“How Will You Get There?”

This is the message that I gave for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (20 February 2005) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.


It has been said that the average American moves three times in their life. For my two brothers, sister, and myself, this is an interesting statistic since we made that many moves by the time we were each three years old. As the children of a career Air Force officer, it was not uncommon for us to move each year (a policy that the Air Force and other armed services has changed in the past few years).

Moving a family of four according to Air Force rules was a task that fell to my mother. Essentially all my father did was come home, tell us we had been transferred to another air base and when he had to be on duty at that base. It was up to Mom to pack up the stuff in the house, get the movers over, take the kids and occasional dog to the new location, find the house we were assigned (when we lived in on-base housing), meet the movers and unpack the stuff.

Every time I read the Old Testament reading for today, I am reminded of this process. Abram is told by God to pack up everything and head east to the Promised Land. To do so was not all that difficult because his was a nomadic lifestyle anyway and he and his family could easily make the move. The only problem they had is that they had no knowledge of what would be there when they did in fact arrive; how, would they know when they had reached the Promised Land?

For my family, the move to a new location was a matter of duty. The Air Force said that we had to be there, so wherever it was, we went there. We knew that we would have a house to live in when we got to our new home. Abram’s move was a matter of faith; he, Abram, believed in God and God said move eastward to a new location, so he moved. Since they took their home with them, having a place to stay was not a problem.

But in today’s society, having a home to live in is not an easy task. Homeownership has long been thought to be a right in our society; but not everyone who works can afford a place to live. There is an interesting statistic these days that says that it takes 144 hours of work at the minimum wage in order to find any sort of affordable housing.  (Page 228 of God’s Politics (Jim Wallis) – he cites "Out of Reach 2003: America’s Housing Wage Climbs," National Low Income Housing Coalition, September 2003, http://www.nlihc.org/oor2003/data.php?getmsa=on&msa%B%D=denver&state%B%D=CO)  If you do the math, you can figure out that there are 168 hours in a week.

For New York, someone earning $6.00 per hour, can afford monthly rent of no more than $312. This means that this individual must work 121 hours per week in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent. The housing wage, the amount a full-time worker (40 hours per week) must earn earn in order to afford a two-bedroom unit at the Fair Market rent is $18.18 per hour.

We have just completed a political campaign unlike no other in the history of this country. One of the points/issues that people used in deciding how they would vote was something called "moral values." But every time this was discussed, it was described in terms of sexuality and abortion. But the primary moral value cited in the Bible is the care of the poor and the oppressed; and little was done or said during this last campaign in that regard.

I suppose that it is because many people feel that if one works hard and full-time, you need not be poor. But for many working families and many low-income breadwinners, it is necessary to hold down multiple jobs just to survive. The truth is that the safety net that is supposed to protect people has been taken down over the past few years. The number of hungry without food stamps is on the rise; the number of poor and low-income children without health insurance is rising; the disparity between the schools where the parents have a high income and the parents have a low income is constantly increasing. Yet, the treatment of the poor is not considered important enough for a sustained political debate.

In a political debate, where the Bible is used by one side to justify its claim of moral values, there were over eighty references to the poor in the Bible. There is the reference of Jesus rebuking Peter when Peter complained about the extravagant use of oil by the un-named woman in Matthew 26.

And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor."

But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always but Me you do not have always. (Matthew 26: 6 – 11)

It would be nice to say that we are a society that cares for the poor, the needy, the oppressed but the facts suggest otherwise. It would be nice if we could say that we no longer believe that poverty is a result of sin but we cannot, even if that were the case. No matter that we somehow still believe that working hard will get us into heaven, even when we are told that it is only by our faith that such entrance is granted. In a world where we argue for free will, we still seem stuck in a Calvinist concept that sin and salvation are predetermined.

But if sin and salvation are predetermined, then professing one’s belief in Christ, trusting in one’s faith is absolutely meaningless. Because if sin and salvation are predetermined, it does not matter what we do for we are either saved or doomed. But we accept as the basis of faith that Christ died for us and that we can come to Christ, openly accepting Him as our Lord and Savior. It is not who we are on this earth that brings us heaven and salvation; it is what we believe.

And if what we believe is that anyone can get to heaven through the profession of faith, then we must help them overcome that which blocks them from doing so. We are Methodists because we believe 1) that all can be saved, 2) all can know that they are saved, and 3) persons and nations can be saved from the power of sin. In a world that placed a premium on societal standing as the key to heaven, John Wesley refuted and contested that thought.

