Sunday Sermon – 1 July 2018

In support of Weeds and the Seed by the Wayside

A few weeks ago I went on a journey I know well. It is not a very long distance to travel, perhaps a mile or so. The route is familiar, for I traverse it at least once a week, often more frequently. It goes from our own house to a school where I am a governor, and, as the saying goes, I could surely drive from one to the other blindfolded. Let me assure you at once, I have not tried this theory out!

What was unusual about the expedition on this particular day was not the route, but the method of transport. Invariably I go by car. But on this day no car was available. It was suffering from one of those minor ailments, minor but nevertheless inevitably expensive, to which cars are prone. It had been admitted to the garage for urgent treatment. It might even have to stay in overnight. But I was assured that the treatment would be successful and the car restored to full health. But my appointment at the school was pressing. There was nothing for it but to saddle shank’s pony, in other words, to set out and walk.

In spite of the lack of practice in this method of travel, I enjoyed the journey, for the day was fine, there was plenty of time in hand, and, as I repeatedly assured myself, the exercise was doing me good. Then again, I was saving money; shoe leather is cheaper than petrol.

I realised as I ambled along, how much one doesn’t see as one dashes by in a closed iron box. Houses look different, and in some cases were noticed for the first time. People nodded or passed the time of day. A host of sounds were heard which normally are either drowned out by the noise of the car engine, or fail to penetrate the windows and body work of the vehicle.

But the things I especially observed were plants. Not so much the tended gardens, some of which might have met with the approval of Geoffrey Smith and Francis Bacon, but the ubiquitous, so called weeds, and how they grew in the most unexpected places caught my eye. Grass grew between flagstones and in gutters, tree suckers pushed up through asphalt. Groundsel flowered at the junction of lamppost and pavement, dandelions forced their way through cracks in paving, willow herb poked its head through the stones of a wall. Some seed that had fallen on stony ground, or by the wayside had managed to survive, was even thriving.

It is amazing how plants can establish themselves in the most hostile of environments, clinging tenaciously to life and defying the unfriendly conditions that surround them. When our Rotherham church was still open, I used to take services there regularly over many years. The Church of Our Father, as it was named, was a large, tall building, and I recall there was a window high above the gallery visible from the pulpit. A small pane of glass had broken, and, because it was difficult to reach without scaffolding, had not been replaced. Dust had settled on the window ledge and rain had blown in, along with a wind-blown seed. It fascinated me how a plant had taken root in such a hostile, place and thrived over several months, even producing a flower, before it eventually died, as all living things are destined to do.

Waste plots of land, even in city centres, are quickly invaded by plant growth. I recall a bombsite in the centre of Sheffield, which was left vacant for some years after the war had ended before re-building work started upon it. There, in the midst of the rubble, grew a number of forest trees, still saplings it is true, obviously self planted, apparently thriving within the neglected site.

Inevitably one is reminded of the parable of the sower, even though what I had observed on my walk, or have been describing from previous memories, is the random scattering by nature rather than the more directed broadcast sowing by the primitive farmer. It doesn’t do to take analogies or parables too literally – they are illustrative without being necessarily exact parallels – but with that reservation, some points are worth making.

The sower was placing, or attempting to place, his seed in prepared ground. That which fell elsewhere, “by the wayside” for example, was wasted and either would not crop well, or would not crop at all. Only seed falling on good ground was profitable.

Apparently the disciples were slow on the uptake, and Jesus patiently explained to them that the seed in the parable was the word. Just as the ground was carefully prepared to receive the seed and enable it to prosper, so the hearts of men and women must be ready and committed to receive the word, or the message will not succeed. Plants thrive best in the conditions suited to their needs, and enjoy careful attention to their wants. The good seed flourishes in good ground, and the word is rooted and secure. That was the message of the parable, Jesus patiently explained.

What I observed on my walk was something different. It was not seed being directed to carefully prepared ground, but random distribution, to fall where it will, to establish where it is able. It was the fight to exist in a hostile world. It was akin to the unquenchable determination of the human spirit to survive.

It could be said, within limits, the more obscure the situation in which the seed fell, provided it was able to germinate, the more likely it was to endure. The alien seed which fell on to good ground, ground prepared by the farmer or gardener, would surely be hoed out, rooted out, sprayed or otherwise eliminated as an unwanted intrusion, unless the farmer or gardener be unusually tolerant or indolent. We admire a garden because it conforms, applauding the absence of unwanted or inconvenient interlopers. Sow in rows, says Geoffrey Smith so interlopers can be quickly spotted and eliminated.

If it were left to farmers and gardeners, backed up by agricultural scientists, then the dock, dandelion, groundsel, willow herb, chickweed and the coltsfoot, along with many other plants would disappear altogether. Only what is regarded as good seed would remain, carefully planted and tended in the receptive areas of ground. To survive, those designated weeds must persist in finding new habitats.

