Archives for posts with tag: housing benefit

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Sermon at St Andrew’s, Oxshott on 5th July 2015
Mark 6:1-13

When I was little – maybe 8 or 9 – my terrifying Aunt Pegs came to stay. Peggy was my father’s sister, and she was a history lecturer at the Institute of Education in Malet Street. She was a Girton Girl, and she had never married..

She lived in one of those tall, up-and-down houses on the north side of Clapham Common, facing Holy Trinity Church, where she was one of the pillars of the congregation, and a constant source of terror to curates.

On that morning it just so happened that she and I coincided at the doors of our respective bedrooms, just about to go downstairs for our breakfast. Aunt Pegs looked into my bedroom, the door of which I had not managed to shut quickly enough, and she noticed that my bed was not made.

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Hugh, I think you should make your bed, before you come down to breakfast’, she said.
Outrage! I felt. Who was she, to tell me that?
Only my Mum could tell me to make my bed. And anyway, the rules, as I understood them, were that the time for making one’s bed was much later: when you got round to it naturally – or possibly, when Mum had done it for you anyway.

But Aunt Pegs was challenging all that. I had to abandon the rules: think again, and take in the awful prospect of bed-making before breakfast.

It’s quite reminiscent of the story from our reading from St Mark’s Gospel. Who was this chap who was making such a splash? Wasn’t he just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth? And who were the chaps with him? Weren’t they just ordinary fishermen, that you’d seen around the place: nothing special?

How on earth could people like that be at all qualified to talk about things of cosmological significance, the beginning and end of time, questions of divine wisdom – surely not some bloke from a joinery workshop down the road, who’d never had anything special about him before. But the things he was doing: they were truly remarkable.

The thing that really stuck in their gullet was that he told them to change their outlook on life, turn over a new leaf, even to change the rules. Just as Aunt Pegs upset my convenient little routine, so Jesus was upsetting the orthodoxy of the Jewish leaders, who thought they’d worked it out and had everything down to a T.

So Jesus sent his followers away, sent them off, two by two, to spread the good news about him, to encourage all the people they met to repent, to change their ways.

As I was re-reading this Gospel passage, I came across something I must’ve read hundreds of times, but never really taken in. And that’s the sandals. Nowadays sandals are a sort of a fashion statement – certainly for people of my generation. There are the sandals that we remember our fathers wearing on holiday, usually with long socks, probably rather highly polished as well: basically the sandals were just like the shoes that they wore to work, but they had holes in, to let the summer in.

Or alternatively, of course, there were the sandals that left-wing intellectuals were supposed to wear. CND marchers in the 60s: the leaders would be striding forth – and they would be wearing sandals. Probably without socks.

Now that we’ve got a heatwave I reviewed this bit of my sermon, because I was going to say that in Cobham and Oxshott most of the people you would see wearing sandals would be wearing them on the beach in somewhere warm and sunny like Portofino or Cannes or somewhere like that. But in view of this lovely weather, I expect if I took a straw poll of everybody’s footwear today, there will even be a few sandals here in church. If so, you can take comfort in the thought that you are wearing the footwear that Jesus recommended.

But you may hastily murmur, ‘But that doesn’t make me some kind of lefty!’ Of course. Well, as some of you know, I am some kind of lefty, and so the usual disclaimers apply. You will catch yourselves saying, I bet, after I get into my stride this morning – I will catch little murmurs, one to the other, saying, ‘Who does he think he is? He’s just that old bloke that used to catch the 7.31 from Oxshott. What does he know?’

And if I start to suggest that some of our hallowed ideas might not necessarily be right, again, you will say, ‘Why on earth should I change my mind? I know how it all works.’

Well, let me try you with the Foodbank. Surely we don’t need a food bank round here, you might well say. As many of you will know, Cobham Area Foodbank was founded partly by this very church. The Foodbank is a creation of Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Downside and Surrounding Areas, to give it its full title.

The representatives of the seven churches in Churches Together started discussing the creation of a food bank in this area just over two years ago, and it is now a registered charity, independent of Churches Together. I was its first manager.

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

Of course the various Government changes 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.

A very common reaction, when I tell people that we have a food bank here in Cobham and Oxshott, is to say, ‘That’s a good thing – but surely we don’t need it here.’ There really are people who are hungry, but don’t have enough to buy food, right here in Oxshott. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t have given out those 1,500 food parcels.

The Foodbank opens once a week in the Methodist Church hall, just down the road from the new library in Cobham, in Cedar Road; it opens for an hour-and-a-half at lunchtime on Fridays. People who need food go to one of a number of organisations whom we have authorised to be voucher issuers, professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need, and they get a pink food voucher.

The food voucher tells us how many people there are to feed in the family and it identifies the reason why the people have found themselves short of food. There are a number of categories specified. The most common one around here, as I said, is simply ‘not having enough money’. There are other categories, such as the various benefit changes, unemployment, illness and disability and so on.

We belong to a network of food banks created by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity which is based in Salisbury in Wiltshire. The Foodbank pays an annual subscription and gets the right to use Trussell’s food bank operations manuals and their computer systems.

