It is on a day like today, with a beautiful blue sky and light, cool breeze kissing my cheek, that I think of life in its fullness. It is hard not to be in awe with the birds chirping and the tree leaves moving ever so slightly. The awesome nature of creation can overwhelm us. But it can also remind us of something powerful. God’s creation is ever-working in our world. Now, this may seem like a cliché, but our world is in a constant state of creation and re-creation. Living in a constantly changing world, we are always both learning more about God and realizing his greater mystery.
Growing up in a home deeply rooted in both Christianity and science, I was taught to appreciate both the order and circle of life, and the role God played in it. As a good friend of our family and a top research scientist at the national laboratories outside of Chicago said, “Science and faith, they prove each other.” In his spare time, this friend developed a theory linking evolution and the creation stories of the Bible.
I often struggle to reconcile the antiseptic understanding of creation that is given in Genesis with the scientific struggle and chaos of the types of creation still present in our world. I don’t believe that the world is going to end any time soon. I believe that we are still in a time of creation and re-creation, and that the struggles we encounter have more to do with our human resistance to change than God’s enduring wrath upon us.
In a story I heard on National Public Radio a few years back, they were talking about the scientific reasons that the Stradivarius had such a beautiful sound, and why we could not re-create it today. The speaker said that it had to do with past weather being colder and the trees denser, creating a special kind of wood.
Now we know scientifically that the weather is not constant. Some years it is cooler, others warmer; that just seems to be a natural pattern to the nature of our world. Now, as I understand it, creation in the natural world is still happening. Every once in a while, I will read about the discovery of a new creature or a significant evolution of another.
It makes me think of “growing up,” when the world around us begins to change and we begin to learn about our environment and our world. When we first come into it, we only know our little world. We have a defiant personality, though it is hard to express, given our limitations. As we are exposed to new things, we grow in our intellect and understanding of the world, which causes us to change.
Hence the statement by Paul in his letter to the people of Corinth, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” In other words, once you have grown, you are expected to move into your new reality. What would society be like if, at the point of graduation, nobody went to work or applied their skills and gifts to their community? Our society would eventually crumble, not only because it would have no labor, but also because it would stop growing and changing.
A great friend of mine, my college mentor, told me, “Life is about learning, until you get to the point when you have learned that you know nothing, and then you begin to learn even more.” This is why we go back to read and reread the Bible. This is also why we come to church, even when we know the story that is going to be preached. Because even though we may know the stories and teachings backwards and forwards, our changing perspectives and comprehension always give new insight and learning.
We have to remember that God’s creation is still at work in our world. The seasons bring us birth and death every year. People and our environments are ever-changing and growing. Our communities are always changing and re-creating themselves; people are ever-changing and growing, and life continues to move forward.
It is always easy to get wrapped up in faith as if it were a fad. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a new pop-culture Christianity started to make its way into the general culture and the schools I attended. Like many pop-culture trends, it both added to the culture and also lost some of the essential understandings of the faith. One of the strange fads that came with this movement was wearing the wrist bands that were labeled “WWJD,” which stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” Strangely enough, it was a marketing gold mine. WWJD-wear took off as if it were a high teen fashion brand.
In time, “WWJD” could be seen on clothing and jewelry, even on lunch boxes and school folders. It seemed to be everywhere. Unfortunately, one thing seemed to be missing: not everyone wearing the logo knew what it meant. In fact, many of my friends had the very popular bracelets, but few could express the meaning. The statement that they were making was lost to the momentary fad of fashion.
As we celebrate the church and its role in our lives, I cannot help but think what others in my generation think of the church. Many claim that the church is a hypocritical institution, and some proclaim that all the church is interested in is money. Others say that church is merely irrelevant. Sometimes I have a hard time defending it, as the debates and division within our churches are not even about the timeless issues. Sometimes I even wonder if we, as a denomination, might fall into the trap of following the fad of religion, going through the motions to keep up with others whose lives we so deeply wish we had, instead of reaching a real understanding of God and of faith.