One of the more difficult problems in life is deciding what is good and what is bad. The greatest tyrannies are exercised where mankind has decided it knows with conviction exactly what is right, and pursues that course with ruthlessness and determination. It eliminates all contrary views as bad – as being the weeds of life. Racial groups, opponents who speak of different values, members of opposition parties, minority communities, any-one whose seed is regarded as inferior, must be rooted out, so that the true crop may grow untainted.

So are minorities harried, concentration camps built, and discrimination is endemic. Jew, Moslem, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Sikh, Pakistani, Croat, Serb, Turk, Greek, Irishman, aborigine all and many, many others are in turn weeds growing among cherished flowers.

In such cases hope lies with the so called inferior seed falling by the wayside, taking root, preserving life or ideals until wiser, more enlightened policies prevail. The message of Jesus some regarded as inferior, as diluting the pure seed. It had to be isolated and then destroyed. So his enemies, the righteous Scribes and Pharisees ordained.

In other parables, Jesus referred to the difficulty of differentiating between wheat and tares, sheep and goats. Our instincts are often to eliminate the weed, to regard with approval only that which grows on prepared ground and conforming to our ideas of correctness. But just as our efforts to impose upon nature our own ideas have too often brought the disasters of famine, of dust-bowls, of disease and failure, so human misery and bestial cruelty have attended foolish attempts to allow only the approved crop to survive.

In the field of human ideas and human behaviour, our tendency to judge – in spite of the warning not to judge lest you yourself be judged – have led and continue to lead to some of the most oppressive and vile examples of human cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man.

In many parts of the world, to broadcast seed, to spread a word, to cultivate ideas, which are not officially approved, is to risk personal freedom, or even life itself. There, alien seed can only hope to grow in the obscure place, on the stony ground, in unusual settings, in nooks and crannies, if it is to survive.

In earlier times, the spread of Christianity was often achieved because it survived in obscure and hidden places. Like the seed lodged in the crevice, it sought a haven from persecution and defied attempts to root it out.

Where tyrants reign, the seeds of freedom survive, tenaciously clinging to life, not in the open field, but in the hidden corners. Survive they do, ready to spread when the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Mussolinis and the rest have perished.

In a society that values all its citizens, subterfuge need not be a pre-requisite for freedom to be secured, whether in ideas, philosophies or lives of individuals. But sadly, many societies are not free, and it is to the so called weed, struggling in obscurity, that we must be grateful for the survival of the best of the old, and the fertilisation of the new.

Of course there is a place for the formal garden, the cultivated patch, and the haven free from the invasive plant whose vigour imperils the survival of the others. There is a place for exclusiveness within the pattern of life where the weed (defined as a plant in the wrong place) is not welcome.

But a philosophy that preaches that the so-called weed has no place is a denial of a central pillar in the temple of the Christian faith; that is the unique importance of each and every soul. Without that support, the edifice is indeed shaky.

Advocacy to remove all the seeds that grow by the wayside is authoritarianism at its worst. It is a piece of Christian heresy.

It was an interesting walk, and I’m sure the exercise was good for me, even though my legs ached and I was glad to sit down at the end. But I will not pretend that I was not glad to learn later that day that the car was well on its way to recovery; or to accept a kindly offer of a lift home.

C.J. Rosling 24 May 1992

(adapted from a sermon from August 1986)

Hucklow 24 May 1992; 20 February 2000; 27 August 2006

Fulwood 31 May 1992; 17 September 1995

Mexborough 31 May 1992

Stannington 9 August 1992; 20 August 2006

Sunday Sermon – 24 June 2018

Maps

I’m a conservative by instinct. I’m am not talking politics here, but about attitude and lifestyle. I always have cornflakes at breakfast time and to be offered wheatabix instead would ruin the whole day. I’ve never really taken to television, preferring the radio, or to be truthful, the wireless. I rue the passing of the Home Service and the Light Programme, but I’ve settled for Radio 4. One of the longer running programme on this wave-length is that well-known, and well-loved offering, “Desert Island Discs”. It is as likely that pigs will sprout wings as it is that I shall ever be invited to appear on the programme. But, just in case the improbable happens, I have prepared my answer to the question always asked towards the end, “Which book, other than the works of Shakespeare and the Bible, would you like to take with you?”

I shall choose an atlas, or a collection of maps. I know that they will be out-of-date almost before I’ve opened them, but nevertheless, that is what I shall insist on having. Countries may change not only their boundaries, but their titles; towns and cities are re-named; counties disappear and new ones formed, but the fascination of even an out-of-date map remains.

For even where little or nothing has changed over the centuries, there is still much to be surprised about. “I never realised that country A was so near, or alternatively, so far from, country B”, one will exclaim. I always thought Calcutta was in China. So that’s where Bulawayo is. One sees names of places of which one has never heard, and realise they will contain people whose language and experiences are completely alien to us, and yet who will have the range of emotions, the fears, hopes, joys and disappointments with which all of us are familiar. The inhabitants will laugh and sing, weep and mourn as does all human-kind, though we do not observe them; nor do they us.

