March 13 was Freedom Sunday, an international effort by congregations around the world to raise awareness about the problem of human trafficking and organize efforts to oppose it around the world. Freedom Sunday coincides with the first Sunday of Lent in the western calendar for a reason. It was for freedom that Christ set us free, when we were slaves to sin and death, and our mighty Savior calls us to follow Him in pursuit of freedom for all.
At Saint Ann Chapel in Palo Alto, California, guest blogger Father Robert Kemp gave the following sermon:
2008 was a bad year for Berkeley, California. First, the City Council told Army Recruiters they were “unwelcome intruders” in a motion expelling the recruiters from the city. After 140 businesses threatened to leave the city and the Federal and State Legislative bodies took up measures revoking all Federal and State aid to the city, the City Counsel had to recant and publically admit that money is more precious than ideology. After that embarrassing debacle, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, the largest and wealthiest landlord in Berkeley, was released from prison. Lakireddy was caught in 2001 operating a sophisticated slave ring in the heart of Berkeley. Between 1986 and 2000 he smuggled between 25 and 100 Indians into the United States. Many of those imported were young women who were forced to work in Reddy’s prominent and well-liked restaurant Pasand Madaras Indian Cuisine for no pay while many others were forced to work as his concubines. Some of the biggest and loudest proponents of fair trade, equality and work-force liberation were served by slaves. Sadly, slavery is not extinct. Slavery did not end when English Parliament adopted the Slavery Abolition Act in August of 1833. Slavery did not end on January 1, 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation. Nor did slavery end on December 18th, 1865 when the 13th amendment prohibiting slavery was enacted. Slavery still exists, it exists in the United States, it exists in California and it exists in the Bay Area.
But why should we care? Why should we care when Albanian parents sell their 3 year old to buy a color television? Why should we care when 9 year old girls in Lima, Peru are bought by pimps and sold to highest bidder? Why should we care when 12 year old Cambodian girls are sold to businessmen who want to bring good luck on their new economic quests by having sex with a virgin? Why should we care when thousands of children in the Ivory Coast are forced to work in the cocoa fields to drive down production cost so that we can buy cheap chocolate? Why should we care when Cargill, a major cocoa importer, admitted it did not eliminate child slavery in its cocoa supply line because they did not have enough, and I quote ‘market incentive’ to do so? Why should I care when Nike pays a 10 year old pennies a day to make shoes, when it means that I can get a great deal on a new pair of running shoes? Why should I care when Nike admits to using child labor, but then says the problem is too difficult to stop. Why should we care that there are roughly 27 million slaves in the world today and that there are approximately 218 million exploited child laborers?
In the days of Isaiah, the Israelites did not care about the plight of the widow, the weak and the helpless, they did not care that slavery and prostitution were all too common; they did not care about justice. What is shocking is that while Israel turned a blind eye to injustice, they turned a microscope to worship. They became deeply concerned with getting worship right, with saying the right things at the right time, doing the appropriate actions at the appropriate time and offering the correct sacrifice in liturgical precision. In other words, they were just like the Pharisees who were so religious they forgot to love. In the midst of this religious lovelessness, Isaiah proclaimed that fasting was pointless if not accompanied by love that was actively seen in feeding the poor and weak. He told them worship was a waste of time if worship did not transform their hearts to love by breaking the chains of injustice. He told them sacrifices were bloody abominations if they did not out of love set the oppressed and enslaved free. Nor was Isaiah alone in this proclamation. Years earlier God told the Israelites through the prophet Amos
“I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
If we do not care about the 27 million slaves in the world, if our hearts are immune to love, then our worship is at best a waste of time and at worst, an abomination. We should care, because love demands it.
Does that make the church a mere social club for good works? Does that make the Christian a religiousified social worker? No, may it never be for those who champion the church as a social club for good works have a fundamental theological error, they believe God operates on a quid pro quo, if I do this, then God will do that. However, God, the one true God: Father, Son and Spirit, does not operate on a Quid pro Quo, he operates on a Quid pro Amor – This for Love. Everything that we do is originates from love. That is why St. Paul said
“If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
The point of worship is not to appease God, but become more like him through love, as St. John said,
“Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (I John 4: 7)
The point of worship is not entertainment, but the transformation of a loveless heart to a love giving heart. The point of breaking the yokes of the oppressed, the point of setting the captive free is not to simply do good deeds, it is to love others just as God the Father has loved us.
For we were once slaves; we were slaves to sin and the wages our slave master paid was death. Jesus, however, took our wage upon himself and purchased our freedom with his blood and through the death and resurrection of Jesus we have been set free and given the gift of life. Thus, a failure to love those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand to love of Jesus that accomplished our own salvation. A failure to lovingly take upon ourselves the cost to free those who are now enslaved is a failure to understand how much our freedom cost the Son of God. In other words, a failure to love in thought, word and deed the least of all people is a failure to love the greatest of all persons, Jesus Christ. Why should we care about the 27 million slaves in the world today? Because once we too were enslaved and while we were still enslaved, God loved us and sent his Son to purchase our freedom and now that we have been loved by God we are to shower this love upon others.
My dear Sisters and Brothers, there are two religious roads in life. One road is wide and smooth. It is the Quid pro quo road and it is the road of mere religious duty that demands nothing more than occasional piety and liturgical observance. It is the road that Isaiah and others warned not to take for it leads nowhere. The other road is narrow with steep switchbacks up to the pinnacles of life, but it also plunges into the darkest valleys. It is the road of love and it demands our life, our soul and our all, but in end it leads us into the presence of God. All those who walk on this road through faith are not alone, for they walk hand in hand with Jesus. It is not a road we can walk through our own strength, but the flesh and blood of Jesus will sustain our weary legs, his grace will upload our tired heads and his love will maintain our beating heart. Therefore, let us pray that through the grace of Jesus Christ, we will walk on this road of love and break the yokes of oppression that are enslaving our fellow brothers and sisters.
ALMIGHTY God, who hast created man in thine own image; Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil, and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice among men and nations, to the glory of thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.