Sunday, 23 July 2017

Restorative Reciprocity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Restorative Reciprocity
23 July 2017

Daniel 7.13-14 
Matthew 25.31-46 

Do you ever look at the world, and think,
            ‘where, in the midst of all this, is there any good news at all?’

So much of the world that we live in,
            from the local and parochial, to the national and the international,
            is dominated by darkness, despair, and desolation.

I could, but won’t, spend the rest of this sermon
            cataloguing just a tiny percentage
            of all the things that are wrong with the world.
I admit, that might be a bit depressing,
            but then sometimes the world is a depressing place.

In fact, there are some days when I just want to scream at the heavens,
            and call down divine judgment on this so-called developed country of ours,
where the poor are getting poorer
            and the services designed to lift up the unfortunate and the disadvantaged
            are being systematically pared away until there is little left of any use.

In fact, it’s probably a good job God wouldn’t respond
            to my cry for sudden and catastrophic intervention,
            or we’d all be in even more trouble than we already are.

I take some comfort from the fact that my desire for judgment is nothing new,
            and that people have been crying out for millennia
                        against the injustices of the world.

In fact, one of the key theological debates in the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament,
            revolves around the question of why bad things happen to good people,
                        while the bad people so often seem to get away scot free.

You can even make an argument that it is this very question
            which drives the development of theology,
            as people sought answers to this most problematic of pastoral problems.

The writer of the book of Deuteronomy proposed a solution
            which, in a nutshell, asserted that if something bad happened to you,
            you definitely did deserve it, whether you knew why or not.

The Deuteronomic idea was that health, wealth, and blessings
            were given by God to those who kept the covenantal laws,
while sickness, poverty, and misfortune
            were sent in response to disobedience.

This sort of mechanistic approach still has echoes today
            in the kind of Christianity where God is believed to reward the faithful
                        with happiness, money, and good health.

It is also found in religious traditions like Christian Science
            where sickness is believed to be a manifestation of a person’s sin;
            and so the path to healing is to be found in confession and repentance.
My grandfather was brought up as a Christian Scientist,
            and it was his teen age experience of being denied treatment for a tooth abscess,
                        and simply being told to confess his sin to make the pain go away,
            that turned him into the lifelong atheist that I knew and loved.

And the interesting question for me in the story of my grandfather,
            is whether the judgment of God falls against him personally
                        for his life of faith-less-ness,
            or against the community that abused him away from a life of faith?

Sometimes, I think, we over-emphasise the individual response,
            without giving sufficient weight
            to the corporate responsibility of a person’s wider context.

And so we meet in the Hebrew Scriptures another strand of thought
            which suggests that maybe we shouldn’t individualise this so much
                        and what if we took a broader, more communal view,
                        where nations and peoples rise and fall together.

We can see this perhaps most clearly in the personification of Israel
                        as a suffering servant in the book of Isaiah,
                        bearing the pain of exile for the sins of other nations done against her;
            while those nations are judged
                        for the way they, in turn, have treated God’s chosen people of Israel.

A further perspective can be found in traditions like that of the book of Job,
            who is depicted as a righteous man
                        whose sufferings are sent as a test of his faith,
                        to see if he will curse God when his blessings are withdrawn.

Throw into this the development of a theology of the afterlife,
            and the possibility that rights may be wronged
                        and punishments handed out
            in some future world rather than in the present one,
and the stage is pretty much set for our parable this morning,
            the story of the sheep and the goats.

It’s a fascinating little story,
            told by Jesus towards the end of Matthew’s gospel,
and it combines some key ideas:
            There’s the idea of a future judgment;
            there’s the question of human suffering,
                        of why some people are hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, and imprisoned;
            there’s the concept of corporate guilt borne at a national level
                        that take us beyond individual culpability;
            and there’s the conundrum of where God and his people fit into all this.

It’s also nowhere near as straightforward to interpret
            as it may at first appear.

I’ve chosen this parable for our reading for today
            because I think it provides an interesting perspective
                        on the question of how we, as the followers of Jesus,
                        might respond to the needs of our world,
            and particularly the problems caused by poverty and homelessness.

As we all know, the needs of the needy aren’t going away;
            if anything, they are getting more severe,
with the rise of food banks, clothing exchanges,
            night shelters, day centres, soup kitchens, and other crisis services
                        all testifying to the growing problem of people in our city
                        without enough resources or support to function within normal society.

The roll-back of state benefits has created a vacuum
            into which many charities and churches, ourselves included, have stepped
                        as we try to provide help to those at greatest need and risk.
It’s what David Cameron called ‘the Big Society’,
            where we take responsibility for one another through charitable enterprise,
                        rather than expecting the state to do it collectively on our behalf
                        through the welfare system.

So, what do we think we’re doing when we feed the hungry,
            clothe the naked, and visit the sick or imprisoned?

Well, one reading of the parable of the sheep and goats
            might lead us to believe that we’re earning our place in heaven!

