October 9, 2022

Housing - A Privilege or A Right?

Habitat Sunday  

 

Deuteronomy 15:1-9; Proverbs 14:31; Matthew 25:31-40

 

Here is a picture of the first home I ever lived in, 4200 New York Avenue in Fair Oaks, California, near Sacramento. I was born in 1962 and lived in that home for the first five years or so of my life. I still think of that place as “home,” -a place of belonging among the many homes I have lived in. My parents, Olen and Rosamond, provided a roof over my head, a room to sleep and play in, three meals a day, love, and security for me during that time. I can still close my eyes and remember every room, house layout, and the wonderful big backyard and barn, where we had a Mustang horse and two Shetland ponies. It wasn’t perfect. We weren’t the Cleaver family from Leave it To Beaver, but it was a home that enabled me to feel secure and from where I could launch.

 

So as we begin today’s sermon, I have a couple of questions for you to ponder while you sit in the pews.

  1. Where was the first place you called “home?” Did it offer the same things: a roof over your head, food, love, and security?
  2. Have you ever been without a place to call home or unhoused? If so, what was that like? If not, can you imagine what that is like?

 

Home is essential for us all to have- a place of belonging, a place of relationship, a place from which to launch. Yet the sad reality is that many people never experience such a place. Does everyone have the right to have a place called home in America, or is it an earned privilege?

 

That is the question I hope to answer in today’s sermon. We’ll look at some scripture passages, some ingrained beliefs in America, and statistics in Oregon to try to answer that very question.

 

I’ll begin with these three passages of scripture. First, let us focus on the passage from Deuteronomy. To give some background, remember that the Hebrew people had experienced a significant shift- from being enslaved in Egypt for many generations; to wandering in the wilderness and depending upon Moses and God to help them; to freedom. Now they could own land, make wealth, and shape their society with all of the complications and messiness that brings.

 

One of God’s first instructions was to guard against greed, power, and possession. God tells them in this passage that all debts must be canceled every seventh year. Theologian Kara K. Root writes, “God recognizes how insidious the human mindset is, how sin creeps in and entices us to build ourselves up at the expense of others, to guard and protect our perceived worth and ignore others’ need. So, a clean slate ought to prevent the consolidation of power and the disempowering and dehumanizing of others.” This command from God, also known as the Year of Jubilee, helped people see each other as connected, being able to help one another and focus on other people’s needs at least once every seven years.

 

You will also notice that God has a built-in clause to guide humanity in those six years between Jubilees. Verses seven and eight encourage the Hebrews not to be tight-fisted or hard-hearted toward those in need but rather to have open hands lending enough to help meet their needs. Then verse 9 says, “Be careful not to entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh ear, the year of pardon is near,’ and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing;” God made human beings and knows us so well. We look for ways to get around being kind and giving. “I’ll just do all the good stuff for those in need in that year of Jubilee and neglect them the rest of the time.” God says, “Don’t be so mean.” So in the early work of setting up the society for the people of God, God gives a clear message to consider and help those in need. That message applies to the people of God today as well.

 

Now to a well-cherished belief in our nation that is antithetical to this passage in Deuteronomy. I hear this all the time, and when I do, I think people believe they are quoting scripture to me when they say, “God helps those who help themselves.” It is a statement of self-reliance and self-initiative and suggests that those who aren’t actively doing something to better their lives are shunned by our Maker and can also be shunned by society. You may think it comes from scripture, yet it does not. Nothing in scripture says anything precisely like this saying. Perhaps you think it originated in America, the land of the “self-made millionaires,” but you would be wrong. The phrase actually came to be in Ancient Greece. The saying was, “The gods help those who help themselves.” Apparently, this saying was later attributed to Benjamin Franklin. The suggestion here is that, one, God will help industrious people and shun those who are not, and two, God will take care of other people’s needs, and we don’t have to. That attitude, a well-cherished, tight-fisted, hard-hearted one in our American culture, stands in stark contrast to this passage in Deuteronomy, as it does to the next from Proverbs.

 

Proverbs is an interesting book, full of phrases on wisdom, how to live, how to treat others, and how to view God. This particular verse is straight and to the point. “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor God.” To oppress someone is to…” subjugate them by unjust use of force, to weigh heavily upon them.” (American Heritage Dictionary)  When we use our power to oppress another, we insult God. Why is this? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God made each human in God’s image and we don’t see that, we insult the image of God in others. Secondly, we insult God by neglecting the poor because it contradicts what God has called us to, as in the passage in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in scripture.

