Sunday Sermon – 26 May 2019

The Market Place

Over the last few years, more and more people have become interested in, even knowledgeable about, the dealings of the finance and stock markets. A number of reasons for that. Holidays abroad mean that exchange rates for foreign currency are of concern not only to those who manufacture, or to importers and exporters, but to ordinary citizens. The cost of the holiday may increase or decrease accordingly. Size of pensions are greatly affected by what goes on in the Stock Exchange. Charity funds, including Church accounts may grow or shrink because their assets have been invested in stocks and shares. Once it was love that made the world go round. Now, apparently, it is money that puts the universe into a spin.

But of course the financial markets are just a small section of innumerable types of market of a vast variety. I once made from time to time early morning car journeys, and switched on the radio for companionship. Before much of the country was awake, I heard announced prices on the fat-stock market, and the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets which preceded the news bulletins – a world of intense interest to farmers, butchers, restaurateurs and the like, but a closed book to many of us.

But the markets I’m most familiar with, and I suspect the same is true for many of you, are the open and the indoor markets to be found in nearly every town and city. I recall, like others in the congregation I suspect, wandering as a child round the open market stalls, lit in winter by hissing acetylene lamps, displaying and selling, as they still do, goods and foodstuffs of every variety. It is a fascination that has faded little with the passage of time.

There is a difference in atmosphere between the indoor and the open market. The indoor more staid, slightly introverted, a place where Vimto, Sarsaparilla and hot Bovril could once be bought, displaced now by Coca Cola, Pepsi and expresso coffee. Whereas the outdoor market is noisier, flamboyant, extrovert, constantly moving with an air of excitement. It is outside that the crowds gather round the seller of cure-all medicines, the gadgets that sharpen the bluntest of knives, the compounds that effortlessly clean the dirtiest of surfaces. And as ever was, I find the patter of the salesman difficult to resist.

Once, as a schoolboy, I purchased, on Ashton-under-Lyne market ground, for sixpence only, a week’s pocket money all at one go, a machine consisting of rollers between which one fed a plain piece of paper and from the other end emerged a genuine ten shilling note. Having made the purchase I soon discovered that whereas the salesman was sixpence richer, my gain was merely to be much the wiser. Nevertheless, I have a suspicion that I still could be persuaded by another salesman with similar magical goods to take up a similar unlikely opportunity.

Then, most compelling of all sights, were the pot stalls, where, in a Dutch auction, whole china tea services went, as the trader emphasised, not for £2, not for thirty bob, not for a £1 or even fifteen shillings, but half a guinea the lot. The crowd gathered round as cups were held against the light to show their translucency, and plates and saucers fanned out in magnificent display on a man’s arm, then collapsed back into a neat pile. We waited in vain to see a plate dropped or a cup smashed, and wondered how many dinner services had been sacrificed in acquiring such skill.

But no matter the type of market, financial, wholesale, rag-and-tag or whatever, the essentials are the same. Buyers and sellers come together, and agree to purchase or not, the one trusting, maybe foolishly, maybe not, in the integrity of the other.

The popular image of the “market trader” – the use of the word has a tinge of disapproval about it, coupled with a touch of envy – is of one who fiddles his taxes, drives a flashy car, and lives in an expensive house in which is stored his untaxed cash. Goods shower from the back of lorries into his path. He should be trusted, if at all, only as far as he can be seen.
That image may fit one or two, but I believe it maligns the great majority of decent folk, who are ordinary, honest citizens, hard-working, warm-hearted and kindly.

Markets are neither new nor peculiar to one country. They are universal and, as the saying goes, as old as the hills. They were certainly a familiar sight to Jesus as he walked through the towns and villages of his land. Very likely, as a carpenter, he had traded himself. Man of the people, and shrewd observer, he knew the ways of those who bought and sold. Two New Testament references to markets which come to mind seem apposite.

The first is the clearing of the Temple of the money changers and others. Jesus referred to the traders making the Temple a “Den of Thieves”, or, in another translation, a “Robbers’ Cave”.

It surely was not trading as such that so angered Jesus. What he found intolerable was fraud. Fraud is the antithesis of trust, of respect, of a regard for the dignity of others, in summary, the converse of the love of one’s fellow man. Cheating sits ill with a commandment to love one’s neighbour.

The other reference is that of giving good measure, well pressed down, when dealing with others. Jesus marked out the honest trader and spoke with affection of her. Generosity in deed marks a spirit of charity.

