Sunday Sermon – 30 September 2018

Come Ye Thankful People, Come

There will be many present who remember, like me, a different pattern of daily existence; perhaps a more ordered timetable in a way of their life. The household weekly sequence of events followed a continuity similar to that in the old folk song “Dashing along with the smoothing iron”.

If it is washing day it must be Monday. The boiler is lit, the water is heated, the tubs and scrubbing board pulled out, the dolly blue and the Reckett’s starch are to hand, the pressure is adjusted on the mangle rollers, and for dinner there will be cold meat from the remains of the Sunday joint, with boiled potatoes and beetroot, and a rice pudding to follow.

Tuesday and the ironing must be done, Wednesday for upstairs cleaning, Thursday for downstairs, fish for dinner on Friday, Saturday the dreary queuing for an eternity in the Co-op buying groceries, then next door to the butchers for meat. Church on Sunday, Sunday School in the afternoon; and so the weeks went by in a steady rhythm.

Dinner was a meal in the middle of the day then, (lunch was a mere mid-morning break) with bread and jam and home made cake at tea-time. Tinned salmon, or ham and tongue, jelly and blanc-mange with Sunday tea, and if there was tinned fruit you ate bread and butter with it, lest the sweetness was too rich for delicate stomachs.

And now for many of us the pattern changes. The television set, the home video, the washing machine, the refrigerator, the deep freeze, and the microwave oven have brought with them, and catered for, a different pattern of living. The main meal is now in the evening, with a sandwich in the middle of the day. Muesli has replaced porridge for breakfast, and I haven’t eaten bread and jam in years. My children and grandchildren have never heard of blanc-mange. Who can tell the time of day, let alone the day of the week by whether the washing machine is switched on or not? The mangle is in the museum, and starch is sprayed from an aerosol instead of being dissolved in water.

In a still more distant age, seed-time and harvest dominated the largely rural pattern of life. If the harvest was poor, the winter would indeed be hard. What was not stored in the barns, clamped in the fields, dried in the lofts or salted and preserved “…ere the winter storms begin”, would not be imported from the Common Market or the Commonwealth.

Now as we eat our kiwi fruit, buy our pre-prepared pizzas, purchase a Chinese take-away, or visit the local Indian Restaurant – delights of which our parents knew nothing – most of us are hardly aware of whether or not the harvest is good. Yet, with stomachs comfortably full, we still sing with vigour the lines of the hymn which go,

“We have enough, yet not too much to ask for more.”

Yes many things have changed in my short life span. As a nation, we are better fed, with a greater variety of food available than ever was in my youth. We can afford to talk today not only of eating, but of healthy eating. The growth industry is slimming diets and weight-watching; calorie counting and fat-free foods. We open our freezers indifferent to the calendar, eating raspberries at Christmas, turkey in the spring, and pork at any time heedless of whether there is an “r” in the month or not. Sales of cookery books are best sellers, only outclassed by the Bible, but referred to more frequently than the religious text.

For better or for worse, pate has replaced potted meat, tripe and onions given way to chile con carne, ravioli is preferred to beans on toast, no more jelly and custard but black forest gateau instead. The contents of the supermarket trolley will include a bottle of wine from Australia, California, Italy or France, as well as curry powder and soya sauce. Olive oil is now for cooking, not for mixing with raspberry vinegar to ease a child’s sore throat.

Both nationally and internationally much has changed. More food is produced in the world than ever before. “The desert shall blossom as the rose”, said the Old Testament prophet, and indeed this is so where irrigation has brought life to barren, arid areas; though sadly balanced by once fertile regions reduced to new, man-created wildernesses.

Nevertheless, so much food is produced that we talk of lakes of wine, mountains of beef or warehouses over-flowing with butter. Farmers are paid to stop growing food or to produce less. Fine crops are left to rot in the fields because there is already a glut of food. Other harvested crops are deliberately destroyed as barns are full to over-flowing.

And yet starvation and malnutrition is experienced by more than half the population of the world. The pot-bellied starving child, the human skeleton figures of hungry inhabitants from Africa or Asia haunt our television screens. Bursting barns and empty stores coexist as “haves” get more and “have-nots” less.

But some things haven’t changed very much. The agricultural worker the world over is, as ever was, among the poorest paid. Many workers in the Third World countries on whose harvests we rely for our comfort, live in abysmal poverty, as they pick the leaves which are dried for our tea-cups, harvest exotic fruit for our tables, or leave the land to grub in vast mines for the gold and diamonds they will never own.

I sometimes entertain a grand-child by reading rhymes from an old nursery rhyme book. One of them goes,

“Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,
The beggars are come to town
Some in rags, some in jags
And some in velvet gowns”

The beggars came from rural poverty in the countryside. Of course jags are not cars, it describes the drunk or drugged trying to alleviate their misery, and the velvet gowns had been discarded by the rich and privileged. These things have not changed. The harvests may be plentiful, indeed over-abundant, but the hungry beg all over the world, including in our own great cities. They still come to town. They beg by day, sleep on the pavement or in cardboard boxes at night. Hunger gnaws amid plenty; poverty grinds in the presence of affluence.