 

The final passage for consideration is from the Gospel of Matthew, a well-known scripture since we call ourselves a Matthew 25 church and use it in our church literature, and I have preached upon it several times. You may think of this passage as a well-worn path- You know exactly what it looks like and where it goes because you’ve walked it so many times. However, even well-worn paths have new discoveries growing along the side every day.

 

This passage reminds us that a Christian’s duty is to provide compassionate care for those in need, and when we do so, we meet Christ face to face. Here are a couple of interesting things to note as we look at this passage again:

  1. Both the sheep and goats are just living out their lives and doing what they do. Both are surprised that they have either helped or neglected Christ in their daily activities. The sheep then were acting out in compassion without thought of any potential reward.
  2. In the first-century economy, gifts and debt were primary drivers of ordering relationships, figuring out who was on top and who was on the bottom. It was foolish in such a society to give any attention or goods to those on the bottom of the pyramid, for they could not repay or elevate one’s status. Jesus’ sheep, however, have been busy ignoring this social code. They are focused on identifying with and caring for the most vulnerable. The relationships the sheep pursue locate them right in the midst of the Messiah. The sheep follow their Sovereign, whose rule and kindom welcome those with no status and seek to serve others.

 

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have an excuse to avoid the least of these.” We who follow Jesus, who have experienced him, who have seen him in the faces of those in need, have seen a sovereign who is unlike the rulers of this world. We follow a monarch who can bring real peace, visit those in need, and hears the cries of the oppressed. In this coming kindom, no one is hungry; no one lacks a home. No one is naked, sick, or alone. We are ambassadors of this kindom. As we serve others in need, we profess the invasion of God’s glorious coming empire here on earth, working with God to make it “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

 

Based on my interpretations of these passages, I believe the answer is that housing is a right, not a privilege. Building homes for the unhoused is a part of that kindom work, part of what we sheep are called to do without expectation of reward.

 

Let me say there is a LOT of kindom work to do in the housing area for our home state. Here are some statistics to ponder:

  • Oregon has approximately 14,700 unhoused people, primarily chronically unhoused persons, war veterans, unaccompanied minors, and families.
  • In Oregon public schools, an average of almost 24,000 children experience some form of homelessness, either living in totally unsheltered spaces, in shelters, in motels, or couch surfing with other families.
  • Many websites list why people become homeless, such as lack of affordable housing, unemployment or losing employment, mental illness, systemic poverty, substance abuse, family violence, physical health issues, and one we can fully understand thanks to the Almeda fire - natural disaster.
  • Of all the available places to live in Oregon, we have a staggering 1.3% vacancy rate. Those listed in the numbers before had little to no place to find a home because there was nothing available.

 

With all of these statistics in mind, the problem of homelessness has become the number one issue in the gubernatorial race. I encourage you to read the statements made by each candidate on addressing the lack of affordable homes and the crisis of people living in tent villages or on the streets. I think the two candidates have solid, compassionate ideas on helping the least of these. Yet government cannot address this issue alone.

 

Wonderful organizations like Habitat for Humanity Rogue Valley are building glimpses of God’s kindom, one nail gun, one board, and one piece of sheetrock at a time through volunteers like the many from our congregation who participate in those building efforts and through financial contributions. Our church gives $1,500 to Habitat Rogue Valley through our annual budget. I hope you can increase that amount through giving through our noisy offering.

 

Thankfully, Habitat Rogue Valley can address the lack of affordable housing in Ashland, as they will be building eight homes in the city for the first time since 2008 due to zoning restrictions. I know Denise worked hard with the city manager and others to find some creative solutions and enable us to see glimpses of God’s coming kindom. Home construction should begin soon, and that is exciting!

 

Maryann Dennis, Executive Director of the Housing Fellowship in Iowa City, Iowa, writes, “Shelter in decent, affordable housing is not a luxury. It is a necessity upon which access to other necessities and the development of healthy, productive families and communities most often depend. Nothing is more essential to the welfare of humanity. Nothing is tied more directly to the recognition of dignity, worth, and values of persons.”

 

As the video encouraged us, we are to be part of the change we want to see- a world that looks more on earth as it is in heaven, where everyone has the right to a home so that they too can feel a place of belonging, a place of relationship, a place from which to launch. Until everyone experiences that right, we who follow Christ, who count ourselves among the sheep, have work to do. Alleluia. Amen.

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