The material aspects of the world in which we live operate, largely, if not exclusively, in markets of one kind or another. Labour is bought and sold, goods are purchased or bartered, services are offered and exchanged, promises are made, bargains struck. We buy and sell, we offer and accept services, voluntarily or for reward, that we might live our lives. But it is, and arguably more importantly, in the market place in its widest sense, that our Christian credentials are tried and tested.

The classic picture of the hypocrite is of the man or woman, Scribe or Pharisee, who separates worship from living, who mouths the faith and acts, what is sometimes euphemistically described, pragmatically. John describes such a one as having faith without works. Jesus’ most cutting words are reserved for he who preaches, but intentionally fails to practise.

In the ultimate, we are what we do, not what we say we are. We are not asked to absent ourselves from the market place. How could we do that when life revolves round it. But our behaviour in that market place might be a rule of thumb guide as to how far we are from the Kingdom of Heaven. There is the crucial test of whether or not our professed faith is translated into everyday living, or is simply for public display, like a framed certificate displayed in a prominent place on the wall.

Jesus saw that the Temple was being desecrated not because trade had been conducted there, but because in the conduct of that trade, deceit supplanted honesty, duplicity replaced trust.

Over the last decade or so, we have heard much of the merit of market values. It is in the market place, it is said, that worth is tested. The cynicism many feel towards this philosophy is not because markets are wicked places in themselves; on the contrary they may be exciting, exhilarating places, where good men and women come together.

It is because the ethics of the temple traders have so often appeared to take precedence over those of the woman whose measure was well-pressed down and over-flowing. Do the others, but don’t get done yourself.

The trader who tricks the customer, the customer who steals from the trader, illustrate the worst features of market values. Conversely, the fair trader and the honest customer illumine an aspect of love and trust to which Christians aspire.

Jesus was incensed by men, who in a Temple built for the worship of the highest, sought to defraud their fellows. So too, if in our professed beliefs we expound the truth, yet live the false, we deserve the scorn of our contemporaries.

Jesus pointed out that what he titled the Kingdom of God was not some far off place, but was present in our daily lives. When truth replaces falsehood, then trust will dislodge misgiving. When measures are pressed down, full and brimming over, we demonstrate in a practical fashion our love for one another.

The hymnist reminds us that “… who sows the false shall reap the vain”.

The test God obliges us to sit, as to who and what we really are, is a practical one, set anew every day. It is not a theoretical written paper, answer any four questions from eight and complete only on a Sunday. The practical examination occurs in the markets of everyday life, rather than in the cloistered setting of the Church or Chapel.

To paraphrase Paul, I may have faith enough to move mountains, my attendance at worship may be exemplary, but if I give short measure, if I cheat my colleague, then my profession of Christian beliefs will sound pretty hollow.

True market values are about human behaviour rather than those which control monetary exchange. In the vocabulary of the market, competition is said to loom large. But under the same initial letter of competition may be found other words beginning with “c” appropriate to a good life.

Words such as compassion, concern, co-operation, Christianity, and charity. These are the words one associates with true living. The words criminality, cheating and calumny should have no place in our relationships one with another.

The extent to which charity replaces cheating will determine whether the market place is to be applauded or condemned. The market is not merely a commercial forum.

It is a crucible wherein faith is put on trial. A crucible which separates the precious metal from the dross.

C.J. Rosling 15 November 1987

Revised 5 January 1991, April 1995, September 2003

Fulwood 15 Nov. 1987; 23 April 1995
Mexborough 22 Nov. 1987; 24 September 1995
Upper 6 Jan. 1991
Hucklow 3 September 1995; 21 September 2003
Chesterfield 13 April 1997
Doncaster 7 December 1997

Sunday Sermon – 19 May 2019

Let There be Light 2

One of the commoner cliches goes, “One thing leads on to another…”, and nowhere is that more true than in the private world of thought. A colour, a view, a scent, a sound, an overheard word, a snatch of conversation, can all stimulate a chain of recollection which leads, as does a country path, to long forgotten scenes or to unexpected venues.

So it was the other day. I was glancing through a hymn book, looking for hymns for a service I was to take, when I came across one remembered from the past, but which I haven’t heard sung for many years. It was

“Lead, kindly light, Amid the encircling gloom!
Lead thou me on.”

