Tuesday, 1 September 2020


Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

6 September 2020 

Acts 3.1-10  

My thesis for this morning is this:

I think that the least interesting thing about someone who is homeless

is the fact that they are homeless.

There is so much more to a person

than where they sleep at night, 

or how much money they have available to spend.

And yet, the irony is that for most people who live without stable housing,

this is the defining aspect of their lives

particularly in terms of their interactions with others.

And as we come to the end of our short series looking at justice issues,

in which we’ve considered 

a Christian approach to rethinking the benefits system,

the importance of ecological justice, 

and the welcoming of refugees,

today we’re going to be thinking about homelessness,

and what a Christian approach to this might be.

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 has placed himself on the pavement at a busy intersection, 

and is begging for money. 

And if you have walked the streets of London over the years, 

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? 

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’.

In a scene with disturbing similarities to street theatre,

he had carefully positioned himself 

to contrast his own deformed body

with the soaring sublime architecture of the Temple,

carefully constructing the scene 

to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash) 

from those entering the temple 

The sight poses a troubling question to those passing by:

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. 

There was a strand of ancient thought 

that regarded misfortune in life as a curse from God. 

As if, in some way, a person deserved their deficiency. 

In our sermons earlier this year from the Book of Job

we saw how that ancient text 

challenged this way of looking at things.

But here, in the scene before the Temple,

we find an ancient echo 

of the more contemporary debates we often hear 

around the deserving or undeserving poor.

Those who enjoyed power, wealth, and health in the ancient world

believed that they had received these things 

as a deserved gift from God.

And this left those from whom such benefits had been withheld 

to fill the role of undeserving scrounger.

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, 

and kept the poor in a state of dependency and disempowerment.

It was a system of mutual meeting of needs,

but one which was ultimately powerless to effect genuine change.

It was into this context that Peter and John 

conducted their transgressive act against this system of inequality 

that everyone had become complicit in. 

They didn’t give alms to the beggar. 

They didn’t give him silver, or gold, or even a few copper coins. 

They refused the transaction of handing over money 

in exchange for a temporarily salved conscience. 

Rather, Peter looked the beggar in the eye, 

and reached out a hand to him to lift him up. 

This is deeply subversive stuff, 

because it challenges all the implicit and unspoken assumptions 

about the way the world works. 

In most societies, including our own,

the poor are not to be lifted up, 

they are not to be looked upon as equals. 

They are to be ignored, vilified, 

blamed, stigmatized, and done unto. 

If you don’t believe me, just read the newspapers.

In the first century, they were there to provide the ‘weak’ 

to the temple system’s ‘strong’,

and I don’t think it’s so different in our world today.

The thing is, if Peter and John had simply given money to the man, 

they would have become complicit in the very system 

that was keeping him in his poverty. 

But they didn’t give him money,

they took a different, dare I say more Christ-like path, 

which challenged the system 

and opened the door to transformation.

Doing this was not without its consequences; 

and the traumatic events of the next three chapters in Acts 

all arise from this specific incident 

of healing of a lame man in the Temple grounds. 

If you take action to subvert systems of control, 

you distort the imbalances of power 

on which our hierarchical religious institutions 

and stratified societal structures are built. 

And those powers will always fight back, 

seeking 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 arrested and put on trial. 

And, dare I say, 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? 

Our beautiful gateway, with its Normanesque arch, 

has always marked the entrance to a building 

from which the church has ministered to the poor and the disadvantaged. 

Our historically strategic location,

on the boundary between the wealth and privilege of Bloomsbury, 

and the grinding poverty of the St Giles Slums, 

speaks of a commitment from the very beginning 

to reach out into the diverse communities around the church.

The congregation of Bloomsbury has always sought 

to bring wealth and poverty together 

in ways that are genuinely transformational,

and which challenge the transactional basis

of much of what is classed as charitable giving.

At its best, here at Bloomsbury,

this has never just been about giving to the poor.

Bloomsbury is a church where, from its founding day, 

we have sought to reach out and touch, 

where we have extended the hand of friendship to raise people up,

where we do not stand on our dignity.

And so we have a proud history of effective engagement

with those who are homeless and disadvantaged.

Did you know that even during lockdown we have been active,

working with other churches through London Citizens,

to campaign for the reopening of toilets in the West End, 

and for better sanitary provision for those still living on the streets.

We are currently in the early stages of conversations

about ways in which better mental health support 

can be offered to those who live with homelessness.

The thing is, the best way of offering the love of Christ 

to those on the streets is changing:

no longer do the homeless go hungry unless we feed them,

and there are better equipped agencies than us ensuring people get food.

So as we consider our future engagement with those who live without housing,

my challenge today is for us to start thinking differently

about how we might reach out to them in the name of Christ.

Here’s a thought:

What if we stopped inviting people to queue for food?

We already do less of this on a Sunday than we used to,

but pre-lockdown there were still queues outside our gate

as people were stood in line to come to the Evening Centre.

If you offer something for nothing,

it’s not hard to get a queue to form.

The question is, is it the right thing to do?

I wonder what it might mean, instead, 

for us to take people by the hand and lift them up, as Peter did, 

so that they no longer need to queue for bread?

What would it mean for us to look people in the eye 

and see the person behind the circumstance?

What if we could discover 

that the least interesting thing about a homeless person

is that they are homeless.

Lockdown has forced us to stop many of our engagements with the homeless,

from those who still came to lunch on Sundays

to the Evening Centre,

to the Choir with No Name.

And it is quite likely that some, if not all, of these

will be unable to restart within the foreseeable future.

So instead, 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 offering a service that users can access. 

It can be about creating a place of refuge, 

of safety, of friendship, of creativity.

Where each person who comes is known and valued 

as a person loved and unique in God’s sight;

where we take them by the hand and raise them up.

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, and 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 I suspect that in the example of Peter and John

we find a model for our own future engagement with the homeless,

where we resist the seductions of superficial solutions

such as throwing money and resources at the problem,

and instead we invest in relationships and holistic engagement,

making ourselves vulnerable

and responding creatively to the needs of the city.

Bloomsbury’s ministry to the homeless is not finished, far from it,

but it will have to change, to evolve, as the needs of the city evolve.

But in that change we will discover the rich resources of scripture

calling us into paths of transformation

not just for those we are ministering to,

but for ourselves as well.

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