Church Action on Poverty Sunday Talk

2 Corinthians 4.3-6

Mark 9.2-9

 

Lord, I pray that the words that I speak, and the words that are heard contain something of your transforming glory so that we can join together in the work of bringing about your kingdom here on earth. Amen

 

Today is Church Action on Poverty Sunday and I’m one of their Trustees! Church Action on Poverty is a national, ecumenical charity, committed to tackling poverty in the UK. For over 30 years Church Action on Poverty has worked in partnership with churches and with people in poverty themselves to find solutions to poverty, locally, nationally and globally. The focus is not simply monetary poverty but also recognises that there are many other dimensions of poverty, including relational poverty, emotional poverty and spiritual poverty.

Through our campaigns and our work in communities, we aim to significantly change policies and practices to create a more equal society, to Close the Gap between rich and poor. This includes a focus on tax avoidance; campaigning for fairer employment and the payment of a real Living Wage; and reduction in the “poverty premium” - did you know that life is more expensive if you are poor? Because you have to use high-interest lenders, rent your appliances and use prepayment meters for your utilities.

Those with lived experience of poverty often feel marginalised and the theme of this year’s Church Action on Poverty Sunday is “Voices from the Margins”. We know that in God’s upside down kingdom God is biased towards the poor. How can our readings today help us to better listen to the voices from the margins?

 

In Mark’s Gospel so far, Jesus has been leading his followers up a metaphorical mountaintop to give them a new view of God’s kingdom which he was ushering in. However so much of what Jesus has said and done has been a mystery to those experiencing it. Gradually, though, his followers’ eyes are being opened and they are starting to get glimpses of things as they really are. Jesus’ many miracles and parables are starting to show them that he is the Messiah and they are beginning to understand more fully what that means.

 

At the Transfiguration, it is no longer just metaphorical, we are on an actual mountaintop. God’s voice confirms what the disciples are gradually realising: “This is my Son, and I love him”. Just like Moses and Elijah received their calling from God on a mountaintop, Jesus also meets God on a mountain. He is sent out to finish the work started through the Law and the Prophets. The transfiguration is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up in the transforming love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.

 

For us, experiencing the kingdom of God in Jesus shouldn’t mean merely a few minor adjustments to our ordinary lives. Jesus’ whole being was transformed until he was shining with the light of God.  The transfiguration account invites us to a whole-hearted transformation of ourselves, so that we too can pick up our cross, like Jesus did, and follow him. We should be transformed by God’s light, until we’re overflowing with the light of the world. We know that, but do we really allow ourselves to be fully transformed into the likeness of Jesus? Are there areas of your life that continually resist full transformation?

 

To help us on the way to full transformation, first we need to see God in Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration are two times that Jesus is identified as the Son of God, both times by a voice from heaven. In Mark’s Gospel, the only time Jesus is actually recognised as the Son of God by a human is at his crucifixion. And this wasn’t by someone who had walked with him and listened to him – Jesus was recognised for who he really was by a gentile, a Roman centurion. And it didn’t happen when Jesus was at his most powerful. In fact it was when Jesus was at his most vulnerable – he had been stripped of everything and was at the mercy of the authorities. Jesus’ divine identity was most truly revealed when he appeared to be at his weakest.

 

We need to see God in Jesus, and then we need to see God’s image in each other. Do we really see God in those who, by the world’s standards, are on the margins and seemingly at the mercy of the “system”? Those people who are as weak and vulnerable as Jesus was at his crucifixion? When we see people in poverty do we see the face of Jesus Christ, and want to listen and learn – or do we see “them” as people who are not “us”, do we see “them” as a problem, do we want to fix “them” and sort “them” out? Fixes that come at cost to “them” but not to “us”; that change “them”, but fail to transform “us”?