It is not a hymn I like particularly – rather too doleful – but it recalled evening services attended long ago when it was commonly chosen. The stain-glass window, based on the picture by Leigh Hunt entitled “The Light of the World at the end of the pew the family normally occupied. My thoughts went on to thinking about lights. It came to me just how many of the memories that linger are connected either with light, or, alternatively, with the lack of it.

Bonfires and fireworks on November 5, with rockets snaking heavenwards, and sparks flying like glow-worms over the roof tops, as branches crackled and burst into flame. Strange patterns dancing on the ceiling from the front room open fire – it was always called the front room in my childhood, the lounge is a modern affectation – on a winter evening as dusk fell and before the lights were lit. Fairy lights flicking on and off on the Christmas tree in the window. The comforting light shining into the bedroom from the landing before one fell asleep.

To many in my generation, the years of the second world war remain a fertile ground in which to delve for memories. Many memories are connected with the black-out when the streets were unlit. Phases of the moon were followed with keen interest, for we re-discovered how bright a full moon could be. On dark clear, nights the stars, normally obscured to town and city dwellers by street lighting, were suddenly revealed. Small hand held torches shining dimly downwards tracing a small illuminated circle, were an accompaniment to many a journey after sunset.

Those who did not live through those years will find difficulty in understanding how heartfelt was the relief when street lamps were once more lit, and lights could be switched on in houses, shops and offices when night fell without first meticulously blacking out windows and doors. Most of us are creatures of the light, and enforced darkness is not to our comfort.

Many memories that linger, however, are not of darkness, or conversely, of light itself, but rather of darkness punctured by light. I remember once when I was what we would now call a teenager (a word not yet coined in my youth, weren’t they then called adolescents?), walking home from some social function with a group of friends. The road was above the town which nestled below in the valley and on the lower slopes of the hills. As we walked we could see the roads delineated by the lines of street lamps, the uncurtained windows of houses and shops sparkling like jewels on a black cloth of felt. Amongst them crawling clusters of lights that were the buses and trams carrying their human cargoes.

It was a common enough sight, and yet I found it an arresting one. For some reason the memory has remained fresh for more than half a century.

Yet another memory which returned as I thought about lights was one of our local football ground. One side consisted of a roofed area under which spectators stood. The other sides were largely uncovered. On a winter day, when the nights started to draw in before the end of the game, from the opposite side of the pitch the spectators under the roof were invisible in the gloom. Small pin-pricks of light however would momentarily flicker and die from all parts of the darkness, as men lit cigarettes or pipes as they watched the last minutes of the game.

One knew the darkness was inhabited, and this was comforting and re-assuring. The light through the darkness indicated human presence, even though no-one was visible. Perhaps the memory of the view over the town, or across the football pitch, has remained because of the realisation that light in the darkness represents contact with others. More of that later.

It is of no surprise that the imagery of light is so frequently used in religious literature and pictures. Whether it is the analogy of the light-house shining over a blackened sea, the candles burning in the gloom of a cathedral, or saints depicted on stained glass windows as men and woman bathed in light, the inference is the same. As light is a destroyer of darkness, so is goodness the power which overcomes evil.

We are only fully aware of light when it contrasts with the darkness, or comparative darkness around it. Fireworks need the night to show off their splendour; a torch switched on in full sunlight is unseen; a struck match, unnoticed in the daytime, shows up for a surprising distance in the blackness of night.

God make my life a little light
Within the world to glow;
A little flame that burneth bright,
Wherever I may grow.

we used to sing in our Sunday School in days gone by.

The image of light contrasting with darkness is that associated with goodness, with comfort, with reassurance, with hope. But further than that, it is also a symbol for knowledge and learning.

One of the prayers we commonly use in our worship speaks of “God in whom there is no darkness at all”. But whatever be the nature of God, we certainly do not inhabit a world in which there is no darkness, actual or metaphoric. Darkness is the antithesis of light, associated with evil, with unease, with fear, with despair. It is symbolic of ignorance.

Though it would be palpably untrue to say our world is unrelieved blackness, we cannot pretend that the globe is always bathed in light, either actually or figuratively. Whether we speak of our personal lives, our nation, or of a world-wide stage, gloom is frequently the backcloth. Ignorance and fear, evil and inhumanity, are all too commonly observed and experienced. But there are lights which knife through the darkness, pushing it aside and uplifting the spirit.

All of us at some time have sat in a cinema or theatre as the lights have gone down and been surrounded by the blackness. Suddenly a light comes on revealing a figure or a scene and our hearts leap as excitement rises. The darkness was but the prelude to the pleasure to come.

So in moments when all seems dark and depressing, a voice of reassurance, a kindly act, a thoughtful deed cuts through the gloom; the darkness is lifted, and delight returns. We watch the pageant unfold, we learn that human passions, human deeds are not all of sinfulness, wickedness or self-serving greed. There are actions which, as the old saying has it, “shine like a good deed in a naughty world”.

Earlier I spoke of light in the darkness representing contact with others. We look in the evening sky wondering if there are other dwellers in space. We look to the lit window in the distance knowing that this confirms that others are around us. The candle lit in the church represents a presence we may not see but are confident is there.

Light is thus a symbol of not only of decency, rightness and integrity, but also of companionship, of a kinship with others.

The symbol used for a place of learning is a flaming torch. As we acquire knowledge, we illuminate the darkness of ignorance. In ignorance lies misery, fear or superstition.

“The light of knowledge in their eyes” we sing in a well-known hymn, confirming the third facet of the use of light as a symbol. Thus we have morality, fraternity, and learning.

But even this wide-ranging list leaves something out.

When thousands gathered to remember the unspeakable horrors that were the holocaust, many lit candles. Over a tomb a flame flickers. A small light representing memory, but surely more than that. In many places of worship, a candle is lit as the service proceeds. It is a concrete sign of a belief in a spiritual power.

A power alluded to in different words – Creator, Spirit, God, Presence, Almighty, and many, many more. The flame is an acknowledgement of a power we may not define but of whose presence we do not doubt.

“What is electricity?” said the teacher to the boy.
“I’ve just forgotten”, the pupil replied.
“Pity”, said the teacher, “apparently only you and God knew, and now you’ve forgotten”.

We may not know the nature of that which we worship any more than we know what electricity is. But of the reality, we do not doubt. The representation is in light.

Let there be light, that we may advance goodness, cherish friendship, increase knowledge, but above all bow down in humility before immensity of the force which created us, and now sustains us.

The power that is, in the words of one of our well used prayers “….the light of the minds that know thee…”

C.J. Rosling 18 March 1995

Fulwood 19 March 1995
Mexborough 19 March 1995; 16 August 1998
Hucklow 2 April 1995
Doncaster 20 August 1995
Chesterfield 9 February 1997

Sunday Sermon – 12 May 2019

Equality of The Sexes

It is possible to argue interminably about what have been the most significant changes during the 20th century, and indeed there is no simple answer, or even any one answer.

Some will press the claims of a particular scientific invention or discovery, others look to advances in technology. Is the invention of the atom bomb and the associated work on nuclear fission and fusion the most notable achievement? Or is it the growth in knowledge about the origins of the universe in which we dwell? Others will look to the invention of the internal combustion engine, the motor car, followed by the aeroplane. Again, what of communications with telephone, radio and television bringing information to us all, even as events unfold on the far side of the world.

Others will turn to medical science, with the discovery of penicillin, followed by a plethora of miracle drugs; the surgeon who transplants organs almost routinely, or to the pathologist who, with his vaccines, has all but eliminated a number of life threatening diseases.

One will turn to the arts, another to philosophy. Explorers, innovators and sages will all have their supporters.

One can go on and on detailing the differences that have occurred within the world since the birth of a friend of mine who was 90 years of age last October. When he was born, in 1901, humans had not yet invented flying machines. The journey to America took at least a week, instead of today’s five or six hours, with a return journey possible within the day. A journey of several days faced the rich few who ventured on holiday in Spain or Italy. Ultimately men were to build rockets to carry them to the moon, a mere fantasy in a science fiction world throughout my friend’s working life, but to become a reality after only his retirement at the age of 66 years.

My friend was born in a world where there were no radio sets carrying speech and music. He was a young man before crystal sets received the human voice, and wireless sets and the BBC came into every home. Television broadcasts were hardly known until he reached his early fifties. Many common illnesses now treated by doctor’s prescription were killers throughout most of his teaching career. Horse drawn vehicles, steam trains and ships were virtually the sole means of transport during his childhood, though the electric tram operated in some urban areas.

But one can make a strong case that one of the greatest changes in our country during this man’s life is not scientific, but social and political. It is the emancipation of women, an evolution not yet complete but one that has made remarkable progress.