But we are here to rejoice in the harvest. It is right that we celebrate harvest on one day in the year, even though harvesting goes on somewhere in the world every day. One day a year is not too much to set aside, less we forget that, mind-boggling as our technology is, clever as our mechanical and agricultural skills undoubtedly are, the miracle of life itself determines whether or not crops germinate, or our cattle reproduce. Harvest may be facilitated, but life is not man-made.

We may irrigate, we may till; we may sow, we may propagate; but all may be in vain; for there will be no harvest without that powerful miracle within the tiny seed. Of “All God’s gifts around us”, it is the central one of life itself which humbles us. Our harvest festival is at its core, a thankfulness for life.

But harvest cannot be an occasion of uninhibited joy whilst one third of the world’s population consume two-thirds of the world’s harvests; whilst beggars come hungry to town as crops rot un-gathered in the fields, or deteriorate undistributed in the barns, or are burnt extravagantly to avoid depressing prices. Celebration is touched with guilt when children with swollen bellies can and do perish from starvation.

A couplet in one of the most loved of the harvest hymns goes,

All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin

One day perhaps we shall sing with honesty a new couplet,

Nations humbly sharing bread
That all peoples may be fed

When that happens the thankful people who come will not be the minority who welcome the abundant harvest of which they will get the lion’s share, but all the people for whom God’s harvest is intended.

It is a truism to repeat that the christian faith rests upon two foundation stones, love of God and love of one’s neighbour. Within the former – the love of God – rests many emotions which are perhaps to the forefront in a harvest celebration.

There is awe, there is gratitude; there is wonder, there is thankfulness; there is the feeling of personal inadequacy, there is comfort in the presence of the provider.

It is right that all these things should be in our minds as we sing “Come ye thankful people, come”, and the rest of our rousing harvest hymns. Rejoicing and gratefulness ought and must be part of our harvest celebration.

But the other under-pinning support of the Christian faith – love of neighbour – must not be unheard in the tumult of our exultations. That now rightly discarded verse of “All things bright and beautiful”, spoke of

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate”.

Today we rejoice in the riches God has provided. We dwell within the castle. That poor men, women and children throughout the world beg at our gates and have little in which to rejoice, as we enjoy the fruits in which the world abounds, must not be forgotten. Harvest is not merely a time to say thank-you, it is also a time to reflect on how little has changed since the barns of Egypt were full, and Joseph’s kindred starved in the adjacent land of Canaan. Plenty, cheek by jowl with famine.

But then Joseph sought to redress the balance by sharing the garnered produce. Joy of harvest enhanced by the satisfaction of sharing; sadly that is a goal which we are striving still to reach.

C.J. Rosling

Mexborough 14 October 1990
Fulwood 29 September 1991
Mexborough 11 October 1992
Hucklow 18 September 1994

Sunday Sermon – 23 September 2018

All Good Things Around Us

There are words which, when we read or hear them, evoke a whole series of thoughts and mind pictures. Particularly is this true of those nouns which are connected with seasons or anniversaries. Christmas, Easter, summer holidays lie within the category, as do birthdays, barbecues and New Year Eve parties. But for my part, one of the most evocative of such words is “harvest”.

Strictly speaking, in these modern times, any month in the year may see harvesting of some fruit, flower, or vegetable; and fish, fowl or animal is killed regardless of the time of year, that the flesh may be prepared for the table. Strawberries at Christmas, raspberries in the spring, turkey in the summer, and pork even when there is no “r” in the month, no longer surprise us. But, tradition dies hard, and harvest-time is firmly fixed in the calendar as being linked with autumn. The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, as Keats so memorably described it.

To think of harvest is to see in the mind’s eye the colours of autumn – brown, gold, yellow, rusty red and orange predominating. The multitudinous shades of dying leaves; chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies in their glory; the golden brown of ripening corn; hips, haws and berries in shades of red and orange, are the heralds proclaiming the end of summer and the approach of winter. There is a chill in the damp air, a rustle of dead leaves under the feet, a watery touch to the sunshine as the acrid scent of bonfires wafts over the hedge.

It is a time when churches and chapels are filled with products of the earth, perfuming the air with that instantly recognisable heavy, sweet smell associated with a well-stocked green-grocer’s shop. We sing again those well-remembered harvest hymns with lusty tunes and insistent rhythms. Thoughts turn to the fruitfulness of the planet, the mystery of life, the cycle which leads to death followed by renewal in the Spring, the tiny capsule which is, in embryo, a towering tree. The seeds which were scattered have come to fruitfulness, the barns should be filled, and the freezers re-stocked.

