Thursday, 23 April 2020

Transformation, not charity

Provoking Faith
24 April 2020
Transformation, not charity

Acts 3.1-10  

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.

Those of us who regularly walk the streets of London,
                   are no strangers to those who sit and beg.
          And whether they present with a disability
                   or a note written on a piece of cardboard,
          the message, the request, is constant:
                   ‘Please can I have some money?’


This week, I’ve been involved in a number of Zoom meetings
          with our partners at London Citizens,
discussing the situation facing those who are homeless
          both in terms of the current lockdown,
          and also the implications for when lockdown ends.

Apparently, right now,
          despite the government offering to house all people who are homeless
                    in temporary hotel accommodation,
          there are still about 130 people sleeping on the streets of the West End,
                    congregating in Soho Square during the day
                    for meal handouts from local hotels.

In addition, there are real concerns that when the lockdown ends,
          with those who have been put into hotels being kicked out,
their numbers will combine with those who have lost their jobs and security,
          to bring about a homelessness situation in London
          far worse than we were facing before this crisis began.

And here I want to suggest something radical:
          which is that this homelessness crisis won’t be solved
                    by providing accommodation and money alone.

There are deep structural and systemic injustices in our society,
          which keep people disempowered and on the streets.
Simply opening hotels to the homeless
          doesn’t solve the problem.
As a trip to Soho Square this afternoon will amply demonstrate.

And neither does feeding people solve homelessness,
          nor having a stock of cast-off clothing,
          nor offering a washing machine for people to use.

These things may help make today a bit better,
          but even at their best they don’t solve the underlying problems
                    of poor mental health, addictions, and disempowerment;
          and at their worst, they actively perpetuate the toxic cultures
                    of dependency and patronage
                    which keep people on the streets.

And it was no different in the first century,
          with our anonymous friend we meet in the book of Acts,
                    sitting outside the Temple in Jerusalem,
          strategically positioned in prime location
                   by the gate called ‘Beautiful’,
          where, the cynic in me suspects,
                    the contrast between the soaring sublime architecture,
                   and his own deformed body,
          was carefully constructed to elicit maximum sympathy (and cash)
                   from those entering the temple
                   to bring their worship and offerings before the Lord.

After all, how could a person with their eyes turned to God
          ignore the plight of one of God’s suffering children?

It’s the same reason that today people often choose to beg
          in places where others are having a nice time.

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.

But where they doing any good?
          Or were they merely perpetuating a dysfunctional system
                    where the wealthy made themselves feel a bit less guilty for their wealth
                    by giving the beggar a gift that, far from transforming his life,
          simply trapped him ever more firmly
                    in the toxic system of begging for survival.

It is in this context 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 Temple system,
          was subverted.

The Temple system represented middle class religion,
          and was primarily populated by those who had money.

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 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 was into this context that Peter and John conducted their transgressive act
          against the 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,
          reached out a hand to him, and lifted him up.

This was deeply subversive stuff,
          because it challenged all the implicit and unspoken assumptions
          about the way the world works.

The world says that 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.

There is a wonderful story told about Thomas Aquinas
          who once went to see the Pope,
          before whom a large sum of money was spread out
the Pope observed proudly to St Thomas,
          “You see, the Church is no longer in that age
          in which she said, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’
Aquinas replied, “True, holy father,”
          “neither can she any longer say to the lame, ‘Rise up and walk.’”[1]

Those who follow Christ have the God-given capacity
          to see the pearl of great price inside each human soul,
          to discern the spark of the divine in every person.
And our calling is not to charity,
          it is to transformation.

The world might give money to the poor
          to make their today a little more bearable,
but we are called to see their potential
          and to help them discover a way of rising up from their begging-bed,
          to discover a life of true flourishing based not what they have,
                    or even what they do, but on who they are.

I’ve been reading Sam Wells’ book ‘A Future That’s Bigger Than The Past’,
          and I strongly recommend it to you as some lockdown reading.

In there, he points to an essay written by Oscar Wilde over a hundred years ago.

By way of conclusion, I’m going to give Wilde the last word,
          which I think he would have appreciated:

He says:

Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves,
          and so prevented the horror of the system being realised
                    by those who suffered from it,
          and understood by those who contemplated it,
so, in the present state of things in England,
          the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.

