December, the last month of the year takes its name from the Latin for the number ten. This is because it was once the tenth month of the year. It is, of course, the month of Advent, culminating in Christmas Day on the 25th. In the United States, it is also National Egg Nog Month and National Fruit Cake Month!
Christmas is a time where we frantically try to prepare for Christmas Day. Have all the presents been bought? Do you enough food? Where will you spend Christmas day? Who have you invited? Sometimes you may even think of the birth of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the World and how unbelievable it is that God’s plan of reconciliation began with the birth of a human: a human who would not begin their ministry for 30 years and, even then, it only lasted 3 years. It is important to think about what Christ means to us especially as we come to a new year.
I found this article from Sydney J. Harris, which may interest or inspire you.
How to tell a winner from a loser
So, I encourage us when we go into the new year to decide if we are going to be winners or losers. Winners speak kindly to themselves, losers will beat themselves up. So, as a church, we move confidently forward into the new year knowing that with Christ on our side we are winners. It is up to us in our behaviour to show exactly what that means. May you know the blessings of our Lord Jesus Christ and use those blessings. May you have a peaceful 2021.
Fun Fact: There are 93 women who speak in the Bible, 49 of whom are named. They speak a total of 14,056 words or about 1.1% of the Bible. There are a total of 188 named women in the Bible.
W.E.B Du Bois was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists campaigning for equal rights. Through his campaigns and essays, Du Bois documented the widespread racism in the United States of America. Ultimately, Du Bois wished to put an end to prejudices, and in the process, educated many people about the inaccuracies of American history, that painted blacks in a bad light.
Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a tiny black population. His father left when Du Bois was only two years old, and his mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Great Barrington had a large European American community who treated Du Bois well, and his school teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic studies at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.
Du Bois experienced little racism until his time at university where he came face to face with the harshest bigotry. Fortunately, this had little impact on his education and, after Du Bois graduated in 1888, he attended Harvard College, paying his tuition by taking on summer jobs and accepting loans from friends. In 1890, Du Bois graduated with a degree in history. Yet, this was not the end of his education. After another year at Harvard studying sociology, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, Du Bois observed the differences in the treatment of black people. “They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world.” Racism, he noted, was much worse in the USA. On returning home, Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first black person to do so.
Following this extensive education, Du Bois received many job offers, including a teaching job at Wilberforce University, Ohio. After working there for two years, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on 12th May 1896 and moved to Pennsylvania to work as an assistant in sociology. Whilst there, Du Bois worked on the study The Pennsylvania Negro, which noted the treatment blacks received in the area. He rejected Frederick Douglass’ idea of blacks integrating into white communities, believing instead that they needed to embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society. He published the latter in his article Strivings of the Negro People in The Atlantic Monthly.
In 1897, Du Bois moved to and accepted a job as the professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. The US government gave Du Bois a grant to research African-American workforce and culture, which he did alongside hosting the annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. In 1900, Du Bois flew to London to attend the First Pan-African Conference, which implored the USA to "acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent". Later that year, Du Bois attended the Paris Exposition where he organised The Exhibit of American Negroes for which he won a gold medal.
By the early 20th century, Du Bois was a respected spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Du Bois disagreed with many of Washington’s ideas, which asked blacks to submit to white supremacy in exchange for fundamental education. He expressed his criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed blacks should fight for equal rights and opportunities.
In 1905, Du Bois met with other civil rights activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Together, they established the Niagara Movement, aiming to reach out to other black people through magazines, such as The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Unlike periodicals owned by or sympathetic to Washington, The Niagara Movement encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights rather than submit to humiliation and degradation.
It was not just the Niagara Movement that changed the minds of the African American population. In 1906, President Roosevelt (1858-1919) dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers for allegedly committing crimes. Following this, riots broke out in Atlanta, where black men received accusations of assaulting white women. Rioters attacked any man with dark skin, resulting in at least 25 deaths.
Fuelled by these events and his growing support, Du Bois continued to write about the dangers of white supremacy. He was the first African American invited to present a paper by the American Historical Association. Unfortunately, most white historians ignored his work, and the association did not invite another African American speaker for three decades.
In 1909, Du Bois joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and accepted the post of Director of Publicity and Research the following year. This entailed editing the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which denounced the US government and introduced the principles of the Socialist Party. Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in the 1912 presidential race, extracting from the future president the promise to support black rights.
