21 December 2014: Fourth Sunday of Advent
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Ali Dorey
2 Samuel 7. 1-11; Luke 1. 26-38
The area of North Sheffield where I work as a mission enabler is made up of about 11 outer urban estates, of predominantly social housing and private rented accommodation. It is a place of benefit claimants and foodbanks, where my neighbours are often branded “scroungers” by their own families and by the media, but our experience on the estates suggests this is not the truth. We have people walking shamefaced into the foodbanks, because there’s been an administrative mix up with their benefits, and then a number of weeks later, when their benefits are finally sorted out, the first thing they do is turn up to the foodbank again, this time with their heads held high, and a bag of groceries to share with someone else in need.
Back in the 1930s, when most of the estates where I work were first built, they were sought after places to live. A few big churches, no doubt charitably looking to do mission to the estates, built a number of new church buildings there. We are now having to dismantle some of those buildings. We are at the sharp end of realising that God does not live in temples built by human hands. As God said to David in our OT reading, he always moved among the people of Israel, wherever they went, not constrained by a fine building or “house of cedar”. I wish that those wealthier churches back in the 1930s had sent people to live on the new estates, among the people, rather than investing so much money in expensive church buildings. One of the congregations I work with numbers about 10 people, and they are paying £180/month in insurance for a closed church building that the Church of England needs to demolish. This is on an estate where many people can’t afford to feed themselves.
Our deanery chapter had a quiet day in “the plague village” of Eyam a couple of years ago. One of my colleagues on the estates said afterwards that it was hard to apply the lessons of Eyam to our parishes, as we don’t have such a deadly disease threatening us. But I disagreed. Life expectancy in parts of North Sheffield is 10 years less than in West Sheffield. The deadly killer is poverty and is alive and well on the estates, taking people before their time.
I’ve painted quite a dark picture so far of life on the estates. To not be honest about the challenges would be to patronise you, and to do a disservice to my neighbours, who I love. But everything is not all doom and gloom. There are incredible stories of grace, of truth and of hope as well.
Today’s gospel reading is all about Mary, as she experienced this very strange encounter with the angel Gabriel. To start with, the angel seems to have very positive news for her. She is highly favoured, and God is with her; she needn’t be afraid. So far, so good. Then the angel tells her she will become pregnant and will have a baby boy, who will be the Son of God, who will be a King over the house of Jacob forever. Mary, rather than being too overawed with all this splendour, thinks immediately of the practicalities; she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel points out that Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, has become pregnant in her old age, so anything is possible, with God. Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
When Mary realised that this really was an angel from God, and that this really was going to happen, she must have started to realise that she faced much potential doom and gloom. What would Joseph, her fiancee, make of all this? Would he believe her story about the angel and getting pregnant with God? Or would he think she’d been with another man and divorce her? How would she survive on her own with a new baby if he divorced her? How would she even get through the pregnancy? And yet Mary’s response immediately and later, too, is not one of being overwhelmed with doom and gloom, but one of faith and hope. “Let it be with me according to your word”. Faith that this would happen and strong hope that God would provide for her and for the baby and for Joseph, in some way.
Today, I want to share with you four stories from the estates in North Sheffield. These are stories of people who are waiting as Mary waited; with faith and with hope. My job is to help the church to make disciples who will follow Jesus, but in the course of my work, I keep stumbling across people outside the church as well as in it, who are making a disciple of me – teaching me what following Jesus really looks like.