When my son was a boy he wanted a map in his bedroom. At that time garages were giving paper sectional road maps of the British Isles to customers, and I acquired a set which we pasted together like a jig-saw on the bedroom wall. It stretched from floor to ceiling. But it wasn’t until I saw it complete that I realised for the first time how much further south the tip of Cornwall was to the south-eastern tip of England. Yes, maps are full of surprises, of new information.

To a motorist a road map is essential if one is to avoid spending more time asking the way of the passer-by than in actually driving. At least this is so when one is travelling the route for the first time, or after a long time gap. Stevenson wrote in his “Travels with a Donkey” that “..to travel hopefully is better than to arrive”. But that is of limited truth. Most of us set out on journeys for a purpose, and with a destination in mind. We are anxious to arrive. The journey then is a means to an end, and not the end in itself.

Part of the pleasure in undertaking a journey whether by car, bicycle on foot or whatever, lies in the planning beforehand, particularly if it is intended to include several different locations en route, or to avoid certain undesirable features. Sometimes the detail to be found in an ordinance survey map is required, at others times a street map of a town or city is the more appropriate. Then occasionally a panoramic view over a large area is more important than detail, so the small scale map covering much ground is required.

Each type of map has its uses, all are fascinating and absorbing, packed with interest if used imaginatively.

Though we perhaps associate maps most readily with geography, they are also closely allied with history. The names of places demonstrate how, in the past, conquerors have come and gone, driven sometimes by greed, sometimes by curiosity, perhaps to evangelise, alternatively to plunder. Others came by accident, or because they wanted to better understand the world in which we dwell. There on the map is revealed something of the past, as well as features of the present.

Many journeys can be undertaken without recourse to map reading. There are signs to follow, people to ask, the road is marked, or we can follow the crowd. Perhaps we have made the journey so many times before that, as the saying goes, we could walk the road blindfolded. But for other journeys we are foolhardy if we set out without map and compass. There are no obvious signs, and paths are ill-marked or absent. Being lost loses its charms unless we are confident of retrieving our way in due course.

But to make full use of a map we have to identify where we are now. The map in the shopping centre, or the display in a strange town is at its most helpful when there is that large arrow pointing at a spot and inscribed, “You are here”. We need a starting point to make sense of what is around us, and to determine a route to follow.

We are most secure in life when we know where we stand at the present; when we know where it is we want to go; when we have a map to guide us. Maps in the atlas are a pictorial record of experience gained over the past, of explorations made, and of careful compilation of facts. In our metaphorical journey of life we rely greatly upon the garnered experience of others who have travelled the routes before us, and recorded their knowledge and experience, and left the maps for our guidance.

How do we know where we start from? If we are in a familiar place where the landmarks are recognised, the answer is easy. It may be there are names around us on buildings or streets, sign posts or mile stones. Sometimes we can enquire of strangers who point us in the right direction.

In life’s journey if we wish to tread new ground, we need to know where we are starting from. We may not be just where we think we are. We have to lift up our eyes and look around for signs; we have to rely on the opinions of others.

That notorious traveller whose name is not revealed except under a pseudonym, the prodigal son, suddenly realised he was not where he thought he was, and certainly not where he wanted to be. It was not until he saw the arrow pointing “You are here” that he was able to retrace his steps, finding his way back so as to start the journey he really wanted to make. The map then made sense.

If an atlas contains gathered knowledge, and a history of the human race, so there are many sources of recorded experience to which we can turn to help us on life’s journey. But as with reading a street guide, it is not wholly helpful unless we first establish where we are now, and where we are heading.

Finding out where we are needs a period of quiet introspection. An analysis of what we view in our vicinity, an examination of the signs we see around us. It is a process of self-examination, perhaps referred to as meditation or prayer. But sometimes that doesn’t enlighten sufficiently, so the help of others has to be sought. Perhaps we shall first get the answer one always seems to get from the first passer-by when asking directions, “Sorry, I’m a stranger here myself.” But persistence is usually rewarded.

Then comes the question of where do we want to go. Perhaps it is the palace of peace and contentment, on the street of mutual respect, in the city of tolerance, in the county of love and understanding.

Having established where we are and where we want to go, then we can plan our route. We turn now to the books of reference, the recorded experiences other explorers in the atlases of human strivings. We supplement this by asking directions on the way.

As in our physical travels, our map reading is not consistently up to scratch, so we take a wrong turnings. Sometimes there are road works and diversions. Others may give misleading or even false directions. Then there has to be a stop and the assessment of “Where are we now?” begins anew.

