lectionary 28b creation care commentary

22nd Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

 

From top to bottom this week, the lectionary readings seem ready-made for sacrificial substitutionary atonement. This is the view that Jesus died for your sins, that his righteousness is offered as recompense to cover the debt of your sins, a sense of justice that must be retributive, and—most centrally—that a perfect Father demands satisfaction so that you need not be condemned eternally, but since somebody’s gotta pay for it Jesus died vicariously in your place. Built partly on one reading of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father sends the Son expressly for this purpose, and Jesus was so obedient to this command that he suffered even to the point of death on the cross. (I would say that’s a misreading, much preferring the sort of perspective that it is about love for humanity, like partially described here from David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146.) This substitutionary satisfaction view has become the dominant sense (in American Christianity, at least) of the whole reason for Jesus. It has even become the default understanding, where any other theological perspective is inherently viewed with suspicion.
As a reader of a care for creation commentary, I suspect that you might not fully endorse such an atonement theory. In a model that mainly deals with eternal consequences, life in this world is mainly relegated to a tally sheet, keeping a record of how well you’ve done, or noting that no matter what you’ve done, meaning this eschatologically significant rupture of relationship with God. Given that it deals with and focuses on Jesus’ death, it seems to be a matter for after-life and doesn’t seem to connect much to actual relationships and interactions of our lives on earth now. For that regard, I’d simply guess that most people invested in caring for creation are not as directly concerned with Jesus paying for our sins. (Maybe someone could do a survey to find out just how much those two categories mix?)

 

So what are we to do with these readings, if they seem to scream a perspective of internal, spiritualized ledger sheets? Here’s some of the litany for the week:

–Jesus said, “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

–He “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5)

–He was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)

–“It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” and “make his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10)

–“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)

–Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9)

 

So how to confront these readings, or how to hear them in a way that isn’t about Jesus forced to serve as a vicarious satisfaction in substitute for you and your death demanded by a vengefully righteous God? Is there room for care for creation, or is that all is lost and we must look to heaven (or, perhaps more palatable to us, the new creation yet to come)?

 

In his review of the alternatives to this dominant atonement theory, Mennonite and nonviolent theologian J. Denny Weaver points out “In ‘God of the Oppressed,’ James H. Cone, the founder of the black theology movement, pointed out that the dominant Anselmian doctrine posed atonement in terms of an abstract theory that lacked ethical dimensions in the historical arena. Consequently, it allowed white people to claim salvation while accommodating and advocating the violence of racism and slavery” a criticism also leveled by feminist theologians, among others (“The Nonviolent Atonement,” p4). This begins to take seriously our human relationships and God’s actions in society, even as we who care for creation insist that this must be broader even than some multiracial and gender-inclusive anthropocentrism.

 

One way to approach these readings comes from Girardian theologian James Allison, who has posed the question “Who sacrificed who to whom?” The answer should not be so directly presumed that God insisted on killing Jesus for God’s own sake. Humanity was and remains too steeped in the practice of doing violence to each other. The death of Jesus, in this Girardian view, was a rupture designed to break the perpetual cycle of scapegoating and violence. Allison, who takes seriously the notion and practice of sacrifice, can remind us that this is about life being able to continue on, about God entering the creation and being restored in right relationship. (For some of those historical reflections on sacrifice, where it is clarified that in traditional sacrifice God was sacrificing God-self for the sake of humanity and creation, a “divine movement to set people free,” see this essay: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html.)

 

In spite of how readily these Bible passages might be enlisted for the purposes of the retributive violent atonement models, it also is readily apparent that the goal is about life. It is not a story of a God whose will is suffering or punishment or death. Rather than terms or pain, notice Isaiah’s efforts for healing, wholeness, prolonged days, and life. One phrase in particular that jumps out is “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). Clearly any of the suffering or pain cannot be seen as right, the afflictions and oppressions cannot be labeled as divinely intended, when that is a perversion of justice. It is when the system is broken that pain and suffering prevail, not by the system God designed and intended and planned.

