with him the state of peace between himself, God, and the creation, a state of peace for which he might well have appealed in his prayer on the mountain.
It is important to emphasize that the storm and the quiet are complementary aspects of one experience of God’s presence. There is a tendency in the interpretation of this text to view the wind and the seas as representative of chaotic forces in opposition to God, which, because they endanger the humans in the narrative, Jesus must subdue. Carter, for example, writes that “walking on the sea is something God does, expressive of God’s sovereignty over the sea and creation. . . In walking on the sea, Jesus does what God does. He manifests God’s presence and demonstrates God’s reign over the sea and all the opposing forces it represents. He removes what impeded the disciples, enabling them to cross the sea” (Carter, p. 310). Carter emphasizes God’s power over the forces of nature and, so here, what will commonly be understood as the supernatural power of one who can “walk on water.”
We would stress Jesus’ calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, . . . the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.
While Carter appropriately notes that Jesus’ “presence is responsible for the calm,” and acknowledges that the episode “is another in a series of references to restoring creation under God’s reign: the notion of rest in Matt 11:28, Sabbath (12:10), the abundant yield (13:8, 23, plentiful food (14:20), [and, alas!] the subdued sea,” the characterization of that presence as effective domination is typical: “For the fifth time in the scene (walking on water, talking as God, extending hand, saving from water, calming the storm), Jesus does a Godlike act, manifesting God’s reign over the sea. The sea is subdued and set in its place as God intended it (Gen 1:6-13)” (Ibid., p. 312; our emphasis). By contrast, we would rather stress his calming of creation’s turbulence as a sign of his right relationship with all the forces of creation, a relationship into which he would draw the disciples, even as he “rescues” them from their alienation from the sea into the dynamic harmony he knows from his visit to the mountain.
Jesus is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power.
In the era of climate change into which Earth is entering, it serves the cause of the Lord, the Servant of Creation, better, we are convinced, when we take care to present him as one whose relationship with the Creator serves to inspire a peaceful, cooperative relationship with the creation. He is not the controlling and dominating Savior who willfully alters creation for the sake of his own power or for the power of those who believe in him. Phrases from the Psalm for the day underline this interpretation:
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase (85:10-13).
Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation.
The vision of Jesus walking on the sea at first terrified the disciples and then inspired Peter’s own boldly over-confident adventure out over the troubled waters. As such, the story therefore ought not be understood as a legitimation for faith to seek transcendence over nature. On the contrary, it serves to illustrate how faith contributes to the maintenance of the right relationship between human beings and the energies present within the creation. Jesus the Lord, the Servant of Creation, restores a dynamic harmony to the creation. Let the sea roar: it need not be destructive of faith in the Creator, whose voice is heard in the silence after the storm.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Care for Earth and Feed the Hungry—One and the Same!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Jesus enacts God’s will to feed the hungry in the desert. Creation provides!
Matthew’s well-known story of the feeding of the five thousand has parallels in the other three Gospels, which, as Carol Dempsey rightly observes, “indicates its prominence and importance in the memory and life of the early church” (New Proclamation Year A, 2002, p. 157). The church has made important use of this story to communicate God’s steadfast love: as the text says, when Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (14:14). The action embodies themes that have deep roots in the biblical witness and bear weighty social implications. Warren Carter summarizes these, citing texts too numerous to include here,
Jesus enacts God’s will that hungry people be fed. . . Through Jesus’ deed, God acts faithfully to sustain creation in anticipation of the new creation in which God’s reign is established in full and there is abundant food for all . . . Jesus’ act attacks the injustice of the sinful imperial system which ensures that the urban elite are well fed at the expense of the poor. . . Jesus enacts an alternative system marked by compassion, sufficiency and shared resources. His action imitates God’s action in saving the people from the tyrant Pharaoh and feeding them in the desert (Exod 16) (Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, p. 305).
Feedings and Eucharist first and foremost meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
The story of the feeding was told against the background of hunger and food shortages, both natural and human-caused, which fell “hardest on those with limited access to resources, especially urban laborers, crafts workers, and traders” living in cities which “lacked institutions and laws to protect people from starvation” (Ibid., p. 264). The church’s interpreters often point to this story, on the other hand, as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper. As they did in celebrating the Lord’s support then, so we are also now in the Eucharist compassionately welcome into the company of our host, Jesus, who in the “blessing and breaking” of the loaves and fish also gives himself to us, not in spirit only, but also in body (Carter, p. 307; cf. Dempsey, p. 157).
The feast to which we are invited is “the feast of all creation.”
