Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Sermon to end Fairtrade Fortnight 2011

Lord Finchley tried to mend the electric light himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right! It is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan.

A rhyme by Hilaire Beloc may seem a rather flippant start to a serious sermon on fair trade, but actually Hilaire Belloc is expressing the same thought as the writer of Ecclesiasticus’s words that I read at the beginning of the service: “Do not cheat a poor person of his livelihood or keep him waiting with hungry eyes”.

Jesus also said that the labourer is worthy of his wages, but just as surely, in order to be worthy of those wages, the labourer must first be acknowledged to be worthy of a job. And it’s up to us, the ‘Lord Finchleys’ of today’s world, to use our comparative wealth to help provide opportunity and livelihoods for others. We are, after all, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Christians have always emphasized the importance of charity in helping to alleviate the lot of those worse off than we are. Traditionally, the concept has been that this would either involve donating money or, for those with the necessary talents and opportunity, rolling up your sleeves and getting down to work helping out in person. But there is another way: trade.

It’s a dirty word to some, trade. At one end of the political spectrum, the landed gentry always looked down on anything as grubby as commerce, while to those on the far left, trade, caricatured as capitalism, was the ultimate enemy.

But for a faith whose founder worked in the family business, this cannot be a Christian attitude. It is incumbent on us to use to the best of our ability those talents with which we’ve been blessed, to meet our own needs and help meet the needs of others. Just as important is the need to use those talents to ensure that all our brothers and sisters in Christ have the same opportunity. And that applies as much to us as a society as it does to us as individuals. The way we conduct our trade, the demands we make on poorer nations, are, ultimately, a matter of personal responsibility. And that is perfectly biblical – think of Jesus’ parable of the talents and the master’s rejection of the servant who hadn’t invested his money wisely.

Of course, a plea for more and fairer trade can be difficult particularly during the current recession with it’s deep worries about unemployment but, in fact, it is in our own interest as well as that of the producers. For if we buy developing world products, such as honey, the producers will have money and will in turn buy what we produce.

And, like honey, the benefit spreads even more widely. As a result of having money in their pockets, previously impoverished farmers have access to health care and education for their children, which not only increases the sum of human happiness, in the long term it will benefit every one of us. In the words of the adage: “Money is like manure; it works best when you spread it around.”

As an example of the mutual benefits that fair trade can bring, honey is an obvious choice. It is a product much in demand but, despite the recent expansion in bee- keeping as a hobby or a business here in the UK, we can only satisfy around 12 per cent of the domestic market from our own resources; we have to rely on beekeepers overseas for the rest.

The nectar gathered by bees is a sustainable natural resource, the exploitation of which has no detrimental environmental effects, indeed rather the opposite. And, after the initial comparatively modest outlays on training and equipment, bee-keeping is a skilled activity, producing a high-value product that people want to buy.

For the Christian, honey also has great symbolic resonance. “A land flowing with milk and honey” is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament, and it continues to the end of the New Testament. The angel’s word’s to John in Revelation 10 compares the words of the scroll of God’s message to it: “ your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.”
Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that Lent offers us the opportunity to take time to reflect with Jesus in the wilderness on our fallen world, to decide what words and principles we will live by, to face our temptations and to determine how we will repent and respond.
Today’s world is one of gross unfairness, where half the world’s people live in poverty – despite there being enough for all.

The rich world’s refusal of restraint and the temptation to put our material comfort before godliness are part of the problem. We have created an unfair global trading system that allows us to enjoy cheap clothes and food but causes others to suffer (see section on cotton subsidies).

But God wills life and offers the healing power of repentance. And we, by grace and following Christ’s example, can reject temptation. One way is through Fairtrade, which is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Its purpose is to create opportunities for producers and workers who have been economically disadvantaged or marginalized by the conventional trading system. Fairtrade is good news – and a way we can respond practically to our hurting world. It is our duty as Christians to apply that sweet message of God’s love practically to ensure His whole world flows with milk and honey and not just our small corner of it. Amen.

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