Friday, 27 March 2020

Coronavirus Pastoral Letter - 4 25th March 2020


25th March 2020
THE ANNUNCIATION OF THE LORD TO THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY
Pastoral Letter No. 4


Fr Andrew writes:

Today, 25th March, is the Feast of the ‘Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary’, sometimes known in England as ‘Lady Day’. Historically it was one of the Quarter Days, when rents were due and the new financial year began; that changed with the modification of the calendar and now our tax year begins on 6th April.

Now we’re at a time when the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made all sorts of announcements about ‘rent holidays’ and transferring tax payments, yet still there must be concerns, and prayers offered, for the self-employed, freelance workers and those on zero-hours contracts which constitutes many in our parish.

This great Christian festival recalls and celebrates the coming of the Archangel Gabriel to announce to Mary that God has called her to be the Mother of His Son (Luke 1.26-38). Mary of Nazareth will be the one to bear Christ in her womb and give birth to him so that he may be presented to the world, ‘for us [human beings] and our salvation’ (Nicene Creed). Little wonder ‘all generations will call [her] blessed’ (Luke 1.48).

The encounters between Mary and the archangel and Mary and her cousin Elizabeth give us the basis of the prayer ‘Hail Mary’, which recalls the angelic salutation, Gabriel’s greeting, and praises the fruit of Mary’s womb: Jesus.

The Annunciation, like the Nativity of the Lord at Christmas, is a great celebration of the Word made flesh: in other words, the very presence of God becomes human flesh. Christ has an earthly body with human hopes and aspirations, frustrations and temptations. Mary gives her humanity and ours to the great wonder and mystery of salvation in what we call the Incarnation, literally the ‘taking of flesh’.

The Annunciation comes nine months before Christmas; the period of gestation of the child in the womb. It is almost certain that the Annunciation was celebrated more widely by early Christians than Christmas so, properly speaking, Christmas comes nine months after the Annunciation!

Christmas is a long way off – and it is hard to contemplate nine months ahead at the moment, let alone three weeks. Christmas is another time when many people will be spending time with their families. It won’t be an enforced time, such as this Coronavirus emergency, but I trust that we will come through this crisis with a deeper appreciation of social proximity (the opposite of isolation) and will cherish the people around us more - family members, spouses, siblings, colleagues, brothers and sisters in Christ - even if they rub us up the wrong way. Human society needs that for life, not just for Christmas (or times of crisis).

The Annunciation happens in a domestic setting (notwithstanding some traditions that say it took place in the Temple) in Mary’s home town of Nazareth. Some imagine Mary to have been doing the housework for her family or sitting praying quietly or reading the psalms. Either way the archangel intrudes into the domestic scene, illustrating that we cannot bar God from our homes and more than that that God is Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.

This message of ‘Emmanuel - God with us’ is so pertinent at the moment. It’s a theme that I spoke a little bit about when reflecting on Psalm 46 which begins, ‘God is our refuge and strength’ which has almost as a refrain, ‘The Lords of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge’.

God makes his home with us. It does matter where our home is, or what our domestic arrangements are, for God has made his home with us: as the Prayer of Humble Access puts it, ‘that we may dwell in him and he in us’. We trust too that those who have nowhere to call their home, the homeless, will know the comfort and presence of God in their time of trouble, especially at the moment given how vulnerable they are. Please pray for them too.

Our church, Croydon Minster, speaks of God’s presence in our midst. Like all churches it presents in a rich symbolic language the meeting of heaven and earth, divinity and humanity: it is a sacrament of the presence of God – and don’t we just miss it at the moment? It’s our shared spiritual home! It’s not the same watching the Eucharist broadcast from my sitting room! (Although, if you do want to see that you can view it on the Minster Facebook page or from the very bottom of the Minster website home page).

I do hope you are keeping well and your spirits up. If you share your home with others I hope that you can appreciate one another and seek to be a community of love and friendship. If you are in your home alone, then I hope that you will find the companionship you want and need through the many ways we can keep connected today. Either way, know that Jesus Christ is the unseen, yet ever present guest in your home. May his presence, the Word Made Flesh, hallow our homes and lives, both now and ever. Amen.