All seasons have their champions, and by no means least are the many who welcome the autumn.

This morning, at this, our celebration, three points I would like to make, three thoughts selected from an abundance to share with you.

Nearly three and a half centuries ago, small family groups endured great privation as they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, to found colonies in a land they called New England. The driving force behind the exodus was a burning desire to worship according to their beliefs, free from persecution, something they were unable to do in their country of birth. They landed, tilled the virgin soil and then, when the first precious harvests were gathered in, celebrated with services of thanksgiving. Thus the American Annual Thanksgiving Day was established. In essence it is a national Harvest Festival Day.

To those early colonists the success of the harvest literally was a matter of life or death. The thanksgiving celebrations were heartfelt. Joy was mixed with relief, for starvation was the price to pay for a failed harvest. Harvest and thanksgiving were naturally linked. Their labours had been rewarded, and the maker who had preserved their going out now blessed their gathering in.

To-day in America and in Britain, as in most of what is normally described as the developed world, the division between good and bad harvests is not so starkly observed. Walk round the shelves of any supermarket and note the country of origin of the foodstuffs displayed. Fruit shipped from South Africa, wines bottled in South America, rice harvested in the Far East, lamb produced from sheep grazing in New Zealand, cocoa and coffee grown near the Equator, tea gathered in India and China, fish netted in the arctic circle, coconut and bananas garnered on tropical islands, potatoes from nearby Lincolnshire, olive oil crushed from the fruit of trees thriving on Italian hillsides.

We know not, perhaps care not, whether the harvest failed or was plentiful in Timbuktu or Turkistan. Any gaps on the shelves resulting from a disastrous harvest in one place will be filled by importing from lands where the rains came, but not the floods, where the sun shone and the storms held off, where pests were held at bay and the plants flourished.

But we need reminding that appreciation of the narrowness of the division between life on the one hand, or death from starvation on the other, is a daily reality in much of the world, notably in large parts of the continents of Africa and Asia. The majority of the world’s population still live as precariously as did those early American settlers. A successful harvest is a matter for joy, relief and thankfulness. Failure of the harvest by contrast is to despair, to succumb to hunger, disease and death.

This then must be a time for reflection as well as one for rejoicing. To the majority of us harvest may be a matter of academic interest, but for millions of others it is quite starkly a matter of survival. Farmers in Europe, of which we are a part, and elsewhere are bribed to let land lie fallow lest too much food is produced. By contrast, elsewhere in the world a bare subsistence is scratched from arid landscapes, whilst the farmer, with increasing anxiety or resignation, scans the cloudless sky praying that the rains will come. No supermarket shelf offers him a buffer from the harsh facts of life, or of death.

The rejoicing at our bounty must be contrasted with a shameful inability to distribute the fruits of the earth with anything approaching equity.

Of course great efforts are made, though arguably not great enough, to distribute aid to the needy in third world countries hit by famine, by disasters or so-called “acts of God” (surely a gross misnomer when so often the calamity results from the greed or indifference of mankind). But these efforts which enable others to subsist rather than live full lives must be massively extended.

That then is my first point. Thanksgiving should not obliterate the recognition that whilst we have so much, others have so little. The challenge remains to not merely produce, but also to distribute equitably, to share that which we have.

My second point is to emphasise that enthusiasm in gathering in the harvest can easily deteriorate into greed. Once, when similes were sought to describe something as countless, not only were comparisons made with grains of sand on the sea-shore, or the stars in the firmament, but also the number of fish in the sea might be evoked as a comparison. The harvest of the sea can no longer be spoken of as infinite. Over-fishing and greed have put the lie to that. Once plentiful species now face extinction.

The productivity of previously fertile land is virtually nil where the landscape is turned to dust-bowl and desert. Thoughtlessness, carelessness and avarice has given us salmonella in eggs and poultry, together with BSE in cattle. Widespread use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides have polluted our rivers and seas, and led to fears about the water we drink.

There is an old saying which speaks of reaping that which we sow. A line in a well-known and much-loved hymn goes,

“Who sows the false shall reap the vain.”

Let us in giving thanks for the harvest give thought to the need to look at the quality of the harvest as well as its size. Let us sow with care and be circumspect as we reap. Let us also bear responsibility to secure the harvests for future generations.

The harvest is an annual event. To give no thought for the morrow, to recklessly imperil the harvests of next year and the following years, is not only to risk our future, but to hazard the well-being of our children and our children’s children.

The Old Testament story of a covenant made by God with his people that “..seed-time and harvest….shall never cease”, is at risk if irresponsibility and greed are our watch-words.

So to my first point about the need to distribute equitably, to share what we have gained, is added my second point. We must be prudent in harvesting, responsible in producing, and save the seed-corn to safe-guard the future.

And so on to my third thought. It concerns life itself. Its mystery, its preciousness, its uniqueness.