 

I’m averse to saying that we have to learn the perfect submission or that our suffering will make us perfect in that way that Hebrews perceives it. But the brutality of Isaiah may make more sense through a perspective of self-sacrifice. It seems vitally significant that suffering is not something that one is told to endure, but that one chooses for oneself. This is not the oppression of groups of people explained away, the abuse done in relationships excused, the subjugation and disregard that takes advantage of others. No one may be told to suffer, to confine them by telling them to learn obedience to that way. Rather, this is chosen. Following Cone’s criticism mentioned above, rather than masters justifying their enslavement of others, this voluntarily takes the place of a servant. This is a slavery opted into for the sake of love and in service of life. With Isaiah, the prophet sees himself as the suffering servant (and is not predicting the fate of another, much less saying what God will do to Jesus).

 

Here is one explanation from Terence Fretheim: “At the very least, we must say that the suffering of the servant is reflective of the suffering of God; in the giving up of the servant for the world, personal self-sacrifice is seen to define God’s purpose here. But even more, as the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence, we should also say that God, too, experiences what the servant suffers. This consequence is something which God chooses to bring not only upon the servant but also upon [God]self. While God does not die, God experiences in a profound way what death is like in and through the servant. By so participating in the depths of the death-dealing forces of this world, God transforms the world from within; and a new creation thereby begins to be born.” (“The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective,” p164-65)

 

For this perspective of God’s efforts for life over death, one of the most useful aspects of this Gospel reading is as a corrective to the dominant and domineering readings of Genesis 1 that give license to the abuse of creation. When God offers the instruction for the humans to “have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), dominion has much too frequently been interpreted as permission to do whatever we want. I believe it is helpful to consider the word “dominion.” It ties to the Latin “dominus,” for Lord.

 

Similarly, the word in Genesis 1:28 in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament includes Kyrie—which we know from “Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.” Although the term Jesus uses is the exact same word (katekyrie) for “lord it over,” we can see that he advocates and leads us into a very different kind of dominion. Though we might be more apt to be “like the nations” (in Jesus’ phrase from Mark 10:42), our own practice of lordship should not be to “lord it over” as tyrants, but should follow the model and example of the one we name as Lord. As disciples of our Lord Jesus, we see that dominion is about service, that greatness is found in being a “slave of all” (10:44). That is more representative of the kind of God we have. God is not one who is so far above us that we must fear threats. God is not so distant from us that we can’t even begin to hope to be so proper and holy that we could gain proximity. Our God comes to strive on our behalf, to offer God’s own self for the sake of our lives and ongoing goodness of creation.

 

Since this is what it means not just for John and James but also for us to be associated with Jesus, to share his baptism and receive from his cup, then we find our place separate from the “great ones” (with the depictive Greek phrase “megaloi”) who claim authority over others. It almost can feel like a Godzilla, stomping through the city and across a landscape, leaving a wake of destruction, entirely careless for what it has abused. We, instead, are called to serve, even to enter into the suffering Jesus has been describing and is moving toward in Jerusalem.

 

This is likely what is meant by the term “ransom,” in a paradoxical or ironic way. Similar to Luther’s paired theses in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that a Christian is “totally free master of all, subject to none; and totally bound slave of all, subject to all,” Jesus frees you in order to serve. “The term [‘ransom’] referred to the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” p279). Jesus frees you from slavery to the tyrannical overlords, in order that you may be slave not just to their whims but “slave to all.”

 

Further, we recognize that sometimes giving life should, indeed, be perceived as in line with God’s will. Parents give up and restrict their opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter will freely risk her own wellbeing, maybe even sacrificing to save others from a burning building. As a dog owner, I know that it means I’m up in the middle of the night and out for walks in the cold. As a gardener, I’m rubbing sore back muscles and fighting sunburn and swatting mosquitoes so that I can care for those vegetables and flowers. Some labor is referred to as “punishing,” even though we might only be subjecting ourselves to the work. That seems a better and more life-giving view, and more appropriately tied to a God who created and sustains out of love, than one of obedience and being stricken for transgressions.