The importance of the story for the church, both early and late, thus magnifies its significance for the church’s care of creation. Two aspects of the reading are particularly provocative. First is that the church has traditionally seen fit to set this story liturgically within worship that includes praise of God for taking this kind of care for “all living things,” indeed, for “all that he has made.” For this, says the Psalmist, “all your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you” (145:10; the verse is not included in the assigned reading, but can easily be added to verses 8 and 9). Here, we thus proclaim, Jesus does what Psalm 145 says God does: “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” What Jesus exhibits here is God’s love for the entire creation: “You open you hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing” (145:14-16; emphasis added). The invitation of Isaiah 55 notwithstanding, with its clear call to human participants, the feast to which Jesus invites us is a feast in which all creation participates!
Jesus is in the desert, outside of empire, benefitting the poor and marginalized
Secondly, Matthew tells us that this event took place in “a deserted place.” Jesus has crossed a body of water, a “withdrawal” that is occasioned by news of John the Baptist’s murder by Herod. This action signals, as William Carter comments, Jesus’ refusal
to play in the tyrant’s world and by the tyrant’s rules. It is to make space for a different reign, God’s empire, marked by life giving structures and compassionate practices such as healing and feeding. Such a space is not found in the urban center with their sharply differentiated society, carefully controlled power, and protected self-interest (cf. 13:53-58). It is found on the margins, in an insignificant place, a deserted place, or wilderness, a place of no use to the elite but of central importance to God’s purposes and very threatening to the center (cf. 2:3-6; 3:1). The beneficiaries are not the powerful but the poor and marginalized (Ibid., p. 305)
The reference to wilderness reminds us of Jesus’ own encounter with Satan at the beginning of his ministry when he, too, suffered from want of food for forty days. In actions that we found key to our understanding of Jesus as the Servant of God who serves God by serving creation (see our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent), he not only refused the political dominion offered him, but also the associated violation of the creation’s integrity—he would not turn stones into bread, neither would he cast himself down to be born up by angels; he will persist in being Servant of God, who serves creation, and refuses to grasp equality with God.
No space in all creation lies outside the reach of God’s grace
Might the reading not then ground the interest of the church in preserving wilderness, first of all as a place set apart to experience God and God’s empire (see our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost)? Secondly,” wilderness” is a privileged metaphorical setting for the meal of the Eucharist, understood as an event that naturally takes place in “deserted space”—space for which the power elite will resist conservation, if for no other reason than that it provides sanctuary for those who live in opposition to its oppression. To be sure, the other meals that similarly foreshadow the Lord’s Supper take place in a variety of settings—no space lies outside the reach of God’s grace. But this first meal is notable for taking place where the imperial economy of Rome plays no part. When Jesus’ disciples suggest that they should send the people back to the villages from which they came to purchase food, he forbids them. But neither will he feed them by supernatural intervention, such as “turning bread into stones.” Without him resorting to imperial dominion or supernatural power, the people are fed by the simple act of sharing what was already at hand amongst the crowd, which, especially in the context of wilderness, exhibits a remarkable sufficiency of God’s provision.
The disciples join Jesus as servants of all creation
In other stories of miraculous surplus such as I Kings 17 (Elijah) and 2 Kings 4 (Elisha), Carter notes, God is “more than able to meet the needs of God’s people; here, significantly, the “disciples act as servants, a basic identity and praxis in the community of disciples (6:24; 10:24-25; 20:27)” (Ibid., p. 308). So it is in the empire of God. Jesus’ disciples are, as it were, “co-servants” of creation along with Jesus. Disciples play a significant role in both the redistribution of this bounty and in taking “up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full,” a remarkable remembrance of early care for the wilderness.
Care of earth and care of the poor go hand in hand as two aspects of the service of creation
So should it be with our celebration of the Eucharist: Jesus and his disciples share a small amount of bread amongst those who have been gathered, and all always share sufficiently in this abundance. But the community ought always to see that proper care is taken at the end of the meal, to show respect for the place in which it was served. The community that gathers for fellowship following the service should always be mindful that social ministry and care of the Earth are two aspects of the one service of creation. Let there be time for the enjoyment of the congregation’s gardens, prairie restoration, running water, and rain gardens.
Monday, July 25, 2011
And because much can be learned by people of faith about the subject from the secular press, examples here will be cited from those sources.
Sandra Steingraber, in a piece from the June 2011 issue of In These Times wrote of something called the "well-informed futility" syndrome, a phrase coined in 1973 by Gerhart Wiebe, that suggests that when we are overwhelmed by information about a credible problem we may feel we haven't the personal resources to effectively respond to it. Thus we can become paralyzed by it, and that sense of futility prevents us from taking any action to solve the problem.
