Summary: What does it really mean to be persecuted for following Jesus today?
Two and a half years ago, Florida charity worker Arnold Abbott made world headlines when he was arrested. His crime? Feeding the homeless.
Arnold, who was ninety at the time, had been helping prepare hundreds of meals every week since 1990. In 1991, he founded the Maureen A. Abbott Love Thy Neighbor Fund, whose name was a tribute to his late wife, and which sought to continue the work they had done together. Love Thy Neighbor is based on two core principles: “We are our brother’s keeper”, and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And it is open to people of all religions, beliefs, and races, who wish to help those who are worse off than themselves. 1
Love Thy Neighbor has carried on with its good work of helping the homeless without drawing any international attention, until the City of Fort Lauderdale passed an ordinance severely restricting their activities. Feeding the homeless had to take place least 500 feet away from residential properties, and food sites were restricted to one per city block. These restrictions were motivated by residents and businesses, who were concerned about homeless people being attracted to their neighbourhoods (and presumably thereby lowering the tone of them). 2
But Love Thy Neighbor was not going let this stop them. And on Tuesday 4 November 2014, Arnold, along with two ministers from the Sanctuary Church, were arrested while they were distributing food to the homeless. But, in spite of this, Arnold was back feeding the homeless the very next day. Even though he risked a US$500 fine for each arrest. Not to mention four months in gaol. And again, he was arrested. 3
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler was not impressed by Arnold’s efforts, but Arnold pointed out, if they weren’t feeding the homeless, many of them would have no alternative other than to forage through rubbish bins, or starve.
“What the city is doing by cutting out feeding is very simple -- they are forcing homeless people to go dumpster-diving all over again,” Arnold said. “They will steal. That's what the mayor is forcing the homeless to do.” 4
Today’s epistle reading is from the First Letter of St Peter. The authorship is traditionally attributed to St Peter, the Apostle, and this certainly seems to have been the view of the early Church. However, many of today’s scholars say that St Peter could not have possibly written this document, as it would have required much higher a level of education and a knowledge of Greek than a humble fisherman from Galilee would have possessed. And a compromise position is that St Peter essentially dictated the letter to a secretary who was more versed in Greek than he was. There are differing views on the letter’s authorship, but at the end of the day, we really don’t know, and like so many of the books of scripture, its authorship is uncertain.
The First Letter of St Peter contains some very interesting material. Some of it, notably the author’s views on gender roles, especially the suggestion that women are “the weaker sex”, would generally be considered today to be irredeemably outdated, which reinforces my personal view that we must always take into account the cultural and historical context of when scripture was written, instead of simply taking it at face value through today’s eyes. 5 It also contains that absolutely fascinating fragment of text about Jesus making a proclamation to imprisoned spirits after his death, which was part of our reading this morning.6