Have you ever seen an advert for a Christian charity,
            asking for money to support the good work they’re doing
                        with the poor, or refugees, or children, or whatever,
            and the poster has a picture of a representative of their client group,
                        overlaid by the text,
                        ‘whatever you did for the least of these …dot … dot … dot …’?

 Just stop and think this through with me for a moment,
            to its logical conclusion.

In the parable, the nations are separated into sheep and goats;
            the sheep inherit the eternal kingdom,
                        while the goats are cursed and sent away to the eternal fire
                        prepared for the devil and his angels.

And what is it that separates the sheep from the goats?
            It is the feeding of the hungry and the thirsty, the welcoming of the stranger,
                        the clothing of the naked, and the visiting of the sick and imprisoned.

The Son of Man says,
            ‘Just as you did it, or did not do it, to one of the least of these
                        who are members of my family, you did it, or did not do it, to me.’

So here’s the deal:
            If ‘the least of these’ refers to the generic poor of the world,
                        to the homeless, the refugees, the imprisoned,
                        the homeless, and the starving,
            then the only thing you need to do in this life,
                        to ensure that you go the heaven and don’t go to hell,
                        is to feed, clothe, welcome and visit.

Doctrine doesn’t matter, nor does confession or repentance,
            nor reading the Bible, nor worship,
            nor any of the other things we often think are so important:
                        just devote yourself to good works and your salvation is assured.

Five hundred years after the dawn of the Reformation,
            I think I can just about hear Martin Luther turning in his grave!

But actually, the implications of our fundraising poster are even more sinister,
            because the inference is that if you don’t give them your money,
                        you’re a goat, and are going to the place of fire!

So my question is:
            are we satisfied with this dominant interpretation
                        of the parable of the sheep and goats,
            or is there another perspective
                        which may open it up for us in a different way?

The key question here is,
            who exactly are intended by the phrase,
            ‘the least of these who are members of my family’?

Is it the poor of the world, or is some other group in view here?

Many scholars are of the opinion that Matthew actually intends
            this to refer to the family of Jesus,
            to Christians rather than the generic poor.

This would certainly be consistent with elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel,
            where the disciples of Jesus are referred to as the ‘little ones’.

In chapter 23, Jesus says that ‘the greatest among you will be your servant’ (23. 11-18);
            and in chapter 18, the disciples are told
                        that they must become like little children (18.3, 4);
            while the warning is given that anyone who causes a ‘little one’
                        to stumble in their faith will be subjected to judgment (18.6, 10, 14).

And if this is right, that in Matthew the term ‘little ones’
            is used to refer to the family of Jesus, to his disciples and followers,
it opens up a whole different perspective
            on our understanding of the sheep and goats parable.

For a start, it moves us away from the idea
            that salvation directly correlates with good deeds towards the poor.

The reason I think this is significant,
            is because the more popular reading
                        assumes that Christians are wealthy and privileged enough
                        to offer help to those less fortunate than themselves.

If the ‘little ones’ are the poor of the world,
            the idealized division in humanity is between privileged Christianity
                        and a needy underclass.

I think that the reason the ‘generic poor’ interpretation has proved so persistent,
            at least in Western Christianity,
            is because all too often Christianity is a privileged religion.

This is the legacy of Christendom,
            where the faithful did a deal with powerful to mutual benefit,
            and the established church was born.

And a wealthy and powerful church will always be drawn
            to an interpretation that allows them to justify their privilege in the eyes of God
            by giving out of their wealth to help the least and the lost.

The traditional reading is therefore a manifesto
            for patriarchal top-down charitable giving,
            which has suited traditional western Christianity very well.

However, if the ‘little ones’ are not the poor of the world,
            but are the disciples and followers of Jesus,
            a more challenging and far less comfortable interpretation begins to emerge.

In the parable, the nations of the world are held to account
            for how they treat the ‘little ones’
            who are hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, estranged, and imprisoned.

This is not middle class Christianity,
            this is the suffering church following in the footsteps of its savior
                        who had no place to lay his head,
                        and who died a criminal’s death.

In terms of Matthew’s original readers,
            the persecuted minority of Christians in the latter part of the first century,
            struggling to keep faith in the face of overwhelming opposition,
it makes perfect sense for them to see themselves as the ‘little ones’,
            suffering for the cause of the gospel;
and in many places around the world today,
            a long way from our privileged Western Christendom heritage,
            Christians are similarly on the receiving end
                        of being the least and the last in society’s structures.

Interestingly, all the characteristics of the suffering church in this parable:
            being hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned,
are also listed by Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church,
            where he speaks in these terms of his own sufferings
            for the sake of the gospel of Christ (2 Cor. 11.16-33).

It begins to look as though Christians have no right to expect privileged treatment
            at either the hands of the almighty or the state,
                        no matter how faithful they might have been.

