I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink ... (Matthew 25:35)
One of the features of living in a Presbytery in a city centre is that we have a steady stream of “callers" at the door. I wouldn't wish to exaggerate. We don't have a caller every day, and perhaps not even once a week, but nevertheless from time to time there are those who turn up at the door and ask for help or assistance in some way.
It is usually money they want - but we have a general policy not to give them money. (I've been told often enough that this is the worst help we could give). Often callers have a drink or drugs problem, and money is not going to make that any better.
So, we always offer them a cup of tea, and if possible something to eat - usually a sandwich, or a pie or something similar. One winter we tried giving out pot noodles, but were told more than once that they didn’t like them.
Sometimes the situation is shocking. I recall a caller at the door, now sleeping rough, who turned out to have been, just a few years before, a school friend of one of our sons. One another occasion, a caller turned up on the doorstep with a child - his grandchild, he said - who he threatened to put into care if I did not give him the money he needed.
Frequently callers have tried in other ways to turn a conversation around to their need for financial assistance. Sometimes we are asked for help with bus or a train fare or help in paying for accommodation. The story is often quite complicated, relating to a seriously ill or recently departed relative - But an offer to buy a ticket is generally unwelcome - there is always a reason why money is needed in the hand, now. I had a caller recently who claimed to have been sleeping rough for days, who I subsequently discovered has a flat in Hanley. On another occasion the caller claimed to know such an such a priest in another town, who would vouch for them, and this proved to be entirely false. In all these cases I was sure they had a real need for cash, though the story they give is intended to impress or persuade, rather than give the truth.
Sometimes the stories though are quite true - a man who had been caught in a fatal house fire and who turned up on the doorstep with just the clothes and slippers provided for him while in custody with the police, and on another occasion, a man sleeping rough who arrived at our door during a downpour, to whom we gave a coat and a sleeping bag. These callers are not always men, though they usually are, and if they often give me an untruth, it probably doesn't diminish their desparation and need.
And we have a saying in our house, which recalls the story of today's Gospel, "just remember, it could be Jesus".
It is a reminder which is important, because I will confess that even if they provide me with a number of eye-raising and even amusing stories like the ones I can tell to you, I do not embrace this particular part of my priesthood with unbounded joy.
The doorbell may ring early in the morning and late at night. It is certainly not according to appointment. Callers might interrupt a film or a meal, or disturb me from a particularly important task. I am always mindful of the two or three priests I know who have been attacked on their doorstep, in one case stabbed and killed. We try to be consistent, fair and helpful in our limited way, but we also set limits. We generally do not answer the door when it is dark, and we warn the grandchildren never to answer the door themselves.
I'll be entirely honest, it is the one thing, perhaps the only thing, about being priest living in Hanley, which does not bring me joy. I often feel torn - guilty that I do not help enough, and also frustrated that I have been exploited and used.
But the Gospel, today's Gospel is and should be to all of us an encouragement and a challenge. You see the point isn't that it might indeed be Jesus himself, disguised in the form of a beggar, but that these people - whatever story they tell, whatever ruse they concoct, whatever misery they have fallen into - are human beings made in the image of God, with a dignity and a value which they themselves, and I myself, (I am ashamed to admit), find it difficult to recognise. My small act of assistance, however insignificant and inadequate, is perhaps the presence of Christ in me, despite my reluctance and irritation, and it recognises Christ in those who perhaps have lost much sense of their own self-worth.
It is small support, makes meagre difference, yet it is, I hope, a tiny light in the darkness, a small sign of hope, and an act undertaken by Christ himself to those in whom (despite their appearance and our blindness) he also dwells.