Life gives continuity. For life, whether animal or vegetable, has this ability to reproduce itself. We gather in today’s crop in the full expectation that tomorrow’s crop will be there for the picking, because life is handed on from generation to generation. The fossil fuels we burn in our generators are finite – once burnt are gone. But life has this infinite quality which enables it, through its seed, to hand on existence from generation to generation.

And our continued existence is dependent upon consumption of life. Our food is produced from living plants and living animals. Our lives are in this sense utterly dependent upon other lives. The living crops we reap provide towards our survival.

But though life is resilient, it is not indestructible. We may be able to build barns to store the products of the field, but the life which decides that those crops shall grow and produce is something which we cannot create. Only life creates new life. Arrogance and carelessness about our actions will lead to disaster and the destruction of this precious and irreplaceable asset of the life-force itself.

So my third plea is for humility and respect in our dealing with life in all its forms.

And so I preach my Trinity on this harvest day. Humility and respect for life; responsibility in our actions, not only for our sake, but that we may be blessed rather than cursed by those who will follow us; and, finally, an acceptance of the doctrine that the fruits of the earth belong not to one man, but to all men and women.

Some say that harvest festivals began as a pagan rite. So be it if that is the case. But the harvest Trinity I preach is firmly embedded in the christian ethic. May the day come when preaching and practice are indistinguishable. Now that would be a harvest to remember.

C. J. Rosling 13 October 1996

Mexborough 13 October 1996
Hucklow 12 October 1997

Sunday Sermon – 16 September 2018

I C T

This morning I shall speak of ICT. The knowing among you will feel a small glow of warmth and self-satisfaction as they recognise what the initials stand for. For few of us are not tainted from time to time by the sin of smugness. But those who are puzzled by the initials must wait awhile for elucidation. After all, to keep the congregation guessing is one way to stop them dozing off.

As a cross-word addict I am tempted to give a clue. The clue is “keeping in touch, exchanging ideas and recording for future generations.” For civilisation depends crucially upon being able to do all three. The ability to do these things separates mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. Speech, and writing, are the essential attributes without which it is difficult to see how mankind could form a civilised society.

Written language must have followed the spoken language. In the beginning, to use a biblical quotation, was the word. Different sounds, probably little more than grunts initially, expressed basic emotions, translated into needs – hunger, thirst, fear, cold, pain and so on. Gradually these extended into sentences then on to instructions, followed by description, and finally to abstract thought. Speech, coupled with memory enabled experience to be passed from one generation to the next. It was speech which allowed Paul to quieten the mob and proclaim his message.

All right then, I’ll reveal the answer to the clue given earlier. As any school-boy or school-girl will confirm, ICT stands for Information and Communication Technology, or swapping gossip and letting folk know what’s going on.

Talk to teachers and they will tell you of the importance of teaching communication skills. Go to a college or university and note that a major series of courses will be built around communications. Businesses of all kinds stress the need to train their staff in the art of communication. Voluntary bodies, be they religious or secular, charitable or educational, with aims that are social or objects that are political, all underline the importance of communication.

Though the fashionable use of the word communication may be of recent times, the idea is as old as the hills. Schools and other education institutions have, down the ages, been concerned with teaching communication skills, though a generation ago we called it reading and writing, and the art of conversation. The other day some-one said to me that they would send a communication over the next few days. They meant they were going to write a letter to me. Teaching and preaching are about communicating. Buying and selling, whether a washing machine or double glazing, is an exercise in communication. Indeed much of life is about communicating in one form or another.

Communicating is expressing ones own ideas, feelings, fears, aspirations and knowledge to some-one else in such a way that they can understand the signals that you are giving.

Speech is the usual medium, though not the only one. Long before the baby learns to speak it will communicate its feelings to its mother. The mother will recognise hunger, contentment, discomfort, pain, tiredness – a whole range of emotions – within the baby who has no verbal language in which to express them. As adults, consciously or unconsciously, through what the technically minded call body language, give and receive signals without a word being spoken. We frown or smile, shudder or cringe, embrace or shake hands, roll our eyes or flutter our eye-lashes, and immediately communicate a message.

But normal, everyday life becomes more complex, and so the need for greater variety communicating has increased. We talk on the telephone, we go for interviews, we complain to the manager or the shop assistant, we write for samples, we book a holiday, we buy tickets for the theatre, we plead for charity – in all these ways and in a thousand and one others, we daily communicate with others. And the satisfaction we receive or give is related to the skill with which we make known our needs. The more knowledgeable order over the internet, or send an e-mail.

But communicating is not merely about making known wants. It is also about understanding the needs of others. As well as a transmitter, a receiver is required. There are those who are skilled in the art of expressing their opinions whether in speech or writing, but whose ability to listen is impaired. Put in today’s jargon, communication is a two-way process.

