Sunday Sermon – 26 August 2018

Seeing and Understanding

Clearing out a drawer of my desk the other day, and not before time some would say, I discovered an old children’s book. Glancing through the pages I found a series of pictures where “the eye is deceived” as the heading had it. I am sure you will have seen the sort of thing yourself at some time.

One picture showed the silhouettes of two faces in profile, facing one another. But as one looked at it, the area between the two dark heads revealed an alternative picture, that of a white urn or vase.

Another picture was of a group of cubes with different coloured faces. At first one appeared to be looking down on them from above. Then as one stared at the picture, the view changed and it seemed one was looking upwards at the underside, and then once again the view was from above.

In both cases the picture had remained the same. What changed was the perception of the viewer as to what the pictures portrayed. The interpretation rested with ones-self.

Over the page were a number of photographs described as “puzzle pictures”. Guess what they are, was the challenge. The pictures were of common objects photographed from unusual angles, or from a short distance, showing only a portion of the article. A comb was snapped from close up, so it appeared like a fence with great sharp stakes sticking upwards. A brush head with similar focus seemed to be ripening cereal in a field. You know the sort of thing, as you surely will have seen similar pictures yourself. To identify the pictures you had to adapt your normal opinion of what the world looked like, and reject a narrow interpretation of the appearance of common articles. It was almost like learning to see again. A fresh angle or perspective on the familiar object took one into new areas.

Are you like me and thrown into confusion if the map on the page doesn’t show north at the top? If the English Channel is other than at the bottom of the page, and the Shetland Isles at the top, then it is difficult to accept that this is a proper map of the British Isles. Useless to be told that in reality Scotland is no more up there than London is below Edinburgh. We know different, because only what is familiar can be true.

Of course it is not simply the eye which is being deceived in the puzzle picture, but our interpretation of what the world looks like is challenged. We turn the map round to better understand it because we have accepted that truth lies only in the familiar, or so we are apt to feel. There is unease in looking from new angles and being dared to admit the new viewpoints are as valid as the old ones.

An experience we all have had is to listen to some-one describing an event at which we have been present – witness to an accident, perhaps, a reported conversation, or even recalling a sermon – and to be sure that the narrator hasn’t got it quite right. One saw and heard it rather differently. But likely it was not what one saw or what one heard that was different, but the reaction to, and interpretation of, the events which differed. “What is truth?” asked jesting Pilate; like Beauty, it so often rests in the eye, or more plausibly the mind, of the beholder.

There is an old warning given to those called upon to judge the rights and wrongs between two persons in dispute. It cautions that there can be more than one side to a story. A line in one of our hymns has a similar theme – “…things are not what they seem”. And then there is that old couplet, a one time favourite quotation for a wayside pulpit;

“Two men looked out from prison bars
One saw mud, the other stars.”

The window was the same, the view was the same, but where one looked, how one felt, how one chose to interpret the scene affected what each perceived. Like the pessimist and the optimist viewing the glass containing liquid to the half-way mark – half full and half empty are equally correct descriptions of the same scene, but the perception of what one sees, and the reaction to it, quite different.

To see is a small verb, but one which may have a narrow or a broad meaning. We may confine it to sight, so that if we close our eyes we no longer see. But we may broaden it, so that seeing is no longer merely about eyesight but encompasses understanding. The most satisfying moments of teaching come when some-one has been led through the jungle of facts and explanations, and suddenly says, “Yes, now I see”. The revelation has come, not to the physical eye, but to the inward sense. A piece of the jig-saw of life, of knowledge, has fallen into place.

If one believes, as I do, that within each one of us is a spark of the divine, one may also accept that this ability, not merely to visualise but also to comprehend, stems from this divine glowing ember. There are a number of gifts which are unique to humankind – anticipation, communication, recollection, appreciation for example – but not the least of these gifts is comprehension, or the ability to understand and make sense of the environment in which we dwell.

Eyesight is a precious attribute, as are the other senses of hearing, taste and smell. But they may mislead us, as do the puzzle pictures in the child’s book, if we rely upon them in isolation. It is the interpretation of these sensations, which is the further ingredient without which we are deceived.

