My name is Paul, and I work for Crisis Centre Ministries, based just up the road in St Pauls. We work with homeless people, but, as you probably know, most homeless people also suffer from a number of other problems: physical and mental health issues, addiction, debt, a criminal record, and so on.
The subject for this morning is 'Meet Your Neighbour' - but who is your neighbour? The question has been asked before.
There was a man, who went on a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, and on the way he was beset by thieves.
Well, it was his own stupid fault, wasn't it? He must have known there were thieves operating in the area. He should have travelled with a group, or carried a sword.
People say much the same thing about our clients. "It's their own fault: they are simply suffering the consequences of their own sin and stupidity." That's true - to an extent. But most of them are also suffering from the sin of other people, and sheer bad luck. Many struggled at school because they were dyslexic. One man I know traces all his problems back the death of his mother when he was in his early teens. Others were abused as children.
It's not straightforward. Many of you will have suffered the same things, and survived them - at least, your life did not fall apart, you did not end up on the streets. Why do some people survive tragedies and traumas, and others not cope? Perhaps some people are just stronger. Perhaps some people receive more help - a supportive teacher, or a sympathetic brother or sister. Perhaps, for some of us, our survival is a matter of grace.
I don't particularly like to think about these things, but if I have to be honest, there have been times in my life when I have been unwise, when my own stupidity could have led to dire consequences. Perhaps I am not likely to make many of the same mistakes as the people we work with, but I have made others. I have never driven under the influence of alcohol, but there have been a few times when I have been too tired to drive safely.
We look at people struggling against dire circumstances and insurmountable problems, and have to say: there, but for the grace of God, go I.
Was the man bleeding by the side of the Jericho road responsible for his suffering? Perhaps, to an extent. But the Priest, the Levite and the good Samaritan also passed by down the same road, took the same risks, and were not attacked.
And, after all, what does it matter how much people are to blame for their own suffering? The question is academic and un-answerable. The real question is, firstly: what can be done to make things better? And, secondly: are you prepared to do it?
What can be done? It is often not easy to know what to do for the best. The Priest and the Levite passed by on the other side of the road, and that was wrong - they knew what needed to be done. But when you pass someone begging on the street, what is the best thing to do? What can you do?
You can pretend you haven't seen them. It's not very honest, and it doesn't help.
You can look them in the eye, and say, "I'm not going to give you anything." That's more honest, but it still doesn't help.
You can give some money, and some Christians believe this is the right thing to do. The reality is, whatever may be said, the money will be spent on alcohol or drugs 99 times out of 100. I don't think that helps, either. Some people say it's not your responsibility what they do with the money, but my conscience struggles with the idea of helping someone kill themselves in that way.
If you have time, you can do something practical, like offering to buy some food. This can work - it can be helpful, but it can also lead to some very difficult situations. I don't want to discourage you from responding in a practical way, but if you are thinking about doing something like this, please don't try to help on your own. Do it as part of a group, with support and backup in place, and the relevant information to hand. If you are interested, talk to me after the service or contact our office, and we can let you have details of training and sources of relevant information.
Most of the time, the best response I know of is to offer a Crisis Centre meal voucher. They can bring it into the Wild Goose Coffee Shop and exchange it for a hot meal. More importantly, they will meet the volunteers in the Coffee Shop, who will not only feed them, but get to know them and find out what can be done to help.
The purpose of the Coffee Shop is not to serve food, but to build relationships. It's a long term strategy, but it's really the only one that works. Relationships change lives. We can't solve anybody's problems. We can't impose change. But we can show God's love and pray. And when they want to change and want to receive help, we can usually either provide the help or introduce them to someone else who can.
Working alongside the other charities and agencies is vitally important. The good Samaritan used the services of the innkeeper. These days, there are so many organisations involved in helping homeless people, just keeping up with the details of who is doing what is a nightmare.