When I was active as secretary of an organisation, I used to receive regular telephone calls from Mr. S. I would pick up the telephone to be greeted by “Ah, you are there.” Before I could confirm or deny this, Mr. S. would launch into a non-stop dialogue, and I would have no opportunity to speak for the next twenty minutes, even though Mr. S. was ringing up for advice, or so he said.

He used to ring others up in the same way, though I think I was the most frequent recipient. Perhaps he thought I was a good listener. In fact he still rang occasionally even after I retired and he had moved out of the city.

The point I make is that though we may express our thoughts with perfect clarity, it is in vain if no-one listens. We have a Tower of Babel – what is sometimes referred to as the dialogue of the deaf. What is the point of asking for advice if we have already determined not to take it. Why complain if the one addressed is unprepared to listen. Cries for help are useless if all ears are firmly stopped.

Sunday by Sunday congregations gather in our churches. We come to communicate. We come to communicate with one another. Sometimes we are full of joy and we wish to express that joy. We sing with enthusiasm, we smile upon others, we greet our friends with delight, we are glad to be alive.

Other times we come in different mood. Perhaps we grieve, possibly we are perplexed. We are anxious. We are weary. Conceivably we are angry. Maybe we are sad. We communicate our mood, whether by word, expression or action, and we hope others are listening and responding.

But we come to church not only to communicate with our fellow worshippers, important as this is, but to communicate with our maker and creator. Others have spoken and written with far more scholarship and wisdom on prayer than I could hope to do, so I confine myself to pointing out that one of our means of communication with God is through prayer. But it is not the only way. Our demeanour, our unspoken thoughts, our actions are all communications with God, as is our silent meditation.

I don’t know if my Mr. S. is a religious man or not. I have no idea what church, if any, he belongs to. But if he does pray day by day, or Sunday by Sunday, or even only occasionally, God must experience some difficulty getting a word in edgeways.

If communication in everyday life is about listening as well as talking, receiving as well as giving, responding as well as reacting, then how much more is that true of effective worship.

In patience, and with invariable politeness, the congregation listen to the words I, or whoever else occupies the pulpit, speak. But that is the least important part of the worship. In a place hallowed by generations of worshippers, in a peaceful setting on a quieter day of the week, we come together to communicate. We are in communion with one another and with God.

It is right that we should express our perceived needs, our fears and worries, our joys and our disappointments. But if we are in true communion, our inner ears are alert, our internal hearing aids are switched on, we are listening to what the old cliché calls, “the still small voice”.

Just as in life in the everyday world, what we hear is maybe not to our taste. As the businessman or woman may not want to hear a complaint, or the preacher receive a criticism, so we may prefer to drown out the message of God, or the pleas of those in need.

The world of business and commerce, the world of everyday living, has accepted that communications are all important. Wars are fomented, businesses go bankrupt, neighbours fall out, so hatred thrives, where communication is faulty. We have to learn to better express our thoughts; we must stop and listen to what others are saying to us. The world of politics and business, of diplomacy and international relations is learning that lesson. So must we not only in our worship, but in the practice of our faith in everyday social life.

But the most important communications are those between the individual and God, as well as between ourselves and those referred to in that omnibus word as, neighbours. It is the way in which we conduct our lives individually which will determine if and when what Jesus called the Kingdom of God will arrive. Too often we learn half the lesson; the part that is about asking and expressing our needs and thoughts. But we need to brush up on the complementary skill of listening and observing, and then reacting to what we hear.

As I have said often before, one of the most used books on my bookshelf is the dictionary. That is partly because I am not a very good speller, partly because of an addiction to crosswords, but also through curiosity about what words actually mean as opposed to what I think they mean. My dictionary defines communication as giving and receiving information. It also mentions a door or passage through which goods and information can pass.

We live in a world given to express needs, views and opinions loudly, in large black headlines and through powerful loud-speakers. The communication passage is in danger of becoming a one-way street leading outward, rather than a dual carriage way with free access in both directions.

My needs are greater than yours. My views and opinions are more important than yours. My status is superior to yours. My mouth has priority over my ears. This is the message most often portrayed.

There is an old nursery rhyme which reads;-

The Wise Old Owl sat on an oak
The more he heard the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that Wise Old Bird

I suspect that it was first penned to reinforce that Victorian injunction, children should be seen and not heard. But whether that is so or not, it contains more than a grain of truth. Telephones sensibly have both a mouthpiece and an ear-piece.

Communication may be the fashionable word in a modern world, but in its true meaning it is an old-fashioned word for a blue-print for a full, complete life. Can I conclude with a verse from one of our hymns which goes,

“For eyes to see, and ears to hear,
For hands to serve, and arms to lift
For shoulders broad and strong to bear
For feet to run on errands swift”

Surely that is what we all request and give thanks for, or ought to, eyes and ears. But to make use of them eyes must be opened, and ears unstopped.