As I thought about this, I remembered the prophet Micah. Micah is found among the Minor Prophets; "minor" with respect to the size of their books in the Bible, not their content. Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah. His book can be split into two similar, but distinct sections. Each section begins with prophecies of punishment and leads into prophecies of salvation, reminding us all of God’s presence and desire for all to live in peace.
As with many of the prophets, even his name is prophetic. Micah, in Hebrew, means "Who is like Yahweh?" (Yahweh is a transliterated spelling of the Hebrew word for God.) This is important, because Micah is speaking to what seems to be God’s perpetual battle with humanity. This battle is one where we are constantly falling away from God, complaining over the destruction that ensues, and ultimately, God’s rebuilding toward peace.
The interesting thing is that Micah is constantly reminding us of God’s desire, even during the destruction. In a way, it is like when a parent spanks their child, saying, "This hurts me more than it does you!"
For Micah, God gains no joy in seeing his people hurt and destroyed. Rather, he seeks what is good, posing the simple question, "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" In other words, Micah is asking, what is so hard that you cannot merely be just in what you do? Love and strive to be kind toward others. And know a bit of humility by allowing God to take credit.
This is a powerful concept, and if used as a guide, it helps us to understand and follow our calling. Many leaders in this country have quoted this as a part of their understanding of the political office they hold. President Jimmy Carter used this passage at his inauguration, as did John Ashcroft on the day he was nominated. It makes me think, if leaders truly followed it, maybe our world would be much different.
I often wonder what the world would be like if everybody went to church to simply give glory to God and thank God for the lives that we have, and took that glory and love out the doors of the church and gave it, as a gift, to all we see and meet throughout the next week, sharing the kindness we know to be right.
And what about sticking up for those who are unable to stick up for themselves because they have no voice or are weak? Instead of leaving them to be bullied and left alone, what if we gave them a place to be and be heard?
Here is the kicker: what if we did this and never let it be known what we did, keeping a true humility with God?
Unfortunately, some feel that once an individual experiences salvation, we need to only be focused on the relationship with God, and, therefore, ask the question, "What does action have to do with faith?" Though faith is rooted in our relationship with God, it is serving God that builds up our faith and helps us to understand God better. What Micah points to so vividly in his prophesies is that the constant faith is from God, and it is we---yes, all of us---who lose sight of God. Instead of helping, we hurt. Instead of giving, we take. Instead of acting in justice, kindness, and humility, we buy a sticker or a wristband to prove our allegiance
At the end of one of our mission trips to Ghana in my last congregation, we were on our flight home to New Jersey. We were tired, hot, and ready to go home. It had been a great trip and our delegation, mostly women, were excited about the work we had done to promote women’s health and bring the community that much closer to a clinic that would serve the women and children of the village for years to come. But, as is common when you do mission trips, we ran into another group. They, too, were excited about the work that they had done, and we began to exchange notes.
As members of the other group were talking to a couple folks in our delegation, I watched as one of my female congregants began to turn red. So, I began to listen into their conversation at the point the man said, “We were so proud of the women who stayed back and cooked for us. They really allowed us men to do great work for the Lord.” Knowing this person, she was doing everything she could not to explode! I know what she wanted to say, and I’d seen her do it before. But this time, and during this trip, she really had a connection to God, so she took a moment to collect herself, smiled and said how much she enjoyed the hard work and long days along with the guys. It was a kind way of letting him know that we do not see women differently than men in our tradition.
One of the interesting things about the Christian tradition is the role of women. Contrary to what many of the more conservative communities might say, the role of women in the gospels was both radically countercultural and crucial for the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus only treated women differently to the extent that he probably preferred them, because time after time, the stories show it is the women who are able to have faith when the men could or would not accept him.
Much is made of the women in the Bible being on the fringe, but when you begin to read about anyone in the Bible, apart from Jesus, they are all flawed. You need not go any farther than Paul, who boasts about his ineptitude. Notably, women in the Bible do something that the men don’t, at least right away: they accept Christ as Christ, and then are seen in positions of witnessing to others!
