Thursday, 28 July 2016

Prayers of intercession: Munich, Turkey, Europe, USA

Prayers of intercession, including responses to the terrorist attack in Munich, the attempted coup in Turkey, the changing European situation, and the forthcoming American elections. Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 24/7/16

Great God of all the earth, in you are found the full riches of our human experience, and you call us to live our lives out of the richness of your self-giving in Christ.

So may our lives reflect the life that you bring to the world.

May we learn what it is to put others before ourselves.

May we learn what it means to see your image in each created human soul, however marred and distorted that image has become as a result of human sinfulness.

And so as we come to pray for our world, we do so aware of the common humanity we share with all people, and in the light of your greater call to forgiveness and reconciliation.

May our prayers shape a world where self is made less, and where generosity and grace are grown.

So we pray for victims of terrorist activity, and especially for those who just this week in Munich faced death on the streets of a peaceful European city. But even as we pray for Munich, we are aware that within the lifetime of some of us here today, it was our own country that brought death to the streets of that same city, even as their fighters brought death to ours.

And as we hear news of the attempted coup and reprisals in Turkey, and of suicide bombings in Kabul, we know that terror can turn to peace, just as peace can turn to war. So we pray for international peacemakers, for politicians and civil servants, for lawyers and judges, and doctors and medics, and all those who strive for reconciliation and healing.

We pray for our own country’s relationship with its neighbours as we begin the process of renegotiating the basis on which we will coexist within the continent of Europe. May we not lose our sense of common humanity, where each person is valued regardless of creed or ethnicity. May we, as your church, have the courage to speak out for justice for all, and for reconciliation in place of conflict.

And as our nation lifts its eyes to the wider global stage, we pray for the United States of America. We thank you for the many ways in which American culture at its best has contributed positively to the world, for their values of justice, equality, and fairness. But we also recognise those voices that would promote hatred, fear, and self-interest, and we recognise them because they echo voices we hear in our own country, and, in our darker moments, in our own hearts too. May your love and justice triumph in our lives, in our country, and in our world.

We believe that your giving of yourself in Christ on the cross was for the whole world, for Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, Hindu, and Buddhist. We believe that the cross offers a way to end violence as you reach out to those of all political persuasions and show a new and better way of being human – one where our lives mirror your self-giving.

And so may the revolution of love and peace begin with us. May we be those who show to the world what it means to put the other first, to see your divine image in each created soul, and to live out the truth that in you are found the full riches of our human experience.


Amen.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Sermon for the wedding of Charly & Paul

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Saturday 23 July 2016

Ephesians 3.14-21  For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,  15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit,  17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,  21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

It is a truth long established 
that none of us really knows what the future will hold. 

Despite our best efforts at prediction and forecasting, 
tomorrow remains a mystery which retains the element of surprise. 

Not long ago, I had to send a ‘surprise’ email to Charly and Paul,
when we discovered that there was going to be some scaffolding up
on the outside of the church for their wedding.
If you haven’t seen it – just don’t look!

And as political events in the UK over the last few weeks have proved,
none of us really knows what the next day is going to bring.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said in 1789, 
‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’.

So why, we might reasonably ask, have we gathered here today 
to witness and celebrate two people 
making promises that they intend to keep for the rest of their lives? 
Surely this is just foolishness in the face of reason and probability? 

After all, we live in a world where impermanence and transience 
are the order of the day. 
Long gone are the days when people trained for a profession 
and then stayed in the same job for 40 years. 
Long gone are the days when people bought a house 
and then lived in it for the rest of their lives. 
I am now living in my fifth house since I got married, 
and have lived in three different cities, and that’s not unusual. 

And all of this uncertainty affects what we mean 
when we talk about marriage. 

A couple of generations ago, 
a wedding ceremony was perceived as the start of a life of stability. 
The process was well known: 
get married, settle down, buy a house, 
raise children, pay taxes, retire, die.

But these days, the promise to love faithfully until death us do part 
can sound a bit weird. 
It is perhaps what we might call 
a ‘counter-cultural’ act for two people to undertake. 

Surely it would be much more sensible to hedge one’s bets, 
rather than jump in for better or for worse, 
for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health? 

And yet, here we all are, 
and here are Charly and Paul, 
and they’ve only gone and done it! 
So, congratulations Mr and Mrs Bhatia. 