Every ounce of food given to the Foodbank and every ounce given out, is weighed and recorded. All the vouchers are noted down and recorded so that, nationally and locally, there are robust statistics to say how many people are using the Foodbank, and why.

Trussell Trust also provides training programmes for our volunteers. We have four departments: the distribution centre, the warehouse, the van – and the management team. We have a 400sq ft warehouse in a small industrial park on the outskirts of Leatherhead. We run a van which many of you will have seen, which has so far been financed by Cargill, that very generous and successful food company.

We have eight drivers including two ladies, and ten driver’s mates. The van does a pick-up round every Monday, from all the seven churches, from Waitrose, Sainsbury’s on the High Street, Starbuck’s and from any schools who might have had a special collection. During the week there may be other collections and deliveries, and on Friday the van delivers from the warehouse to the Methodist Church hall, ready for the clients to come and collect their food.

Our Foodbank – your Foodbank – is supported by around 130 volunteers. At the distribution centre, at each session there will be five or six volunteers, who are all specially trained, two people to receive clients and take their vouchers, two people to get out bags of food and somebody to make them a cup of tea and point them in the direction of a big collection of what we call ‘signposts’ to try to help people improve their lot: for example, Christians Against Poverty, which can help people who have got into debt. It’s able to intercede for them with creditors and negotiate staged payments which they can afford, to keep them out of the hands of loan sharks.

Volunteers also deliver food to people who are housebound, or who have suddenly found themselves in urgent need for whatever reason, and can’t wait till the Friday distribution session, perhaps as a result of injury.

Those home deliveries are always done in a car rather than in the Foodbank van, in order not to embarrass people. Indeed we try very hard to recognise that for many people it’s very embarrassing to have to come and effectively beg for food. Having a voucher is a great way to take a lot of the sting out of it, because the original request is made one-to-one to one of the voucher issuers, who are professionals qualified to assess the genuineness of each person’s need. That’s a private conversation.

As soon as somebody comes to the Foodbank with their pink voucher, then they have rights. We will give them food without question. But still they need to be treated tactfully. So they get the food in a supermarket bag, so there’s nothing to show that they’ve actually got food from the Foodbank.

The exact mix of food that they get is planned by a nutritionist employed by Trussell Trust. 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!

If you’re thinking, what shall I give to the Foodbank, think that poorer people who are hungry actually like to eat the same things that you like too.

The one thing that I haven’t mentioned so far is that, 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 chipped in substantial sums, Elmbridge Borough Council gave £2,000, and even the government, despite their rude remarks about food banks, gave us £2,000 through the Cinnamon Trust. Cargill very generously met the leasing cost of our van.

But – 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 £19,000 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!

So we would be very grateful if you would put anything you can spare into a gift aid envelope. Or you can go on our website and sign up either for a single gift or a regular donation. Gift Aid forms are on the website as well.

It couldn’t happen here, could it? It may be a bit uncomfortable for you to hear me telling you that unfortunately it can, and it does. The only thing I can say is what the disciples were told by Jesus, ‘Tell everybody to repent’.

‘Repent’ in Greek is a word which means ‘change your mind’ (μετανοιειτε). In the Foodbank context, I don’t think you need to repent in the sense of changing your evil ways, but perhaps you might need to adjust your preconceptions a bit. And of course, occasionally, don’t forget to wear your sandals.

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Sermon for Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, Cobham, on 9th February 2014, the Fourth Sunday before Lent
Isaiah 58:1-9, Matt. 5:13-20

It’s funny how words change their meaning over time. When Jesus was speaking to his disciples, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, he said they were ‘the salt of the earth’. He meant that they were pretty good: that they had a strong flavour: they were capable of doing good things.

They used salt, in those days, to preserve food; so if a piece of meat was well salted, it would stop it going off. But these days, when we say that somebody is the ‘salt of the earth’, we tend to think of them more in terms of Arthur Daley or Eddie Grundy in the Archers: a little bit fly, a bit of a lad. Heart of gold, but the cheque’s in the post. You know what I mean.

So maybe to get the full flavour of what Jesus was saying, you need a slightly different expression. Not ‘salt of the earth.’ How about ‘light of the world’? As we’ve just heard, Jesus told His disciples that they were ‘the light of the world’ [Matt.5:14]. In St John’s gospel he says that He himself is ‘the light of the world’. Here He goes on to talk about the disciples being like ‘a city built on a hill’, which can’t be hidden from view, and that, once you have lit a lamp, you mustn’t hide it away: you mustn’t ‘hide your light under a bushel’.

What does it all mean in practice? Jesus was to some extent contrasting His message with the teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – the Jewish law, which was the 10 Commandments and the laws of behaviour which you get in the first five books of the Old Testament, and then in the Jewish law as developed by the various rabbis over the years and recorded in the Mishnah and the Talmud.