When the First World War broke out, the NAACP established a camp to train African Americans to serve in the US Army. The government promised 1000 officer positions for blacks, but riots broke out across the country in opposition. Only 600 black officers managed to join the Army. Nonetheless, Du Bois saw this as a success and interviewed many African American soldiers during the first Pan-African Congress. Unfortunately, he discovered many of the officers served as labourers while the white men went out to fight.
Du Bois was more determined than ever to fight for equal rights. “But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Race riots continued to take place across the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of black people. As well as wishing to put an end to this unnecessary violence, Du Bois wanted to educate black children about their heritage, teaching them that they did not deserve the racist treatment. As a result, Du Bois published the textbook The Brownies' Book, which was full of black culture and history.
After working with the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1933 and returned to an academic position at Atlanta University. This allowed him to continue his research, documenting how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, was published in 1935 and is still perceived as "the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography."
In 1936, Du Bois embarked on a trip around the world where he received amicable treatment from people of all races. This was a stark contrast to the treatment of blacks back home. Du Bois admired the growing strength of Imperial Japan and was at first opposed to America joining the Second World War because he thought this would undo Japan’s fight to escape white supremacism. He was also disappointed that blacks only made up 5.8% of the US army.
Du Bois openly discussed his strong views in his books and papers, which eventually got him fired from his position at Atlanta University. Fortunately, scholars intervened, and Du Bois received a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Other universities offered Du Bois teaching positions, but he turned them down and rejoined the NAACP. Du Bois was one of three members of the NAACP to attended the 1945 conference in San Francisco, which oversaw the establishment of the United Nations.
The NAACP continued to fight for civil rights, submitting several petitions to the UN. Although the NAACP supported socialism, it made it clear the association had no involvement with Communism. Yet, Du Bois showed sympathy towards the Communist Party, resulting in the loss of his passport. He eventually regained his passport in 1958 and travelled the world with his second wife Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977) who he married in 1951. Nevertheless, when the US upheld the Concentration Camp Law in 1960, requiring all Communists to register with the United States Attorney General, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in protest. At this time, he was 93 years old.
In 1960, Du Bois travelled to Africa to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana and to attend the inauguration of the first African governor of Nigeria. The following year, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to work on the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. By this time, Du Bois’ health was declining, and he passed away on 27th August 1963, not long after the US refused to renew his passport. On hearing of his death, thousands of Americans honoured Du Bois with a minutes silence. Almost a year later, the US passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, representing many of the things Du Bois campaigned for during his long life.
Description: Relates the biblical story of Rahab, the spies, and the fall of Jericho as recorded in the book of Joshua from the perspective of young Talia, whose father Yakesh is one of Rahab's brothers.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Window in the Wall by Ginny Merritt is based upon the bible story of Rahab and the spies, and the fall of Jericho. Although most Christians will know this story well it is probably not as well known amongst children. By making the main character a young girl, Talia, Merritt makes it suitable for young readers to enjoy.
Talia lives with her parents and brother within the walls of Jericho and loves helping her father in the flax fields. An approaching army strikes fear into her heart despite reassurances that nothing can destroy the strong walls and get into the city. However Talia’s aunt, Rahab, has been told different by a couple of Israelite spies who promise her and all her family safety as a reward for helping them. As many family members that Rahab can persuade sit and wait in Rahab’s room to see what happens and hopefully be saved. Unfortunately there are a few people who refuse to believe in what Rahab is saying nor that there is a God that is Lord of all.
Those familiar with the story will know the outcome of the story, but children will race through this book eagerly wanting to discover what happens to Talia and her family.
As an adult reading The Window in the Wall the references to Rahab’s characteristics will make more sense whereas they will most likely go over children’s heads. Having it written from a child’s perspective will help children to learn this bible story. Talia has many questions, which adults will not answer, as will the readers!
Merritt has helpfully included a pronunciation guide at the back of the book to help readers with the tricky foreign names that they encounter in the story. As an adult these names were not particularly difficult, but this would be a great benefit to younger readers.
Adults that read this book need to keep in mind the age of the target audience. The story does not go into much depth and may not be that engaging to those familiar with their bible stories.
The story of Rahab is not an easy one to rewrite for children but Merritt has done an excellent job. Books such as The Window in the Wall would be a great way of teaching Christian children about their faith without boring them with sermons.
