Archives for posts with tag: poor

Sermon for Holy Communion at 1030 on Wednesday 4th November 2020 at St Mary Oatlands

Matthew 5:1-12

See http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471270293

If you had to say what was the real essence of Jesus’ teaching, the true essence of what it means to be a Christian, I think that a good place to start would be Saint Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount.

In his great sermon, Jesus built on the foundations of the Old Testament. He put himself in the tradition of the prophets, like Moses. For instance, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet God, and Jesus, who was God, also went up a mountain to give his most important teaching.

Jesus highlighted the old teaching, according to which, if somebody did you harm, you should pay back ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Jesus took that much further by saying you should turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; again under the old Jewish law, the rule was to love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but Jesus taught that you should love your enemy and pray for your persecutors.

Jesus said that he had ‘not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it’. He was not rejecting the old Jewish law, but rather developing it. It would be a mistake for us to ignore what is in the Old Testament, but Jesus went much further.

The ‘blessed are they’ sayings, these Beatitudes, are at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. I’ve always thought the first one was rather difficult to understand. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ Or, as the New English Bible translates it, ‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor.’ Poor in spirit – what does that mean? Is it really that they ‘know that they are poor’?

I’m not really sure what it means to be ‘poor in spirit’. It might have connotations of lack of character, being weak-willed or spineless, not, on the face of things, what Jesus might want to give a prize for, in the kingdom of heaven.

The Greek word which many Bibles translate as ‘spirit’, as in ‘poor in spirit’, is the same word, πνεύμα, that is used for the Holy Ghost, sometimes as a translation for the Hebrew word ‘ruach’, meaning a sort of rushing wind, reminiscent of the events on Whit Sunday, when a sort of rushing wind came upon the assembled disciples, lighting tongues of fire on their heads (which didn’t burn them, just as the burning bush which Moses came across was not burned up: again, another parallel between Old and New Testaments in the Bible: it’s a sign of God’s presence.)

That word in Greek, πνεύμα, is related to the word that you have in French for a tyre, pneu, or for something inflated like a tyre, pneumatic; they all involve wind or breath. So, what are the poor blessed in? – they are blessed for being short of wind. Blessed are the people who don’t know which way they’re blowing, don’t know whether they’re blowing hot or cold, say.

Or is it in fact better translated the way the New English Bible has it,‘Blessed are those who know that they are poor’? There, the translation has taken the ‘in spirit’ bit and turned it into a sense of consciousness, knowledge. They know that they are lacking, deficient – but deficient in what? On this interpretation, it doesn’t say. They are just ‘poor’.

But the word which means ‘poor’ in this passage goes grammatically with the word for ‘spirit’ the other way. You are not spiriting out the poverty, the being poor, but being poor, deficient, in spirit. In Greek it says, ‘Blessed are the deficient in wind’. To say they are simply ‘poor’ isn’t really right. They’re not short of money, but short of puff.

On Sunday, the preacher said it meant, ‘Blessed are the humble’. Humble. Not people who think they are big-shots. People who know their limitations. Again, that’s not what the Greek says literally, but you could argue that it’s closer to what the words really imply. In need – lacking; in spirit – in self-esteem, say: so, humble, lacking in self-esteem.

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Think about it a bit, and think what it means for you. Are you humble? Are you running out of puff? Never mind. You are blessed.

But when are you blessed? The other thing you can say about the Beatitudes, and obviously specifically about this first one, is that they are a vision of the future, a vision of the kingdom of God, which Jesus is promising to his followers, but which hasn’t happened yet.

Things may be awful now, but in the world to come it’ll all come right. There might be a snag in this; because you might think, on the basis of this passage, that it was all right to tolerate slavery and oppression in this life, keeping people oppressed, but pacifying them by giving them an assurance that they are on target to inherit heavenly blessings later. That would conflict with what I think is the the heart of the revolutionary message that Jesus gives us.

Those bits of the Sermon on the Mount don’t mean, put up with bad things now because you will be all right later in heaven; but rather, you must do this extra thing, go the extra mile, and not just pay back evil for evil: you must even love your enemy. And the reason for doing that is because it’s the right thing to do, not because it leads to a payoff in heaven.

