Sunday Sermon – 3 November 2019

Striving to Achieve

“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp
Or what’s a heaven for.”

Robert Browning was protesting impatience with easily attained targets, and urging that one should strive to achieve that which appears not to be immediately obtainable. As in the prayer of St. Ignatius Loyola – “fight and not to heed the wounds” – human dignity is enhanced when one is not content with the easily obtained, but endeavour to struggle towards more difficult targets.

Uniquely in the animal kingdom, the human race is able to consider, to plan, to learn from the experience of others, to recall over time and to reflect upon past achievements. But unless these skills are used, then this unique power wastes, and men and women become less distinguishable from the rest of the animal state.

It is this reaching for that which is beyond the grasp which is an essential component of much joy and much sorrow, of the comedy of life as well as its tragedy, the source of satisfaction and the bitterness of disappointment.

Recently two short stories came to mind which, on the face of it, are stories of failure. I cannot recollect the author of the first, except he was a Russian whose tale I read a long time ago in a book of short stories. Nor do I recall the exact details of the narrative, but the theme has stayed with me over the passage of years.

The story is of a poor Russian peasant who had the opportunity to gain wealth by acquiring land of his own. The task set was to plough a furrow between sunrise and sunset so as to enclose a piece of land on the wide steppes of the Russian plains. The furrow had to start and finish at the same spot, and then all the land within the ribbon of gouged earth would be his.

The story describes the day of the assignment. At sunrise the peasant sets off with his oxen dragging the plough. The sun rises to its zenith and beats down on the man as he presses on, determined to encompass the maximum amount of ground – just a little further and then further. The circumference grew. As the day passes, he realises that he must complete the circle before nightfall or his journey will have failed. He whips on his tiring oxen and drags his weary legs behind the plough, and, just as the sun is sinking behind the horizon, he reaches his starting point and completes the circle.

But the triumph is short-lived, for the task has exhausted him. His body has been pushed beyond its limit of endurance, and, in the moment of triumph, his heart fails and he dies. The land he has gained is thus limited to the plot in which he is buried.

One can interpret the story in a number of ways. Perhaps it is a story of greed for which a price is paid. Or is it a comedy, for comedy is so often dependent upon the fall, whether caused by the banana skin, or when the misfortunes of life snatch the carrot from the clutching hand. Or it could be an illustration that material gains are transitory and illusory. But I like to regard the story as an account of the triumph of human endeavour. The reach was beyond the grasp, but so it should be. True failure is not lack of success; it is lack of the will to strive towards success.

I am told that there is an Olympic oath which athletes are offered, and which reads:-

Let me win,
But if I cannot win
Let me be
Brave in the attempt.

Amen to that.

The other story which came to my mind was one which hovers between the long short story, and the short novel. It is Ernest Hemingway’s, “The Old Man and the Sea”. Many of you perhaps know the story, which is of an old fisherman, again, like the Russian peasant, living in poverty, in this case somewhere on the shores fringing the Caribbean Sea. For many days he has fished unsuccessfully, but decides to go out to sea once more. With the help of a boy the boat is launched, and once at sea he sets his line to catch the large fish, marlin I think they were, which inhabit the warm, tropical seas, and upon which his livelihood depends.

A fish takes the bait and the old man realises that he has hooked the largest fish of his life. So strong is it that it drags the boat far from the land. After long hours of struggle, which drains the strength of the old man, though he will not abandon the chase, the fish is brought alongside and killed with the gaff. So large is the fish that the old man is unable to bring it into the boat. He lashes it to the side, and starts the long, slow journey back to the land, by now two or three days sailing away.

During the journey, sharks attack the fish, in spite of the efforts of the fisherman to drive them off. By the time the boat reaches the shore his catch is destroyed, and the triumph is no more. The Old Man returns, exhausted, to his destitution.

Again, at one level this is a story of failure. But not a failure to reach, merely an inability to grasp, in spite of an herculean effort. But at another level, it is a story of success, in the words of the Olympic oath, a story of accepting the challenge and “being brave in the attempt”.

