Freely ye have received; freely give
Ordinary Sunday 11, 16 June, 2002
Manager, The Magdalene Centre, Adelaide
It is a great pleasure to be here this morning, as I conduct a brief review of community work associated with the Lazarus Centre. This includes your breakfast program for homeless people, which I understand has been operating for around ten years.
It was a little over 21 years ago that my own interest in this area of mission began. My four years as social worker at the neighbouring Parish of St Mark's, Fitzroy were an important foundation to my continuing involvement in what is sometimes described as the "Social Gospel." After seven years working for the Diocese of Melbourne, and another seven for Ecumenical Housing, I left Melbourne in 1998 to become the Manager of The Magdalene Centre. This is an inner city service in Adelaide providing emergency assistance and community development programs. The Magdalene Centre is based on a partnership between three inner city parishes and Anglicare SA.
It is with this background that I offer a reflection on this mornings Gospel, as well as suggest how it relates to the work of care and justice you undertake as a community of faith.
Our reading from Matthew's Gospel ends with what could be described as a simple manifesto for mission: "Freely ye have received; freely give" (or in contemporary translation "you have received without payment; give without payment.")
This suggests a paradigm shift in the way we think about "giving and receiving". What we give is a visible outcome of what we have already received. We are invited to engage in the dynamic of service, which begins with the gifts and graces we receive from God and from others. It is in this wider context that we can best understand the imperative to become servants of others; it is ultimately, an expression of gratitude or in other words, thanksgiving.
When St Paul says that "it is more blessed to give than to receive", this is true only in so far as we recognize the blessedness of what we have already received. When St Francis of Assisi prays that "it is in giving that we receive" the same principle applies. What we offer to others is offered because we have a treasure store of love given freely to us, including the love which somehow sustains us and enables us to grow through our experience of pain and suffering.
In the simple manifesto "Freely have ye received, freely give" Jesus invites us to consider the gifts and graces we have received as more central to our humanity than the reality of need or sin. This is original blessing, where the grace we have received is recognized as the first and abiding principle of our life.
Our reading from Matthew's Gospel begins with Jesus' compassion to those whose lives lack content, meaning and direction, and his deep desire that they might freely choose to follow him. Yet in Matthew's Gospel following Jesus is never enough. Jesus invites disciples who follow to become apostles who lead. Jesus draws his disciples into a company of leaders to undertake the task of mission in word and deed. Servant leadership is what gives the dynamic of service visibility and structure. Servant leadership makes it possible for acts of compassion and care to be transformed into communities of faith and action, which demonstrate a wider concern for equity and justice.
In my own daily work as Manager of The Magdalene Centre, I am conscious of the desire not only to continuously improve the services we provide, but also to deliberately work on the building of community and the pursuit of wider issues of social justice. This is a difficult task as the demand for the provision of services is growing in both scale and complexity.
When I commenced at The Magdalene Centre in 1998, we were assisting over 500 households a month four years on we now assist well over 700 households a month. The extension of our human and material resources is an ever-present concern.And yet, in spite of these demands, we have still managed to focus some time and attention on the building of community among our clients, volunteers and staff, as well as our wider community of support.
I see Jesus' invitation to engage in the dynamic of service in the efforts of the 65 volunteers who come from many different backgrounds. 25% of our volunteers are past or continuing clients, who work alongside paid staff and volunteers from parishes and the wider community. The mutuality of receiving and giving is evident, alongside the frustrations involved in the desire to build inclusive community.
A simple and light-hearted example from The Magdalene Centre illustrates the point. One morning someone from one of our supportive parishes arrived amidst the usual organized chaos, to donate food. As food room volunteers began to take the food, the donor became concerned, and requested to see someone in authority. Once I had been produced, I was told firmly that it was impossible to tell the difference between who was a client, who was a volunteer and who was a paid worker. Is this failure or success, I wonder?
Some weeks later, an inner city resident arrived at reception and requested to see the Manager. Once again I was wheeled out, whereupon the resident said, with some passion, " Do you realise that this Centre has a reputation for being the easiest place in Adelaide to get assistance". Once again, is this failure or success? In both cases my response was the same and typically cheeky. I simply said. "Thank you for the compliment".
As you continue to develop your own distinctive response to the visible needs of this city through the Lazarus Centre, I encourage you to focus both within and beyond the provision of quality services to those in need. The desire to respond to the scale and complexity of need must be balanced against the desire to build inclusive community, which enables those we serve to give as freely as they receive, as far as this is possible. It is not enough to meet needs. Revealing and mobilising the gifts and graces of others is also essential.
Our servant leadership must be more than inviting people to become disciples who follow; it must also make it possible for people to become apostles who share in leadership with others. A leadership that is collaborative and authoritative, rather than authoritarian. The 14th Century Rhineland Mystic, Meister Eckhart, offers us this encouragement: "Love will never be anywhere except where equality and unity are, there can be no love where love does not find equality or is not busy creating equality; nor can there be any pleasure without equality. Practice equality in human society. Learn to love, esteem, consider all people like yourself".
Our engagement in mission as service leads ultimately to a concern for justice in society. The services you provide may attract opposition as well as generous support. The experience of those you serve will lead you to consider afresh the wider issues of unemployment, the adequacy of income security and the availability of secure overnight accommodation and long term affordable housing. The stabbing of a young homeless man outside the Collins Street Baptist Church last Friday morning is a stark reminder of the need to offer secure shelter and support wherever possible. Your role as a church in the city may focus more on how the city treats its most vulnerable constituents. There may be conflict with others whose vision of the city differ from your own.
Issues such as the rights of homeless people to occupy public space, the adequacy of mental health support services, the treatment of indigenous people, violence, substance abuse and crime are more likely to be on your agenda.
Our response to all this may be to begin with the provision of services, but its ultimate end is the transformation of people and society as a whole.
Well may we ask, with T.S. Eliot:
When the stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle together because you love each other:"
What will you answer?
"We all dwell together to make money from each other"? or "This is a community"?
And the stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O My soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
I conclude by offering my warm congratulations on the initiative you have undertaken through the work of The Lazarus Centre, and in particular the breakfast program. Such availability is vital, as a point of contact and connection for those whose lives may lack content, meaning and direction. You have the opportunity to undertake a work of healing and transformation. And if there are demons to be cast out, may one of them be the tendency to demonise the poor, homeless and vulnerable in our midst.
Jesus has provided us with a simple manifesto for mission "Freely ye have received, freely give". May we strive to engage in the dynamic of service in such a way that reduces alienation and increases the potential for mutual love, for the sake of the Gospel.