And, to be honest - the Christian and voluntary groups need to learn how to work alongside each other more effectively, which is one reason why we need to develop the work of BCAN and the Homeless Forum.
I am sometimes asked whether we see any successes in our work. The answer is yes - but it rather depends on what you mean by success.
Mending broken bones is fairly straightforward. Mending broken lives is much more difficult, and takes much longer. Our strategy is to love everybody, work with those who want to change, and offer as much practical help as possible to those not yet ready to change.
Some people seem to be stuck in their problems. It can take months or years of patient caring before some people are prepared to start to open up to the possibility of change. But that doesn't mean the rejected offers of help were wasted: it was all a part of building bridges, making contact, showing love. Such things are never wasted.
Others are ready and wanting to change, and it is tremendously exciting to see how things progress, one little step at a time; answers to prayer in the decisions of doctors and housing officers, achieving some stability on a methodone script, or staying sober for six months. These things may seem to be small, but they can matter so much to the people concerned, and sometimes they can be so unlikely that we know we see miracles of God's grace.
I think when people ask if we see any successes, they mean people coming off the streets and turning into doctors or teachers or accountants. Well, occasionally that happens. But it is more likely that ten years down the road, people are likely to be still struggling with major issues.
The fact that they are still struggling and have not given up is a success.
I have been a Christian for 30 years now, and do you know something? I'm not perfect yet. I know nice people who have been Christians longer than me, and they still have moods, and act selfishly, and gossip, and do all the small sins that are culturally acceptable in evangelical churches today.
Sanctification is a process that will not end until we die. And because we are all different, and God treats us all as individuals, some of the sins I still struggle with will have been sorted out in your life ages ago, and some of the things you battle against I find very straightforward.
But, if we are following Jesus, embracing the cross, the process of sanctification continues in each of us. The important question is not how far we have come, but are we still moving in the right direction?
I said earlier that the real question, when we are faced with someone in need, is not who is to blame, but rather, what can be done, and am I prepared to do it? I would like to clarify this very briefly before I close.
I am not saying that whenever you come across someone begging on the street, you have to do something. You don't have to give to every charity that asks you for a contribution; you don't have to help everyone who asks you for assistance. You can't do it: the needs are too many. If you try to respond to them all, you will kill yourself.
Nobody is called to do everything. But everybody is called to do something. The trick is to know what you are called to do, and make sure you do it. You can encourage and pray for and support the people who have other gifts and respond to other needs, but don't get pressurised into getting involved with things that are not for you simply because they are good and important.
Some people are called to get involved with global issues, such as trade and biodiversity and the ozone layer and global warming and the arms trade. For others, it is Bible translation, or evangelism, or missionary work abroad, or helping your neighbours, or providing lunches for the elderly.
I believe the church in Bristol must respond to the needs of homeless people in our city, not instead of all these other areas of service, but alongside them. We must take the gospel to the ends of the Earth, but we must also love our neighbour, the person on our doorstep. Some people will specialise in one area, and some in another. Probably, some churches are called to specialise in some areas, and some in others. That is what being part of the Body of Christ is all about: we do not all do the same thing, but we are all working towards the same end. We all seek to see the Kingdom of God established and expressed in every aspect of life, that Jesus may be glorified in everything.
We are all involved in a spiritual battlefield, whatever our area of ministry. I pray for God's blessing on you and your ministry, and ask you to pray for the Crisis Centre and our ministry.
Who is your neighbour? The person you meet, who needs your help. The person begging on our streets is your neighbour. The person sleeping in our shop doorways is your neighbour. I am your neighbour, and you are mine - so let us seek to love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Let us pray.
Father, thank you that we are accepted in Jesus, not through what we have done but through Your love for us and Jesus' sacrifice. We love you so much, and we want to express that love in ways that will make You glad.
Thank you that you have promised to guide us, to show us how to follow You and live the new life You have given us. Please give us the strength and understanding to follow You in every aspect of our lives.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.