People often say that the Sermon on the Mount is all very well, but it is just not practical. It demands more than mortal man is capable of. But then you read about people like Nelson Mandela. People can do those impossibly generous things that Jesus recommended. They really can. Really? People like that must need to be saints, you might say.

It’s a good point to make, especially at this time in the Christian year, when we do think about saints. Sunday was All Saints’ Day and the list of the various Beatitudes is, if you like, a list of the things which mark out a saint. Saints – in Latin the word is ‘sancti’ – are people who are marked out, distinguished, holy – holy, which is another word which means the same thing, separate, kept apart from the general run of people. But not necessarily marked out because they’re exceptionally virtuous.

The things that Jesus blesses are all characteristics of saints; but they aren’t superhuman; they are ordinary characteristics, ordinary virtues. Anyone can be a saint. Anyone in any of our churches could be a saint.

St Paul addressed his letters to the ‘saints’ in the various churches he was writing to, and it’s clear that he was just writing to the people in the pews. For example in his First Letter to the Corinthians he wrote: [This is from] ‘Paul, …. unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Sanctified – there’s the ‘sancti’ word – but I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he was only writing to part of the congregation, just to the good guys. He was writing to all of them.

When you work through the list of the Beatitudes you will realise that it is far from being a catalogue of success or perfection; it’s a catalogue full of weakness and need, the sort of thing that ordinary people suffer from. Jesus is affirming that. He is saying that in the kingdom, people like that, ordinary people, will be saints. Just as they are, they will go marching in.

So be a saint: be a peacemaker; be gentle in spirit, care about justice; you are allowed to be sad; people may make fun of you or even actively persecute you for trying to do all these things as a Christian. But don’t worry; you are a saint; you are blessed, and you do have a place in heaven.

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, 17th February 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=417352294

I have to tell you that, when I read the Bible lessons for today, my sermon pretty much wrote itself. That’s because today we are given a sort of potted guide to several key points in our Christian religion. It’s a different angle on some of the most important things we say in the Creed. See if you agree.

Yesterday we had our Marriage Enrichment day, for everyone who is going to get married at St Mary’s this year – I don’t know whether it was Godfrey’s cunning plan, to schedule it nearly on St Valentine’s Day, or whether it just came out that way. Be that as it may, I had a sneak preview when I was helping to set up the lantern slides for it.

I was impressed by one slide which listed ‘Six Topics’ – actually with an exclamation mark, ‘Six Topics!’ in a marriage. They were Money, Time, Sex, Children, Communication and Difficult times/Conflict (which is really two topics, but never mind). But the interesting bit was that on the side of the picture, alongside the list of the six (or seven) topics, was, in big handwritten style, ‘+Faith’, you know, the word ‘Faith’ in big swirly letters, with a plus sign in front of it. Add faith.

That’s the point of lesson number one today, our Old Testament lesson. Add faith. ‘Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals … whose hearts turn away from the Lord.’ But ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. … They shall be like a tree planted by water … in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.’ If people didn’t get so bogged down in everyday life, if they didn’t forget to think of God, perhaps to say their prayers a bit, and to read their Bible, things would go better. God will be with them in the difficult times.

But what is the faith which you need to add, for a successful marriage – or, following the prophet Jeremiah, for a fruitful life?

You could just say to our wedding couples – and have we got anyone here this morning who went to the course yesterday? Or was it enough to be going on with? Anyway, you could just say to them, ‘Pay attention to the words of the Creed. I believe …’ – I believe: in what? What do Christians believe in?

Incidentally, I think it’s important not to get too stuck on saying ‘I’. ‘I believe’. It may be more honest to say, ‘We believe. We.’ There may be some less important things that we struggle with, but we can say the Creed all together, if we say ‘we’, and if we mean, ‘This is what Christians as a body subscribe to – and I’m in that group.’ It need not mean that, in order to belong to the church, you have to believe in every detail. You can just be happy to belong.

