Sermon by Clare Heard, St George's Church Campden Hill, Sunday 17 September, Trinity 14

Sermon by Clare Heard, St George's Church Campden Hill, Sunday 17 September, Trinity 14

Freedom and forgiveness

What is freedom? Freedom is a word in frequent use, but do we ever stop and reflect on what it means or how to achieve it?

I think at a high level we would all agree freedom is good, people should be free and not enslaved. Indeed, the Biblical narrative is the story of a God who brings freedom to his people. Firstly through the Exodus, and then through the life and death of Jesus.

The story of the Exodus we heard today is one of the foundational stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the story of God leading his people from slavery to freedom and it has echoes of both the creation narrative and baptism within it. The wind blows over the waters – God separates the land from the waters - the Israelites pass through the waters to freedom and new life. This is a new creation. God’s people are now free. The scene is set for a new start and a right relationship with God.

I wonder where you see yourself in this story? I expect most people will identify with the Israelites, after all they are God’s people and the centre of the story, but what about the Egyptians? Do you ever identify with them? After all, we live in one of the wealthiest parts of the world. Most of us don’t need to worry about a roof over our heads, or where our next meal is coming from. And yet, perhaps, our actions are causing others to be enslaved.

The link between slavery and poverty has been highlighted in recent years by Christian Aid and many other not for profit organisations. The 2016 Global Slavery Index reports that nearly 46 million women, children, and men are enslaved around the world today. (That’s 16m more than the 2013 figure). Their slavery has many forms including forced prostitution, marriage, labour, crime, armed combat and even forced organ harvesting.

Remember the headline from only last week of the traveller family jailed for modern day slavery, with the police commissioner reporting that there were 5 other active investigations ongoing. Slavery remains a very real issue today.
And who are most vulnerable to slavery? Those with less power in society… Those lacking education or job opportunities. Those living in poverty and debt. Minorities and outsiders who do not speak the language. Migrants who are cut off from their networks of support, who are eager for opportunity, who have limited protections. “Risks are greatest in contexts characterized by crisis, transition, instability, and corruption. Understanding who is at risk can help us to prevent slavery.”

When we do nothing to rectify the inequities that leave whole groups of people in our society vulnerable to these conditions, we support and sustain the economy of slavery. We are the Egyptians.

When we buy cheap retail clothing, cheap food, cheap furniture, we are, whether knowingly or unknowingly, supporting and sustaining the economy of slavery. We are the Egyptians.

When we turn a blind eye to the pornography and sex industries, accept the premise that human beings can be used and viewed for pleasure until they are consumed, abused, and thrown away, we support and sustain the economy of slavery. We are the Egyptians.

Justin Welby said that “proclaiming the good news of Jesus and transforming society are indistinguishable”. So, we need to ask ourselves, what can we do to ensure we are not supporting and sustaining slavery?

We know we need to think about how we shop, how we use our resources, and yet, I’m not sure if we always realise the impact this can have. Money speaks.
If we only spend our money in shops with clear ethical standards, if we only buy fairly traded or organic products, simple supply-demand economics will kick in. Companies that treat employees badly and enslave workers will cease to profit.

And yet there is more. As a church, we are challenged to speak out when we see injustice. When situations like Grenfell arise, we are called to join the voices challenging the power structures that allowed this to happen. We are called to let our MP know what our concerns are. We cannot stay silent. For, as Edmund Burke said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

Now this goes against the grain for many of us. It requires effort, it may take up valuable time, it may cost more. But we aren’t given permission to simply turn a blind eye. And yet, at the same time, we can’t do everything. We would become slaves ourselves in the process.

So today let’s acknowledge that many of us have the power to support and sustain the slavery of others, let’s look for God’s guidance for what we can do to protect and support those most in need, and let’s trust to God’s mercy for all those that we aren’t able to help.

Now let’s turn back to identifying with the Israelites. Most of us have things in our life which trap or enslave us, prevent us from being truly free.

This might be overly demanding work, it might be physical disabilities or restrictions, or it might be feeling overstretched financially. It could be more subtle; perhaps we have an addiction, for example to shopping, food or technology; perhaps we live with a constant sense of guilt or shame, perhaps we are unable to forgive someone who has hurt us.
There are so many things both out there and within us that prevent us from being free. I wonder what it is for you?

The gospel reading today focusses on forgiveness. For Christians forgiveness is not an optional extra, it is part of the foundation of our faith. It is in the Lord’s prayer, Jesus commands us to forgive.

Lewis B. Smedes writes “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." Forgiveness is an essential step in the journey to freedom.

Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, and he doesn’t say you will be able to do it quickly, it may be a long journey, but we must all try, and keep trying, to forgive, as God forgives us, or we will never be free.

As Christians we are called to do all we can to end slavery and bless our world, but we are also called to freedom for ourselves. And this brings me back to my first question, what is freedom?

I’d like to suggest that freedom is living in right relationships with God, with our communities and with our world. It is the ability to forgive, and receive forgiveness. It is the freedom from shame and guilt. It is the freedom to share and be generous. It is the freedom to love and be loved. It is nothing more or less than our salvation.

We are called to receive the love of a God who forgives us and blesses us. We are called to follow Jesus. John says “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. Jesus is the way, the truth and the light, he is the way to freedom. He is our salvation. Amen

Ref: Anathea Portier-Young, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School
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