They, and we with them, 
dare to believe that there is something really positive 
in what Charly and Paul have just done.

They are entering into a way of living,
where two, let’s face it, highly independent humans 
commit to live together, 
putting each other first
and discovering what it is to be stronger together.

It flies in the face of individualism 
and speaks to us of generosity, grace, and giving. 

A marriage is an expression of a vision and a faith 
that for all its uncertainty, 
the future is worth striving for, worth investing in.

In our reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 
he encourages them to find strength in their inner being 
through living lives which are rooted and grounded in love. 

The ancient world had its share of uncertainty, 
with conflict, sickness, and famine all very real threats to stability. 

So Paul points to something 
that farmers and gardeners will know intuitively, 
which is that if you want to grow something worthwhile, 
it takes investment and commitment. 

He tells them that they are to strive for lives 
which are rooted and grounded in love. 

There are very few quick returns to be had from the soil: 
crops need sowing, nurturing, and patient care 
before the harvest is ready. 
And some, like the olive trees and vines 
that dominate the Mediterranean landscape, 
will take a lifetime to reach their full glory.

In a world of impermanence, uncertainty, and risk, 
the way to inner strength 
is a life rooted and grounded in love. 

For St Paul, all love finds its origin and source in God. 

Like the waters that lie beneath the parched soil, 
sustaining the trees and vines through the long hot summers, 
our lives can tap into this deep love 
which will sustain us through the storms 
and scorching summers that may lie ahead.

It is this deep love which will sustain Paul and Charly 
as they learn to live in humility, 
putting each other before themselves
honouring the strengths that they each bring
and learning to cherish each other for who they are.

But a marriage has implications far beyond the couple themselves.

Those who know Charly and Paul, will know of their love for others,
their commitment to teaching, nurturing, 
and helping people grow and develop.

And from their life together, rooted and grounded in love, 
comes a blessing for the rest of us.
We too are strengthened 
by the love that comes to us through them. 

And I hold this as a mystery of grace. 

I’d love to understand it, but it surpasses knowledge 
and flies in the face of reason. 

But I do know this, 
the power of love that is at work in us 
is able to accomplish abundantly far more 
than all we can ask or imagine.

And it is to this greater love,
that I commend Charly and Paul,
as they start their new life together,
rooted and grounded in love.


Sunday, 17 July 2016

'Money-making religion'

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 17 June 2016
Acts 16.11-40 

Liz and I went away for a few days recently 
to stay in a caravan in Worcestershire, 
and we found ourselves in a local pub for our evening meal. 

As I was at the bar, ordering our food, 
I got talking to a man whose self-appointed job for the evening 
seemed to consist of propping up the bar, 
having a definitive opinion on the available selection of local real ales, 
and making conversation. 

He fairly soon worked out that I “wasn’t from round these parts”, as he put it,
and eventually asked me straight out what I did for a living. 

Normally, I try not to answer such questions, 
but I found myself wondering where my new friend would go with it, 
so I told him. 

“Oh!” he said, “The church! 
The thing about the church… and I’m not trying to start a fight… 
but, the thing about the church is all that money. 
I mean, taking money from gullible people 
and then buying palaces and all that, 
and always wanting more when already own more land than British Rail. 
It’s all about money, isn’t it. What do you think?” 

Well, I wished him well, 
and said I really ought to be getting our drinks back to the table 
before the food arrived, 
and thanked him for his advice on the beer.

But, is he right? 
Is church really all about the money? 
I’d like to say no, 
but then here I am preaching another sermon on money, 
as part of our sermon series on money and mission, 
so maybe he has a point…? 

Well – bear with me for a few minutes longer
and we’ll see where our engagement with this morning’s story 
from the book of Acts, about Lydia, Paul, Silas, and the slave girl, takes us.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two errors that the church can make 
when addressing the topic of money. 

The first is to assume that money is itself an evil. 
We mis-quote Paul and give the impression 
that money is the root of all evil. 
When actually, of course, what Paul says in his letter to Timothy 
is that it is the love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6.10). 
It is idolizing money, prioritising it above all else, 
that opens the door to works of darkness. 

Money itself can be a cause of great good. 
But all too often the church has sought, 
not to help people live well with money, 
but to convince them that money is an evil best avoided. 

