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Location: Bideford, Devon, United Kingdom

I am a 54 year old Methodist minister currently serving in Nottingham. Previously I have been a layworker on Isle of Man and a minister in Bideford. I am an open evangelical who believes in taking scripture seriously and in being in solidarity with the poor and marginalised. The views on my personal blog are mine alone and do not represent those of the Methodist Church or any of the congregations that I serve.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

You lift me up Epiphany 6

Jeremiah 17: 5 - 10
Luke 6: 17-26

Several years ago, I went with my wife to see my cousin Keith play the part of Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”, one of its endearing characters is Alfred P. Doolittle. This father of the central figure Eliza, admits to being one of the “undeserving poor.” As he puts it;

“I ask you, what am I? I’, one of the undeserving poor; that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up against middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s the same story: “You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.”

His view is also neatly put in a line from the play which never quite made it into the musical;

“What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.”

Now, let me put my cards on the table. I am deeply uncomfortable with talk of the undeserving poor. My family history includes a great grandmother who began her days in the workhouse and who would have ended there if she had not been so badly broken that her last weeks of life in 1914 were instead spent in the beautifully named “lunatic asylum.”

Now I do not deny that there are some people who seem to be undeserving but such people are to be found in all areas of society and include both rich and poor. But, the sort of venom that I found directed at some of those at the bottom of the pile particularly from some of the media in the late 70s and early 80s, was positively dehumanising. It was born in arrogance and treated other people with contempt. And it has its equivalent manifestations today with the dismissal of sections of society as “chavs.”

Clearly we live in a world in which there winners and losers. They make our newspapers all the time. It is not just about wealth as the sad story of the death in the past week of Anna Nicole Smith reminds us. Here was a woman who climbed up the greasy pole of materialism using her body as her prime asset. Married to an aged billionaire with motives that were certainly challenged by her family, in the years that followed his death, her dignity became pealed away and with only her sexuality to live on, she died alone, a thoroughly tortured soul. If only, if only, her life could have been rooted in a trust in the Lord as Jeremiah encourages us to have, rather than in those who used her, abused her and ultimately deserted her.

And on the subject of losers, in the last fortnight we have had the news of the forthcoming expansion of gambling in our country. I can’t for the life of me understand it. We have already over 300,000 problem gamblers in Britain. Indeed one of the women who has been so criticised in the aftermath of Celebrity Big Brother, went onto the show simply to save her house from repossession, a situation she faced due to such a gambling problem. And yet, we stand on the edge of a deliberately induced gambling expansion. The immorality of such an act astounds me and reminds me of Jesus words that for those who cause the little ones to stumble, it would be better that a millstone were fastened around the neck and they be drowned in the depth of the sea. But sadly, those with addictive personalities who are the casualties of this wretched innovation, will doubtless be labelled as feckless and the undeserving poor.

But, Jesus offers us another way. At a time when affluence and success were seen as marks of the approval of God with their absence being seen as a sign of Divine disapproval, Jesus turns the world upside down in what has become known as the Sermon on the Plain. For here in his teachings about blessings and woes, Jesus addresses the world of winners and losers in a material sense as opposed to the spiritual basis of the Beautitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. With echoes of Mary’s Magnificat which Luke has also recorded, Luke records Jesus as specifically offering a blessing who are poor, hungry and who weep. This blessing we can see in part expressed through Jesus being particularly present with those at the bottom but it should also be seen as representing a message that the Kingdom of God offers the prospect of change, the prospect of role reversal. And in his ministry we see Jesus time and again offering a liberation and a dignity to those whose experience of life is akin to a kick in the head.

But alongside blessings, Jesus also speaks of woe, woe to the rich, the full and the laughing. And before we look to the local squire or those who salt away their gains in the Bahamas and the likes, we need to pause. Or in global terms, I suspect that each of us here is very much in the top 10%. By simply being British, even if we are well down the order within our country, we are still the rich in global terms. And few of us show signs of being other than well fed. Woe to us?

Now the immediate problem we find here is that we know that some of those with whom Jesus spent time, were people of some wealth. After all, how else could Jesus and his disciples have financed themselves in their mission. An upper room for a Passover meal would have cost money and we know that Jesus was buried in the tomb of a wealthy man.

Now whilst I guess that Jesus would have a critique of some ostentatious wealth, I think that the key point of the Woes is to remind us that material wellbeing can be very much a matter that is temporary rather than permanent. To build one’s life on material gain is to build on sand as the parable of the rich fool reminds us all to clearly. What matters is that the rich should have a true solidarity with the poor.

Oscar Romero, the great Archbishop of El Salvador, preaching shortly before his martyrdom put it like this;

“Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine? Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticise you? Who are those who do not accept you? Who are those who flatter you? Know that Christ once said, ‘I have come not to bring peace but division.1 Some of you want to live more comfortably, by the world’s principles of power and money, but others have embraced the call of Christ.”

And the call of Christ is about an affirmation of the value of all. We see it demonstrated in the story of Desmond Tutu. Brought up in a society that treated black people such as himself as less than white people, he was stunned one day when walking with his mother, he met a priest. The priest addressed young Desmond’s mother as Mrs Tutu, he doffed his cap and he moved to the side so that she might have priority in passing. Desmond had seen nothing like it before and so the example of that priest, Trevor Huddlestone, was of significance in leading Desmond Tutu to himself becoming a priest. Why? The actions of a man of God had shown him that in God’s sight he was truly a somebody.

And in Jesus, we see one who used his every teaching, his every work of power to turn those who were thought of as nobodies into somebodies. Time and again he lifted people up. Those who were at the bottom of the pile, those who had made wrong choices, those who had seemingly little to offer, he lifted them up!

And still today, he lifts people up out of his inexhaustible grace. With him there are no Nobodies, only Sombodies! If we today feel battered, he lovingly lifts us up. With him there is no Poor Law distinction between the deserving and undeserving. For his grace is so generous that it goes beyond what any of us can rightly claim to deserve. So today, I invite you to be about his work of lifting people up but as you do so, do not neglect to allow yourselves to be lifted up by him or his messengers who just may be the last people you can imagine yourself being lifted up by.


Preached at Alwington on Sunday February 11th 2007

1 Comments:

Blogger PamBG said...

Wow. A very excellent and prophetic sermon.

Thank you.

11 February 2007 at 05:38  

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