It is surely appropriate on the day a Sunday School May Queen is crowned, to look for a moment at this development – for it is not merely of political and social significance, but of religious significance as well.

At the beginning of this century, the role of women, the position of women in our society, was little different from what it had been for centuries. No woman sat in parliament, no woman had a vote, few professions allowed women entry. Those who advocated greater equality for women were derided, persecuted and sometimes imprisoned.

Women voted for the first time less than five years before I was born, and I was at school before women under thirty years of age were given the vote, and so achieved equality in this respect with men.

In my own profession of teaching, a woman’s salary has been the same as her equivalent man colleague for merely the last thirty years. Only in recent years has it become illegal to discriminate unfairly against women in employment recruitment, though sadly in practice much discrimination still persists.

The quiet revolution in the position of women in British society, a revolution which is still proceeding, can surely rank among the most momentous events of the century.

But why do I refer to this today, in a church service?

I believe that there are two aspects to our worship. One is personal, perhaps inward looking and reflective. The other is communal, outwardly directed and practical.

The first part is important. We meditate and pray, we rest in tranquillity for a while, then, as the prophet wrote, “we renew our strength” that we may “mount up as eagles….”. But vital as that purpose of worship is, it is not, or it ought not to be, our sole purpose in gathering here.

The second part is to put that renewed strength to some purpose in our daily lives. To see how that which we profess to believe is turned to common purpose. And to do that we must recognise the world around us as it is, and as it is developing.

Some do regret change, and will continue to do so. Things aren’t quite how they were when we were young. If only the clock could go back, or the pendulum would swing, they complain. The ranks of those who regret the emancipation of women are not filled with men alone. Some women cry, “Would that the tide ebb.” But tides don’t even obey the commands of kings and queens, let alone the pleas of the commoner.

At the core of christian faith lies the obligation to others, succinctly expressed in the phrase, “… love your neighbour as yourself”. Over and over again in the gospels the criticism of what is implied by a master and servant relationship can be found: “Why call me master?”: “He who would be the master of all, shall be the servant of all”: “Except ye become as little children…” and so on. The story of the washing of the disciples feet also comes to mind.

If, as I believe, those who profess the ethics of Christianity – the master is also servant, the servant is also master – must accept that all members of the human race are valued equally. Categorising into males and females and valuing the groups as of different worth, is wrong. If you prefer the term, it is sinful. The movement for equality of opportunity for both men and women may be social and political in form, but it is surely powered by a religious engine and spiritual fuel.

Unitarianism is often referred to as having a liberal christian tradition. That refers not only to forms of worship, theological arguments and freedom from creeds and dogmas, but to the tradition of commitment of members to social reform. (Many examples are to be found of Unitarian reformers.)

Women have long been received in our pulpits on equal terms with men, a possibility which some other christians debate with anxiety and apprehension. It is for the members of those churches who consider the issues, to reach their own conclusions, but we should continue to value the contribution, and not pre-judge it by the sex of the contributor.

There are those who argue that it is inappropriate in a society moving to greater equality to have women’s groups and men’s groups, for this, they say, reinforces inequalities and differences. This is a viewpoint I do not accept. Equality does not imply sameness. Loving one’s neighbour is an acceptance of difference and variety.

The predominantly male view of society has lead until recent times to that very belief in exclusiveness and male superiority, a certitude which now is rightly crumbling. A view that one sex has a God-given position of superiority over the other is incompatible with a faith that puts love of neighbour at its heart. Largely due to a comparatively few courageous, tenacious women the century will close with a very much improved position for women in society than was the case when it opened.

What then for the future? What message should there be, what lessons have been learnt than can be applied elsewhere?

Within the world, and within our own country, much inequality still is prevalent. Many groups, because of their religion, their colour, their beliefs, their ethnic background, or for other reasons, are at best denied equal treatment, or are at worst persecuted. Love of neighbour has a limited acceptance or is applied selectively.

Women have personal experience of discrimination which should make them particularly sensitive to the needs of others. Because it is a woman who carries the new life and gives birth to it, she has a sympathy to the weak, the helpless and the oppressed. They will surely be in the van of their fight for a fairer world.

Men more frequently are the oppressors, or are those who are insensitive to the aspirations of others. They are the ones who have to be educated, cajoled, compelled to help change the world.

Emancipation of women, even when complete, is not the end. It is a start on a long road to the removal of injustice, intolerance – an attitude which is fundamentally irreligious.

