Reflection – 24 April 2022

Here’s my reflection for Sunday 24 April.

Wherever you are in the world you can join in with the worship using this link to Zoom – https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84890359132 – worship starts at 11.00 British Summer Time (GMT+1).

Mark

Order of Service – 24 April 2022

Call to worship – based on Psalm 119


The Word of God is planted in our hearts.

May our hearts be receptive to the Word.

The Love of God rains down on us.

May our souls soak in the wonder of God’s love.

The Breath of God blows softly within us.

May our minds be stirred by the power of God’s spirit.

Let’s sing our first hymn. A really traditional hymn for a change. Thou whose almighty word

Thou, whose almighty word
chaos and darkness heard,
and took their flight;
hear us, we humbly pray,
and, where the Gospel day
sheds not its glorious ray,
let there be light!

Thou who didst come to bring
on thy redeeming wing
healing and sight,
heal to the sick in mind,
sight to the in-ly blind,
now to all humankind,
let there be light!

Spirit of truth and love,
life-giving holy Dove,
speed forth thy flight!
Move on the waters’ face
bearing the gifts of grace,
and, in earth’s darkest place,
let there be light!

Holy and blessèd Three,
glorious Trinity,
Wisdom, Love, Might;
boundless as ocean’s tide,
rolling in fullest pride,
through the world far and wide,
let there be light!

Let us Pray

O Still Speaking God,

throughout history and the wide world

you have gathered people around your Word

to instruct and inspire. 

We give thanks for all

who have received your vision

and shaped diverse and faithful communities

to follow in your Way.

Continue to open that vision to us,

that we may become transformed

by the renewing of your Word in our hearts.

Enable us to grow in love and understanding for each other .

Create in us, O God, clean hearts and minds;

Let us join with you in your suffering and your triumph.         

We desire to be your children and

we claim these blessings in your name. 

Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

Quiz – answers at the end

1Who wrote the anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’? 
2Who was the leader of the Slave revolt in Rome in the first century BC? 
3What is the most famous hymn written by John Newton, a former slave ship captain? 
4What did a galley slave do? 
5What was the title of Alex Haley’s 1976 book about the slave Kunta Kinte? 
6Which singer had a hit with ‘Slave to Love’ in 1985? 
7Who directed the 1997 film about a slave ship ‘Amistad’? 
8For which city was abolitionist William Wilberforce MP? 
9What was the title of the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2014? 
10What was the name of the slave trader whose statue was torn down and pushed into Bristol harbour in 2020? 

Finally, nearly 2 months into our theme for the quarter I’m going to talk about something appropriate to the theme.

My excuse is that I’ve only done 2 services so far and one was on Mothering Sunday and one on Palm Sunday.

Anyway better late than never.

I remember that when Martin first spoke on the theme (and he has grasped the nettle on two meaty issues – the role of women and attitudes to homosexuality)  – before he spoke on these he said something about his attitude to the Bible.

I’m going to try and do the same thing now. I think I might go a little bit further in my what might be considered unorthodox approach than Martin did.

I’ve always been a rebel.

But I don’t think any of it will come as a shock to you if you’ve been listening to me over the last few years.

The first thing to say is that the Bible is a very useful book for a Christian. It contains lots of things that are the fruit of a great deal of thinking about what God is all about – things that were thought about by many people over hundreds of years.

But

  • The Bible isn’t a verbatim record of what God dictated to the people who wrote it – It can’t be because there are lots of contradictions in it;
  • So it’s the product of people – human beings wrote it down. I’ve no doubt whatever that everyone who wrote these texts that ultimately ended up in what we call the Bible did so in the best possible faith and that they committed their thinking to writing because to them it revealed something of God at the time they wrote it;
  • It’s wrong to think about the Bible in terms like – it’s infallible – it’s all literally true. One reason is that some of the types of writing, the poetry of the psalms, the parables of Jesus for example aren’t the sort of writings that can be literally true. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn wonderful things from them but saying that a poem, for example is true is what’s known as a category error;
  • One thing I refuse to believe because it makes no sense at all is that once the people who wrote the New Testament books put down their pens that put an end to everything we need to know about God. Thousands of new books about Christianity are published every year. It’s perfectly Ok to have new thoughts about God in 2022 and – shock horror – some of these thoughts might be different from what people were thinking 20 centuries ago.