Monday, 23 March 2020

Coronavirus Pastoral Letter 3 - 23rd March 2020


23rd March 


Fr Andrew writes

CAN A CLOSED CHURCH BE ALIVE AND ACTIVE?!

Announcing the total closure of churches in London, in their letter on Sunday 22nd March, the Bishops whose dioceses include the London Boroughs (the Dioceses of London, South, Rochester and Chelmsford) wrote “The Church continues to be alive and active, but our buildings must close in London”.

What that quote suggests is the long held, and true, idea that the Church is not a building but the people. Or put slightly differently, and a little more theologically densely, the essence of the identity of the Church is to be found in the company of the baptised. That’s why the Bishops can say that whilst buildings are closed the Church continues to be alive.

We do however use the word ‘church’ interchangeably for the building and the people.  That is born of the reality that the identity of Christians is bound up in the fact that we meet together. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, ‘do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews XX).

Church buildings are more than just community meeting places, they are also meeting places of heaven and earth, the divine and human: they are, as Jacob said of the place where he encountered God in a dream, ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ (Genesis 28.17). He named the place Bethel (‘Beth’, meaning ‘house’ in Hebrew, ‘el’ one of the words for God).

Church buildings matter because they are places where we encounter God and one another. As the little rhyme that can be enacted using your fingers and hands: ‘This is the church, this is the steeple; open the doors and here are the people’

Meeting together is part of what makes us the Church, as in the Greek word for Church, the ecclesia, which literally means the ‘called out’. We are called out from darkness into light through baptism, and we are called out of our daily routines to meet together in the Lord’s name. Even in times of brutal, murderous persecution Christian met together, sometimes hidden away in catacombs (underground burial chambers in and around Rome).

The key point is that we meet not where we meet. And that is where the Coronavirus outbreak is devastating for us. Distancing ourselves from one another is counter-Christian – or should be!

Social distancing and isolation pose deep questions to us:
·        how are we the Church when we have no church [building]?
·        if the central act of worship of the Church - the Eucharist – (or any act of worship for that matter) depends on a gathering of people how can ‘virtual worship’ really be worship?
·        put really bluntly: is your Christian identity more about your church building or about your membership of the Church, the People of God, the company of the baptised?

I want to suggest that in a time like this, which is so far from the norm, we have to look for ways of connecting and being church that are little contemplated in normal times. And here are three pointers I want to offer:
1.      Spiritual Communion It is essentially a spiritual disposition or attitude in prayer that seeks to unite ourselves intimately with Christ. I am going to write more about this in another pastoral letter soon, as I believe it is very important for us at a time like this;
2.      Mystical Union Being united means being one. We can remain one with someone else even if we are not physically grafted to them. This is true every Sunday already. Throughout the world the Church offers worship, uniting us in praise and adoration each Sunday; we’re not in the same physical place with all Christians, yet we are one with them. I do not stop being a parent to my child just because we’re not in the same room all the time;
3.      Koinonia That’s the Greek word for ‘fellowship’ and ‘communion’ within the Body of Christ, the Church. Deep koinonia is reflected in how well we know one another in church, how we connect and how we ‘bear one another’s burdens’ as St Paul puts it (Galatians 6.2) and how we ‘bear with one another’ (Colossians 3.13). Whilst there will always be those who want to connect with the church anonymously – although their names are known by God! – knowing peoples’ names is a good reflection of the connectedness of a church.

This coronavirus outbreak can and will change the church. The challenge is that it change us for the better, that through the adversity we come out the other side as a church that has deeper yearning to be united to Christ, to the whole church globally and locally to one another.

Those Bishops are right: the Church is alive and active. I know that from the messages I have been getting as people connect with live streamed worship, reflect on Bible texts, offer to pray for the locality, offer practical help to the social isolated and drop off food to those who are stuck at home – all that is happening in our Church – not the building, that’s shut, but amongst the people who call upon his name.

With thanks for our fellowship in the Gospel.