We are not rewarded with wealth and health
            for our devotion, piety, or loyalty,
and any privilege we may have is not ours by right;
            which means it is not really ours at all.

At best it is ours on trust;
            but we have no claim to status or honour.

In fact, discipleship after the example of Christ
            may well involve us learning that the first shall be last,
                        and the last shall be first (Matt. 20.16),
            and that the greatest among us will be the servant,
                        while all those who exalt themselves will be humbled
                        and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matt. 23.11-12).

Can you see what has happened in our reading of this parable?

As we have reframed ‘the least of these who are members of my family’
            away from referring to the poor of the world,
            and towards being a characteristic of authentic discipleship,
we have distanced ourselves from an approach to Christian charity
            whereby we earn our salvation through deeds of mercy
                        performed by wealthy believers;
and we have distanced ourselves from a theology
            of privilege as a God-given reward for faithful obedience.

Instead of these, we have arrived at a place
            where authentic Christianity is found in the suffering church,
                        and in our identification with the poor and the powerless.

And this has the capacity to radically transform our engagement
            with those who currently hungry, naked, unwelcome, and unwell in our world.

No longer do we throw them a gift from on high,
            to secure our salvation and assuage our consciences.

Rather, we are called to draw alongside them,
            in full knowledge that in other places, and other times,
            the body of Christ is to be found in the gutters and prisons of the world.

We are called to lay aside our superiority
            and to meet the other as an equal;
            as much a dearly loved child of God s we are ourselves.

And this equality of encounter opens
            the possibility for a genuinely transformatory relationship to develop.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking
            at how we can and should develop
            our church’s ministry to, and engagement with, the vulnerable of our city.

In the first sermon, on Toxic Charity, we saw how
            a patriarchal, trickle-down approach to charity
                        can end up making things worse
            by perpetuating the inequalities and dependencies
                        that lead to homelessness and disengagement from society.

In the second sermon, last week,
            we explored together what it might mean
                        for us to bear one another’s burdens,
            and to discover the strength that comes through mutual support.

Well, this week, in our final sermon in this short series on charity,
            I want us to realise that there is simply no New Testament mandate
                        for one-way, top-down charitable giving.

Through our reconsideration of the parable of the sheep and goats,
            we have seen how the key text used to justify one-way giving
                        can actually call us to something far more transformatory;
                                    to an equalizing of relationship
                                    and a laying aside of power and status,
                        so that a new basis for engaging the poor can begin to emerge.

And what comes into being from this is not charity,
            it is reciprocity.

We have to give up our isolation from the poor we are trying to help,
            and instead to discover that what it is to make ourselves vulnerable,
                        and to find ways of integrating with the poor.

If we perpetuate an ideology of offering service from on high,
            we lose the truth of the gospel
            and are in danger of making things worse rather than better.

Our goal is not to feed the hungry, or to clothe the naked,
            it is to see people restored as independent members of society,
            integrated into the networks of reciprocity that we ourselves benefit from.

Therefore the goal of our attempts to help
            must be to create networks of mutual dependence,
            rather than one-way giving which perpetuates unequal dependencies.

Dawn and I have been thinking long and hard about how,
            in our different projects here at Bloomsbury,
                        we can build in reciprocity,
                        where people give as well as receive;
            and where any vestiges of a culture of one-way giving
                        are transformed into mutual, reciprocal relationships.

This may not change the world, but it can begin to,
            because all revolutions start small and grow.

And what is at stake here is very big indeed.

Our nation is in a time of great transition.
            From the privatisation of social services and housing,
                        to the big and as yet unanswered questions about immigration and Brexit,
            we are going to need people who will stand up
                        and offer a way of engaging the poor and the vulnerable
                                    that is transformatory rather than punitive;
                        which raises people up,
                                    rather than keeping them in their place;
                        and which offers a way out of the seemingly ever-widening gap
                                    between the haves and the have-nots.

This is a societal problem, it’s a national issue,
            and it goes far beyond the individual.

So how will our nation be judged, I wonder,
            when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels with him?

The answer to that may well depend, at least I part, on what we do next,
            both individually and corporately.
A nation that distances itself from its collective responsibility
            towards the poor and the vulnerable,
and which rolls back on commitments to, for example, universal healthcare,
            sounds to me like a nation stoking the fires of judgment.

And in such contexts our wider community will need communities of faith,
            where people keep faith in a generous, loving, care-full God,
            who cares for each person without distinction.

So, are we ready to be that gospel people,
            will we be those who take the good news
            of the radical equality of the gospel of Christ
                        and start living it into being here, in the heart of our capital city?
Will we be those who, in the name of Christ,
            discover and share the joy that comes
            from participating in the renewal of society,
                        one life at a time?

If so, then all hope may not yet be lost,
            and maybe God’s judgment,
                        that I am sometimes so ready call down on,

            can be justifiably deferred in the interest of mercy and forgiveness. 

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