"I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” These are the words of American social reformer, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Many found it astonishing that such a successful orator was once a slave, proving false the misconception that slaves lacked the intelligence of independent Americans. Douglass believed everyone was equal regardless of their skin tone and heritage. He was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on a plantation in Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a woman of African and Native American ancestry. His father was white, possibly European, but Frederick never knew him, nor did he know on which day or in which year he was born. Historians estimate his year of birth as 1818 and Frederick chose 14th February as the day to celebrate his birth. Separated from his mother at a young age, the infant Frederick lived with his grandparents, Betsy, a slave, and Isaac, a free man.
At the age of six, Frederick’s master transferred him to another plantation, but two years later he moved again to a household in Baltimore. Despite being the property of Hugh Auld, his master’s wife Sophia ensured Frederick was well fed and clothed. When he was about 12 years old, Sophia taught him to read and write until her husband put an end to their lessons. Yet, Frederick continued to teach himself in secret, often observing the white children in the city. He believed "knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
In 1833, Frederick went to work for Edward Covey, a farmer who repeatedly whipped him. Frederick attempted to run away, but his master caught him in the act. In 1837, he met and fell in love with Anna Murray (1813-88), a free black woman, who encouraged him to have another attempt at escaping. On 3rd September 1838, Frederick succeeded by sneaking onto a train to Harve de Grace dressed as a sailor. He then made his way to New York to meet up with Anna.
Frederick and Anna married on 15th September 1838, initially adopting the surname Johnson. Inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott (1771-1832), Frederick changed their surname to Douglass after the names of the principal characters. They joined the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Frederick became a preacher in 1839. Soon after, at the approximate age of 23, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech about his experiences as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention.
From then on, Douglass involved himself with many anti-slavery protests and conventions, resulting in physical attacks from slavery supporters. One occasion caused irreparable damage to Douglass’s hand. He exclaimed, "I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man.” Yet, he continued to fight to put an end to slavery. As well as oration, Douglass published many works, including his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.
In 1845, Douglass travelled to Ireland and England where he was amazed at the different treatment he received, not "as a color, but as a man.” Focusing on the abolition of slavery, Douglass gave many speeches in churches and chapels, drawing large crowds. He met with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) who had campaigned for the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Most importantly, while he was in Britain, Douglass legally became a free man.
With £500 from English supporters, Douglass returned to the USA in 1847 and established his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. The paper adopted the motto "Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren” to attract a diverse readership. Meanwhile, Douglass and his wife helped over four hundred slaves escape on the Underground Railroad network managed by Harriet Tubman.
Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights meeting in New York. Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women also had the opportunity. "Discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency...than would be a discussion of the rights of women." Unfortunately, Douglass received criticism when he paid more attention to the campaign to allow black men the right to vote, but he maintained he was never against women’s rights. He feared linking black men’s suffrage with women’s suffrage would result in a failure for both; it was better to focus on one at a time.
During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. This meeting led to the declaration of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery. After the assassination of Lincoln, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) on the subject of black suffrage. In 1868, the 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law, and in 1870 they finally won the right to vote.
Due to his achievements, Douglass received several political appointments, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and chargé d'affaires for the Dominican Republic. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, although he was nominated without his knowledge. The same year, he was the presidential elector at large for New York.
Douglass and Anna had five children during their marriage of 44 years. Their eldest, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906) was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and also helped with her father’s newspaper business, as did Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-92). Their youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920) also helped with the papers and was the first African-American man to enlist in the military in New York during the Civil War. Annie Douglass, their youngest child, passed away at the age of ten.
Anna passed away in 1882, and two years later Douglass remarried to suffragist Helen Pitts (1838-1913). This caused controversy and upset Douglass’ children because Helen was twenty years younger than their father. She was also white. Douglass responded to criticism by saying his first marriage was to a woman of his mother’s colour, and his second to someone of his father’s colour.
Douglass continued to speak at meetings across the USA and further abroad. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) won the election and made Douglass the consul-general to the Republic of Haiti.
On 20th February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting with the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C where he received a standing ovation. That evening after returning home, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of supporters attended his funeral, and four years later they erected a statue in his memory. He was the first African American to be memorialised in this way. Frederick Douglass continues to receive such honours today. Statues of Douglass stand in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre, Central Park, and the University of Maryland.
Buying Samir is the second book in the India Street Kids series by Kimberly Rae. Previously Jasmina and her brother, Samir, had been sold to traffickers who treated the children as slaves. Jasmina, however, managed to escape and found safety amongst a group of American missionaries. Now aged 14, Jasmina is determined to locate and save her brother.
