Sunday, 3 August 2014

Slavery and Freedom

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
3rd August 2014, 11.00am

Isaiah 55.1-9   Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.  6 Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.  8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Matthew 14.13-21  Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.  15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."  16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."  17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."  18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."  19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.  21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. 

A few years ago now,
          our household made the transition from a normal-shopping house
          to a money-saving house,
and it came about when we discovered
          Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert website
          after hearing him holding forth on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2…

Does anyone else here know what I’m talking about?

These days, if we want to buy anything,
          from a holiday, to a new camera, to a meal out
the chances are that we can generate some kind of discount code or voucher
          that will get us a bit of money off the listed price!

Well, the net result of this (if you’ll pardon the pun),
          is that our home email address has become the registered recipient
                   for a seemingly endless plethora
of special offer after special offer;
Some related to things we might be interested in,
          and some where you just have to wonder what they were thinking
                   when they sent that particular offer to us!?

Well, a quick sort through these offers
          eveals a wonderful and beguiling set of invitations
          to apparently get something for nothing

From the traditional and clichéd BOGOF – Buy One Get One Free
          to the more sophisticated free trials, introductory offers,
                   and 50% off your main meal (excluding drinks and starters)
I could almost start to convince myself
          that there is indeed such a thing as a free lunch!

But of course, it doesn’t work that way.
          And whist there are some great offers our there
          there’s always a catch, somewhere along the line…
Someone, somewhere, is going to try and make some money from me
          if I respond to these invitations to temptation.

And it’s always been the case, hasn’t it,
          that you get nuffin for nuffin?

At least, that’s what we’ve always been warned…

So, you can imagine the surprise of the ancient Israelites,
          when the prophet in Babylon
suddenly started calling out in the market place,
          inviting them to come buy without money,
          to eat without payment!

The normal market stall holders’ cries of,
‘Roll up, roll up, for the bargain of the century!’
‘Cheap at half the price!’
‘Buy today, gone tomorrow!’

Were suddenly overshadowed,
          by the prophet’s invitation to buy without money.

As Eugene Petersen paraphrases it:

1-5 "Hey there! All who are thirsty,
   come to the water!
Are you penniless?
   Come anyway—buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
   Buy without money—everything's free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
   your hard-earned cash on candy floss?
Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
   fill yourself with only the finest.

This was the unexpected cry of the prophet of the Lord
          to the Jews in the market place of Babylon
          some 540 years before the birth of Jesus

At this point in history, it has to be said,
things weren’t looking too good for the Jews:

Nearly 50 years earlier, the great, beautiful and lavish temple of Solomon
had been destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar
and the city of Jerusalem had been laid waste,
with its defensive walls reduced to rubble

The leaders of the people,
the politicians, the civil servants and the priests
had all been carted off into exile in Babylon,
                             where they had grown old and died,
leaving their children and grandchildren
                   with nothing but the memory of a now lost land, city and temple.

These words of our prophet, to come and buy without money
          came to a people who had lost everything.
They came to people who had had to struggle
          to make a new life for themselves
          in exile in Babylon.

The words of the prophet came to people
          who had no land, to people who couldn’t grow crops,
to people who had nowhere to graze their sheep and their goats.

These were people who knew full well that nothing comes from nothing,
          because they had lived with nothing for generations
          as an oppressed underclass in a foreign land.

In many ways, their situation is analogous
          to those in our own land
                   who have come here as asylum seekers,
          or those who have been brought here through duress or deception,
                   to work as economic slaves in shadow-industries
                   such as the sex trade, or other unregulated labour markets.

It matters not one bit if you were a doctor or a lawyer back home,
          whether you were a bright pupil at school, or the beauty queen of your town.
It matters not one bit whether you owned cars and houses and animals,
          or whether your parents loved you and wanted the best for you.

As an unregistered exile in a foreign land,
          you can’t work, you can’t earn, you can’t own,
          you are reliant on illegal work,
                             or on the charity of others,
                    to feed yourself, your family, and your children.
And you are always under the threat of being declared illegal
          and imprisoned and deported.

Imagine how an invitation
          to come and eat without cost, or to buy without money
would sound to such exiles in our world,
and you get some idea
          of how the prophet’s words sounded to the ancient Jews
                   living in exile in Babylon.

Into their hopeless situation
          the prophet of the Lord dared to declare words of hopeful invitation.
Into their poverty
          his message of food for the hungry and water for the thirsty
          would have seemed like an impossible pipe-dream,
                   like a fantasy incapable of fulfilment.

And yet, the prophet declares that these are the words of the Lord,
          and he says that the invitation he is issuing comes not from him,
                   but from the Lord God himself.

This message of hope in hopelessness
          is not some idle daydream of wish-fulfilment,
but an invitation from the Living God
          to experience life differently.

And as such it is one which cannot simply be dismissed
          as the hopeful ramblings of a hopeless dreamer.

The invitation to eat without cost, to drink freely of water,
          points the exiles to a hopeful future;
to a time when once again they will be restored to their land,
          when they will have the freedom to plant crops and to harvest them,
          freedom to own sheep and goats, and to graze them on their own fields

It points, in other words, to the end of exile.

