What do you hear when that Gospel is read (Matthew 11:2-11)? Which words stand out most? Is it Jesus giving an account of what he has been doing? Is it John the Baptist, languishing in prison and pondering if he’s backed the right person; having an understandable wobble in that precarious situation, wondering if Jesus is the real deal? Prison was a mere holding place while someone’s fate was decided and as we know it ends violently for John the Baptist, who is beheaded on the drunken instructions of a lustful ruler. Is it the powerful being in palaces, wearing fine robes, driving smart cars? Jesus says this is not where you go to hear the good news. Rather, he says, it is with the poor. The heart of this gospel passage is the announcement of good news to the poor. That is the proof for John the Baptist to trust his judgement. This gospel turns the world upside down and with it our expectations of where to find the vibrancy we so seek. This passage has similarities with Luke’s account of Jesus reading out his Nazareth manifesto, when he says that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him because he has come to bring good news to the poor. And it this being fulfilled that shows his credentials to John the Baptist so that he can recognise who he is (Luke 4:16-21).
As we enter a new phase of our nation’s story, with a new government, this is a timely message, not least when so many areas of the country have crossed what seemed an impossible divide and voted for a party many of them had blamed for all their ills in the past. Some think this is turkeys voting for Christmas, others that it shows just how alienated they have felt, even from the party that is supposed to have placed their interests first. What does ‘good news for the poor’ look like? Is it a package of policies? It will certainly involve some and hearing the Prime Minister speak on Friday morning, he seems to have recognised that votes have just been lent him, so he has to deliver. Let’s hope he does. Is ‘good news for a the poor’ a radical change where those who serve at tables, clean cars and offices, polish nails and pack online orders in warehouses are given fair reward, seen and heard as people of equal worth and value? Is it drawing them deeply into participation in their communities so that they become part of the solution, which is by no means an easy task given how we have become so isolated and privatised as individuals over the years, persons on our own rather than in community? This has to go deeper than just trying to cover up budget gaps and might require funds committing to make it work, skilled people who can guide and encourage.
Each of these areas is easy to say but requires a change of heart and attitude for them to truly come alive. Honouring means regarding as an equal. Policies need budgets attached, funds committing to make change happen. Participation needs to be nurtured so that communities can make decisions for themselves and shape their own neighbourhoods. This is actually the principle behind local churches in local neighbourhoods. Where they are vibrant is where they are in touch, connect and reflect that neighbourhood. It is also the principle behind the Near Neighbours project, funded by the Church Urban Fund to support work in local communities to bring people together. This marked its first birthday last week.
Good news is not just announced for the poor, something given to, but as it honours, listens, draws into participation, good news comes back in the other direction. One of the remarkable things to come out of so many projects seeking to improve the lives of those at the lowest points is that as we bless we find that we are blessed in return. Those involved in the Winter Night Shelter find this as they sit round the table and hear stories. I found that as I was talking to an asylum seeker during my Sabbatical, a fellow guest at a Franciscan house. Over a shared meal, he spoke about his life, his story. He could have been bitter about the length of time his case was taking, but as he expressed it so simply, each day he was there he was still alive and not enduring what had led him to leave in the first place. It could have been worse, he might now be dead. Hosting Garden House in the Cathedral Precincts blesses an organisation, the Cathedral, that has been so weighed down by finances recently and needs to find large amounts of money to be sustainable. There is a poverty in riches and a wealth in poverty that can turn the world on its head, as we give so we receive.
We see lives being transformed because priorities are being re-set and the masks of security, which actually just hide a deeper vulnerability, slip away to reveal our ultimate utter dependence on God’s grace and love. As the cash registers ring out their seasonal greetings, today on this third Sunday of Advent rather than promises of riches to the already prosperous, we are brought good news for and from the poor. ‘What did you go out to see’, asks Jesus. ‘Fine robes?’ Those are in palaces and the irony is that is not where good news resides.
It could be easy to romanticise about poverty. But it is hunger, debt, inadequate funds, cold and it grinds people down. In a debate in General Synod earlier in the year, Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, called it ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Universal Credit, low-paid work, food poverty and austerity’ plaguing so many lives (Church Times 1 March 2019). These are injustices and they need challenging – the new government needs them at the top of their in-boxes, each of the new ministers’ red boxes. If they don’t the communities that voted them in will turn on them and that will not end well. So poverty is no easy place of blessing. Rather it is that light shines in this darkness bringing hope where there could so easily be despair.
A lot of effort has been put into how to grow churches over the past few decades and the result is that we have seen steady decline. The statistics are clear. Philip North has a theory as to why this is the case. It is, he says, because the church has forgotten the poor. Renewal, he says, comes from good news for, with and from the poor, not in shiny projects that appeal to consumer culture in a different guise. It takes longer to grow, to embed, but in time it changes everyone. Providing coffee drop-ins, as we do, where the coffee is affordable, where people can sit with friends or just sit and feel welcomed, addresses this head on. Our cafe serves quite a purpose. One of the things which always impresses me so much about the Franciscan houses I stay in is that everyone is round the same table, whoever they are. There is no distinction and we all meet, share stories and find ourselves humbled and blessed in equal measure because all are guests of the same heavenly Father who loves us each equally and expects us to do the same.
Good news for the poor is actually good news for everyone. Social action and evangelism belong together because the words have to be lived and the words should be about justice, setting people free and bringing lives to flourish in God’s love and grace. If they are not, then they are rather hollow and empty. Jesus announced good news to the poor. When we do the same, we find that good news is for us too, whether we count ourselves as one of the poor or not.
Sermon for Advent 3, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 15th December 2019