Initially with the help of one of the missionaries, Jasmina begins searching for Samir at various locations hoping she can free him from whatever slavery he has been forced into. However desperation encourages Jasmina to secretly go alone on this dangerous mission. Although she finds her brother there is no happy reunion. Samir has become one of the traffickers and Jasmina finds herself in a lot of trouble.
Jasmina learns a lot more about the world she lives in, who to trust and who to avoid. She also learns of Christian forgiveness – a concept that was alien to her as she was used to being punished.
Rae shocks the reader with her descriptions of horrors children in India face on the streets. Many are tricked into dreadful situations by false promises of luxury. What is the most disturbing is that this story is not about the past, these things are happening now! Thankfully there are people such as the missionaries who, with Gods help, give up their time to rescue these children and give them a better life or restore them to their families.
Buying Samir is a very short book and suitable for both adults and teens. Readers would benefit from reading the previous book first however Jasmina’s narrative reflects on the past providing enough information to understand what is going on.
The two readings for today’s sermon are Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12.
The theme for today is authenticity. I recently had a phone call from a friend who was so happy to tell me the fruits of his metal-detecting. He had discovered a beautiful coin, which when polished glittered like gold. He told me it must be valuable because the coin's date was 48 BC. He was crestfallen when I mentioned it must be a forgery. 'How can you say that?' he cried. 'You haven't even seen it!' I said, 'BC stands for Before Christ. How could the coin have been minted 48 years before an event had happened?'
Let me first concentrate on the book of Micah.
5 This is what the Lord says:
“As for the prophets
who lead my people astray,
they proclaim ‘peace’
if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
who refuses to feed them.
6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
and darkness, without divination.
The sun will set for the prophets,
and the day will go dark for them.
7 The seers will be ashamed
and the diviners disgraced.
They will all cover their faces
because there is no answer from God.”
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10 who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
Zion will be ploughed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Micah was an 8th century BC prophet, writing between 742-687 BC, making him a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. I enjoy the book of Micah, particularly his succinct formula for life. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Micah, in the text, condemns the other prophets, highlighting that what comes out of their mouths is dependant on what you pay them. There was collusion between the prophets and the heads of Israel. They hid the truth and supported ways that were contrary to the will of God. This is not uncommon today. Many studies present in such a way that the results will support what the sponsor wishes them to say.
Micah was very concerned that the ways of Israel were contrary to God’s will. The prophet Hosea says God desires "mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
Similarly, the Prophet Amos, when writing to the Northern Kingdom between 760-750 BC, before Micah was born, said God hated Israel’s religious feasts. God would have no regard for Israel's offerings, and God would no longer listen to the songs or music. God preferred that justice should roll like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 paraphrased)
In the text, Micah prophesies that Jerusalem will fall, which indeed it did to the Babylonians in 597 BC. Micah, Amos and Hosea are the background texts to the reading in Matthew.
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The first thing to note is that Jesus is an unauthorised teacher. He certainly had not gone through the training that rabbis needed. For me to be a minister, I had to go through three years of training alongside three years of following trained ministers, passing exams up to degree level and interviews. Only after I had satisfied the requirements of the ministerial procedure, could I be ordained. Jesus came on to the scene without the formal training. Indeed, when he did speak in synagogues, he was thrown out. (Matthew 13:53-58)
The surprise of the Gospel is Jesus does not condemn the teaching of the Pharisees. There are six thousand Pharisees in the time of Jesus, and they were students of the law, experts giving counselling so that the people of Israel could live a life resulting in heaven. They were well respected, and Jesus acknowledged their importance by telling people they must do what the Pharisees instruct.
The complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees was what they did not practice what they taught. Jesus listed a whole list of things where the Pharisees were falling short. Alongside not practising what they preached, the Pharisees were unwilling to do what they demanded of others; the Pharisees loved to show off, they revelled in their titles and having the recognition of others. In short, they misunderstood their calling.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. By fulfilling, he had the bigger picture of God’s world in mind. Instead of the minutiae, Jesus took the Law and transposed it from being a burden to being a help. Matthew 12:1, when they caught Jesus picking grain on the sabbath, is an example of the humanity of God coming first and the Law second.
God’s Law is a gift to help us live in relationship to God and one another. It is this bigger picture that Jesus brings in his ministry, using the law to show Gods compassion and tolerance. Jesus brings no new ideas, he uses the tenets of the Old Testament all the time, but what he does do is refresh them and uses them in the context of the day.