Just think of the stories of the Marys. Mary, the mother of Jesus, accepts him, keeps him, and supports him in his ministry. Mary, of Mary and Martha, shows her passion and understanding by celebrating Christ in the most honored way. Then there is Mary the Magdalene, the woman rumored to be the closest, possibly even the beloved disciple (but that is another letter), who is always in the position where she is present with Christ and shows understanding when the disciples don’t.
But one of the stories that provides strongest evidence that the role of women in the New Testament was countercultural for the time is the story of the woman at the well. The exchange between Jesus and the woman is very interesting. First, the story clearly shows that Jesus is in the “wrong” place. As a Jew, he is at the well of the “dirty” Samaritans, and thus, should not be there. But Jesus obviously knows that they are not dirty. Moreover, of all the people he could have tasked with the promise of his grace is a woman of ill-repute! Yet, he also knows that it is exactly this woman who would be the one to know him and be able to spread his word. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony (John 4:39a). ”
It is too bad when traditions get in the way of the inclusiveness of the Bible. Not only does it make us look bad, it goes against the real message of Christ. It is things like this that give the deniers fodder for questioning the truth. But more importantly, it is the misogyny found in many Christian traditions that forces the wedge between the truth and love of Christ and the ability of all people to have a relationship with Christ.
For us, it is always important to remember that we have a witness to Christ not because of the disciples, but despite them. Just look at the story of the Resurrection. In most of the stories, who is it that first witnesses to the Resurrection? We must recognize that, we must stand for them, and we must stop looking at one person as different or lesser because of their gender, because we need all of us to witness and celebrate Christ in this world.
As we continue to talk about the intersection of faith and social justice over this Lenten season, I can’t help but remember a time in my first congregation. I was having a discussion with a member when out of the blue, they volunteered, “I don’t like talking about social justice.” Of course, I asked why and she responded, “Because it’s too hard.” It was an interesting answer, and while she was the first, others have shared the same sentiment. For her, what was too hard about the discussion of justice was the fact that often what was just went against everything she knew. At one point she said, “I don’t like that if I have to be just, I also have to be vulnerable and get hurt.”
For me, that was one of the most interesting insights I ever heard about justice. It made total sense! Psychologically, even though we understand that people live in different realities than our own, our first thought is always that people all share the same experiences, and we use that as our baseline. To admit that our way is not universal forces us to be vulnerable, and more importantly, admit that we might actually be causing harm to another by being complicit with in our status in society.
This is very true when it comes to the issue of immigration. One can make the distinction between legal and illegal entries and stays in the United States, but immigration happens when there is a market for workers. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where illegal immigration happens because the markets love the resulting underpaid labor that produces many things that the majority community enjoys, especially as it relates to our food.
This is something that the church made great pronouncements on at the last General Assembly. In fact, we see this as a real crisis of faith. With overtones of racism, classism, and slavery connected with the issue of illegal immigration, as people of faith, we cannot stand by and watch some children of God being treated differently than others based solely on their social position.
Think about how easily the term “illegal immigrant” rolls off the tongue. What most people don’t think about is that what it says is that they are illegal people. This raises the question, how can a person be illegal? Actions are illegal, but can people be illegal? The fact is, in our system, an undocumented person typically has done something illegal, such as overstaying a visa or crossing the border illegally. Although they have done something illegal, they are not illegal people. Otherwise, most Californians who drive on Highway 101 would be illegal people, since most are going illegal speeds!
It is important for us to recognize this. This is not a political discussion. It is a faith discussion, because our faith calls us to reach out to the vulnerable and make sure that the truth is being spoken. Unfortunately, what has become the image of the undocumented person is a thug. But the reality is that families make up the majority of undocumented people. Regardless of their immigration status, they are children of God who deserve to be treated as such, no matter how it makes us feel.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen