Sunday Sermon – 28 October 2018

Cranks and Eccentrics

When I left school and got my first job, I travelled to the place of employment by train. From home into Manchester, where I worked, was about eight miles. A weekly season train ticket cost five shillings, 25 pence in today’s currency. For that sum you could travel on six days of the week as often as you wished. The train, which stopped at every station on route, some half a dozen in all, took less than 25 minutes to cover the distance. Neither leaves in autumn or the wrong kind of snow in winter delayed its passage.

Pulling the train was a steam engine, belonging to either the London North Eastern Railway Company, or the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company (LNER, or LMS for short), for our station was a junction served by both railway companies. Occasionally the engine was a “namer”, with a metal plate on the side on which was embossed the name of a city, or of a battle, or maybe of some once famous general or admiral.

Two men were needed to drive the great machine. One was the actual driver, manipulating the controls. The other, a stoker, or fireman, constantly shovelling coal into a furnace, which heated the boiler, to generate the steam, the source of the power which drove the engine, thus enabling it to pull the carriages forward. The fire was voracious, and literally tons of coal would be consumed on an express journey, say between London and Glasgow, or Manchester and |Edinburgh.

Steam engines are now museum pieces, replaced by diesel or electric power units I think unit is the correct, rather anonymous name. But a recent picture in the newspaper of a newly restored, lovingly rebuilt, steam engine, dwarfing the men who had spent hours working on the restoration, started me thinking about these glorious monsters of my youth.

Huge as these machines are, the components which cause the forward or backward movement are a comparatively small part of the whole. Most of the massive structure, the engine, and the tender attached to it, the two weighing up to fifty tons or more, contained the boiler, the firebox, the storage tank for water, space to hold coal for the fire, and yard upon yard of tubing wherein water is converted into steam. What actually created movement began in the cylinders and the pistons on the outside of the engine. Steam from the boiler entered the iron tubular cylinders forcing, with great power, the pistons backwards and forwards.

Attached to the pistons heavy steel bars, known as the crank-shafts which are n are connected to the huge driving wheels in such a way as to be jointed at a point between the centre of the great wheel and its rim. The term for rotating off-centre of a wheel, is eccentric.

The crank-shafts or cranks, and the attachment to the wheels, or the eccentrics, are an essential, nay crucial, part of the whole operation. Remove the crank, detach the eccentric, and the whole train would become immobile, stuck in one place; no progress could be made. Ladies in the congregation who may not be mechanically minded may recall the treadle sewing machine. The treadle went backwards and forward, as did the pistons of an engine, but the attachment to the wheel being off-centre, made the wheel go round. And so the sewing machine came to life through a crank and an eccentric.

Of course it is not possible to isolate one part of the steam engine and say that is the only bit that matters, for the machine functions as a whole. In a well-known, oft-quoted, passage in a letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that the human body is like that. Not all ear, or where would be the seeing. Not all eye, or where would be the speaking. The body is made up of many parts, each complementary, each dependent upon the rest. And that is equally true of the steam engine, or the treadle sewing machine.

I looked up both crank and eccentric in the dictionary. Among other definitions mentioned were:- awkward, obstinate, holding odd views, not easily to be persuaded to change an opinion. For crank and eccentric are terms applied to people as well as to machinery. As people, they are not the most comfortable to work alongside, to live with, or to befriend. It is a good job they are in a minority. A society exclusively composed of cranks would never get agreement on anything. Too many eccentrics and the rest of us would be driven mad with frustration.

The source of the strength or power of the steam engine lies in the boiler, where water is turned into steam. To do this the fire, constantly fed with a fresh supply of coal, must burn hot and fierce. The steam then is fed, in a controlled way, to the pistons, with the cranks and eccentrics finally converting the power into movement.

But enough of steam engines. Let’s change the subject.
Have you ever thought what an odd lot Jesus’s disciples must have been! There was Peter, with a tendency to boast of his constancy and then to chicken out when challenged, later to be filled with remorse. Thomas the sceptic, who believed what he saw, but didn’t readily accept other people’s word. An ex-tax collector, therefore member of a profession which makes disreputable second-hand car salesmen, and may I add hastily that not all are disreputable, but makes those that are, sound respectable. And so one could go on. The whole band of disciples would argue amongst themselves as to who was top dog. A bunch of cranks and eccentrics if ever there was one. How on earth did Jesus come to select such a motley crew?

Could it be that long before steam engines were invented, seventeen hundred years before James Watt watched a kettle lid lift as the water boiled, a millennium and three quarters before Stevenson designed and built “The Rocket”, that Jesus knew if movement is to be made, cranks and eccentrics are going to be required? After all, he was himself something of a crank. An eccentric who quarrelled with the church leaders of his time.

The power of the message came from Jesus’s preaching and teaching, burning with passion, steaming with conviction. But the spread of that message, the movement which became a world wide force called Christianity, was due to a bunch of cranks and eccentrics who suffered privation, hardship, and persecution as they roamed far and wide, preaching, teaching, converting.

They were persecuted because they did not conform to the wishes of those in authority. They were cussed in their stubbornness, irritatingly determined to preach a gospel at odds with the conventional beliefs of the time.

They made many enemies. But it was to be proved, as is so often the case, that the unaccustomed message of today becomes the accepted doctrine of tomorrow. Uncomfortable as cranks and eccentrics can be, their insistence on defying the traditional is one of the secrets of making progress.

A group of people with common beliefs, or a shared philosophy frequently is referred to as a Movement. We have Movements in politics, in literature, art and drama. And we have religious Movements. Those who join such bodies use language that paints word pictures of activity. They say “we want to move things forward”, “we wish to advance ideas”, “we are determined to make progress”, “our aim is to move away from the past into a new future”. The very language associated with Movements is that of activity. And cranks and eccentrics are to be found at the centre of that activity.

Not all are cranks, or where would be the furnace? Not all are eccentrics, for without a boiler no steam would be generated. There are many diverse parts, none to be more valued than the other, all essential, but if shared beliefs are to be converted into movements, then the cranks and eccentrics must play a part. Unitarians evolved within a broader movement known as non-conformity. Refusal to conform is the mark of the crank, the watchword of the eccentric. The history of non-conformity is littered with the names of cranks and eccentrics who wouldn’t be silenced. They were a pain in the neck, or whichever other part of the anatomy you choose to name. Often infuriating friend and foe alike. But they moved things on. Prominent in the story of social reform are those who drew their strength from non-conformity, and Unitarians are well-represented on that roll of honour. Cranks in their day, frequently dismissed as mere eccentrics, they changed the nature of their society, bringing hope to many, greater freedom others.

In most of us there is a resistance to change, a suspicion of that which is new. Change is inevitable, we accept, but let it come with stealth rather than burst upon us with a roar. Gradual and small steps rather than leaps and strides. Free-wheeling along is easier than speedy, driven progress. And that for the most part is right. But there are times when that is not enough. Power has to be harnessed and momentum gained, for the need to change is imperative. Then the cranks push forward, the eccentrics convert power into movement, the wheels turn, and change comes about.

To dismiss as unimportant the non-conformists, the cranks and eccentrics in the world, is to say that we are happy to stay put. All’s right with the world, we imply, and we would rather stay where we are than risk taking a journey into the unknown. But in our hearts we know that though much progress has been made towards a better world, there is still much to be done. New ideas have to be explored. The journey is by no means over.

Heat may be generated, and, in the boiler house, ideas formed as charged vapour. But creating power does not in itself move things forward. The steam may dissipate into the air rather than provide forward movement. The stubborn, awkward, uncomfortable crank coupled with the off-centre odd-ball eccentric is needed to give a push in the right place at an appropriate time to get things moving.

It takes all sorts to make the world, as the old cliché has it. There is a place for dreamers as well as for doers. There is a need for stokers as well as drivers. The humble rivet as well as the mighty wheels make up the machine. My plea this morning is that the role of the cranks and eccentrics should be recognised.

An essential tool of the driver and fireman of the old steam engine was the oil-can. The soothing fluid had to be regularly applied to the joints of the cranks and the connections of the eccentrics. So it is in life. The oil of understanding and lubrication of smoothing words are needed from time to time to ensure abrasion is minimised, but no crank, no progress; no eccentric and we stick in the same place.

The eccentrics saw the vision. The cranks spread the message of Christianity. It is for us to become the furnace and the boiler providing the power which they translate into movement.

C.J. Rosling 4 April 1997

Hucklow 6 April 1997, 25 April 2005
Mexborough 6 April 1997
Fulwood 15 June 1997
Bradford 26 October 1997
Upper 28 Dec. 1997
Stannington 8 August 1999

Sunday Sermon – 21 October 2018

Courage, Brothers and Sisters

The two main sections of the Bible are complementary. It is not only that they are broadly an historical account in sequence, with the Old Testament dealing with events leading up to the birth of Jesus, and the New Testament with the birth, life and aftermath of his death, but it is the contents and style which I find fascinating. If the New Testament is where a philosophy of life is developed, then the Old Testament is a chronicle of human emotions, frailties and, occasionally, human grandeur.

I am struck when reading many of the Old Testament stories how the basic character and instincts of the human beings remain constant, regardless of geography or the passage of time.

The passions that led Cain to murder his brother Abel are recognisable still today; the devotion and love of Ruth for Naomi is mirrored by others in our generation. The rages of Saul, the envy by Esau of his brother Jacob, or the doleful comfort given to Job by his visitors are easily comprehended by contemporary readers. The whole range of human emotions found in the evergreen story of Joseph and his family help the account to be one of the best known and loved of the Old Testament stories.

But among the many, a story which sticks in my mind is the narrative of David the King, Nathan the Prophet and Bath-sheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

Let me just remind you of the outline of the story.

David was attracted to Bath-sheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah, seduced her, and then plotted to eliminate her husband. In its basic form, a familiar story down the ages, a staple ingredient of stories in the tabloid press. Uriah, a brave warrior in David’s army, was, on David’s instructions, posted to a place on the battlefield where the fighting would be fiercest. During the battle, his companions, by previous arrangement, were ordered to retreat. Inevitably, as David had intended, Uriah was killed. David expressed surprise and sorrow at the tragedy.

David, though morally guilty, could show clean hands. He had been far from the battlefield. Possibly one of the earliest examples of that favourite theme of the writer of detective fiction, the perfect crime. After a suitable period of mourning, David married Uriah’s widow, Bath-sheba.

But that is not the aspect of the story which makes it memorable for me. The crux is found in the sequel, when Nathan the Prophet becomes involved. Nathan came to David with what he insisted was a true story, illustrated by parable.

Nathan’s tale concerned two men, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds, whilst the poor man had but one lamb. When a visitor came to the rich man and had to be fed and entertained, he who was rich with a large number of sheep, instead of killing one of own flock for the feast, took instead the poor man’s lamb, slaughtering it for the table.

David was furious at the injustice, and swore that this evil man should be punished. “Tell me where this rogue shall be found”, he demanded. “Thou art the man”, responded Nathan.

What sticks in my memory about this tale is the courage of Nathan. Here was an all-powerful King, ruthless, as he had proved, in his determination to satisfy his own needs, even if this involved taking the life of those who stood in his way. And Nathan had the courage to confront him, condemning his actions. As the New English version of the Beatitudes puts it, “How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail”.

The easy path is ever that of letting wrong go unchallenged. The truly courageous are those who speak out for that which is right, at the cost often of personal unpopularity, of public ridicule, or even, as with Nathan, with life itself at stake. Down the ages, many have paid for their courage with their lives, others with their liberty. Many continue to do so.

David accepted Nathan’s rebuke and the humiliation involved, which of course says something about David. But Nathan was not to know in advance what the conclusion would be, yet he spoke out.

To say what is right, to “hold fast to that which is true” was, and is, the hallmark of real heroism.