Of course, it’s only one small step from there to theologies of asceticism 
which suggest that the only way to be rid of this evil 
is to give it away, preferably to the church. 

The other error, which comes at the other end of the scale 
but ends in much the same place, 
is to assume that money is a deserved gift from God, 
given as a reward for faithfulness. 

And it’s only one small step from here 
to the theologies of blessing and wealth and prosperity, 
where the more faithfully one gives to the church, 
the more God gives back. 

Both of these are, I think, false views of money, 
but they are prevalent and I’ve certainly met both 
in various forms over the years. 

Well, I want to suggest that our passage for this morning 
goes a long way towards identifying and debunking both these positions, 
and it does so through the engagements Paul and Silas have 
with two very different women. 

Firstly there’s Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth. 

Lydia is clearly a successful merchant, plying her trade in Philippi, 
the capital town of the region and also a Roman colony. 
Lydia is also what was known as a ‘God-fearer’, 
a Gentile who worshipped the Jewish God, 
and she becomes the first convert to Christianity in Europe. 

The significance of this is often overlooked, so I’ll say it again: 
the first European Christian convert of Paul 
was a financially successful woman. 

In a world of patriarchy, where women were themselves often treated 
more as property than persons, 
and in a new religion which we often think of 
as the religion of the poor and the disadvantaged, 
this is all highly significant. 

Paul and Silas extend to Lydia the inclusive message of Jesus 
in whom, as Paul says elsewhere (Gal. 3.28) 
the barriers of gender, social class, and ethnicity are broken down. 

She and her family are baptised in the name of Jesus, 
and although this isn’t a sermon on baptism 
I would just observe that baptism has, from the very beginning, 
been the way of marking a person’s belonging to 
and commitment to Christ, 
and as we are planning a baptism here for October, 
if anyone would like to talk with me about this, 
or with Ruth or Dawn, please do so.

Lydia then opens her home to Paul and Silas, 
extending financial support and hospitality to them 
in support of their mission to the city of Philippi, 
and like other women in the book of Acts, 
such as Mary (12.12) and Priscilla (18.13), 
becomes a patron of the two missionaries. 

Here, in Lydia, we have a positive example and role model 
of how a person with money might live faithfully
within the community of Christ’s people. 

The values of hospitality and generosity that she demonstrates 
still speak to those of us 
who are similarly able to live out such values today.

But the heart-warming and encouraging story of Lydia 
sandwiches a much darker episode in Paul and Silas’s mission to Philippi, 
and it’s a story of demon possession, torture, 
false imprisonment, and international politics. 

And it all begins with another woman. 

At first glance the slave girl is the polar opposite of Lydia. 
She is property, and is constrained to use her religious gift 
to make money for her owners. 

But there are similarities too: 
both the slave girl and Lydia are women trying to survive 
in the midst of a system that constantly seeks 
to constrain and control them, 
and both are caught up in financial systems 
that extend far beyond their own control or influence. 

Lydia may be wealthy, generous, and hospitable, 
but as a merchant in a Roman colony 
she would also have been compromised by the mechanisms of trade. 

Similarly the slave girl is required to behave in certain ways 
by the profit-motives of her owners, 
and has very little agency for resistance. 

Which is why what happens when she meets Paul and Silas is so unusual. 
She starts following them around 
shouting to anyone who would listen 
that they are slaves of the most high God, 
and that they are proclaiming a way of salvation. 

Well, they say that any publicity is good publicity, 
but Paul saw through the mockery of her words, 
superficially truthful though they may have been, 
to the spirit of control that lay behind them, 
and he ordered the spirit to leave her. 

The girl herself disappears from the narrative at this point; 
with her usefulness to her owners gone, 
we are left wondering about her fate. 

But what happens next to Paul and Silas 
is a racially motivated violent beating, 
public humiliation, and imprisonment. 

The owners of the slave girl whip up the crowd into an anti-Semitic fury 
by using the age-old technique of scapegoating the ethnic minority 
for the sins of the whole society. 

Here in Acts it’s Paul and Silas the Jews 
who got the blame for the city’s financial and social woes; 
but in other times and in other places 
the same technique of racial stereotyping and scapegoating 
has led to deep and violent divisions within societies 
as fear and anger earth themselves 
on the disadvantaged minority. 

