Sermon for Evensong on the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 19th October 2014, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

1 John 3:17 – 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?

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

I think this is a very timely passage for us to look at.

If you ‘have this world’s good’, if you are well-off … The funny thing is that, if I took a straw poll of everyone here tonight, I expect that not many of us would consider themselves to be ‘well-off’. We would immediately point to some footballer’s palace in Queen’s Drive, or a Bentley with blacked-out windows driving past, and we might well say, ‘I’m not in that league! I’m not really well-off.’

But if you think of the news stories about Ebola in Africa, and the pictures of Sierra Leone or Liberia, compared with those people, even those of us on a modest pension are really well-off.

Closer to home, just by virtue of our living in Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, we are much better-off than people who live in the slums of Glasgow, or Liverpool, or Portsmouth. Even in Cobham, as we know in the Foodbank, there are people living in great need.

There was a big demonstration yesterday organised by the trades unions, with the slogan that ‘Britain deserves a pay rise’. The bosses, it was said, had received pay rises and bonuses, even during the recession and during this time of austerity, but normal working people were on average £50 a week worse off.

For the first time in 50 years, Health Service staff such as nurses and midwives went on strike last week. The government had refused to give them a pay rise which an independent review body had awarded to them. The government’s answer was that, if they had awarded the pay rise, then fewer people could be employed.

In other words, it was better that more people had jobs which paid too little for them to live on, than that the government should find the money to pay our nurses and midwives properly for their vital work. And, at the same time, apparently the government can find the money for bombs and missiles in Iraq, and for tax cuts for the wealthy. I’d better not go into that area; you will complain that I am being political.

But clearly, there is a big gap – and a widening one – between the haves and the have-nots, both internationally, as between the western nations and the third world; say, between people in Britain and people in Sierra Leone: and nearer to home, in the towns and villages of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. ‘The rich man in his castle, and the poor man at his gate.’ [Mrs C. F. Alexander, ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’]

In this context, I think we can all acknowledge that, relatively speaking, we are well-off. We ‘have this world’s good’, in Biblical terms.

So does this passage apply to us? Remember the ‘summary of the law’, which Jesus gave. We must love God, and love our neighbour. [Deut.6:5; Lev.19:18; Luke 10:27]

If we ‘see a brother or sister in need’, we are reminded about Jesus’ great parable of compassion, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29f). The Samaritan didn’t know much about the fellow he found lying injured in the road. He was in need, in need of medical attention and in need of a place of refuge.

Just think for a minute about what would happen if we came across a scruffy bloke lying in a gutter, perhaps looking the worse for wear, who’d been in a fight. Not really our sort of person. We might even think that he’d got himself into the fight. A bit bashed-up: but nothing to do with us. Remember the people who passed by on the other side, the priest and the Levite: respectable people. They didn’t want to get involved.

But Jesus taught us in that parable that whoever is in need, however unsuitable or strange they are, they are our neighbour, and we ought to show compassion, love, to them.

The people here at St Mary’s are great supporters of the Foodbank, and I know how much food and how much money you all give. It’s much appreciated.

But, not necessarily here, of course, I do sometimes hear comments or questions about what the Foodbank does, here in Cobham. Are there really needy people here? Are they really needy, or are they just swinging the lead?

I had a chat with a couple from Effingham the other day while I was at the car wash. They wanted to know how the Foodbank worked. I explained that it provides food for people who are hungry, but who don’t have enough money to buy food. I explained that they get a food voucher from an agency which can assess their needs objectively, such as the Jobcentre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Housing Benefit office or Cobham Centre for the Community, for example. Then they take their voucher to the Foodbank and receive a nutritionally balanced pack of food to last them and their family at least three days.

‘Oh, I know a Foodbank customer’, said the man I was talking to. ‘He keeps losing his job. He always knows how to do the job better than his boss, and he gets fired. And he drinks too much. He inherited his house. He raised money on a mortgage on it, and drank the money. He defaulted on the mortgage so he lost his house. I bet he comes begging to the Foodbank!’

In other words, the man was in need, but he was in need because he had behaved badly. He had brought misfortune on himself. It was his fault that he was hungry. And the implied thought was that we should not be helping people like that.

You see articles in the newspapers about so-called benefit cheats, scroungers, who prefer to live on benefits rather than work. You should be reassured, incidentally, that a major piece of research undertaken by churches nationally here in the UK found that only a tiny percentage of people are out of work for longer than one year, and that benefit fraud is similarly very small. I can give you the reference if you would like to read the report. []

But go back to what S. John wrote in his letter here. ‘Whoso…. seeth his brother have need’: the only criterion is, does he have need? Not, is he deserving? Not, has he brought misfortune on himself? Did the chap on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho get himself into a fight? Did he provoke someone? The Samaritan didn’t ask. He did the right thing.

As you may know, the Foodbank keeps a record of the causes of people’s poverty, of the reasons why they have had to ask for food. The biggest cause, here in Cobham, is not withdrawal of benefit or any other reason to do with the cuts to the welfare state (although these do feature in our statistics); no, that’s not the biggest reason for hunger here. It is that the people, many of whom do have jobs, are just not being paid enough to live on.

We don’t ask whether they organise their lives badly: we don’t judge whether they could do things better. It may well be that, with our knowledge and, perhaps, superior education and intelligence, we could find a way out of poverty if it was us who was suffering it.

What we do is to offer as much advice and as much what’s called ‘signposting’ as we can, to organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, so our clients can get as much practical help as possible.

But, when it comes to a brother or sister in need, we try to follow Jesus’ advice, not to judge, not to be judgmental. The first thing is to feed them. Then we can try to see if there is a way for them to get out of the poverty trap. But it is never OK to blame a poor person for being poor.

Why should you agree? Why should you not feel that some people are more deserving than others? I suggest that S. John, in this saying, ‘Whoso hath this world’s good,’ and so on, is linking compassion for the needy with Jesus’ – and the Jewish law’s – first commandment, to love God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. If you are not generous to the needy, then, S. John asks, how can you have love for God in you? Love God, and love your neighbour. But if you don’t love your neighbour, then it means you don’t love God either. As S. John says, in this wonderful lesson,

My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.