I remember reading some time ago of how a person born blind might sometimes be able to have an operation to give them sight. But giving sight in this way was only a start of a long learning process. After a successful operation the person had to learn to see – to make sense of a mass of confusing lines, shapes and surfaces with confidence, without the need to touch and feel. The eye merely provides the raw information. It is the mind which assembles, collates and interprets this information. In the profile of the two heads facing one another I mentioned earlier, we decide whether it is the heads which are of greater importance, or whether the space which is between them is of greater significance. So the picture may be of people, or of an urn.

It is because of this role played by the mind in interpreting what the eye sees, that we may say that what we see is determined by what we are. Whether we see mud or stars, whether we rejoice at what is left in the glass, or bemoan that which has gone, is a reflection of ourselves. It indicates how we see the world.

One of the best known and most often quoted passages in the New Testament is in Matthew 5, the verses known as the Beatitudes. You will recall one of those verses,

“How blest are those whose hearts are pure;
They shall see God.”

Sight is governed by what we are. What we are is intricately inter-woven with our sight and understanding.

“God be in my head
And in my understanding:
God be in my eyes
And in my looking;”

run the opening words of the vesper hymn. Seeing, understanding, believing are not only attributes of human existence, they are its life-blood. If what we see around us only depresses; if the landscape appears solely to consist of mud; if the world is utterly devoid of beauty, and the visions are nightmares; then perhaps it is not our eyesight which is faulty but a failure to comprehend. The mass of information fed to us is, as the computer buff would say, not being properly processed. Perhaps we have a pre-conceived opinion of what the world is really like, and so, as it were, direct our eyes to accept only that which fits that diagnosis.

You recall that phrase in the Old Testament which says that God looked upon the world “…and saw that it was good”. If one follows up this metaphor, it surely does not imply that there is nothing bad, or evil and wicked within the world, for that is palpably untrue. There is only too much sinfulness around us. But we must not put it all out of proportion. The glass of goodness is sadly not full to the brim, but neither is it empty.

The divine spark, of which I earlier spoke, is within us all. If God could look upon the world and see the goodness within it, so can we. That is not to say that we should ignore, or be selectively blind to sinfulness and wickedness, but we should not be overwhelmed by it. There is no cause for despair or deep pessimism. To listen to some people one would imagine that there is no joy, no beauty, no wonders to behold. Such selective vision is a denial of our divine inheritance.

“Teach me to see what Thou dost see
And love what Thou dost love”

wrote the hymnist. Part of the object of our worship is surely to extend and deepen our understanding. In so doing we see more clearly and more truly, and to hope more realistically, that we may come to see God.

C.J. Rosling 10 September 1994

Fulwood 11 September 1994
Mexborough 11 September 1994; 2 May 1998
Hucklow 25 May 1998

Sunday Sermon – 19 August 2018

Three Little Pigs

“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down,” boasted the Big Bad Wolf. This was no idle threat, for though not completely successful, he succeeded in two attempts out of three. As with most reports of accidents or disasters, eyewitness accounts vary; one reporter says the two imprudent pigs perished in the jaws of the marauder. Others report, I hope accurately, that the two pigs escaped and were given shelter by their brother, who had with foresight built his house of more resistant materials, bricks and mortar rather than straw and brushwood, on a foundation of rock, not shifting sand. The strongest blast the wolf could deliver was unable the breach his walls.

Generations of children have listened to the story, as they lay warm in bed before drifting off to sleep. Doubtless more will listen to the tale tonight and other nights for many years to come. Where the story originated I do not know. But it has stood the test of time, because, like all good fables, it is based on a truth. I will return to that thought in a moment.

Wolves have got themselves a bad name for wickedness. One brought Red Riding’s grandmother to an untimely end, and might have done for the little girl herself had she not been observant and wary, perhaps beyond her years. The observant grandchild became suspicious of a trap before making her escape and seeking assistance. Wolves not only disguise themselves as grandmothers, but also, on occasion, wear the clothes of a sheep to waylay the innocent. All of us need to be cautious when honeyed words are spoken. Some wolves have perfected the art of using enticing language to snare the innocent.