The prophet is saying to people who have lost hope,
          under the oppression of the evil empire,
that the empire will not have this power over them forever,
          and that one day God’s freedom will come to them.

And, of course, from a historical point of view,
          this is exactly what happened.
The exile in Babylon ended shortly after these words were spoken,
          as the new king Cyrus allowed the displaced people
          to return to their land, and to rebuild their temple.

But the prophet’s words don’t just point to a hopeful future,
          they aren’t simply words of comfort for the afflicted,
          a promise of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.

You see, they also spell out the responsibility
          which the people of God must take in the here-and-now
          for all those who find themselves exiled and enslaved.

The prophet continues:

Pay attention, come close now,
   listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I'm making a lasting covenant commitment with you,
   the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
I set him up as a witness to the nations,
   made him a prince and leader of the nations,
And now I'm doing it to you:
   You'll summon nations you've never heard of,
and nations who've never heard of you
   will come running to you
Because of me, your God,
   because The Holy of Israel has honored you."
 6-7Seek God while he's here to be found,
   pray to him while he's close at hand.
Let the wicked abandon their way of life
   and the evil their way of thinking.
Let them come back to God, who is merciful,
   come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.

The words of the prophet summon the people of God in all ages
          to take seriously what it means to be good news to all people.

Just as the Lord has summoned them to the good news of his kingdom
          by restoring them to their land
          where they can eat and drink together in freedom from slavery;
so also the people of God are to summon all the nations of the earth
          to join them in this journey from slavery to freedom,
          in this journey from Babylon to promised land.

This is not a gift from God to a select group of people,
          not a bit of it!

It is an invitation which God issues to his people,
          and which he expects them to then send out into the whole earth,
calling all peoples to join him in his kingdom of good news
          where the water of life is freely available
          and where bread is broken and shared by all who come to the table.

Five hundred years after the prophet in Babylon
          summoned the people of God to eat and drink freely
the food and water of the kingdom of God,
Another prophet in Israel repeated the challenge
          to take that good news and send it out into the whole world

Not in a market place, but on a hillside
          to a group of people who were far from home with no food to eat.

Our story this morning from Matthew’s gospel,
                   of Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of food,
          echoes the invitation to the exiles in Babylon,
                    because it, too, is a story of exodus from slavery.

When Matthew tells us of Jesus taking bread and fish, and blessing them,
          and using them to feed the hungry multitude on the hillside,
he invites us to remember the words of the prophet to the exiles,
          inviting them to eat and drink freely of that which comes from God.

But there is another layer of memory here too,
          as Matthew invites us to remember a different,
                   and even more ancient, story of freedom.

It’s not just Babylon that’s in view here, it’s also Egypt;
          where God’s people were enslaved for generations
          before being led by Moses through the wilderness,
                   on their journey from slavery to promised land.

We know this story well, as did the first readers of Matthew’s gospel:
          Moses led the children of Israel through the waters of the red sea,
                   and on into the inhospitable wilderness ,
          where they were fed with manna and quails (Ex 16, Num 11)
                   which fell to the earth in abundance,
                   but needed to be consumed that day, as they would go bad overnight.

Although we don’t really know what Manna was,
          and we can be fairly sure that quail are birds,
the Jewish tradition was to remember
          the manna as ‘bread’ from the ground (Deut 8.3),
          and the quail as food ‘from the sea’ (Wisd. 19.12).

And it’s here that we find a link with the bread and the fish
          that Jesus took and multiplied to feed the people on the mountain.

And like Moses, Jesus doesn’t work alone in his provision of sustenance
          to those who are in need of help.

The Old Testament book of numbers tells us that Moses asked the Lord,
          ‘Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?’
and that the Lord instructed him to commission 70 elders
          to share in his task, asking, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited?’ (Num. 11.13-17)

Jesus has an analogous conversation with his disciples,
          which similarly ends with him commissioning them
          to share in his work of feeding those who are hungry on the hillside.
He says to them,
          ‘the crowds need not go away, you give them something to eat’ (13.16).
And so the twelve disciples distribute the food,
          and collect twelve baskets of uneaten food at the end
          symbolising the fulfilment of God’s promise to the 12 tribes,
          that they shall eat their fill and bless the Lord their God (Deut 8.10).[1]

But Matthew’s story of bread and fishes on a hillside
          doesn’t just look back to the prophet in Babylon,
          it doesn’t just look back to the exodus from Egypt.
It also looks forwards,
          to a story that is told later in the gospel,
          which becomes a significant part of the life
                   of the community that Matthew was writing form,
          and which is still significant for our own community
                   gathered here in Bloomsbury today.

When the gospel comes to tell of Jesus final meal with his disciples,
          it speaks of him taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and distributing it (26.26).
When Christians gather, as we have this morning,
          to break bread, and share in it together,
we enact not just the last supper itself,
          but also all that comes before it.

