The WCC assembled for the 10th time since its establishment in 1948. 5000+ people representing over 560 million Christians, 110 countries and 345 member churches descended upon the Republic of Korea with one unifying call to Christ, “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” Day in and day out I heard these outcries from various contexts around the world pleading to God for justice, peace and reconciliation and I wrestled with this prayer…I wrestled with it because I’m not sure I know what such a journey looks like with so much injustice and unrest around me? You see Guns n Roses is not just a rock band it’s a culture of violence at night and mourning in the morning, just send us a bouquet of roses for your condolences. The hunger games is not just a movie it’s more than 1 in 5 children here in America who don’t know where their next meal will come from. We are the world and heal the world are not just Michael Jackson greatest hits but manuscripts for care of God’s ailing creation, Mother Earth. So my brothers and sisters in Christ I don’t know what a journey for justice and peace looks like with so much injustice and unrest around me. Is justice and peace just around the corner or do I have to go through hell and high water to there? And why can’t I just use my GPS? Why do I have to follow God? You know we follow strangers on twitter and Instagram faithfully but have a hard time following God to church on Sunday morning. I’m just saying, Saints won’t you join me on this pilgrimage for justice and peace? And if you do I promise we can still use GPS: not Global Positioning System but God’s Positioning System.
And so if we are to ask God to guide us on this pilgrimage it’s probably a good idea to know what God’s position is on justice and peace before we embark upon this journey. And being the epidemiologist that I am, I researched some statistics; you know…numbers. A great muse once said men lie, women lie but numbers don’t. That’s from the prophet Jay Z. So let’s take justice first; the numbers say that the word justice or some synonym of justice is used 1,576 times in the bible, in 1,379 separate verses. That’s twice as many times as the words “love” or “heaven” are mentioned, and 7 times more often than the word “hell”. So if what the prophet Jay Z says is true…the statistics show justice to be pretty important to God. To go even further, the Jewish Prophet Micah writes in Micah 6:6-8:
6 With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly[a] with your God.
So even here, 7 centuries before God sent his only begotten Son to save us from ourselves, Micah suggests that God doesn’t want your offerings….he doesn’t need your first born child, all he requires of you is that you act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. This is our invitation Saints to follow God on this leg of our journey, a pilgrimage for justice. And our first stop, the marginalized.
One of the ecumenical conversations I contributed to during the WCC was about bonding with the marginalized for a just and inclusive church. But what does it mean to be a just and inclusive church??? Simply a church of and for the marginalized right? So who are the marginalized? By definition to marginalize is to treat a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral. Suffice it to say to be marginalized is to not be in the center, to be on the outside, living on the margins. To be discriminated against on the basis of age, caste, class, ethnic and national identities, gender identity, physical, sensory or intellectual/ mental impairment, race, religion, and sexual orientation, and the list goes on and on and on. A just and inclusive church is essentially a church of and for the least of these. But isn’t that the original mandate of the Church? Wasn’t that the foundation of Jesus Christ’s ministry? To bring the good news that suffering and oppression could be brought to an end? So if our churches don’t seem to be inclusive it’s not because we haven’t arrived, it’s because we’ve deviated from the Church’s original mandate and now we’ve got to re-center our focus.
You know we all have an anatomical landmark called our center of gravity or, center of mass. Basically your center of gravity is where your body weight is most concentrated. So somewhere near our belly buttons usually. And men have a different centers of gravity from women for obvious reasons: women have….and men don’t. Women will be with child and men won’t. But never mind that the important thing to remember is that your center of gravity is aaaaalll about balance. Unless you are Michael Jackson in the smooth criminal video, if you lean over too far to any side, shifting the most concentrated area of your body mass off center…you will lose balance and you will fall. Our relationship with God, with us being the body of Christ is a lot like our relationship with gravity. Until God is placed back at the center of gravity of the Church…we as the body of Christ will forever be off balance, perpetually falling and failing to fulfill our mandate to minister to the marginalized.