Fr Andrew


Do remember you can connect further through the Minster Website for information and links www.croydonminster.org , via the Minster Facebook (where you can see acts of worship streamed) and Twitter @croydonminster



Saturday, 21 March 2020

Coronavirus Pastoral Letter 2 - 22nd March 2020


22nd March 2020
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Mothering Sunday)
Letter No.2

Fr Andrew writes:

It is clear that this is going to be a long haul. Just seven days ago it was perfectly possible for us to meet to celebrate the Eucharist, albeit with the necessary precautions of hand washing, receiving Holy Communion in one kind and no physical sharing of the Peace. Now public worship has been suspended altogether and we have entered the reality of social distancing and isolation. It is bewildering and upsetting; but it is right and part of our social responsibility as citizens.

Social distancing is a difficult concept and it’s difficult to do. Yet I hold on to the deep reality that social distancing does not diminish fellowship within the Communion of Saints. Catholic Christianity has a most vivid sense of the connectedness of all the baptised with the saints, ‘therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven [the saints] we praise proclaim your great and glorious name, evermore praising you…’ We are not alone in the fellowship of the Church.

This crisis will test the mettle of the Church in how we sustain worship in adversity; it will measure the depth of our fellowship. It poses questions to us: how do we express ourselves as One Body in our worship? how does my prayer life sustain me in times when things are bleak? how well connected am I in our church? do I know needs and gifts of others?

I am pleased to say that already those who are in a position to have offered their help in doing shopping for people, delivering it (safely) and collecting prescriptions. In one day last week I made 38 phone calls to ascertain the spiritual and practical needs of people who are on our Minster contact list, and I will be ringing more people this week. It was so gratifying to hear people’s voices and so many in good spirits and speaking of the support and offers of help they have had from neighbours and family. But as time goes on no doubt spirits will flag. That is when we will find our faith and hope becoming rocky perhaps, but also a time to find that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46.1).

Today is Mothering Sunday and what a heart-rending day it is this year. A day that celebrates God’s gift of life that we received through our mothers and the relationships we share, in our families and church family, also highlights just what social distancing will mean. Our normal patterns and routines have been totally turned on their heads. This Mothering Sunday I am mindful of the longstanding reflection on the Blessed Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, whose heart was pierced with pain. Her tears join ours at the moment.

Our journey through Lent continues. I am indebted to Stephen Willmer for reminding me of the origin of the word ‘quarantine’. It comes from Latin quadraginta ‘forty’ and links directly to Christ’s forty days and forty nights of seclusion in the wilderness. We are in a desert ourselves today. On Ash Wednesday we could not have imagined the sort of Lent we would be forced into this year. We will not be able to gather for Easter this year, but still we will walk together in spirit through the desolation of Holy Week, and the Passion (suffering) of Jesus Christ and the emptiness of Holy Saturday. But the Easter dawn will break. That day will remind us, even if we don’t feel upbeat, that there is a deep, enduring hope in the triumph of life over death which we can hold on to.

So what can we say in the face of all this. Worship – Morning Prayer, the Eucharist and Prayer during the Day - continues to be offered in the church. I am absolutely committed to continuing doing this, for as long as it is possible: that is my duty and joy as a priest for you and with you. I am realistic enough to know that the time may come when I can’t do that. When that comes I will be praying at home, like you, all the more fervently for our parish, nation and world in the face of this virus.

With thanks for our fellowship in the Gospel.

Fr Andrew

Do remember you can connect further through the Minster Website for information and links www.croydonminster.org , via the Minster Facebook (where you can see acts of worship streamed) and Twitter @croydonminster


Coronavirus Pastoral Letter 1 - 18th March 2020


18th March 2020
St Cyril of Jerusalem, bishop, teacher of the faith, 386

Fr Andrew writes:

As parish priest I am writing to all those connected with the Croydon Minster by email. I intend to do this on a regular basis whilst we face and endure the Coronavirus (Covid-19) emergency.

These are spiritually, emotionally and physically challenging times.

I hope these emails will help to keep us in touch, to give information about practical matters - such as when the church is open and how we might help get food and supplies to those who are self-isolating or unwell - and what resources are available for you to read, ponder and pray.

The church has a data protection (GDPR) policy and we will respect that. We have your email address because you have given it to the church in the past. If you do not wish to receive these email bulletins please simply press ‘Unsubscribe’ at the bottom.