We have heard this morning about Habitat for Humanity. I became aware of this organization through a book that I had to read for one of my lay speaker courses. In this book I came to know Clarence Jordan, one of God’s "misfits". Just as John Wesley had done some two hundred and fifty years ago, Clarence Jordan saw that there was a difference between the nature of the Gospel as written in the Bible and what people said and believed. Rather than simply accept society’s notion of the Gospel, he chose to let Jesus guide and direct him through the Holy Spirit.

And one day Millard Fuller came into Clarence Jordan’s life; or more to the point Clarence Jordan came into Millard Fuller’s life. Taking the advice of Jordan (that what the poor need is not charity but capital and not caseworkers but coworkers and that the rich need an honorable way of divesting themselves of their overabundance), Fuller created Habitat for Humanity.

Jesus chastised His disciples when they ignored the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed. Wesley once wrote that it was impossible for the poor to concentrate on salvation if they were hungry or cold. So too must we look at what we do and how we express our faith. For it is not what we do that determines our faith but rather how we express our faith that shows others what we believe.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus one night, asking how he can gain the kingdom of God. And Jesus says that he, Nicodemus must be born again. But Nicodemus confuses the physical act of birth with the spiritual act of accepting the Holy Spirit. Locked into an old style of thinking, Nicodemus cannot see that Jesus is calling for a new life and a new way of thinking. In a world that demands a reliance on the here and now, Jesus speaks of something beyond the physical.

It is by faith that we are saved; it is by faith that we are literally able to move mountains. Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to leave his ancestral home and move eastward to the Promised Land? Was it not faith and faith alone that allowed Abram to become Abraham and the father of many nations? Paul makes it very clear that those who hold to the law, that is to say, to the here and now, are not going to be saved. What Paul told the Romans, what Paul writes to us today is that it is our faith and the expression of that faith that will gain us our salvation. So, if we give something to charity feeling that this act of kindness on our part will get us into heaven, then we are missing the point.

But does that mean that we should not give to charity? Should we not share with others what God has blessed us with? Too often, we engage in charity without engaging in community. If we are to be servants of the Lord, then we are to be a part of the community in which we live. If we are to bring into focus that which is in our hearts, then we must go out into the community.

It has been said that John Wesley opposed the rich and the powerful. I know that he wasn’t happy about the power structure of the church that seemed more interested in self-preservation than spreading the Gospel but I am not sure that he necessarily opposed the rich. I do know that while he encouraged everyone to give all that they could, he also encouraged everyone to save all that they could and, more to the point, earn all they could. He just wanted everyone to make sure that what they earned they earned fairly and not at the expense of others.

John Wesley wanted to make sure that everyone understood that poverty was not a condition of sin. It is unfortunate that this lesson has still not been learned. Too many people today still feel that wealth is a sign of God’s grace and poverty a sin of God’s damnation. For such, charity is a non-engaging task, designed to sooth their own consciousness. But should we not consider that, as I think Wesley did, put our faith into action.

Some have said that Lent is about giving up something for forty days; I like what Gordon Bienvenue at Van Cortlandtville Community Church wrote in the church newsletter. We shouldn’t give something up, we should add something one. We should begin to be a community, offering ourselves beyond the walls of our own existence. We can better express our faith when we give of ourselves in service to others.

It is not often that I use the Psalter reading in my sermons but this is an exception. I was contemplating a move away from the hills of Kentucky and as I was coming back and driving along the plains of central Kentucky, I could see the Appalachian Mountains in front of me. Literally, I could lift up my eyes and see from where my help would come. The decision to stay in Kentucky then came because I saw those hills and knew that I had been called to that part of the country. Shortly after that came an opportunity to share and express my faith.

The same is true for those of us gathered here today. We have been given a chance to express our faith; to say to others that theirs is not a life of desolation and devoid of hope and joy. By our act of giving, we share with others in our lives and in our journey.

The season of Lent is a journey. It is a journey that we take as reluctant observers, watching Jesus enter Jerusalem and then climb Cavalry. As we watch Jesus complete His journey, we see our journey began. But too often is it a journey not expressed to others. Like Abram, it is a journey of faith. It is a journey that should end at the cross. Today, you are asked how you will get there? How will you express your faith so that others know where your heart lies?

1 thought on ““How Will You Get There?”

  1. Pingback: Election year economic issue questions | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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