Is the heavenly city a Fairtrade town?

February 28, 2010

(Philippians 3, 17- 4.1; Luke 13, 31-35)

If you go on a TV quiz show these days, it seems you have to provide a lot of trivial information about yourself, which the host of the show will use in conversation with you; things like your favourite music, what is your best point, and where is your favourite place to be. I was amazed when a contestant on Countdown recently said her favourite place was Las Vegas. I’ve never been there, but from what I’ve seen of it on TV it seems like a very artificial city, full of rather grotesque hotels pretending to be something they’re not, and casinos and wedding chapels, sitting in the middle of a desert.

If you’d asked a Jew of the Biblical era where their favourite place was, I’m sure a lot of them would have said ‘Jerusalem’. That city and particularly its temple, became the focus of all Jewish hopes for the future, centred on their vision of an ideal society under the rule of God. They imagined it would be so wonderful that all the nations of the world would be drawn to it, and would worship the one true God there, and from there the people of God would rule the world. Towards the end of the New Testament period, as we see from the Book of Revelation, they imagined that the final triumph of God would be marked by a renewal of Jerusalem, when a heavenly city would come down from heaven to replace it, and God himself, or Christ as his regent, would rule, and the faithful remnant would inhabit it.

That is the reason why the prophets were so hard on Jerusalem, and constantly criticised its people and its leaders when they fell short of the standards expected of a ‘holy’ city. We need to remember that ‘holy’ did not actually mean pious or religious – it meant something set aside for the exclusive service of God. As Jesus remarks in our Gospel reading, not only did Jerusalem fail to see itself as a city set aside to serve God, it often refused even to listen to God, persecuting the prophets who spoke in God’s name when their message was unwelcome and disturbed their comfortable existence.

Inhabitants of the city (and its counterpart in Northern Israel, Samaria) were similarly criticised in the Old Testament, for believing that so long as they maintained worship in the Temple and performed the right rituals, God would always support them. The prophets, and especially those of the 8th century, (whose words were so often reflected in what Jesus said) Amos, Hosea, Micah and First Isaiah, proclaimed in God’s name that faithfulness to the covenant was not demonstrated by ritual (attending church in our terms)  but by social justice. They argued that true faithfulness to God involved care for the widows, the children and the vulnerable alien; justice for the poorest without resort to bribery; and trading without cheating or exploitation. Micah famously proclaimed, “What does the Lord require of you? Do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”.  Because they would not change their ways, these prophets proclaimed, the cities would be besieged, occupied and destroyed and their citizens taken into exile – and so they were.

It is interesting to note that the Jews began as a nomadic, pastoral people, who settled and turned to agriculture, and only then became city dwellers; and that there was always a tension between the city elite and the country dwellers, who felt they were somehow closer to God than those who lived in a city and whose lives were ruled by commercial considerations. At the beginning of the Old Testament, the vision of the ideal place where God lived and human beings lived uncorrupt lives was rural – a garden, full of wild animals living at peace with each other, with trees and water. Punishment for evil was to be expelled from this Paradise.

Yet, by the end of the New Testament, the vision of the perfect place where God lived was a city: the heavenly city described in the book of Revelation is a renewed Jerusalem with buildings made of gold and glass and precious stones; and nothing evil will be allowed to exist within it. The values of both the paradise garden and heavenly city were the same.

It is to this vision of perfect urban life that Paul refers in his letter to the Christians at Philippi. Though they may live in an earthly city, and as citizens of the earthly Roman Empire, their true home, he tells them, is the heavenly city, and that is where the values they live by must come from.

Just like the Old Testament prophets, he criticises those who put their own prosperity and their own physical comfort first. The people who follow Christ, he says, must live sacrificial lives, as Christ did, putting the needs of others before their own, and being prepared to sacrifice everything that worldly considerations value highly in order to achieve the reward of life in the heavenly city.