Jesus moved in a community
          that allowed the accumulation of private property just as ours does,
and the gospel that he preached
          was not that in such a community it is an advantage
                    for a [person] to live on scanty, unwholesome food,
                              to wear ragged, unwholesome clothes,
                    to sleep in horrid, unwholesome dwellings,
          and a disadvantage for a [person] to live
                    under healthy, pleasant, and decent conditions . . .

It is to be noted that Jesus never says
          that impoverished people are necessarily good,
          or wealthy people necessarily bad.
That would not have been true . . .

There is only one class in the community
          that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor.
The poor can think of nothing else.
          That is the misery of being poor.

What Jesus does say is that [humankind] reaches [its] perfection,
          not through what [it] has,
                    not even through what [it] does,
          but entirely through what [it] is.

Or, as 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." 
            And he took him by the right hand and raised him up;

[1] Vide Acts iii. 2–8.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Disciples in Lockdown

Provoking Faith at Bloomsbury
19 April 2020

Acts 1.1-14

Last Sunday we finished the series of readings from Mark’s gospel
            which have carried us from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
            through to the empty tomb of Easter morning.

And today, we start a series that reflects
            on what life-after-resurrection might mean
                        for those who want to continue following Jesus in his physical absence,
            as opposed to those first disciples
                        who followed him when he was physically present with them.

Today’s reading from the book of Acts
            picks up a time-between-times story,
with the resurrected Jesus mysteriously both still with his disciples
            and yet also absent from them.

We meet the disciples just a few days after the events of the Easter weekend,
            with both the horror of crucifixion and the joy of resurrection
                        still fresh in their minds,
            and we discover that they are, in effect, in lockdown.

There can be a temptation to think that the resurrection
            set in place the immediate and inexorable expansion of the gospel:
                        from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria,
                                    and to the ends of the earth,
                        as Jesus puts it in verse 8.
But whilst the promise was given that this is what will happen,
            it certainly wasn’t the experience
            of these earliest disciples gathering in Jerusalem.

Their post-Easter experience was one of confinement,
            under orders not to leave the city (1.4)
                        except, it seems, for a permitted Sabbath day’s exercise walk
                                    to the Mount of Olives and back (1.12);
                        a round trip which, as those of us who have been to Jerusalem know,
                                    takes comfortably less than an hour.

On their return to the city they went back up
            to the presumably rather overcrowded upper room,
                        occupied as it was by the eleven male disciples,
            and joined by Jesus’ mother, his brothers,
                        and some of the other women.

And this became their daily routine.
            Sitting in a room: waiting, talking, praying, and waiting some more.
Perhaps a quick walk up the Mount of Olives and back again to get the blood flowing,
            but predominantly waiting.

And I don’t know about you
            but something in me find this all rather comforting.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been trying to work out
            how to proclaim the gospel in a time of pandemic, and lockdown,
            and sometimes it’s been easier than others.

For myself, I found it fairly easy to preach a Lenten Lockdown.
            The Good Friday sermon almost wrote itself on the subject of grief and loss.
Easter Sunday and resurrection was a challenge,
            but we were helped by Mark’s ambiguous ending
            leaving us with more questions than answers.

However, I confess that I’ve been puzzling over what a post-Easter,
            post-resurrection gospel-for-lockdown looks like,
when everything that should have changed
            is in reality still much the same:
with fear and grief and suffering still all around us.

So here at the beginning of Acts,
            with the post-Easter disciples also in lockdown,
                        waiting for things to change,
            I wonder what they can teach us?

What lockdown lessons of discipleship
            can we learn from the first disciples?

Well, the first thing it seems that they had to learn, following the resurrection,
            was how to wait.

For many of us, this doesn’t come easily.
            Like Peter, James, John and the rest,
                        our discipleship is often built upon activism:
            getting out there and changing the world,
                        relentlessly busy in the cause of the kingdom.

Being confined to an upper room waiting for things to change,
            when the gospel of new life burns within,
            is a hard lesson to bear.

But bear it they did, and bear it we must.

Some of the things we long to do,
            which we believe we are called to do,
                        are denied to us;
            and we, like them, will need the gift of holy patience.

Another lesson the disciples had yet to learn
            was the true nature of the kingdom of God.

You’d have thought, after all the teaching from Jesus
            that his kingdom was not of this world,
they might have realised that the coming kingdom
            wasn’t the promise of a restored kingdom of Israel;
and yet here they still are, asking once again
            if Jesus is about to fulfil their dreams of triumphant nationalism (1.6-7).