Then, just because some wolves do evil things we shouldn’t, as the old cliché puts it, tar them all with the same brush. Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome it is said, owed their lives to the tender care of a wolf. The domestic dog, man’s best friend some say, though I’m not keen on canines myself and view most of them as potential enemies, counts the wolf among its ancestors.

Conversely, not every pig is a plump innocent babe. The pigs, led by Napoleon, in Orwell’s Animal Farm, shifted from declaring equality for all to establishing a dictatorship, proclaiming that some were more equal than others. It was the pigs that exploited the loyal, hard-working Boxer the Horse before sending him to the knacker’s yard.

Nor, I should point out, are little girls invariably made up of sugar and spice. OK when they are good, but if bad, as the nursery rhyme reminds us, they are horrid. I’ve never been too enamoured with Goldilocks, who broke into the bears’ home like a thief and a vandal. Beware of blondes with curly tresses, I say.

We use the term “fairy tale” as a euphemism for an untruth, a lie, for an account that is made-up and deceitful. But many of these old stories told to children are far from simple fabrications. They are akin to parables. They are stories told in simple language to explain the world, to point to ethical principles, to show that the universe contains both goodness and evil.

Though I personally don’t subscribe wholly to it, there is a widespread and long-standing religious belief that the world is a battlefield between two opposing forces. The forces of evil, goes the theory, are led by Satan, alias the Devil, who with sophisticated cunning uses a mixture of bribery, tempting offers and attractive packaging to deceive the unwary. God’s armies go under the banner of the Lord, a deity also known by a number of different names. God’s goods may seem to the superficial eye less attractive than those of the opposition, being sturdy rather than flamboyant, but they are built to last and give a lifetime satisfaction. Quality will tell in the end, say the soldiers of the Lord; the fashionable ephemera will be shown up in time for what they are, froth without substance, dwellings made of straw or brushwood.

One does not have to accept the imagery of God versus the Devil to know that there is a fundamental truth hidden within the metaphor; the world can be a treacherous place for the naïve. Temptations abound to bewitch the gullible, quick pleasures can lead to great unhappiness and distress. The oldest pig, to return to my opening words, was wise enough to accept that one needs to dwell in a solidly constructed abode if the inevitable storms are not to destroy it.

That is one of the two thoughts in my mind this morning. The tale of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, Jesus’ reference to a house built upon a rock rather than with foundations laid upon shifting sand, the parable of the Prodigal Son, Goethe’s opera Faust, Hogarth’s painting, The Rake’s Progress, and much else in art and literature, are linked as by the one theme. Prisons and addiction treatment centres are full of folk who can attest to the power in the lungs of the big bad wolf. The gale wreaks havoc amongst poorly constructed edifices built of flimsy materials. The rock of integrity is a foundation upon which to build. Ethical standards will judge the quality of materials selected. A valid religious faith trains us in the arts of bricklaying and roof construction.

The second thought is one hinted at earlier whilst musing upon the fact that not all wolves are evil demons, any more than all pigs, or little girls for that matter, are angels in disguise. To categorise folk is an exercise prone to inaccuracies. Not only can good and bad be found in nations anywhere, regardless of sect, race, gender, colour, creed or nationality, but both saint and sinner hide within the single individual.

It has been remarked that within the newborn babe may dwell a nascent pot-bellied, cantankerous old man, or an over-weight, complaining old woman. Who foretold the future for the tiny babe that grew to be the convicted Moors murderess Myra Hindley, or of Florence Nightingale who brought comfort to the wounded. The sadistic prison guard in Belson and the humanitarian worker risking her life in the earthquake disaster zone both once lay in the cradle. What force chose the path the young child will follow? Which of us is without sin and therefore entitled to throw stones at another? Which of us can say with complete honesty that we would never, as two young pigs did, make a false choice of building materials? Which of us has never had the need to shelter from the storm within the walls erected by one more prudent than us?

The bedtime story we learnt as a child, to be passed on in turn to the next generation, presents the facts of life in simple language, illustrated on a canvas on which only black or white may be daubed. As we grow older the palette contains shades of grey also, as the colours mix. As the painting fills out, the underlying starkness is softened by greys, blues and reds, but the black and white foundation gives the picture structure.