I started by speaking of a man born at the beginning of the century into a world which, had it been able to see forward would have gazed with unbelief. That a new born babe would live to see men in space was incredible. That women too would go into space was ludicrous.

That a woman would become Prime Minister was cloud cuckoo land. That this baby should live to watch a report from a battlefield halfway across the world of events as they happened, was barely understandable; that the reporter would be a woman was taking things too far.

We have come a long way in a short time, and much is due to the determination of women. We have a long way still to go, and recent, past history shows the inconceivable is achievable.

With the partnership of both men and women we can tramp the road ahead to the goal of a society truly based on christian ethics, where the contributions from all are sought, and respect to all is given.

A hundred years ago it was taken for granted that men alone would draw the plans of the new world we were seeking. Surely we now know better. A Sunday School May Queen has this morning pledged herself to service. May she grow to see a world where equality is not a matter for comment, but represents the accepted norm.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 10 May 1992

Sunday Sermon – 5 May 2019

All the World’s a Stage

If supermarkets had been established in the sixteenth century I might have hazarded a guess that the image of mankind moving as actors through seven developmental stages as described in that oft quoted speech in “As you like it” came to William Shakespeare as he sat in Sainsburys waiting for Ann Hathaway to complete the weekly shop. As the twentieth century was well advanced before large serve-yourself grocery shops appeared, the poetic inspiration must have been sparked off elsewhere.

As I think I have mentioned before, I act as chauffeur, packer and porter on our weekly household shopping trips. Whilst the actual process of selecting goods from the shelves and ticking off the list is taking place I am sent to the café out of the way. After a bowl of soup and a bread roll, only varied occasionally by a cup of tea and a toasted teacake, depending on the mood, for I am a creature of fixed habits, I wait patiently on a chair opposite the tills until my services are required once more.

Thus it was, a week or two ago that the lines of Shakespeare came into my head. On a busy Saturday you may see a pretty fair sample of the population of the land, milling in the aisles between the shelves and the freezers. They are all there, from the mewling and puking infant to the old man with his clothing “a world too wide for his shrunk shank”. All stages from numbers one to seven are represented. The elderly, rather bemused grandmother is being patiently guided round the shop by her dominant daughter, whilst her partner tries to appease the whining schoolboy who is insisting that a packet of sugary cereal flakes should be in the shopping trolley, complete with its free gift of a dinosaur. I mused that in next to no time the mewling infant would have reached stage six, struggling to walk, supported by two walking sticks, whilst trying to remember what she came for, and the whining schoolboy would be sitting on the chair in my place, reading the paper and racking his brain to think of a word with four letters beginning with “x” to fill the remaining empty squares in 8 down.

“How do you set about writing a sermon?” one is sometimes asked. I suppose a traditional answer would be, you choose a biblical text and then use it as a framework building a structure based on analysis, developing an idea or ideas, comparing ancient history with contemporary events, finally extracting a moral message.

By this test I fail miserably as a sermoniser. My biblical knowledge is too shallow, my ability to develop an argument suspect, I all too readily allow myself to meander down side roads instead of sticking to the main highway, drifting with the stream instead of driving resolutely ahead. Oh yes, and I am prone to mix my metaphors, losing the thread whilst chasing after wayward thoughts.

So my rambling remarks this morning owe their genesis, not to a quotation from the Old or the New Testament, but from a routine shopping trip to Sainsburys a day or two after Easter.

A common theme of our worship is the wonder of the world around us. Many of our hymns are of the beauty of the world in which we live. “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small”, we carol. The mysteries in the skies above, the secrets of the atom, the teeming life of the pond or the compost heap, help paint the images in our prayers, and are the subject of our readings.

Creation is awe-inspiring, and we feel deeply reverential as we observe it. As we leave the chapel this morning, spread around us, above us and below us are subjects for countless sermons and orders of service. In rural areas and open countryside, springtime and harvest, leafless winter and summer blooms lead to thoughts of God. Death and resurrection in field and woodland engender thoughts of immortality. Looking at the sky above us, that unbounded space through which the stars and planets speed is an invitation to reflect upon eternity.

But one of the most intriguing of mysteries is that of life itself. A young lady pushed her trolley past me. Perched on the top, above the plastic carriers and the pack of disposable nappies, in a special basket that shops thoughtfully attach to their shopping trolleys for the purpose, was a sleeping child, at most three weeks old, maybe less, certainly not more. The tiny newborn was utterly dependent up its mother, unable to stand or sit, talk or communicate other than with a cry, relying on others for food, warmth and protection. Within the year, I mused, that babe will walk, speak a word or two and start the journey to independence.

