St John’s, Tolpuddle
Sunday 2nd July 2017
Romans 6.12 -23; Matthew 10.40-43
We often think that the world in which the Bible is written is far away from ours. Paul’s talk in our passage to the Romans today is of slavery, which seems far from us today sitting here in this church. It’s not a concept that we live with as part of our daily life. Or is it?
The International Labour Organisation (a UN agency) estimates that there are nearly 21 million people in our world today living as modern-day slaves. Unlike in the times when St Paul was writing, they are largely hidden from us in rural Dorset, but that doesn’t mean to say that even here it’s not happening.
There are six types of modern slavery that are normally recognised:
Child labour, bonded labour, forced labour, forced marriage, descent-based slavery and sexual slavery.
Just imagine how life would be, if we were subject to such conditions.
There are many stories of people who experience such lives. Here are stories of just two:
Danielle was trafficked from Lithuania at the age of 15. She says that before this time she was happy with her family and friends.
One of her friends was contacted by a woman she didn’t know and offered a job in a bar in London during the summer holidays. The friend asked Danielle to go with her and she agreed, because she wanted some extra money. Danielle was asked to travel with a man to the UK.
Danielle and her friend were met at the airport by some Albanian men, and a
Lithuanian woman who handed £3,500 to the man who had travelled with her.
At this point Danielle realised she had been sold and wanted to escape, but she didn’t know anyone in England and didn’t speak English. She was taken to Birmingham and told she’d be living in a flat with the Albanian man who had bought her.
He repeatedly raped and beat her, then took her to a brothel and told her she had to have sex with customers. Danielle was too terrified to refuse.
One of the other girls working there gave her a short skirt and low-cut top and said she had to wear them. ‘Don’t think about trying to escape,’ she said. ‘Wherever you try to run they will find you.’
The customers were English. She believes that clients could see that she was distressed but none of them ever offered to help.
Theo was one of 54 Greek Roma gypsies, including 10 women, rescued from a flower farm in Penzance, Cornwall.
Local ‘fixers’ had promised them expenses, food, proper flats and a choice to leave if they didn’t like the work, for £34 a day. Instead they were housed in a barn with no heating or proper plumbing. As food, they shared cans of dog food.
Those who were paid earned six pence per bunch of a dozen handpicked stems for their part in the £50million annual daffodil harvest. However, the gang-master refused to pay others, claiming they were in his debt for the costs of bringing them from Greece.
When they tried to escape the gang-master sent in heavies who beat them up with sticks and threatened at gunpoint to keep them working before they finally managed to escape. The daffodils were supplied to a company who was providing the flowers for sale in
major UK supermarkets.
Not so far from home.
The definition of someone in slavery is if they are:
forced to work – through coercion, or mental or physical threat;
owned or controlled by an ’employer’, through mental or physical abuse or the threat of abuse;
dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’;
physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.
Not all the slaves at the time of St Paul were abused, but they were certainly treated as property and controlled by their employer. They were dependent on their slavery for their existence.
As regards our Bible passage today, it is the lack of control over one’s life that is key. But let’s notice that Paul is offering not freedom from slavery, but a choice between two different types of slavery – you’re either a slave to sin, he says, which leads to death or you are a slave to righteousness which leads to life. Baptised Christians are no longer slaves to sin, but now enslaved to God.
There is a difference – we have a choice in our slavery. We can choose to be released from the slavery of sin and be enslaved to God – but it is a choice.
It’s one or the other. They are mutually exclusive.
Jane Williams says this: “Paul has no time for spirituality as a lifestyle choice. Choice is certainly involved, but Paul is clear that your choices shape you so completely that slavery is the only appropriate description of the relationship between you and what you have chosen.
“Most of us in the privileged West, most of the time, treat our choices as ephemeral – after all, we can always choose again. But Paul is arguing strongly against that kind of free-market spirituality and theology. Every time you chose in favour of one thing, you choose against another. What you choose today becomes your master. It directs and controls you, as surely as if you were branded and wore an iron hoop around your ankle.”
Making a choice against sin and for God is a complete turnaround in one’s life.
We know how easy it is to give into temptation, and how it can grip us once we have crossed the boundary.
Think of a few examples: the married man who holds out against having an affair, but who once he strays from the marital bed finds the excitement exhilarating and the secrecy exciting, and carries on breaking the marital vows. It was the first time that was hardest, but once that barrier was knocked down, it became easier and easier.
Or the addict, who tries their first joint for a bit of fun, but once they’ve tried drugs experiences the pull of wanting a better high so moves onto harder ones and then is caught up in the cycle of highs and lows and needing a fix.
Or the person who comes home and has a glass of wine each night to relax after work, but who goes through a bad time, and the one glass turns into two and then three, and then the whole bottle, and before they know it they can no longer function without a drink.
Once we get drawn into patterns and cycles it is so much harder to escape and we become slaves to the very thing it is we have previously managed to avoid or use sparingly, whether that be sex, drugs, alcohol, or other things like rudeness, selfishness, flashing the cash, whatever the temptation is.
When we choose these things regularly, there comes a point when we’re no longer making a choice because they have mastery over us.
The thing about sin is that it is more than just breaking a moral or ethical code. It’s about harming a trusting relationship with God. And the only thing that can really remove us from the slavery to sin is an even stronger passion for God.
It is only this that can make a difference, for as Paul says there are only two choices – enslavement to sin or enslavement to righteousness.
When we are baptised, we are choosing to make God our Master, but although the final battle is already for won for those who are in Christ, there is a constant realigning ourselves with Him, and a reminder that the easiest way to resist sin is to deepen our faith and trust in God.
And just like with temptation, when the more we are tempted the easier it is to be tempted again, with God the more we turn to God to help us resist temptation, the easier it will become to do that, until it is our second nature.
Every time we seek God’s forgiveness, we are strengthening our trust in him, and the more we do that the more natural a response it becomes, and the more we realise that slavery to righteousness is what brings true freedom.
 Jane Williams: Lectionary Reflections: Years A, B & C (SPCK 2011) p. 87