From Louisiana to Minnesota to Dallas, 
to parts of our own country and even our own city, 
violence against the minority remains an ever-present risk, 
particularly when money, wealth and poverty are in the mix; 
and where you have an oppressed, scapegoated, 
impoverished, and disenfranchised minority, 
the spiralling of violence can seem inevitable.

I’ve been listening recently to the latest Paul Simon album 
and in his song ‘Wristband’ he captures something of this tension.

He starts by telling the story of one time he stepped outside the stage door 
of a concert he was giving to have a cigarette, 
and let the door shut behind him and couldn’t get back in. 
So he had to go round to the front door, 
but the bouncer didn’t recognise him and wouldn’t let him in 
because he didn’t have the right wristband on. 

Paul Simon says, 
‘I can’t explain it, I don't know why my heart beats like a fist
When I meet some dude with an attitude 
saying "hey, you can't do that, or this"’ 

But it’s the final verse that’s relevant to our story this morning. 

Paul Simon sings, 
‘The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly
Then they spread into the heartland towns that never get a wristband
Kids that can't afford the cool brand whose anger is a short-hand
For you'll never get a wristband 
and if you don't have a wristband 
then you can't get through the door’

So Paul and Silas, the Jews, are subject to a racially motivated attack 
triggered by Paul’s action in releasing the slave girl 
from the spirit that controlled her 
and bound her to the systems that oppressed her. 

There can be a very real cost to pay 
if stands are taken against the principalities and powers 
that dominate so much of human society and interaction, 
and always, somewhere in the middle of it all, 
is economics.

Because money is power, and power is control. 
This is the dark side of money, 
where it enslaves rich and poor alike, 
mediates oppression, and instigates violence.

And Paul and Silas place themselves in opposition 
to those systems of economic control 
when Paul casts the demon out of the slave girl. 

The remarkable thing about the story, however, 
is that it doesn’t end with the violence, 
rather it ends with liberation, 
and not just for Paul and Silas, 
but for all those imprisoned that night (16.26), 
as an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison 
and all the doors are opened 
and everyone’s chains fell off. 

It even ends well for the jailer, 
whose attempted suicide ends in the salvation of him and his household. 

And as the darkness of the night gives way to the new dawn, 
the magistrates learn that Paul and Silas are not just Jews but Roman citizens, 
and they are released back to Lydia, 
and the story has come full circle.

So what does this complex and violent story have to say to us, 
particularly as we consider our own use of money and power 
as we seek to engage the mission of Christ in our own city? 

Well, firstly I think it calls us to works of hospitality and generosity. 
Like Lydia, we need to learn to hold lightly to our own wealth, 
such as we have, 
and to give generously and sacrificially 
in support of the ministry of the gospel, 
both here in London and around the world. 

If we believe, as a church, that it is our calling before God 
to have a building to act as a place of worship, hospitality, and welcome, 
then we have a responsibility to pay for it. 
If we believe that it is right for us to have ministers 
who serve the people of God through this place, 
then it is also right that we pay for them…

Many of us here know that at Bloomsbury 
we are having some difficult conversations about our financial position, 
especially relating to an ongoing budget deficit 
between total income and total expenditure. 

The reasons for this deficit are fairly straightforward: 
we are spending more, and yet income is declining. 

However, a breakdown might make things a bit clearer.




In this first slide, we can see our income through gift-aid giving 
over the last five years. 
Broadly it’s been an upward trend, 
with a high blip in 2013 caused by a one-off donation.



This next slide sows our giving through gift aid, 
and also in grey our income from the letting of our building. 

As you can see this, has declined slightly over the last five years, 
dipping in 2013 and then recovering a bit.




This slide adds the cost of the ministers of the church, in yellow. 

Interestingly, this pretty closely tracks our congregational giving. 

The low year in 2012 and the higher cost in 2013 can be accounted for 
by various staff changes during that period, 
but the overall trend is remarkably consistent, 
showing a broadly even level of expenditure on ministry. 




This next slide adds into the mix the blue line of other salaries 
– here we’re talking about the administrative staff, 
including the church manager 
and the various part time reception and others 
that we employ for various reasons. 

