A Sermon preached at
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
19 June 2016
'Making a difference to one person'
Acts 3.1-10 One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o'clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, "Look at us." 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
John 9:1-16 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" 3 Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned".
Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/2016-06-19-am-simon-woodmanmp3#t=41:09
The scene which Luke paints for us
in our reading this morning from the book of Acts
is as contemporary as it is ancient.
It could be any street, in any city, in any country.
From Bloomsbury to Bangalore,
the picture is as familiar as it is troubling.
A man with a physical deformity has placed himself
on the pavement at a busy intersection,
and is begging for money.
You may even have walked past him on your way into church this morning.
Certainly, if you regularly walk the streets of London,
you will be no stranger to those who sit and beg.
Whether they present you with a disability
or a note written on a piece of cardboard,
the message, the request, is constant:
‘Please can I have some money?’
And I wonder, what do you do?
Do you walk on by,
ignoring the person to the best of your ability,
pretending not to have noticed them?
Do you, perhaps, genuinely not notice them,
having become so habituated to their presence
that it is indeed possible to pass by unseeing.
Do you mutter a prayer for them?
Do you give them some money?
Do you make eye contact and offer an apology,
or perhaps more accurately
an expression of sorrow for their condition,
before moving on ?
Do you offer to buy them a coffee,
or a sandwich?
Do you stop for a conversation,
to try and find out more about their circumstances?
Do you invite them to drop into Bloomsbury when we’re open,
from 10-4 during the week,
for a cup of something warm and somewhere to sit?
I have done all of these things, and more.
And what breaks my heart
is that I genuinely don’t know
if any of it has actually made any difference.
And it was no different in the first century,
with our anonymous friend sitting outside the Temple in Jerusalem,
strategically positioned in prime location
by the gate called ‘Beautiful’,
with the contrast between the soaring sublime architecture,
and his own deformed body,
carefully constructed to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash)
from those entering the temple
to bring their worship and offerings before the Lord.
How could a person with their eyes turned to God
ignore the plight of one of God’s suffering children?
I’m sure that many of those who came to the temple
gave to the beggar at the gate,
believing that by doing so,
they were offering to this unfortunate man
a tangible expression of the care that God had for him.
After all, the Jewish scriptures were clear in their commands
that the people of God had a duty of care
for those less fortunate than themselves;
from widows and orphans,
to refugees and aliens in the land,
to those with physical disability.
As the law code of Deuteronomy puts it,
‘cursed by anyone who misleads a blind person on the road’ (27.18).
But then there was the dark side
to the ancient Jewish attitude towards disability,
and poverty more widely,
and here we have to be very careful not to stand in judgment
because our own society can all too readily
reflect these same prejudices.
There was a strand of ancient thought
that regarded physical deformity, and other innate disadvantages,
as a curse from God.
In some way the disabled person was held to deserve their disability,
the impoverished person was held to deserve their deficiency.
In an ancient echo of contemporary debates
around the deserving or undeserving poor,
those that enjoyed power, wealth, and health
believed that they had received these things
as a deserved gift from God,
leaving those from whom such benefits had been withheld
to fill the role of undeserving scrounger.
This is what lay behind the disciples’ question to Jesus
in our reading from John’s gospel,
as to whose sin had led to the man being born blind.
Jesus, of course, is very clear in his response:
neither the man himself nor his parents should be held responsible.
There are no people deserving of stigma, isolation, or disability.
There are no poor people undeserving of kindness.
What matters for Jesus, and indeed for Peter and John,
is not how the person got into their plight,
but how they can be rescued from it.
And so it is that Peter utters his famous line,
‘silver and gold have I none, but what I have I give you.’
And on such a sentence the world turns upside down.
In this simple statement from Peter, the basic transaction
which lay at the root of the Jewish Temple system was subverted.
The beggar knew how it was supposed to work,
the worshippers knew how it was supposed to work,
the temple officials knew how it was supposed to work.
The Temple system represented middle class religion,
and was primarily populated by those who had money.
The moneyed worshippers’ job was to give alms to the poor;
whilst the job of the poor was to receive the handouts.
It was a tried and tested system, and everyone felt better in the process.
The small acts of kindness,
directed towards an undeserving (or even culpable) poor,
appeased the conscience of the rich,
whilst at the same time highlighting their ultimate powerlessness
to effect genuine change.
It is into this context that Peter and John conduct their transgressive act
against the system of inequality
that everyone had become complicit in.
They don’t give alms to the beggar.
They don’t give him silver, or gold, or even a few copper coins.
They refuse the transaction of handing over money
in exchange for a temporarily salved conscience.