The last supper that Jesus Shared with the disciples,
          was the Passover meal.
It was the meal at which the story was remembered and retold,
          of how the Lord led the people of Israel out of Egypt,
          through the wilderness, sustained by manna and quail,
          to the promised land.
The Passover meal was a meal of liberation,
          of celebration that slavery was ended.

 And Matthew wants his readers to realise
          that when they celebrate the Lord’s supper together,
they are aligning themselves with the great tradition of God’s people,
          a tradition stretching back through Babylon, wilderness, and Egypt,
a tradition of being a people of liberation.

The Lord’s supper is a meal of manumission,
          it is a eucharist of emancipation.
And those who celebrate it do so to receive the Spirit of Jesus,
          as the elders received the spirit of Moses.
As they eat together their compassion and commission are renewed,
          and they take upon themselves the call to feed the crowds,
          to invite those who are still enslaved
                   to join the final feast of freedom
                   that God is preparing for all peoples (Isa 25.6; Matt 8.11-12).[2]

So, where does this leave us, today,
          as we gather around the table of the Lord’s supper,
          having heard once again the stories of the marketplace in Babylon,
                   of the exodus from Egypt,
                             and of bread and fishes on a hillside in Palestine?

Well, firstly it strikes me that it is a matter of supreme irony
          that the current political nation defined as Israel
is involved in a systematic programme of destruction
          against another people group.
The people of slavery and oppression have become transposed,
          and the people of God should not ignore this.
Secondly, it makes me wonder whether slavery in some form
          is the inevitable end result of capitalism?
I find myself despairing at the seemingly inevitable commodification of humanity,
           where people are reduced to objects for trading, use, and abuse.
And I find myself wondering what this miracle of the fish and loaves
          might say to a world that is seduced by increasing consumption.
What happens when Jesus gives more than anyone needs?

What might happen if the people of God
          learn to care more for needs of the individual,
          than for the good of the market as a whole?

I wonder what it would do to our models
          of consumption, consumerism, and commodification,
if those who have received the Spirit of Christ
          were to echo in their lives
          the miraculous distribution of food on the hillside in Palestine.

I wonder what it would do to structures of subjugation
          and systems of societal oppression
if resources were to be shared,
          so that each received sufficient
          to free them from economic enslavement,
whilst those who have more than enough
          are freed from the consumerist compulsion
          to multiply their own stockpile ad infinitum.

But thirdly, we who are called to freedom
          cannot avoid that most difficult of questions:
                   Where is God in a time of slavery?

This is the question that so readily confronts those who are enslaved,
          and which is so readily avoided by those who are not.
It's all too easy to believe in God
          when everything is going your way.
But it is very hard to believe in God,
          or to know where he fits into the scheme of life,
when everything has gone wrong,
          when everything you thought you believed in,
                   every certainty that you hold dear,
          has been ripped away from you.

Where is God when there is nothing left?
          Where is God when people abuse you?
          Where is God when people defeat you?
          Where is God when people take you away from your home
                   and make you live in a foreign land
                   surrounded by those who seek only to do you harm?

This is the question of the exiles in Babylon, the question of the slaves in Egypt,
          and it is a question with the most surprising of answers.
Because God, it seems, is right there in the midst of it all,
          not turning his face from the horror and loneliness and terror,
                   not rising above such banalities,
          but entering into the depth of human suffering,
                   becoming at one with those who face death.

And out of this identification comes transformation.
          Death does not get the last word on life!
The cross is not the end,
          freedom is coming,

The one who goes to the cross
          is the same one who lifts up his hands to multiply the loaves,
          he is the same one who lifts up his voice
                   to invite outcasts and strangers to join him
                   at the table of the banquet of the kingdom of God.

Come, he says, come eat without cost,
          come, drink without charge.

How can this be?
          It is so because the people of God make it so.
We proclaim the in-breaking kingdom of God,
          and then we live as if it is so, until it is so.

There is good news in the gospel to those in slavery,
          and it is good news mediated
          through those of us who share the spirit of Christ.

The call on the people of God, on all of us who gather around this table today,
          is to repeat the task of Moses in the desert,
          to reiterate the message of the prophet in Babylon,
          to relive the multiplication of loaves and fishes in Palestine.

We are called to proclaim freedom for all,
          and to live that freedom into being by our lives.

So we campaign against injustice,
          and we join our voices with others
          that together we might make a compelling sound that cannot be ignored.
And we support those who work for peace and justice and reconciliation,
          as we become people who are passionate about people.
We resist the lie that one human life is worth more than another,
          as we learn to recognise the image of God in each created being.

So we come, we come to this table,
          we come to eat, to drink,
                   freely, and without charge.
We come to be changed, to be transformed,
          to become people of freedom,
                    people of liberation,
                             people of action.
We come to receive the spirit of Moses,
          to receive the Spirit of Christ,
                   to learn once again the words of the prophet in Babylon.

So come, to the table of the banquet of the kingdom of God.

[1] Roots Worship, 3 August 2014, p. 22
[2] Roots Worship, 3 August 2014, p. 22

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