Today I want us to try and think through some of these things by looking at another controversial subject.

Or what was once a controversial subject.

The things that Martin spoke about are still the subject of debate in the churches of 21st century Britain. You’ll find arguments on both sides on the issues on the role of women and on homosexuality. But the topic I’ve chosen today is I think a settled issue.

As you might have guessed from the Quiz it’s slavery.

I would most fervently hope that there’s no one in this room who would defend the practice of slavery, nor in any UK church.

It’s not that slavery has gone away of course – every year we hear stories about the exploitation of people who have their freedoms taken away by people who they work for, who are exploited for sex, or who are forced into acting as drug couriers. Over 10,000 cases a year are report in this country.

But no right-thinking person, let alone Christian, would argue that slavery is OK as a concept. Would they?

But let’s turn the clock back. Quite a long time back – to the Nineteenth Century. The transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807 – but the issue of slavery burned on and it was, of course, the fundamental cause of the American Civil War in the 1860s.

People then were using biblical arguments both to condemn and to support Slavery.

What I’d like you to do is this. Read the Bible texts below. They’re in 2 sets – A and B.

Then think about how you could use the texts in A to argue in favour of Slavery. And then how you could use the texts in B to argue against it.

24 April 2022 – Bible Passages Set A

Leviticus 25: 39-53

39 If any Israelites living near you become so poor that they sell themselves to you as a slave, you shall not make them do the work of a slave. 40 They shall stay with you as hired workers and serve you until the next Year of Restoration. 41 At that time they and their children shall leave you and return to their family and to the property of their ancestors. 42 The people of Israel are the Lord’s slaves, and he brought them out of Egypt; they must not be sold into slavery. 43 Do not treat them harshly, but obey your God. 44 If you need slaves, you may buy them from the nations around you. 45 You may also buy the children of the foreigners who are living among you. Such children born in your land may become your property, 46 and you may leave them as an inheritance to your children, whom they must serve as long as they live. But you must not treat any Israelites harshly.

47 Suppose a foreigner living with you becomes rich, while some Israelites become poor and sell themselves as slaves to that foreigner or to a member of that foreigner’s family. 48 After they are sold, they still have the right to be bought back. A brother 49 or an uncle or a cousin or another close relative may buy them back; or if they themselves earn enough, they may buy their own freedom. 50 They must consult the one who bought them, and they must count the years from the time they sold themselves until the next Year of Restoration and must set the price for their release on the basis of the wages paid hired workers. 51-52 They must refund a part of the purchase price according to the number of years left, 53 as if they had been hired on an annual basis. Their master must not treat them harshly. 54 If they are not set free in any of these ways, they and their children must be set free in the next Year of Restoration. 55 Israelites cannot be permanent slaves, because the people of Israel are the Lord’s slaves. He brought them out of Egypt; he is the Lord their God.

Deuteronomy 15:12-18

12 “If any Israelites, male or female, sell themselves[a] to you as slaves, you are to release them after they have served you for six years. When the seventh year comes, you must let them go free. 13 When you set them free, do not send them away empty-handed. 14 Give to them generously from what the Lord has blessed you with—sheep, grain, and wine. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God set you free; that is why I am now giving you this command.

16 “But your slave may not want to leave; he may love you and your family and be content to stay. 17 Then take him to the door of your house and there pierce his ear; he will then be your slave for life. Treat your female slave in the same way. 18 Do not be resentful when you set slaves free; after all, they have served you for six years at half the cost of hired servants.[b] Do this, and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

Philemon 1:8-20

For this reason I could be bold enough, as your brother in Christ, to order you to do what should be done. But because I love you, I make a request instead. I do this even though I am Paul, the ambassador of Christ Jesus, and at present also a prisoner for his sake.[a] 10 So I make a request to you on behalf of Onesimus, who is my own son in Christ; for while in prison I have become his spiritual father. 11 At one time he was of no use to you, but now he is useful[b] both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him back to you now, and with him goes my heart. 13 I would like to keep him here with me, while I am in prison for the gospel’s sake, so that he could help me in your place. 14 However, I do not want to force you to help me; rather, I would like for you to do it of your own free will. So I will not do anything unless you agree.

15 It may be that Onesimus was away from you for a short time so that you might have him back for all time. 16 And now he is not just a slave, but much more than a slave: he is a dear brother in Christ. How much he means to me! And how much more he will mean to you, both as a slave and as a brother in the Lord!

17 So, if you think of me as your partner, welcome him back just as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19 Here, I will write this with my own hand: I, Paul, will pay you back (I should not have to remind you, of course, that you owe your very self to me.) 20 So, my brother, please do me this favor for the Lord’s sake; as a brother in Christ, cheer me up!

1 Corinthians 7:20-24

20 Each of you should remain as you were when you accepted God’s call. 21 Were you a slave when God called you? Well, never mind; but if you have a chance to become free, use it.[d] 22 For a slave who has been called by the Lord is the Lord’s free person; in the same way a free person who has been called by Christ is his slave. 23 God bought you for a price; so do not become slaves of people. 24 My friends, each of you should remain in fellowship with God in the same condition that you were when you were called.

24 April 2022 – Bible Passages Set B

Leviticus 19:33-34

33 “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. 34 Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Isaiah 58:3-6

The people ask, “Why should we fast if the Lord never notices? Why should we go without food if he pays no attention?”

The Lord says to them, “The truth is that at the same time you fast, you pursue your own interests and oppress your workers. Your fasting makes you violent, and you quarrel and fight. Do you think this kind of fasting will make me listen to your prayers? When you fast, you make yourselves suffer; you bow your heads low like a blade of grass and spread out sackcloth and ashes to lie on. Is that what you call fasting? Do you think I will be pleased with that?

“The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. 

Matthew 24: 34-40

34 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together, 35 and one of them, a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him with a question. 36 “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and the most important commandment. 39 The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ 40 The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Pause for a while before moving on

Let’s have some music that became an anthem for the American Civil Rights movement. We shall overcome

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, someday

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday

We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand, today

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday

We are not afraid
We are not afraid
We are not afraid, today

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday

I want you to read a Bible story now

Genesis 9:18-27

Noah and His Sons

18 The sons of Noah who went out of the boat were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These three sons of Noah were the ancestors of all the people on earth.

20 Noah, who was a farmer, was the first man to plant a vineyard. 21 After he drank some of the wine, he became drunk, took off his clothes, and lay naked in his tent. 22 When Ham, the father of Canaan, saw that his father was naked, he went out and told his two brothers. 23 Then Shem and Japheth took a robe and held it behind them on their shoulders. They walked backward into the tent and covered their father, keeping their faces turned away so as not to see him naked. 24 When Noah sobered up and learned what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“A curse on Canaan!
He will be a slave to his brothers.
26 Give praise to the Lord, the God of Shem!
Canaan will be the slave of Shem.
27 May God cause Japheth[a] to increase!
May his descendants live with the people of Shem!
Canaan will be the slave of Japheth.”

Now this text was one of the main ones used to justify slavery by the Christian Slaveholders and in particular to justify the slavery of black Africans.

I’m sure you can see why.

You can’t?

Let’s just recall what happened in a few words. Noah got drunk. Ham – one of his sons saw him naked and told his brothers

And Noah cursed his son Ham’s descendant Canaan and said he would be a slave. and blessed the other two brothers who were to be slave owners.

Now leaving aside what was so bad about seeing Noah naked in any event can you see the obvious flaw in using the story to justify black slavery? The three men were brothers. So far as we know they had the same father and mother. They were the same race

But here’s an image that was used to justify slavery.

Yes – despite no indication to that effect whatever in the Bible – Ham was clearly black and his descendants were clearly Africans and therefore because Noah had said what he said in the story you’ve just read slavery of black Africans was OK.

And people genuinely believed this.

And then they looked at the Old Testament texts to show that slavery was common among the Israelites. And at those letters of Paul which accepted that slavery was the natural order of things.

And of course Jesus never spoke out against slavery so it must be OK.