A large number of brave men and women who have held fast to the truth, like Nathan, have their names recorded in history. Many, many more, equally firm and brave, do not. But whether famous or unknown, heralded or humbly anonymous, they are the valiant, the truly courageous. Freedom to worship, to publish, to differ, to speak openly, to travel widely, is neither won nor retained without the Nathans of the world.

We worship without persecution here in this place today because many unrecorded men and women in their time said to their oppressors the equivalent of “Thou art the man”. “You”, they steadfastly accused, “are the ones who destroy freedom, who persecute, who oppress, who deny the truth and affirm the false”.

Yet the dramatic situation illustrated by Nathan’s denunciation is not one in which most of us are ever involved. Though millions have been persecuted down the ages, and continue to be so treated today throughout the world, most of us will never be in such a life or death dilemma. But we are often in situations of less drama, but of crucial importance to freedom.

The safest and easiest course that Nathan could have taken is one of selective blindness and deafness. Not to notice, not to hear, is a cosy option. You get on with your life, and I will get on with mine.

Nathan chose not to take the easy path, because wrong-doing should be condemned however powerful the wrongdoer. The freedom of the subject was no less important than the freedom accorded to the King.

In our own times, and within our land, the threat to freedom for the individual habitually comes in more subtle ways than it did for Uriah. Individuals are denigrated by prejudice, races by bigotry, different ethnic or cultural groups by intolerance. All Irish are stupid, all Jews are money grabbers, all blacks are criminals, all foreigners are promiscuous, the list of narrow-minded, parochial opinion is endless.

Temporary blindness and feigned hardness of hearing enables the dogmatist and the bigot to spread his or her evil doctrine. The successors of Nathan must show a little of his courage in challenging the perpetrators. Occasions and opportunities are not lacking. To abuse the cultural or ethnic minority, is to erode their freedom, to deny their rights.

We are used to saying that we live in a free country, and so we do, compared with many who groan under tyrannical oppression. But not all enjoy the freedom they ought. That we are all children of God, a God who values us equally, is a central theme of Christian faith. Well, God may accept us as equal, but men and women do not invariably practice the faith they profess. Examples are legion and commonplace.

The stirring up of racial hatred, the denigration of ethnic groups, the sneering intolerance, implicit or implied, towards minority cultures is not only distasteful, but wicked. “Thou art the man”, said Nathan without fear. The phrase, adapted, is still necessary today.

The child who is abused, the prisoner who is maltreated, the mentally ill or mentally handicapped who are ill-treated, the homeless who are disregarded, the child of immigrant parents who is discriminated against in the employment market, enjoy little of the freedom of which we boast. Their restricted freedom is the shame of all of us, if we are deliberately silent in the knowledge of wrong. We must have the courage to condemn.

But there is another lesson from the story of David and Nathan the Prophet which ought to be mentioned before we conclude. That is the response of David to Nathan’s rebuke.

As I said at the beginning, David showed remorse and did not seek to justify the indefensible. A natural response when our actions are questioned is to seek to excuse, to become defensive. And on occasion that is right. Not all accusations are justified; mistakes may be made, or actions misinterpreted. But David knew in his heart he was wrong, and admitted it, and was ashamed.

In his turn David showed courage, albeit of a different kind to Nathan’s. To be able to say, “Thou art the man (or woman)” to oneself is also an act of bravery. All the accusations in the world will not make a better, freer society if error or wrong-doing is not accepted by the perpetrator. The guilty is not invariably the other person. We ourselves can and do trespass.

“Courage, brother! do not stumble,
Though thy path be dark as night;
There’s a star to guide the humble; –
Trust in God, and do the right.

So we sometimes sing in our worship. Speaking out for the right, accepting the truth when we are wrong, are both acts of fortitude.

Throughout history it is the soldier who is seen as the epitome of courage, though I’m not sure that is always true. Nevertheless, the martial image is one that is often attached to the Christian believer, so whether or not we see ourselves as soldiers, let us at least take on the mantle of resolution, that we may be as valiant as Nathan, and as courageous as David in accepting the truth.