The simple bedtime story introduces us to life in simple, rather stark, terms. It also illustrates that life is about choices. It emphasises that we need to exercise choice from a firm base, for there are those who will harm us if we are casual, seeking always the easy option. As we grow in years we discover that choosing the right option can be difficult. It can also involve making a judgement about which alternative is less wrong, when neither course is stainless and pure.

A re-occurring theme of mine is the complexity of deciding what is the right thing to do when the choices are not between yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, good or bad, but in the no-man’s land between two extremes. We can start from a firm platform of conviction, as did the wisest pig in the tale, and try not to stray too far away from there. There is an old revivalist hymn, not sung in our denomination, but many will know the rousing tune. The first verse poses this question.

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift and the cables strain,
Will your anchor drift, or firm remain?

Though the dwelling in the hymn tosses on the sea rather than be rooted on the land, the message is the universal one, presented in fairy tale, bedtime story, parable or novel; there will be huffing and puffing, blizzards and storms, around us on many days in our lives, so make ready beforehand. The big bad wolf is on the rampage.

C.J. Rosling 1 June 2006

Stannington 4 June 2006
Hucklow 18 June 2006

Sunday Sermon – 12 August 2018

All one Big Family

There is an established tradition of having special days, weeks, or even years devoted to a subject of concern. We have had a No-Smoking day, a bus-only day, recently there was a “No Car Day”. I heard of a “Take your Dog to Work Day”. Annual weeks such as National Heart Week are promoted, as is Breast Cancer Week and HIV Week. A year or two ago there was the Year of the Disabled and one could find many, many more similar examples. When our attention is drawn to some cause, usually social or environmental, about which we are urged to show concern, and support the cause being publicised.

Amongst the multitude of such special occasions most frequently devoted to worthy causes affecting us at in our own country, are those, like Christian Aid Week, or One World Week, which remind us, that though we live on an island, we cannot be isolated from the world as a whole. To use a cliché, we are all part of one another; we are one family in God.

An aspect of this which has become much to the fore in recent years is that frequently referred to as the environment. The squandering of resources, the pollution of land, sea and air, disregard for the landscape and of the life it supports, are not matters which rebound solely on the individual culprit, but affect the whole human family, and will burden human families yet unborn.

After decades of indifference to, and ignorance of, the threat, at last “green issues” as they have been nick-named, have become matters which more and more of us are taking seriously. If the next generation of children, we are rapidly realising, is to sing

“All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small..”

as a peon of praise and not as a component of a remembrance service for days gone by, we have to all take the threat seriously, and start paring away our selfish instincts.

But I would like to direct my few words this morning to another aspect of this theme of us as part of one single, albeit large, human family.

We are all part of one body, which consists of several members, says Paul in one of those illuminating metaphors which encapsulate an eternal truth. The whole body is the sum of the parts. The parts are inter-dependant, each separate, each unique, but functioning incompletely without the complementary contribution from the other constituents.

Of course the analogy is imperfect, as are all analogies. People can and do live full, productive lives even though one sense is absent or failing, but the comparison is sufficiently accurate to illustrate the point more than adequately. People are not self-sufficient. A community, be it large or small, is dependent upon the contribution of all its members if it is to flourish, to flower, and not to disintegrate.

But Paul’s analogy was not merely about the component parts of the body, and the way one depended upon the other. It went further than that. The equal value of all the parts was stressed. The eye is not of greater value than the ear, nor is the tongue held in greater esteem than either of them. All the parts are vital; all are esteemed.

When I was a boy, as when many of you were boys and girls, we looked with pride at the map of the world, large parts of which were coloured red, and had described to us the British Empire on which the sun never set. The peoples in those lands coloured crimson in our atlases, all owned allegiance to the Emperor. The pictures in our geography books, the stories in our history books, underlined the philosophy of dependency within this Empire. Our spices came from India, our tea from Ceylon, lamb from New Zealand, sugar from the West Indies, and so on. In return, it was said, Britain defended the peoples and gave them good government.

