Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 23rd August 2015
Hebrews 13:16 To do good and to distribute forget not; for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

‘To do good and to distribute’: surely that’s not what the second lesson said. The words from Hebrews in the NRSV were ‘To do good and to communicate…’ It’s not an exhortation to open Facebook or Twitter accounts. What does it mean to ‘communicate?’

The King James Version and NRSV both say, don’t forget to ‘communicate’; which is a puzzling word. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews wasn’t just talking about passing messages – he meant sharing, sharing in the wherewithal of daily life. The Greek is κοινωνία, ‘having in common, sharing’ – literally translated and understandable in Miles Coverdale’s Bible translation of 1533, from which all the Bible pieces quoted in the Book of Common Prayer come. So, ‘don’t forget the sharing’, literally, or ‘don’t blot out the sharing’.

The ‘sharing’ that I want to speak about tonight is food and money for the Foodbank. As some of you will have heard, I am just about to resume being the general manager of Cobham Area Foodbank. I hope you won’t groan inwardly if I suggest that now would be a good time to tell you how the Foodbank is doing, and to share with you some of the challenges which we face as we go into this autumn, rounding off our second year of operation.

In the first clear year, we provided approximately 1500 food parcels for people here in Cobham who could not afford to buy food. Just under half the people were hungry not because of changes in state benefits or because of unemployment. The biggest category, 40%, were people who are working, who are employed, but who don’t earn enough money to pay the rent and buy food as well.

The various Government cuts have made life more difficult for people at the poorer end of our society. If you are unlucky enough to be made redundant, and you were working in a low-paid job, so you weren’t able to build up any savings, you will find that you don’t get any unemployment benefit for at least two weeks, and in fact, often longer.

If you receive housing benefit, to enable you to afford to pay the rent, (because there are very few council houses left – for practical purposes, none in Elmbridge) – you will find that the Council has to apply the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. They assess how many bedrooms you’ve got, and if your children have grown up and moved away, you will find that they will say that, according to the rules for Housing Benefit, you should be occupying a smaller house: they will only provide the benefit for a house which is ‘appropriate’ for your needs, so a one-bedroom house or flat if you’re by yourself – but even if you wanted to move, there aren’t any available.

Whereas in the old days with council houses, rents were controlled and went up very slowly, now the market dictates the rent, and landlords can raise the rent of their properties to whatever level the market will bear.

So the tenants are squeezed. They have to pay more rent, and they get less benefit to set against it. If they are in a low-paid job, perhaps on the minimum wage and perhaps on a zero-hours contract, paid by the hour worked, but without a guarantee that they will actually get any work to do, they will soon run out of money.

They have to take a hard decision about whether to pay the rent or go and buy food for themselves and their families. In the old days, again, with a council house, the council was pretty understanding about rent arrears when people were in financial difficulty. Nowadays the majority of so-called social housing is let on an ‘Assured Shorthold Tenancy’, which gives the landlord very sweeping powers to evict tenants if they miss a couple of rent payments. So people regard paying the rent as being the top priority, and then find that they haven’t got enough money left to buy any food.

The exact mix of food that they get is planned by a nutritionist. Each food parcel is supposed to last a minimum of three days. We are very blessed by having a lot of very generous people in this area. We are definitely not short of food. Some sorts of food are in surplus – if our clients could live just on pasta and baked beans, we could probably feed them until this time next century!

But although we get lots and lots of food, which is great, we are struggling to get enough money to run the Foodbank.

We had a lot of generous grants to start the thing up – the Bishop of Guildford’s Foundation gave us £5,000, the churches, prominently including you here at St Mary’s, chipped in substantial sums, Elmbridge Borough Council gave £2,000, and even the government, despite their negative remarks about food banks, gave us £2,000 through the Cinnamon Trust. Cargill have very generously met the leasing cost of our van so far, but may not do so in future because they have moved to Weybridge.