Roads have their service stations, towns and cities their travel bureau, railway stations their enquiry offices, airports their information desks. All resting places where help may be sought, manned by the knowledgeable and helpful. Life’s journey is not through barren territory, for there too are stopping places. We call them churches, chapels, temples, mosques, synagogues and the like. In them we get the chance to ask, “Where am I?”, “Where am I going?” “Can you help to put me on my way?”

You will know there is not always agreement on the best routes. One will say, “When I go to Manchester I find the best way is via the Snake Pass”, whilst another swears by the merits of Woodhead. Yet another prefers the scenery through Chapel-en-le-Frith even though it does take longer. And so the arguments range on.

Perhaps on life’s journey we are all wanting the same destination, but in the end we choose our own path. We have our own criteria to determine what is the preferred route. We get weary and want to rest awhile. We are diverted for reasons good or bad. We are not ready for the rigorous climb, or we stop to assist another who is broken down or wandering off in the wrong direction.

But the important thing is that we keep our maps intact, use them with diligence, consult them with understanding.

From time to time we sketch out our own rough map the better to direct a stranger or a friend. Our own experience thus being used for the benefit of another. For we are not only travellers, we can become explorers and map makers in our own right. Our experiences may not be entered into the great atlases of the world alongside the efforts of such as Captain Cook, but our own small knowledge may allow us to direct someone possibly just to the end of the street and thus to the high road.

I like maps and atlases, not merely for the interest they generate and the facts they contain, but for what they represent. They are a reminder of the journey on which we are all engaged; a reminder of experience acquired, recorded and now passed on to help others; a representation of a spirit of exploration, and of a wish to aid fellow beings to better understanding; they encapsulate much of what is highest and best in the Christian ethic.

C.J. Rosling 1 August 1993

Fulwood 1 August 1993

Hucklow 29 August 1993; 15 November 1998

Mexborough 29 August 1993; 14 April 1996

Hucklow 27 February 2005

 

 

Sunday Sermon – 17 June 2018

Doing Summat for Nowt

It is not easy to avoid jargon words these days. Even Unitarians are prone to use them when discussing their beliefs, or describing church organisation. So no apologies for using a jargon phrase and describe myself as being moderately computer literate.

Actually though I sit in front of a computer screen during a part of most days, my skills in using the keyboard and the mouse (more jargon I’m afraid) are comparable to those I use when driving a car. I know how to start and stop, execute straightforward manoeuvres, but if something goes wrong under the bonnet I am stumped and have to call for assistance. Hiccups or punctures in the car and I turn to the AA for salvation. I rejoice at the coming of the yellow van with the orange flashing light on top. So if the computer “goes down”, I think is that is the correct term, I am quickly on the phone to those who know about these things – like my children and grandchildren.

But if the computer has become an everyday tool, a pearl beyond price akin to the washing machine or the food mixer, it remains nonetheless a source of wonder. Even more so the internet, which allows one to research in libraries around the world, to communicate easily, virtually instantaneously, with friends and relations whether they are in the same town or on the other side of the world, even to shop, to bank, to buy a ticket. We may use it to send photographic images or to watch news as it unfolds in Timbuktu or Tipperary.

One morning during last July I sat in my room in front of the screen and watched a degree ceremony as it took place in Exeter University. I saw the rich colours of the gowns, heard the music, watched the procession, listened to the speeches, and best of all saw a granddaughter mount the stage and smilingly receive her degree certificate. I will certainly have had a better view than most in the hall, and moreover could wipe away a tear of pride in the privacy of my own study. All this possible through the extraordinary, dare I say miraculous, power of the internet.

I enjoyed the speeches. Something the vice-Chancellor said stuck in my mind. He spoke of his pride in the academic achievements of the graduates, but added that his greater joy was the fact that his university topped the league for the quantity of voluntary service given by the students to the wider community during the past year. He spoke of a total of 100,000 hours of unpaid, voluntary work undertaken by the students; equivalent, he said, to the output of more than seventy, paid, full-time workers.

Giving freely of that most valuable of gifts, time, has long been something which I have strongly believed in. The strength of any community is measured by the willingness of folk to do, in a Yorkshire phrase, “summat for nowt”. Occasionally the statements “It’s not my job” or “I’m not paid to do that” may be justified, but not very often. Those phrases are generally associated with a reluctance to help, used as a get-out clause. “What can I do to help?” are musical words. Even more pleasing is the helping hand given before it was requested, the need anticipated, the gesture made freely and gladly.
Praise for voluntary service is not to decry paid work. In times past and in other places I have argued the case that the workman or woman, is worthy of the hire. If we don’t live by bread alone, we certainly are soon in desperate straits when we are unable to afford the staff of life.

Poverty wages, most notably those paid to workers in the third world who fill western shops and supermarkets with the goods to sustain our affluent life-style, are a disgraceful stain on our civilisation. But what illuminates a life is surely what that person did freely, generously and without thought of reward to give pleasure and joy to others.

