During my early years as a child in a fundamentalist Baptist church the principle for Christian living that was most impressed upon me was to be separate from the world. To be saved meant to believe in Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior so that one day upon the return of Jesus I would be raptured or rescued from this evil earth and join Jesus and other believers like me in heaven. Our church’s theme song was “This World is Not My Home, I’m Just a Passin’ Through.” My childhood church had lots of rules for how to maintain spiritual purity by staying separate from and different from the world: rules like no smoking, no dancing, no drinking, no dating Catholics, no card playing, no going to movies – not even Disney movies! Being different and separate from this world was the primary principle for living on this earth and for preparing ourselves for our true home in heaven.
Not until my college years did I first hear about how Christian faith directs us to be engaged in this world. I had a political science teacher, a man of deep and active faith, who introduced me to what I came to call the “second half of the gospel.” The first half of the gospel was about my relationship to God; the second half was about my relationship to this world. During those college years my view of the world and my role in it was turned upside down. Rather than seeking first to be separate and to escape from this world I came to understand that God calls us to help make a different world – a more just and joyous world for all God’s children. I came to understand that this earth belongs to God and that God’s intention for this world is not to one day destroy it but rather to redeem it – to renew it in all its original goodness and to transform its brokenness into health and wholeness. Rather than a message of condemnation, I came to understand the gospel as a message of transformation and hope.
Throughout history, people of faith have been called to not only be transformed by the love of God, but to help transform this world. Thousands of years ago, God’s vision of this transformed world was set forth clearly and concretely by Hebrew prophets and this vision was passed on through the Scriptures from generation to generation. One well-known Scripture was the one we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah in which God promises a new world where weeping will no longer occur since all children will thrive and live to old age, workers will receive abundant reward for their labor, living in the homes that they build and eating food from their own gardens, and former enemies will replace acts of violence with sharing food and enjoying relationships of peace.
One current example of this vision is the work of Habitat for Humanity. Part of the commitment that families make with Habitat when they are selected for a new home is that along with assuming a mortgage they will put in at least 200 hours of sweat equity – working side by side with volunteers in the actual construction work of building their new home. What a great living illustration of the words of Isaiah when he declared that “they will build houses and inhabit them…”
God’s vision proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah was well-known by the people living in the hometown of Jesus. When Jesus, early in his ministry, visited his hometown and was invited to speak during worship, he was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus used this important moment to remind his audience of the call of God to make a different world. The people heard Jesus lift up God’s vision through Isaiah’s familiar words of good news for the poor, healing of the brokenhearted, liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
What the people did not expect was that after this reading Jesus announced to the congregation that “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” With these words, Jesus claimed the power of God’s Spirit to make this age-old vision a reality: that Jesus, by his life example and life work, would indeed usher in a different world. It was this prophetic vision, God’s vision, that would guide Jesus’ life and would inspire those who followed him.
Today we are called to be stewards of this same vision – to keep alive, to live out and to pass on God’s vision through our life together as the body of Christ in the world today. As a United Methodist church we find guidance to accomplish this through the United Methodist Social Principles.
As made clear in the written introduction to these Principles: “we cannot engage in ministry and mission without also engaging society and its ills collectively.” In other words, to be good stewards of God’s vision, to work for justice and to pursue peace in ways that make a different world is something that we cannot do on our own. We need one another and we need partners beyond our church walls in order to transform the economic, political and social realities which shape all of our lives and which impact the future of our shared home we call “earth.”
I learned the importance of working in partnership for social justice in one of the first churches I served as a pastor. Our church was located just a couple miles south of downtown Minneapolis and our surrounding urban neighborhood was being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of people seeking affordable housing as a result of block after block of downtown housing being torn down to make space for new sports complexes and other large civic buildings and expensive high-rise condominiums. While our small community-minded congregation did its best to provide meals and clothing for the growing homeless population, we discovered that the problem was greater than all our good charitable efforts could fix. Only when we joined in partnership with other faith communities and social justice organizations were we empowered to impact policies and secure funding for affordable housing for individuals and families new to our community.