Jesus also promoted the idea of servanthood. As a servant, you mould yourself around your master. In this way, his disciples were to live, moulding their lives around God via his son Jesus, using their teachings and powers to bring healing and wisdom wherever they went. Jesus was often in conflict with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees, so following Christ was no easy discipleship. But their words needed to equal their actions, and this is the gift that Jesus’ ministry brings.
The Pharisees were literate, whereas the vast majority of the population were illiterate. The people of Israel needed leadership, and it was Jesus showed them how to live, restoring their relationship with God. So today, as followers of Christ, we must mould ourselves around the teachings of Jesus. That is our calling. We are free to accept or refuse. By accepting, our lives will change as our purpose, our values and our beliefs realign to that of God, our loving and gracious creator.
November was once the ninth month of the year, hence “novem”, the Latin word for nine. The birth flower for November is the chrysanthemum, which in some European countries symbolises death - an appropriate symbol for autumn when all the trees become bare.
Last November, I challenged everyone to think about what type of firework they would be and how, sadly, I would probably be the firework that people are quite excited about but ends up being a damp squib.
As I have been spending a lot of time reading the Bible and preparing sermons for the website and my own enjoyment, I came across an article from the editor of the Barnsley Chronicle. The editor offers his own Ten Commandments and I think it is good for us all to consider the rules by which we lead our lives. It goes without saying that Exodus 20 is the pinnacle of that but how do we live and what commandments do we live by? The editor came up with these ten:
So, I challenge you in these darker nights as November leads into December to write out your own commandments and think about what you value.
Fun Fact: The Geneva Bible is the first Bible to use numbered verses. It is also the Bible Shakespeare used and the one that the Pilgrims brought to America in 1620.
The readings for this sermon are Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18, and Matthew 22:34-46.
Leviticus 19:1-2; 15-18
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
“‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly. ‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the Lord. ‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in their guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”
The Greatest Commandment
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Whose Son Is the Messiah?
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“The Lord said to my Lord:
Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
This week, I started to write down some of the lessons I have learnt about life.
If you were to ask me what was the greatest poem I have ever read, I think If by Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) would fit the criteria. Travelling on the underground recently, I saw a poem, which I think during Covid-19 and these unprecedented times is a new favourite. It is by John O'Donohue.
This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.
Jesus was confronted by Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees who wanted to trap Jesus by asking difficult questions. The Gospel reading today asks which is the greatest commandment. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, so which one is the greatest? We know the Ten Commandments, surely it is going to be one of those? Instead, Jesus sums up all the 613 commandments with these words: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” He goes on to say the second greatest is “Love your neighbour as yourself.” It is a helpful response, and the two go together because to show that you love God, you surely must love God’s creation. Therefore, we must love our neighbour whoever they may be.
Both of these commandments are mentioned in the Torah. Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of the Shema Yisrael that Jews say twice daily, contains the first and "love your neighbour", is taken from Leviticus 19:18. So, it is not new, but Jesus has pulled these two together to summerise how we can truly worship God. It is how our Christian lifestyle is defined; the vertical dimension of loving God crossed with the horizontal direction of loving our neighbour. We know who our neighbour is through the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbour is anyone who is in need.
I sometimes forget how radical the concept of only having one God is. In Roman times, I think there were over 60 gods that you could worship, including, of course, the famous Olympian Gods: Jupiter, Venus, Apollo, Diana, Neptune and so on. It is radical to go from the safety of having so many powerful gods to pray to when you need help, to having only one. Even more remarkable, this one God loves us and wants to have a relationship with us. The Roman Gods never once had a thought for us, so through Judaism, this concept of God, creator of the universe, wanting time and a relationship with us is groundbreaking.
When I compare the Ten Commandments with the response Jesus gave, worshipping God, having no idols and not misusing God's name fall into place. Loving my neighbour means I will honour my mother and father, I will not commit adultery, murder or steal, and I will not give false witness or covet other people’s goods. The Sabbath reminds us, as Augustine (354-430) said, we have to love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbour as ourself unless we love ourselves. The Sabbath provides us that day of rest whereby we can not only appreciate God’s wonder, but it also allows us to recharge, restore and renew.
