Sermon preached at Sandleheath Uniting Church, John the Baptist teaches the people a lesson about generosity and care, Advent 3
Both of today’s readings are about being prepared for the coming of Christ, a subject I spent quite a while on two weeks ago so this week I thought I would spend a bit more time on the first 8 verses which are to be honest quite frightening. The people of Israel are not behaving well, not for the first time, and John tells them very clearly – if you don’t mend your ways God will wield an axe and then throw you into the fire, and he calls them snakes because they are behaving one way but pretending to be different.
The people, I guess confronted with this rather frightening looking man, wanted to know what they had to do to escape the fire. John’s answer was very simple – if you have 2 shirts and you come across someone with no shirt, give them your spare one, if you have food, share it with those who don’t, if you have a position of trust then do the right thing, only collect the tax that is due, and not a premium for your own pocket, nor should you extort people just because you have weapons and they don’t.
It doesn’t seem very difficult does it? So let’s fast forward 2000 years. Do we live in a generous world? If we were to go to Ringwood and visit Waitrose we would find beans from Africa, fruit and onions from the Middle East, coffee from South America, tea from India and China and so on. We move food all around the world for our own benefit. In my house in a few weeks’ time there will be dates from Israel, ginger from India, China or Nepal, and many other items from around the globe. When I visit one of my children in Leeds I spend ages wandering round their local Turkish supermarket fascinated by all the things on offer.
So given all of that – when the world produces 40% more food than it consumes, why do we still have people starving? If we can move it here, we can move it there too. How can it be right that here in Hampshire we put perfectly good food into a giant cauldron to produce energy because we have not used it all. In this country we waste almost as much food as we eat. Yes we support the homeless, yes we support those needing foodbanks, but in all honesty we should be using our surplus to feed those who are starving across the world.
I was lucky enough a couple of weeks ago to visit something called a Social Supermarket in a town called Goldthorpe in the borough of Barnsley in Yorkshire. Goldthorpe was once a thriving community due to black gold – coal. It was surrounded by pits where most of the menfolk worked. It was a hard life but everyone earned sufficient to live. The mine owners and then the coal board built them houses to live in. Then the pits began to close, most of us remember that time, Arthur Skargill and Margaret Thatcher locked in conflict, the police expected to keep the peace, neighbours calling each other scab because one worked in the pit and the other drove a lorry that moved the coal, and the lorry drivers kept working. Goldthorpe has about 8000 residents. It is run down, all the shops have metal shutters to combat vandalism and theft and many of them are empty. The people look downtrodden and the community has a large movement within it because the coal board sold the houses for £1500 when the pits closed, the clever residents bought their own house and then sold it for much more and now at least 20% are rented out by landlords who own whole streets, where people come and go on a regular basis. There is a shiny new Asda next to the school, but many can’t afford to shop there, even the discount ranges are too expensive. But there is another shop, about as big as the Tesco in Fordingbridge. You have to be a member to get in and you have a swipe card very much like the ones you get in hotels to open the door with. You can only join if you are on benefits, and only 750 people can join at any time. Once inside it looks just like Tesco, neat rows of shelves, all the brands you expect to see, about 800 different lines of stock, but they include items from Marks and Spencer, Asda, Morrisons, Tesco, all next to each other. This is surplus stock – still in date, not damaged, but overproduced. It is bought for 10% of its normal shelf price, which is much cheaper for the supermarket than having to pay to have it taken away, and then it is sold in the supermarket for just 30% of its shelf price, saving the shoppers 70%. They can only shop there for 6 months and then they are expected to be in a better position to return to Asda. In that 6 months they undertake courses in numeracy, literacy, budgeting and so on and for the final 2 weeks they do an intensive course making them ready for a job and they are guaranteed one interview. Whether they get the job or not is then up to them, but they have been given the best chance possible.
I was able to join them for lunch in the café they have as part of the supermarket. It has a full time chef who teaches and on the day I was there it was roast beef and all the trimmings although as I was eating later I just had some soup. The atmosphere was friendly and the surroundings pleasant. It wasn’t full of old tables and chairs, it had nice café style seating and the whole place was about dignity and there was a really good atmosphere – one of hope.
