On this 19th Sunday after Pentecost, I am once again at Dover United Methodist Church in Dover Plains, NY (Location of church). The service starts at 11. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 16: 2 – 15, Philippians 1: 21 -30, Matthew 20: 1 – 16.
This may sound like a political sermon but it is not. For the record, I started thinking about this sermon and preparing the opening paragraphs before I learned that next Sunday pastors from twenty states are going to give politically based sermons as part of a protest to challenge an Internal Revenue code restriction that limits the political activities of charitable organizations (which includes churches). Engaging in political activities can cause such organizations to lose their tax-exempt status. (See Pastors to Protest IRS Rules on Political Advocacy). Interestingly enough, the only time that I am aware that the IRS actually prosecuted, or attempting to prosecute, a pastor for such actions involved a liberal pastor whereas the group organizing this action is a conservative organization. But while I will use politically based words and I will call for action, the action I will call for stems from what I feel are our duties as Christians.
But, to understand who we are and what we are, we have to consider some very political words, words that have been a part of this country’s vocabulary from its very birth.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
With these words, Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence and not only did he express the ideas that formed this country, he also expressed the dominant views of society; that we have the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness.
But what qualifies as life and what is our right to life? What do we actually need to live on this planet? Well, first we need air. Without air, or rather oxygen, life is not sustainable. So, we need to be concerned when the quality of the air that we breathe is compromised. We need water to drink and if our water supplies are compromised or disappear, our life becomes rather complicated. This is one of the major problems in the third world and anywhere there is a disaster which disrupts the water supply of a community. Obtaining fresh, drinkable water has long been one of man’s basic instincts; in Exodus 17, we read of the Israelites’ complaining to Moses about the lack of fresh water to drink.
Directed by God, the whole company of Israel moved on by stages from the Wilderness of Sin. They set camp at Rephidim. And there wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”
But the people were thirsty for water there. They complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?” (Exodus 17: 1 – 3)
Yet, while the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink will determine the quality of the life we live, we seem to ignore the environment and the consequences of our actions to it.
And life requires food. As we read in the Old Testament lesson for this morning, the people grumbled because of the lack of food. And in response to the grumbling and complaining of the people, God provides them with enough meat and bread to eat for each day. But he also tells them that, on the sixth day, they are to gather enough for two days. Without saying so in this particular passage, God is preparing the people of Israel (and us) for the coming of the Ten Commandments in which He will tell us to “honor the Sabbath and keep it Holy.”
Now, in the parts of Chapter 16 that we did not read, we find that there were those who gathered up more than they could eat and they quickly found that the extra that they had stored away quickly went bad. And those who failed to gather enough on the sixth day found that there was nothing for them on the seventh.
This passage has meaning for us in many ways. But I think that we, who proclaim that we live in a land of plenty, have to realize that many of those who live in this same land go hungry each day. And the report from the food banks that operate in Newburgh, including the one in my own church, is that the number of individuals and families applying for food assistance is growing each week.
In light of what has transpired in the financial markets this past week, perhaps we should contemplate what God said to those Israelites wandering in the desert about being greedy. Take what you need to live but don’t take anymore than you need, for the extra will go bad. Yes, there will be days when you need to have a little extra and you have to plan for those days but what are we to say when some have much and there are many who have nothing?
I will also add what John Wesley said about wages and salary, “Earn what you can but don’t do it on the backs of others; save all you can, and give all you can.” Wesley had no problems with people earning wages (he was one of the highest paid individuals in England) but he had problems with those who would not share in their wealth. Wesley was routinely audited by the 18th century British equivalent of our IRS because they could not comprehend that he was earning all that money yet had nothing to show for it.
We live in a time of conspicuous consumption, where the only goal for many people is the accumulation of large amounts of wealth and material goods. But there are people today who are not accumulating wealth but rather living week to week on a paycheck or even day to day on what they can get from various sources.
There is clearly a divide between the rich and the rest of us in this world. At the beginning of the last century, the ten richest countries were nine times wealthier than the ten poorest ones. In 1960, the ratio increased to thirty to one. As we started this century, average income per person in the twenty richest nations was almost $28,000 per person, in the poorest nations this average income was just over $200. This is a ratio of 140 to 1.
