This is Hilary Cottam in a TED talk from 2015.[i] She’s a social entrepreneur whose been thinking much of her life about how we solve some of these deep and complex social problems that have been perplexing us for some time now.
She has a new book out, called Radical Help[ii] that takes a deep dive into the welfare state and how we might remake it. As you can tell, she’s doing her work in Great Britain, and has spent most of her life in Europe and Africa exploring these questions. But I think her work speaks to our own experience in the states as well, and to the needs for many of our institutions to adapt to changing realities.
In her presentation, Cottam goes on to provide a pretty stark picture of how the system as it currently is does not serve Ella well or others in similar circumstances, but may, in fact, work to keep them imprisoned in a cycle of despair, even as the people and the institutions they serve were and continue to be well-intentioned.
Ella’s story is a compelling example of this. Cottam notes that, when she met Ella, 73 different services run out of 24 departments in one city were currently offering social services—that’s just in one city, mind you. And Ella and her partners and her children were known to most of them. And they knew the services. They were not shy about calling in help when an argument or a crisis broke out. And the home was visited on a regular basis by many professionals: social workers, youth workers, a health officer, a home tutor, and the local police.
But nothing changed. None of these well-meaning and highly-skilled visitors were making a difference—even though, by its own measures, managing these social problems cost the government more than a quarter of a million dollars per year, per family.
In her book, Cottam adds more background.[iii] After meeting Ella, she asked the city leaders if they could also introduce her to a family whose lives had been changed by their interventions. They couldn’t. Police, fire services, health services, social services, education and youth services could tell stories about how they had helped individuals navigate particular crisis, but no one was able to cite an example of a family who no longer needed help, who had been supported to grow and flourish. Indeed the system seemed to be doing just the opposite, further ensnaring people like Ella in a safety net that was meant to free them.
I am grateful for people like Cottam. She strikes me as someone who looks beyond not only our stuck systems, but our stuck conversations which seem only to wedge us more and more into two ideological prisons—each spending too much of its time blaming the other. She asks interesting questions. She trusts those of good faith around her, including the helpers—and most important of all—those our systems seek to help.
Two findings are worth a little further attention. First of all, Cottam looked more closely at the government’s cost claims.
So many hours, so well meant. And yet, ultimately futile.
Cottam captures one snapshot of an almost universal reality of our time. Our institutions all seem to be at a point of fracture and even failure. They are all being tested, and our trust in them is failing.
We’ve been talking about this for a number of years now, of course. You will remember just one of many voices—Phyllis Tickle, who more than a decade ago began to alert us to the changes that were already upon us in her books The Great Emergence[iv] and Emergence Christianity. Tickle noted how its not just religion and its institutions that are being stretched.
Every part of our lives is shifting. Intellectually, politically, economically, culturally, sociologically, religiously, psychologically—“every part of us and how we are and how we live has, to some degree, been reconfiguring over the last century…and those changes are now becoming a genuine maelstrom around us,” she wrote, back in 2012.[v] Institutions of all kinds are built around realities that no longer exist.
In her book, Cottam affirms that one of the greatest challenges is releasing ourselves from the prison of conventional thinking:
The left say that more money must be spent. Our welfare state is still comparatively cheap by international standards and therefore, they argue, more money will solve these problems. In contrast, the right claim that the welfare state is too big and too bloated, hindering the ability of individuals to stand on their own feet. Further cuts must be made, they say, and if the state stopped interfering people would do better. The diagnoses are different but the programmes for action are remarkably similar. Both sides want to focus on the money and to rearrange the institutions. Above all, they want to manage things differently.[vi]
The good news in Cottam’s story is that the institutions she was working with found the courage to try something different. Realizing that 80% of all resources were essentially supporting the system and only 20 percent the families and that in reality they were ultimately just gate-keeping and managing the lines and keeping the system in business, they agreed to reverse the ratio.
Everyone who came in contact with Ella or a family like Ella’s would spend 80 percent of their time working with the families and only 20 percent servicing the system. Even more radically, the families would lead. Their voices became primary. They would make the decision as to who among this group of seventy-something providers was in the best position to help them. And this small group of providers the family selected formed a team around them. And they even gave them a sliver of the former budget that they could spend in any way they chose.
And very quickly a relationship between the team and the workers began to grow. And even as there were, predictably, steps backwards as well as forwards, Ella completed an IT training course, she got her first paid job, her children are back in school, and the neighbors who dreaded the next disruption from Ella’s flat are now quite happy to have them around.
Cottam found what REACH and many others are discovering as they pay close attention to our current needs—to what is working and what isn’t. Relationships are the critical resource we have in solving some of our most intractable problems. And yet, relationships are all but written of by our politics and our policies, and they have not been historically factored into our institutional structures.
But we know this and we have been on the front lines of some of these changes that are seeking to trust the voices of those who struggle and suffer. And our scriptures have talked for millennia about neighborliness as a key to the foundation of human life and well-being. It’s just that we sometimes get so stuck in our patterns and routines and the systems that support them, that we lose sight of these foundational understandings.