***
The bombshell we learnt yesterday was that the in light of the Government guidance around non-essential contact, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have issued advice that public worship is suspended until further notice.

They say that churches should be open where possible but with no public worship services taking place. In response Croydon Minster is open for personal prayer at the following times:

Sundays: 10.00am – 12noon and 4.00pm-5.00pm
Weekdays & Saturdays: 10.00am – 12noon

The Blessed Sacrament will be exposed as a focus for prayer. Prayers and devotional reading material will be available for those present.

There will be no acts of corporate public worship until further notice.

***

Many people will be feeling isolated not just physically but emotionally and spiritually too as well as feeling angry, uncertain, bewildered and plain lonely.

As a church community we can draw on our faith and our fellowship to be sustained ourselves and to sustain others in these difficult times.

One way we’re responding to that is that we will be calling members of the congregation by phone so that we can keep in touch and help with any needs people may have, insofar as that’s possible.

If you know someone who would appreciate a phone call from someone at the church, or to join this email list please ask them to contact connect@croydonminster.org and we can add them to the lists.

I’ll be in touch again soon.



***

The Church of England has prepared prayer material for this time. You can click here (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/coronavirus-liturgy-and-prayer-resources) to find more

PERSONAL PRAYERS, PARTICULARLY IF YOU CAN’T GET TO CHURCH

Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your disciples, ‘I am with you always’.
Be with me today, as I offer myself to you.
Hear my prayers for others and for myself, and keep me in your care.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.                                         from St Patrick’s Breastplate

I am giving you worship with all my life,
I am giving you obedience with all my power, I am giving you praise with all my strength, I am giving you honour with all my speech.
I am giving you love with all my heart,
I am giving you affection with all my sense,
I am giving you my being with all my mind,
I am giving you my soul, O most high and holy God.
Praise to the Father,
Praise to the Son,
Praise to the Spirit, The Three in One.
adapted from Alexander Carmichael,
Carmina Gadelica (1900)

Before going to sleep
God our Father, by whose mercy the world turns safely into darkness and returns again to light: we place in your hands our unfinished tasks, our unsolved problems, and our unfulfilled hopes, knowing that only what you bless will prosper. To your love and protection we commit each other and all those we love, knowing that you alone are our sure defender, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Church of South India



Sunday, 15 March 2020

Bitesize Catechesis - Penance


Bitesize Catechesis

‘Bitesize Catechesis’

‘Penance’. I wonder what that word means to you?

Perhaps it sounds a bit dark, difficult, burdensome, judgemental or harsh.

Or perhaps it makes you think of a new TV mini-series about to start on Tuesdays on Channel 5.

Either way, like fasting and almsgiving it’s not a word in general circulation.

Penance can refer to two things. First the act of making reparation for something that has been done wrong, or secondly the act of intentionally making confession of our sins.

I want to think about both meanings, but mostly about penance as the act of confession, particularly sacramental confession, which has become known also, and helpfully, as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Now there are those who say that the Church of England doesn’t do confession. Strange, because it does and it does because it’s deeply embedded in the scriptures.

Psalm 51 is a classic statement of confession, starting like this:

Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin.
For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51.3)

John the Baptist, our patron saint here, calls people to confession ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3.3). And he does so in no uncertain terms: ‘you brood of vipers…’ (Luke 3.7).

And St James in his letter says,The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. (James 5.15-16)

The Church of England has always retained sacramental Confession to a priest. In the Book of Common Prayer service The Visitation to the Sick it recommends that someone whose life is in danger or drawing to a close should confess their sins:

Here shall the sick person be moved to make a special confession of his sins, if he feel his conscience troubled with any weighty matter. After which confession, the Priest shall absolve him…

So Confession is not compulsory in the Church of England, at least not personal confession, but it is to be commended. At every Eucharist we begin with the penitential act of confession which is corporate if not individual.
***

The prominence or otherwise of penance in the Church of England is by the by, and old debates have moved on.

There’s a deeper issue though and it relates to our sense of shame and/or guilt and fear of being judged, either by other people or by God.

