Sermon for St Peter’s Lapal and St Kenelm’s Romsley, Halesowen.
Start by introducing the work of Inclusive Church.
This is a very difficult passage to preach on in the context of the recent removal of the £20 ‘uplift’ from the poorest on universal credit. The people on universal credit include those who cannot work due to ill health, disability or caring responsibilities. It also includes people who are in work but are paid too little to survive. These are the kinds of people we are talking about when we say the government are taking £20 away from them.
The other day, I heard a woman on Radio 5 crying down the phone about how she wouldn’t now be able to look after her daughter as well as she wants to and to be a good mum– she said her daughter’s weekly dance class is a lifeline to her daughter and she will have to take it away because she won’t be able to afford it. This will seriously affect the little girl’s mental health. The mum said she will also struggle to afford food for them both now and may have to use a foodbank again sometimes. She was a working single mum until she got long Covid, and now she is so ill with it that she is almost permanently incontinent. It has affected her liver and her kidneys. She has had her autonomy and dignity removed from her already; now she is going to have £20 a week less to live on too.
The woman was crying from what was a combination of fear and shame. When the poorest have £20 a week taken away from them, it plunges them into uncertainty about how they will manage and takes away their agency, so they have to rely on charity. Having worked in a foodbank myself, I know that most people do not want to be relying on charity – they feel embarrassed and ashamed about it on top of all their other worries. It’s almost crueller to give people a £20 uplift and then take it away again, especially as bills are rising and winter is coming. Taking money away from the poorest reminds me of the parable where Jesus says ‘those who have little will have even the little they have taken from them’. Never was a truer word said about the injustice in our world.
Jesus says don’t worry about what you have to wear or eat. It’s easy to preach from this passage about trusting God if we’ve never been in the situation where we have to choose between using the oven or taking a shower, heating the house or eating lunch. When you know people who have or you’ve recently heard someone cry down the phone on the radio about it, it feels callous.
Today is Harvest festival and it’s all about God’s abundance and great gifts to us, but how can we ignore the reality that many people are living with, not just in this country but in many others too? There are dangers in taking Bible readings out of context – when I say ‘context’, I mean the context of the Bible as a whole, the context of the society and culture of the time a passage was written in, and the context of the bigger passage that the reading is part of. I was uncomfortable with this reading, so I decided to dig a bit more.
The passage previous to this one puts it into context for us. Jesus is preaching against storing up wealth and says that we should not replace God with money or treat money as a god. The whole passage is aimed at people who love money too much. Jesus says ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God’: do what is right first and let everything else follow. Money should not be an end in and of itself. He uses examples from nature – of the beauty of the birds and the wildflowers. This is an important message for today. There is a Cree proverb which says: ‘Only when the last tree has died, and the last river been poisoned, and the last fish been caught, will we realise we cannot eat money’.
If we do not live simply, and if we accumulate wealth out of fear, we will damage nature – we are damaging nature with our greed. Those who suffer most from our selfish living are those who are already poor or marginalised around the world. Climate and ecological breakdown affects women, poor people, majority world people, non-white people, disabled people, even LGBT+ people, more than those who are not in those marginalised groups. This is why we now talk about climate justice. Living simply is not a message for poor people, and we should be careful when we are preaching it to people who have a good reason to feel anxious about feeding themselves and their children. Living simply is a message for those of us who have enough and often even too much.
When I read the first part of today’s passage – ‘“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”’ – I immediately thought about an article I’d read recently in the paper. It was about the younger generation – sometimes called Generation Z (those aged around 9 to their mid-20s) – and how they struggle to both care deeply about the environment (which they do) and keep up with fast fashion (which they also do). The fashion industry is of course one of the worst consumer excesses of the Western world which directly impacts on climate change. The younger generation feel the pressure to be fashionable, as has every generation in their time, and so they end up sadly throwing their principles out of the window.
Generation Z care more about climate change and are more radically inclusive than many of us. More than any other group, they seem to ‘get’ it. They get how marginalisation intersects; they get how climate change, privilege and marginalisation are linked. Yet even they are being clawed in by the shiny but destructive lights of consumer capitalism. They need support from the rest of us to hold to their deep principles. They need solidarity. We can’t leave them to fight all of these battles on their own. There is strength in numbers, especially when the battle is against a huge and seductive predator like consumerism. Also, there are gifts that the older generations can give to the younger ones when it comes to sustainability: skills like growing your own food, making your own clothes and mending or ‘darning’ old clothes are being lost. My mum, who was a textiles teacher, is going to be teaching me how to sew now my parents have moved to be near me. I’m so excited about this!
Today is Harvest festival, when we are thankful for all the good gifts God gives us. I pray that we will remember to share them around with our neighbour, remembering that, in this globalised world, our neighbour is as much the textiles factory worker in Bangladesh making our clothes to keep us up with fast fashion, as the old man next-door who is struggling to heat and eat this winter. As you think about becoming an inclusive church, this is a good time to think about all the marginalised people you can be in solidarity with and work alongside. In the end, whether our neighbour is discriminated against because of their economic status, their disability or their sexuality, all discrimination is the same discrimination.
Seek first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other things will follow.
Ruth Wilde is the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church.