Christ walks our streets too (Social Services)
Date: Sunday 28 July 2019 | Speaker: The Rev’d Clare Barrie
(A sermon preached on Social Services Sunday, at a joint service with our Methodist neighbours in Mt Albert.)
Thank you for the warmth of your welcome this morning – it’s good to be here again with you, our friends and neighbours. As Anglicans and Methodists we have much in common, and it feels deeply joyful to be together in worship and in shared hospitality.
We gather today, just as we gather every Sunday, to celebrate many things – to give thanks for many things. God’s love, the blessings we enjoy, the calling of Christ in each of our communities. But in particular, in our church calendar, today is known as Social Services Sunday. This is an opportunity to bring a particular focus to bear on something we hold to every day, something that is always true and always a part of our lives as Christians: that we are called to serve, to offer the best of ourselves and our resources to help others in our world.
Our faith commits us to being Christ’s hands and feet in the world, and to an abiding belief that humanity carries the image of God and all human beings are therefore worthy of love.
The early Christians, in the first two or three centuries, astonished pagan society around them with their commitment to sharing their wealth and helping the poor, the widows and the orphans – not simply caring for their own but going out into the streets of Rome and other cities to help anyone who needed help. This made no sense in a world bound by a powerful honour code that feels very familiar: gather wealth, and give only to those who could repay you in some way.
When we hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, we hear the call that is just as challenging and countercultural in our contemporary society as it was in 3rd C Rome: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
‘But when did we see you…?’ comes the bewildered reply.
Jesus’ response cuts to the heart – ‘…just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me… but for those who did nothing: depart from me, for for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
And it’s devastating really, because what Jesus is pointing to is the way society can so casually but so powerfully dehumanise people, and render them invisible.
We’re all familiar with those terrible narratives that write people off: we know all the ways in which to render poverty and homelessness somehow acceptable, part of the natural order of things, and therefore something we don’t have to take any responsibility for. ‘People have choices,’ we tell ourselves; ‘they could help themselves if they wanted to.’ The ancient belief that somehow, a person deserves their misfortune and misery – ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’
I’ve been reminded of a widely published story that came out a couple of years ago, about a brave Episcopalian bishop in the United States who decided to use a month of her sabbatical leave to live anonymously among the homeless people of her city. Most of her staff and family and her diocese believed she was off on study leave. It was January, and it was wintertime, and she spent the month in Rhode Island, New York and Philadelphia.
She let her hair grow out and dyed it, disguised herself with old clothes, sunglasses and too much lipstick, and carried one bag with a couple of changes of underwear and some toiletries. She took a journal and one small new testament, which she read a lot. The shelters she could stay in only allowed people to bring in one bag anyway and there was no storage anywhere. She registered with one of the big shelters in the city, and spent her days on the street. She applied for a couple of jobs but never heard back. Along with others she ate at soup kitchens and churches that gave away lunches and dinners.
On many occasions she saw people who knew her as Bishop, but they didn’t recognize her. More to the point, she found they didn’t even see her. Entering one of her own Episcopal churches one morning, with her odd coat and sunglasses and too much lipstick, she found that no one would look at her. When she sat in a pew, the ushers didn’t give her a pewsheet. She was offered coffee afterwards but what she wanted most of all was for someone to just talk to her.
Another morning, after a night in a shelter, she went to another church she knew and loved, and which offered breakfast. But at the counter, she found that a continental breakfast was $3 and a full breakfast was $5. In disguise, she acted confused and said she didn’t have enough money.
Sorry, it’s $3 or $5, she was told.
Just a small breakfast? – she asked? Could I just have some fruit?
That would be $3. She left, hungry and hurt and angry.
That was one of the heartbreakingly sad days, though there were days full of unexpected joys as well, small gifts of food, shared jokes, generosity, acceptance, an unexpected hot shower.
At the end of the month, she sat in the shelter in the same clothes she’d worn for the whole month, and talked with the people who had become her friends there. She told them that she wasn’t really homeless, and she told them who she really was, the Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island.
Some were angry, some asked her for help. But most were amazed that she had entered so deeply into their world and their experience. She had become invisible like them, hungry like them, exhausted like them, embarrassed and ashamed like them.
However – more crucially, and more painfully, when she found herself becoming invisible in the eyes of people in places like churches which liked to preach about welcome, she recognized herself there too.
She knew that she also had not known how to look at human beings who didn’t fit, who’s clothes and make-up were off, who smelt funny or talked strangely. She knew that such people had been invisible to her.
They weren’t invisible to her any more.
She had discovered what Jesus was on about: she knew it was like to be hungry and to be given food. She had discovered what it was like to be thirsty and to be given something to drink, to be naked and to be given some clothes. And she also had discovered what it felt like to be a stranger and to not be welcomed, to be sick and have no one to take care of her. She knew what it was like to have her humanity erased, made invisible.
Bp Wolf knew she was not homeless – she could never pretend to herself that she didn’t in the end, have a home to go to with hot water and a bedroom and a kitchen. But she had entered into that world as fully as she knew how, walked alongside people, looked and listened, and found Christ.
Christ walks our streets too, in the old woman who lives alone and can’t afford her heating, in the angry young man struggling with depression, in the mum at Pak’n’Save who only ever buys cheap mince on special and dollar loaves. Christ is singing and praying for resolution of the historic injustice, amongst the huge gathering at Ihumaatao. Christ is waiting in line outside our City Mission. Christ is scared to leave her violent partner.
Our society wants to let all these people be invisible. So let us not look away. Let us look, and listen, and bear witness. Let us walk alongside Christ’s footsteps, and see where they lead.