Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Remember the Poor

I've just been listening to David Cameron at the Conservative Party Conference giving promises about reduced tax for those 'who work hard'. Great! All of us who work hard would like to keep more of our hard-earned cash...but wait a minute: I also remember that in the bible we are told to remember the poor. Mr Cameron did remember them the other day when he spelled out how benefits would be reduced even further in order to reduce the national deficit. Three cheers for the poor who will pay the price so we - the comparatively rich - will have tax cuts!

In Leviticus 19 God gives explicit laws about how to provide for the poor. He tells landowners - note that the bible doesn't condemn land ownership - not to harvest every last stalk of grain from their fields, but to leave some round the edge for the poor to glean. Why? Because this reflects the Lord's holiness, and his desire that no-one should be in want. There is no distinction made in the bible about types of poor people - the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor that our contemporary politicians talk about.

When Cornelius, the God-fearing Roman centurion, was granted a vision of angels he was told that "Your prayers and your gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God." He was commended for remembering the poor.Later on, when St Paul was sent out by the church on mission, the only stipulation laid on him was that 'he should remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do' (Galatians 2:10).

Now, you could argue that this has nothing to do with national budgets. Yes, you could argue that as there was no such thing as a national welfare budget until very recently - certainly not in biblical times. It was up to individuals to remember the poor and help them out of their own money. You could argue that if tax payers keep more of their own money they are then free to give to charities that help the poor. I'm not sure if unredeemed human nature would do that as a priority. The problem I have is this: the fact that we DO have a welfare budget means that the poor are a necessary concern of the national budget, of government spending and political decisions. The way the poor are singled out for worse treatment by some politicians (who obviously have an eye on next year's election) makes me feel uncomfortable and makes me question whether I could vote for a party that espouses the sort of  policy that will take even more away from those who have hardly anything already.

In the meantime, support your local food bank - those who are 'food poor' need them more and more.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Finance and Faith: A Call to Generous Giving

I haven't posted a sermon on this Blog before, but I want as many people as possible to see it and respond appropriately. 

Finance and Faith
Sunday 29th June 2014
Haggai 1:1 – 15; Matthew 25:14 – 30

The circus had come to town and, as a special act, Barney, the strongman, squeezed the juice from an orange between his hands.
Barney, then said to the audience, 'I will offer £200 to anyone in the audience who can squeeze another drop from this orange.'
An elderly thin man came forward, picked up the orange, strained hard and managed to get one more drop of juice from the orange.
Barney, the strongman, was stunned and as he paid the man and asked him, 'What is the secret of your strength?'
'Practice,' the man replied smiling. 'For 25 years I was the treasurer of the local church.'

I feel a bit like that treasurer, and you may be glad to know that this is the last in my series of sermons on the theme of stewardship.

We’ve been reminded in these last few weeks…
·       that money has spiritual power.
·       that giving is a spiritual discipline and an expression of worship.
·       and that generosity in giving is simply giving back to God what belongs to him.

But still it’s a hard lesson to learn.

At the time of the Jew’s return from exile in Babylon a bit over 400 years before the before of Christ, the prophet Haggai had to remind the people that their priority was to rebuild the house of the Lord – the temple – before they saw to their own houses.
It was because they neglected the Lord’s house that their pockets seemed to have holes in them.

“Get your priorities right,” says the Lord, “and everything else will fall into place.”

And in the gospel reading Jesus reminds his hearers that from the one to whom much has been entrusted, much will be expected. This applies as much to the proclamation of the kingdom as it does to our use of the blessings of wealth that the Lord has given us.
Now I’ve tried to be as clear and encouraging as I can be in these last few weeks. I’ve been honest with you about my own situation and practice in regard to giving, and I’ve been encouraged by the 2 people who responded practically with a SO and an increase in giving – one of those living on the basic state pension.
It’s clear what the bible says:
·       give generously,
·       give in proportion to your income,
·       and give first to the Lord.
So let me move on to some facts and figures that may focus our thinking.