Constant shouting of our own needs renders impotent our sense of hearing. One way traffic is not communication, nor is it being in communion.

C.J. Rosling

Hucklow 22 April 2001

Sunday Sermon – 9 September 2018

Breathe on Me

The names change, but the purpose is the same. Sixty odd years ago we called them gas-masks, today they are referred to by the more complicated title, breathing apparatus. The pictures of those wearing over their faces black, ugly coverings, with eyes pieces like goggles and hoses snaking away from the area of mouth and nose are singularly unattractive, if not frightening, who-ever is beneath the mask.

Idly skimming through a magazine the other day, I came across a picture, taken around 1939, of children going to school with a cardboard gas-mask box slung over the shoulder. Some of the older members of the congregation may recall those days, sixty years ago now, when every man, woman and child was issued with a gas-mask which, under threat of prosecution, had to be carried on every journey. To pick up one’s gas-mask before going out was, for a time, as automatic an action as taking an umbrella if rain is forecast.

Today’s newspaper may show a fireman with face protected entering a smoke-logged building to rescue trapped casualties, or a soldier in the desert preparing for an assault through lethal poison gases. For the purpose of the gas mask is to protect against, once more quote from the elaborate phraseology fashionable today, noxious fumes.

All forms of death dealing weapons are repugnant, but there is something especially evil about poison. That the very process of eating, drinking or breathing, processes essential to life, should be the instrument of dealing death to the innocent, is a horrifying, repulsive thought.

Breathing is at the heart of life itself, and fresh air one of the things we take for granted, unless or until it is denied or the air is contaminated. One of the minor pleasures of life is to emerge from some oppressive, stuffy room into the cleaner air outside. The growth of many a seaside resort once depended upon its reputation for fresh air. The quality of the robust air to be found in Blackpool contrasted with the allegedly softer breezes of Southport. The joy to be found in gulping the bracing air of Bridlington or braving the invigorating gales of Scarborough, built up a clientele for many a boarding house or hotel.

Rambling clubs grew up all over the industrial north at the end of the last century, and the beginning of this, as folk welcomed the chance to leave the smoke-laden, contaminating air of the towns and cities to enjoy for a short time the purer, cleaner air of the countryside. That fresh air is the world’s best medicine is an old saw, with more than a grain of truth in it.
I recall as a child travelling with my father through the Marsden tunnel to Huddersfield. There to catch a bus too travel through Brighouse to Bradford to visit my grandmother in Hastings Terrace. As we went through Marsden Tunnel, thick fumes of choking smoke rolled past the tightly closed windows. I can picture the scene now.

Breathing is crucial to life. Unless we breathe, we die. Unless we continue to take in pure air our lives are threatened. But breathing is, to use a colloquialism, a two way process. Not only must we take in the essential fresh air, we need to expel the air contaminated by our bodies, so as to make lungs ready for a continuously renewed supply of new air.

A technique for reviving victims of accident or illness who have temporarily stopped breathing is called the “kiss of life”. A particularly apt description for a method of pumping life-giving air into a victim’s body. A sharing of breath, a sharing of life.

“Breathe on me, breathe of God
Fill me with life anew”

goes one of our well-loved hymns. For if physical life depends on an ability to take in fresh air and expel the poisonous products we generate, so does our spiritual life depend upon inhaling the breath of God, and ridding the mind of the evils we generate within ourselves.

The “kiss of life” seems no less an appropriate description of that which is available to restore our spiritual life than it is for the technique which may revive a physical life. The breath of God can and does fill us with renewed life. In our worship we seek to get out of the stuffy, sometimes stifling atmosphere of everyday living into the bracing air of worship, with awe inspiring views, with vistas of new hope, with panoramic scenes of what might be.

The poisons we create within us are selfishness, our intolerance, our envy, our greed, our pettiness, our deceit. As within the body, poisons left to fester will contaminate the whole, and ultimately destroy that living body, so spiritual poisons – sins if you prefer the old-fashioned term – if not expunged will attack the soul, and blocking the ingress of God’s life-restoring breath.

I started by speaking of gas masks, a temporary protection against life-threatening vapours. The air we breathe to sustain our physical lives may become contaminated. By accident, carelessness or intention, harmful materials or poisonous substances may infect the air around us. So if life is to continue, the air we breathe must be filtered, or otherwise purified, before we may safely draw it in.

But the breath of God needs no filtration plant. There is no necessity to carry the gas mask, for the true breath of God may not be rendered impure. It is there for the taking. It is both life giving and life sustaining. It is not depleted by use, but is ever renewed. It is not difficult to find, nor has it to be expensively purchased.

Like the physical air around us, it is the best medicine in the world. It frees from anxiety and strengthens in adversity.