Jesus goes one step further in our reading. After answering all the questions, Jesus poses one based upon Psalm 110. This Psalm, written by King David, is the prophetic notion that the Messiah will not just be of David’s line, but will also be far superior to David, so much so David calls him Lord. Jesus’ question stumps the would-be questioners and silences them. We see Jesus as being beyond human, touching the divine, and it is that acknowledgement of his true self that quiets the crowd. We too have to acknowledge who we are for we often have a mask that we show the world; one we believe the world wants to see for which we will gain acceptance and love. But if we are to truly love ourselves, we have to remind ourselves of our true self rather than the self we portray to others.
So, we offer to God who we truly are knowing that God will accept us, love us and transform us.
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Gants Hill United Reformed Church on 25th October 2020
We start by reading Psalm 56:1-6, written over a thousand years before Christ was born. Verse 6 shows how it is possible to twist the writer's words.
1 Be merciful to me, my God,
for my enemies are in hot pursuit;
all day long they press their attack.
2 My adversaries pursue me all day long;
in their pride many are attacking me.
3 When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
4 In God, whose word I praise--
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?
5 All day long they twist my words;
all their schemes are for my ruin.
6 They conspire, they lurk,
they watch my steps,
hoping to take my life.
This Psalm leads into today’s service, which is predominantly the Gospel story of Matthew 22:15-22, where the Pharisees and the Herodians try to trick Jesus. The lectionary also highlights Isaiah 45:1-7, so let us look at that reading first then lead into the Gospel.
1 “This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armour,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honour,
though you do not acknowledge me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the Lord, do all these things.
Isaiah prophesied from 740-681 BC. This reading highlights Cyrus as doing God’s bidding. Cyrus the Great was born in 600 BC and died in 70 years later, we believe, on 4th December 530 BC, probably in battle. Cyrus became king in 560BC reigning for 30 years and had the grand titles of King of Anshan, King of Persia, King of Media, King of the World, King of Babylon, King of Sumar and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World. The strange thing about the passage is Isaiah wrote it around 150 years before Cyrus the Great came to power; it is a prophecy.
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire, now known as Iran. He was a great military strategist and is the only non-Jewish person given the title of Messiah in the Bible. He knew the world of politics but showed humanitarian traits as he respected the customs and religions of the people he conquered. His empire was the largest ever known at the time, spanning two thousand miles, including Assyria and Babylonia. It was Cyrus who allowed the Jewish people to leave their exile and for Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Cyrus is significant in the history of Israel, and Isaiah prophesied it 150 years before.
In one report, it said because Cyrus read the account of Isaiah, Cyrus made the prophecy come true by invading and freeing the people of Israel. God, therefore, is not limited to using the Jewish population; God can use anybody, Jew or Gentile. It is always important to remember this in our relationship with God; God can and does use us to fulfil God’s almighty plan.
We move into Matthew and the trickery with which he had to deal.
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
To put you in the mood here is a story:
In a small Italian town, hundreds of years ago, a small business owner owed a large sum of money to a loan-shark. The loan-shark was a very old, unattractive looking guy that just so happened to fancy the business owner’s daughter.
He decided to offer the businessman a deal that would completely wipe out the debt he owed him. However, the catch was that we would only wipe out the debt if he could marry the businessman’s daughter.
Needless to say, this proposal was met with a look of disgust.
The loan-shark said that he would place two pebbles into a bag, one white and one black.
The daughter would then have to reach into the bag and pick out a pebble. If it was black, the debt would be wiped, but the loan-shark would then marry her. If it was white, the debt would also be wiped, but the daughter wouldn’t have to marry the loan-shark.
Standing on a pebble-strewn path in the businessman’s garden, the loan-shark bent over and picked up two pebbles.
Whilst he was picking them up, the daughter noticed that he’d picked up two black pebbles and placed them both into the bag.
He then asked the daughter to reach into the bag and pick one.
The daughter naturally had three choices as to what she could have done:
1.Refuse to pick a pebble from the bag.
2. Take both pebbles out of the bag and expose the loan-shark for cheating.
3. Pick a pebble from the bag fully well knowing it was black and sacrifice herself for her father’s freedom.
She drew out a pebble from the bag, and before looking at it ‘accidentally’ dropped it into the midst of the other pebbles. She said to the loan-shark;
“Oh, how clumsy of me. Never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
The pebble left in the bag is obviously black, and seeing as the loan-shark didn’t want to be exposed, he had to play along as if the pebble the daughter dropped was white, and clear her father’s debt.