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Vacation from Jesus?

sermon on Luke9:51-62; Galatians5:1,13-25

I want to invite you to walk through a few steps of my recent conundrum and join in faithful pondering. I ask you to walk and not snorkel with me, because though I want to share thoughts about my trip to Hawaii, this isn’t a travelogue but is spiritual journey. So let’s walk.

Our first stop is among the words we just heard from Jesus. It’s a great set of quotations and interesting sayings. Any of them is eminently preachable and could be full of lots of conversation. I especially like the oddness of disciples who want to command fire to rain out of the sky just because Jesus didn’t stop at a certain village. (Imagine travelling with these guys down the interstate, itching to leave a wake of destruction for every bypassed rest area or unused fast food restaurant as you sped by.)

Then we get to the stuff about following Jesus. It’s insistent and doesn’t paint all that appealing of a picture. Foxes and birds have holes and nests, but with Jesus you evidently have to camp out or maybe be homeless. Then the odd word about the dead burying their own dead, that with Jesus you can’t even go to your father’s graveside committal. Finally, to keep your hand on the plow, as the old spiritual sang it. It sounds awfully demanding.

Which is what got me thinking about Hawaii. I got to lay my head in some pretty swanky resorts, at least for my taste. And I dawdled around the beach sipping tropical cocktails, which seems a whole lot more relaxing and less pressing than the words from Jesus that this all needs to happen now, as top priority, so that even otherwise really important aspects of life still can’t be allowed to get in the way.

So the point of quandary as you’re walking through this with me is whether a Hawaiian vacation is incompatible with following Jesus. Now, please hang with me and don’t just write it off as Midwestern stoicism against tropical ease as a guilty pleasure. I’m certainly not eager to look the gift horse in its mouth, but am nevertheless confronted with Jesus’ discipleship question.

I was reading some Hawaiian history before the trip, which described the difficulty the stern missionaries had in trying to convert the Hawaiian natives, who didn’t want to give up raucous parties and carefree living, didn’t even want to have to wear clothes. There are times that question can be in my mind: is Christianity worth it? Do I really want to follow Jesus if it feels like I’m giving up the good stuff?

Yet we are here together today, which says we’ve already made up our minds to some degree, feeling a persistent tug toward faith. Likely, your weekly Sunday attendance isn’t to weigh whether or not to believe in God, trying to convince yourself that following Jesus is right. You probably already relate more to one side of that answer.

So for the first stopping point on the morning’s walk, we aren’t exactly evaluating whether to follow Jesus. We aren’t asking if trying to live care-free or to spend ourselves partying (much less the question of whether to wear clothes) would be preferable.

And so when Jesus tells us to follow, not to look back, tells us of inconveniences and disruptions and perhaps even some regrets that inevitably accompany discipleship, we’re probably generally not at the point of saying, “Uh, thanks Jesus. But all-in-all that doesn’t sound like it’s for me. Good luck with that though.” We’re ready to take him at his word, to take it seriously, or at least to struggle with what it means.

Which, again, is the question of my trip to Hawaii. Does it square with being a Christian and the demanding lifestyle of following Jesus? At this point, it seems the answer would be no.

That makes me anxious and also grateful to move on to the next stop of the spiritual journey, getting past the disappointing conclusion of this first stop by walking or maybe even running ahead to the next question. See, here, luckily a stray verse from Galatians jumps in to our rescue, or at least to my deliverance and excuse for luxuriously relaxing getaway. Chapter 5 verse 1 floats at the front of our reading, cut off from its surrounding verses, but nevertheless a place I’d throw out my anchor and take harbor from storms of dire insistence. “For freedom,” it says! “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Aha! I like it! Praise Jesus for stop two on this spiritual journey! Sweet relief! This isn’t only about demands and a bleak outlook of discipleship. No! Just the reverse, when I’m trapped in worry and held in bondage by not having done enough of the right thing, here comes a word of blessing, a word of good news, the strength of the gospel to liberate me. Christ has set us free! For freedom!