But that’s not all…in order to truly be a just and inclusive church, a church of and for the marginalized we’ve got to realize that God at the center, pushes all of us to the margins. Okay some of y’all didn’t get that…okay, the laws of geometry say that there can only be one unique center to a circle. See with God at the center there’s no room for you or me or any fear monger or power structure to be anywhere but on the margins. A few of ya’ll still missed it… okay remember when we identified those most likely to be marginalized. And I know you were listening to that list like “oh well that’s not me…I run things around here.” But I guarantee you where you are at the center in one context, there is another where you are not. That’s why we’ve got to be careful with lists…when you start making them, you are bound to leave someone off of it that should be on it and sometimes that includes our disillusioned selves. I heard many a story these past few weeks of marginalized groups moving to the center within their own contexts. There’s a church in Canada where the majority of the congregation is educated, well to do same gender loving men and women. See they were tired of being persecuted by communities of faith about their sexual identities so they went and formed a safe space of their own. Problem with that is in doing so they’ve completely neglected the needs of other people in the margins. People who are illiterate, or hearing and visually impaired simply can’t have a meaningful worship experience because they weren’t thinking about “those people” when they set out to be a church inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgenders. Then there’s the Korean Presbyterian church founded by Koreans for Koreans in Japan. See you have to know the history of the Korean War to know that the Japanese were to Koreans what whites have been to blacks in this country. So the same way the black church was a house of refuge for African Americans, so is this church for Korean migrants in Japan. Only now the Korean Church is not welcoming to the Japanese who attempt to fellowship with them. The same can be seen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where a historically oppressed Jewish people are now marginalizing the people of Palestine. It becomes a vicious cycle and the only way to avoid the perpetuity of marginalization is to stop thinking that we are at the center of anything and understand that when God is at the center of everything, we are all on the margins. God’s preferential option for the marginalized as witnessed in Jesus recognizes life in the margins as a testimony to the brokenness of the world, thus struggling against marginalization offers a testimony of hope for the promise of the fullness of life. As such the Church is called to witness through its struggles against forces of injustice and to be an instrument of God’s transformation (WCC EC 11 PGC 01.1).
Now all justice ain’t people justice…In fact eco-justice, that is ecological justice for God’s creation, is at the forefront of our discussion right now as we’ve witnessed the devastation in the Philippines. Anytime there is a loss of life it’s a tragedy and a reminder as to just how precious yet fleeting life can be. But when life is lost in the wake of natural disasters, I believe we miss an important lesson about the fragility of Mother Nature. It’s no coincidence that as consumerism and industrialism increase the occurrence of natural disasters have increased dramatically as well over the last few decades. Super storms are more frequent, temperatures more extreme, earthquakes more powerful than ever, and the level of CO2 and methane trapped in our atmosphere has reached critical levels, the highest it’s ever been.
And so what are the consequences? Is it the sacrifice of 4000 and counting Filipinos who were victims of the largest typhoon recorded in history? One can’t be sure, but what is certain is that the effects of global warming have resulted in rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, heat waves and droughts, a loss of biodiversity, and a destruction of ecosystems. Global warming has even contributed to disease where temperature and precipitation changes have allowed disease carrying mosquitoes, ticks, and mice to thrive. Our ecological injustices have directly impacted our economic bottom line where restoration for devastated areas easily reaches into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. It’s also no secret that land ripe with precious minerals and metals, fertile grounds, and healthy agriculture has been the fuel for war and conflict in many areas where natural resources are fiercely fought over because whoever controls the land controls the people. It’s possible that in our lifetime water could become the most important physical commodity ever; I dread the day they ring the opening bell on Wall Street and announce public trading H2O, of all things.
So again, as we pray to God to lead us on this leg of our pilgrimage for justice I think it’s fair to know just how important creation is to God, and what better place to reference than Genesis 1:1-31, 2:1-3. We all know it well, God created the heavens and the earth and all that dwelleth within it in 6 days and He rested on the 7th. I think we can all agree on that. But what we don’t seem to uplift often enough is that 5 outta those 6 days God spent creating earth! We only got one measly day. Now you don’t have to be a deep thinker to interpret that God spent more time and care into creating the earth because he knew it would be the earth that sustains us and not the other way around. But somehow in our self-centered ways we’ve made it all about us; consuming, consuming, consuming with little regard for what we can be doing to give back to the earth.
I was at the WCC to promote HIV and AIDS as a justice issue because that’s important to my context, whereas Christian representatives from the Middle East were there to seek justice for the persecution of religious minorities, but those participants from the pacific region, which includes the Philippines were there to bring awareness to climate change because that’s specific to their context. Not that we don’t have eco-justice concerns here in the states but our wealth allows us to ignore our problems because of our ability to do things like pump sand into beaches where shorelines have receded due to rising sea levels. My brothers and sisters in Christ there are people in other regions of the world that don’t have that luxury and I think it’s hi tide and time that we don’t wait until the next natural disaster to start paying attention to our poor stewardship of earth.
