23rd of the Year, 5th Sep 21
It’s amazing what people drop off at the Vicarage! We had to put a sign up about a year ago asking people not to drop food off because we just couldn’t cope with what was being delivered: this was food intended for food bank distribution and so we asked people to take it directly to the food bank. People have dropped off clothes in the past and I’ve suggested they just take them to the charity shop. These were all from people who have no real connection with St Mary’s or the Good Shepherd nor I suspect with the Church more widely.
It is in the inner psyche of such that the Church should be concerned about the plight of the poor. It’s reassuring to know that this is the case and it’s good for us to be reminded that those with no faith in this country do still expect it of us. It is for the Christian to order his or her life so as to help others. Our Kemble Club at St Mary’s on Sundays, our lunch club at the Good Shepherd on Tuesdays, our Sunday Schools through which we reach out to the young and support parents, our Night Shelter which we hope to run in the winter months as before - they all need volunteers at the moment and each one of us need to think how we can support these endeavours. We heard last Sunday from St James’ letter: “Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it.”
There can sometimes be a tension within Christian communities when it comes to organising this support for those who are going through difficult times. From the days of the New Testament, there was a concern that the Apostles were spending too much time distributing much-needed goods to others and so deacons were ordained to oversee this work (Acts 6). The Church continues to have a place for men to be ordained to the permanent diaconate who might have this particular call to take on some of these more practical roles while still preaching the Word and assisting at the altar. Most deacons end up being ordained priest in this country and at one level this is sad because we’ve lost that sense that within the ordained life there is to be a concern for the poor expressed in material support.
First and foremost the Church is to offer herself in love and service to Jesus Christ. Once a friend of mine was telling me about a new job within a church he was going to begin and I looked on the church’s website and it had weekly sessions for this group, that group and another support group: all commendable work but it didn’t actually say when the Mass times were! Jesus gave His life for us, the Church: we are members of His body, we are His spouse. It’s very appropriate at weddings to hear from the Song of Solomon, as we did at St Mary’s on Thursday. It’s a book that explores the love between beloved and lover and supremely this points us to our calling as the Church, to be both beloved by the Lord and to love Him entirely. We revel in this calling above all else when we are at Mass because we see the Body and Blood of the Lord poured out for us, and we in turn have put aside other commitments so as to be here, offerings our praises and thanksgivings in worship.
The lesson of today’s readings though is that you can’t have one without the other: love of God and love of neighbour are two sides of the same coin. So we heard St James condemn snootiness: but this isn’t just snobbishness articulated with our lips, it’s also the sort of judgementalism in our hearts when we look at someone and fail to recognise them as one for whom the Lord died. It’s when we treat staff in restaurants or hotels or hospitals or on transport as slaves rather than someone trying to go about their work, living out a part of their life that God has called them to do. It’s when we make people feel small by the way we speak to them or by how we ignore them. We can’t turn ourselves in to judges.
One of the most profound statements of the Church’s desire to welcome and to heal is that the sacramental life of the Church is open to all. There is no charge for children to be baptised. I do not get any money for doing funerals or weddings. The Church element of a wedding will I am sure be the cheapest part of the day: just under £500 compared to the thousands of pounds some people spend on their big days. These graces are given to all because it is at the heart of our life as Christians. “Come to the water, all who are thirsty, and though you have no money come,” God speaks to Isaiah (55:1). The support that you and I give to the Church, my brothers and sisters, through our attendance and our giving enables her to be that place of welcome to others. We’re engaged in important work.
The sacramental expression of care is seen in our Gospel today. Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces. So, we see Jesus speaking the word Ephphatha, meaning “be opened,” and using his spittle to heal. It’s a slightly mucky thought but reveals to us how the Lord can use even this not very pleasant bodily substance for healing. Christ’s divinity and His power is not weakened by the fact that we find it slightly distasteful that He chooses to heal in this way. God chooses to offend slightly by taking such base things and conferring His eternal and dignifying grace on someone from Gentile land, the district of Tyre. So it is when we, sinners that we are, approach the Lord’s altar. We should ensure others hear the same calling, know the same welcome.
In summarising the social doctrine of the Church, four principles have been proposed and I want to look at these briefly to conclude. I think these principles are particularly good for us to consider because it may be that we don’t have time or possibility to do extra things but it may be that we can do what we have to do with a heart open to sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
The first principle is the dignity of the human person, something evident in our readings. When we come across someone imagine they are the Queen and treat them with the same levels of respect and concern. The Church is concerned to ensure equal rights for people as an expression of the dignity God has given them. Rights will always include responsibilities. We believe that there is no such thing as a lesser person, irrespective of their sexual orientation, race, skin colour, disability, whether they have been born or not, whether they are male or female. When we find ourselves in situations when others demean the value of life we must stand firm for the dignity and value of everyone alive.
The second principle outlined in the Church’s Compendium of Social Doctrine is the common good. It’s a phrase banded around a bit - like love - so we have to be careful about what it actually means. The common good is not necessarily about majority rule, with everything being put to a vote and whatever gets most votes happening. The common good is in some ways the lowest common denominator: what will keep everyone on board, seeking the flourishing of another. The common good also reminds us that society can’t have passengers going through life: there should be an active concern among all humanity for the wellbeing of society. This wellbeing should ensure a just distribution of the world’s resources: we take only what we need so that others may have enough.
Thirdly, subsidiarity, which might also mean localism. In other words, a larger organisation covering a greater area must always support and never diminish the life of smaller, more local organisations. There’s huge wisdom in this principle as organisations, including the Church one should say, lose touch with local communities. This principle of subsidiary emphasises the importance of family life and especially how parents must take responsibility for their children’s growth and education, including in the Christian Faith. Personally I’m always a bit reluctant to give to big national charities because I’m apprehensive about how they relate to small organisations.
Fourthly and finally, solidarity. The life of the Lord Jesus on earth among us is the theological drive for this principle: God has come among us and embraced a fallen humanity. We can do no other. Sitting at home and failing to interact with others is not to be seen as a good thing: it’s quite often a very selfish act. We hear at funerals, “He never did anyone any harm.” This is not a vision of the moral life to which we are called. The Christian always approaches God on the back of others, with others on their heart and bound together with other believers. The Zoom age has great benefits but must not lead to any more individualism and isolation.
So, my friends, caring for our neighbour in obedience to the Lord’s commands takes different forms. We need people to volunteer to make things happen in our parish but our vocation is not just to be a wing of social services nor to relegate prayer in to some form of meditation or self help tool. Our vocation to draw others to worship God in this place provides the healing all humanity needs, such as our Lord gives in today’s Gospel. These principles of subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good and the dignity of all people will hopefully prod us to realise how we can be lovers of our neighbour in our day to day life.