Just as it was no exaggeration to question the whole Hawaiian escapade with the first word, this upends it to offer a validation for freedom. Don’t submit to the yoke of slavery! Don’t feel oppressed or bound by those restrictions. Don’t let your life be confined in obeying orders, in being burdened by rigorous work. Freedom! This Galatians message comes so vigorously to defend me and my vacation to Hawaii.

We’re free. It would, by definition and at its core seem to indicate we can do whatever we want. Separate from our spiritual journey, that’s also a contemplation as we approach Independence Day, perhaps on a patriotic pilgrimage. What is American freedom about? Is it that we can do whatever we want in this world, to whomever we want? Are there no boundaries or barriers for our behavior? The patriotic question and the spiritual one, the Christian component and the American overlap in pondering this, as we can see. Can we get away with anything? Is the shape of life just in doing what we want, what feels fun, what we can afford, whatever is our heart’s passion or—in slightly different language—to gratify the desires of the flesh?

Uh-oh. We seem to be moving on to a third point in this walkthrough. From first saying ocean-side resorts were off-limits to next saying there were no limits and anything goes so feel free to enjoy, we’re suspecting that there’s something else to face. Or even if we weren’t suspecting it, even if we were content bask under Galatians 5:1 (since it remains the extraordinarily good news of our faith), still Galatians moved on and so must we.

The next verse we heard was this: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” (so far so good. We liked hearing this. Until it goes on:) “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Oh!

Now, I know this is paradox, saying that two opposites are both true, that you’re totally free yet not. I know that is difficult and confusing. And that exactly is what our faith is. That is why we keep pondering and wrestling and reflecting and praying, because it’s not simple or clear-cut. Our faith is neither “all it takes is to do these 10 things” nor is it really “it doesn’t matter what you do.” So our reading first said, “Don’t submit to slavery,” but then turns around and instructs us “through love [to] become slaves to one another.” Both/and.

Martin Luther picked up this dichotomy in one of his most important writings, called “On the Freedom of a Christian.”* His summary was two apparently contradictory statements: “A Christian is a most free lord of all, subject to none” and yet “a Christian is [also] a most dutiful servant of all, subject to every one.”

These two halves, we may split by adding perspectives of other characters: God and neighbors. Let’s try it out for God: even if it was a flagrantly expensive expedition, involving carbon polluting jet fuel and intemperant alcohol and problems of tourist economy, my trip to Hawaii does not and cannot separate me from the love or blessing of God. The gifts of Jesus and the presence of the Spirit are not dependent on how well I behaved. On the other hand, switching direction from God to my neighbor, was Hawaii the best choice, the most loving thing, the way to serve others? Or was it more “an opportunity for self-indulgence”?

This is the weighty matter of faith. So I’m not looking to justify myself, that I got to explore beautifully amazing coral reefs to gain appreciation for an endangered part of creation, or that it was worthwhile because of time with family, or that I supported neighbors who were far away, or that it brings me back refreshed, renewed, ready to serve you.

Neither am I looking for you to excuse me, to say it’s alright. It may feel like that’s what we do in Confession and Forgiveness, but please note that to forgive is not the same as offering excuse. Forgiveness is to say that, even when it’s not right, even though what I spent on this lush vacation is part of confessing “we have not loved one another in deed and in truth,” still that does not cut me off from God, nor from you, since I hope your faithful love continues to surround me.

This is worth weighing, worth considering, a spiritual journey worth walking through, not to feel miserable or condemn ourselves, but (at least in part) because we have many appealing opportunities for recreation this summer and all of us—whether spending freetime close or far, in small amounts of time or large—all are among the richest on the planet, meaning we’re used to a lot of self-appropriated freedom to do what we want and probably need to be re-attuned to the cost for our neighbors, sisters and brother, human and all creatures, who suffer sometimes because of our extravagance and sometimes because of our neglect.

This is what the love of God calls us to, what the body of Christ lives to do, what the Spirit motivates us to do. If we’re not ready to consider the expense of our lives for others, we’d have to wonder whether God is God, whether Jesus is just a pastime, a hobby, whether we’re paying attention in this faith to following at all.

 

*http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1911/1911-h/1911-h.htm#link2H_4_0002

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