Breaking the barriers: a sermon for Poverty and Homelessness Action Week
January 30, 2012
Preached by Dr. Rob Furbey.
It’s very good to meet and speak to you this morning … and to be able to thank everybody at St Columba’s for your kindness and generosity in supporting Claire and Paul’s work in India, sustaining Linda’s ministry here in the parish, and so encouraging our whole family including me, Linda’s other half… ‘Im indoors’!
It’s great that St Columba’s extends its horizons, not only to the work of Paul and Claire in India, but also to Ian Simpkinson’s ministry with MAFF and the work of Jason and Tracey in Nepal. But we are also living our lives here, inBritain, at a critical time when poverty and its effects are becoming increasingly entrenched. Many people have very low incomes, lacking the resources to find work and to obtain secure affordable homes which they can heat, and even enough nutritious food.
But first, a question! This service is about breaking barriers. Who is the most radical barrier-breaker of all time…? Yes, it surely must be Jesus! Right at the beginning of his ministry Jesus transfixed all in the synagogue when he spoke these barrier-breaking words:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ (Luke 4: 18-19).
In these words Jesus confirms God’s special love for the poor, the oppressed, the captive, the disabled and all kinds of people pushed to the margins of life. The good news which Jesus brings is for all these people who confront barriers which exclude them from the fullness of life which God wills for all people.
So it is not surprising that Jesus commends those who work to break down barriers between people and who bring ‘release’ to those who are pushed aside and seen as of no account.
Jesus affirms those who break down barriers between people and who work for peace and reconciliation. He invites us to be different in our response to those whom the world counts as a threat, a burden, an offence, or just of no account.
What are the marks of this barrier-breaking approach to life? Jesus calls us to be peacemakers. He calls us to be merciful. He warns us not to be judgemental, so that we too may not be judged. He calls us to be neighbours to those who are ignored as ‘different’. Each of these qualities takes us into the world and into situations where we can help to break down the barriers that divide people and impoverish their lives economically, emotionally, and spiritually.
These words of Jesus are backed by his actions. Jesus lived among people and he understood them. His life on earth was an earthy life! He was born in a poor stable and was driven as a migrant to another country. He worked with his hands. He engaged with all kinds of people, coming close to the poorest and the outcast and challenging those with power and status.
Along the way we find many encounters where Jesus broke barriers to meet, affirm and challenge people and to enable them to raise their lives on to a higher level and to trust that they can be ‘made whole’, released into all that God wanted them to be.
Here are just a couple of familiar people who experienced Jesus coming to them to break down the barriers that blighted their lives and excluded them from society.
First, we find Jesus amazing, and indeed upsetting, the bystanders when he called Zacchaeus down from the tree in which he had been hiding. Zacchaeus was the most reviled man in the community, working for the Romans and ripping off people as a corrupt chief tax collector.
He invited this most reviled man in the community to eat with him. Luke 19 records that: ‘All that saw it began to grumble’. As Jesus crossed the barriers of popular prejudice against Zacchaeus Jesus knew the man’s status as a ‘sinner’. Yet he saw in this man someone who could be released, given a new way of ‘seeing’ and capable of living a new life of generosity, returning love for love. Zacchaeus was liberated and enabled to become whole – all that God had intended for his life.
A second barrier was broken by Jesus when he met the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Here Jesus broke several barriers at once! He crossed a religious divide, a gender divide, and also rules governing marital life. The disciples couldn’t believe he was speaking to a woman; and she herself couldn’t believe he would accept a drink from a woman, let alone an alien Samaritan one! But, again, this outrageous behaviour by Jesus lifted someone from marginality and probably poverty and oppression into hope and joy. In the process, he challenged all the assumptions and prejudices of the onlookers, challenging them to join him in breaking barriers.
Much more could be said about these words and deeds of Jesus. I’m sure that you can think of many examples of his barrier-breaking that I have missed! Perhaps there are issues here to explore and develop in home groups!
We have seen that Jesus broke barriers throughout his ministry. And we know that he challenged oppression and confronted the powerful interests of his day, identifying with the poor, the marginalised, the stranger and the broken in body and in spirit.
We have seen that Jesus was a barrier-breaker. But what about us, here, today?! Can we find examples of barrier-breaking on the streets ofSheffieldin 2012? Yes we can! Let’s look at some examples, illustrated by some stories.
Eddie Sherwood, a member of this congregation, is Director of Care and Support at Sheffield City Council. He and his colleagues work with homeless people, supporting them to ‘get back on track’. Here is a personal story from staff in this service. They keep the names of the two people anonymous.
Pat’s or Joe’s story
The other story come from Sheffield Cathedral’s Archer Project. Again, where necessary, anonymity is preserved.
How do you respond to these stories? Admiration for the carers and supporters? Despair at the wreckage of people’s lives? Irritation at the damage that people that have done to themselves and all those around them? Respect for their bravery in building new lives from the wreckage of the old? Or what…?
Sadly, both in the times of Jesus’ ministry and today, it is common that blame is directed at the poor and the marginalised themselves.