There is an old prayer, attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola, in which the phrase “to give and not to count the cost” appears. Not all branches of the Christian faith embrace the canonisation of saints, but the saint’s prayer is intoned in many churches, chapels and meeting houses.

And the spirit of giving and not seeking reward is not exclusive to the Christian religion. People of all religions, or none, citizens of all nations are at their most saintly when labouring and asking for no reward, except the joy and satisfaction of giving freely.

Though, as I have said, generosity of mind, service to others, charity in its most comprehensive sense, is not confined to those who claim attachment to a religious faith, it is no accident that church adherents have been so prominent both collectively and individually in extending a helping hand to others. That second of the great commandments, love thy neighbour, is a firm rock, an essential foundation, on which faith is built.

One can mention just a handful of examples culled from an extensive list of Christian inspired organisations and enterprises based on charity in its widest meaning, Christian Aid, the work of the Salvation Army, Sisters of the Poor, Homelessness at Christmas, the community served by Margaret Barr in the Khasi hills. All these are but a tiny sample from a huge portfolio of service given not for financial reward. Liberal generosity offered freely is truly rewarding.

Both the Old and New Testaments are packed with examples of what might come under the umbrella of voluntary service. Ruth’s attachment to Naomi, the Good Samaritan, the disciples who followed Jesus around the countryside, Mary washing the feet of Jesus, are just a few examples of, as the saying goes, doing it for love and not for money.

This chapel in which we worship this morning, like hundreds of other places of worship, would quickly fold if a band of volunteers ceased to do “summat for nowt”.

Village enterprises, youth clubs, help for the aged, child-minding services, political parties, a multitude of support groups of all kinds, and many other activities which bring comfort, solace or joy into the lives of others depend upon giving and not submitting a bill afterwards. Who among us has not been cheered by a cup of tea in the hospital café manned (if that is the right word when the individual is invariably female) by a voluntary worker?

The volunteer at the end of a Samaritan telephone line has lifted the suicidal out of the pit of despair. The Rotary Club visitor to the children’s ward brought laughter so pain was temporarily forgotten.

But the voluntary task, done from a heart fuelled by love is not confined to organised volunteers. Of at least equal value are deeds done on an individual basis. They include shopping for the housebound neighbour, helping out by picking children up from school, small kindnesses in daily life which are of huge benefit to the recipient.

These too are part of the “summat for nowt” oil that lubricates, gives pleasure to the giver and receiver.

Worshipping may be about different things to different people, or vary for the same person at different times. The worshipper comes sometimes with sadness, sometimes with joy, mourning or celebrating, filled with wonder at the immenseness of the universe, marvelling at the perfection of the minute forms of life. Some will leave refreshed, others consoled. Bored, interested, puzzled, illuminated, the moods vary from day to day.

But a place should surely be found in our worship, at least occasionally, to give thanks for the ability of folk to serve others, to give without a reckoning up afterwards.

The spiritual replenishment that worshippers may seek in an act of worship is not diminished if we turn from time to time from contemplation of the mystery of life and its creation to rejoicing in the practical goodness of humankind. Rather it is enhanced.

A biblical passage familiar to many regular worshippers begins with the line, “Now let us praise famous men”. Someone more gifted with words than I, should pen a passage lauding the contribution of those who do so much to hold society together, to ease the burden carried by the neighbour, to fill hearts of the weary with thankfulness, and spread pleasure around.

The noble aim of love for neighbour is implemented though the volunteer who knows, or soon finds out, that doing summat for nowt is not without reward. The reward is finding that the joy and satisfaction felt by the recipient is contagious, and infects the giver too.

The widow’s mite and the rich man’s largess are both contributions to be welcomed. Mite or largess may have a cash value, or may be the unquantifiable sum of love and compassion, worth nowt to the banker but summat to the beneficiary, more precious than gold when it comes to evaluating human happiness.

C.J. Rosling 8th September 2007

Hucklow 9 September 2007

Sunday Sermon – 10 June 2018

Teeth

There is an old joke about a man who went to the barber’s shop for a hair cut. You can tell it is an old story because today the barber’s shop would be called The Unisex Hair Stylist Centre. The gentleman in question, as the saying has it, was now well passed the first flush of youth; his locks had thinned, leaving uncovered areas of scalp unadorned with curls. The hair that remained was trimmed to the customer’s satisfaction, but when the bill was presented the old man requested that it be reduced, on the grounds that much less work was required to cut his locks compared with trimming a full head of hair. The barber-come-hairdresser replied to the effect that the bill was made up of two items, a reduced fee for cutting but also, in his case, it was necessary to add a fee for time spent searching for the hairs, which brought the figure up to the normal hair-cutting charge.