Her subject in that article, confronting climate change and overcoming our fossil fuel addiction, entitled "Despair Not" (http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/7352/despair_not/ has now been responded to by readers in the current August 2011 In These Times issue and on-line at http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/11637/to_despair_or_not_to_despair? .
Readers are urged to view that dialog. Steingraber, an Ithaca (NY) College biologist, is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (1997), Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood (2001), and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (2011).
A second source providing hopeful encouragement is the July-August issue of the Utne Reader, which takes its articles from the "alternative" (not mainstream) press (http://www.utne.com/) .
Articles there, in the order they appear, include excerpts about
...elementary education environmental literacy (Governing) and the "greening" of public schools (Sustainable Industries), p. 15
...the "patron saints" (Wisconsin Benedictine sisters) of green living (Sojourners), p. 20-21
...landscape architecture and wildlife crossings (Landscape Architecture), p. 23
...predictive models of climate change (OnEarth), p. 27
...human shelters in wilderness (Colors of Nature), p. 35, 37
...four excerpts on our complicated relationships with animals, including articles from the book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat; the book The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them; the magazine The Believer; and the book Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want pgs. 50-59
...being "grounded" ("earthing") as an aid for overcoming chronic pain and insomnia (Spirituality & Health), pgs. 70-71
Even the advertisements in the current Utne Reader issue offer some helpful advice, such as for an eco-friendly auto club, an advanced degree in ecological psychology, a water bottle not made of plastic, green festivals, and the new book by Richard Louv, The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder (also reviewed in the August issue of The Lutheran, http://www.thelutheran.org/ p. 42) and available from www.workman.com/algonquin .
And, thirdly, from a foreign source, The Guardian Weekly (http://www.guardianweekly.co.uk/) comes these pieces:
...an editorial from May 27, "At war over climate", notes that the USA military is "taking on global warming skeptics", and cites several sources.
...Greenpeace, perhaps the world's most recognizable and sophisticated global eco-charity, is to launch its Rainbow Warrior III from Bremen shipyards in northern Germany(July 15). Greenpeace has helped to "bear witness to some of the more blatant acts of ecological destruction--- from whaling and oil exploration to nuclear testing and industrial fishing---that were occurring in the remote oceans." Doing climate-change research in Greenland, monitoring the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and trying to stop Arctic off-shore drilling have been other pursuits. In the coming year the maiden campaign will be to sail up the Amazon as part of a protest against deforestation.
...In Australia, a carbon emission-cutting tax plan targets the nation's 500 worst polluters (July 15)
...an international court for crimes against the environment is being proposed by a candidate for the French presidency (July 22). Eva Joly won the primary race for the environmentalist party, Greens-Europe-Ecology. She is the fraud prosecutor who successfully brought charges in the 1990s corruption scandal of the oil company Elf.
Note: Michael Ochs writes this column from Williamsport PA.
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A
Feast on these Parables from Nature! The Kingdom is Messy Business Indeed!
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Our reflection on the teaching of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, continues to explore themes significant for caring for creation days in a medley of new parables: the Mustard Seed; the Yeast, Treasure Hidden in a Field; A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; and a Net Thrown into the Sea. As with the parables from the previous two Sundays, our reading brings out new treasures along with the old treasures (Matthew 13:51). Similarly, the reading from Romans continues from where we left off last Sunday, in considering life in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life. We turn first to the teaching of Jesus the Servant of Creation.
The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.
The Mustard Seed. Again we encounter a sower planting seed, and, again, like the sowers who cast the seed wildly and forgot to protect the field from alien intruders, the action of the sower strikes us as unlikely. A farmer in the ancient world would normally not sow a mustard seed in the midst of his field. As Bernard Brandon Scott point out, “the mustard, a common plant in the eastern world, grew and spread quickly. Consequently, a farmer sought to control its seeds.” The plant, this comment suggests, was regarded somewhat as we would an evasive species. More importantly, in Jewish tradition, the action of sowing depicted here could be seen as a violation of the “rules of diverse kinds.” These rules “had as their purpose to bring order into the disorderly world, and the creation of order in this world replicates the division between the sacred and the profane. Where things could or could not be planted and what could be planted or mixed together were important for the maintenance of purity boundaries.” Following other commentators, Scott notes that “a mustard seed could not be planted in a garden,” where vegetables would be the usual planting. And it could be planted in a field only in carefully proscribed spaces. The parable thus begins with “a metaphor of impurity.” The sower “has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed. . .” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 374-76, 381). How is the kingdom of heaven like a sower who proceeds in such a disordered, unholy manner?