The original Methodist Social Creed written in 1908 was also a response to a time of rapid change as millions of people migrated from rural areas to find work in the growing cities across America. Wages were low for most laborers and working conditions were often not only dismal but dangerous.
It was in response to the impact on families of these oppressive working conditions that the Methodist Social Creed was approved as an eleven point call to action. The Creed included social principles such as equal rights and justice for all and endorsed policy reforms such as protection for workers and support for worker unions; abolition of child labor; and adequate wages. By boldly promoting the Social Creed through collective social action, Methodist churches joined with community partners to advance into the 20th century God’s vision as proclaimed 3,000 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah – the vision of a society where workers reap the rewards of their labor and children live long and healthy lives.
Addressing systemic poverty continued to be a main focus in the document called “Social Principles” printed in the first United Methodist Book of Discipline in 1968. We know that poverty continues today to divide our world and disrupt family life across our own country. Despite positive economic figures such as rising employment rates and the stock market, four out of ten American adults in a recent survey said they couldn’t scrape together $400 to cover an unexpected expense. Almost one of every four adults said they skipped some form of medical care this past year because they couldn’t afford it. The Millennials – those born between 1981 and 1996- are approaching midlife lagging behind financially – with less money and less property than all generations since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
But, we know also that poverty is not the only serious challenge facing our world today. (PUT SLIDE ON SCREEN)
When we look at the overhead screen we see that the Social Principles cover over 75 social issues connected to how we relate to one another and to this earth. (PAUSE)
Don’t worry, I am not going to reflect this morning on all of these topics and the questions that they might evoke! (REMOVE SLIDE FROM SCREEN)
But it is important that we reflect on this one question: what difference do the Social Principles actually make? From its founding the Methodist church has been inspired and guided by the vision and values embodied in these Principles. This is true of our own church in the way we have lived out our mission for well over 150 years. Taking a public stand for social justice is a core value of our congregation and a significant part of our identity and our work in the greater St. Cloud region.
For example our church was a founding member of ISAIAH’s Great Interfaith Partnership and has provided key leadership through the past twenty years during which time we have worked collectively for affordable housing, improved public education and public transportation, accessible and affordable health care, and other policies that help make this a better community for all.
Other faith communities and organizations in this region and beyond continue to look to us, to our church, to be a leader for social justice. And so they should. As Pastor Leah stated two Sundays ago in her sermon on the Marks of a Methodist, “And perhaps that is the biggest mark of a Methodist – that we are active in living our faith. We believe in loving God and neighbor not just in speech or in politeness, but by partnering together to change the world.”
And so it was exciting this past Thursday evening when new partners joined together here at our church to plan the first annual Community Pride and Peace Walk that will be held in September. Members of our Social Justice Team, our Trauma-Responsive Church Team and our church staff welcomed leaders of other faith communities and of community organizations such as Anna Marie’s Alliance and the Sexual Assault Center. Together we shared a vision, God’s vision, of inclusion and hope and peace for our greater St. Cloud region. The Walk will begin at the St. Cloud public library, proceed to Lake George and then we will return to the library to lend our support to a public event on “Dismantling Hatred and Hate Crimes” sponsored by the regional Human Rights Commission.
This is just one example of how our church continues its enduring heritage of being a leader for peace and justice in this community. And now we face a crossroads, a crucial time in our history as a local church when together with other like-minded Methodist congregations we need to take a stand for social justice within our own global United Methodist denomination along with our on-going work for justice with our partners here in this community.
Just as Methodists stood together at the beginning of the 20th century against the rising wave of oppression against working families and the exploitation of the earth’s resources for the wealth of the few, so now in this 21st century we must again stand together and join our voices against any forces which oppress God’s people or threaten God’s creation. Called and empowered by the same Spirit which led Jesus, we can and must make a different world as we join in partnership with all who share God’s powerful vision of hope and transformation and who commit to work together to put love first and make God’s vision a reality. Amen!