I remembered that baby as I sat on the platform in a secondary school a few days ago as sixteen-year-old young adults were presented with certificates their learning had earned. The journey made by the newly born child to independent adolescent, and on to be a craftsman, a nuclear scientist, a teacher, a skilled worker, a shop assistant, an artist, a writer, a poet, a parent, a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, a beggar man or a thief, is staggering, and as awesome as any of the mysteries in the universe.

Of course human beings are not unique in moving from birth to death in a cycle of life. All living things, whether plant or animal have a birth, then a period of maturity, followed by decline and death. All animals reproduce, the offspring grow, developing strength and mobility, enjoy life as mature adults for a time before aging and dying. But uniquely, humans also develop the power of thought, of imagination, an ability to interpret, to foresee, to recall, to use tools and invent machines, to record experiences that will inform the unborn, to translate emotions into works of art, and to do much more besides, because they grow not only in body but in intellectual powers.

It is observing this intellectual growth that hits the senses like a thunderbolt. The breathless miracle of it all leaves one bereft of words to describe the wonder. At least it does me, and, I suspect, I am not alone.

The letters DNA are commonly referred to in news reports today, often in respect of a criminal investigation, or describing a search for cures for medical conditions. Each of us carries a unique code, our DNA, which determines our physical characteristics. I don’t pretend to understand the science of it, except knowing that it is the basis of life. This code, written in the cells of our body, is infinitesimally minute, and fiendishly complicated. So much I do know. What humbles me is that a tiny, helpless child, as the one on the shopping trolley, grew in the space of a few years to be a scientist with a mind able to discover, unravel and understand the basis of life itself. Some may describe the growth of intelligent thought as a mechanical process, for me it is one of the great mysteries of life.

And there are what one might think of as more mundane processes in the developing mind, but are in truth far from ordinary. The newborn child will shortly gain a vocabulary, be able to construct sentences, select the appropriate word according to the circumstances. Even very young children will recognise the subtleness of tone that reveals whether the words comprise a statement or a question, a command or a plea, a reprimand or a word of praise, a joke or a warning. Little time passes before the inarticulate infant grasps the absurdity or contradiction that is the essence of most verbal humour, and laugh out loud as the words are spoken. The world over, folk spontaneously dance with joy, sing in exultation. But the mind that choreographs and composes music and song is a phenomenon that fills me with awe.

Further, unlike flesh and bones, the mind continues to grow when the rest of the body has reached maturity. An eminent Victorian, Sir John Lubbock, wrote,

“Few of us make the most of our minds. The body ceases to grow in a few years; but the mind, if we will let it, may grow almost as long as life lasts”. Others will disagree, but the crowning glory of creation for me is the human mind, a mind that programmes us to laugh or cry, to reminisce and to dream of the future, to appreciate and to worship.

We have an intelligence that empowers us to share the suffering of friends as well as feel our own pain, which is the base on which compassion is built. Sometimes that mind turns itself to rather mundane tasks like composing an advertising jingle or building a supermarket.

Alternatively other minds may produce a Shakespearian Folio of plays, or design St. Paul’s Cathedral. There is no end to the scope of the mind of mankind; there are no bounds to its magnificence.

A voice brought me back to earth. “Aren’t you going to help me pack these boxes?” it chided. So the train of thought was broken, the shopping was finished, the boxes packed and taken to the car.

In the car park the tiny scrap of life had woken up and was making what any mother will recognise as a hungry cry. The carrycot was placed in the car. The car drove off, the mother anxious to satisfy her infant’s need for food. We drove home to unpack our stores.

Before her mother knows it, that helpless babe will be driving her own car, picking up that mother, a little older now, to take her to the shop, and then, after taking her back home, prepare a meal whilst mother dozes in front of the television. It doesn’t take long to count from one to seven.

So that’s it. The greatest mysteries are found in the everyday rather than in the unusual. Residing between the ears is the greatest glory in a universe of wonder.

I told you at the beginning I was no genius when it comes to writing sermons. I couldn’t think of a moral message to deliver. If I am asked again, I promise to try harder next time.

C.J. Rosling 24th May 2007
Hucklow 27th May 2007