But what was not apparent, for it could not be said with truthfulness, was that neither dependency nor inter-dependency was accompanied by an equality of value accorded to each citizen. To be described as being from the colonies was to be placed in category which Orwell’s pigs would have identified. “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

Now the Empire has gone, replaced by the Commonwealth. Other Empires have crumbled or are crumbling. For all nations, states, empires, commonwealths, communities or whatsoever, contain the seeds of their own destruction unless inter-dependence is accompanied by equality of value for their citizens. Neither authoritarianism nor paternalism is a substitute for equivalence of treatment, of the dignity of being on equal terms with ones fellows.

We are all of equal value in the eyes of God, we sometimes rather glibly proclaim. A religious faith, be it Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Jewish or whatever, that does not have that precept at its core is, to my mind, fatally flawed. But men and women when proclaiming the equality of all in the sight of God must go beyond mouthing glib words; they must match behaviour to pronouncement.

One World has to be based upon this tenet of equality. That is a massive stride to take. For example, we may think of a Jew and Palestinian, a Boer and a Zulu, a Sikh and a Hindu, a North Korean and a South Korean, a Serb and a Croat, and many, many more examples of where the one despises and denigrates the other; a loathing that is generously reciprocated.

But all these are examples from distant places. The problems in the world are enormous, and our influence is small. Aren’t there examples nearer home? Could we not make a start in a small way? Could we look around and see if making a modest step towards equally valuing is possible on our own doorstep?

The easy step is, say, valuing equally the peasant on the Indian sub-continent, the cocoa picker in West Africa, the Chilean harvesting grapes or the Malaysian worker in the rice-field. We never see them personally and they live a long way away. Of course it is no great effort to say, with sincerity even, that God values them equally along with us.

But on our doorstep, in our own country, in our own town, it is more difficult. Do we value as a human being equally the accountant and his cleaner, even though the former is a white male, and the latter a black female? If we are serious about one world, why in our own country do the school-leavers whose parents were born in Somalia, Bangladesh, Jamaica or Nigeria find certain employers value them less than contemporaries who have white skins? Why are children with black skins not infrequently taunted on their way to and from school, and why do their parents suffer from thoughtless racist jokes? Why have families been hounded from homes in so regarded white areas?

Perhaps overt racism is the work of a minority within our nation. But that it exists, overt or covert, is a blot upon what is still described as a christian society. Our advocacy of the ideals of One World will ring the truer when the canker is excised.

And the divisions which we see are not only those related to colour and race. There are divisions of class, divisions by sex, divisions by residence and so it goes on.

We do have a One World Week, where the theme is of great issues. It is about saving the environment from destruction. It is about sharing out the resources equitably, so starvation, preventable disease, inadequate or non-existent housing, degrading poverty, violent conflict, obscene warfare, all become things of the past.
These laudable aims must always be part of our prayers. That these evils continue to exist in a world which boasts mind-blowing technical skill is a disgrace.

But we stand accused of hypocrisy if we demand, rightly, that the Somalian is fed, and the Calcutta beggar housed, but look with indifference at the “Wogs go home” graffiti on the subway walls, laugh at the offensive saloon bar joke that seeks to denigrate fellow citizens in our midst, or express our superiority to the citizen who lacks our education or so valued social status.

Perhaps some think I trivialise the One World ideals. I don’t intend to do so. If I resent the citizen in the midst, how can I preach the need for equality for all abroad?

There is an old joke about the husband who boasted that his wife and he shared all decisions between them. “Yes”, said the wife, “he makes the important decisions about where the government is going wrong, about whether we should join the common market or not, and our views on monetary union in Europe, and I just decide the unimportant things, like when to pay the gas bill, what we need from the supermarket, what colour to paint the bathroom, and where to get a plumber to mend the leaking pipe”.

We need to make the important decisions about supporting efforts to end poverty and disease in large areas of the world; about doing our part to stop the desecration or destruction of the world in which we live.

But there are some lesser decisions that should not be overlooked, like loving the neighbour who literally lives within our neighbourhood; or speaking up for the persecuted within our own communities.

