A sermon for evensong.
Isaiah 40.1-11; Luke 1.1-25
Today is St Nicholas’ Day, and I have good news and bad news. The good news is that St Nicholas is the origin of Christmas stockings. The bad news is that if you wanted St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, to fill your stocking you should have put it by the chimney last night! The tradition of St Nicholas filling a stocking began when Nicholas put gold into the shoe of a girl (and later of her two sisters) who was to be sold in order to pay her father’s debts. Not for nothing is St Nicholas the patron saint of prostitutes.
Yesterday, before going to the choirs concert focussed around St Nicholas, I spent the day at the Chesterfield Modern Slavery Conference. Bishop Alastair had called the conference to highlight an issue that he has spent a lot of his time working on recently, culminating with the passing of the Modern Slavery Act earlier this year. We heard from Stop the Traffick about the worldwide situation, and from Derbyshire Police about the local situation. We heard too from someone who works with the victims of trafficking about the effects it has on people caught up in this.
We may think that slavery was abolished in the 18th Century following the work of William Wilberforce and others, but slavery continues in our world today. In fact, more people are enslaved today than ever before across the world. Worldwide an estimated 27 million people are kept as slaves. But this is not something that only happens elsewhere. In the UK, the government estimates that over 10,000 people are enslaved each year. Modern slavery is the second most profitable criminal industry, and it carries much less risk for criminals involved. It can take a variety of forms: domestic servitude, forced crime, drug trade, benefit fraud, organ harvesting, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and forced labour. St Nicholas would recognise the need to prevent young women being sold into prostitution. He would, I think, be horrified by the way in which slavery has expanded and grown.
Slavery is also a local issue. Derbyshire police estimate around 500 people are held as slaves in this county. They are found in all parts of the county, urban and rural; villages, city and market towns. They are found in prostitution, cannabis growing, domestic servitude, nail bars, car washes, agriculture, factories and more. Modern slavery is not something from which we can isolate ourselves. It is something that is on our doorstep. The way in which our world works means that we are all involved in this. From where our food comes from, to the metals and components of electronic devices, slavery can be part of what we use every day in our lives. There is a calculator online so that you can discover the likely number of people in slavery that are involved in producing the things we use on a daily basis. I was horrified to discover that there are 54 people enslaved to produce what I use. St Nicholas is needed more today that ever.
“Comfort, O comfort, my people” says Isaiah in the first lesson this evening. Comfort, you may think, is what the preacher ought to bring. So far I have brought little comfort, only disturbance. Comfort, of course, is needed most by those suffering as slaves. It is in bringing comfort to them that we may find our comfort. So let me suggest three ways in which we can bring comfort to those enslaved today. The first is to support charities involved in work with those who have been trafficked or enslaved. Stop the Traffick is one, the Salvation Army are another.
The second, which affects many of the issues world wide, is to buy fairtrade products. 1.25 million children are enslaved in the production of cocoa in Africa, buying fairtrade chocolate means that those involved in that business are not enslaved. The same is true of tea production. As someone who loves both tea and chocolate, this is another reason to buy fairtrade.
The third, and this is more difficult, is to be aware of the prevalence of slavery today. Slavery is largely hidden, and there is a great Advent theme of bringing the things hidden in darkness into the light of God’s truth. Why not find out how many slaves worked to produce your lifestyle using online tool – you can find it at slaveryfootprint.org. Learn to ask the questions about how things are made. If you work in a business, ask about the supply chains for what comes into your work. And learn to spot the signs of poorly paid, uncared for workers, in the streets, nail bars and car washes of Derby and Derbyshire.
Support charities, buy fairtrade chocolate and tea, and become more aware of the issues. Three ways in which we can begin to challenge the scandal of slavery in our world today. Three ways in which we can emulate St Nicholas and bring comfort to those bought and sold today.
“Comfort, O comfort my people” says God to Isaiah. He also tells him to “Cry out”. May our cries bring comfort to those enslaved, and may the Lord come with justice for all who are exploited.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
First given at Derby Cathedral 6.12.15.