And we don’t have to look very far in our world of Coronavirus lockdown
            to find narratives nationalism, protectionism, and racism.

We have to discover our calling as the followers of Jesus
            to speak clearly a gospel of a kingdom of inclusion and love for all,
and to challenge those
            who would divide humanity into segments of seclusion.

And then the disciples had to learn to pray.
            We’re told that they ‘devoted themselves to prayer’ (1.14),
                        and I wonder if I dare ask, how we are praying as a community?

Are we making the time and effort
            to bring our hurting world before God,
and to listen for God’s voice whispering to us of the coming kingdom?

Sometimes, when all else has failed,
            and when for all our efforts we find ourselves powerless,
the prayer of hopeful resignation,
            that God’s will be done,
can open a path to peace and restored souls.

And one more thing that the disciples had to learn,
            was that they didn’t have the power
            to change the world on their own.

Acts tells us that the purpose of their waiting in the upper room in Jerusalem
            was specifically to receive the power of the Holy Spirit (1.8),
to discover that it was only through God’s gracious gift
            that they would be able to live into being the good news
            of a new way of being human before God.

All the way through Jesus’ ministry,
            as we have seen on our journey through Mark’s Gospel
the disciples kept trying to act in their own strength:
            arguing, for example, about who was the greatest,
            or what their roles would be in the establishment of God’s kingdom.

But now, post-resurrection,
            they needed to internalise what they had seen in Jesus,
which was that the power to live differently
            comes not from will-power, nor self-discipline,
            nor even from sheer bloody-mindedness.

But rather, the power to live the kingdom into being,
            comes as a gift from God.

The disciples had seen that power made manifest in Jesus,
            but now they needed to encounter it for themselves,
            making a daily difference in their own lives.

And this is the key purpose for the locked-down disciples:
            they needed to learn together to put self aside,
            and to re-orientate their lives towards Christ.

And I wonder if it is something we could own for ourselves too,
            as we face several more weeks of lockdown.

Can we devote ourselves to prayer, and to one another;
            to the study of scripture
            and the discovery of the true nature of God’s kingdom?

And can we hear once again the whispers of God’s Spirit,
            forgiving us our sins, restoring our relationships and our souls,
            and teaching us of a new way to be human before God,
                        where self is secondary to service,
                        and love drives our deeds?

And as that whisper grows louder,
            will we hear God shouting in anger at the injustices of the world,
calling and calling us follow the footsteps of Christ,
            growing in power in our lives
so that we, like the first disciples,
            can find a way out of lockdown
            which takes us to a different world to that which we left.

One of the great tragedies of this current time
            would be if the status quo reasserted itself unchallenged
            over the months and years ahead.

And we who have a vision for God’s kingdom
            will need the power of God’s Spirit
to help us shape a new and more Christ-like world.

And this starts today,
            as we wait, and wait, and wait,
            learning lessons of discipleship in lockdown.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Resurrection, again

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
Provoking Faith - Easter Sunday - 12/4/20

Listen to this sermon here:

Mark 16.1-8

This is a very strange Easter Sunday,
            and the least strange thing about it
            is that I’m giving my sermon in my kitchen.

Normally, by this point in our journey from Palm Sunday to Easter Day,
            we have shared the meal in the upper room,
                        waited through Gethsemane,
            wept at the cross,
                        sat through the darkness of Saturday,
            and reached, finally, the moment of resurrection and new life.

Except, today, we are in a strange situation:
            we are proclaiming and celebrating resurrection
            in the midst of a time of fear, death and suffering.

Our usual messages of hope and joyful Eastertide are not the message for today.
            Because today we join with those who, throughout Christian history,
                        have had to work out what it means
            to proclaim resurrection when there is very little good news in sight.

Today we stand with those who have celebrated Easter
            in times of war, in famine, in disaster, and in plague.

And my hope is that as we do so,
            we will discover a fresh revelation of God’s faithfulness,
            that will sustain us over the days, months, and years ahead.

Because, of course, the world is never free from suffering:
            Easter is always celebrated in a world where darkness casts a long shadow.
And for the good news of resurrection to have meaning at any time,
            it has to also have meaning today.

The Good News does not only apply
            when the news is good.