None of us wants to be judged. ‘Don’t judge me’ is one of the cries of our times.

It’s a way of saying, ‘please don’t trample on my fragile sense of who I am. I am a harsh enough judge of myself, without you judging me too’.

Penance seems to be about judgement.

But without judgement we lose our sense of accountability. If I can’t be judged, I can’t be held accountable or responsible for what I say or do.

One way we can engage with what it means to be accountable, and take responsibility for our lives is to subject ourselves to judgement, so as when we make our confession, when we do penance.

But, boy, is that hard.

***

It’s hard because then being judged gets mixed up with guilt.

Very often penance and confession are associated with guilt. And we have been trained in late modernity to believe guilt to be a dreadful thing.

Knowing that guilt is bad doesn’t make feelings of guilt go away. We even feel guilty about feeling guilty. And then guilt mutates into shame, which actually is rather worse.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is very interesting on this subject.

He distinguishes between ‘guilt-cultures’ and ‘shame-cultures’.

His argument is that in a guilt-based culture you have forgiveness, and the moment you have forgiveness you can say ‘mea culpa, I did wrong’. You take ownership of your shortcomings and know that, somewhere down the line, there is forgiveness.

Today, and social media magnifies it, you are: ‘trolled’; ‘called out’; ‘no platformed’; ‘deleted’. That is a shame-culture and there is no forgiveness in a shame-culture. There is no way back. So in a shame-culture you deny you did wrong, and keep denying it.

Shame cultures create scapegoats. I don’t want to be shamed and ostracised so I point the finger at someone else whatever the cost. Shame feeds more shame and is utterly corrosive. It’s the story of Adam and Eve: they hide; they throw blame around.

One last thought on guilt: it can also be a prompt or spur to act better!

***

Where does all this get us then?

The church has a means by which we can face up to, acknowledge, name and handover our sins and shortcomings. A place where we can be profoundly honest about ourselves. That is in confession, penance.

It is a place of reconciliation, restoration and forgiveness. It’s a way of rooting out the sins, that like weeds can become pernicious and invasive to our souls

Sin stunts who we are made to be; confession releases tension and self-loathing so that we are freed to be his children once again.

Someone once said that it is the most liberating thing to be called ‘a sinner’. It sounds really odd. It sounds like it diminishes who we are. It sounds like plain old-fashioned hellfire and damnation. But think about it: being declared ‘a sinner’ means there’s hope; being a sinner means we’re made good but fall short, and can be restored and renovated.

St Augustine saw penance as being therapeutic. Confessing our sins, he argued, is good for our souls, it is healing and helps us grow.

This is the spirit of what confession is about removing guilt by declaring forgiveness, sparing us shame and freeing us to be, as the hymn puts it, ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.

I want to end by commending individual confession, penance, for precisely these reasons and as a way of growing in our faith and discipleship.

***




Come closer: overcoming fear and isolation


‘The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. (John 5.14b)

+

‘Quarantine. Contagion. Social isolation,’.

We’re hearing those words all the time at the moment.

For some people they are reassuring words because something is being done in the face of a threat and something we don’t understand. For others they are a gross overreaction to something that is no worse – surely? they would say - than the ‘flu.

Each person will have their own take on that, and for many people there is either a resigned sense that these things have to happen or a sense that as long as things are in proportion then we should do what it takes.

Here at the Minster we are being careful to minimise any risks especially to those people who have underlying health issues or are very frail.

But what is really important is that, unless absolutely forbidden at some point in the future, the church will remain open for prayer, and divine worship will be offered.

And that is not simply a pragmatic decision.

If we are open to God and to our neighbour then we want our church to be open to both. In times of adversity an open church is a sign of the presence, commitment and hope of God reflected in the life of those who follow in the way of Christ.

What we keep open are the wellsprings of God’s love, warmth and hospitality: contagion does not isolate us from the One who loves us.

***

Yet, Christians will feel uncomfortable about words like quarantine, contagion and social isolation, not on medical grounds but on theological grounds because they threaten key gospel values. Let me be clear that I am not criticising wise advice about how to respond to the Coronavirus, but rather what underlies our spiritual disposition and response to it.

