Preacher Ruth Martin
Yesterday the Catholic Archbishop of England and Wales complained bitterly about the welfare cuts which are leaving the most vulnerable without a safety net. Archbishop Vincent Nichols also criticised the punitive approach to giving help to the most desperate and destitute.
Nowadays when people come into a job centre to make a new claim because they are out of work, there is no crisis loan they might be given, they exist no longer. They may or may not be able to claim a ‘ short term alignment to benefit’ and to do so they have to ring a number, usually hundreds of miles away, and a decision is reached.
More often than not it is refused and if they need money for food they will have to obtain a voucher to go to a food bank; foodbanks are usually only open at certain times on particular days. In most parts of the country they can only gain a maximum of three vouchers, then they must fend for themselves.
We are all becoming used to food banks, and this church like others around the country, contributes both food and volunteers, but at the same time we are also facing unprecedented increases in the value of houses, for those of us who own our own. It is the case that in London in particular, material well being is very evident for home owners.
It was in circumstances like these that nearly three thousand years ago the prophet Amos was speaking. He rarely makes it into our readings. Every three years we have a glimpse of his ministry as the Old Testament’s first written prophet. He is a very tough talker. Black and white, nothing held back.
Amos lived during the times when Judah, [he came from Judah] and Israel were separate states. His book, of less than 150 verses, is all about Israel’s failure to learn from God, what God’s will is, and in particular he complains bitterly about the oppression of the poor, so much so that the priest to the King tells him ‘go back to Judah and do your preaching there’ [an interesting contrast to Jesus’ difficulties when in fact He tried to preach in his home town, Nazareth ,and was not heard].
Amos lived at a time of general prosperity, but saw poverty all around him.
When we look at the poverty in our own times do we see it in terms of politics or in terms of ethics? Amos considered it an issue of ethics for the people of God.
So what about us? A few years ago if mass food poverty was predicted in this country we would have turned to the government for help, but since the crisis in finance from 2008, the way in which the most vulnerable are protected has become an issue of politics.
Yet the Christian way is to set aside politics and focus on Love. That is the message from Ephesians tonight; we need to walk in the Light of Christ, we need our light to be a beacon of hope, we need to shine in the places of darkness in our world.
‘Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him…Your life must be controlled by Love..don’t be fools then but try to find out what the Lord wants you to do.’
What has happened during these times is that it is the churches that have stepped up to the plate. The Trussell Trust coordinates 400 food banks, all of them church based, and since last April more than half a million households have received help from these food banks.
We all shudder at examples of oppression, bullying, the calculated deception of someone less knowing than ourselves, the misuse of power – and these are the contemporary equivalents of the issues which Amos and Paul in his letter to the Christians of Ephesus were railing about.
Whatever our personal political allegiances, it is this recognition that some people do not have power or resources which drives our religious leaders to seek new ways of engaging our government in the debate. It is also important to note that time and time again it is people of faith who simply see a need and respond to it. Debt advice, new ways of borrowing money, education that places the value of each person above academic attainment in our schools, fair trade, these are all having energetic people of faith turn to action.
It is this that can mark us out as people who walk in the light. Paul in his letter tonight says ‘wake up sleeper, and rise from death, and Christ will shine upon you’.
The way in which we can walk in the light is different for each of us. It might be through helping others going through a difficult time in their marriages, or responding prayerfully to queries and questions about how we should live, how we should invest our money ethically, how we should raise our children.
One of the hardest issues is to ensure that we in turn are not deceived, to avoid foolishness.
As Paul says, ‘since we have become the Lord’s people we are in the light. So we must live as people in the light, for it is the light that brings a harvest of every kind of goodness, righteousness, and truth’.
As we anticipate our week ahead, so we need to be aware that we too must walk in the light and ensure we are not asleep to the injustices of our age whatever our politics.