True living is a complex, complicated art. It is a drawing together of many things. It is about a relationship with an unseen force, the spiritual dimension which we call variously the life force, the creative power or simply God. It is about a relationship with others, of practising tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, and exercising judgement as how and when these are appropriate. What to tolerate and what to denounce, for instance; when to be condemnatory, and when to forgive.

Life is variously given to quiet reflection or frantic activity. As we mature, hopefully we become better at judging the appropriate moment for each. All these aspects of living, and more, make us greater than mere advanced members of an animal kingdom. They give us the unique status of membership of the human race. If we live as we should, we are constantly challenged, often uncertain, frequently wrong, but gloriously alive. But not the least importance component of a full life is the effort to achieve that which extends us to the limit, or even beyond the limit.

In the stories I have mentioned, those limits were physical, the goals referred to gaining material reward. And physical goals are not to be idly dismissed – they are real challenges. In exerting ourselves fully in a physical sense, we can and do develop a spiritual stature. But physical targets are not the only marks whose reach may be beyond the grasp, but for which we should strive. Targets there are, surely the most important targets, which are less tangible but real.

There are targets for the whole nation or large communities, like world peace, abolition of poverty, social justice, racial harmony, equality before the law, and so one can go on. There are lesser targets, though lesser only in the sense that they involve smaller groups, like tolerance in our own neighbourhood, or understanding in our immediate communities.

There are individual targets which deal with our relationship in a family, in the work-place, or with the next door neighbour. We should not despise a target simply because it is readily attainable. If reaching it improves the lot of fellow beings, then it is worth doing. We should seek always to do those things.

But if we, either as individuals or as a community, fail to try, for example, to bring about peace simply because we see no way of early success, then we demean ourselves. Dignified failure, bravery in the attempt, is infinitely to be preferred to defeatist effort.

There is a rather derogatory expression that is used about those who attempt and fail. It is “to bite off more than one can chew”. Of course there are occasions when this can legitimately be used, as when personal greed or avarice is the motivation for our behaviour. But if one is over-ambitious because the need is great and the cause is good, then the expression is surely at best ungenerous, and at worst malicious.

Many of the great social reforms ultimately came about because of the willingness of individuals and groups to bite off more than contemporaries thought was reasonable or wise. Slavery would be still a pattern of life, women wouldn’t vote, child labour would be tolerated, and a host of other injustices would remain, if brave men and women had not grasped beyond their reach. And if this is thought not to be a particularly religious matter, one need only to recall a myriad of people whose social conscience grew out of deeply held religious conviction.

There is a truism that states that education should be aimed at developing the whole person. Developing into a whole person, through education, through living, and through self-development, involves developing the spiritual side of life also. This will be stunted unless the growth of ambition to achieve beyond the immediately attainable is a part of that development.

I recently preached about wishing on stars. Wishing on stars, reaching beyond the grasp, striving to win, but being at least brave in the attempt, are all aspects of the same coin.

Like John Bunyan’s pilgrim, there must be

“……….no discouragement
That shall make us once relent
Our first avow’d intent…”

C.J. Rosling 23 April 1994

Fulwood 24 April 1994
Upper 24 July 1994
Mexborough 11 December 1994

Sunday Sermon – 27 October 2019

I’m Starving

Three-quarters of a century ago, in my primary school, as I suspect in every other primary school in the land, the day’s lessons began with scripture. Later the time-table named the scripture period, religious instruction, later still religious education; but at that time it was scripture. Psalms and the Beatitudes to be learnt by heart, stories read and studied from both Old and New Testament, starting with the wanderings of Abraham through to the journeys of Paul.

Not the least gripping of the stories we read was one from the Book of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers. The narrative has a variety of themes which may be found in many a novel – jealousy, attempted murder, sex, revenge, violence, compassion, forgiveness, a rags to riches tale with a happy ending.