The focus of interpretation, of course, is usually more on the seed than the sower, precisely because the seed is very small, and the tree that grows from it, at least in the parable, is “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” The parable is about astonishing growth, this suggests: the kingdom, though small and hidden, will become very large and impressive, thus confirming its divine character. This perhaps makes good sense for us, for whom growth is culturally taken to be a nearly unmitigated good. However, that would not have been true for the ancient farmer, for whom the growth of an invasive species like the mustard seed had to be seen as an agricultural disaster! Nor is it true for an ecologically aware reader, who would appreciate the possible harm to be done to the field. As Scott notes: “The seed’s planting and its growth create a conflict for a hearer. Is this growth a divine blessing or a violation? Is it clean or unclean? How is one to decide?” (Ibid., p. 383).
To make things worse, in a sense, the parable’s shrub outgrows the normal limits of its “kind,” to become a tree. No anticipation of Darwinian evolution, this; on the contrary, this transformation is miraculous: the shrub is transformed into a “mixed allusion” familiar to the ancient hearer as the “eschatological tree of Ezekiel and Daniel,” which, like the great cedar of Lebanon, shelters not only birds in its branches, but underneath them, gathers “all the creatures of the earth.” Scott concludes: ‘A hearer is left to make sense, to fit together a mustard plant that has pretensions to the grandeur of a cedar of Lebanon. How that resolution takes place leads from story to kingdom” (Ibid., p. 385-86).
The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.
Scott concludes: the parable “makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.” Although a symbol of both strength and protection, the cedar also represents pride: “A Grain of Mustard Seed extends the logic of Ezekiel . All cedars and trees, even Israel, will be brought low.” It is the lowly mustard bush, scandalously planted in the field of the world that both political and religious authorities seek to keep well-ordered according to a static conception of the creation, that “will ‘bear Israel’s true destiny’” (Ibid., p. 386; Scott cites Robert W Funk, Jesus as Precursor, for this point). Still, significantly, the mustard bush does what the cedar would do: provide shelter for the birds of the air. “The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in the shrub’s shade. Many have preferred the mustard tree, this unnatural malformity of mythical botany, to the recognition that God’s mighty works are among the unclean and insignificant” (Ibid., p. 387).
A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!
The sower, we note, might well have his own purposes: to provide a niche for creatures that do not easily fit into the economic calculations of our agricultural, “growth” obsessive, economy. A field on the University of Minnesota agricultural campus in St. Paul had for years several large cages to trap birds that disrupted the research conducted in it. A sower who deliberately seeds a tree to host birds in the midst of his field is of a different mind-set, a servant of all creation, perhaps, who meets the needs all creatures (sometimes by creative adaptation, even!), and not only those of human beings. In good ecological form, whether mighty cedar or lowly mustard, the tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!
The Yeast. The parable of the yeast begins in a way similar to the Mustard Seed, with a highly ambiguous image of growth. Scott calls the parable “one rotten apple.” The yeast, a woman, and her kneading the dough, combine to offer an image of impurity. As Scott notes, yeast (leaven) “is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays, unlike modern yeast, which is domesticated.” Leavened bread was for everyday use; only unleavened bread was appropriate for holy days (Ibid., p. 324). The negative connotations of “leaven” are familiar: “the involvement with even a little evil can corrupt the whole,” and Matthew elsewhere associates leaven with the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12).” How, the hearer must ask, “can the kingdom be like leaven?” (Scott, pp. 324-25) As to the woman, Scott quotes Albrecht Oepke: “Characteristic of the traditional position and estimation of woman is a saying current in different forms among the Persians, Greeks and Jews in which man gives thanks that he is not an unbeliever or uncivilized, that he is not a woman and that he is not a slave.”
Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.
By way of contrast, the three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess. The large amount is evocative of the story of Abraham’s reception of three visitors, Gideon’s preparation for the visitation of the angel of the lord, and Hannah’s gift for the dedication of the temple. Thus the parable suggests, “not only are three measures much more than normal but that the amount is connected with an epiphany,” an image that coheres with the “kingdom of God.” “Yet how is a hearer to combine three measures with the preceding negative terms?” (Ibid., p. 326-27) Scott refuses to dodge the strikingly messy implications:
The kingdom (the holy and good) is pictured in terms of an epiphany of corruption. How radical is the parable’s intention? Does it mean to state that good is evil in an ethics of absurdity? Or is its function to subvert a hearer’s ready dependency on the rule of the sacred, the predictability of what is good, and warn that instead the expected evil that corrupts may indeed turn out to be the kingdom.
Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?
Or again, we would add, would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?
Treasure Hidden in a Field. Once more we are confronted by a dilemma, the problem, as Scott names it, of “Finders Keepers:”
“If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary. But, if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.” If the dayworker has claim to the treasure, he has no need to rehide the treasure and buy the land. He can simply claim the treasure. That he does rehide the treasure and buy the land indicates that he does not believe he can make such a claim. Also, from the point of view of narrative structure, a hearer discovers that the finder is not the landowner only when he buys the field, thus concentrating narrative attention on the buying. The structure of the line involves finding and joy/selling and buying. But because buying signifies that he does not own, does not owning call into question the joy of finding? (Ibid., pp. 399-400; the quotation in italics is from Dominic Crossan, Finding is the First Act, with his emphasis).
Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.
The kingdom of God is like finding the treasure, suggests Scott, in that “treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday. Because it is not something earned or labored for but something found, it is lawless. Its joy is precisely in its lawlessness, its unearned, not worked for character” (Scott, pp. 401-02).
What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?
We can suggest a contemporary analogy: A person walking in the woods discovers a creature, a spotted owl, say, in any case, an individual animal belonging to an endangered species. In his joy, he resolves to buy or otherwise get control of that patch of woods; for only by preserving that habitat does the owl have a chance of survival. But who owns the woods? In order to “save” the owl, he has to sue the owner to limit his control over use of the woods. Is this a proper action driven by great joy? Only by keeping the owl hidden in the woods is there a chance of sustaining that experience of joy in the presence of the beautiful creature. Or is the action an unjust transgression of property rights, sanctioned by environmental laws that the owner has to regard as an unconstitutional deprivation of his property rights? What if the kingdom of God is like a person, who walking in the woods, discovers a spotted owl?
That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!
A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls. The dilemma of this parable builds on an aspect of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field. As ownership of the field and the treasure within it calls into question the possibility of sustaining the joy of discovery, so does ownership of the pearl of great value complicate the life of the merchant. Scott captures the point succinctly: “If to buy the pearl he has sold off his capital, whether all he owns or his merchandise, he will again have to sell the pearl, or else he will be broke, because the pearl only generates in being sold. Thus the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value.” The kingdom of God is like that, Scott suggests, in that it “cannot be possessed as a value in itself . . . for the merchant will sooner or later have to sell his pearl. And that is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it” (Ibid., p. 319). Might one not say the same for God’s creation?
A Net Thrown into the Sea. Has the hearer been caught within the net of these parables, the teaching of Jesus, the Servant of Creation? Are those caught up in his net—members of his church—good fish or rotten fish? Which side of the parable’s various dilemmas do they fall out on? The sorting out into baskets is indeed something to be reserved for the end, when the angels of God will bring final clarity to our relationship with the creation and our relationship with the creation’s creator. Until then, we swim with all the rest of the fish, utterly dependent for our very lives on the environing sea, chaotic as it may sometimes appear to be. For to be taken out of water is for fish or for any species to die.
The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.
An ear for the groaning of creation. The parable of “A Net Thrown into the Sea’ thus returns us, we would suggest, to the narrative about creation which David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate construct on the basis of the “ecotheological mantra text,” namely, Romans 8:18-25. As we argued in our comment on that reading a week ago, the parables of Jesus share a narrative of creation that is strikingly similar to the one these scholars identify as key to understanding Paul’s view of the relationship between “the children of God” and the non-human creation (See our comment on the readings for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost). As we summarized their argument,
Paul teaches that a creation “enslaved-to-decay has been subjected to futility by God.” But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co- groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.”
In terms of the parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea, for the time being, we swim in the sea while drawn toward the light of the final judgment of God regarding our relationship with God and God’s creation. But as “children of God,” we do not swim aimlessly, or alone. The Spirit of God, the Lord, the Giver of Life, present at creation, sustainer of all of life, accompanies us on this great migration. As Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” In our “co-groaning and “co-travailing,” the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27). It is on this account, and this only, that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And if we give “all things” a strong reading as intending the fullness of creation, as it does elsewhere in Paul’s writings, rather than simply the particular occasions of trial and suffering for which we usually appropriate it, we are indeed encouraged to look and to live forward in hope for the full realization of the purposes of God and for the complete restoration of creation.