The last few weeks have probably been some of the most challenging and yet interesting of my time in ministry. Many of you will have been aware of the homeless man camping in the churchyard, and there has been a lot of talk about it both within the church and in the community, people against him being there and people glad that the church has allowed him to stay whilst trying to find a longer term solution for him. Interviews with ITV Meridian, Radio Kent and the Courier have highlighted the growing number of homeless in Kent (up 11% in the last 12 months) and in Tonbridge.
Aware of the need to care for and protect the wider community, I have been working hard to find him a longer term solution than living in a tent. By allowing him to stay, I have been able to challenge some of his behaviour whilst also able to keep an eye on what he has been up to, which if he was kicked out and ended up nearby but not in the churchyard would not have been so possible. Yet I have been acutely aware of his needs and the calling for Christians and the church to be people who show compassion and love – “Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. In this I have been challenged each week by our evening sermon series using themes from that great film ‘Les Miserables’ – over the last few weeks we have looked at “The Cry of the Poor”, “Mercy triumphing over Judgment” and “Sacrificial Love”.
Titus 2v14 says that Jesus “gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing what is right” (NLT), and I have tried to do what I believe to be right in this situation, following Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25). J John writes that the disciples of Jesus must “struggle against everything that condemns people to a sub-human existence – hunger, disease, poverty, inequality and injustice. The church must exhibit an obvious concern for all segments of society since all people are called to share in the kingdom”.
In the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), Jesus depicted life in the gutter – a man who had been beaten up for the little he had on him. I for one did not want to be like the priest or the Levite, walking by on the other side, or even worse, giving him another kicking by getting the police to remove him from our premises. Yes, staying there was not a long term solution for the church, for the community or for him, but moving him on did not resolve the problem, just made it someone else’s. Thankfully through the TV interview, he has been offered shelter elsewhere – hopefully a better and longer term solution, and one which will give him the chance to turn his life around. He has got a long way to go and needs to make an effort himself, but sometimes we all need the help of others to get back on our feet and move on.
The 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”, and in AD125 Aristides, a Greek observer, wrote about the Christian church: “They walked in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them and they love one another. They despise not the widow and grieve not the orphan. And he who has gives liberally to him who has not. If they see a stranger they bring him in under their roof and rejoice over him as if he were their own brother….and if there is among them any man who is poor and needy, and they have not the abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food”. I hope that people will say the same about St. Stephen’s.
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
No one person can change the world, but we can change the world for one person at a time.
Lord, look through my eyes,
listen through my ears,
speak through my lips,
act with my hands,
walk with my feet. Amen