To shut out all air around us is difficult. It is incredibly hard to create a vacuum, for air strives constantly to enter it. Nature hates a vacuum, it is said. Equally the breath of God is all pervasive. If it is hard to create a physical vacuum, the creation of a spiritual vacuum is impossible. There is no location from which the receptive is unable to breathe the breath of God. The psalmist spoke of God’s omnipresence – even in the depths of the ocean and in the heavens above, he sang, God may be found.

If we hold our breath we cannot breathe. If we literally hold our breath for more than a few moments of time, we die. If we refuse to breathe the breath of God, though we may not die in a physical sense, something of ourselves as human beings will ultimately cease to be. If the poisons we create within ourselves are not exhaled, then the qualities that are broadly spoken of as “Christian” – tolerance, compassion, understanding, charity and the like – may not enter and become a part of our being. We become soulless bodies, intent upon selfish material comforts, with little or no regard for others. We cannot live in the true joy of a fulfilled life.

So our determination and our prayer must be to breathe the breath of God, that we may love those things which God does love, and do those things which God would have us do.

There is increasing concern about the quality of the air, especially within our cities, as more and more pollutants are emitted from traffic and industry. The weather forecasts will these days often refer to air quality. Respiratory conditions and illnesses are commonly diagnosed. It is right the governments should seek to tackle this problem of air pollution lest we blight lives and threaten well-being of our citizens.

But the failure to breath the breathe of God is at least as serious matter for concern. No doubt the two problems are inter-linked. Selfishness pollutes the air. So named road-rage breaks down relationships with others. Indifference to the fate of others, not least for those generations still to come, fuels our behaviour. We leave a legacy for others to endure.

Inhaling and exhaling freely in a spiritual atmosphere is a road to a better world. Such respiratory exercise can enable us to replace selfishness with selflessness, anger with understanding, indifference with compassion, prejudice with tolerance, hand-wringing with support. To cease holding our breath in this, God’s gaseous envelope, will do much to make the world a better place in which to live.

I end with a further quotation from the same hymn,

“Breath on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.”

C.J. Rosling 10 August 1997

Fulwood 10 August 1997
Hucklow 31 August 1997
Mexborough 15 March 1998
Doncaster 14 June 1998
Bradford 27 February 2000

Sunday sermon – 2 September 2018

Seven Deadly Sins

Some forty years ago I was teaching in one of the Sheffield schools. A young lady, fresh from college, had joined the staff. Regretfully, if unsurprisingly, I have forgotten her name. Unsurprisingly, because these days I seem to have mislaid so many names from the past, along with quite a number from the present. I think others must have the same problem, for I see friends of my generation look at me with that puzzled expression, which says, “I am sure I know that face.” But to go back to the story. I do recall that she was a good teacher, a pleasant and enthusiastic girl. As well as being a teacher she was also a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Anxious to save souls, but no doubt she regarded me as beyond redemption.

One day she and I were in the staff-room at break-time enjoying a cup of tea and a biscuit. She had two chocolate biscuits bought from the tuck-shop. I teased her. “Surely one biscuit should be enough. I thought gluttony was one of the deadly sins”. She smiled. The next day she presented me with a slim paper-backed booklet, published by her church, entitled, “The seven deadly sins”. There were two or three pages about each of the seven, giving the viewpoint of her church on the perils they presented.

In this age of quizzes and general knowledge tests, one is tempted to test how many of the congregation can correctly name all seven sins. (However, I haven’t any tubes of smarties to give out to the winner) Then, I am sure you all can reel off correctly: Pride, Envy, Covetousness, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Sloth.

I had the booklet for some years, but it seems to have got lost, perhaps during one of the house moves. I remember at that time I was taking services monthly at one of our own places of worship, now closed, and used the titles as a starting point for a series of addresses. I have forgotten what I said, and my notes have disappeared too, but I doubt if the thoughts were very profound. My thoughts seldom are. Maybe that congregation though awaited with interest for the Sunday when I got round to lust. Or maybe not. They were elderly, all passion spent.

But now more seriously.

Musing today on that topic of deadly sins, there are two lines of thinking which occur to me. The first is about definition, and absolute terms. The second is about the selection, and the omissions.

Turning to the first point. Older members of the congregation may remember Professor Job. He was a regular panel member on a discussion programme popular some years ago, called the Brains’ Trust. A topic would be introduced, and invariably Job’s contribution would start with what became his catch-phrase, “It all depends on what you mean by ……beauty, democracy, honesty”, or whatever was relevant to the topic. The observation comes to my mind as I look at the list of deadly sins. Wasn’t there a character in Alice in Wonderland who said, “Words mean whatever I want them to mean? Let’s take pride for instance.

Far from being a sin, used in some contexts, pride may be extolled as a virtue. Which teacher or parent has not urged the child to “take a pride in your work, your appearance, your family, your school”? Used in this way it is about self-respect and setting good standards. Pride does not always equate with haughtiness.