Like many others, in later years I enjoyed the rock musical based on the story, “Joseph and his Multi-coloured Dreamcoat”. But it is the original story which, to coin a phrase, holds the stage.

The story came to mind the other day after watching a news item on the television. During it, there had been displayed horrifying pictures from the African continent of men, women and, most distressingly of all, children, dying of starvation as famine swept their lands.

Joseph, as you will recall, possessed, among other talents, the ability to foretell the future by interpreting dreams. As he slept, Pharaoh had seen seven fat kine (I prefer to use the old word, sounds more regal than mere cows) devoured by seven lean and hungry animals. Joseph warned that this was a signal of famine to come. Preparations for the coming catastrophe were then put in hand.

The word “famine” entered my vocabulary a life-time ago, but it is, I confess, only in recent years that I have come anywhere near understanding its truly awful meaning. Until these and similar television pictures came into the home over the last decade or so, famine was a rather old-fashioned biblical term for something that happened in stories of long ago. “I’m starving” we say when an hour or two has elapsed since the last meal. Starving used as a synonym for feeling hungry. The literal meaning is far starker.

In the lands smitten by famine, we see far more than mild hunger pangs felt an hour or two after a wholesome meal. Famine induced starvation is unimaginable misery, suffering, sickness leading to a lingering, painful death. Babies too weak to cry, fall apathetically into the sleep from which there is no awakening.

The Middle East, the Horn of Africa and the sub-Sahara region have for centuries suffered periodic famine. The story of Joseph, though no doubt part fable, part synthesis of the experiences of many people, is surely not complete fantasy. The peoples of Old and New Testament times alike knew only too well of the ravages of famine. The biblical phrase “to hunger and thirst” grew out of painful experience.

When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, and included in the prayer the phrase “…give us this day our daily bread” it was not an empty set of words. The disciples knew full well how life depended precariously upon the vagaries of weather, on an absence of pests, as well as relying on a successful harvest.

To solicit for bread was a commonplace in lands where begging was endemic. For how else did the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the homeless exist where no welfare state provided for their sustenance? Charity from others was their means of survival.

Food for the next meal was, and still is, a first priority for a great number of the populace throughout the world. To secure another meal is life; fail, and death becomes a stark reality. No wonder that food and drink provide so many religious metaphors. Food succours and strengthens. It is the means of sustaining life. It gives the body strength. Its absence removes both the will and the ability to live.

Parallels with the importance of nourishing the spirit are obvious. Moving from the reality of real hunger to recognising that spiritual life, as well as physical existence, is sustained by feeding, is not a large step. So a prayer for daily bread is about more than bodily need. To adapt a well-known advertising slogan, there is a need to reach those parts ordinary foods cannot reach.

“Bread of Heaven”, we sing, “feed me ‘til I want no more”. Not a peon in praise of gluttony, but a prayer for spiritual sustenance. Recognition that there are needs over and beyond mere physical survival.

The human body needs continual feeding at regular intervals. Food is provided by other living organisms be they plant or animal. Our life depends upon the lives of others. Adequate and appropriate food and drink is prerequisite for a healthy physical life.

However we have needs additional to that if we are to truly live. Spiritual needs have got to be satisfied. And, as with physical needs, the occasional top-up at irregular and long intervals is not the answer. The infrequent special service, the christening, the funeral, grief at time of crisis and little else, does not sustain the spirit in a healthy state. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Without faith, hope and love, life is but a stunted existence. To become a whole person, we have to go beyond satisfying physical need.

The unique spirit of humankind, the soul, the essential humanity, call it what you will, withers and distorts, sickens and malfunctions when it is starved of sustenance, just as does the body when denied its regular intake of food.

Famines past and present are, unhappily, facts of life. Sometimes they are described in that most unfortunate phrase, as being Acts of God. I find it difficult to accept that God from time to time, as it were, loses his temper, and sends plagues of pests, torrential rains, droughts or other disasters upon the land which this phrase implies. That surely cannot be so. However, that apart, the role of the wise person is, like Joseph of old, to make preparations beforehand, giving relief to the distressed, and sharing bounty with those who starve.