 

Our reading from Corinthians talks about “the god (with a small “g”) who rules this world blinding the minds of unbelievers, so they cannot see the light.” The god who rules this world could be capitalism, it could be individualism, it could be many things that distract us from the light “which is the good news about our glorious Christ, who shows what God (with a big “G”) is like”. If we are not listening to the voices from the margins, is it because we are so caught up in the small g god, we don’t create the opportunities to encounter, listen and learn from those who are different from ourselves? And if we’re not listening directly to people on the margins, are we instead allowing public opinion or media bias to influence our thinking?

 

As Lilla Watson, an Aboriginal woman, said more than 25 years ago:

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

 

Rather than just being a voice for those without a voice, part of Church Action on Poverty’s mission has always been to give a voice, and a face and a name to those of us who experience poverty on a daily basis. To help those who are not heard to use their own voice. To create a space where there are different voices and people truly listen to each other and work together towards liberation for ALL, rich and poor.

 

Have a think about your week ahead. How often will you make time to encounter someone with a different lived experience to you? Can you make some more time to sit and listen, maybe to someone who has had their benefits sanctioned or who has had to make the impossible choice between heating or eating? Can you make more time to hear people’s experiences for yourself, and allow yourself to be transformed by them?

 

Taking forward Pope Francis’ challenge, Church Action on Poverty has recently written a report “Church of the poor? A call to action for churches in the UK”. The report asks us to think about whether our churches are churches of the poor and, if not, what do we need to do to make them so? There is a recognition that churches are very good at providing projects to help to relieve poverty, perhaps being a church for the poor, but not so good at being a church of the poor in their membership and through their prayers, Bible study and decision making. If our churches are to be communities that put the poorest first, how must we change? What must we let go of? What sacrifices are we called to make so that our church can be transformed?

 

When thinking about being a poor church for the poor I’ve been challenged to think not only about what, as a church, we do in mission but also about our act of worship here on a Sunday morning. We might try to be an inclusive church, but how varied are the voices who lead us? How many people of different colours, countries and financial situations are involved in designing our worship services? Is it actually possible to be inclusive for the person who struggles to read, while being inclusive to those who love the beauty of liturgical language? And what about being inclusive of the person who didn’t finish school, while being inclusive of those who like an intellectual debate about the finer details of eschatology? I don’t think there are easy answers but, to truly be an inclusive poor church of the poor, they are issues we need to be grappling with. How do we ensure we are a church where people from all backgrounds and life experiences can meet with the transforming love of God?

 

Instead of providing our own opinion of the solution, can we equip and enable those individuals with personal experience of the challenges of life to exercise leadership? How do we empower them to make the changes they themselves have identified as necessary?  It’s probably more costly, especially in terms of time which is a real challenge when we often feel so time poor, but is it what we should be doing? As Christians, our challenge is to hear, value and amplify the voices of those at the margins of society.

 

One of the things that really inspired me to get involved with Church Action on Poverty was that, rather than simply being a voice for the poor, they equip those with lived experience of poverty to have a voice for themselves. After all, they are the “experts by experience”, not me. Church Action on Poverty is involved with the expansion of Poverty Truth Commissions across Britain. Last week was the closing celebration of Leeds’ 2nd PTC, where they launched their Humanifesto for Leeds.

Poverty Truth Commissions aim to ensure that people who have experienced poverty first-hand are at the heart of how a city thinks and acts in tackling poverty and inequality. They bring together equal numbers of civic and business decision-makers and ‘experts by experience’ of poverty, to build relationships, share experiences and think how might we respond to poverty more effectively.

PTCs are an inspiring example of providing spaces where voices from the margins can be listened to. Rather than being sidelined and demonised as being scroungers and skivers, people’s real life experiences are shared and given value.

By creating safe spaces for people to tell their stories and opportunities for those making and influencing decisions to listen, Poverty Truth Commissions deepen understanding of the difficult and entrenched issues of poverty, improve perceptions and challenge stereotyping, and lead to better decision making by leaders across business, public and voluntary sectors. PTCs live by the motto: “nothing about us, without us, is for us”. Is this a motto we can embrace more fully in our church life?