The scheme is made possible because a man who has built up his own business trading in foodstuffs has been generous enough to pay for the transport of the food from the manufacturer or supermarket to his own warehouse and then out to the social supermarket. Now they have proven it works they should be able to find some venture capital partners who will finance a much bigger roll-out. Indeed a report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on hunger recommended in a report this Thursday that Social Supermarkets should be spread right across the UK. And the benefit is that it takes people from food starvation, to foodbank, to social supermarket and then to Asda, a progression which gradually puts people back in control. You can argue that the current benefactor is very rich and can afford it, but so are many more people who do not share their wealth. He has taken the shirt he didn’t need and given it away and he has enabled the food that we should be sharing to go to those who need it rather than an anaerobic digester.
So you sit there and you think, I haven’t made a fortune from a business, I don’t have millions to give away. If so I will refer you to the widow who gave the only coin she had, all of her wealth; be it almost inconsequential to the collection plate – she had nothing yet she gave more than the rich around her who were giving a token compared to what they had.
John is telling the people they must be generous in spirit and in practice. They must share and not cheat one another. I suspect few of us cheat others but are we really generous? Go back to the man with 2 shirts. If we think about it having only one shirt isn’t very practical is it. It’s going to mean some hardship because eventually it will need a wash which will mean going without the shirt until it is dry again, but compared to having no shirt at all, the discomfort is marginal. But it is a real cost and I often wonder if we give from our surplus or from our cost? John doesn’t say share your surplus food, he says share what food you have, which says to me that even if you only have enough for yourself you should share the other person’s burden by having less to give them something.
Be honest with yourself – how do you approach the Christian Aid envelope, can I get away with change, maybe not, ok well that means I’ll have to put a fiver in. Maybe ten or even £20 is within your grasp even if you buy a slightly cheaper piece of meat that week or what about going without meat just for one week – it’s hardly a big sacrifice is it?
I don’t tell you this to sound self-righteous, but I well remember a day I went for a job interview. It was a job which would enable me to earn sufficient to make ends meet and pay off some debt we had built up. It entailed me travelling 60 miles each way but it was worth the time spent to get our family into a secure place. As I was leaving the car park to walk to the interview I met a Big Issue seller who asked me if I’d buy his last copy so he could go home and get warm. I only had £2 in my pocket and at the time we weren’t well off, but something told me to give him the money. Whether I was rewarded for my sacrifice or whether it just put me in a good frame of mind, I don’t know, but I got the job, and within a year we were both solvent and debt free.
I was telling the good folk of Harbridge a story a few weeks ago when I was taking a service there. At one of the garages between Fordingbridge and Ringwood stands a silver BMW X4, if you are not familiar, it is a two seater sports car with a very long bonnet and a soft top roof. I see it every time I drive past it. I even stopped to look at it one day making sure the garage was closed so I couldn’t be leapt upon. I don’t need 4 seats, Margaret has a perfectly good and very nice family estate so that isn’t stopping me. But then that little voice inside says – it will use more fuel and pollute the atmosphere more but more importantly you won’t be able to pick up food from kind generous people who donate it, or the odd piece of furniture they give to the shop. And I think, you know what, I don’t need that BMW, why do I want it – is it so I can sit at the traffic lights and when they go green roar off into the distance, the wind in my hair, my cool shades on and everyone thinking – I wish I could be like him? Or would I rather be able to say, yes I can pick that food up which means someone else will eat properly. In all honesty it’s a fairly easy choice and so far I haven’t given in to temptation, but to a point it hurts because I’d really like the car.
Seeing Pope Francis in a Fiat 500 instead of some amazing limo is a great lesson to the world. Knowing he lives in an ordinary apartment, didn’t have handmade red shoes made, paid his paper bill when he became Pope, they are all amazing examples to us of generosity which blesses both those who receive and those who give.
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me a short film. It was a charity rugby match and a toddler escaped his parents and wandered onto the field. Seeing what had happened one player picked up the ball, gave it to the small boy and set him off running to the other end. The other players on the pitch soon got the message and all the opposition dived either just behind him or just in front of him to let him keep running. When he began to tire another player picked him up and carried him to the score line and then there was a huge cheer from the crowd as his dad ran on to collect him. How amazing was that compared to a big security person rushing on and scooping him up to get him off the field. How good must everyone have felt and what an amazing lesson to thousands of people around the world who have seen that clip.
The team who let the little boy score went behind as a result. I don’t know if they won or lost but it cost them. Yet even if they lost I suspect they went home much the better for their generosity. To badly misquote an old saying giving is not just for Christmas. Of course the sad thing was that despite John’s teaching Jesus then ended up on that cross because they didn’t heed John’s words. But it’s not too late for us.