I was reminded of this story when I visited the dentist a few days ago. Little work was required on the few teeth of my own still present, but the fee wasn’t reduced. I assume my dentist also charged a search fee.

As I am wont to do, I allowed my mind to travel down side roads of the mind, one thought tenuously attached to the next.

Many activities give rise to sayings that are then woven into everyday life and give colour to our conversations. The sea and sailing are a source of many. For example, which of us does not from time to time sail close to the wind, though I trust we are seldom, if ever, three sheets in the wind. There are times when we sail merrily along with a good following wind; on other occasions we need to batten down the hatches. Landlubbers we may be, but we use the language of the seafarer as we voyage through life, anchoring in a safe haven from time to time.

Along with images derived from the sea, I mused that teeth also play a part in enriching the language. One or two of us present are getting long in the tooth as gums recede. Like gift horses, our mouths should not be examined too closely. We like to think age equates with wisdom and sound judgement; maybe it does, but don’t bank on it, for it is said that there is no fool like an old fool. However, if wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age, a greater appreciation of our own weaknesses does.

Still on the theme of teeth, one of their central functions is they enable us to chew. Children were once instructed (perhaps they still are) to chew carefully before swallowing. If you gulp your food before thoroughly masticating it all sorts of unpleasant consequences could follow, from indigestion to other unmentionable symptoms, so adults once warned the young. As we get longer in the tooth, we are more inclined to chew things over when a proposition comes before us, rather than swallow it whole without testing its flavour.

It is a truism that modern life assails us most hours of the day with new information, attractive propositions, a splendid idea for tackling an old problem, a must-have new piece of equipment, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed. The need to chew before gulping down was never greater, the unpleasant consequence following a hasty swallowing, more likely.

Just to take one example. It is reported that the number of people in serious debt has grown greatly over the last few years. In a few cases this is through misfortune, accident or ill health. In many other cases it is surely the result of failing to chew things over before ingesting the advertising blurb, the seductive sales talk or the alluring brochure. Look before you leap, chew before you swallow, is wiser counsel than buy now, pay later.

Just as chewing adds enjoyment to eating, so reflection is an enriching activity. “Taste and see that the Lord is good”, the psalmist sings. Chewing things over makes foolish errors less likely. Reflecting upon, say, the meaning of a poem, a portrayal by an artist, the harmonies within a great piece of music, the beauty of a landscape or seascape, gives added meaning to life. Chewing over can be much more than delaying a decision. The exercise enables us to stop, taste and see what a hasty gobbler up would let pass unnoticed. The full flavour of life comes out in the chewing.

I think of teeth as tools, and like many tools they can be used for a variety of purposes, good or ill. The screwdriver is a most useful tool. As well as unscrewing things and fastening them up again, they can be used to prise off a lid, clear a blocked plughole, wedge a door open, scrape paint off the floor after careless decorating, and do a host of other essential tasks. With horror, I read the other day a man had been stabbed and badly injured when attacked by a thug wielding a screwdriver.

I have admired the skill of the joiner using a saw, I heard a musician with the aid of a violin bow play a tune on a saw. Alternatively Dr. Crippen is said to have murdered his wife before dismembering her with a saw. Tools need to be used with love not malice if they are to be a benison and not a cruel weapon. It behoves the workman to create rather than destroy when handling the tool.

Let us return to the subject of teeth. Teeth serve other purposes besides chewing. They can be bared to show in a snarl, they can bite and wound, they can snap in rage. Like all tools, we should not choose that they become weapons. We may show our teeth in a snarl, or they can become an element in a smile. Let’s be careful not to bite off more than we can chew, and not to hurt or maim others.

But enough of teeth. The analogies are becoming strained, the imagery boring. It is time to stop meandering down the by-roads and get back to what I intended to be my theme.

Life is lived at hectic speed because we choose to let be so. We can’t go back to the slow pace of years ago, and I’m not at all certain that even scenes viewed through rosy glasses of nostalgia tempt me to want to do so. What we can do is slow things down a little, to stand and stare from time to time, to enjoy today and not be so desperate to see tomorrow’s dawn.

The Sundays of our youth will not return, as shops open every day. Family car journeys are undertaken to places of amusement or to visit friends and relations on the seventh day of the week. Football matches are no longer restricted to Saturday afternoon and the odd evening. To be perfectly truthful the old Sundays could be dull and boring at times, even if we pretend they were all idyllic. There was however one great merit about the old-fashioned Sunday.

It was a day of the week that was different for it gave us chewing time. Sorry, I said I had moved on from teeth, so I’ll re-phrase that to “reflecting time”. True, we don’t need a special day on which to sit back and think for a while; we can do it anytime if we choose. But in this hectic world of ours, we make the choice to do so reluctantly, spasmodically, if at all. Regarding a day as special did give an incentive to sit down quietly for a time. Some might use the term meditating time, some praying time, wondering time as alternative terms for chewing or reflecting time.