In the face of quarantine, contagion and social isolation the way of Jesus tells us:

1.     do not fear;
2.     do not neglect to meet together;
3.     do not exclude anyone.

Do not fear. Of course we need to be wise in our actions and behaviours, but if we operate out of our fears, whether in the face of this virus or in any aspect of our lives, then we turn in on ourselves and we whither spiritually.

So in the face of adversity let us root our assurance in God and consider and plan how we respond from a place of confidence not fear.

To that end a pastoral plan is in place so that those who are isolated or lonely can be contacted. And that can be done by anyone. If you are staying inside why not ring others; they will benefit from that, and so will you. Let’s be really intentional in supporting one another. Might it even be that this virus can bring us closer together as a church, albeit initially over the phone?!

Do not neglect to meet together The letter to the Hebrews says, ‘do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10.25).

A reason we find words like quarantine, contagion and social isolation uncomfortable is because we are social animals. We need to be together. Christians are never Christian alone. Fellowship is rooted in being one in the body of Christ.

This current time of the virus should make us cherish all the more the value of being together as God’s holy people in worship. It’s when we’re unable to come together that we realise the benefits of doing so.

That’s our challenge over the coming weeks if people are quarantined, that they don’t feel cut off from fellowship and encouragement. So as and when you ring people pray for them. It may feel odd, but you can pray over the phone with them.

Do not exclude anyone. The priority of inclusion is very much more than a secular imperative: it is rooted in the Gospel imperative that goes deep into the heart of Jesus’ ministry which we see exercised in this morning’s gospel reading (John 4.5-42).

The words quarantine, contagion and social isolation could be applied to the woman Jesus encounters at the well. She is a foreigner, an outsider, of dodgy religious credentials: as the text reminds us, Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans (v. 9b). And she has dubious morals and a complex personal life (vv.18).

All the evidence points to this woman being in a form of quarantine and certainly socially isolated.

She is at the well at noon. In a country like Palestine people don’t go to wells in the middle of the day, you do that first thing in the cool of the day.

And you don’t go alone, unless you somehow transgress norms and what is acceptable. And as a Samaritan woman who is unmarried yet living with a man she certainly falls in that category.

And her behaviour is viewed in that time as potentially contagious itself, and to be avoided.

Yet Jesus talks to her, sits down with her, drinks with her and offers her living water.

And the disciples see this as astonishing.

The woman’s encounter with Jesus - the one who saw deep into her heart and her life - has drawn her out of her quarantine, shown her, and society, that she is not immorally contagious and she is socially re-integrated.

***

So be prudent and follow the advice, but also remember that on a deeper level you are not quarantined from God; the shortcomings of your life are redeemed by drinking the living water of Jesus Christ and in that you find yourself in healthy relationship with others.

And likewise the gospel reminds us never to quarantine, write off or socially isolate those we find unpalatable, uncomfortable, odd or not like us.

This is Christian mission today too. Through this encounter Jesus demonstrates both the unrestricted, flowing compassion of God and from God’s wellspring she tells others to drink of the living water and they drink such that they can say, ‘this is truly the saviour of the world (v.42b)

‘The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. (John 5.14b)


Monday, 9 March 2020

Bitesize Catechesis - Almsgiving

‘Bitesize Catechesis’

Almsgiving. It’s not a word that we use a lot. Although we use it here in Croydon when we talk about Almshouses.

Of course, we’re talking about ‘alms’ with an ‘l’ not with an ‘r’.

Almsgiving, the giving of alms, is about gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves. We are giving alms, with an ‘l’ when we give to those in need.

Almsgiving is all about receiving with gratitude and giving with grace. It’s a two-way process, as Ecclesiasticus notes:

‘Do not let your hand be stretched out when it is time to receive and closed when it is time to give’ (Sirach 4.31)

And almsgiving has long been associated with the season of Lent. St Leo the Great (400-461) was making this connection in the fifth century, when he wrote, ‘to this sensible and holy fast we should link almsgiving which under the one name of covers a multitude of praiseworthy deeds of charity’.

