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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Homily

Ordinary Sunday 26, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 26, 2010

1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Charity begins at home (but doesn’t have to end there)’

Today’s homily takes as point of departure a comment made at the Live Aid Concert in RFK Stadium, New York City, on July 13, 1985: “I hope that some of the money that’s raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it – maybe one or two million, maybe – and use it, say to pay the ... er ... the mortgages on some of the farms ... the farmers here, owe to the banks.” The comment, by Bob Dylan, was a stimulus for the formation of Farm Aid, which was, and is, designed to help American farmers.

Live Aid organiser, Bob Geldof, was furious with Dylan for going off message. “He displayed a complete lack of understanding of the issues raised by Live Aid ... Live Aid was about people losing their lives. There is a radical difference between losing your livelihood and losing your life ... It was a crass, stupid and nationalistic thing to say,” said Geldof.

I stand accused at the outset of bias toward Dylan, and plead guilty, of course, but Geldof's self-appointed role (then and now) is very much the one Dylan rejected in the 1960s – the conscience of his generation. The emotional, simplistic appeals, the self-righteousness and self-satisfaction, the hectoring manner and frequent expletives on the part of Geldof all seemed ideally designed to encapsulate the notion of a representative, a young man speaking for the youth of the world, flaying the older generation for its neglect of a burning issue.

The remedy for African starvation that Geldof incessantly plugged – in essence and in his words, “Give me your f***ing money!” – was simplistic in the extreme, made no attempt to approach the causes of famines, and left a generation of young people with the quite false belief that transferring wealth to the poor is both easy to do and a solution to something. The money raised by Live Aid events was impressive – perhaps $250 million over an extended period – but even so much of the cash ended up directly or indirectly in the hands of the Ethiopian Government, which had created the famine in the first place.

For Geldof – and perhaps for his more recent avatar, Bono – what matters are precisely the things Dylan isn’t interested in. They fly around the world, meet important people, and try to trade their status as cultural icons for political influence.

This ought to be questioned. By persuading people that “making poverty history” is essentially pretty easy, simply a matter of willpower, they may actually generate apathy and cynicism. Making poverty history would be a massive achievement. Small steps along the way are achievable, but these small steps will be disappointing and disillusioning to those who have been conditioned to think that big steps are possible if only we, or our leaders, had the will to act. People who are disillusioned in this way either forget about politics altogether or become ensnared in extremism of one kind or another, both of which are undesirable reactions.

Dylan didn’t equate loss of livelihood with loss of life. In fact, his comment called for less than one per cent of total revenue to be given to American farmers. The existence of an important cause shouldn’t preclude attention to other less-important causes.

Yet there is a qualitative difference between the kind of obligation Dylan has to American farmers, which is generated by common membership of a political community, and the generalised sense of benevolence that underpins the appeal of Live Aid. Nationalism and internationalism are not opposites, but rather complementary allegiances.

What I notice this time I hear the parable of Jesus is that Lazarus is a fellow citizen to the rich person. Lazarus is not a charity case faraway but a neighbour nearby.

And this is significant. For even if selfishness is part of the human condition (we may include the selfishness of wealthy rock stars recognising the value of good publicity and the material self-interest of concert-goers unable to sustain interest in the relief of famine once the cheques have been put in the post), so is a propensity to co-operate, and a willingness to help others. Altruism is as genuine a feature of our make-up as egoism. The important task is to try to identify the factors that cause altruism as opposed to egoism to kick-in in any particular case. In short, co-operative and altruistic behaviours are in-group phenomena. We work with and for other people because we expect them to work with and for us, and we take note of their interests because we expect them to take note of ours.

Originally, such social intercourse took place in small, face-to-face groups, but gradually, over the last three or four millennia, our “circle of concern” has expanded, from the kin-group to the village, to the city, to the nation, and perhaps over the next millennia it will expand to all the inhabitants of the planet. Tim Flannery’s new book argues hopefully on behalf of human beings as “indispensable elements in the Earth system” (Tim Flannery, Here On Earth: An Argument for Hope, 2010

How do we extend the circle of concern? The megaphone fund-raising of Geldof and Bono doesn’t do the job; while the TV is on we might be convinced that we really are concerned by the picture of misery painted for us by these would-be moral entrepreneurs, but the effect soon fades. It seems more plausible that the best way to generate the moral environment that might lead us to change our lives in the right direction is actually to show concern for the poor in our midst – people close to us – our fellow citizens. We are in some sense in a co-operative scheme with them, and there is something here for the altruistic impulse to get hold of.

Charity begins at home – but it doesn’t have to end there. If we can extend our moral imagination so that our personal circle of concern is not confined to those with whom we have (or plausibly might have) actual reciprocal relations, but can encompass a wider group of our fellow citizens ... then it is not impossible that we could come to extend this circle a little wider, and then a little wider again.

But also, if we aren’t prepared to reach out to those in need who are close to us, what likelihood is there that we will actually do anything for those who are far away? Subject to the moral blackmail of noisy pop stars we might put a cheque in the post for the Live Aid appeal, but if we step over and ignore a homeless person on the way to the post office it doesn't seem very likely that we will sustain our concerns.

Farm Aid has never gone away – nor does it attract sarcasm or charges of hypocrisy. The first Farm Aid Concert took place in late 1985, and was organised by Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. Concerts have taken place annually ever since, organised by the same team. (Bob Dylan has taken part on a couple of occasions.)

Farm Aid doesn’t simply organise the longest running concert series in the US, it produces a newsletter, promotes organic and family-farm grown food, and runs advice phone lines to connect farmers to Family Farm organisations. Nelson and Mellencamp have led delegations of family farmers to Congress. Farm Aid has raised $30 million, which is considerably less than Live Aid 1985 brought in, but it spends the money on small grants to family farms and consumer groups – c. $750,000 to 59 family farm groups in 2006.

Farm Aid survives because of the commitment of a small number of artists who are deeply engaged by the issues. They do what they do because it reflects who they are; there is a groundedness here that is undeniable. And the kind of political commitment shown by Young, Nelson and Mellencamp (no mention of Dylan here) isn’t of the sort that stops at the water’s edge.

An analogy may be drawn. Week by week as we gather here, we remind ourselves that we come before God in solidarity with the poor at our gate and with all who bear the wounds of a broken world, and hopefully as we do so, we gain the courage to open the gates, not just to pass food out, but to welcome our needy brothers and sisters in to join us at the table.

Week by week we confess that we have pursued our desires at the expense of others, and, despairing of changing the world, neglected to change even ourselves. And as we hear the words of grace, the promise of forgiveness, we are offered the possibility of beginning to live by a new Word, to claim God’s love and to love God in others; to choose to be made whole and in our wholeness to bring healing and hope to others.

We gather here to meet with and listen to the One who has been raised from the dead; the One who opens our minds to hear and understand the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and the apostles too. As we see the least and the broken as Christ sees them, we see Christ in them, and as we reach out to welcome Christ into our lives as a beloved neighbour, his presence passes and we welcome the needy as our neighbours and love them as Christ has loved us.

Charity begins at home – but it doesn’t have to end there. How, in your experience, has the “circle of concern” been extended? Let’s complete the homily togetherAmen.

 

See Chris Brown, ‘Bob Dylan, Live Aid, and the Politics of Popular Cosmopolitanism’, The Political Art of Bob Dylan, ed. David Boucher and Gary Browning, Imprint-Academic, Exeter, 2009.