God notices the sparrows

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

God notices the sparrows.

On Friday night, a few of us, from Tewin and Datchworth visited Stevenage Foodbank. We have been collecting tins of food for some time now and just wanted to see how it operated, so we arranged to meet with Jon Mead who set it up and the team of volunteers.I didn’t really know what to expect. It runs from the council offices. We were welcomed by Jon and Sarah who run it and a team of other cheery volunteers. They pulled out chairs to make a waiting area, and tables from which to sit with individuals as they arrive. They unlocked a store cupboard, beautifully organized into stacks of various tins and packets ready for dispatching.

The food bank was set up by Jon 18 months ago. He is a town councillor and it was when he was visiting a resident that he happened to make a chance comment, as her child was eating beans on toast. “You’re having your dinner later then”, he said, or words to that effect. But he was wrong. She explained that actually three nights a week she could only afford an evening meal for one of them, and so it was her daughter that ate, and that was just how it was.

Jon, was shocked and moved.

God notices the sparrows.

So in response to that he started the Food bank. The red tape he says was atrocious. He visited other foodbanks to see how they worked. From that he decided two things. Firstly that food parcels should not pre-packed and given to people, but that people should have a choice – because that is part of retaining dignity – and so there is a simple system where people make decisions as to whether they want tomato or chicken soup, jam or peanut butter and so on. He also decided that, from his experience in meeting people with need, the three day quota of food offered by many food banks, was just not adequate. Delays in benefits, or paying off high interest debts means for some that finding money for food is a much longer term issue. The foodbank offers food to individuals or families for three week stints for a maximum of three times a year. A total of nine weeks per annum.

He explained that about half the people they serve are unemployed or unable to work because of disabilities. Delays in processing benefits are, in his experience a large problem. He knows people who have had nine weeks without any source of income.

Then there are also a good number of people who are working but are on minimum wage or a zero hours contract. Payday loans have trapped some into vast interest repayments and, with the rising cost of living, there is just not enough money to pay for all that is needed. Each person who comes is referred by an agency such as Social services or the CAB. Jon takes their details and takes time, as best he can, to listen to their stories.

God notices the sparrows.

The doors opened at 6pm. People filed in. Young men. Women with small children. People in middle age. A woman with a walking frame. An elderly man. None of them stood out. You would have walked passed them in the street and not even noticed them. But they are seen and known by God.

God notices the sparrows

It was a quiet night on Friday. There were about 20 separate cases which were dealt with. Sometimes there are 40 or 50. They serve over 1500 people a year.

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Jon and his team.

I spoke with a few people, tentatively. One man, in his 60’s I would guess, who said he had never been unemployed in his life until now. That he never would have imagined this would have happened to him. His partner had just died. The tenancy was in her name. He faced, he said, homelessness within the next three weeks. After he received the food his daughter appeared and shook the hand of one of the volunteers – thank you she said, for helping my dad.

There was a young polite father with his child, both placed suddenly in emergency temporary accommodation – a hotel room but with only breakfast provided. The food bank volunteers went to great efforts to find things that might be eaten cold, or warmed up with a kettle.

There was a woman who came in to deliver a thank you card. She had used the food bank a couple of times that year. But now was in a much better place, employed and able to stand on her own feet. But she wanted to thank those who had supported her, when no one else wanted to look.

God notices the sparrows.

And there were many more, of whose stories I don’t know, but God does.

Sparrows are nothing special to look at. Their plumage is not as colourful as that of a greenfinch, their song is not as thrilling as the lark, their tails are not fine like the pheasants. But still, God notices the sparrows.

“Not one of them” says Jesus in our gospel reading this morning “will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows”.

But may be it is this intricate, astounding care of the detail, that helps make the gospel so divisive. Jesus is warning his disciples about the cost of following him. If they are to follow him, they are to become like him, and becoming like him – a man who touches the unclean, who preaches love of the enemy, who demonstrates generosity to the extent of pouring out himself on the cross, – is always going to have enemies. Because love like that is dangerous and irresponsible in the eyes of the world.

And may be this is part of the reason why even families will be divided, or want to talk sense into their children or siblings or parents – that loving as God loves, noticing the sparrows, is unwise, life threatening, cross bearing.

Because it is easier, actually, to look at the successful rather than those who are losing in life. It is easier also create names that shield us from the people we don’t want to see close up:– scroungers, fraudsters, undeserving, immigrants, asylum seeker –. How powerful those labels are, and the rhetoric that goes with them. They keep people in clumps, they keep people at bay, they stop us needing to look at the detail, at the individual, at the story.

Yet God is interested in the detail. God notices each and every sparrow. God counts every hair on every head.

But the risk of looking, at noticing sparrows, is that once we look we might find it hard to look away.

Jon noticed one mother’s need for food and now his life is consumed. After a full days work the Foodbank is where his life is connected. Infact in a fortnight he marries Sarah, another one of the volunteers. But there was something about that band of helpers, that was so alive and joyful and pleased to spend time with the people they serve, that makes the foolishness of Jesus’ words, suddenly make such utter sense: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it”

God notices sparrows. Do we dare to notice them too?

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