And the book of Tobit gives us another thought for Lent, ‘Prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving with righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than wealth with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to lay up gold’. (Tobit 12.8)

That places almsgiving firmly in the practices of Lent, although we can do it anytime too, but let’s now think what it is, why we do it and how we do it.

What is almsgiving?

It is, at it’s most basic, a gift we make out of love.

This is charitable giving, motivated out of love and prayer.

It’s not about duty; but about joy and generosity and love.

Almsgiving is traditionally combined with fasting because, when we do, we both give something up and we take something on.

So someone fasting should also be generous in giving to those who do not choose to go hungry.

Almsgiving is also part of our wider giving. So Christians would normally give in a twofold way: for the mission and worship of the church and for those in need.

And both are offered ultimately to God.

Why do we give alms?

The most basic reason is that it is something that will make a difference to another person, it will improve their life, it is, in a beautiful, older expression, a corporal act of mercy.

That goes deeper too. It is the lesson of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25.31-end), summed up in the pithy phrase of St Rose of Lima (1586-1617) who said:

When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbours, because in them we serve Jesus.

This connects the act of giving alms with the motivation for giving alms.

That’s why we do it: out of care for those in need and love for Jesus.

How do we give alms?

There are many and various ways to give alms today.

Churches used to have an ‘alms dish’ but now we can have a Direct Debit, a Standing Order, Chip and Pin, Contactless, Just Giving or putting a coin in a collection box.

It is wonderful that the how of giving alms has never been easier.

The question of how we give alms also comes into the discussion about tithing, which is the Biblical imperative of giving away a tenth of your income.

The Church of England, which is tremendously bashful about money (unless saying it hasn’t got enough), commends giving away 10% of income which 5% might be directly to the church, and 5% to charity, in other words almsgiving. Either way, St Paul gives some helpful advice:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9.7)

How we give is down to us: but, however we do it, we should give with a cheerful heart.

To all those who practise righteousness give alms from your possessions, and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. (Tobit 4.6b-8)

Where do we give alms?

I’ve mentioned the what, why and how of alms, but another bit of the how is, where? Who do I give alms to?
I would suggest that we give alms, charitable gifts offered in love, to those bodies who seek to care for our common home in this world and the people who live in it.

I would say we should look to give alms to charities like Christian Aid, that seeks to care for the environment and the material welfare of the poorest in our world.

There will be other charities you know, for example Christians Against Poverty, our Floating Shelter, or others working at home and abroad for those in need.

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So that’s a bit on the what, why, how and when and it moves us on to some important principles about almsgiving.

We can do that by considering ‘almsgiving and secrecy’, almsgiving is not about the amount’ and ‘almsgiving and abundance’.

Almsgiving and secrecy

We’ve seen that the scriptures and church tradition believe almsgiving is a jolly good thing! Ecclesiasticus writes of it:

One’s almsgiving is like a signet ring with the Lord,
and he will keep a person’s kindness like the apple of his eye. (Sirach 17.22)

In other words, it is one’s marker or identifier, just like a signet ring. And, what better than to be identifiable as an almsgiver?

There’s a ‘but’ hovering here – but the marker is with God, not with other people, and, in a way, not even yourself, as Jesus says in St Matthew’s Gospel:

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6.2-4)

Visible, showy and slef-satisfied giving is contrary to the spirit of Jesus.

Almsgiving is not about the amount

It's not about the amount you give; it is the action of giving that counts.

Jesus looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’ Luke 21.1-4.

Almsgiving reflects a movement of our heart first and then the hand to the pocket, irrespective of the amount that comes out!

Almsgiving and receiving

The very act of giving is good in itself.

And as we find with love, the more we give the more we receive. As the prayer attributed to St Francis says, ‘it is in giving that we receive’.

We don’t need to be loaded to give. Remember that definition of almsgiving, a gift we make out of love. If that’s true then when we give out of love, we receive in love.

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I hope you feel you moved to ponder your own almsgiving, and parents why not encourage your children this Lent to consider what they could give too and together you might think about where you might give.

And finally here are some quite dramatic, but heartening, words from the book of Tobit again:

For almsgiving delivers from death and keeps you from going into the Darkness. Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practise it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High. (Tobit 4.10, 11)

On that note, I’ll stop.