Mr Paul Marriott
Preached on 29th January 2006
by Mr Paul Marriott
1After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2He told them, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. 3Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. 4Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.
5"When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.' 6If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. 7Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
8"When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. 9Heal the sick who are there and tell them, 'The kingdom of God is near you.'
I want to tell you a story about someone I know.
As far as I know, he came from a fairly average background, though he would never speak very much about his family. He did tell me his parents had been asylum-seekers. I know his mother tried to make contact with him a few times and I don’t really know what happened but he never went back home.
He was what you might call one of society’s misfits. When you got to know him, he could be a charming man – witty, intelligent, quite gentle, good company. But out and about he could be quite upsetting. He could be aggressive. He heard voices. And he was a bit of a loner. You get the picture.
Because he was a bit of a misfit and a bit of a loner he was, like many homeless people, targeted by people who wanted to make fun and by people who were frightened of someone who, in their terms, was not normal. More than once he was beaten up. He was arrested for something he said he didn’t do but was convicted. Tragically, while in custody, he was beaten up and killed. He was only 33. His name was Jesus.
And it is this person Jesus who is at the heart of why so many of us care about homelessness.
At one level, you could say that homelessness is a political issue. As a political issue, to talk about homelessness is to talk about building more houses, making housing more affordable, and providing better support for those who are vulnerable to losing their home. From this political perspective, it is wonderful to note that in Scotland, the Scottish Assembly has announced that it intends to abolish homelessness by 2012. And for people of faith, we, of course, are happy to share that aspiration. Every day we pray, Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.
Tackling the homelessness caused by a tsunami in Asia, or an earthquake in Pakistan, or a civil war in Rwanda, or domestic violence in England, or mental ill-health in Durham, requires a political response.
But from the perspective of faith, rather than politics, the issue of homelessness goes much, much deeper. And it is this perspective that explains why, for many people, work with homeless people, solidarity with homeless people, is almost vocational. It explains why people might talk about engaging in this work as rewarding.
Because there is a difference between engaging with homelessness and engaging with people who are homeless. Engaging with homelessness is about engaging with an issue. But engaging with the homeless is about engaging with people.
And going back to Jesus, he invites us to relate to homeless people, to people like him at three different levels.
Firstly, we are invited to engage with people who are homeless because it is the right thing to do. It would be wrong not to. For anyone who would follow Him, walking by on the other side is not an option. Being busy is no excuse. Being important is no excuse. Thinking of yourself and of your family is no excuse. There is an imperative to respond. The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that we are connected to people who are in the gutter. Whether they are in the gutter physically or metaphorically, we are connected to them. That’s why we must respond.
Secondly we are invited to respond to people who are homeless in order to get to know him better. We respond because we do not want to stand before him saying, “Ah but when did we fail to give you something to eat or drink? When did we not welcome you as a stranger or not give you clothes to wear or not visit you while you were sick or in jail?"
If we are going to serve Jesus, then we must recognise him in those in need. Service is a word that does not get used too much today. We tend to talk about customer care. But service must be at the heart of our response to those in need.
Thirdly, and finally, and even more radically, the faith response recognises that if Jesus is present in those who have no home, then we not only have an opportunity to serve him in them, we also have an opportunity to learn from him in them.
I work for the Depaul Trust. We take our name from that of Vincent de Paul, a French priest and social reformer. One of his great sayings is that the poor are our masters and teachers. He goes on to comment that they can be hard masters. But he is absolutely firm in his conviction, that we must be prepared to learn from those who we serve.
This is the radical teaching of the gospel that overturns the accepted order. When you take this view, it challenges you to say who is really rich, and who is really poor – the ony buying or the one selling the big issue? Who is the strong one, and who is the weak – the one presenting as homeless or the one assessing their need? Who is the one in need?
There is a lovely icon of Vincent standing alongside a man who is obviously poor. There is a loaf of bread between them and each of them is holding it. And it is impossible to tell who is giving to whom.
Depaul works with young homeless people. And it doesn’t take many shifts before you start to realise the truth of this, that there is so much to learn.
The people I work with teach me about mercy and forgiveness. If I had been abused or abandoned, could I survive and forgive? They help me to ask what the boundaries of forgiveness might be and to understand a little clearly the mystery of an all-forgiving God.
The people I work with teach me about justice. They have a unique handle on what is not fair and they help me to understand that my human concept of justice will always be inadequate.
The people I work with teach me about my own poverty. Because so often I do not have the words, the experience, the wisdom, the resources, to make a difference. In many ways, I’m more poor than they are. And they help me realise how much OI must rely on God.
Whatever I have to offer them, I receive so much more from them. I am proud to have been to University in this beautiful city. But I have learned much more in the various hostels and nightshelters that I have worked in.
The reality is that the homeless people I meet are much more like the 72 that we heard about in that reading from Luke than I am.
Of course you don’t need a faith perspective to talk about justice, compassion and empowerment. In the service language of today, that’s just what I’ve been describing.
Doing the right thing is about, as the prophet Micah said, acting justly, loving tenderly, walking humbly. There can be no room for neglect, indifference or paternalism. There’s nothing religious about that.
So, while we wait for the coming of the Kingdom, while we advocate for a political response to the issue of homelessness, let’s continue, whatever our background, whatever our belief system, to offer a loving response to those in need so that we can become more fully human, more fully alive. Of course we must pray today for those who are homeless, in this country and throughout the world.
But let’s also pray for all those who see homeless people, walk past homeless people, live near homeless people, work with homeless people, that they may have the humility, the good sense and the generosity of heart to respond lovingly and make the most of the opportunities that homelessness offers.