Churches across the country are being urged to focus on poverty on one Sunday this summer by the Church Urban Fund and their network of joint ventures. CUF joint ventures are new organisations which aim to help Christians respond locally to poverty and inequality with time, money, action and prayer.
Our joint venture is Thrive Together Birmingham and our team is Fred Rattley, Sarah Turner, Debbie Browing, Jo Bagby and Jessica Foster. They are joined by new Thrive associates Chris Florance and Tim Evans. Chris’s focus is in Sandwell while Tim is focused on children and young people.
Although the official day was in June, we wanted a bit of a run-up and are asking Birmingham churches to use Sunday 20 July as focus – or any other Sunday in July if that works better.
The Church Urban Fund have produced lots of resources and I hope we can bring this theme of compassion into the heart of our Sunday worship.
I am writing this comment piece on 24 June which is, as many of you will know, the feast of St John the Baptist. John the Baptist holds a unique position in Christianity, linking the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospel of the revelation of God in Jesus.
John the Baptist certainly saw compassion and generosity as the heart of religious life. Tradition and belonging were not enough. In Luke 3 we hear him berating the people’s lack of fruitfulness in good deeds and urging them to share their belongings with the poor. He had special words for those whose jobs require difficult moral decision-making and the temptation to operate a system for selfish gain. This fiery prophet does not urge them to leave their jobs and find an escape in a less complex profession but to carry out their tasks guided by the values of justice and honesty. I wonder what John would say today to our business leaders, the architects of today’s welfare system and those who decide the future of asylum seekers and refugees.
This forthright compassion for the poor, this zeal for justice, this courage to rebuke vice and speak the truth made people wonder if he were the messiah. Imagine if we were so filled with John’s prophetic passion that people mistook us for Jesus even for a moment.
Jesus’ teachings do not refute those of John. If you spend time with the Beatitudes or listen to Jesus talk about judgement we cannot be left in doubt that genuine discipleship leads to compassion, generosity and kindness which are embodied in a life that bears fruit in good works.
Christians in this city and region are known for their generosity and many of us have an understanding of poverty too. John’s call for practical action, for the sharing of food and clothes, might have been written for 21st century Birmingham in which foodbanks flourish and charities make regular appeal for clothes. But John does not ask us to set up a programme, nor does Jesus suggest we delegate our care for prisoners, those who are sick or the stranger in the city. We need welfare systems that work well but we also need to form relationships and friendships with the people who need our compassion. For Jesus makes it very clear in Matthew 25 v 40 that when we are companions with those on the margins, we are a companion with Christ.
Below is a short prayer that I hope you will use throughout July to focus our attention on those in our neighbourhoods and in our churches who Jesus suggests are our heavenly King in an earthly disguise. (Matthew 25 v 31-40).
You made every person in your image.
Open our eyes to see where poverty is limiting lives,
Open our ears to hear stories of injustice and powerlessness,
Use our minds, our hearts, our hands and feet that we may truly be Good News to our neighbours.
Help us to love our city and our communities as you love them
And fill us with your compassion and generosity
In Jesus name,
To find out more about the work of Thrive Together Birmingham please visit www.cuf.org.uk/thrive-together-birmingham