Moral of the story:
It’s always possible to overcome a tough situation through out of the box thinking, and not give in to the only options you think you have to pick from.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus the Pharisees and the Herodians questioned Jesus. Knowledge of the Herodians is scarce, other than they must be supporters of Herod. Therefore, the Herodians were in opposition to the Pharisees - the common enemy of Jesus brings forth strange bedfellows. Yet, Jesus had the measure of them. The fact they produced a Denarius when Jesus asked for a coin has implications.
On the Denarius it reads "Ti(berivs) Caesar Divi Avg(vsta) F(ilivs) Avgvtvs", which in English means Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus. On the reverse, we have a seated female, believed to be Livia depicted as Pax, the goddess of Peace, with the words "Pontif Maxim".
Having the image of Tiberius was an anathema to the Jews. The fact that it claimed Augustus was God was offensive to the Jewish population. As a result, pious Jews did not carry that coin but did their business using smaller denominations. The coin itself was worth one day’s labour; smaller copper coins, which did not hold the face of the emperor, were quite ordinary and were used for daily life. So, the Denarius must have been produced by a Herodian because a Pharisee, would not carry such a coin.
So, Jesus comes up with the famous statement, “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's.” In some Bibles, the translation is not "render" but "give to Caesar". I understand the Greek "to render" means to give back, which implies they must have received something already. They were benefitting by the Roman occupation, profiting from the blessings of good communication, transport links, freedom from tribal warfare, stable currency with coins used all over the known world and general peace. It is strange to think of an occupation bringing blessings, and I presume if you live in such a society, the expectations are you give back to that society from which you have taken.
There is a common theme throughout the new testament. Jesus says to love your enemies, and Paul frequently writes to submit to the authorities, as does Peter. So, the idea of giving back to Caesar reflects they are part of the Roman situation. But when spirituality conflicts with society, Jesus says God comes first; even though we live in society, it is obedience to God that comes first. So, his famous sentence is quite brilliant, as it satisfies both parties and the people posing the question were amazed at the answer. They found the answer quite marvellous. The scene is then set for the Sadducees to have a go at questioning Jesus, but for the minute, Jesus had shown his ability at dealing with tricky questions.
So, let us reflect: we acknowledge the blessings we receive from living in society; we give back, but we also recognise God’s importance, which means we have absolute obedience to God. In today’s world, Covid-19 means we put our trust in God, but there are also so many other groups who are requesting our support, Black Lives Matter and climate change being two examples. We have to obey the law because it is Biblical, but that does not mean we cannot stand up for others. It is also Biblical that we should stand up and try to change the structures in society that result in injustice. It is a balance, what do we give back to our communities, and what do we offer to God?
This sermon was first preached by Rev'd Martin Wheadon at Great Dunmow United Reformed Church on 18th October 2020
Kimberly Rae draws attention to the ongoing trafficking of children in India in her young adult novel Capturing Jasmina. Jasmina was only ten when her father sold both her and her brother Samir to a man promising safety and good education. In reality the siblings end up in a sweatshop slaving over clothes to be sold in America. After three years they manage to escape only to be trafficked a second time. Eventually Jasmina and Samir are separated and Jasmina becomes a street kid.
Whilst living on the streets Jasmina encounters a Christian missionary, Asha, rescuing women from brothels by either offering them a safe place to live or at the very least spiritually, by teaching them about God and Jesus. Intrigued Jasmina follows Asha who then offers to help her too. After having her childhood robbed from her, it seems like Jasmina, with the help of those who trust in God, will get back on her feet again.
Despite being a short novel, Rae paints a contrasting image to what the western world is used to. Jasmina finds the concept of a simple toilet baffling. It is not until you hear or see what is happening to innocent people in other parts of the world that you realize there are so many things in life you take for granted.
Capturing Jasmina emphasizes how difficult it is to escape once trafficked. In these situations people belong to everyone but themselves. They have no freedom and running away can cause more problems than it solves. The novel also shows what Christians can do to help. Although no one can completely solve the problems, the tiniest piece of aid they can provide is a step in the right direction.
It was slightly disappointing that we do not find out what happened to Samir once he was separated from his sister. Jasmina’s first person narrative makes it clear that what she wants most is to be reunited with her family. In a way, although there is a positive ending, not yet finding her brother makes it clear that there cannot always be happy endings. It is not possible to save everyone.
Written from a young teenagers point of view makes this book suitable for ages twelve and older. Christians will appreciate the biblical references however there is not too much religion for non-believers or those of other religions to get offended by.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon