Being "Right" or Being in Relationship

Preached on July 2, 2017

Genesis 1:24-27

And God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Genesis 2:4-8

Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed.

1. The Need to be Right 

The Potter’s House is a charter school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The new United States Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a volunteer, donor, and board member of this school. She’s spoken about it in speeches as an example of a great school. Potter’s House identifies as an evangelical Christian school. Alongside the science of evolution, they teach creationism, the evangelical idea that the creation story in the book of Genesis offers a viable alternative to evolution as a theory to explain how the world came to be the way it is today.

In fact, there are many Christians that would argue that Genesis 1 replaces evolution as the true understanding of how the world came to be. They believe the Bible is a book of answers and explanations, and a blueprint for correct living. In this religion, the Bible and pastor tell people what’s right while trying to convert others. Anyone who does not follow their teachings is an outsider, marginalized, and probably on their way to hell.

Life can be pretty confusing– it would be nice to have some certainty. But the Bible doesn’t deliver the kind of clarity that some Christians claim. When it comes to explaining the creation of the world, for example, the Bible presents us with not one but two creation stories. And the two stories don’t agree on several basic points.

In Genesis 1, God created light, then sky, then dry land, then vegetation, then animals, then humans– male and female together. In Genesis 2, God created man first out of the dust, and then vegetation and trees, then animals and then much later, a woman. 

And the differences don’t end with Genesis. There are also two different histories of the kings of Israel: one is told in Samuel and I and II Kings, and the other in I and II Chronicles. There are four gospel stories of Jesus and several more that were not included in the canon. Matthew and Luke have two very different accounts of the birth of Jesus and two different retellings of the Sermon on the Mount with significant differences. 

There are four different accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus that differ (for example, on the names of those who were present), and many different accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. And there is no real attempt in the Bible to smooth over these differences and contradictions. They are just presented side by side.

2. Society Values Certainty

In a society that values certainty, many are uncomfortable with this variety of perspectives. From the time we’re children in school, we are taught that there is right and wrong, and that if you want to succeed, you need to be right. In school, you get gold stars and points for correct answers, and red marks and points taken off for incorrect answers. You excel or fail according to right and wrong answers. Even our friendships are judged on whether we are friends with the right or wrong people. If we want to be cool, we need to be seen with other people who are cool. Genuine relationship is often not considered as important as being connected to the right people.

If we want to move up the ladder toward success, we need to say the right things to the boss. The boss may be looking for correct answers, or maybe we just need to say what they want to hear. And this is as true in the church as in any other institution.

Many people transfer this desire for certainty over to the search for meaning in life. A lot of us would probably like some answers about why things are like they are. Why is there so much suffering in the world? What happens after we die? The Bible is a record of the human search for meaning. But the answers aren’t as clear as we might like.

3. Meaning Found in Relationship

So what if truth doesn’t just fall from the sky? Or what if it just doesn’t work for truth to fall from the sky? What if it just doesn’t stick?

I had an interesting experience a couple months ago that showed me the importance of the process through which truth emerges. New Day Worship Leader QuiShaun and I were leading a workshop on social justice for a group of United Methodist lay leaders. We were leading a group activity where they had to choose between cooperation or competition. Early on in the activity, one of the participants saw where the activity was headed and started telling all the group members to act in a certain way. He actually had good insight, but he was telling them to do it, then almost commanding them to do it in a way that was very alienating. As a result, his insight had no impact. 

It’s not enough to have a good idea. Powerful truth emerges out of human relationship.

But what if having two different creation stories, four different gospels, and many interpretations of the resurrection of Christ moves us closer to the meaning of life? What if meaning is not just found in one authoritative perspective, but rather is found in the relationship between people in all our variety of perspectives, too?

This does not mean that there is no objective truth, but that the way to move toward it is less about finding the authoritative source and more about connecting with God and one another in relationship.  Jesus teaches that the most important of all commandments is to love God and one another.  