Rather, Peter looks the beggar in the eye,
and reaches out a hand to him and lift him.
This is deeply subversive stuff,
because it is challenging all the implicit and unspoken assumptions
about the way the world works.
The poor are not to be lifted up,
they are not to be looked at as equals.
They are to be ignored, vilified,
blamed, stigmatized, and done unto.
They are there to provide the ‘weak’
to the temple system’s ‘strong’.
If Peter and John had simply given money to the man,
they would have become complicit in the very system
that kept him in his poverty.
But they took a different, more Christ-like path,
which challenged the system
and opened the door to transformation.
But doing this was not without consequences;
the events of the next three chapters in Acts
all arise from this specific incident
of healing of a lame man in the temple grounds.
And as with the story of Jesus and the healing of the man born blind,
transformatory acts such as these
bring a cost to those who enact them.
If you take action to subvert systems of control,
you are distorting the imbalances of power
on which our hierarchical religious institutions
and stratified societal structures are built.
And those powers will fight back,
and will seek to close down the transgressive power
of raising up someone whose ‘place’ in life
has been predetermined as disadvantaged.
And so Peter and John were both arrested and put on trial,
while Jesus faced the worst that the Pharisees could throw at him.
And so it will be with us also.
Let’s bring this story up to date, and hear it speak to our world.
Have you noticed that our church, here at Bloomsbury, has a Beautiful doorway?
I’ve been reading the history of Bloomsbury again recently,
and the story of how we came to have such an imposing façade is fascinating:
this was the first Baptist church to be built on a main street in London,
and so a grand statement was called for.
Not just one spire, but two!
Most inspiring, one might say!
But our beautiful gateway, with its Normanesque arch,
has always marked the entrance to a building
designed to minister to the poor and the disadvantaged.
From our location on the boundary
of the wealth and privilege of Bloomsbury,
and the grinding poverty of the St Giles Slums,
to the commitment from the very beginning
to have a person employed to reach out
into the diverse communities around the church,
this building has always sought
to bring wealth and poverty together
in ways that are genuinely transformational.
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, at its best,
has never just been about giving to the poor.
George M’Cree, the first community worker of the church,
writing in 1876 tells a story told about the first Minister, William Brock.
There are ministers who have never cultivated
the art of shaking hands with people.
‘My brother,’ said an aged minister to a friend of mine,
at whose ordination he preached,
‘never shake hands with a poor man.
Take off your hat to him, brother, if you like, in the street,
but never shake hands with him.
Maintain your dignity, brother!’
Dr Brock had great dignity, but he also had great humanity.
He would shake hands with anybody and everybody,
whether rich or poor, young or old.
To use the expression of a young man to me,
‘Dr Brock’s heart always seemed to be in his hand.
What a shake of the hand he would give you!’
Can you hear the resonance to our passage?
This is a church where, from the very first minister,
we have sought to reach out and touch,
where we extend the hand of friendship,
where we do not stand on our dignity.
And still, week by week,
people queue at our Beautiful gate to ask for alms.
Some of us sat here in this worship service this morning
will have been standing outside the church since 9 O’clock or earlier,
to ensure that we have got a ticket for lunch.
Most of those who queued, however, will now be elsewhere,
coming back in time for lunch at One.
People queue for food, and as a church we provide food.
Then they come back the next week, and the next.
Except they aren’t going to come back next week,
because we’re closing down the kitchens and the basement for four months
to make the place even more beautiful, I mean, functional.
I wonder how we will feel, next Sunday,
coming into our church without seeing a line of hungry people
queuing in the street for food that we will provide?
How will we feel coming into church,
without our basement already full of hungry lonely people
who have popped in for a cup of coffee,
before we ask them to leave so we can have our worship service?
How will we feel after the service next week,
when those same people are not coming back
after spending an hour on the streets
waiting for us to finish our worship
so that they can get their lunch?
Will it feel strange? Will it feel like Bloomsbury?
And it causes me to wonder how much of our identity,
both personally and corporately, is tied up in the giving of alms.
It causes me to ask myself
how much of my desperate attempt
to assuage myself of my guilt at my inherited privilege
is predicated on the giving of alms?
Do we feel guilty for closing things down for a few months?
But of course, come October, we can re-start the lunches,
and of course the queues will come back,
because as Jesus said, the poor will always be with you (Mt. 26.11).
But what if we didn’t just feed the poor?
What if we didn’t just invite people to queue for food?
What if we didn’t have a queue of people outside our beautiful gate
making a public statement to the world every Sunday morning
that this is the kind of place that gives food to the poor?