- Rimmo. A few churches in part of my area got together to sing carols in the local pubs over the last couple of weeks. In one of the pubs we met Rimmo, who joined in with the carols in spite of his mates making fun of him. Rimmo told me how he’d done “The Full Monty” a couple of years ago, and raised £500 for the Children’s Hospital. After a while, Rimmo explained why he’d given the money to the Children’s Hospital. Rimmo’s 9 year old son nearly died a number of years ago in a car crash, when Rimmo was driving. Rimmo remembers that his friend told him his son wouldn’t die, while they were in intensive care and it looked like there was no hope. He said he whispered into his son’s ear, “You aren’t f***ing going to die” repeatedly. Rimmo said it was the only time he’d really prayed, and when he prayed, a deep peace came over him, and he knew his son would be Ok. His son is 22 years old now, and Rimmo feels guilty that he’s never really prayed since, although he’s so thankful that his son lived. I told him to be thankful every day, and to retell his story to many people, which would be a way of thanking God.
- Activist Nick. At the start of advent, he gathered numerous postcards written by foodbank users and volunteers, saying what their year had been like. A couple of weeks ago, he sent them to David Cameron inside a Christmas card from the foodbank community. A few days later, Nick was in excruciating pain with a kidney stone. He has spent advent waiting in pain, listening to God with forced inactivity (as Rachel Wood mentioned to you a few weeks ago). Nick hopes for healing for himself and for many many other people, and trusts in faith that people will be fed in the meantime, while he is unable to work.
- Paul who uses one of the foodbanks. Paul was a steel worker. He’s now in his 50s, made redundant a few years ago, no longer needed by society, on Jobseekers Allowance. Paul’s never used a computer in his life, but he can’t access jobs at all without it, so he’s trying to learn, slowly. It seems to me that we have thrown people like Paul on the scrapheap. After Paul had been coming to the food bank for a number of weeks, only occasionally needing food, the volunteers realised that Paul came because he wanted to be useful. He was waiting in hope that he could be useful. So now Paul does jobs in and around the foodbank community and is beginning to realise that he is worth something again.
- Jane Perry was a member of one of the churches just outside the estates area until she moved recently. She is also a very gifted social researcher who used to work for the DWP. Jane worked with us on a project called “Listen Up”, which helped local people both inside and outside the churches to listen much more effectively to their local communities. Just as the “Listen Up” projects were coming to an end, Jane was commissioned by Child Poverty Action Group, the Trussell Trust, Oxfam UK and the Church of England to produce a research report called Emergency Use Only, which was published and presented to the DWP a few weeks ago. The report is freely available online, and is threaded through with story after story of ordinary people who, through no fault of their own, have ended up having to use food banks up and down the country. You might have seen articles about it in the national press. It makes rather distressing reading, but it explains how and why people have ended up needing to use the foodbanks, and goes some way to explaining the increase in foodbank use nationally over the past few years.
Jane is waiting in faith, longing and hoping against hope with all of us for change in Government policy and in the administration of the benefits system, to make sure the most vulnerable people stop ending up having to use foodbanks, which were only supposed to be an emergency measure, rather than part of the welfare state.
So after all these stories, and this flavour of the estates where I work, my question to you is; What are you waiting for? And where are you being challenged to wait in faith and hope, like Mary did? How will you birth Christ in this world? No matter your age or situation, that is your calling, I believe, today.
If you believe that God is calling you to wait in faith and hope in relation particularly to the social issues I’ve talked about, I have some actions that you could take, as expressions of your faith and your hope for a better world:
Acts435 – ABY’s online charity providing short term, emergency help to people in dire need (not just church members), who are referred by local churches: http://acts435.org.uk
Write to your MP about the food banks issue. Go to the link below to do this quickly, which gives you a basic email to adapt: https://cpag.bsd.net/page/speakout/stop-ignoring-the-evidence-on-foodbanks
Read the tiny book Poverty: the Inclusive Church Resource published recently by DLT. It tells stories of people experiencing poverty, and offers some theological thinking about poverty and what a Christian response in the Uk could look like: http://www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk/titles/2006-9780232530681-poverty-the-inclusive-church-resource
Read Emergency Use Only and send the link to other people who might be interested: http://www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-report
Wait, watch and pray. Long, in hope and faith like Mary, with me and with the people across the country and the world for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done. Amen