We must always remember this is not a one way process. As I finish I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Communities, which could transform us as individuals and as a church if we’re brave enough to follow them and really listen to the voices from the margins and become a poor church of the poor:

“If you enter into relationship with a lonely or suffering person you will discover something else; that it is you who are being healed. The broken person will reveal to you your own inner hurt and the hardness of your heart, but also how much you are loved. Thus the one you came to heal will be the healer. If you let yourself be moulded thus by the cry of the poor and accept their healing friendship, then they may guide your footsteps into community and lead you into a new vision of humanity, a new world order, not governed by power and fear but where the poor and weak are at the centre. They will lead you into the kingdom Jesus speaks of”.

 

 

Now let’s join together in saying the prayer for Church Action on Poverty Sunday:

Lord Jesus,

you say that

when someone gives food to the hungry,

when someone gives a drink to the thirsty,

when someone welcomes a stranger,

when someone clothes the poor,

when someone cares for the sick

and when someone visits a prisoner,

they are really doing it for you.

Enable us, with the wealth of our society, to do these things,

but help us first to listen to the voices

of those we desire to assist and to welcome,

those who are on the margins,

because, in their strength and love and endurance,

they are your voice, your words for us today.

Lord Jesus, we pray in your name.

Amen

(Revd Nick Jowett, Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield)

 

During 2016, through Church Action on Poverty’s Poverty Media programme, many people got the chance to work with professional authors to write about their own experiences of poverty and exclusion. The project was called Powerlines – Stories from the Urban Edge.

 

Poverty is many things …

 

Poverty is not entertainment, it’s not noble or romantic.

Poverty is… heavy.
It’s heavy hearts and heavy legs.
It’s sore skin and hollow eyes.
It’s upset and downhearted.
It’s hunger. Malnourishment. It’s always thinking about the next meal.

Poverty is bailiffs, it’s food banks, it’s queues and lists, it’s never being told what you’re entitled to but always being told.
Poverty is being shown up then put down.
It’s missed payments and mistrust.
It’s always answering questions but never answering the door.

Poverty is hiding in plain view. It’s hiding.

Poverty is high bills and low pay.
It’s higher costs and lower self-esteem.
It’s invisible scars and visible pain.

Poverty is living next door, it’s living on your nerves, it’s not living, it’s… barely surviving.
Poverty is… everywhere. With… nowhere to turn
It’s a gut-wrenching silence, screaming.

Poverty is depressing, demotivating and dehumanising.
It’s degradation, desperation and despair.
Poverty is feeling… worthless, it’s feeling anxious, it’s feeling excluded, it’s feeling rejected, it’s feeling ashamed, it’s feeling trapped, it’s feeling angry, it’s feeling fffrustrated, poverty is…. exhausting.
It’s not feeling anything. It’s… numb.
Poverty is… crushing. Empty. Lonely.
Poverty is cold. It’s damp. It’s ill health. Bad housing. Sadness, fear and human misery.
Poverty is ignored and abandoned. It’s sanctioned and sectioned. It’s late payments and early deaths.

Poverty is not something that happens to… “others”.
Poverty is our old people, our young people, our sick people, our disabled people, our mentally ill people, our homeless people. Poverty is people seeking asylum, it’s people who are refugees, people who are migrants. Poverty is over-worked, under-paid everyday people.
Poverty is people. It’s children. Babies. Not… “them”. Us.

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” (Mahatma Ghandi)
Poverty is growing in our country. In 2017.

Poverty is many things, but
it is not
acceptable.

 

Poverty needs bravery and pluck, resilience and pride, it needs defiance.

Poverty needs understanding and support, communication and information, it needs security.

Poverty needs motivation and unity, tolerance and inclusion, it needs togetherness.

It needs community and compassion, it needs mentoring and motivation, it needs resolve.

Poverty needs hope. It needs love. It needs determination.

It needs you, it needs us, it needs action. Today.

 

Tony Walsh | Longfella | www.longfella.co.uk | tony@longfella.co.uk |


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