Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday before Advent, 17th November 2013
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19 – Famines and Pestilences

‘Then he said unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.’ [Luke 21]

It might make sense for me to preach about this picture of the end of the world which Jesus paints for the disciples. You might think that I would go on to talk about the damage which Hurricane Haiyan has done in the Philippines, and all the other various natural disasters which suddenly seem to be happening. Is it a sign that the world is coming to an end, perhaps as a result of man’s careless use of the earth’s resources, so producing global warming?

I don’t think that I can be that definite. I think there’s a very high probability that, whatever I might try to say in relation to whether or not Jesus’ words here in St Luke’s Gospel actually do refer to disasters such as the one which has struck the Philippines, I think there’s a very high likelihood that I will turn out to be wrong. We are indeed horrified by what has happened in the Philippines, but it seems to me that Jesus’ message in relation to it is not that this is in some way evidence of the end of the world coming about, but rather that we must treat the people affected with as much compassion as we can muster, both through our governments and as individuals.

Both here in St Mary’s and at St Andrew’s today, there are collections for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and I do hope that you will give generously. There is a basket at the back as you go out.

But honestly, I don’t think there’s very much which I can usefully say about the end of the world, at least based on this passage in St Luke’s Gospel. From the earliest times, Christians thought that the end of the world was just round the corner. St Paul himself even counselled against getting married, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (7:8), if people could possibly avoid it, because everything was about to come to an end. But it didn’t, and it hasn’t. We still have a working planet, which sustains more and more people all the time, and which provides enough riches to feed everyone, even today, if only food were fairly distributed.

No, what I’m interested in this morning are indeed some of St Paul’s words, in his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, which was our first lesson. ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ If you don’t work, you don’t eat. Is St Paul saying something here which is relevant today in the context of the Welfare State? I hope you won’t groan inwardly, but I am going to say a few words about our new Cobham Area Foodbank.

The Foodbank will indeed, in some instances, feed people who are not working. As a matter of trite reality, people who are out of work may well not have enough money with which to buy food, as well as paying for rent, heat and all the other incidentals of life, on the £150-odd a week, or £600 a month, that unemployment benefit provides.

I am one of the team who have come together under the auspices of Churches Together to create a food bank in this area. Although it is now an independent charity in its own right, Cobham Area Foodbank was created by the local churches. It is affiliated to the network created by an organisation callee the Trussell Trust, which is a Christian foundation in Salisbury, which has been setting up food banks for the last 15 years.

In the last three years, there has been a vast increase in the number of food banks which are operating. There are over 400 food banks in the UK today. In the year from April 2012, 370,000 people in the UK came to food banks for food, which was 170% increase on the previous year.

Since then, since April this year so far, 355,000 people have come to food banks, including 40-odd thousand who have been fed in the prosperous south-east. In other words, the numbers needing to turn to a food bank have doubled again. We don’t expect that Cobham is going to be any different. The Oasis Childcare Trust is already, among its other good works, providing a hot meal once a week for fifteen families, and they tell us that in fact they could do this for double that number if they had the resources.

In the area behind the fire station in Cobham there is very high unemployment among the 18-30 year olds. I recall that the Envisage project found levels of unemployment around 25%. In our area there is a huge gap between those who are well-off, who are on the whole very well-off, and those who are not, who are in some cases destitute. We are in the Borough of Elmbridge, which, on some criteria, is supposed to be the second richest borough in the country, after Kensington and Chelsea.

Cobham Area Foodbank will be the third food bank in the Borough of Elmbridge, when it opens on 13th December. Instead of relying on St Paul’s rather fierce statement to the Thessalonians – which I think was really aimed at those in the church community, perhaps in particular the ministry team – I would prefer that we looked for our Bible text in relation to people who have to use the Foodbank in the sentences which precede the offertory in the Communion service: ‘Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him: how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (From the first letter of John, chapter 3.)

The fact is that there are needy people, even here in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, for whom there is now often a choice between paying the rent and having something to eat. The Foodbank network has established that, in Britain today, there are 13m people who are living below the official poverty line. The reasons why people have used a food bank – which are known, because everyone who gets food from a food bank has to provide some information – included the following:

Delay in paying benefits – 30% of the people;
Low income – by itself, just not earning enough to be able to afford to live – nearly 20%;
Changes in the benefit system – 11.5%;
Getting into debt – 9%;
Unemployment is actually only 5.5%.
Being homeless – just under 5%;
Being refused a crisis loan – 3.5%;
Domestic violence – 2.7%.
Sickness – 2.2%. How come somebody who is ill does not have enough to eat?
Delayed wages; wages paid late – just under 1%.

Note how low the figure is for unemployment. Even if we accepted what St Paul said, in fact there are very few people coming to the food banks and asking for food, because they are unemployed.

The system is tough. The food bank system set up by the Trussell Trust, which we will operate, is designed to provide emergency relief only, for three days at a time. The food provided will be non-perishables, effectively the sort of thing which we give at Harvest Festival time. In Cobham we are very fortunate in that Sainsbury’s Local on the High Street have agreed to provide bread, which will be freely available to the clients of the Foodbank.

But basically the system is designed to provide only three food parcels to last three days at a time in any period of six months. It is not designed to provide long-term sustenance, because the Welfare State is supposed to provide a safety net. We will know whether that is still true once we start operations in the middle of December.

However, I can tell you that, here at St Mary’s, you have been the most pro-active of all the congregations in Churches Together locally, because you have already started to collect food, and indeed Arnie Gabbott, who is your representative on the Foodbank organising team, has provided, at the back by the font, the prototype of a very smart green bin, which will be in all the churches soon, for people to put their food contributions in.

From this week, food will be collected each week by the Foodbank van and taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of Leatherhead: please do keep on putting food in the church bin here.

People must obtain a voucher in order to get food for the Foodbank. They can’t just turn up and demand food. Vouchers will be available from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, from Oasis Childcare, from the Cobham Children’s Centre, from the schools in the area, from the doctors’ surgeries, from all the ministers in the churches and from the social services and housing benefit offices – and, we hope, from the Jobcentre.

The Foodbank will open initially once a week, on Fridays, at Friday lunchtime, and we aim to extend to a second day of opening, probably on a Monday, once everything is working. The recent meeting which we had for volunteers who want to work in the Foodbank brought in over 50 people, and there has been wonderful generosity shown in giving money for the launch and sustaining of the Foodbank operation. So I am confident that we will be able to provide an effective service.

But it will need continuing support. As well as giving out food, there will be members of the team at the distribution centre – which will be at the Methodist Church in Cedar Rd – who will be trained to listen to the clients carefully and sympathetically, and then to provide ‘signposts’ to possible ways to make their situation better. And last, in the Foodbank there will always be somebody who will be willing to pray with a client who felt that they needed to bring their situation to God in prayer.

I know when you read the newspaper today, you very often read that if people are poor, it is because they are in some way feckless. But I have to say that, the nearer we get to the sharp end, trying to alleviate poverty on our doorstep, the less I believe in that. The churches nationally have done research into the causes of poverty today, and found that less than 2% of people are out of work for more than a year. It is natural for people to want to work, and they do. The problem is that there are too many jobs which pay the minimum wage, or possibly even less – which is the situation with so-called zero-hours contracts, where somebody is contracted to work for a particular employer – can’t work for anybody else – but that employer does not commit to give him a set number of hours of work – and they are paid by the hour. So they could be unable to claim benefit (because they are employed), but not earning any money.

The people of the Philippines, and the poor people of Cobham, both need your prayers – and your gifts. Please be generous.

Advertisements