Many famines are of man’s making. War, pillage, greed, exploitation, theft, ignorant arrogance, all play their part in bringing misery to others. That sometimes this occurs under the cloak of religious wars is uniquely revolting. Religious war is itself a contradiction in terms. Religious ethics are surely about mutual respect, sharing and supporting the weak. To destroy or abstract from our neighbour the bread he needs to live, is a negation of religion.

Similarly, there may be famines curtailing the nourishment needed to satisfy spiritual hunger, and thus enable growth and development. Sometimes, as bracken grows on the uplands choking all other growth and producing inedible forage in its place, so materialism, stifles the production of spiritual victuals. Great effort is needed to root out the enveloping weed to enable life-supporting shoots to flourish.

But more frequently, the food is available; it is self-imposed fasting or unwise choice of repast which is starving spiritual growth. Enjoying that which is outside material wealth, selfish greed and love of personal possessions, and exercising love and charity towards one’s fellow beings, enables healthy spiritual growth to take place.

The story of Joseph is not simply about relieving the effects of famine. It was right to build barns in time of plenty to store supplies against harsh times to come. It was proper to feed the hungry that they should not starve. But beyond that there was a spiritual famine which had hardened hearts enabling hatred and jealousy to grow like a cancer. In the climax of the story Joseph forgave his brothers, showing generosity to them and to his family. That spiritual feed enabled love to expand as unworthy passions atrophied.

There is much that humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the physical part of them. The physical body of all in the animal kingdom has to be maintained with food and drink, exercise and repose. We are born, we reproduce, we die. All this and more we share with the rest of animal life. But it does not end there. For we who are privileged to be part of the human race have skills which others animals do not share. The ability to think, to plan, to prepare for example. A sense of the past, and a vision of the future is ours. But most importantly, we have something which is somewhat vaguely referred to as a soul.

We can feel compassion. We can exercise tolerance. We can make self-sacrifices in order others might benefit. We can feel moved by thoughts and experiences outside of ourselves. We may feel awe and wonder. We have a perception of good and evil. We can aspire to be saints; or we can degenerate into devils.

But this aspect of our lives needs sustaining with wholesome fare, not left to perish, or, even worse, become grossly mutated through the poison produced by, what Joseph might have called, false gods.

Some of the vilest crimes of humanity, for example the burning of heretics, genocide against those of (in inverted commas) “inferior race or intelligence”, or the so named ethnic cleansing, have been committed by those whose spiritual and moral values have been distorted thus.

We in our time and land are strangers to the famines ravishing many parts of Africa and Asia. We are better fed then ever in our history. By and large, with a few exceptions, we are healthier then the generations which went before us.

Our expectation of life has expanded enormously throughout this century, particularly in the latter half of it. We worry about over-weight rather than under-nourishment. We are the privileged. We are more anxious about calorie intake than concerned about the state of the harvest. As the hymnist puts it

“We have enough, yet not too much
To long for more”

But are there not some signs of a famine in spiritual succour? Does our spiritual being grow large on over-eating as does our physical waist-line? To enable us to live a complete life, physical well-being is important. A healthy body requires sustaining with a healthy diet. Spiritual well-being is crucial to a full, complete life. Manna from heaven is important.

We as individuals, and society as a whole depends, not merely on physical strength and well-being, but on a sense, first of being not just a receptacle of physical needs into which fuel has to be pumped, but body capable of prayer as well as understanding. Secondly, we most always have in our minds that we are a part of a society which respects and cherishes all other members. Their needs are our needs; our requirements apply equally to them.
“….give us this day our daily bread” – but from the fount of all wisdom as well as from the bakery.

“Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven
Feed me ‘til I want no more”

May your appetite be insatiable.