There is still rent to pay on our warehouse, there are bills for fuel, insurance and repairs to be paid for; and we do sometimes have to go out and buy food. Because we’ve got a ton of pasta and baked beans, we haven’t necessarily got enough of certain other foods which we need in order to offer a balanced diet.

In round numbers, it costs about £20,000 a year to run Cobham Area Foodbank, and we have funding at the moment which will take us just about up to October. Thereafter, we will have to see if there’s a food bank for food banks! We might, for instance, have to do without our van. It would cost £12,000 plus VAT to buy it.

As the Foodbank turns into a mature operation, its philosophy is being reviewed and refined by the trustees. I’d be interested to know what you think we should do.

One trustee wrote recently, “[You say that the guiding principle should be], ‘what would Jesus do?’. He did not lift anyone out of poverty while here on earth, provided mass catering only once, did not heal or deliver everyone, but he talked about Kingdom, eternal life, relationship with God. He had all the resources of heaven, yet said ‘the poor you will have with you always'”.

In discussion with them, they argued that being a Christian didn’t mean you always had to help people – especially if their misfortune was to some extent of their own making. They argued that we should avoid creating a ‘culture of dependency’.

I have to say that I do feel that Scripture doesn’t support those sort of views. Just take the sentences of Scripture which are set out in the Prayer Book at 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?’ 1 St. John 3.

‘Give alms of thy goods, and never turn thy face from any poor man; and then the face of the Lord shall not be turned away from thee.’ Tobit 4.

‘Be merciful after thy power. If thou hast much, give plenteously; if thou hast little, do thy diligence gladly to give of that little; for so gatherest thou thyself a good reward in the day of necessity.’ Tobit 4.

‘He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord: and look, what he layeth out, it shall be paid him again.’ Proverbs 19.

‘Blessed be the man that provideth for the sick and needy: the Lord shall deliver him in the time of trouble.’ Psalms 41.

But what about the point that some people have brought their trouble on themselves? For instance, what if people are hungry because they have made ‘bad life choices’ as someone has inelegantly described it? What if they have taken out a Sky Sports subscription when there’s barely enough to pay the rent?

A common reason for people asking for a food voucher is that they have been ‘sanctioned’ by the Jobcentre. They have not submitted enough job applications, or they have failed to attend a meeting. If so, their benefits are docked for a period – leaving them destitute.

There was a shameful story recently about some adverts placed by the Dept for Work and Pensions which apparently described two people, ‘Sarah’ and ‘Zac’, who had suffered sanctions but who were saying that it had been beneficial to them in the long run: they had followed advice or improved in some other way and had got themselves out of dependency. The only problem was that the DWP had made the stories up. There were no real ‘happy’ claimants who lost benefits. I strongly suspect that such sanctions almost never help the poor people concerned. [See http://gu.com/p/4bjv5%5D

Of course the Foodbank would never turn people away who have been ‘sanctioned’ in this way, even if it were true that they had been sanctioned for a good cause. Indeed, I would argue that we are obliged as Christians to treat generously even a situation where someone almost wilfully refuses to do the right thing.

We do know of cases where someone who is getting out of debt, being counselled by Christians Against Poverty, suddenly veers off the track and takes out a Sky TV subscription. And then asks for a food voucher. Well then, what?

Again, I think that Scripture tells us to be generous. Think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11f) – sometimes called the parable of the Compassionate Father. The prodigal son is hungry because of the way he has dissipated his inheritance. It’s entirely his own fault. But Jesus clearly says that his father was right to be compassionate, to forgive him, to welcome him back. The brother who complains about this stands for those people who would not help people who have somehow caused their own misfortune, whatever it is. Jesus says they are wrong.

And finally, of course, if you were still in any doubt whether Jesus wanted us always to feed the hungry and clothe the inadequately dressed, remember the wonderful picture of the Last Judgement in Matt. 25.

‘When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’

We should be guided accordingly. I hope you agree, and that you will continue to support us in our work.

Advertisements