Trusting God to End Poverty 6/17/12

James 1: 22-25 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

June 17, 2012

Trusting God to End Poverty  

When I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian in my teen and college years, I was attracted by this odd little book of James. Luther hated the book and thought it should be thrown out of the Bible, for exactly the reason that I liked it. James says “Faith without works is dead.” The Protestant reformers were all about faith – faith in God, faith in Jesus, faith was all that mattered to them.

Faith alone led to salvation. God is the only one who gives you faith. There’s nothing you can do to save yourself. Only God saves you through your faith in God.

This proscription is still pretty basic to Protestant theology. Methodists believe and preach this doctrine of faith above works, but other denominations tend to sniff at us, because we Methodists do emphasize that faith in God leads us to do what God needs done in the world.

We like James a little more than Luther. Even while we acknowledge the primacy of faith, we emphasize how our faith gets lived out in the world. We practice our faith through the alleviation of poverty, work for social justie and love of all our sisters and brothers.

When I see a hurch which is only about converting people to faith in Jesus Christ, and not about working to create a better world, it’s hard for me to respect them as completely faithful, as completely Christian. When missionaries go to other countries, I do not think the most important thing they can do is convert people to the Christian faith.

All of that being said, I certainly do not put my faith and hope in the actions of the church or churchgoers or missionaries or human merely beings to solve the problems of poverty. If I thought the alleviation of poverty depended on me, on us, on all of us good-hearted fathful people, I think I would fall into despair.

No, my faith is in the Living God; my hope lies in the One who created this beautiful world and Who consistently fills this world with abundant life. My faith is in the Spirit who forgives my incompetence and renews my commitment to a world made whole. My hope is in a higher power which indeed moves our world toward the morning, a new day in which all God’s creatures will treat each other with fairness and kindness, in which no one will be allowed to hoard more than their fair share of the resources of the world, in which we will treat God’s rivers and air with the reverence and respect they deserve.

I would not have said ti this way back when I first read the book of James. Back then, I felt like James was sticking it to my own hypocritical church and challenging them to live out their faith in ways that would actually save the world, feed the world, enrich the world.

Today, I have come to agree more with Luther and the Protestants, recognizing that all of humanity suffers from the selfishness and self-centeredness of my own little home church and therefore needs the grace and renewing love of God to set us right. Faith in that God of grace will lead us home. I even dare to hope that faith in that God of grace will end poverty – on earth as it is in heaven.

Does that sound strange? Trust in God to end poverty. That phrase that I used for my sermon title still sounds a little to me like abdicating responsibility for the intractable problems of poverty. How will God end poverty if not through the working hands of God’s creatures?

But here’s an example related to Fathers’ Day of how we get in trouble when we don’t trust God to end poverty. You’ve heard of the word “paternalism” that comes from the word for father. Paternalism happens when we act like we are the all-knowing father for someone else. We act like we have all the answers in somebody else’s community and instead of facilitating solutions to problems, we can end up creating dependence or hopelessness.

When we trust God’s greater wisdom, we work with the poor rather than taking over from them. When we trust God’s greater wisdom, we do not act as saviors, we humbly let God show the way to be useful, rather than congratulating ourselves for doing everything we want to do. When we trust God’s greater wisdom, we think long term and we think about communities rather than concentrating on short term and individuals.

So James is right. Faith without doing something is not worth much. But Luther was right too. Trusting God is of primary importance. Trusting God to end poverty helps us as well as poor people.  This is God’s good news.  Amen.

452 My Faith Looks Up to Thee