Jesus was confronted by a running indignation among those who listened and watched his words and actions as he embraced the outsider, touched the ‘unclean’ and dispossessed, and confronted those with the power to act but who were themselves captured by their status, their respectability, their power and their sense of superiority. They said of Jesus:
‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19)
We live in very different times in our 21st century. But perhaps not completely different! One sobering similarity is in attitudes to poverty. In the gospel stories we find that misfortune, destitution or disease is associated with sin. The poor, the sick, the outsider and the outcast are blamed for their condition. Modern research reveals that public reactions to poverty and exclusion remain quite similar in Britain today.
You may have heard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It’s a highly respected research institution funded by the legacy of the Quaker family which continues to pioneer the study of poverty and homelessness. In recent years the Foundation has expressed concern that attitudes to poverty in theUnited Kingdomremain quite unbending. Recent research by Rowntree has shown that, despite its work:
‘Public awareness of UKpoverty is low and attitudes are often harshly judgemental of those on low incomes… Nearly two-thirds of the public think that poverty is either an inevitable part of life or due to a person’s own laziness. This is a difficult place from which to build public support for measures which could eradicate UKpoverty…. People’s understanding of UKpoverty is fragmented. Many have no language or image of 21st-century poverty. We are uncomfortable talking about it’
(Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Attitudes to Poverty, 2011).
There is a welter of statistics on poverty and homelessness in theUK. Numbers can numb the mind! But please forgive me if briefly I offer a widely accepted definition of poverty, one used by Rowntree and other organisations.
‘A household is deemed to be in poverty if its income is less than 60% of average household for the year in question’ (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2011).
The latest data (the year 2009-2010) show that, after tax and housing costs, this left them with annual incomes of:
- £300 per week for a couple with two children under 14
- £124 for a single adult
- £210 for a lone parent
In 2009-2010, 29% of children in the UKlived below the poverty line. Well over half of children in poverty (57%) live with at least one working parent. So these parents do work but they don’t earn enough to save themselves or their children from poverty. The rest are on benefits of various kinds.
There is strong evidence that the great majority of people want to work. Rowntree researchers found that by 2011 six million people were unemployed, lacking but wanting work or part-time work or working part-time because no full-time work was available.
Of course, there are some who seek to work the benefit system in an elicit way and people, not least poor people, are understandably angry at various kinds of benefit cheating. But benefit frauds on the part of welfare claimants need to be put alongside the tax evasion of the rich and excesses of boardroom pay and bonuses.
Times have got tougher since 2009. Rowntree have calculated what income different kinds of households would require in 2011. The researchers found that He found that people are finding it still harder to manage due to:
- Stagnating or falling income
- rising unemployment and a sharp increase in part-time working
- rising costs for essentials such as food, energy and transport
- reductions in various benefits in relation to meet people’s minimum needs. (Notable here is the freezing of Child Benefit and tax credits which are designed to help low-income families to cover child-care costs)
So in 2011, people have to face much higher costs:
- £424 for a couple with two children………… up £124
- £184 for a single working-age person …….. up £60
- £246 for a lone parent and 1 child ……. Up £36
Things will not get better in the immediate future. The current Welfare Reform Bill is bringing welfare cuts of £18 billion every year for some time. Among the changes which bring hardship to poorer people are:
- Changes to Housing Benefits which will put pressure on poor families to move away from their present community to poorer places
- A Universal Benefits cap which does not make allowances for the number of mouths a family has to feed
- The replacement of the Incapacity Benefit by a new support allowance which involves a very stringent medical test with tougher rules
We have been exploring poverty. But, of course, poverty is the backdrop to homelessness. If people could own or rent a house or flat they would not be homeless!
The housing Pressure group Shelter reports a crisis in British housing. Here are a few key pieces of information:
- More than two million people find their rent or mortgage a constant struggle or are falling behind with payments.
- Huge numbers of homeowners are having their homes repossessed, because they can’t keep up with their mortgage payments.
- Over 1.7 million households are currently waiting for social housing.
- Some homeless households – many with dependent children – wait for years in temporary accommodation.
- Many hundreds of people sleep rough on the streets every night, cold and fearing for their safety. They are not just homeless but roofless.
- The number of new households is increasing faster than the number of house builds.
- Families renting privately on low incomes have to put up with poor living conditions and little security.
Poverty and homelessness affect people in so many ways. Some have the inner resources or outside help to cope but there are strong relationships between poverty and homelessness which lead to a whole host of barriers:
- Abuse and neglect
- Poor schooling and truancy
- Physical and mental ill-health
- Alcoholism and substance misuse
- Family breakdown
- Life in ‘care’
So, we have heard some of the stories of people ‘on the edge’ and those who have listened to them and supported them. And we have also reviewed some of the sobering statistics.
What should we do? What can we do?
Within the limits of our resources of money, time, energy, wisdom, let us find ways in which we can play our part, helping to hack away at these barriers and play some part in offering release from despair and oppression. May we play a part in working for freedom. May we be a voice and a resource for those who are poor and homeless to find the fullness that God intends for all humankind.