These are the figures for the world; the disparity between poor and rich in this country is much the same. The ratio of incomes between the top and bottom one-fifth of the population is eleven to one in the United States. Every decision made in this country for the past six years has been in favor of the rich at the expense of the middle and lower classes. (“Our Endangered Values”)
Yet the church remains remarkably silent on this issue. If the church speaks out today, it is to encourage people to seek riches through God or it is to condemn people who do not believe as they do. . The pastors that will take part in the protest next Sunday will not be preaching against poverty, war, or the ills that trouble mankind today. Rather, they will be preaching from a Gospel that matches none of the words in the Bible but fits their way of thinking that Heaven is a place for a select few, a select few that they themselves, not God, have chosen. While they may speak of establishing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, they merely want to put their own personal kingdom in place and rule over it like the dictators of Rome ruled over Israel at the time of Christ. They would establish a church where the rich and powerful are awarded the best seats and the poor and disenfranchised are turned away at the door.
While they may not preach the prosperity gospel of many of today’s television pastors, the gospel of the right only seeks to glorify wealth and power where care for the weak and needy should be paramount. While I am thankful that there are many churches that do not fit the model of these “modern” churches, the churches that people hold up as successful are those with operating budgets that come close to those of many small countries and whose pastors earn salaries in the millions of dollars. How is it that a pastor can have a million dollar salary, several homes, a private jet and the other accouterments of wealth when Jesus told his disciples to travel simply? Is it any wonder that people see Christianity in less than a favorable light?
What would Wesley say today, with the divisions between economic status so great and so visible? I once asked what he would say to a pastor who wears $2,000 suits when he himself let his hair grow long so that the money he saved could be given to the poor. But now I wonder what he might say when the CEO of a company earns several million dollars in bonuses while their company was going into bankruptcy or what would he say to those people who own four or five houses when there are people who cannot even afford the simplest of shelter?
Some years ago I would have said that the divide was between the poor and the rest of us but it is quite clear that the gap is greater between the rich and everyone else. But no matter how the divide is perceived, it is there and it is getting bigger everyday. And to make matters worse, the dominant thought for the past thirty years or so is that if we give the rich their money, they will make sure that it trickles down to the rest of us. While there are those who have helped, the news of the past few weeks have shown that many have not.
It is, to me, reminiscent of the economic divide that drove John Wesley to speak out and ask if the church of his day cared at all for all of God’s children. At a time when poverty was seen as the product of a sinful life (much as it was in Jesus’ day), Wesley saw poverty as something that should be eliminated, not the consequence of failure on the part of the poor or some avoidable fate by those excluded from God’s election. He constantly investigated the causes of poverty, encouraged and applauded diligent labor, and strove to awaken in the rich and influential a sense of responsibility for the need to eliminate social evils. Wesley vigorously opposed injustice and dedicated himself to seeking an improvement in the welfare of the poor. The early Methodist movement sought to collect funds, food, clothing, fuel, medicine, and health care that would be distributed to the poor.
There is a challenge that faces the churches of this country, no matter how big or small they may be. It is the challenge of being what they say they represent and doing what Christ did in this world. I used to hear that all we were to do as Christians was go out and make disciples of all the people of the world.
For many, this is simply a call to tell others about Christ. But what are we to tell them? I have come to learn that the word disciples may not be the best word to use in this call. And I have come to know that simply telling others about Christ may not be enough. As Wesley himself often noted, what good does it do to tell people about the saving Grace of God when they are hungry, cold, sick, or in prison? What good does it do to tell them that God loves them but that their poverty is their fault?
The Gospel message today is not about the inequity of wages; it is about God’s grace given equally to all who seek it. It is a difficult passage to follow because we want to see it in terms of material gain. We work longer so we should get more. It bothers people that God’s grace is freely given and their work doesn’t count. It is not what we do or what we have done that gets us into heaven; it is the Grace of God. No matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, unless we understand that Jesus Christ is our personal Savior, then everything is folly.
Wesley learned this the hard way; until that moment that we call “Aldersgate”, he floundered in his efforts to find peace and happiness. Paul’s words to the Philippians that we read today should echo in our minds and souls. It is not what we are doing in this world that counts the most; it is what our life in Christ is that will determine our outcome.