So back to the question, what do we believe, as Christians? What is our faith? Our other two lessons, from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and from St Luke chapter 6, will give us some more important pointers.

You’ll note that, although we’ve just done our marriage enrichment course, the lesson from 1 Corinthians isn’t the normal wedding one, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal’. Oh, all right, ‘… if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love’. It’s ‘love’ in a wedding, not charity. But we’re not doing that bit. We’re looking at the fifteenth chapter, about the resurrection of the dead. That, that’s a key point in Christian faith. Faith in the resurrection, in life after death. Starting with Jesus himself, and then growing into what in the funeral service we call the ‘sure and certain hope’ of eternal life. We often have 1 Corinthians 15 at funerals. We have it because St Paul really goes into this key bit of faith, faith in eternal life, in a resurrection of the dead.

St Paul’s letter reads a bit like the transcript of one side of a telephone conversation. We can’t hear exactly what the Corinthians were saying: but it’s pretty clear that some of them were poo-pooing the possibility of life after death. St Paul points out the logical implications of that. If there is no chance of resurrection, then the whole basis of our faith, our belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, would be contradicted. So one of the key points in Christian faith is a belief in life after death – and in particular a belief that Jesus was the first one to be resurrected.

It’s such an extraordinary thing, so contrary to all the laws of nature, that it is difficult to believe. So St Paul goes on, after the passage which we have read today, to tackle the question not just that the dead are raised, but how they are raised. It can be your homework today. Read the rest of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Even if you are a Darwinist, there’s nothing in it to upset your scientific understanding. I won’t spoil it.

So in our first two lessons we see two pillars of our Christian faith, that you need faith, if your life is going to be fruitful – that you shouldn’t try to ignore the Divine – and that our Christian faith is centred on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It is a sign, a vital sign. We believe that the empty tomb was real. And then, we believe in what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant, in who Jesus really was, and in what he did. That Jesus is God, God with us. But note that as St Paul says, if that really is too much to stomach, then you need to know what it is you are dismissing. You can’t have Jesus without His resurrection. Without it, he’s not God.

And then in St Luke’s Gospel we go on to hear what the effect of Jesus, the effect of His coming, is, and what it still can be. Our lesson is St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ great statement of what you must do, if you really follow His teaching. First of all he states how contrarian, how back-to-front, Christianity is. Basically in those days, just as it is today, people tended to equate material success and prosperity with virtue. You couldn’t live in such a lovely house; you couldn’t really have such a nice car, unless you were basically doing the right thing, unless you were a good person. Scruffy people must really be pretty useless, you’re tempted to think. No wonder they’re living in damp rented flats if they only bothered to get one GCSE – in some non-subject or other. Feckless.

But Jesus says that if you’re poor, or hungry, or sad, it’s not a question of blame. There’s no such thing as the deserving – or undeserving – poor. They are ‘Μακαριος’ in the Greek, blessed. That’s what the poor are, what the hungry are. Jesus turns things upside-down. This passage of ‘beatitudes’, blessings, ‘Blessed are the .. [whoever it is]’, runs into the really revolutionary bit, ‘Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, lend without expecting to be repaid.’ Don’t rush to judge someone – it could be you next. All those great, generous ideas – but the problem is that no-one really follows them. Because people say that just as resurrection can’t be real, in real life turning the other cheek is a lovely idea in theory, but it can’t be practical.

But what Jesus is advocating is a bit like what St Paul was saying about resurrection, about life after death. If you’ve got no faith in it, you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. If you make faithful-sounding noises, if you tell everyone you’ve been saved, but you still think that rich people must somehow be better people, and poor people must really be a bit useless, a bit feckless – if being saved doesn’t make any difference to what you do, to how you treat people, then Jesus is there to tell you you’re just not getting it yet.

This is a neat way for me to round off what I’m saying. Godfrey and I are going to be running a Lent Bible study course, and the theme is going to be exactly what our Gospel today was about – the Beatitudes. I do hope you will come. We’ll have a session in the daytime and a session in the evening. I hope you will feel blessed at the end of it – and that you will see that being blessed isn’t the same as being comfortably off. You will need to add faith.

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.