Our total income for 2013 was £137,000. Of that £95,000 was from individual regular givers, with Gift Aid added. After that there was £18,000 in cash offerings and the rest was from one-off donations, fees and rental income from the church house in Waddington Avenue.

Our expenditure was £133,000. Of that £94,000 was paid to the Diocese of Southwark to cover the cost of employing me (£52,000), central costs (£11,000) and a further £31,000 to help the mission of the church in areas not able to support a full-time paid minister.
Expenditure was slightly less than income, but we have an accumulated deficit of £-40,529.

Giving in 2013 was lower than in 2010. This was because a number of regular generous givers moved or died, and that gap has not been filled.
In a survey of the range of individual donations my wife Nicy and I come in the top 10% of givers. 20 people give £20 a month or less; 15 give £10 or less.

I really think we can do better.

And in fact we will need to because we face 2 big challenges to our general fund.
The first is that we need to be able to match the income we have relied on this last year from renting out 8 Waddington Avenue, as the availability of that house to the church will determine whether or not we have another full-time stipendiary curate, or other full-time member of staff.

Before agents’ fees and maintenance the rental income is about £14,500 a year.
But we can’t allow ourselves to depend on that income for long because the reason the house was bought by the parish in the first place was to house a curate, not to provide extra income.

And then the 2nd big challenge is potentially much more serious and urgent.
Since Tim Hill started working for us 2 days a week as our Youth and Children’s Pastor his work for the other 3 days has dried up, and he has had to find work where he can chopping trees and doing gardening jobs.
The fact is he can’t afford that and finds himself in the situation where he must take a full-time job.
And there are 2 such jobs going in churches not far from here.

The bottom line is this: unless we can offer Tim a full-time contract he will have to leave and find work elsewhere.

Not only would this be a great blow to our children and youth work, and our mission into local schools, but it goes against the very strong feeling that came from the Mission Action Planning day last week that expanding our children’s ministry should be a priority. We’ve explored the possibilities for some kind of shared work, but the sticking point is ‘what about Sundays’.

So would it be possible to raise that extra £28,000?

Let’s break it down.

If we assume there are potentially 150 givers in the church who each could pledge an extra £4 a week, that would generate £600/week, £2400/month, £28,800/month + GIFT AID

£4 a week. That’s the price of 2 Lotto tickets, or a cheap bottle of wine. It’s less than the price of a daily paper, and about the cost of daily doughnut from our local bakery.

But the more important question is: is it worth it?

Both areas of need are to do with mission:

Providing housing for a curate who will bring added value to St John’s, as curates have done up to now, and a way that we can, through their training, give something to the wider church.

Our Youth and Children’s Pastor helps us grow our mission and ministry among children and young people – the next generation of the church. Without them, the church will simply cease to exist.

Let me finish with a very specific request.

Please, would you consider giving an extra £4 a week as part of your regular giving.
Without the extra income we will not be able to progress our children’s work as we hope to, and we will not be able to have another full-time curate – it’s as simple as that.
If you are able to make that extra pledge, please fill in the pledge form in your newsletter, and drop it in the box at the back, or to the church office or rectory during the week. We will make sure that they are kept anonymous until they are collected by Tony our Treasurer.

As a PS to this: sometimes people would like to support the work of the church in mission, but genuinely can’t at the time. If that’s the case, we have benefitted over the years from people’s legacies and bequests in their will. You might like to consider the church as a beneficiary: what you leave to charity reduces the value of your estate for tax purposes so it can sometimes be a benefit for both the recipient and the donor’s family. There are some leaflets about that on the table.

Let me finish with this verse
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen

God can do more than we ask or imagine.
But he works his power through us, through our cheque books, bank accounts, and so on.

So that glory may go to him and the church may grow.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Is Britain a Christian country?

‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ said David Cameron last week in an article in the Church times (CT 17/04/2014). I’m glad Mr Cameron has the confidence to speak about his own faith, irregular and vague though that may be (by his own admission) but I can’t agree with his basic assumption that Britain is a Christian country. Although 59% of the population of England and Wales  stated ‘Christian’ as their religious belief in the 2011 census, the number of churchgoers on a typical Sunday was around 800,000 – probably more than actively belong to a political party, but a small minority of the whole population.

Yes, you could argue that Britain is constitutionally Christian, with the Queen as Head of State, and Head of the Established Church, and the Church of England represented formally through its bishops in the House of Lords. But that in itself doesn’t make Britain a ‘Christian country’ in the sense of being a theocracy or, more exactly, a Christocracy. The only place that I can think of where that was tried was 16th century Geneva at the time of Calvin – and what a joyless time that turned out to be.

So what about judging the ‘Christianness’ of Britain by people’s experience of Christ? David Cameron doesn’t once mention Jesus Christ in his article – rather he puts his faith in the Church of England. Oh dear! I’m a fulltime employee of the C of E and I wouldn’t put my faith in it. Rather, my faith is in Jesus Christ – the one person DC fails to mention in his article. That reminds me of J John’s statement that if you take the ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christian’ you are just left with ‘Ian’, and he can’t help anyone.  I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the population have little real experience of Jesus Christ that could be articulated in any clear way. For Mr Cameron church membership seems to be concerned more with maintaining centres of cultural heritage as places of peace and serenity rather than seeing them as centres of mission and proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Yes, he is, by his own admission, probably typical of most members of the C of E.

So is it possible for any country to be a ‘Christian country’?  If so, how do we judge it: by doctrinal adherence, by spiritual experience, by moral values?  Mr Cameron seems to judge by the last of those three – as indeed most politicians would these days. He mentions in his article the Christian values of ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion , humility and love’ but then goes on to say that they are shared by people of every faith and of none. So what is an exclusively ‘Christian value’? Perhaps the unique value we could point to in Jesus himself is self-sacrifice: not popular on the lips of politicians today! DC’s argument is weak here because he goes on to criticise what he calls ‘some sort of secular neutrality’, but that is the very thing he has just given us in his list of ‘Christian values’ – those held by people of all faith and of NONE.

Mr Cameron points to the good works that Christians are involved in, and that is something to be proud of certainly. I support this government’s decision to maintain its level of foreign aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income at a time when some decry that. It’s ironic, though, that the churches, by and large, are picking up the pieces left by the government’s welfare policy, as evidenced by the rise in use of food banks. Don’t believe what the Daily Mail says – these are people in real need and the DM should be ashamed of the way it condemns people who innocently find themselves in crisis moments of extreme poverty.

There was a time when people spoke of Christendom: when political and spiritual power went hand in hand. Those times are long past, thank goodness. They led to plenty of bloodshed and shame in the history of the church. What can we say about the UK today? At best I believe we can describe ourselves as a secular country with a Christian cultural heritage – but even that heritage is weak: you only have to hear the massive silence at weddings and funerals when you invite the congregation to join in the Lord’s Prayer – people just don’t know it anymore.

I’m sure David Cameron wants a better society for all – who doesn’t? I’m sure he wants to win the next election outright – which political leader wouldn’t? I’m sure he has faith in God, however vague and woolly that faith is. But I’m not persuaded by his argument that Britain is a Christian country.  I’m not convinced by his logic, by his authority to speak on the subject, or his (spiritual) passion.  And I would certainly want to direct people to put their faith in Jesus Christ rather than the Church of England. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Visiting Purley Food Hub

Last Saturday morning I visited the Purley Food Hub. Ever since Ash Wednesday when we read from Isaiah 58  
...if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
I have been taking an interest in the increasing call on food banks round the country. I wanted to find out for myself how our local food bank operates, and talk with some of the clients who use it.