The tastes and flavours of life, I’m sorry I just can’t seem to get away from teeth, come out as we chew ideas and memories slowly, to be relished and savoured. The church or chapel, a worshipping place be it cathedral or mission room, can be thought of as an eating-place, where the victuals are food for thought. Sometimes we are fed with ideas, sometimes we bring our own sandwiches, and quite often we combine the two. Rather like those restaurants where they say you can bring your own wine to accompany the provided meal.

In the neighbouring town of my youth stood the PSA Hall, PSA standing for Pleasant Sunday Afternoons. I suppose it was a kind of non-sectarian adult Sunday school. Though I never went there, it was a place where lectures were given, amateur musicians gathered, there were poetry readings and I think, painting classes. Though many of those who were members might say they were not religious people, non-believers even, they paused from a mundane working life for an afternoon to taste and see that music and literature provided a flavoursome dish, rich and satisfying. For a while those attending could see beyond the ordinary common events of their lives to think, as the walrus said, of other things.

Worship contains many elements, singing together, a lecture by the preacher, literary readings and much else. But not least in importance in my opinion is the time to get one’s teeth into the fare provided, or open the pre-packed hamper we bring with us, to sample flavours and one trusts, avoid indigestion.

I had better stop at that, this tooth reference is becoming an obsession. Thank goodness it’s another six month’s before the next dental check-up.

Chris Rosling March 2007

Hucklow 4 March 2007

Sunday Sermon – 3 June 2018

Pictures on the Wall

A few years ago, (I cannot be more accurate than that, for as one grows older time is telescoped and accurate recollection becomes more problematical) my wife and I visited an old friend. She had been widowed for some years, and lived alone in her bungalow, though her daughter and friends visited her almost daily. She died not very long ago, as biblical language would have it, “full of years”. But I am meandering, and in danger of losing the point of the story.

During the visit, a polite enquiry about a picture hanging on the wall which had attracted my attention, led to a tour of inspection of the numerous pictures which adorned the walls of her home. Each had a story. This one had been purchased early in her married life; another was a view of a landscape which had held particular attraction for her late husband; a colourful water painting was a constant reminder of the dear friend who painted it before presenting it as a gift. So the commentary went on. She enjoyed giving it, and I gained pleasure, not only from her obvious enjoyment in the telling, but from seeing the pictures themselves against the background of her explanation.

Our house, like most homes, contains numerous pictures, some on the walls, more in cupboards or on shelves waiting to be hung one of these fine days, when time permits. There are photographs, some framed and displayed, many more in albums or loose in drawers, waiting to be put into albums one of these fine days, when time permits. Some have been waiting rather a long time now! Retirement brings leisure, but palpably not time for all the jobs one has put off for years.

Our pictures are unlikely ever to arouse interest on “The Antique Road Show”. Sotheby’s will never want to auction them, and perhaps most would be passed over at a car boot sale. But they have a priceless quality, for, like our widow friend’s pictures, they are a trigger for memory, associated with happy occasions. There is a water-colour of a Sheffield view which was a surprise, spontaneous gift from a group of colleagues with whom I served for some years. I look at it and see kindness and friendship, in addition to the scene depicted.

A small oil painting given by a good friend hangs near my desk, valued just as much for what it represents in friendship as for the subject chosen, which happens to be Underbank Chapel. But I need not go on. All of us are to some degree collectors. Few are the homes that are furnished, not only with pictures, posters or photographs, but also with a multiplicity of articles which are reminders of times past, of people no longer physically close to us, of holidays spent, of childhood parties, of affections demonstrated.

The old lady speaks to her grand-daughter. “That vase was my grandmother’s; this brooch a twenty-first birthday present; my father always sat in that chair; see, here is the spoon your mother first used when she was a baby.” Such histories value common objects as irreplaceable treasures.

To be surrounded by, or at least to have within near reach, these material pleasures – these aids to memory – is, to use a phrase of an ex-Prime Minister, to be at ease with oneself. The material possessions take on an additional dimension. They become not objects, but icons. These symbols are more than mere inanimate articles, they represent our inmost sensibilities.

This need to have with us, or around us, a physical object to assuage our fears and comfort us in times of need, is present even in our earliest days. The young child will grab his or her cuddly teddy bear, soft blanket, or familiar toy when frightened or hurt, or to bring peace to mind and body so that sleep may descend.

We adults take into our territory, symbolic icons. The office or the work-space is adorned with photographs of our family, with trinkets donated by work-mates, with pictures that recall a life other than that of work. The soldier in his barracks or tent, softens the stark surroundings with personal possessions which mean something to him. The bedside locker in the public hospital ward invariably will contain personal trinkets so that the impersonal nature of the surroundings may be alleviated.