C.J. Rosling 21 March 1992

Fulwood 22 March 1992
Mexborough 14 June 1992
Chesterfield 5 July 1992
Hucklow 12 July 1992, 6 July 1997, 23 Nov 2003
Mexborough 10 July 1994

Sunday Sermon – 14 October 2018

Listen and Learn

CU2nite. W8 4 me. The message was clear and understood, though written in the language of the text messenger. For many text messages have replaced letters, and even emails So the language is adapted accordingly, and to the mystification of we ancients, the annoyance of the pedant and despair of the traditionalist.

Not that adopted written forms to record events or transmit thoughts is something new. The journalist and the secretary (though decreasingly so in the case of the latter) use a system of dashes, lines and twirly curls to write down words in a script invented by a Mr. Pitman. Mathematics has a sign writing of its own. As well as the signs for addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, the equals, greater than, less than signs, there are Greek letters, letters of our alphabet and much else besides. Pi R squared, a squared + b squared = c squared, root of -2 says one mathematician to his colleague, and the language is clear and understood by them both. Mathematicians pride themselves on clarity of thought, of exactness when transmitting them.

The non-sighted may learn Braille, the deaf lip-reading or signing, to receive and send forth thoughts, or learn the latest news. Once sailors and others communicated by the dashes and dots of Morse code.

Spoken language, written language is in constant flux. New words are invented (supercalifragilisticexpadaliosis). The cockney rhyming slang (apples and pears for a flight of stairs), and the regional dialects wax and wane, puzzling the outsider but bringing the insiders closer together.

Much may be understood without a word being spoken. Some claim expertise in interpreting what they call body language, which is not a skill to which I lay claim, except in its simpler forms. Frowning and smiling are easy to interpret. Others will claim that folding arms, crossing or uncrossing legs, sitting forward or backward on a chair give away one’s inmost thoughts. A bit frightening to think one might be revealing unconsciously what one really thinks about the speaker, or the preacher. The turned back, or the enfolding arms, the warm handshake, the sympathetic hug I understand, but I worry that scratching my nose, or cleaning my glasses might in my ignorance inadvertently cause offence to the speaker.

Communicating effectively with others is an essential tool for harmonious living. Communicating is expressing ones own ideas, feelings, fears, aspirations and knowledge to others in such a way that they can understand the signals that you are giving. Smile awhile, and while you smile, another smiles, and soon there will be miles and miles of smiles, read the old wayside pulpit. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.

Speech is the usual, but not the sole, means of communication. 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 affecting the baby, who has no verbal language in which to express them.

But normal, everyday life becomes more complex, and so the need for communicating effectively, and with clarity grows. We talk on the telephone, we instruct our bank manager, we go for interviews, we complain to the supervisor 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 different ways, we daily communicate with others. And the satisfaction we receive or give is related to the skill with which we make known our needs, and the manner of the response.

But communicating is not merely about making known wants. It is also about understanding the needs of others. As well as a loud-hailer, 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 phrase, communication must be a two-way process. The mouth is not superior to the ear.

Who has not known the man or woman infected with what has been called “verbal diarrhoea”? The unbroken torrent cuts off the speaker from those who would also speak. “I keep asking, but no-one listens”, is the plaintive cry of the child or adult who looks for an answer, or simply, understanding.

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.

We wonder about the person who may pray day by day, Sunday by Sunday, or even only occasionally, but never pauses for meditative thought. God must experience some difficulty getting a word in edgeways with some we know, but shall not name.

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 that I, or whoever else occupies the pulpit, speak. As preacher I try to find the ear of the congregation. On too many occasions, I fear, less effectively than I would like. But my words are 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 may we 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.

The most important communications are those between the individual and God, followed closely by exchanges 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. Too often the message most often portrayed goes:- 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.

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. It forms 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.

There is a road sign which shows a small arrow pointing in the direction we are travelling, next to a large arrow pointing towards us. Give priority to on-coming traffic is the message. I reckon if Jesus was preaching today he would build a parable round that.

Whether the message is sent by text or sign, speech or mathematical formula, a smile or a hand round the shoulder, it ought to go with clarity and sincerity. But arguably as important, or even more important, is having ears to hear, and allowing them time to do their job.