It is neighborliness, the formation of thick relationships—relationships with connections deep and wide—that lead us from the modern prisons of loneliness and isolation at the core of so many of our challenges to the transformation that occurs in the story of Paul and Silas in prison and the girl in the prison of her enslavement, and the jailer who is caught himself in a system that threatens him at every turn so that he has no recourse, no hope, when he thinks the prisoners are gone.
And yet, as this system is shaken to its core by two followers of Jesus who see something beyond the reality that is directly in front of them, they find strength in what unites them, rather than what keeps them apart. All of these who are a equally victimized—the girl, the disciples, the jailer—are drawn together. And everything changes. They find company; they are cared for, and they commune.
Paul and Silas are the brokers of this unity in the same way that John’s Jesus imagines the church might be—perhaps especially as our institutions have lost their effectiveness. Relationships are some of the critical resources we have in solving social problems, and the church as an institution, is enfleshed by this font and its water that is shared by all, and by this table and its call to thick relationships. We are in a unique position to shake open a new reality, to gather together a new community, not just here in this place, but across the street and across the city.
When John’s Jesus says we are one, that this is the goal of the Godhead for us to know and practice this, I think he is at least saying something about the possibility of friendship, lifegiving intimacy, and mutuality as the way to peace and new life.
[i] Hilary Cottam, “Social services are broken. How we can fix them.” TEDGlobal, London. Retrieved May 31, 2019 from https://www.ted.com/talks/hilary_cottam_social_services_are_broken_how_we_can_fix_them.
[ii] Hilary Cottam. Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us & Revolutionise the Welfare State. Virago, 2018.
[iii] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 207ff), Kindle Edition.
[iv] Phyllis Tickle. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Baker Books, 2008.
[v] Phyllis Tickle. Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters. Baker Books, 2012, p. 25
[vi] Cottam, Hilary. Radical Help. Little, Brown Book Group. (Location 208ff), Kindle Edition.
Acts 9:1-20 † Psalm 30 † Revelation 5:11-14 † John 21:1-19
If you were here last week, you may be wondering what we’re doing reading another section from the Gospel of John. “Didn’t we finish that last week?” you might ask. And my response to you is to say, give yourselves a pat on the back for your insightful and close listening. We should all be proud!
Check out the last paragraph from chapter 20, the previous chapter in John, from last week’s reading:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.[i]
It is clearly the ending to the story—a hopeful summary statement by the gospel writer reminding us what the work of Jesus’ disciples has been about. Case closed. Time to move on.
And then we have this afterthought:
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias…
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 † Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 † Romans 10:8b-13 † Luke 4:1-13
Possession is nine-tenths of the law. No doubt you’ve heard this adage that suggests that if you possess something, you have a stronger legal claim to owning it than someone who merely says they own it.
The doctrine allowed Floyd Hatfield to retain possession of the pig that the McCoys claimed was their property, although we can imagine it didn’t make their lives better or help to de-escalate the historic dispute between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The old saw has underlined feuds on too many school playgrounds to count. It has destroyed countless friendships. It has been front and center in disputes in U.S. history with tragic results for many of the early dwellers of these lands. It has contributed to the fire between Palestinians and Israelis, and all of their proxies, and in too many stories to tell on every continent throughout every age. The question of ownership and land is arguably at the root of every conflict, all human violence, and the climate change peril that our planet and its inhabitants are facing.
So it may interest us to note that this is something of a theme in the telling of our scriptures today.
I am an avid reader of the comics. If I’ve read nothing else from the paper on a Sunday morning I will look at breaking news to see what we need to be mindful of, and I will read the comics--religiously!
Pearls Before Swine is one of my favorite comics these days, and I love how this one gets right to the heart of our stress-filled, bubbled, and too-often disconnected existence. And more to the point, I love how it gets to what is at the center of this gospel today: Love your enemies.
Or maybe it doesn’t. To imagine the person who cut you off on the freeway is your enemy is something of a stretch, isn’t it? It’s a verbal weaponization of a pretty mundane event, to imagine my neighbor on the freeway is my enemy, and not instead, someone who may be having a bad day, like I might be.
We probably shouldn’t domesticate the notion so carelessly, because there is much, much worse that is done for which we should preserve such a decisive word like enemy. In these days of Fake News, we should try to be as accurate and truthful as we possibly can.
Jeremiah 17:5-10 † Psalm 1 † 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 † Luke 6:17-26
As I was studying our texts for today, I found myself rooting around for a way to understand blessing as it is portrayed in Luke from Jesus: Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you who weep now. God is on your side.
But the more I tried to unpack this idea, the more I tried to understand how really this translates into blessing, the more stuck I got. How is it a blessing to be hungry now even if you’ll get something later? How is it blessing to weep now, simply for the promise of a laugh later? Sure, there are some ways to get at this, but they are problematic, too often approaching some twisted endorsement for suffering or persecution. And how is the promise of the Kingdom a blessing now for a poor one who has nothing and is in danger?
If I’m honest, I have to admit I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know how to understand this idea of blessing. I don’t understand how it is a blessing to be poor and to go without and to live on the edges of society. I don’t see it. I wish I did, but I don’t. Perhaps you do.
