2013 03 03 Ps 63:1-8; Luke 13:1-9
Homelessness in Calgary
The theme for today’s service is putting God first. The failure to care about anyone is the failure to care about God in whose image we are all made. If we are going to put God first in our lives, we need to be willing to help people, even those we dislike or even hate. The two great commandments are to love God with all our strength, all our mind, and all our heart; and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. My first summer internship in ministry was with St. Andrew’s-Norwood in Ville St. Laurent in 1987, just outside of Montreal. A member of staff for the federal minister responsible for immigration came to the ministerial association to ask them to do a study on the settlement of refugees and immigrants in Ville St. Laurent. My supervisor asked me if I wanted to make it part of my work for the summer, and I took on the task with the support of the Outreach Committee of the congregation. I did ground work over the summer, but did not have the final project plan ready before it was time to go back to school. The project died because the agencies I invited in as advisors tried to take it over as a source of revenue for themselves, and there was not enough money available for that to happen. I learned that charitable organizations can put their own survival ahead of the well-being of people who need help.
Fast-forward 25 years, and I am reading a book on the project to end homelessness in Calgary. I have not finished the book yet, but in the first 10 years of getting the project established, the stumbling blocks to an effective program included opposition and entanglement by charitable and social agencies who either thought they knew what was best, or saw themselves as competing for the same scarce financial resources. Another stumbling block was the resistance of government agencies and their elected ministers to cooperating in solving major social problems. The last major stumbling block was the resistance of many business and political leaders to believing there was a problem, or that the people involved deserved to be helped. They failed to see how the problem of homelessness was costing them money and quality of life in Calgary. It costs double to quadruple as much to provide homeless people with essential services like healthcare as it costs to provide them with a place to live. It becomes an issue of what is morally and financially best rather than deciding who deserves to be helped.
The people who developed a coordinated, effective plan to end homelessness were mostly business people. One of the inspirational mentors worked for the George W. Bush government. For those who know me, imagine how hard it is for me to offer that credit for good work. As we prepare to offer our prayers to God, please consider how well we do at working to see that God’s will is done on earth.
Putting God First
Friends of ours bought a new car and were surprised when the mechanic told them the engine was finished with fewer than 50,000 km. It turned out they did not know cars needed to have the oil changed every 5000 km — they had never had the oil changed. They drove their car without referring to the owner’s manual, and it cost them dearly.
Wise people for tens of thousands of years have observed actions and consequences and compiled stories and instructions for life suited to where they lived. One collection of these stories and instructions is the Bible. The material in it includes both about 1100 years of written material plus written material based on stories gathered over a few thousand years before it was written down. Some of it has no relevance to us today as it was suited to a nomadic group of shepherds living in the Middle-East whose cultural roots probably went back at least 5 to 10,000 years before they became identified as Hebrews. The story of Cain and Abel may reflect events about 6000 years ago when farmers moved in the Tigris and Euphrates delta area. Along the way, individuals had strong spiritual experiences that combined with their history to further refine their sense of identity and set of values. Between the wise observers and the spiritually-gifted people, rules evolved for living lives with the greatest probability of success. Not everything they created is helpful to us, and there are many things that were not helpful even then to many or most people. One thing that makes a huge difference in the lives of people is the choice of a center for living. The commandments about loving God first and not worshipping idols establishes that God makes the best center for our lives. This idea was repeated by Jesus in our reading from the Good News by Luke:
About that time some people came up and told him about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship, mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar. Jesus responded, “Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”
All, or most of our social problems today have their roots in the failure to put God first. In a city where there are still hundreds or thousands of homeless people, useable homes are converted into landfill to make way for various developments. The bottom line and a number of other factors contribute to contrasts like this. Our wealthy society is crippled by addictions to drugs, material wealth, shallow security, and indifference to others. The rule to love our neighbour almost sounds quaint in a society where many people do not even know their next-door neighbour. And this is not a big city or modern phenomenon. In 1973/74 I lived in a town of about 1800 people in the Peace Country. Friends told me about a coffee gathering and the topic of the friendliness of the town came up. One person immediately said that it was a very friendly town. Another commented that she had been living there for 2 years and still did not know her neighbour. The first person asked where she lived. She was the neighbour.
Careers, material goals, freedom 55, travel, and other distractions can get us so busy running on life’s treadmill that we don’t notice that either we are not really getting anywhere, or where we are going is not where we want to be.
We consider all we have is really a gift from God. Will we spend God’s money on products that cause harm to others? Will we show disrespect for the created world around us? Another line in our Creed is to live with respect in creation. If this is God’s world, and everything in it is God’s, then putting God first requires living with respect in creation. We would be reluctant to poison a watershed for hundreds of years to gain a 10 or 20 year material benefit from extracting a desired mineral. Living with respect calls for caution in dumping material into the environment without knowing what harm it can do. There is the possibility that we have already added persistent chemicals to our air and water that cancause us great long-term harm. We may even have added materials capable of damaging our ability as a species to continue to reproduce. Respecting creation includes the readiness to leave space for other species, plant and animal. Living with respect includes the willingness to learn from nature. Our religious, social, political and technological traditions and knowledge are based on thousands of years of experiential learning. The life forms with whom we share this world have millions to hundreds of millions of years of learning about living. They probably have a great deal to teach us, and are libraries in their own right containing the wisdom of God.
When we put God first, we more easily choose helpful actions that give us purpose and enrich our community and our families. Instead of falling prey to the NIMBY disease, we ask if this proposal will make lives better for other people at a reasonable cost. Instead of reactively rejecting proposals, we ask for appropriate measures to increase beneifts and reduce harm. And we say no to some proposals because they are basically bad proposals, not because they happen to be in our neighbourhood.
If we develop a sense of a loving, caring God walking beside us, it also becomes easier to say “no” to harmful temptations. There are too many stories about people who have wrecked their lives by falling to tempation.
Finally, if putting God first grounds a feeling of living in the presence of God, we can find the courage to do things we believe are worth doing, but carry risk. Maybe we see an opportunity to start a business that can make people’s lives better, but it carries a lot of risk. Maybe we recognize the need for an inititiative in our community, but are afraid of speaking out because of possible backlash from some people. Believing God is with us, and will halp us deal with whatever may happen can make the difference in undertaking something very worthwhile. .Putting God first helps us make better choices on a daily basis for building fulfilling lives. Putting God first keeps us in the presence of mind where we can more easily avoid temptations that have the potential for destroying our lives. And putting God first can give us the boost we need to make a positive difference in the world.