Our brothers’ eyes are chock-a-bloc with beams. Let us attend to our motes so we can see what we are doing as we seek to remove them. Or is our mote really a beam?

C.J. Rosling

Upper Chapel 21 October 1990
Fulwood 13 September 1992
Mexborough 13 September 1992
Hucklow 19 November 1995; 20 October 2002

Sunday Sermon- 5 August 2018

The most Beautiful Stew in The World

All the world loves a story. A catalogue of best-loved stories will contain a substantial section of titles said to be written for children, but which delight adults just as much, if not more. Many of the most memorable children’s books are like that – Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan – the list is substantial. One of the joys of looking after children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces is that it gives one the excuse to refresh the memory by re-reading stories of old under the guise of telling them to children.

One of my favourite narratives is “The Wind in the Willows”. Like many good plots it has a moralistic theme which is subtle and unobtrusive. Good eventually triumphs over evil; pleasures are shared, sacrifices made, friendships honoured, weaknesses forgiven. But the joy is not so much in the in the moral, rather in a beautifully written tale, with an enthralling story-line. Fear and pleasure, excitement and placidity, are perfectly balanced. There are many memorable passages in the book, and I was reminded of one of them by a remark heard by chance one morning on the Today programme of the radio some years ago. I’ll come to that in a minute.

I am sure you remember something of the plot. Ratty and Mole’s friend Toad has a fascination for motor cars. Eventually this leads him into criminal behaviour, and he is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, for stealing a motor-car, driving recklessly and seeking to evade the police. The passage in the book to which I refer comes after Toad has escaped from prison disguised as a washer-woman. He is on the run. Having been thrown into the waters of the canal by a barge-woman who sees through his disguise, he retaliates by stealing the horse which tows the canal barge. Riding across the Common he meets a Gypsy, who is sitting beside a fire over which hangs a stew-pot. From the iron cauldron

“…came forth bubblings and gurglings, and a vague suggestive steaminess. And smells – warm, rich and varied smells – that twined and twisted and wreathed themselves at last into one complete, voluptuous, perfect smell that seemed like the very soul of Nature taking form and appearing to her children, a true Goddess, a mother of solace and comfort.”

The ravenously hungry Toad, who has not eaten that day, bargained away the horse he had stolen in exchange for a meal from the pot. Whereupon the Gypsy

“…tilted up the pot, and a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgled into the plate. It was, indeed, the most beautiful stew in the world…”

And what was the remark on “Thought for To-day” that brought this passage to mind? It was Rabbi Blue, speaking some years ago, on the morning Radio 4 programme. Those who have heard him will know that food ranked with religion as one of the important constituents of the good life.

He was fond of cooking himself, and spoke of a stew he had made recently into which went left-overs and some dishes which had been comparative failures. For, he said, “A stew, like the love of God, is big enough to encompass all our mistakes.”

It was that remark, “… the love of God is big enough to encompass all our mistakes”, which caught my attention, has stuck in my mind since, and which reminded me of the Gypsy’s “…most beautiful stew in the world…”

The use of everyday articles, scenes or events to help the understanding of the profound is a well-used device. The best known examples are among the parables of the New Testament. The grain of mustard seed, the leaven or yeast in the bread, the lost coin, the sower broadcasting his seeds, the candle which is placed high, are all familiar images.
The stew which is big enough to encompass all our mistakes is surely worthy to be added to the list.

We struggle frequently to understand the meaning of the words and sonorous phrases used in our worship. The peace of God which passes all understanding, forgiveness, repentance, confession, salvation, the love of God and so on – at least I struggle and I suspect I am not alone.

Perhaps at this stage of our development. some ideas are too difficult for us to fully grasp. As a young child may find difficulty in translating the written symbol into words as he struggles to learn to read, so we hear the words and phrases, without fully comprehending the meaning. Paul likened it to seeing through the glass darkly.

He asserted that our understanding is only partial. We may boast of our knowledge and grasp of the truth, but in reality we are only on the shores of an ocean which stretches way beyond a distant and unexplored horizon. And so it is with the love of God. We partially comprehend but the vastness of the conception overwhelms us.

