Sermon for Evensong on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, 2nd October 2016 at St Mary’s Church, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey

Nehemiah 5:1-13, John 9

Last Sunday, very unusually, we we didn’t have evensong here at St Mary’s. I should assure you that that is really unusual, and that you can count on there being sung Evensong at Saint Mary’s every Sunday at 6. Instead last Sunday a number of us went to Guildford Cathedral to see our new suffragan bishop, Bishop Jo, installed. She has, of course, already been ordained bishop, consecrated, at Canterbury Cathedral in June. This was technically her installation as a canon of the Cathedral, and for most of us it was the opportunity to hear a sermon from her for the first time.

She preached on the second chapter of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a Jew in the service of the Persian king Artaxerxes, the Persians having defeated the Babylonians, who had taken the Jews into captivity: ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’, you’ll remember in Psalm 137. So at this time, roughly 500 years before the time of Christ, the Jews were in exile and ruled by the Persians.

Bishop Jo took as her theme ‘a point of no return’. Nehemiah took a risk in asking the king for permission to visit the ruined city of Jerusalem: but once he had heard from one of his brothers, who had visited the city, what a dreadful state it was in: that those Jews who had survived there were suffering great trouble, and that the walls of the city and its gates had been broken down: once he had heard that, for Nehemiah there was no turning back. He had to go, and try to do something to put matters right – it was what Bishop Jo called a Point of No Return.

The Persian king did allow Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem, and indeed he appointed him governor of the province of Judah. So Nehemiah was both a man of God and a satrap, a provincial governor. It was a big challenge. Bishop Jo identified two particular things to note about Nehemiah’s mission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem – which is what he did – that Nehemiah was ‘real about the mess’ – realistic about how bad things were – as well as being ‘real about God’ – that God was real to him; that he relied on God, he prayed to Him and God heard him.

So Bishop Jo talked about a ‘Nehemiah moment’: a leadership challenge, which she felt she was experiencing. She was inspired by Nehemiah’s story. As a bishop, as a leader in the church, she had to have similar qualities to the ones that Nehemiah had.

Tonight we’ve followed Nehemiah’s story along further. Nehemiah has got teams of people working on the walls of Jerusalem – but all is not well. Some of the people come and pour out their troubles. In line with Bishop Jo’s idea of being ‘real about the mess’, Nehemiah listened to the people’s problem and took it seriously. What it is, is that some of the poorer people, poorer Jews, are being seriously exploited by the richer ones. There is a famine, and people have had to borrow, and mortgage their farms and vineyards in order to be able to buy the food to live on. Some of their daughters have even been sold into slavery in order to raise money – slavery to their fellow Jews, the only difference being that one lot were richer than the others. As the poor people said, ‘Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren’, meaning ‘our bodily needs are the same as other people’s’. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, you both get hungry.

It’s a funny idea, I think, that somehow someone who’s worse off in some way, or in need, or suffering from a disability, or a disease, may somehow be represented as being less deserving, less entitled, than someone who’s blessed with enough money, or good enough health, or a bright enough intellect, to do whatever they want to. In the second lesson, from St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples, seeing a blind man in the street, asked Jesus, ‘Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?’ The disciples had been conditioned to believe that the man’s disability was the result of something which he or his parents had done wrong – and somehow, he had brought his misfortune on himself.

It’s something we have come across in running our food bank. You sometimes read in the newspapers, or hear on the radio, that a politician or somebody has suggested that, first of all, people don’t really need food banks, and that even if, in some temporary crisis, they actually do need to turn to a food bank, they’ve only got to be better focussed, to get their lives in order, to ‘get on their bikes’, as someone once said, and the hunger will go away.

The corollary of that is that if they are hungry, it is because they are feckless, or lazy, or just not trying hard enough. They need ‘tough love’, some of these people say, in order to avoid ‘dependency’. I say, from my own experience in our, Cobham, food bank, that it’s a cruel myth.

When Nehemiah found out how some of his fellow-Israelites were oppressing their fellow-countrymen by charging them extortionate rates for loans, he was very angry, and he did something about it. He got the moneylenders to cancel their loan agreements, and to give back any property which had been pledged or mortgaged. It was the old Jewish idea of the ‘jubilee’, debt cancellation. It’s still a current issue. Archbishop Justin has had the same attitude to Wonga and the other pay-day loan sharks.

The two biggest causes of people needing to come to our, Cobham Area, Foodbank, are low income and debt. Quite a lot of people find that the only jobs which they can get are paid at the minimum wage, £7.20 per hour, whereas the independent Living Wage Foundation says the rates need to be £8.25 outside, and £9.40 in London, in order for people to have enough to live decently on. What with zero-hour contracts and no limit to the amount by which rents can be raised, people often find themselves squeezed financially, so they have to choose between paying the rent – and two missed rent payments can have you evicted – and being able to buy food. If people have used their credit cards or pay-day lenders to tide themselves over, or perhaps to meet an unexpected bill, they can soon see themselves facing serious debts. They can be as hard-working as you like, but still in a mess. Bishop Jo says we must be ‘real about the mess’. We must deal with it, put it right.

Our brothers and sisters at St Andrew’s have just entered into a partnership agreement with the charity Christians Against Poverty, CAP, which works with people to help them to get out of debt. CAP will, if necessary, negotiate on someone’s behalf against a big lender – one of the credit cards, perhaps – in a way that, as individuals, they would find it hard to do. If you know anyone who is struggling with debts, CAP can help, and I’ll be happy to put people in touch.

Just as Nehemiah didn’t blame people for being in debt, or in difficulty generally, neither did Jesus. Talking about the blind man, Jesus said, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents..’ It’s certainly wrong, ever to think that people get sick, are in need, necessarily because they have done something morally wrong. It’s a mistake to look down on people in trouble, or think that they have in some way brought misfortune on themselves. People on state benefits aren’t feckless or somehow out to cheat the system, simply by virtue of being on benefits. The right way to look at them is to say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ When Nehemiah reformed the lending practices in ancient Jerusalem, ‘All the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord.’

Amen indeed. 

Hugh Bryant

(Hugh Bryant is a Reader in the Church of England, and is General Manager and Trustee of Cobham Area Foodbank)

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