Which brings me to my final points and then I’ll think about taking my seat. The struggle for justice is a pre-condition for peace. And vice-versa we can say the struggle for peace is a pre-condition for justice. You see sometimes we confuse JUST PEACE, which is peace that is achieved WITH justice vs just PEACE, or peace that stands alone. I’ll give you an example, I had the opportunity to have an impromptu lunch with Bishop Wani of the South Sudan which many of you know is an area of great civil unrest. And he said to me that despite the war and violence that persists in the area, HIV justice is still the primary issue in sub-Sahara Africa, but that the war has been a distraction from the fact and until there is peace and resolution we won’t fully begin the healing of HIV and AIDS. Justice is pre-condition for peace, peace is a pre-condition for justice. But to be fair if we also look at the amount of times peace is mentioned in the bible, we find that it pales in comparison to the mention of justice, at only 501 times, nearly 1000 times less than justice appeared. However the times in which peace is mentioned it is mentioned definitely and emphatically.
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
So here we have specific directions as to how to please God. It’s not as mundane and routine as eating and drinking, things that we do without thought, but rather we are to make EVERY effort, not a halfhearted effort, or at least I gave it a try…but EVERY effort to do what leads us to peace. And in return we inherit the kingdom, God’s favor, and approval by our peers. Now take a look at:
14 Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
Short, sweet and to the point but very definitive that peace is not just something that you go looking for and then abandon once you have it in your sights. It might be altruistic and noble to say you seek peace but if you are not in hot pursuit of it you are missing the mark.
But I’m also interested in the first part of this Psalm, “Turn from evil and do good,” as a prerequisite to seeking peace. You know it’s real hard to be a peacemaker if we’re always hating on each other and being ugly towards each other. And those emotions and those feelings have the potential to manifest themselves into evil deeds and actions towards one another. So before we can even think about peace we’ve got to learn how to love each other. 3 points and I’m sitting down:
The weekend before I left for S. Korea I was in Atlanta for a wedding, and a friend who I went to high school with invited me to her church on Sunday. Now little did I know she attends a Church whose pastor I’m not a huge fan of. But I said it’s cool God can bless you with a word from just about anybody even this guy, and sure enough once I got past him reminding us that he was keeping church short that morning because he had to get to the Falcons game, he blessed me with a word. He talked about how in the Old Testament, Levitical Law commanded that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then the Gospel according to John in the New Covenant says that at the last supper, Jesus gave a new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” See God knew that like many things in the old covenant, we weren’t going to be able to live up to the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, because a lot of us don’t even love ourselves. Saints in order for us to aggressively seek peace in the world and in others, we’ve got to first find peace within ourselves. Until then just love your neighbor as Christ loved you, because we know his love is an unconditional love that never waivers. The same needs to be true for our enemies as well. I saw a bumper sticker in Korea that read, “When God said love thy enemy, he probably meant don’t kill them.” And that resonates with me especially as I think about governments all over the world and ease in which they toy with the idea of war to resolve conflict. I hope that one day we will be able to resolve our issues in a more peaceful way that doesn’t attempt to resolve conflict with conflict. That’s point 1.
2nd point: During the opening ceremony at the WCC, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholmew I of Constantinople said, “There’s no comfortable way to sit on the cross.” I’d go even further to say that there’s no comfortable way to hang on the cross. If we are to pursue just peace as Jesus Christ did, we’ve also got to be willing to die unto ourselves as Christ did, so that others might experience God’s righteousness, joy, and peace on earth. So if you are making every effort to do what leads to peace….if you are not only seeking peace but pursuing it, your pilgrimage should not be a comfortable one, and if it is you ain’t doing it right, because there’s no comfortable way to hang from the cross.
And my 3rd and final point: If you’ve sought peace within yourself and love your neighbors and enemies as Jesus loves you, if you died unto yourself and have gone to the cross you know the path to just peace is an uncomfortable one, and last but not least you’ve got the wounds show it. After Christ’s crucifixion he resurrected from the dead and had to answer to his disciples; his faithful followers and subsequent deserters. And as he was judged they doubted it was him. And He said, “Behold, my hands and feet, that it is, I, Myself.” And if it were not for his wounds as a seal of his suffering, they might not believe it was him.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, one day we’ll leave this place and have to answer to a Most high God at the gates of His Kingdom. When you get there will God have to ask you how you spent your time on earth? Will he question you about whether or not you worshiped Christ or Caste? When you get to the pearly gates of heaven will you have to defend your pilgrimage of justice and peace or will he be able to identify you by your wounds when you extend your arms for a warm embrace, and he simply says, “Well done, well done, well done…your pilgrimage for justice and peace is complete.” Let us pray the closing prayer of the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches:
O God of life,
lead us to justice and peace,
that suffering people may discover hope;
the scarred world find healing;
and divided churches become visibly one,
through the one who prayed for us,
and in whom we are one Body,
your Son, Jesus Christ,
who with you and the Holy Spirit,
is worthy to be praised, one God,
now and forever. Amen.