The love of God which can absorb our failings, remaining consistent in spite of our sins and weaknesses, is a powerful image. It is eternal, we say, that is, it is without beginning and without end.

The word eternal is glibly repeated, but when we think about it, what does that mean? Something that has no starting or finishing point is difficult to imagine. And yet, if the love of God is to mean anything it has to have been always present and without end.

A mathematician makes use of eternity in his or her calculations. Whole branches of mathematics are based upon the notion of infinity – that is without boundaries, going on for ever. “For ever and ever, world without end” is a familiar enough phrase to a Christian church-goer. And yet I doubt if any of us fully grasp the complete meaning of such words as “infinite” or “infinity”, “eternal” or “eternity”.
And so we turn to metaphor and simile to help us. The love of God is like a stew, which is big enough to encompass all our mistakes. As the air we breathe surrounds us, enveloping us and insinuating itself into every nook and cranny, so we are bathed in the love of God, unable to escape it.

The Psalmist sang of the impossibility of hiding from God. On the same theme, Francis Thompson in his poem “The Hound of Heaven” describes the fruitless attempt to flee from Him. God’s love is all pervasive.

God’s love is not about ignoring errors, or even about making allowances. It is about absorbing and transforming. Our love for one another is frequently selective.

You might say we are choosy about the ingredients, accepting the one but rejecting the other. Into the Gypsy’s stew which Toad so enjoyed, everything had been added –

“…partridges and pheasants and chickens and hares and rabbits and pea-hens and guinea-fowls and one or two other things.”

It was the most beautiful stew in the world. Rabbi Blue’s stew took in that which had been left on one side, those things which were below par, and blended them into a marvellous whole. God’s love accepts what is there. It is big enough to encompass all our mistakes.

Rabbi Blue, as I recall, was concocting his stew because he was to entertain others to a meal. It was to be a shared, convivial occasion, and no doubt that is how it turned out to be. Who would have known of the Gypsy’s stew if it had not been shared with Toad?

And so too is the love of God shared. It is not given exclusively to the chosen few. In contrast to the Gypsy’s stew, it has not to be bargained for. It is freely available, day or night, twenty four hours a day. “We never close” is the apt slogan for the heavenly all the year round restaurant.

Not one of us can say with truthfulness that we invariably do all those things which ought to be done, or leave undone all those things which ought not to be done.

As with the girl in the nursery rhyme, though there may be times when we are very, very good, there are certainly other occasions when we are horrid. That all the ingredients which make up our lives, the edible and the inedible shall we say, can be gathered together in God’s great stew-pan and be transformed into the rich, comforting gravy of life is a source of wonder. The metaphor may be faulty and inexact; the reality is sure.

It may be difficult to accept that God’s Love is non-discriminating, all-embracing, unquestioning and open to all.

Our own love so often is given much more reluctantly, and with strings attached. But Rabbi Blue’s observation, made semi-humorously albeit with underlying profound seriousness, was right to the point.

The love of God does encompass all, the good, the bad and the indifferent. It is the most beautiful stew in the world.

If we are to be worthy of the title “Children of God” then we must learn to make stews. Stews which are the most beautiful within the world, and beyond the world. Stews which are big enough to absorb the perceived faults of others, the known short-comings of ourselves, and bind all into one homogeneous, harmonious whole.

Love makes the world go round, was the title of a popular song of yesteryear. Be that as it may, love is the basis of peace, harmony and contentment. Love of God and by God is the core of spirituality.

Respect for others is the key-stone which allows neighbour to live with neighbour. And the stew which is big enough to encompass all mistakes is the essential nourishment for human and spiritual life.

So let us retire to the kitchen and start the preparations. And remember to be catholic in the choice of the ingredients, for the joy of the stew is in its ability to absorb all, and transform the mediocre into the magnificent.

C.J. Rosling 19 November 1995

Fulwood 19 November 1995
Hucklow 21 January 1996; 5 December 1999
Chesterfield 21 January 1996
Mexborough 12 May 1996
Upper Chapel 20 February 2000

And in a more abbreviated form preached in local churches in 1987