What would it mean, instead,
for us to take people by the hand and lift them up, as Peter did,
so that they no longer needed to queue for bread?
What would it mean for us to look people in the eye
and see the person behind the circumstance?
As we go into this break,
I want us to prayerfully consider the things we might do
with our refurbished building in October.
Let’s not simply restart things because we have always done them,
or because we miss doing them,
or because without doing them we feel guilty or inadequate.
Rather let’s ask the question
of what it is that we can do, before God,
that is genuinely transformational for the needs of our city.
Let’s ask what the needs are,
and be prepared to listen to those
who might tell us that the genuine needs
are not what we think they are.
Let’s be prepared to let go of our own programs and structures,
and instead construct new systems
built on relationships that are genuinely transformational.
Peter said, ‘silver and gold have I none, but this I give you’.
It doesn’t have to be about giving alms, providing food,
or providing a service that service users can access.
Maybe it can be about building a place of refuge,
of safety, of friendship.
Where each person who comes is known and valued
as person loved and unique in God’s sight,
and where we take them by the hand and raise them up.
And so you might want to take time over the summer
to get to know our partners a bit better.
You might want to find out more about the Simon Community
who run our Evening Centre on Tuesdays,
offering acceptance and opportunities for progression
to those who live on the street.
You might want to follow up the contact we have had with Ella’s home,
offering a safe place for women who are trapped in prostitution.
You might decide to get involved in London Citizens,
taking their two day training
and learning to join with others in addressing issues
of the living wage, affordable housing, and refugees.
You might volunteer to work with C4WS
who run our night shelter each winter.
You might want to spend time on the Ekklesia website,
learning a new way of engaging the political debate
from a radical Christian perspective.
You might want to visit the Soho Gathering,
and broaden your understanding
of the glorious diversity of human sexuality.
All of these, and so much more,
are areas of Bloomsbury’s ongoing ministry
which are seeking to look people in the eye,
extend a hand of equality, and raise people up.
They are about transformation.
However, in all of this we need to remember
that transformation is God’s responsibility, not ours.
We are not the ones who do the miracle.
We just have to be prepared to look the person in the eye,
and to reach out our hand in openness and trust,
to see the individual behind the circumstance.
This is a risky task, it’s dangerous because it’s disruptive.
It messes with our systems, and plays havoc with our expectations,
every bit as much as Peter and John’s actions
outside the Beautiful Gate to the Temple
subverted the systems that the Temple had in place
to ensure the poor got enough money
to tide them over until tomorrow.
But what if what we hear isn’t what we were expecting.
What if our Community Minister, Dawn,
our very own George M’Cree of the 21st Century,
comes back to us and says that there are new and different things
we can do with our building
which will be a transformatory gift
to those who come through our doors.
What if we hear suggestions from the margins
that we might use our resources differently
to the way we had planned to use them?
Well, I say ‘bring it on’.
Let’s hear from one another.
Let’s allow the vision for the future
to arise from the midst of the present,
informed by the values of the past.
Have you ever sat in church and thought,
‘if only we could do that?’
Do you have a burning passion for a ministry or an outreach project
to which you could become so committed
that it would drive you to your knees in prayer to see it happen?
Do you have a message from God to us
that we need to hear?
What if money was no object,
what would you do through this place?
And yes, I know we are running a budget deficit,
many of you heard my sermon on giving a fortnight ago,
and if you didn’t, I’d encourage you to catch up on it.
And yes, we need more income to sustain ministry
even at the levels of our present commitment.
But as Peter said, ‘Silver and Gold have I none, but what I have I give.’
And my question is this: What could you give?
The transformatory encounter is not predicated on money.
That is a secondary issue.
It’s not even predicated on there being
a large Sunday morning congregation filling our pews,
although that would be nice!
I firmly believe that if the mission is right,
if people are being transformed
through encountering the living power of Christ at work in our midst,
money and volunteers and members and worshippers
will come forward to join the work.
It has always been the case in the past.
If we are community of radical inclusion
where all are equal regardless of social standing,
economic circumstance, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality,
then we will draw to us those from all walks of life,
and the body will grow.
There are some of us here today
who have first-hand experience of poverty, homelessness, and exclusion.
It may be that if this is you,
you are not normally used to being listened to.
It may be that your experience of church
is of being silenced even as people give to you.
To which, I want to say, ‘not here’.
All our voices are worthy of being heard,
and so if you have ideas and opinions
about what this place should look like, be, and do,
as we look to the future,
I invite you to speak,
to talk to those who you have sat with at lunch,
to speak with Dawn, Ruth, or me.
On behalf of this place,
I reach out my hand
not to give to you, but to raise you up.