We also live in a society which has moved away from a predominantly rural economy into an urban one. We have moved one step on from the people whom the prophets and Jesus and Paul criticised so forcefully, into a world economy, where our food and provisions don’t usually come from the rural areas of our own country, but from all around the world. But the warnings of the 8th century prophets still apply. The tea, coffee and sugar producers of the third world are those whom Isaiah warns us we have to care for, if our fine houses and  economic systems are not to collapse. The indigenous inhabitants of the rain forests are those we have to defend against multinationals who seek to take their land by corrupt means and bribery of governments, if our world is not to suffer disastrous climate change and loss of species. The exploited underclass of every nation are the people God will favour over those who rely on material possessions for security.

Amos chapter 8 has words which seem to be addressed directly to the trade rules of our own time: Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country.  You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers.  We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We’ll find someone poor who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave.”  The Lord, the God of Israel, has sworn, “I will never forget their evil deeds. The time is coming when I will make the sun go down at noon and the earth grow dark in daytime. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. 10 I will turn your festivals into funerals and change your glad songs into cries of grief. I will make you shave your heads and wear sackcloth, and you will be like parents mourning for their only child. That day will be bitter to the end.”

But all the Old Testament prophets couple their messages of condemnation with a message of hope. Even as they criticise  the failure of the leaders and traders and consumers of Israel, they affirm God’s love for the same people, his persistent desire for them to change, and the promise of a renewed and happy future if they will return to the standards of the covenant, the ways of the heavenly city. Jesus too, follows his criticism of Jerusalem with an expression of his love for the city and a promise that any destruction will be temporary, and a restoration will come.

For those of us who believe we are citizens of the heavenly city, living in today’s world may feel like we are in exile, and that we our powerless to do anything the change the ways of the world. But we have power and we have choice, however limited.  The Fairtrade fortnight is a reminder to us of the power we have as consumers. The choices we make can be governed by our own comfort and desires and by the wish to maintain our own way of life, regardless of the effects that has on others with less power than us; or we can exercise our choices, when possible, as citizens of the heavenly city, with the interests of the vulnerable placed first.

The Fairtrade directory which has been handed out at the beginning of this service and which is available at the back of church tells you all you need to know about Fairtrade, how little changes in your consumer choices can make a major difference to the lives of people you will never meet, and how you can help to change the world into something that is nearer than it is now to Paradise or the heavenly city.

It tells you about the mechanism of Fair trade, how it affects the most vulnerable producers, how it helps to preserve sometimes fragile environments and how the Fairtrade Premium helps to better the social conditions of the world’s poorest people through paying for sanitation, education and health care.

It tells you stories like that of James Adiyah, so you can put a face and a name to the anonymous poor your actions are helping. James lives in Ghana and grows cocoa that is used in Divine Fairtrade Chocolate. He has a pair of glasses he calls his Fairtrade glasses – because he wouldn’t have been able to afford them if he hadn’t been working in a Fairtrade company. Because of his glasses he can still read, although his sight is failing. Because he gets a fair income for what he produces, he could afford to send his children to school and university.

The directory tells you where you can buy Fairtrade produce (though the easiest option for many of the items you may want is to patronise our Fairtrade stall in the church hall after the service). It’s not just small independent shops or charities that do so: Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, the Co-op. Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco all stock Fairtrade food, juices and some of them also sell clothing and cosmetic items. All you have to do is seek them out, make ‘The Big Swap’ from your usual brand (which is a major theme of this year’s Fairtrade  Fortnight), or if they don’t stock what you want and you know there is a Fairtrade supply available, ask, ask, and ask again until they do stock it.

Easter is approaching. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every Easter egg given by a member of this congregation was made from fairly traded chocolate?

We don’t yet live in the heavenly city. Our world has got a long way to go before it comes any where near the vision which the prophets and Paul and Jesus proclaimed God’s final triumph would bring. Yet in our minds and in our actions we can try to live in that heavenly Jerusalem, and promoting trade justice is one simple way we can do that.

For I believe, without any doubt, the heavenly city is a Fairtrade town!

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