Proclaiming freedom for modern slaves

Posted: March 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

We are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves  (Nehemiah 9.36)

It is hard to think ourselves back into the situation of Nehemiah and his community.
They came home to Jerusalem, but it was no longer the capital of a nation state
The ruins of the city now lay in the Persian province of Palestine

They had been released from captivity, but they were not really free
Most of what their land produced had to be handed over in taxes to their new rulers, the emperors of Persia
That is what the word ’empire’ means – exploitation
Empire is a system where one country controls the productive assets of other countries, and uses them for its own benefit

Nehemiah puts it very clearly
We are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9.36-37, esv)
He feels the pain of living in a situation which does not echo God’s design
Of being prisoners in their own land, of working the soil but being denied the fruits

This Lent, we have followed a course devised by the Centre for Theology and Community.
The Centre links the exploitation of the least well-off in society by payday lenders directly to the breakdown of community

We have abolished slavery, haven’t we?
Although we’ve only just finished off paying off the debt the State incurred in compensating the slave owners of the Caribbean
And the police are giving increasing attention to the problem of modern slavery

What forms does slavery take in our society? The answer is, many
Someone at a training session on modern slavery, someone I had met several times before, suddenly shared that she had been trafficked into this country and made to work as a domestic servant, abused and unpaid

Many forms of slavery are more subtle than locking someone in a room to sew fashions, or forcing them to sleep in a shed between long shifts picking vegetables in the fields
The free market our society is basically in favour, has voted for in elections, of creates opportunities for unscrupulous people to profit from poverty

Market freedom is economic freedom – freedom for people with money
The market is free, but it treats people differently depending on their circumstances
The more money you already have, the easier and the cheaper it is to borrow
The more desperate you are for money, the more it costs you to take out a loan

The market is free, but for some people it creates traps
When you take out a payday loan, it appears on your credit record
Even if you repay on time, it’s more difficult to borrow from mainstream lenders in future
So when you need money again, you might find yourself driven back into the arms of the payday lender you borrowed from in the first place – you might become a regular customer

Payday lenders deliberately target vulnerable people at moments of difficulty
Think of the adverts on television: a
A young driver broken down at the roadside, who needs his car for work
A harassed working mother whose son is complaining because the boiler has broken down and he can’t have a shower

A payday loan looks like a convenient solution to problems like these
But it creates more problems and more pressures further down the road

Financial pressures are a leading cause of relationship and family breakdown
Relationship failures and family breakups have an impact on society as a whole
In other words, everyone bears the cost of payday loans and poverty more generally

We are sometimes tempted to blame people for having got themselves into financial difficulties
We are tempted to believe we are morally superior, because we are more careful – more responsible
Blaming the victims makes problems easier to tolerate – it does nothing to solve them

How do we break the cycle of blame and disadvantage that leads to social division?
The whole thrust of the gospel is, we cannot be an island of perfection in a sea of corruption

In the first recorded sermon Jesus preached, he proclaims good news to the poor and liberty to the captives (Luke 4.18).
How do we as a church proclaim this good news in our community?
The course we have been following says we should do it through specific, visible actions

Nehemiah does this – he rebuilds the walls of his city
He doesn’t stop there – he rebuilds the community and family life by attacking the problem of exploitation, and the slavery that proceeds from debt
He attacks those problems by appealing to the law of God, that says no Jew shall enslave another, take away their land, or take advantage of their poverty by charging them interest on a loan

In the passage we heard today (chapter 9), Nehemiah implicitly brings all of these things together
He produces a covenant, and has it signed by the political and religious leaders of the people

Remember what the biblical covenant is: a divine decree, that binds the people to the land, to one another, and to God
It tells them how they are to live in the land, how they are to behave towards one another, and how they are to love and obey their God

Nehemiah draws up his covenant to set the seal on a new way of living
A way of life that binds everyone together and binds everyone to God
A testimony not just for themselves, but for all the nations round about who have mocked the collective poverty and humiliation of the Jews and their struggle to rebuild

It’s a good ending – it’s not a perfect ending
Nehemiah calls the people to re-affirm their status as God’s chosen people
Yet there they are, still living as slaves in the Promised Land

That is the point where the New Testament begins
The people we read about in the gospels live under the dominion of Rome, not Persia
But they, too, thirst for release from captivity – for redemption
They long for salvation history to reach its climax – for the kingdom to come

We are in the same situation of hoping and longing, now and not yet
We have a new covenant, sealed in the blood of Christ
As Christians, we exist to proclaim this new covenant – the covenant of hope and life
We proclaim it, while we wait for the coming of our Lord in glory

The best way to proclaim the covenant of hope and life is to make it real for others
The best way to make it real is to do something concrete and visible for the people who suffer most from the loss of hope

We try to act in ways that bring real hope – as a testimony that our faith is real, because the gospel hope is real
We’re not rich, we’re not powerful, so we act in small ways
But we try to act in ways that are real and authentic, and ways that make a difference
Ways that build relationships with people in our community
Ways that speak of salvation; ways that are prophetic

18 March 2018, St George’s, High Heaton


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