Archives for posts with tag: Workfare

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.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 24th February 2013
Jeremiah 22:13 – Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.

A friend of mine asked me the other day whether I have any difficulty thinking up things to preach sermons about. I explained to him that I usually use as a starting point for my sermons the Bible lessons which we read at the service. Those lessons are from a ‘lectionary’ published by an ecumenical group of liturgists representing all the English-speaking churches in the world. It is called the Revised Common Lectionary and was most recently published in 1992.

It’s quite exciting that, in the English-speaking churches round the world, Catholic and Protestant, if they use the common lectionary – and most of them do – wherever you go, you will find people using the same Bible readings each Sunday. The general idea is to read through the whole of the Bible, over a period, relating the readings to the Christian year.

So today there are lessons laid down for a ‘principal service’, in the morning, which is a piece from Genesis, Psalm 27, an epistle reading from Philippians chapter 3, and finally a gospel, Luke chapter 13. The ‘second service’, which, in Lectionary terms, is what Evensong is, has the lessons from Jeremiah and Luke which we have heard tonight, and our Psalm, 135.

So we’ve joined in with English-speaking Christians all over the world in using those Bible readings. I find that quite compelling, and so I usually base my sermon on one or other of the Bible readings for the day. There is of course the alternative that my preaching should be related first and foremost to our life today, relating to it the teaching of Jesus Christ. Rather than taking those teachings first, in the form of Bible readings, instead I could look at what’s been happening, and then try to discern what the will of God in relation to those events would be.

That’s sometimes known as ‘preaching from the newspaper’, as opposed to preaching from the lectionary. When I did read the lessons for today, I decided indeed to preach from the newspaper. I came across these words in Jeremiah, ‘Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages’, and I was tempted not to give you a detailed exposition of the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and history of the people of Israel, and in particular of the exile in Babylon, the fall of Jerusalem in the late C6 BC, which is the background to our OT lesson today.

Instead I thought that it was very striking that the prophet was writing about a bad king – in this case, King Zedekiah of Judah, and this passage is really a prophecy directed at the whole house of David, saying what a good ruler should do. What struck me about this passage was the way in which it reminded me of a number of the debates which I have listened to recently, concerning what the government should be doing today, here in the UK. For example, on Question Time there was a lively debate between Canon Giles Fraser and the MP Dianne Abbott on the one side, and Michael Heseltine the Conservative grandee on the other. They were arguing about the government’s austerity programme, and in particular whether the burden of the various government cuts is falling disproportionately on poor people.

When I read the lesson in Jeremiah, I immediately thought about the government programme to try to get people back to work, where apparently, young people are being compelled to work in menial jobs for no pay in order, so the government says, to gain ‘work experience’.

Now I’m not going to debate the rights and wrongs of the government workfare programme, although ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ has always struck me as a good start in this area. The point I’d like to make is that, in all the debates in which this came up, for example on Question Time, even when Giles Fraser was there, nobody mentioned God.

I should say that this was perhaps even more strange, because the programme was being broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral. There were a couple of delightful things – one was in the credits, where the ‘set designer’ was listed as Sir Christopher Wren, and the other was when Michael Heseltine’s mobile phone rang, and it was his wife, no doubt wondering when he was going to be home for his tea. But there they were, in God’s house, and no-one mentioned God.

Nobody said, ‘What would Jesus do?’ And that was a big contrast, so far as I was concerned, to some of the other things that I encountered this week. I’ve had rather a cultural week. I started off by going to the Young Vic (which you might smile about!) to see a wonderful play called ‘Feast’ about the Yoruba people from Nigeria, and their diaspora from Nigeria to the UK, to Cuba, to Venezuela and to Brazil, which of course had a lot to do with the slave trade.

Wherever they went, the Yorubas took their distinctive culture with them, including their old gods, the Orishas, even though Nigerians are mostly Christians and Moslems nowadays. The Orishas are the emissaries – I suppose they are a bit like angels – of one supreme god. It is true that Yoruba people, even today, see the Orishas at work in all sorts of everyday circumstances. One Orisha is a an Orisha of motherhood and child-bearing, another one of beauty and love, another one is a warrior, and ‘Esu is a trickster and a shape-shifter. He is the Orisha of crossroads, the threshold, chaos and fertility, the divine middle-man’ [Programme for Feast, 2013, London, The Young Vic, p11].

So everywhere that a Yoruba goes, even today – and I was accompanied by a dear friend from St Andrew’s who is a Yoruba – she was saying that they still know about these ancient angels. They are aware of God’s presence all the time.

Then on Friday I went to the Coliseum to see the very wonderful production of Charpentier’s ‘Medea’, a 17th century opera based on the ancient Greek myth of Medea the witch, daughter of gods, who married Jason, Jason of the Argonauts. Jason was unfaithful to her. She ended up killing their children. A real tragedy, from Euripides.

Again it was very noticeable that whatever happened in the play, all the actors would refer to God – or in the Greek context, the gods. ‘Did something represent the will of the gods?’, they always asked themselves.

Earlier in the week we had our first sessions of the Lent course. This year we are looking at the Beatitudes, the ‘Blessed are they’ sayings of Jesus at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt.5 and Luke 6]. In the first session we were looking at the saying, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. We were reflecting, among other things, on the way in which, when these sayings are repeated in St Luke’s gospel, there is no mention of the ‘in spirit’ bit, but it’s simply, ‘Blessed are you who are poor’.

So back to Jeremiah and to the warning to the kings of the house of David. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness …. who makes his neighbours work for nothing, and does not give them their wages, who says, I will build myself a spacious house, with large upper rooms…’ This is uncomfortably close to home. A footballer’s house, perhaps.

And what do we think about the masses of people who are out of work, who are being forced to work for nothing in menial jobs? Whatever we do think, do you think we should at least consult our Bibles? Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard in St Matthew’s gospel chapter 20. Even though the vineyard owner paid a flat rate of a day’s pay, a denarius, irrespective whether the worker worked for one hour or eight hours, there was no question of working for nothing.

My point is this: that in this time of Lent we should look again at our lives, in the light of the gospel. We say, ‘The Lord is here. His spirit is with us’: and then we forget about him. I’m sure that at least some of you are going to tackle me on the door afterwards and explain how important it is that young people should get work experience, and that it doesn’t matter that they work for nothing, provided, of course, all the usual safeguards are in place.

You may be right. My point is not that: my point is, that in all the discussions about the rights and wrongs of it, nobody mentions God, nobody mentions what Jesus would do. Remember what the epistle of James says, in chapter 5. ‘Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. … Listen! The wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of The Lord of hosts’.

The Bible is absolutely clear: it’s not a good thing not to pay people for their work. Funny that nobody mentions it.