Why was I (nearly) fooled? Well, he was a well-dressed young man, well-spoken too; I’m slightly ashamed to admit that his white skin was also probably part of it. Is that latent racism? Or is it just that people who look more like us, well, it’s easier to feel sympathy, perhaps, for their plight. I could spend all day thinking that one through. Would I have found it easier to walk past someone who looked different and disreputable? In fact such a person might well have had much more urgent need of my help. Anyway, despite my son’s protests, I bought a 'Big Issue' from the first vendor I came across, to sort of make up. At least 'Big Issue' sellers are vetted, and required to maintain certain standards of lifestyle and behaviour.
But then, that young South African guy was only the latest in a venerable tradition of London street beggars, who have always had to be inventive in order to be successful; most people with money want to keep it for themselves, and those who've worked hard for what they've got don’t look too kindly on begging and scams. I've been reading a fascinating history of London, with a really good chapter on beggars. They’ve always been there.
And they are there in all the world’s cities, as most tourists and visitors know to their cost. But beggars can hold a special place in some parts of the world. The giving of alms can be seen as a necessary and holy duty, something good people are bound to do. In that case those who beg for alms are themselves enabling others to fulfil their holy duty. This is particularly evident in countries where the Buddhist faith is mainstream. Young men in Thailand may spend time living as monks - they don't take a lifelong vow, and one day they’ll return to the world and marry and have families. But while they are monks they are also beggars, and that’s seen as a holy profession. Dressed in their yellow robes, they live on the alms people choose to give them.
And of course there is also a Christian tradition of the holy beggar. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century chose to live without any possessions of his own, depending entirely on what people were prepared to give him, and he instructed his followers to do the same, to own nothing and hold no money.
Now Francis had been born into a very rich family, but as a young man he turned his back on all that, choosing to build a new life around the principle of a poverty which mirrored that of his Lord. Jesus said: 'Foxes have their holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' and he also told his disciples to take nothing with them when they went out ahead of him to prepare the way. Franciscans continue to take those words very seriously. I used to visit a Franciscan house in North Staffordshire, and I recall the sisters there saying that sometimes they'd no idea how they'd afford to buy food for the week ahead. Somehow something always turned up. I was always very challenged by the way the sisters at Greystones lived. Close to the edge, but also close to Christ. I often found myself reflecting on whether I could ever have the courage to live like they did, trusting that God would provide.
But then again, wouldn’t I be just as foolish if I put all my faith into worldly goods and possessions? It would be a denial of what I believe to be a fundamental truth - that there's more to me and you than the physical atoms and molecules of our bodies, and the material world around us. Like the man with the storehouses and the barns in the parable Jesus told, I’d be seeing success and achievement only in terms of what I could own and store, worldly comforts. And I’d be turning my back on the most important and fundamental things about being me. For I believe that what in me is truly creative, things to do with love and hope and faith, these are to do with the spirit, to do with me belonging to God, to do with us belonging to one another in God. I was watching a programme the other night about the universe, in which the presenter said that we are all made, literally, out of stardust. That’s an amazing and quite moving thought, but it’s still just to do with atoms and molecules, stuff. The Bible, even more amazingly, tells us we’re made in the image of God.
And Paul, writing to his Church in Colossae, makes an important distinction between heavenly things and earthly things - in other words, between the spiritual things about us as against the things that are material or worldly: human actions that are selfless and loving, as against those that are self-centred and greedy. ‘Put away the things that are of the earth,' he tells his readers. And we know we should, but of course it’s never easy.
I was listening to the comedian Marcus Brigstocke ranting on from an atheist perspective on a radio show not so long ago. He told us that religion was responsible for most of the world's ills, and that he didn't need to believe in a supreme being to know the right way to live. I didn’t entirely disagree with him, he did have some right on his side. I can’t deny that religion is often a harmful force, that can motivate and encourage bloodshed and murder, that can raise barriers, provide an excuse for hatred and division, make one group more important than another.
When religion does that, it is speaking to a part of our human nature that sadly is often all too ready to listen. That part that hurts when people are unfair to us, that is looking for scapegoats to blame, that wants justification for the fight to create a new world, or to defend the old one. But religion used in that way is always false religion, whatever label it may claim, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, whatever. Anything which justifies hatred, anything which encourages the taking of life, cannot be true to God. That the test of true religion - true life in Christ - must always be that it breaks down barriers and removes difference: in Christ we belong to one another. And I don’t think of that as something that just applies in house, so to speak: to Christians and within the Christian community, it’s about how we do mission and service within the world; as a gift and insight we must offer around. For the Church’s call to mission is a call to be clearly and persuasively Christ-like.
Marcus Brigstocke was right to say that he can know what's right and what's wrong without needing God or the Bible to tell him. In fact, that's what the Bible itself tells us. Knowing right from wrong is basic to how we’re made. But to that basic morality, my Christian faith adds this: we are saved through sacrifice, and should live sacrificially. My life as a Christian is a life of service, of pilgrimage and of community, in which I am challenged and called into a living and prayerful relationship with God; and that bad things are not just wrong but sinful, ungodly.
And I am sinful. I do fall short. I should do better. But my own failures - and those of other people - have been answered, healed, redeemed, transcended by the sacrifice of Christ. He gives me and you the freedom to become our true selves. On the cross he takes upon himself the burden of our sin. Paul wrote that Christ has nailed our sins to the cross, and that here the whole world is offered the transforming power of his love. Sinful as we are, we can still choose the way of heaven.
Cities are anonymous places, with their bustle and business. On the streets of London the beggars and conmen, the tourists, the shoppers, the businessmen, all of them melt into one anonymous mass of people with nowhere much to go. But each individual life and story is known to God. Within the courts of heaven each one of us is known, accepted and treasured. And we who are striving to follow Jesus are forgiven and freed, citizens already of heaven - that’s the Gospel heart of our faith. So we dare to love because we know that we are loved already, loved despite ourselves; we dare to give, to be sacrificial, because we are claimed by sacrifice, because more has been given us than we could ever stack into any number of our own storehouses and barns, because we are loved into life, and given a light to pass on. In this simple faith lies all the challenge and call of Christian mission.