Has anyone seen Sports Direct in the news this week? It’s been heavily criticised for the way it treats its workers here in the UK- timing them for going to the toilet, penalising them for sick days, paying less than the legal minimum wage. As a result of the media attention, Sports Direct have finally started to acknowledge some of the issues and have made a few small changes, although they’ve still got a long way to go.
But what about the goods sold by Sports Direct? It is highly likely that these goods are produced abroad. What do we know about the working conditions over there? Are the workers who make the clothes and shoes that we buy so cheaply and easily getting a fair deal? What is the environmental impact of the production line? However bad working practices are here in the UK, we know that they are even worse in the majority world. Just think of the horrific factory collapse in Bangladesh where goods like those sold by Sports Direct were created for us.
Sports Direct highlights so clearly that there is injustice and inequality built into the way that most businesses operate. But we can’t just blame big business without taking some responsibility ourselves – it’s our money that keeps those businesses going.
So what has God got to say about businesses like Sports Direct, and what should our response be?
Linda’s going to read from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 58: 1-10.
The Old Testament is filled with God’s call for righteousness, justice and equity, particularly economic justice. Isaiah and his fellow prophets strongly condemned those who exploited their workers, failing to pay them their wages, or cheated people with the weights when buying their bread. The Old Testament prophets’ call was for fairness, so that all might live together in harmony and peace. A few thousand years on, unfortunately nothing has changed – we still get it terribly wrong and God still cares deeply about it.
Isaiah became very unpopular because his messages were so difficult to hear – then and now. He challenged the people of God by reminding them what God wanted from them and for them – and highlighted the fact that they were getting it so very wrong.
Our reading from Isaiah is concerned with “True religion”. It was a given in Biblical times that God’s people would spend time praying and fasting. However this passage illustrates what God thinks of a fast that is insincere and merely for show. Fasting and praying usually go hand in hand, so this is a challenge to us in relation to our prayers too. We are reminded that it is not enough to just ask God about justice and enjoy worshipping and praying together on a Sunday – our actions must then live out those words. If we are praying and fasting but it is not leading us to: “remove the chains of the prisoners; free those who are abused; share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and the homeless and give clothes to those in need” (vs 6-7) then what’s the point? Our prayers are just empty words and God’s not interested in those.
Like it says in verse 3, it is easy to think only of ourselves – am I getting a good bargain? Is this something that is going to make my life better, “because I’m worth it!”?
You might also be thinking, “I don’t have workers, so how can I be abusing them?”
However, I wonder if you remember that about a year ago I challenged you to think of every pound you spend as a vote – a vote for the kind of world you think God wants. So if your pound is being spent in a selfish way, without thinking about the impact it is having on the workers who are at the end of the supply chain you’re financing, then is your vote really bringing about God’s kingdom?
So we can use our money to vote for a better world, but we also need to recognise the systemic injustices at the heart of many businesses. This is not meant to be an anti-business sermon. Globalisation is instrumental in lifting many, many people out of abject poverty. But it could do a lot, lot better – if all companies were like Traidcraft!
Since starting the Traidcraft stall you have spent over £1,800 and as a result you’ve raised £235 for our church, some of which has been spent on keeping the church tea and coffee supplies stocked with Traidcraft goods. I transferred £55 to the church last October and this year’s cheque is for £145.75 – well done!
Traidcraft are currently campaigning on the theme “Justice matters”, recognising that God cares passionately about issues of justice and poverty, and that justice should be at the heart of the way that businesses work, but often isn’t.
Traidcraft believes that poverty is when people are robbed of the ability to make choices for themselves – the choice for safe and clean water, the choice of an education, the choice of protection from abuse, the choice of medical care and more. Traidcraft does business in a way that gives people choices they wouldn’t have previously had – by paying them a fair wage; paying a Fair Trade premium which is often used to develop schools and healthcare facilities and by providing safe working conditions.
However, unlike Traidcraft, some irresponsible British companies are abusing or exploiting people around the world and getting away with it. What (we hope!) they would be punished for if they did it here, for example, toxic pollution, forced evictions and threatened violence, goes unpunished if they inflict these injustices abroad. Recognising this, Traidcraft also uses its knowledge and influence to campaign for systemic changes in other businesses that don’t yet work in such an ethical way.
By gathering thousands of signatures on their petition Traidcraft hope to influence a change in UK criminal law. That change will make it possible for big companies who are causing serious harm abroad to be prosecuted, as currently they get away with murder, quite literally at times.
As a church, I know we spend a lot of time praying about the injustices in our world, but can we do more to be part of the answers to those prayers? Some of the issues seem so huge we feel powerless to do anything, but even if it is only something small, you can use your actions to bring about God’s justice, one purchase at a time.
No-one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
Why does justice matter so much to God? We know the story of the Garden of Eden so well, but it is easy to forget in the busyness of everyday life that we are living in God’s good creation, and that we are made equal and in God’s image. What does it say about the sincerity of our prayer and fasting if we directly, or more likely indirectly, wreak havoc in God’s world?
