Notes from the Sermon by Nigel Greenwood 28th January 2018
James 2:14-26 and Matthew 25:31-40
Every time I approach Leeds coming from over the Pennines, just as the M-621 dips around Cottingley a spectacular vista opens up of our great city – a view which surely inspires all who pass this way. Having been born and bred in Leeds, I feel totally at home here – it’s widely regarded as a great place to live, study, work, shop and relax. Indeed, there was once a poster publicising our city taken from that very spot on the motorway, but with a caption headed: “Leeds – the promised land” and as the view unfolds, I am always drawn to the potential arrogance of this perspective – yes, we celebrate its prosperity, its diversity, its culture – but behind this facade lies the reality for many of its citizens, who do not share its success. Speaking at Diocesan Synod several years ago, a leader of the council referred to areas in which “conspicuous wealth confronts abject poverty” and sadly this remains today. However, Leeds is also a city of sanctuary, a city of harmony, one where people of all faiths or none are fully committed to working for the common good. It is surely this which makes Leeds such a great city, with a real sense of community, and I’ll share some stories from our city a little later.
It would be easy to say that Leeds is blessed with many organisations providing care and support for those in need – but even as I was writing these words, the realisation of an even greater blessing dawned on me if they were not actually required at all. However, reality returned as I reflected further, and of course so many people and groups are regularly involved in their local communities and often city-wide, two local examples being Headingley Street Angels and the Wydan Night Shelter.
After our Christmas and New Year celebrations, it is fitting at this time of year that our thoughts are drawn to people whose needs remain throughout the year, as churches across the land mark today as Homelessness Sunday, followed in two weeks by Poverty Action Sunday. Raising awareness among the wider community is of course important – but as Christians it is so much more – an integral and vital part of living the Gospel imperative to love our neighbour.
Our epistle reading from the letter of James makes it absolutely clear that both faith and works are inextricably linked, using examples to show how they go together and concluding: “just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead”; so putting faith into practice is as much an essential part of being a Christian as our devotions and Mother Teresa tells us: “what matters most is the gift of yourself; the degree of love you put into everything you do”.
Clearly, all this echoes our Gospel reading, from a time of intense teaching by Christ, which underpins an obligation to social justice as central to our faith. There is absolute clarity about what expected of us – but it goes much deeper in the last few words, saying: “truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. These words may challenge us, but it seems to me that they make two particular points – firstly we should treat everyone equally, but then give priority to those with the greatest needs. They leave us in no doubt about our duty to provide care for the most vulnerable members of our community. As ever, Christ’s teaching gives us much to reflect on and pray about – a vital part of our spiritual growth.
As we consider our priorities, they give us a sense of focus, purpose and direction. This simple word “least” draws us to use our time, energy, resources and gifts where they can be most effective – where the need is greatest. It moves us through concepts such as equal opportunity and parity of esteem – important as they are – to a deeper understanding of people and recognition that, just as we receive God’s unconditional love we must reflect this through how we care for others. In this way, any boundary between faith and works disappears as they merge into simply living the Gospel. Kathy Galloway, former leader of the Iona Community and now head of Christian Aid Scotland observed “for churches, Jesus initiated the act of making visible those who were overlooked.”
In the version of the bible which I use at home, our Gospel passage is headed “the judgement of the nations” – as relevant today as during Christ’s earthly ministry. We often judge society by its economic success and affluence, but our Gospel calls us to use a different standard, based on how it supports and gives a voice to those without power – echoing the statement by Jesus earlier in Matthew’s Gospel: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.
On your website, I read with interest the notes from Jon Dorset’s sermon last Sunday and similarly I’m not trying to make any party-political point, but divisions in society are daily evident across the land – remains of Grenfell Tower lying within the affluence of Kensington and Chelsea; redundant workers trying to support their families when companies go bankrupt; conspicuous wealth still confronting abject poverty across the River Aire in Leeds. Have you noticed how the political catchphrase “we’re all in it together” seems to have fallen into oblivion ?
On the BBC news only a couple of days ago, it was reported that homelessness in England is now at its highest level since figures were counted, approaching 5,000 people – but the real number may be higher, for homeless people are not always rough-sleepers, and even those without anywhere to stay often avoid sleeping on the streets for fear of being moved-on or attacked. Our Gospel clearly identified needs – food, drink, clothing, care for the sick or prisoners, and we could add others such as shelter, warmth and company ….. but the vital question is surely how to respond, and perhaps we could start by considering if we might be part of the problem before moving towards solutions.
On radio before the memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of “the value of the human being”. This surely compels us as Christians to follow Mother Theresa and give of ourselves, often by simply being ourselves.
I recall a conversation with a Big Issue vendor in Leeds several years ago – as usual, he asked me to buy a copy, but when I replied sorry mate, but I’ve already got this weeks, he simply responded “no problem – have a nice day” and as I said “you too” I could not help but wonder if his day would be anything but nice. However, in a longer chat with a vendor on another occasion, I was humbled to be told: “that’s fine – you’ve acknowledged me and talked to me – so many people just walk on and ignore me”. A simple exchange of words, but they left the vendor feeling valued as a human being.
During a retreat on the streets, in which participants had only 50p. for the day, a vicar from a village in the dales had an even more profound exchange with a vendor. When asked to buy a copy, she said she didn’t have enough money – bringing a quick response: “that’s what they all say !” However, during the conversation which followed, she explained about her retreat and the vendor sold his last copy – saying to her “come on, then – I’ll buy you cup of tea”. This gives a powerful insight into the human need to give as well as receive – surely based on our shared humanity.
David Rhodes, author of the iconic book “Faith in Dark Places”, tells of a conversation with a rough sleeper in the early hours of a cold night near the markets, who told him: “many of us on the streets believe in God, you know – there’s often no-one else to talk with in the darkness”.
Although these stories are set in Leeds, they could take place anywhere in the country because homelessness is not confined to large cities. In a wider context, Housing Justice is the national voice of Christian action to prevent homelessness and bad housing, believing that human dignity is challenged by the lack of a decent home, but recognising the worth of each individual and caring for the whole person.
Through the vital gift of ourselves we can affirm vulnerable people, so often ignored or rejected – valuing them as human beings, our sisters and brothers in Christ … for through our shared humanity, when it comes to the overarching care of our loving God, we really are all in it together … Amen