I know, physician heal thyself. But I am trying. I hope you are too.

C.J. Rosling 14 January 2006
Hucklow 16 January 2006

Sunday Sermon – 7 October 2018

To Err is Human; To Forgive Divine

In my early days as a teacher, there was a lady on the staff who, on the first morning of a new school year when she met her new class, set them a task whilst she got on with the necessary clerical duties; those of entering up the new register, collecting the dinner money and so on. That was, of course, a common practice with most teachers. But her set task was not that usual one, to write on “What I did in the holidays”, or “My Best Friend”. The assignment she set was to write out the Lord’s Prayer – from memory. After all, it was one of the first things committed to memory in virtually every school in the land, and was repeated each morning in assembly at the beginning of the day.

Later, she would reveal to the rest of the staff room the mistakes she had discovered. Many were what we used to call by that rather dated phrase, schoolboy howlers. I wonder why they were always called schoolboy howlers and never school girl howlers? Perhaps it was because only boys made silly mistakes.

I’ve long forgotten most of the errors, but one commonly recurring one was “Our Father, with chart in heaven”. One imagined God with the aid of a road map finding his way round heaven. Many apparently believed God’s name to be “Hello”, which certainly sounded friendlier than to be called “hallowed”. What is interesting looking back now is that the scorn was directed at the pupil’s ignorance; never considered was the possibility that he or she might have been inadequately taught. But that is another story.

I must confess that I was long puzzled as a youngster by the use of the word “trespasses” in the same prayer. I had always associated trespassing with notices threatening prosecution to anyone straying over the boundary. Yet, perversely, along with many others, even if the meaning of words is obscure, I cherish the old language of prayers and the bible, with phrases and usage of yesteryear, and resist the efforts of the modernisers. To trespass fits nicely with the frequently used analogy of straying from the narrow path. Perhaps that is how the word came to be used for wrongdoing. And of course within the prayer the concept of wrong doing, or trespassing, is linked with, contrasted with, that of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a central feature of the Lord’s Prayer, and of Christian teaching generally. “To err is human, to forgive divine” was a saw much loved by our Victorian fore-bearers, even if they, as is true of most of us, behaved as humans but less frequently acted divinely. And it is on this theme of forgiveness that I should like to say a few words this morning.

In life, virtues and vices are often paired. A copy of that old board game, Snakes and Ladders, which I once owned illustrated this graphically. At the top of each snake was a sin and at the bottom, the consequence which followed from the wrongdoing. Thus, the word “crime” at the snake’s head led down the snake’s body to “punishment” at the tail, greed led to selfishness, and so on. The reverse was true for the ladder. The foot of the ladder might show generosity and the head joy. Climb the ladder from repentance and you gained reconciliation. Land on faith and you climbed the ladder to salvation. And so it went on.
Forgiveness does not exist in isolation. It lives in a present tense. It arises from a past; it leads on to a future. What has gone before is its genesis. Exercising forgiveness has consequences for what has yet to be.

If no wrong has been done, then there is no call to forgive. But forgiveness can be an option if the wrong is an act that has affected one personally. If Peter robs Paul, then it is for Paul to forgive, rather than Tom, Dick or Harry, who were not personally affected. Tom may be saddened at Peter’s fall from grace. Dick may feel sympathy for the victim of this crime and want to see Peter harshly punished “to teach him a lesson”. Harry might wonder what had driven Peter to commit such a heinous crime. But none of the three are asked to forgive Peter. That right belongs to Paul.

And what does forgiveness mean in these circumstances? Let us consider first what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the theft is ignored as of no consequence. It doesn’t mean that the crime is excused, or worst still ignored, or that Peter is exonerated. What forgiveness implies is that no barrier is erected which denies any hope of normal human relationship for ever into the future.

Ideally Peter will have sparked off Paul’s act of forgiveness by an act of contrition. He will have apologised and made some restitution. He will have repented of his wrongful act, and given an undertaking not to repeat it. Forgiveness in this context is something that eases the distress of the wrongdoer. If we have done “that which we ought not to have done”, and are genuinely sorry for it, filled with remorse as the saying has it, then to know the victim understands this is so, has forgiven the crime, is a comfort.