As you can see, this has risen fairly consistently since 2013.




And this final slide brings it all together 
and adds in green the cost of running the building, 
including repairs and upgrades. 

This too has been rising in recent years.

So, this helps us bust some myths.

Firstly, we are not spending a lot more on ministry in 2016 
compared to five years ago, 
and the vision that the church discerned some years before that 
for three ministers who complement each other 
to offer a wide range of gifts to the church and the city remains valid. 

So Dawn offers community ministry 
relating the church to the grassroots of social change. 

Ruth and I share some responsibilities equally, particularly on Sundays; 
but during the week we bring very different gifts to the church, 
with Ruth offering professional counselling and spiritual direction, 
and wider ecumenical involvement, 
while I engage with the systems and powers of change within the city, 
and am often the face of this church 
in our relationships with political, economic, 
and educational networks. 

If you want to know more about what we do on behalf of the church 
when we’re not standing in the pulpit, do come and ask us!

Secondly, we have had to spend more on the upkeep of the building, 
because things break, wear out, and need replacing, 
and costs of doing this continue to rise.

Thirdly, we have spent more on other salaries 
because we need to ensure that the building is safe 
when we are open at evenings and weekends, 
and we no longer have just one person on duty at one time. 

Also, since becoming a living wage employer, 
we make sure that all our staff, from cleaners to receptionists, 
are paid a fair wage.

Fourthly, letting commercially for profit 
has become an increasingly competitive and challenging market, 
and our church manager has done well in keeping this as high as it is. 

We try to balance commercial and charitable lets, 
and hopefully the newly renovated basement will help us with this next year. 
But there is going to be an ongoing need 
to continually update the building to keep it lettable.

And finally, and this is where we all come into it – giving. 

I need to say that in many ways we’re doing well on this. 

Many of us are giving sacrificially and faithfully to the church, 
and I now that there have been some substantial increases 
in giving in recent months. 

If that’s you – on behalf of the whole church – thank you!

However, the challenge remains for each of us 
to regularly review our giving, 
not as a support of the church as an institution, 
but as an expression of our faithful discipleship and generosity to others. 

You may be interested in one final chart, 
which anonymously displays our gift aid giving pattern as a church.




Here you can see that we have 158 gift aid donors in total
who gave money to Bloomsbury in the financial year of 2015-16.

A hundred of these gave between £1 and £200 during the year,
and accounted for 4% of our giving income.
Seventeen donors gave between £200-£500,
and accounted for a further 5% of our giving income.
Nineteen donors gave between £500 - £1000 during the year,
and accounted for 15% of our giving income.
A further ten donors gave between £1000 and £2000,
accounting for 16% of our giving income,
But the remaining 60% of our giving
comes from twelve donors,
six of whom gave between £2000 and £4000 per year,
and six of whom gave over £4000.

I would just note from this that we are disproportionately reliant 
on a fairly small number of people.

You will know where you fit into this chart, 
and my question is simply this: are you in the right place? 

A couple of further things to reflect on, as we respond; 
if everybody gave 10% of their income, 
our deficit problem would vanish, 
and we’d have more people giving over £4000 per year. 

Similarly, if everyone doubled their current level of giving, 
our problem would vanish. 

But even if everyone simply increased their current level of giving by 10%, 
whilst it wouldn’t solve all our problems, 
it would mean that congregational giving 
would cover the cost of our ministers 
without the need for them to be subsidised from the lettings income. 

And if we were to end up this time next year 
with more money that we currently need, 
then who knows what we could do in the name of Christ 
to continue our mission to transform our city?

So, is my friend from the pub right? 
Is the church all about money?

I’d still say no, it isn’t. 

It’s about mission, and discipleship, and love, 
and hospitality, and generosity, and service, 
and so much more. 

But how we handle our money together 
affects what we can and cannot do together. 

And so my challenge is for us to learn the lesson of Lydia, 
of what it means to be good with money. 

And for us to learn the lesson of Paul and Silas 
and become fearless in our challenging 
of systems of financial oppression and exploitation, 
as we model something different in our own community. 

As I keep saying, this isn’t really about money, 
it’s about discipleship; 

and this is the call on us all, 
and it is our challenge to respond to.


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Making a difference to one person

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.
He says,
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.
                   It matters.
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.