Given that, I’ve realized I’m not in a position to unpack this first part of the passage in Luke that is blunt and gritty and material and so much in contrast to the ethereal “blessed are the poor in spirit” that Jesus proclaims in Matthew.[i]
At least part of the problem, if not all, of course, is that I’m not poor. How should I expect to understand something I haven’t experienced—especially something as hard as this? And the fact is, most, if not all of us, by objective standards are not poor. If we measure ourselves and our wealth and well-being through the arc of history, this is abundantly clear. We have access to food and the basic resources needed for survival in far greater quantity and more reliably than previous generations and even more so than our pre-modern ancestors. And even if we measure ourselves in comparison to the world population as it is today, it is difficult to argue we are poor by any standard.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 † Psalm 93 † Revelation 1:4b-8 † John 18:33-37
Last week, we met Jesus in Mark, looking with his disciples at the great temple of Solomon. “Do you see these stones?” he asked. Not one will be left on another. He was warning them not to trust in what seems to be powerful, but instead to see and to heed the signs that speak to what is true, what is really going on, to a clear-eyed assessment that refuses to turn away from what we would rather not notice, whether hidden behind great walls or institutional privilege or fake news.
As a way of trying to illustrate this, with some fear and trembling, I showed you some pictures from the news that might serve as signs of this very thing, of a reality that should and has snapped us to attention as a society, that should impress on us the significance of the challenges we are facing so that we can more clearly look for the hope that is ours when, like a thing with feathers, it alights in our midst.
There was a strong and mixed response to these images last Sunday and early in the week. To all of you who engaged in one way or another, I am grateful. To those of you who were troubled, let me first of all offer my apology to you. This thing we do from Sunday to Sunday is a strange and wild beast, and the power and authority that you give to those of us who speak to what is essentially a captive audience—especially one of all ages and experiences—is a fearsome thing.
1 Kings 17:8-16 † Psalm 146 † Hebrews 9:24-28 † Mark 12:38-44
Beware the comma! It can change everything.
It can be a matter of life or death.
It can be the difference between “Let’s eat, grandma,” and “Let’s eat grandma.” Or consider another sign I saw not too long ago:
“Hunters, please use caution when hunting pedestrians on the trails” …which could have benefitted from a comma so that it would suggest that one should be aware of the presence of others while hunting.
Now when it comes to our ancient biblical texts, there is an added problem. As you may know, the original texts of both the old and new testaments didn’t have commas, or really, any punctuation at all!
Jeremiah 31:7-9 † Psalm 126 † Hebrews 7:23-28 † Mark 10:46-52
So how do you tell the difference between a crowd and a mob? How do you know? What are those markers that help to make the distinction?
Mark tells us at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson that Jesus and his followers pass through Jericho, and just as quickly, they leave. Nothing happens, except that Mark notes a large crowd follows Jesus out of town. Or is it a mob? Or a caravan?
I would imagine once the word made it to Jerusalem, it might have felt like a mob—at least to the political and religious leaders of Jerusalem who felt the pressure of an unsettled population. Especially after Bartimaeus refuses to remain silent: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” In other words, do something.
Isaiah 53:4-12 † Psalm 91:9-16 † Hebrews 5:1-10 † Mark 10:35-45
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” asks Christian Wiman. Wiman, an American poet who was the editor of Poetry Magazine and now teaches at Yale, asks a question that might remind us of James’ and John’s request of Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you… Grant us to sit…at your right…and at your left in your glory.”[i]
“What is it we want when we can’t stop wanting?” In a way, Wiman answers his own question: “I say God,” he continues, “but…greed may be equally accurate, at least as long as God is an object of desire rather than its engine, end rather than means.”[ii]
Now, to be fair, it is making something of an assumption to suggest that these two followers of Jesus or the other disciples who react once they hear the other two got there first are motivated by greed, pure and simple. In these days, we have enough of this simplistic, binary thinking that reduce others to a simple idea, to an enemy, to one who is good or is evil.
Neither is Wiman thinking of this scripture in Mark. He’s reflecting on something more basic—about survival, and particularly our survival beyond ourselves.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 † Psalm 90:12-17 † Hebrews 4:12-16 † Mark 10:17-31
There are five big words in the scriptures that speak to what God is like. Five big words that make the journey through the arc of the scriptures. Five big words that speak of God, and speak of us, because in the Christian biblical tradition, what it means to be human is to be in the image of God. What it means to be human is to delight in what God delights.[I] Five big words that speak of promise and possibility. Five big words that speak to what holds the world together. Five big words that give us something of an anchor in these unmoored times.
Five big words: Justice, righteousness, steadfast love, faithfulness, compassion.
I’ve been thinking about these lately, because I’ve been wondering about how we are going to hold together what seems to be spinning apart. I’ve been wondering about how we are going to find ways to live as one, to live with hope, to look to a future that is for everyone, not just for the 50.1 percent of us—or sometimes less—who can muster the votes to muscle our way or our version of the world on others. I’ve been thinking about these lately because, not only can we not agree on ideals, goals, truth. We seem not even to be able to agree on facts.
St. Andrew Sermons