But in the wide spectrum covered by the word forgiveness, this is only a part, and possibly not the larger part at that.

When Jesus said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, he was not simply referring to his own persecution. Beyond the attack upon him as a person, the oppressors were committing what the media nowadays describe as “a crime against humanity”. Freedom of speech, the right to argue against established thought was being stifled.

From earliest times right up to the present day dissenters, whether philosophers, scientists, theologians, writers, preachers, cranks or eccentrics, have been prosecuted, persecuted, harried, imprisoned and executed. Where does forgiveness fit in these cases?

The wrong is not simply to an individual, or a small group of individuals. It is much wider than that. It affects us all. If one person’s opinions are to be silenced, why should not another’s be also suppressed? Oppression in one case may be used as a precedent, to give legitimacy to oppression in general.

This question of forgiveness is one I find extraordinarily difficult. Should the Jewish race forgive the Germans and others responsible for the horrors of the concentration camps? Should displaced Palestinians forgive Israeli settlers? Should victims of genocide as practised in many places throughout the world forgive the perpetrators? What do we mean by forgiveness anyway?

Though there are immediate victims of evil, in a wider perspective, evil affects us all – whether perpetrator, victim or onlooker. It creates a seedbed in which the pernicious weeds of hatred, enmity, violence and the like flourish. Ignored and unchecked, the alien plant grows freely, choking all other growth.

Forgiveness is the hoe that chops down the unwanted growth, separating it from its roots and cleansing the plot. Love is the fertiliser that prepares the ground for healthier growth. Flowers of tolerance, fruits of understanding, foodstuffs to feed the frightened and the fearful take the place of the stifling foliage of the rampant, harmful weed.

But forgiveness is not about ignoring the evil men and women commit. Far less is it about accepting or excusing acts which harm, frighten or plague fellow citizens. Forgiveness is, as I have indicated a tool, albeit a powerful implement, in the battle against evil.

Ideally forgiveness follows remorse, apology, reconciliation and compensation. But the world is not an ideal place. To await the ideal is to encourage the propagation of all that is evil in the soul of mankind. Where there is no forgiveness, there dwells hatred, thoughts of violence, dreams of vengeance. Without the therapeutic properties of forgiveness, the world is doomed to ever increasing acts of aggression.

But forgiveness does not imply forgetfulness. Forgiveness is not incompatible with punishment. The forgiven are not excused penance. When Jesus responded to the question as to whether seven times was the top limit for the number of occasions to forgive, by saying seventy times that number was nearer the mark, he did not say that the incidents should be ignored, that no action should be taken. He was pointing out that there should never be a time when all chances to be united within the human society had expired.

What I am saying is that doctrine of forgiveness is not a soft response to an offender. It is rather an antidote taken by others, including the victims, lest the very poison which has seeped into the perpetrator destroys the souls of the rest.

“What is forgiveness?” I asked earlier. I have tried to give some answers that appear to me to help answer the question. But the subject is huge, for this doctrine lies at the very heart of Christian philosophy. It is applied to the most trivial of incidents and to the most depraved of human behaviour.

It encompasses such abstract ideas as those of mercy. It recognises the forces that prey upon us all, and the frailty of human judgement to which we all subject.

It is a shield to protect us from invasion of evil into ourselves. It is a guard against passing judgements through eyes clouded with rage. It is the cement of human society. It is the balm of tortured souls.

Theologians have written tomes upon the subject. Shelves of Christian libraries groan under their weight.

But my theme is simple. The ability to forgive is the essence of Christianity.

In its absence germs that destroy our very being infect us. The Victorians pointed out that we are all subject to error, but the salvation lay in forgiveness.

To err is human, to forgive divine

C.J. Rosling 13 August 1995

Fulwood 13 August 1995
Hucklow 12 November 1995; 27 January 2002
Chesterfield 8 September 1996
Mexborough 27 April 1997
Stannington 3 September 2006