Social Services Sunday, the day marked in the church calendar to give voice and thanks to the many people who enhance the life of our communities through the work they do to serve the needs of our community. I’m not sure it’s my place to speak for there are people whose direct engagement far better qualifies them to be the one to tell of the work they do. However, I’m thankful and grateful for all who give of themselves, their resources big or small, their expertise or their simple heartfelt will to give, to share to make a difference in the lives of others, to rebalance the scales of injustice.
Our nearest neighbour the Auckland City Mission is place in our neighbourhood through whom much of this contribution is made. The City Mission was first launched in 1920 by a then curate of St Matthew’s the Rev Jasper Calder. Reflecting in 1934 on those early beginnings Jasper wrote: When one’s mind travels back to the 10th June, 1920, when the Mission was first launched, amazement is the only emotion which is possible … when we began our ministrations we had no set programme, other than that we were out to help the underdog in his grim battles against life’s difficulties …. We started with no money, no rules, but with an excellent committee, a lot of enthusiasm and a mighty big faith.
Jasper challenged the Anglican Church in his day to respond to the neglected poor in the community. The City Mission on our doorstep continues to challenge us and the community of Auckland to respond to the needs of the neglected poor, although the Mission now languages it this way: “Together we stand with those in desperate need. We provide immediate relief and pathways to enable long term wellbeing.”
Today we focus on the ministry of care and the sharing of resources, often as not from those who’ve more to those who’ve less. It’s good for us to do so but I own sometimes to be troubled. For it seems so often to be understood as a one way exchange – of resource given rather than of mutual exchange of dignity, of our need of one another. An exchange does take place. Perhaps we fail to recognise what we receive, for its value is currency foreign in the economy of our daily trading.
Each reading today reveals an economy of exchange. In each trading takes place with available resources to achieve an outcome. In one reading trading takes place with an economy of scarcity, the other with an economy of abundance. We enter the saga of David a little after the deal is done. We discover David trades with an economy of scarcity. Although king with power and controlling possession of most resources David desires more, wants what he cannot have, enough is never enough. Through guile, dishonesty and abuse of loyalty David murders the one who stands in his way so he can satiate his desire. Today Nathan holds up mirror for David to see, despite his actions the fire for justice still burns within David, yet he cannot see who he’s become, until it is told him.
By contrast the gospel trades with an economy of abundance. We’ve a context where many are gathered with little or nothing to eat. Existing resources are found. Though scant, they’re seen as sufficient. Thanks is given for the blessing of what there is, it’s divided and distributed for each to take and then to give one to another. The resources available prove more than enough when shared open-handedly. In scarcity we hold and hoard for ourselves out of fear of insufficiency. In abundance we give, we take and then give to others for we trust there’s more than enough.
Our faith tradition lineage extends from David through the offspring of the child born of David’s deceit and murder, of David robbing the life of the poor. Whichever way we wangle it the successful continuity of this divine-human story we tell depends on the inclusion of this story of scarcity of a murderer who abused his power and enacted injustice against the poor. We, quite rightly, might want to rail against such divinity. Yet maybe this is a more a human tale. What’s told is that it’s in brokenness, in the suffering we cause by deceit and wrongdoing, in the failing, falling short stumbling of being human that the seeds of future, life, hope are able to take root and grow.
Does it make this anymore right or suggest wrongdoing and suffering are right or noble? You see here’s the perplexing conundrum – if you’re suffering it’s absolutely not right or noble – you just hurt. But is suffering actually the way things are? Our wrestle is we want life to not be like that. Just as we want God to be sweetness and light. For God, or faith to rescue us from the challenge and tedium of daily life, to make our world better, right, OK, restored, not like it is. But what if it’s not the way things are? Have you ever wondered what life would be like if we lived in a world without suffering, where we didn’t have to strive and struggle with the incomplete brokenness of life? How would we live, what would we do, what would impel us to the creative impulse for transformation and restoration? Our aspirations for, imaginings of utopian perfection do they arise from the myth of a once perfect Eden? Yet has life ever been this way? Is this to suggest suffering is necessary?
I don’t know. I just know it seems to be the way things are. I want to be one who seeks to relieve suffering, to bear hope. Maybe by holding open a space for another person to be, occupy, speak, they can enlarge and learn to inhabit their unique life. I can’t know how to respond to the need of another if I don’t first listen, ask, be guided by their wisdom. Too often I presume I’m the one with resource and knowledge. I’m immensely privileged and have responsibility to pass this on – but not on my own terms.
The City Mission provides such space as it responds to immediate need and seeks to restore dignity. This isn’t extraordinary it’s having the courage to be fully human. In 1920 Jasper and those with him began with nothing, more than once in its history the Mission has had to begin from nothing. At one time St Matthew’s provided space for it to begin again. In time with the enterprise and the will of the community the Mission grew again, for the needy do not go away. For forty years the Mission has been housed next to us, a catch all place with open doors. The vision for a purpose built facility providing intentional, proactive engagement imagined some years ago is about to be realised. The shape and way of doing this formed in conversation with those who serve and are served both here and from other places whose way of being and doing has proven its worth.
There’s an exponential growth in need in our community. The Mission still desires to respond. It’s learned what it does best and that in partnering with others who are also part of creating solutions they can together be of greater and more effective service. For the next 2-3 years the Mission is relocating while a new building is constructed on the current site. There’ll be some changes to the way things are done in response to the wisdom of those serving and being served.
On Social Services Sunday we pay attention to the suffering and need in our community. We pay attention to what we do in response. As people who stand in a particular faith lineage we gather around the figure of One crucified and say in brokenness the divine is revealed. This is uncomfortable of course. We live in presence of homeless, hungry, sick and broken people. In our discomfort we want to rush to help, cover over, fix and this is right for first we must respond to hunger, homelessness, sickness and suffering. But are we willing also to sit with brokenness and listen, hurt, sit with our squirming discomfort unsettling us. Remain present to the discomfort of pain we cannot fix. Just maybe hope for restoration will arise from the ashes of despair when we stay with one another and wait. Discover it’s our presence to one another that matters, that eases and restores, discover we’re each needed and necessary because of who we are. We are something to live for. In sitting present to suffering our grip on our ideals of perfection may loosen, our expectation of God only in the good, as if somehow absent in our broken world. Deliver us to see the living presence of God filtering through the cracks, the fractured lines of our world’s broken perfect imperfections. Deliver us to see how much we need one another, how much we have to give, how whole we become as we let ourselves be gift to one another. How many get fed and how many baskets of bread for living are left over.