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:

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.

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