Too often, we see the Gospel message only in terms of our own well-being. We have transformed the message into a self-help guide for the rich and powerful and how to become rich and powerful. We have transformed the entire Bible into a rule book that allows us to do anything we like, be it in our relationship to the world in which we live or with the people with whom we share this limited space. A phrase that resonated throughout my high school and college years was “if not now, when; if not me, who?” We are asked to fulfill the Gospel message; we are asked to do it today. And we have the capabilities to do so.
To be a Christian isn’t about what we need but rather what we can give. In discussing the future of Christianity, President Carter wrote
Those Christians who resist the inclination toward fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions, and words of Jesus Christ should encompass people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, and unselfish love.
It is not easy to do this. It is a natural human inclination to encapsulate ourselves in a superior fashion with people who are just like us — and to assume that we are fulfilling the mandate of our lives if we just confine our love to our own family or to people who are similar and compatible. Breaking through this barrier and reaching out to others is what personifies a Christian and what emulates the perfect example that Christ set for us. (“Our Endangered Values”)
A number of years ago I came across a story out of Atlanta, Georgia. It concerns the people of Clifton Presbyterian Church. It starts with a homeless man who started coming to Sunday morning services. A lot of times such individuals are discouraged from coming back but the people of Clifton Presbyterian made him feel welcome. Then, one day in 1979, the people of the church remembered Jesus saying to them “inasmuch as you have done this to the least of these.” So, they made plans to give this homeless individual a place to lay his head at night.
They took the pews out and brought in chairs to sit on. With the pews taken out, they could install cots. So it was that the Clifton Presbyterian Church’s Night Hospitality ministry began. This one individual now had a place to stay and a place to eat. Other homeless men began to show up. And this church, as long as they were sober and obeyed the rules, became their home.
The people of the church realized that providing a home was not enough. Many of the men who spent the night needed counseling and training. The church bought property across from the church and turned it into transitional housing. The ministry grew, so much so that the people of the church made a decision to disband the congregation and move to other congregations. But they did not abandon the ministry that they had started. It is still there in Atlanta, located in a middle class Atlanta neighborhood. Though Clifton Presbyterian died, the Clifton Sanctuary Ministry remains today.
Not every church could have accomplished this. The time and place in which one is called is never going to be the same as it is for others. At the same time that I came across the story about Clifton Presbyterian, I came across another story.
In his notes for September 6, 2006, the blogger known as Quotidian Grace writes about a workshop led by Reggie McNeal that was based on McNeal’s book, “The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church.”
During the seminar, McNeal told the story of a woman who wanted to help high school students in her neighborhood. She went to the principal of the high school and said that she wanted to volunteer to listen to any student who needed someone to talk to. The principal was thrilled and invited her to the next assembly. She rounded up four or five other women from her church to go with her. At the assembly she told the students that it was much harder to be a teenager today than when she was growing up. “Some of you don’t know one of your parents, you don’t have relatives close by; you may be having problems at home or school or with a girl friend or boyfriend.” She then gave them the phone number of her church and said to call that number if they just wanted someone to talk to. The next day the church had over 300 phone calls from those kids. (http://quotidiangrace.blogspot.com/2006/09/seeing-churchianity-in-church.html)
Again, how any particular church would respond to a similar situation is dependent on the church, the time and the place. But the point still remains that this unnamed woman sought to reach out to the people in her community.
It reminds us that there are those who have heard the words of the Gospel to bring hope to the poor, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, and to be a voice for the oppressed and those without a voice. It reminds us that in the city of Newburgh, there is a homeless shelter for men only open during the winter months, when it becomes too cold for the men to sleep outside. And while homeless men have limited access, homeless women and homeless families do not have any type of shelter. There are discussions taking place that would remedy this situation but it speaks to the issue when we would rather save large corporations than we would nameless individuals.
Unlike those pastors who feel it is their God-given duty to tell you how to believe, I can only suggest that you hear the words of the Gospel; that you hear the words of Christ calling out to you to bring the Gospel message to the world; to show others through your life, your words, your deeds and your thoughts. You are the only one who can answer the call.
Each of us, no matter which church we attend, has a stake in the well-being and care of the others with whom we share this planet. It isn’t about giving money to a charity or cause or donating time and energy, though those are always nice things to do. It is about accepting Christ as one’s personal Savior and allowing the Holy Spirit to come into one’s life and then fulfilling the Gospel message. We are reminded, as we come to the Communion Table this morning, that Christ gave His life so that we could live. The question this morning isn’t necessarily about what we need but rather what will we give because we have been given our lives.