Jewish Law has a rule for absolutely everything, and the Pharisees were famous for knowing all those rules and punctiliously carrying them out. But of course in the story of Jesus, in the gospels, the Pharisees are not the good guys. They are the ones that opposed Him. They are the ones that Jesus called hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’; they looked all right on the outside, but on the inside they were full of awfulness, ‘full of dead men’s bones’.

But it doesn’t mean that Jesus was against the Jewish law. The Jewish law, in its essence, was – and is – a very good set of principles. The bit that we’re familiar with, the 10 Commandments, is a fine ethical code, and Jesus assured the disciples that He wasn’t there to dismantle the Jewish law: not ‘one jot or one tittle’ would be taken away. But, He said, you have to do better than the Pharisees and the scribes if you’re going to have a place in heaven.

Then Jesus went on to preach His most famous sermon – probably the most famous sermon there’s ever been – the Sermon on the Mount, about going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies. All this is contrary, counter-cultural stuff, which is the essence of Jesus’ teaching.

But He wasn’t going against what the law and the prophets had previously taught. If we look again at the first lesson, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, it’s actually the same kind of message. What do you do in order to show that you’re obedient to God, that you have a proper respect for Him?

Do you cover yourself with sackcloth and ashes, and do some drastic fasting? According to the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are complaining, because they do do all that, they go through all the ritual of fasting and self-abasement: but they don’t think God takes any notice.

Isaiah points out – and as a prophet he’s speaking the words of the Lord – that the right kind of penitential behaviour is not doing something which only really impacts on you yourself. Instead it is doing something for other people: ‘to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. Sharing your food with the hungry: taking the homeless poor into your house: clothing the naked when you meet them, and never sneaking out of looking after your family.

‘Then’, Isaiah says,’your light shall break forth like the dawn.’ If you give of your own food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the wretched, ‘then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday’.

How should it affect us? There are posters for the Alpha Course, where there’s a man looking a bit puzzled and asking himself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Is his normal life all that there is – or is there more to life?’ The course introduces you to the idea that there is more to life, and the reason that we know that there is more to life is because, as Christians, we understand that the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is that God does care for us.

But what Jesus is telling us here in his preaching is that this is not just something good for us as individuals. If we’re disciples, the fact of our being a disciple should shine out from us. ‘Let your light so shine … so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

Let’s assume that we are all trying to be good disciples. What does it mean in practice to say, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’? What good works? ‘To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free’. But – are you actually oppressing anybody? What do you think? Do you think that it applies to you in any way today?

Isaiah suggests that the way to set free the oppressed is to share your food with the hungry: take the homeless poor into your house: clothe the naked when you meet them.

Sharing your food with the hungry may be quite straightforward. As the manager of our Foodbank, I’m very grateful that so many people – and that certainly includes lots of people here – have gone and bought extra food when they’re shopping and have given it to the Foodbank.

But what about taking the homeless poor into your house, and clothing the naked when you meet them? Would it be stretching it too far to ask, in this context, how you think that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ fits in with the idea of taking the homeless poor into your house?

Say somebody works for a low wage, and gets housing benefit. In the old days, they would have had a council house at a cheap rent which they would have been able to afford. Unfortunately they don’t have many council houses any more, so now we have housing benefit, to make up for the extra cost of privately rented houses. The poor person’s children have grown up and moved away; so strictly speaking, they don’t need three bedrooms any more.

So the new rules say that their housing benefit will only be paid to cover the cost of a house which the government says is necessary. So they are paid enough to be able to afford a one-bedroomed house – whereas they are actually living in a three-bedroomed house. There aren’t any one-bedroomed houses available. Very soon our poor person won’t have enough to live on.

In effect, Isaiah suggests that we, as individuals, should be doing something about that. The Jewish law, the law of Moses, is pretty clear that society must care for its weakest members. In Deuteronomy ch.14, Moses tells the Israelites to make a tithe on all their wealth, to provide for ‘aliens, orphans and widows’ living with them, so that those aliens, orphans and widows may have enough to eat.

Aliens, orphans and widows. Immigrants, refugees: children in care: people living on their own. It really doesn’t take too big a stretch of the imagination to realise that we still have the same sort of people in our society that Moses was worried about 3,000 years ago.

I’m not telling you what the answers should be. But I encourage you to go away and think about it. Just to suggest one instance: is it right that, when the property market is booming, we should be imposing taxes on the poorest people so that they have to make a choice between paying the rent and buying food?

Or, do you think that things have changed, and in fact these ideas from the Jewish law and from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are not actually directly referable any more to present-day circumstances? What do you think?

Last week was Candlemas, when we celebrated the coming of Jesus as ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’, and Jesus said later on, ‘I am the light of the world’. This week, we’re looking at Jesus’ teaching that we, his disciples, his followers, we also are the light of the world.

Our challenge today is to make it a reality, so that our light is not in fact hidden under a bushel, so that it is not just a matter of us feeling a rosy glow: instead the challenge is to us, so that we really do become a light, a light to the world outside.

So I pray, ‘Let our light so shine, so that they may see our good works, and give glory to you, to our Father in heaven’.