Sarah is going to read to us from Matthew 10: 26-31.
This passage shows the value that God places on even a small, insignificant creature such as a sparrow. “God knows when one of them falls to the ground”. God loves the cheap and the dull, the common and the small, and sees our flight and fall in every moment.
Deep down everyone of us fears that no one loves us, sees our grief, or shares our aching doubt and heights of happiness. But we need not fear, because while all eyes might seem to be on the grand and great, God is looking with love on the little ones. When we are praying, this is the first thing to remember – “Don’t be afraid; we are worth much more than many sparrows.”
Jesus spent a lot of his time with the “sparrows” of his day, those who the world thought little of – the children, the outcasts, the downtrodden. He told them that God loved them deeply, illustrated by the image of God even counting the hairs on their heads! God wants to spend time with us, and wants us to open ourselves up to the intimacy of relationship of a beloved parent and child. We can come to God in prayer knowing that we are deeply loved by God.
We must remember, however, that references to sparrows are not just to be read as a parable explaining God’s love for us. The sparrows are loved by God for themselves. In a time when so many species are threatened or becoming extinct, the brown and the drab, the unexciting and the common need to be treasured by us as part of God’s creation. They are our neighbours too – and we are commanded to love them.
When we pray therefore we need to bring before God the sparrow – as parable and bird. This passage is an example of quite how much love God is capable of – far beyond our comprehension and human limitations. We need to open ourselves up to that love, and understand our intrinsic value in light of that, no matter what the world makes us feel. God’s love is limitless, and will permeate every aspect of our lives, if we let it.
But God’s heart breaks when a sparrow falls. God’s creation and God’s people are threatened by our actions or inactions. If we are made in the image of God, and are God’s hands and feet, our hearts should be breaking too. And our prayers should lead us into action to do what we can to value all sparrows as God does and campaign to bring God’s justice to our world.
Every year we find our time at Greenbelt inspires and re-energises us to continue the journey of loving the sparrows as God does. We went to the talk by Dr Eve Poole who always has very practical suggestions about how we can do this. She challenged us last year: if St Peter at the pearly gates asked you to show him your bank statement, what would it tell him about what you believed? She went one step further this year and challenged us to consider swapping our bank statements with other church members to start a conversation. If we are demanding that UK companies be held accountable for their actions, whether at home or abroad, should we also be encouraging transparency in our own transactions?
I’ve read that the Bible mentions money directly over 800 times and makes over 2,000 financial references. Yet talking about money in a personal, rather than just a hypothetical way, is still considered a taboo in church, let alone in wider society. How would you feel if you were asked to show your bank statement to someone? You might feel self-conscious, embarrassed or even self-righteous. Do we need to let the feelings that we experience at this idea challenge us to make any changes?
Dr Poole also, surprisingly asked us to consume more rather than less, but to make sure that we are consuming the right things. We should spend time thinking about the things we spend our money on, and make sure that they are not damaging God’s sparrows. Our hope for God’s kingdom should drive our desire for stuff, not a desire for stuff being the source of our hope – hope should drive our desires, not desires drive our hope.
The term I like to use, and you’re probably sick of me doing so!, is “conscious consuming”. Do a bit of research, think through the life-cycle of the product you are buying, think about what happens to it when you’ve finished with it – when we throw things “away”, where is away? I believe that the time spent thinking about these things can be considered a prayer – not asking God to tell us whether to buy something or not, but rather to try to discern God’s view of something – is the thing you are considering buying or investing in valuing the sparrows in the way that God would have them valued?
While Dr Poole, and I, think that the small changes that we can make in our own way of living are vital to our growth as consistent Christians – living out our faith in every action, a contrasting opinion at Greenbelt was given by Bill McKibben, the founder of the campaigning group 350.org. He challenged us with the idea that if 3% of the word’s population became vegan – a big increase on the current percentage – there would be very little real impact on carbon emissions in global terms. However, if even 3% of people became politically engaged and challenged the current status quo then we would be able to change the world. Relying on personal changes alone is now too little, too late – time is running out. For other human justice issues such as gender equality and voting rights, there has always been a feeling that “we’ll get there in the end” – but climate justice has a time limit, and that time limit is getting shorter and shorter.
This therefore brings us neatly back to Traidcraft: not only can you buy some lovely, ethically produced things from the stall after the service, but you can get involved with their campaign which will require companies to take responsibility for their actions, at home and abroad. Both will help to prevent the worst injustices inflicted on defenceless sparrows.
You’ll now be given one of Traidcraft’s campaigning postcards, and a pen if you need one. Spend a few moments chatting with your neighbour about what action you will take in response to what you’ve heard this morning. And as you read and complete the postcard, offer your signature as a prayer.
Or if you’re reading this on-line, you can sign the petition here.