Micah 6:6-8 | Matthew 25:31-40
What is good, and what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I can’t really take any credit for the work of The Dish. By the time I arrived at St. John’s it was up and running smoothly; I’ve never cooked a meal for The Dish (for which our friends would probably be grateful, did they but know), and hardly ever volunteered. My role seems to have been to chair a few meetings, and sign cheques and letters put in front of me by the treasurer and secretary respectively – normally reading them first.
So when I came to reflect on the work of The Dish for this celebration, the tenth anniversary, my memories were less “what I’ve done for the Dish” and more “what I’ve learned from the Dish”. Things I’ve learned about the world; things I’ve learned about vision; and things I’ve learned about mission.
So the first thing I’ve learned is something about the world in which we live, and it’s this: when Jesus said “The poor will always be with you”, he knew what he was talking about. If you’d asked me, moving to Wahroonga, what mission outreach I thought was most likely to be relevant to the Church, what social justice action a Church in the Northern Suburbs was likely to find itself called into, I don’t think that a van offering food and friendship to the homeless and disconnected would have been very near the top of my list.
But the truth is, of course, that the need of those who find themselves relying on the Dish, and the other services like it, has roots far more complex than simple lack of resources. Mental illness, domestic violence, histories of abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia; all these factors and more play their role in creating and sustaining systems of poverty; complex problems which are at least as much human as they are economic, and which therefore cry out for human solutions – of which, perhaps, a healthy meal in friendly, non-judgemental company, might be one small part.
The poor will always be with you – however much wealth you generate, and whatever suburb you live in – because poverty is about a great deal more than money.
The second thing I’ve learned – well, really, it’s a cluster of things I’ve learned – is about vision. Because Churches, of course, like most organisations, often spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out what their vision is; what they are meant to be, what they are called to do.
But perhaps a lesson of the Dish is that often – surely not always, but often – vision doesn’t come from brainstorming at Church council, but from a passionate individual. Perhaps this is something of what the prophet Joel was talking about in his famous words (quoted by Peter at Pentecost): I will pour out my spirit on all people; the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams.
The Church of God was never designed as a top-down organisation, where decisions taken by the elite get implemented by the pew fodder: the imagery of the Church is far more organic: a body, a vine, a building. For the Spirit of God moves where she will: sometimes in councils and vision planning meetings, other times in the heart of one who dares to listen.
But of course, the Dish would never have got off the ground if it had remained the vision of a single person. For the Church was also never called to be an anarchy of individualism. It is when the vision that comes to one finds a resonance in the hearts of many that something powerful emerges.
And then, the establishment of the Church can play its proper role: not dictating and directing, but giving permission and lending support, oversight, governance.
And the third thing I’ve learned (because of course, there have to be three, that’s just one of the rules of writing a sermon) is something about mission. Because The Dish, though started by and coordinated by a Church, has many volunteers – through the school communities, and through the general public – who do not identify with a congregation, who are not regular – or even, perhaps, occasional, worshippers at any Church, who do not, perhaps, even identify as of the Christian faith.
There are many in our community who are not interested in being part of a worshipping community, but who are more than ready to join hands with us when we step out in acts of mission. And I often wonder if the Church is not far more effective in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ when we take concrete steps to live it out, and invite those who are not of our faith to walk alongside us in doing the work of the Kingdom of God, rather than inviting them to join us as part of our group.
Because (and this is really my third and a half point) when people get involved in something like the Dish, the effect it has on them is at least as profound as the effect on those friends who we serve. This is why I’ve been so delighted to see the school communities join with us in the work of the Dish; because every child who helps prepare a meal is a child who has learned something about how fortunate they are, and something about what it means to serve others; and every parent who volunteers is one who understands just how important that lesson is for their children, their family, to genuinely understand.
As I was preparing for today, there was a quote doing the rounds on Facebook, and I’d like to end with it. Some words from Pope Francis, which I believe go to the heart of what we are celebrating today.
You pray for the hungry. And then you feed them. That’s how prayer works. Prayer is important, but you need to take action if you want things to change. It is not about praying for something and then doing nothing.