I think of the story of an indigenous woman in the Philippines who was also a seminary professor. She was interviewing to become a missionary in a different indigenous community in the Pacific Islands. When asked what would be her main approach to the people she would be working with, she said, "Well, I’ve experienced the destruction of Christian missionaries coming into our community, telling us what’s right and wrong, and disrespecting our culture. I would never want to do that. So, I would start by listening to the people and learning about their culture, and building authentic relationships with people. Then, we can begin to share our stories with one another."

4. Relationship in Genesis 1-3

One thing that the creation story in Genesis 1 and the creation story in Genesis 2-3 have in common is that they are both grand invitations to be in relationship with ourselves, with God, with creation itself, and with one another.

Genesis 1 is a beautiful poem to the goodness of creation. The Divine creation is all interrelated. The day and night, the sea and dry land. The plants give oxygen and food for the animals and humans. And they are all in relationship with God. Especially the humans, who are created in God’s own image.

Genesis 2 and 3 is a fascinating story about the relationship between the man and the woman with the plants and animals, about their relationship with each other, and about their relationship with God. When they trust each other, they get along great. When they begin to doubt each other and hide from each other, things begin to fall apart. Meaning emerges and grows in relationship. 

5. Not Issues But Relationships

We’ve just finished our fifth Queer Liberation Series, and it was magnificent, as usual. One thing I love about it is that it takes on the realities and possibilities of sexual orientation and gender expression in a liberating way, as opposed to the oppressive way this conversation emerges in many parts of the church.

Too often in the church, this whole area of human sexuality and gender expression emerges as an issue to be debated, as if their was some uniform position that the Bible takes. I’ve fallen into this trap over the years myself even in advocating for LGBTQ rights. Many of us have researched all the scriptures that seem to mention homosexuality in some way or another, and demonstrated that the Bible is not, in fact, homophobic. And it’s just not that effective. I’ve gone through all the passages with people, and I just don’t think it’s a rational debate.

What I love about our Queer Liberation Series is that we get testimonies and enter into relationship with the full spectrum of human sexuality. New Day Member Michael tells us their story of opening to their feminine nature and wearing hoop earrings, big hair, and short shorts, and when we hear the reactions they have to endure, our heart goes out to another human being who is being disrespected for seeking to live into all of who they are created to be.  When they walk to the subway with their head down, not wanting to look anyone in the eye because they’re just not up to dealing with the disrespect today, we feel in our hearts our own experiences of being disrespected and discouraged from being all of who God has created us to be. And then when they tell us about a time of prayer in which they experienced God encouraging their heart and inspiring them to walk fully upright and look people in the eye, we sense the power that God fills all of us with to become all of who God is creating us to be.

Real truth comes not as disembodied facts but as lived reality a sharing of different perspectives, and embracing all of the human experience. Faith community is ground zero for making meaning in this life. This potent combination of connecting intentionally with God, with ourselves, and with one another opens our hearts and ears to meaning.

6. Faith Community

No less than the Harvard Health Publications of the Harvard Medical School asserts that, “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.”

In fact, healthy relationships have been shown to be one of the primary sources of a happy and healthy life, thus proving the ancient saying that it’s better to eat fudge brownies with a friend than to have a spinach and kale smoothie by yourself. But what’s really great is to have a spinach and kale smoothie with a friend or a group of friends.

Faith community brings in the multiple dimensions of being in relationship with God, with ourselves, with one another, and with the world. We pray for one another and the world.  We praise and connect deeply with God in prayer and song. And we commune with one another in conversation circles. This opportunity to get to know one another and share with each other from the heart is a sacred space in our time of worship.

Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 don’t have to agree on everything - that’s the point. They can offer different perspectives and model how wisdom emerges from the relationship. Both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 make very clear that we are created by God to be in relationship with creation, God, ourselves, and one another. The relationship with God can be the challenging part in some ways. To connect meaningfully and powerfully with the one we can’t see, hear, or touch, and yet who is the primary source of all vision, sound, and touch.

When the need to be right gets in the way of building good relationships, then maybe it's not all that right. We are created to be in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God.