Friday, 17 July 2015

The Road to Freedom - thoughts about slavery

Last week our choir led a special service, aided by members of the school choir, to help us consider slavery and our response to it.  What follows is from my address in that service

Luke 4:16-19
When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’


Lots of religious hymns and worship songs have sentiments like 'Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord?' Or 'Lead me Lord'. These are lovely things to sing as we convince ourselves of our willingness to do what God asks of us. But what happens in the real world when God actually comes calling? In the cold light of day, away from the emotional beauty of the evocative music, we tend to be a little more reluctant.

What difference can I make? Send someone else.” 

I love the story of Moses and his calling because it is so brutally honest, and if you read the whole of Exodus chapters 3 and 4 you find that Moses doesn't just protest to God that he will stumble over his words. Oh no, it's far more than that.  In the Hebrew he protests, “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” Many Jewish commentators think that this means Moses had a stammer. Think about what that means. God, almighty God, who knows everything about everyone including our deepest thoughts, who is wise beyond description, chose someone to be his mouthpiece and speak his words who had a stammer and was already guilty of murder.

Not someone who'd be chosen to be a bishop then... 

Surely he was hardly the first person that we would have chosen in God's place. “What difference can I make? Send someone else.” “No Moses. It's you.” In the midst of all the professionalism of the modern church it is heartening that God has a different agenda.  You see we tend to think of God choosing big heroes, which is why it's quite disturbing to read what he actually does, because suddenly that places us in the potential line of people God might call. God works with people who are broken, aware of their shortcomings and their failures. God always seem to choose people who begin by saying, “No”. I speak here from first-hand experience!  

“What difference can I make? Send someone else.”

How about William Wilberforce, the man credited with achieving the abolition of slavery? It took him forty six years to get the slavery laws repealed right across the then British Empire. It took such a toll on him and his health that he died just three days after he received assurance that his final bill was going to make it through parliament. Yet right back at the very beginning of the campaign he came extremely close to giving up.  He was a Christian and I can imagine him saying, in the face of massive opposition from the rich and the powerful in parliament, 

“What difference can I make? Send someone else”. 

 God's response was to speak through his fiance, Barbara, who encouraged him, telling him that she believed he could do it. With her help he changed the world with regards to slavery.  He did what God knew he could do even though he thought it was too much for him. “What difference can I make? Send someone else.” “No. It's you.” But thank goodness slavery is now in the past and none of us need to be worried about being called to do the same kind of work.

Unfortunately, that's not true on either count. Slavery is not in the past and we need our eyes to be opened otherwise how will we know when we are called to change something? Slavery is an outrage and it still continues, even in the west. At its worst are the young women who are trafficked from eastern Europe and sold for use by men in the west.  But as we open our eyes to the world in which we live, so we need to question whether our definition of slavery needs to be wider than this.
Maybe it should also includes those who enslaved in other ways and not simply those who are owned by others. For example there can be the desire by someone who wishes for power to gradually exert it until they have a stranglehold on the direction of the lives and choices of others.

So slavery can be slavery to our own desires, slavery to someone else's need to have power over us, slavery because someone has genuinely bought us, right through to slavery to someone else's idea of how to run an economy where we run out of ways to climb out of poverty. The list is long and we need our eyes to be opened to that.  As Christians, what is our response going to be when God says, “I want you to be a part of the solution”? If we're anything like all of the other major heroes in the bible, it's likely that the first thing we will say, in the cold light of day, is “What difference can I make? Send someone else.”

Throughout the bible are the stories that show how God is always on the side of the oppressed and the enslaved. The Old Testament prophets are littered with warnings and threats by God against the powerful because of the way they treat those over whom they have power.  And then comes Jesus, and in this very short passage we get nothing less than his manifesto. Now my experience with the modern church is that we have a strong tendency to spiritualise everything and to put all scripture into the ideal of personal spiritual growth in our relationship with God. But over the last couple of years I have been progressively more challenged about this.  So it is that with this manifesto pledge of Jesus some of it is deeply spiritual, but some of it is very practical. As he quotes from the Old Testament he begins with a very clear affirmation of why he is about to do what he is going to do. It is because the Spirit of God is upon him, as we know from his baptism when the Spirit of God came down on him like a dove. So Jesus is affirming that he is here because of the action of the Spirit. This manifesto comes right from the heart of the Father.

In the next line he claims he has been anointed to preach good news to the poor. This is one of those places where we automatically assume he means the spiritually poor so that we can include ourselves. That interpretation is not invalid, but at the same time what the passage says is 'Good news to the poor'. We can interpret it any way we like but, at face value, the message of Christianity should also be good news to those at the bottom of the social scale.

So what is good news for the poor? 

 Isn't it that they will have enough? So that suggests to me that the effect that the gospel has on the rich should be to ensure that they share from their excess so that the poor are no longer enslaved by their poverty, and that they act to bring about the end of the causes of poverty. In other words the gospel should have a practical effect on the world.

How about freedom for the prisoners? We're back to slavery here. On one level many of us feel ourselves to be imprisoned by events in our lives and personal histories. Our present actions and fears seem enslaved to what happened in the past. Christ comes to set us free. But this is also about how we should be good news for those in the world who are genuine prisoners of conscience. What are we doing to set them free?

Recovery of sight to the blind may well be about healing, but it's also about spiritual blindness. This is about when we look at other people and judge how they behave when the reality is that we need to be looking at our own behaviour. It's that moment when you feel that sense of conviction that actually you are the one who needs to sort their life out, not everybody else. That's when we can say, “I was blind to my own failures, but now I can see.”

But then we get to the big one, to let the oppressed go free. What kind of oppression? Slavery by being owned for sure. What about the memories of how we were treated in the past oppressing our present behaviour? Can this be about being set free from that too? I believe so.

And what about the people at the bottom of our economic ladder who feel oppressed by the policies of their government? I did an experiment this week by putting my details into the BBC's online calculator to see if I would be better or worse off under the new budget. When I varied my salary I discovered that the break even point was about £18,000. If I earn above that ceiling I am better off.
But when I put my details in but with a lower wage I became catastrophically worse off, in one instance by well over £1,000! I think that those who say they are oppressed by the financial decisions currently being made have a point. And what was Jesus' manifesto? To let the oppressed go free.  

What are we going to do about it?

This is the manifesto of Jesus, and boy is it wide ranging! It also means that, if we are his people, then it is also meant to be our manifesto. This is what Wilberforce did. It's what Moses did even though he pre-dated Jesus. It's what God's people do, to help those who are in need of help, whose needs may have become so severe that they are enslaved.

So what about us? 

What might you be being called to do? It might be something that is going to change the direction your life takes. It might require a completely new way of seeing life by looking at the real lives of other people and undergoing a massive shift in how that means you're going to live. Or it might be something that seems small to you, at least to begin with.

It might simply be leading the prayers in such a way that God's Spirit moves through you to change lives through your prayers being answered. Or it could be working for a charity as a volunteer, writing letters for Amnesty International, and so on. It could be giving lifts to someone who can no longer run a car, or visiting those who can't get out.

So when God calls, and I believe he is calling each one of us to something, how will we answer? Will it be, What difference can I make? Send someone else.” Or will we trust God that he knows what he's doing, and even though we think that we're the absolute last person for the job, God thinks we're absolutely the right one.

The manifesto of Jesus is to pave the way of the road to freedom. That must be our manifesto too. That means we have to do something when we are asked. And we will be asked. All Christians are tasked with a part of being Good News. How will we answer?

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