Here’s what Bishop Stephen Elliott, of Georgia, had to say at the time: Critics of slavery should “consider whether, by their interference with this institution, they may not be checking and impeding a work which is manifestly Providential. For nearly a hundred years the English and American Churches have been striving to civilize and Christianize Western Africa, and with what result? Around Sierra Leone, and in the neighbourhood of Cape Palmas, a few natives have been made Christians, and some nations have been partially civilized; but what a small number in comparison with the thousands, nay, I may say millions, who have learned the way to Heaven and who have been made to know their Saviour through the means of African slavery! At this very moment there are from three to four millions of Africans, educating for earth and for Heaven in the so vilified Southern States—learning the very best lessons for a semi-barbarous people—lessons of self-control, of obedience, of perseverance, of adaptation of means to ends; learning, above all, where their weakness lies, and how they may acquire strength for the battle of life. These considerations satisfy me with their condition, and assure me that it is the best relation they can, for the present, be made to occupy.”

So slavery is Ok because it teaches slaves to be good Christians. Give me strength.

Some of the proponents of slavery must have acknowledged the weakness of their Biblical argument though. Because they produced something called ‘The Slave Bible’.

In the Slave Bible most of the Old Testament is missing, and only about half of the New Testament remains. The reason? So that the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua couldn’t read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel.

So the Slave Bible doesn’t include Moses telling the Pharaoh to “Let my people go”, but it does include Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt.

It doesn’t include the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he writes “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But it does include this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

Now this is all very interesting – but what has it got to tell us today?

I’d like to suggest 3 things:

  • First – there’s a lesson to be learned about how we should see the authority of the Bible. The question of slavery is settled – it’s wrong -despite what the Bible does undoubtedly say in some places. But it’s easy to fall into some of the same traps when we look at other issues that continue to be the source of dispute. You can probably find a Bible verse to support any point of view if you look hard enough (and particularly if you distort things in the way the people did the story of the Curse of Ham.)
  • Second – and linked to the first point – everything wasn’t settled by the time the Bible was completed. It took almost 1900 years before people saw that slavery was definitely not Christian. It would be really easy if we could turn to the Bible and read the answers clearly to every moral dilemma in the world. If there was an index at the back where you could look things up where it said
    • Abortion – definitely wrong
    • Same Sex marriage – that’s OK
    • Assisted suicide – no you can’t do that
    • Women priests – of course that’s fine
    • Genetically modified crops – No – what are you thinking
    • Eating meat – that’s OK so long as it’s not pork. (Oh that one is actually in there – put another sausage on the barbecue for me)

(By the way that’s not necessarily my view on those issues it’s just by way of illustration)

But the Bible isn’t like that. New moral problems will keep coming up and the Bible will give us guidance but in a lot of cases the answer won’t be straightforward and there’ll be differences of opinion. But not all opinions are ultimately as good as each other. Slavery is wrong.

  • Third – and most important – we need the wisdom to try and discern what’s the right thing in the light of Jesus’ teachings. It’s no good saying – well Jesus didn’t speak against it so it’s OK like some people did about slavery. Or on the other side – well Jesus didn’t speak in favour of it so it’s wrong.

Neither is it any good saying well let’s listen to what Paul had to say – we’ve just heard that you can use Paul’s writings to support both sides of the slavery argument. You pays your money and you take your choice of one verse texts out of context.

No – we’ve got to try and work things out for ourselves based on what Jesus did say.

We need to use our God given intelligence to figure out what is right and wrong and we need to treat the Bible with care.

Our final hymn is another hymn that came out of slavery in the USA – Steal Away to Jesus

Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

My Lord, He calls me,
He calls me by the thunder;
The trumpet sounds within my soul;
I ain’t got long to stay here.

Steal away, steal away,
steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.

The grace

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,

and the love of God,

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit

be with us all now

and for evermore.

Amen.

Quiz answers

1Who wrote the anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’?Harriet Beecher Stowe
2Who was the leader of the Slave revolt in Rome in the first century BC? Spartacus
3What is the most famous hymn written by John Newton, a former slave ship captain?Amazing Grace
4What did a galley slave do?Row a boat
5What was the title of Alex Haley’s 1976 book about the slave Kunta Kinte?Roots
6Which singer had a hit with ‘Slave to Love’ in 1985?Bryan Ferry
7Who directed the 1997 film about a slave ship ‘Amistad’?Steven Spielberg
8For which city was abolitionist William Wilberforce MP?Hull
9What was the title of the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2014?12 Years a Slave    
10What was the name of the slave trader whose statue was torn down and pushed into Bristol harbour in 2020?Edward Colston

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