A Scandalous Condition
Ordinary Sunday 5: 5th February, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Isa 58:6-10; Ps 112; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Matt 5:13-16
The author of Isaiah 58 pulls no punches. "Shout out," he says in verse 1, "do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion."
Known as "Third Isaiah" chapters 56 to 66 of the Book of Isaiah are a grab-bag of prophetic oracles, probably written after the Hebrew people's return from exile around 539 BCE. It is a time of relative peace, compared to the exile in Babylon, but the primary tensions expressed here are internal to the faith community. They are seeking to rebuild a nation and work out the crucial questions of social life and religious practice; sometimes they get it wrong.
The prophetic voice we hear in chapter 58 is crystal clear. The religious community is being told off for exercising the wrong kind of religious priorities. They are devout and righteous, observing religious fasting and prayer; but "Look" says the prophet (vv. 4-5) "you fast only to quarrel and fight ... will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?"
You'd never find us doing that here at St Peter's would you? (I'm sure that you are very well behaved at St John's too). Quarrelling, fighting with one another. That's a very un-Anglican thing to do! Don't get too caught up in your ritual observances, says the prophet (vv. 6-8), "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house ... then your light shall break forth like the dawn."
I love our liturgy here at St Peter's. It is beautiful, inspiring and uplifting. But it is not the be-all and end-all. Our worship is hollow and meaningless unless it goes hand-in-hand with a genuine priority for the poor and a concrete commitment to social justice.
We say Mass at St Peter's every day of the week at 7.15am. A few years ago one or two of the Mass-goers began to grumble about the noise next door at the Lazarus Centre breakfast program. "Fr Hugh" they said, "would you ask them to be quiet while we are praying." I refused. "No" I said, "I'm sorry, but they are our prayer."
"If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday" (v. 10).
These prophetic words are incredibly poignant in a week when police on Wednesday removed by force a homeless camp outside Flinders Street Station, and then the next day City of Melbourne acting chief executive, Martin Cutter, tabled a report proposing that councillors vote to ban "public camping" and make it illegal to leave any item unattended in a public place.
The issues are complex, but the risk is that homeless people will be further marginalised, and effectively criminalised for sleeping rough. Some of the language that is being used in the public debate is disturbing too. A week prior to Wednesday's forceful eviction, a newspaper editorial appeared to be spurring on the police: "Surely, with the filth, intimidation and hygiene risks ... there is enough to meet criteria for police to move in and move these vagrants on" (Herald Sun).
These are not "filthy vagrants" they are beautiful, vulnerable, strong people who just happen to be travelling a different path to many of us. They are friends we allow to sleep in our church grounds; we invite them for breakfast; we introduce them to social workers and health professionals who can help. They have names. They have families and friends. They will tell you tragic stories of misfortune, and powerful stories of resilience, if only you make the time to listen. They are God's children as much as anyone here in church today.
Our Archbishop told a delightful story at the Senior Staff meeting of the Diocese last year. He was in full clericals, walking along Bourke Street with the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia. A rather dishevelled homeless man approached him and asked, "are you Catholic?" "No" the Archbishop replied, "I'm Anglican." A big grin grew on the man's face. "So am I" he said, "I go to St Peter's."
Today's gospel reading is from Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, and follows on from the Beatitudes that we were reflecting on last Sunday. Our Lord is teaching his disciples (Matt 5:13): "You are the salt of the earth" he says, "but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot."
Christ's message is very similar to that of the Third Isaiah prophet. What are you doing about it my disciples? The problem is huge, and there aren't many of us, but look at what salt can do; a pinch flavours the whole dish. So, for goodness sake, do something!
I have been invited to a homelessness forum later this month, with Tim Costello, to look at what more we can do as church leaders. Many of you already throw a pinch of salt in the pot, as you volunteer at the Lazarus Centre, or stop to talk to the man selling the Big Issue, or serve as a Trustee on the Charitable Foundation, or the City Mission, or produce the homelessness app "Ask Issy." But the prophets and our Lord will never let us rest on our laurels. This is not a sideline, an optional faith extra. This is our faith as Christians: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven" (Matt 5:16).
Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, points out that throughout the scriptures, both Old and New Testament, there is a vigorous repudiation of poverty. "Poverty" he writes, "is a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity and therefore contrary to the will of God" (A Theology of Liberation, p. 165). We cannot rest, as Christians, while there is still poverty and homelessness.
From the earliest days, the church leaders and theologians have recognised this foundational truth. Cyprian of Carthage, in the third century, wrote a treatise "Concerning Works and Almsgiving." In it he notes: "The Holy Spirit speaks in the sacred Scriptures, and says, ‘By almsgiving and faith sins are purged' (Prov. 16:6) ... Moreover, he says again, 'As water extinguisheth fire, so almsgiving quencheth sin' (Ecclus. 3:30)."
Poetry also speaks into the complexity of poverty, and I'd like to close with a poem by D. H. Lawrence, entitled simply "Poverty."
- The only people I ever heard talk about my Lady Poverty
- Were rich people, or people who imagined themselves rich.
- Saint Francis himself was a rich and spoiled young man.
- Being born among the working people
- I know poverty is a hard old hag,
- and a monster, when you're pinched for actual necessities.
- And whoever says she isn't is a liar.
- I don't want to be poor, it means I'm pinched.
- But neither do I want to be rich.
- When I look at this pine-tree near the sea,
- That grows out of rock, and it plumes forth, plumes forth,
- I see it has a natural abundance.
- With its roots it has a natural grip on its daily bread,
- And its plumes look like a green cup held up to the sun and air
- And full of wine.
- I want to be like that, to have a natural abundance
- And plume forth, and be splendid.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.