And this is why I’m glad that this year’s Easter Bible reading
            comes to us from Mark’s gospel,
stopping where Mark originally intended his gospel to end:
            at the empty tomb,
            with the women fleeing in terror, amazement, and fear.

These first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ
            experienced it in the midst of grief and fear,
and their discovery that the tomb was empty
            was something that added to, rather than immediately alleviated,
            the intensity of their emotions.

The conviction that the power of places of darkness is broken
            is not easily won,
and the significance of the empty tomb
            is not easily understood.

For the women,
            who had gathered around Jesus at the cross and watched him die,
                        along with all their hopes, dreams, and longings for a better world,
            the tomb was supposed to contain nothing but the evidence of further decay.
The unexpected absence of the evidence of death
            was not, for them, an immediate panacea
            that restored everything they had lost.

What it was, was a disruptive indication
            that the evidence of Death’s power was no longer where it should have been,
            and that in its place was an empty space….

They weren’t immediately confronted with the resurrected Christ,
            just a mysterious young man, sitting where the body should have been,
telling them that the one they sought was no longer there,
            and that they needed now to go and tell Peter and the disciples
            that Jesus would be found in Galilee, back where the whole thing had started.

And so the gospel ends, at least in its original form,
            and it seems that the story is circular.

The disciples encounter Jesus, they hear his call,
            they follow him, and realise that he is the Messiah;
but then death and suffering comes,
            and their misplaced hopes for revolution are nailed to a cross.
And then they have to find him all over again,
            and, I would suggest, again, and again, and again.

T.S. Eliot captures something of this circularity
            of the experience of life lived in faith,
            in his poem Little Gidding,

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.[1]

It turns out that the significance of the resurrection
            is that it is not the end.
Rather, it is that which enables
            the living of life in a new way to begin.

Resurrection is that which brings new life into being
            precisely where it is most needed and least expected.

Resurrection is a journey through suffering,
            which breaks the power of sin and death
            to determine the value of a human life.

Resurrection is not release from suffering,
            nor is it an excuse from mortality.
Rather, it is the invitation to live anew,
            to start again, and again, and again;
to experience freedom and hope
            in the midst of restriction and despair.

Resurrection is the gift of faith
            which is the assurance of things hoped for,
            and the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11.1)
It is the hope of new life,
            and the anticipation of a new start.

Ched Myers says that,
‘the power of Mark’s gospel ultimately lies
            not in what it tells the readers,
            but in what it asks of them’.[2]

The challenge to us of the resurrection
            is for us to start again, and again, and again,
            this path of discipleship that many of us have been treading for so many years.

Just as the disciples had to return to Galilee to find the resurrected Christ,
            so we too have to return to our lives, for our experiences of resurrection.

Like the women, we too lack definitive proof of resurrection,
            and at times like this, the power of death can overwhelm the hope we cling to.
But this is precisely when resurrection breaks in upon us,
            as we look into the darkness of the tomb,
                        expecting to encounter nothing but the stench of death,
            and finding instead an emptiness that points to something beyond.

The open-endedness of Mark’s gospel
            means that, with the first disciples,
            we have to look to the future, and to the community of faith
            for the evidence of resurrection.

We have to look into the tomb,
            and work it out again, and again, and again.
And we will discover our resurrected faith
            as we seek Jesus in the ordinariness of our lives;
waiting, and waiting, and waiting,
            trusting ‘that the message we proclaim is pointing us beyond this moment,
            into God’s ultimate purpose which is life’.[3]

I’d like to close with a quote from a friend of mine,
            who just happens to have been elected as the next President of the Baptist Union.

His name is Geoff Colmer,
            and he wrote an article this week in the Baptist Times
            in which he said:

The counterpoint to waiting is hope.
            Hope isn’t optimism, positive thinking, glass half-full.
                        Hope isn’t wishful thinking.
            It isn’t a fantasy that someday our boat will come in.
                        It isn’t the ability to watch the news
                        and pretend that everything’s ok really.
Hope is a vision of life that is defined by God's promise,
            irrespective of what the situation looks like
and then, without denying the facts or turning away from the news,
            lives out that vision based upon God's promise,
trusting that the God who is love is with us, and for us,
            and intimately involved in our lives,
and relentlessly at work bringing good out of even the most painful situations.[4]

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 403.
[3] Quote from the Narrative Lectionary Podcast.