And envy. Undoubtedly it may become a canker in the mind, and like jealousy, spawn the out-of-control destructive green-eyed monster. On the other hand it may be a spur to developing one’s own talents more fully; a desire to earn the rewards or the respect another enjoys. A wish to be as well-regarded as an admired citizen serving his fellows. Ambition is not always a characteristic to be deplored.

Sloth is an emotive word, but like its twin, idleness, it is not inevitably to be spoken of disapprovingly. “What is life if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare,” wrote the poet W. H. Davies. If Wordsworth had spent all his time sitting working at his desk and not relaxed walking his beloved fells, he might not have observed the daffodils dancing in the breeze. It is a question of proportion, of balance, is it not? Martha, we read, was “cumbered about much serving” charging her sister Mary with idleness. Jesus is quoted as remarking, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, or one: and Mary has chosen that good part.” In other words, labour may not ever be the virtue, or inactivity a wicked sin.

It all depends on what you mean by….. Does it not?

And my second thought.

The description “deadly” implies these are the very worst of misdemeanours to which we might fall prey. They are, we are led to think, the most heinous of crimes. But, if we are to have a scale of wickedness, are these really top of the list? Do they represent the very worst in human behaviour? They may be regarded as chapter headings, trigger-point words for a whole series of other deplorable actions.

Take anger, for example. The loss of control which can occur in a sudden rush of blood can, and does, lead to violent words and deeds. Others suffer humiliation and physical harm as judgement is suspended, or distorted, rational thought becomes impossible. We can speak approvingly of righteous anger, which implies a controlled indignation at some injustice. But the red mist which surrounds a blind, unreasoning fury is indeed a vile thing. It is destructive, breeding hatred, blanking out love.

Envy, akin to jealousy, possesses mind and distorts the vision. Sexual crimes can be rooted in lust, pride may show no remorse, not permitting self-examination, or reconciliation.

But is it not curious that a character defect repeatedly and strongly condemned in the New Testament gospels is not included in the deadly list; that is hypocrisy? Allied to this is another unmentioned, but hated trait to which too many of us are prone, that of deceitfulness.

It seems to me that what we are talking about when we speaking of deadly sins as described, are not so much dreadful deeds in themselves, but states of mind which allow, even encourage, horrible actions to take place. The self-indulgence implicit in gluttony leaves no room in which to consider of the needs of others. It becomes all important that our own needs should be met regardless of the effect upon other people. Sloth, or idleness, looks out on the world with glazed vision, not seeing my brother or sister’s distress. Our own comfort is central. Action is too much trouble; it is probably cold outside.

I suggest that whether the rank order is correct or not, whether the total should be seven or, as Jesus remarked in a different context, seventy times seven, is not the real point. The so-called “deadly sins” are states of mind, a pernicious poison which leads on to evil conduct. The conduct includes, adapting the old language of the prayer, “doing those things which we ought not to do, and failing to act where we ought to act.”

The commandments are a list of do’s and don’ts; the list of deadly sins are built around the way we think, and consequently, how we act.

In the world of politics, as in other aspects of life, there are current fashions. Today, one is to seek what is known as the root cause. What are the root causes of crime, of poverty, of social unrest, inequality and so on, the politician asks. Similarly, we ask, what are the root causes of the wickedness we find around us. Violent acts, racist abuse, oppression, behaviour which destroys rather than creates, intimidates the neighbour instead of caring for the vulnerable.

Evil deeds, wicked acts, are carried out by human beings. The root cause of evil lies in the mindset of individuals. What we think, determines how we act.

One of the central purposes of coming together in worship is surely to give space for self-examination. Away from the bustle of life outside the chapel walls we have time to think about the chapter headings in our own mind. If there is pride, is it in worthy achievement, or is it arrogance which regards oneself as superior to ones neighbour? Do I experience envy as a spur to emulate the best seen in the life of another, or do I covet, then plot to down-grade the object of my jealousy. Am true in my dealings with others, or am I the hypocrite deceiving others and possibly myself.

My rather simplistic philosophy about life includes accepting that one must think right to do right. If the mind is wrong, poisoned by self regard, by hatred, by selfishness, by the deadly sins if you want to use that language, then one’s life becomes at best, unfulfilled, and at worst, evil deeds are done.

I believe strongly, that we should be judged by how we behave to others. That is the real measure of our faith. To use old-fashioned language, we are all open to temptation. Few, if any of us can sincerely say that greed and jealousy have never, ever, entered our minds, even for a moment. There are not too many angels, or saints around, whose minds are always pure.

What is demanded of us is that the meaning we give to the words, the interpretation we put on the titles, and most of all, the actions we put into practice, are designed to make the world a better place for all, and not just a way of gaining self-satisfaction, whatever the cost to someone else.

Search me, O God, and know my heart:
Try me, and know my thoughts;
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

C.J. Rosling 12 March 2004

Hucklow 14 March 2004