Material goods are acquired for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a kind of one-up-man-ship; a wish to have something the neighbours have not got in order to feel superior to them. Or it may be greed, covetousness, to have for the sake of having. Ignoble reasons like these, leading to the worship of material things, has rightly been condemned down the ages. But the love of those things which enrich our lives, which bring peace and a feeling of security to which I was referring earlier, is of a different dimension. Our goods have gained a value which is not monetary, more than sentimentality, but akin to spiritual prop.

There is a school of thought which says that we should abandon all material possessions; that ownership gets in the way of true Christian living; that our goods become our gods, our possessions our prayer books, our valuables replace the verities. Of course it would be foolish to deny that such can be a danger, a temptation into which we too readily fall.

But material goods should never, can never, replace spiritual values. If the goods themselves become the objects of worship, if we worship and value our car, our television set, our new three-piece suite, or whatever, above all things, then we are diminished as persons. But if the picture reminds us of the joy of friendship, the photograph of happy occasions, the ring of vows made, the watch of a parent who loved and supported us, then the object is not one to be valued for itself alone, but to be cherished as a reminder that love, understanding, goodness and self-sacrifice still exist, even though the world seems dark and the future obscure.

When we go away, however enjoyable the visit or exciting the holiday, we seldom return without a sense of relief. “It’s nice to be home”, we say. This phrase, “Nice to be home”, is significant. We don’t say “It is nice to be back in the house”, for there is a subtle difference between house and home. The home is more than the house. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea”, wrote Stevenson. The evocative words portrayed a picture of much more than a simple statement that the journey had ended.

A home is full of warmth, not necessarily the warmth that comes from central heating – though that helps – but the warmth that comes from love and laughter, from sorrow and sympathy, from full hearts and friendship. Those things which help transform a house into a home are stored within the house. They are the photographs, the pictures and the knick-knacks that lie on shelves, adorn walls or hide in closets within the edifice.

But inanimate objects in themselves don’t create those qualities which make a building into a home. We can pack the structure from cellar to attic with the most exquisite goods, or with memorabilia, and yet it remains a house. The picture on the wall contains no store of love in itself. It is absorbed into it when it is given as a gift, or when it is purchased in company with another that it may give pleasure and joy to both. The china plate is valued because she who first owned it loved it, and some of that love reflects from it, as we handle it with care. Our fingers wrap round the knife and fork, and we feel the warmth retained from other hands that once held the same artefacts.

Our goods may be as idols to be worshipped, and if so they are as cold and impersonal as any other images. Stand and admire from afar but do not touch, is a chill attitude to life. But if we are warm and loving in our relationships, that warmth is captured by the things around us. That love may be reflected to others, re-absorbed and transmitted onward.

The centre of a home is a family, be it large or small. Essentially it is people and their love and understanding for one another which make a home. We use this concept of family when we speak of the family of God, of which we are all members. And as families gather in houses and thereby elevate them into homes, so we gather in our places of worship, our chapels, churches, cathedrals, temples, synagogues or mosques.

Sometimes the walls of these buildings are decorated with tablets or pictures, the windows may contain stained glass. These are visible reminders and obvious reminders of the devotions given by past members of the family. There are of course many others whose contribution was as great but who are not so marked.

Or the walls may be plain, and windows clear. However they may be, for the house of God to become a home of worship, then there must be warmth and love in the hearts of those who inhabit it. Just as the gewgaws and baubles in our homes absorb something of the character of the owner and the ambience of the occasion, so the walls and interiors of the buildings used for worship absorb the sense of occasion, the devoutness of the worshippers, the dedication of the congregation. There may not be visible signs but the atmosphere has been created.

Our houses of God become homes for the family of God when the place is full of memories of good people with noble aspirations. And a home need not be ancient to have memories, for memories can be recent. An ancient pile may still be a house after the passage of many years, whilst the newly build house rapidly becomes a home. The key is with those who dwell within, not through the mere passage of time.

We may look at the pictures on our walls, the photographs in our albums, or the china in our cabinet with fond memories, with happy thoughts, with appreciation for good friends, devoted parents and loving companions. But that is not enough. Our memories and our gratitude needs to be a spur to our so living that others in their turn will look on our lives with thankfulness.

Likewise in our homes of God, the warmth created by others past and present will dissipate unless it is constantly renewed. Todays artefacts may become the dust of tomorrow, but goodness and mercy must be eternal in the hearts of men and women. Let us cherish, but not worship, those material goods which are reminders of the world of goodness and mercy, and the warmth of human kindness and understanding.

And as we cherish them, let us imbibe them with our love, so that it overflows , enriching the lives of others as well as our own. That which is conceived, or received, or given in love, is more precious than jewels. more valued than gold. For without love, we are nothing.

C.J. Rosling 9 May 1993

Fulwood 9 May 1993 23 January 2000
Hucklow 26 Sep 1993 14 Sep 1997 12 Aug 2001
Mexborough 26 September 1993 1 November 1998