The Purley Food Hub operates from the back of Purley URC Church, using the entrance porch as a reception area, and one of the side aisles for food storage. I was very impressed with the professional and caring atmosphere, and the dedication of the volunteers who run the Hub. Clients are referred by a number of agencies including social services, doctors and schools which give them a ticket to present when they arrive. This entitles them to 3 day's supply of food - more or less depending on whether they have a family. They let the volunteers know if there is any food they are allergic to or don't like, and then the volunteers pick out a selection of tinned or dried food for them.

I spoke to a number of clients, some of whom had heartbreaking stories. One woman and her son, who suffered from Tourettes Syndrome, had walked from South Norwood. Her partner had recently died and she had simply run out of money for food. Tears were in here eyes as she told me how grateful she was for some practical help and a friendly welcome. Another single father with a baby daughter in a pushchair had walked from South Croydon. He couldn't work because he had to care for his daughter; he'd been given B&B accommodation by the Council but had no money for other food. A young couple had walked from Waddon - he was 16 and she was 18 and pregnant. The boy - not even an adult in legal terms - couldn't work because of disability and they had outstayed their welcome in his parents' house. Another lady's husband had died and she had to move out of her privately rented accommodation because she couldn't afford it. She had a medical condition that meant she was off work, and again had simply run out of money.
Another young guy was too ashamed or embarrassed to speak, so I left him to his own thoughts. During the three-quarters of an hour that I was there I reckon that at least a dozen people were helped. 

In many cases these are people on benefits whose circumstances have recently changed - mostly through illness or bereavement - and the benefit system hasn't caught up with them so they are left literally penniless and without food. In most cases the crisis passes and they are able to pick up their lives again after the help the Food Hub gives them.  But I can't help wondering how in such a rich country as ours, and in the even more prosperous area of outer London, so many people are suffering food poverty like this. Since the Purley Food Hub opened in January 2013 1500 clients have been helped. Yes, there may be a few who take advantage of the system - and the volunteers recognize that and are becoming more skillful in preventing abuse of the system - but most people would not put themselves through the shame of approaching the Hub unless they were really desperate. We almost seem to be going back to the Victoria era of the workhouse and the Poor Laws. 

Most of the food banks in the UK seem to be run by church or other religious groups. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all hold generosity to the poor and needy as a high value. In the Old Testament over and over again God is described as one who loves justice. So it right that the church not only gives practical help to those in need, but asks why they are needy in the first place, and questions the status quo that allows this. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Pointing the Finger

Last night in church we read from Isaiah 58: "If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry...then your light will rise in the darkness." Written, possibly, at a time when the Jewish exiles had returned home and were trying to make Israel great again, there were those who pointed the finger at the poor and homeless. Possibly they called them 'lazy scroungers'. Not so different from today when those struggling on benefits are accused in the same way by a right-wing media, and a resentful population.

We also read the story in John chapter 8 of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. While all the 'righteous' Jewish men demanded that she should be stoned, pointing the finger of accusation against her, what did Jesus do? He didn't point his finger at the woman, even though she deserved it; he didn't even point his finger back at the Pharisees, even though they deserved it. Rather, he pointed his finger to the ground - to the sand where the 'river' of accusation runs dry. How much we can learn from that action: to discipline ourselves, perhaps as Jesus had learnt to do, not to point the finger, but to lower that accusing finger to the ground. It's the equivalent of 'counting to ten', but it opens the way for God's grace. "If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone." The Pharisees understood they were in the wrong without a finger pointing at them; the woman understood that she had sinned, but was given a way out to a new life.

Some of our popular newspapers are very good at pointing the finger, and we see that pointing finger everywhere we look - whether it's Ukraine and Russia, or the football pitch, or the TV series 'Benefits Street'. This Lent I'm going to try to learn from Jesus to bend my pointing finger down and let the spirit of accusation and resentment that is so easily aroused flow into the ground.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Isaiah 58:10 A Lenten Blog

This year during Lent I've decided to get out of my comfort zone and do what it says in Isaiah 58:10 - 'If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry...then your light will rise in the darkness.'  The whole chapter makes uncomfortable reading as it challenges a superficial religious approach to fasting which ignores some rotten values at the heart of society. Speaking through the prophet, God clearly says that his values are justice, freedom and righteousness. He shows a bias towards the poor, and commands his people to do the same. 

God says to his people ' away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk...' It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see the pointing finger in much of our popular right-wing media, such as this article in the Daily Mail headlined 

A self-indulgent mother and the myth of 'starving' Britain
Read more:

Typical fare for the Daily Mail, and all too easy to focus on one blatant example at the expense of the thousands of others who don't deserve this finger-pointing. The worrying thing is that so many people will read this self-opinionated column and take it for the truth across the board.The Daily Mirror, from quite a different political stable, runs another article on the same theme, but this time the journalism seems more rigorous, as it is backed up with more facts and figures:

Britain's hungry children: Desperate schoolkids forced to steal leftovers and still Tories announce more cuts 

The truth is out there, if we bother to look for it. During this Lent I'm going to give up some time and energy finding out what the truth is. The bible tells me that God has a bias towards the poor, and that he looks with compassion on those who cannot speak up for themselves. At the same time it's possible to quote verses like 'If a man will not work, he shall not eat' - but that was written to curb the idleness that some fell into as they expected the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. 

Many Christians feel uncomfortable getting into deeper political waters - it's not my natural comfort zone. But we can't ignore real poverty right under our noses in this rich country of ours. 

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

London Schools Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican Centre

Before the London Schools Symphony Orchestra played a note in their first concert of the new season at The Barbican Centre I had assumed that there might be some ragged or thin playing from the strings, and enthusiastic but uncontrolled playing from the brass. How wrong I was! In a programme of two contrasting halves, the LSSO proved themselves to be a crack team in spite of the fact that for many players this was their first concert with the orchestra.  The playing was certainly enthusiastic under the dynamic young Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray, but also tightly controlled and well balanced.  Izcaray opened the concert with an impromptu description of the music, showing himself to be an able communicator as well as musician. During rehearsals he had discovered that 99 per cent of the young musicians had never played Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony before, and he shared their excitement at performing this fine work for the first time.

The first half of the concert was American – north and south. The tightly controlled early ‘Second Essay’ of Samuel Barber showed off the orchestra’s sensitive playing in its hushed opening, and then put the players through their paces in the central complex fugue. They passed with flying colours.

The orchestra was joined by Izcaray’s compatriot Pacho Flores for the UK premiere of Efrain Oscher’s Trumpet Concerto – ‘Mestizo’.  This involved the soloist playing three instruments – trumpets in B flat and C, and the flugelhorn. The music brought together classical symphonic sounds with those of the Venezuelan popular dance, notably the Salsa. With two South Americans in charge the orchestra could hardly fail to react to the Latin spirit and the players’ delight, and respect for the soloist, was clear. In particular the augmented percussion section had a field day. Though full of energy and spirit the performance was, nevertheless, well controlled and compelling.

The second half took us to a completely different world – that of Tsarist Russia and the tortured soul of Tchaikovsky struggling with his demons. The Fifth Symphony calls for mature playing of the highest order, and the LSSO responded appropriately. Without wanting to sound patronising, the young musicians  - and some of them only 12 years old – showed no fear: the opening clarinet motif, the bassoon first main theme and, above all, the second movement horn solo played faultlessly and sensitively by Alexandra Norbury. The strings played with confidence – even a hint of portamento when required – and delicacy, especially in the filigree work of the third movement. The brass came into their own in the fourth movement bringing the work to a fitting climax.

Once again, we were shown the value of Venezuela’s El Sistema in producing two such dynamic musicians as Izcaray and Flores; and of our own London Schools Symphony Orchestra which often fails to get the recognition or support that it deserves. The UK’s youth orchestras are a national treasure – they help to bring young people of all backgrounds together to be stimulated socially and intellectually, they help to create self-discipline and confidence, and, like the best professional orchestras, they give much pleasure to many people as they perform some of the world’s cultural masterpieces for each new generation.