C.J.Rosling 16 January 1999

Hucklow 17 January 1999; 23 October 2005
Fulwood 21 February 1999

Sunday Sermon – 20 October 2019

Worldly Religion

If you listen to people talking about religion and life, possibly sooner rather than later, you will hear the phrase “other-worldly” used. There is a perception, strongly held by some, that true religion is somehow set apart from the everyday affairs of life. Perhaps this view is most starkly displayed by those who permanently cut themselves off from the ordinary everyday affairs of the world and retreat into a monastic life devoted to religious observances and thoughts of so-called “higher things”. They may pray for the world, but they are not of the world.

This attitude is also revealed in less absolute terms. Going to church is regarded as special, in the sense that it is different from everyday life – divorced from it and placed, as it were, in a separate compartment of activity. Once the service is over and one has left the building, ordinary life can proceed once more.

This special, other-worldly existence is contrasted with a life steeped in worldly affairs. The latter is described as being practical and down-to-earth, not living in an airy, fairy atmosphere of spiritual dreamland, but getting on with real life. “Life is real, life is earnest” goes the line of the hymn.

Certainly I would not wish to appear to judge sincerely held beliefs of others, but for my part I would find a life shut away from daily toil, even with all its pressures and disappointments, profoundly unsatisfactory. Similarly, a life exclusively devoted to so-called worldly cares, and which was devoid of spiritual values, would be equally barren. For my part, religious convictions are a guide, a framework within which everyday life can be enjoyed.

For example, a belief is held by some, that religion and politics should be kept apart. It is not a view I hold. Let me qualify that by recalling a BBC programme of yesteryear called the Brains Trust, which older members will remember. One of the regular panellists, the late Professor Joad, was wont to say when asked a question, “It all depends on what you mean by the words you use.”

If you look for the definition of politics in the dictionary you will find that it deals with government and the making of laws. In other words, it is about community and shaping the society in which we live. To my way of thinking, it is entirely right to judge the society in which we live by comparing it against the religious standards we profess to encompass.

Of course, that is not to say that any favoured political party’s principles are holier than another party’s beliefs. However, I maintain it to be entirely right to say from the pulpit whether or not, in the preacher’s opinion, we live in a just, forgiving society, and whether the government of the day is acting in a tolerant and humane way to its citizens. Observations about whether or not the needs of the community are fairly balanced against the rights of the individual, whether or not the strong oppress the weak, and whether or not young and old, men and women, black and white, enjoy equal rights, is to my mind an entirely proper function of the church. Certainly this is so for any church which professes to accept the Christian standards of love of neighbour.

Not infrequently one faction or group, be it a political party, religious community or social gathering, believes it has a monopoly of right on its side. During the first World War, a poet noted that all participants in the conflict prayed that God would bring them victory, for their cause was self-evidently a right and just one. The poet wrote of God listening to these pleas coming from Germany, France, Britain, and elsewhere to grant their side victory over the enemy. Defeat should be inflicted upon the other side whose cause was self-evidently unjust. Our poet concluded his poem with the lines. “My God, said God, I’ve got my work cut out.” To bring religion and ethical standards into everyday life is not to contend that God supports one’s own side and is therefore antagonistic to those holding different views. It is to establish the importance of considering one’s actions and comparing them with one’s professed beliefs.

And it is not only into the field of politics that we should carry our religious principles. It applies to business and commence, to the factory and office, to the smaller and larger communities in which we move, into our public actions and even our private thoughts.

A novel I read many years ago, whose title I now forget, dealt, in part, with the setting up of a manufacturing process in an imaginary Middle Eastern country manned by an untrained and unsophisticated work-force. The venture was successful, primarily because the workers were a deeply religious people, who, when trained, performed their tasks conscientiously and thoroughly. To them, to do less was a betrayal of their faith and an insult to their god. Failure to properly tighten a bolt, to carelessly assemble a part, or to weld badly a joint, was an abomination. They took their faith from the church, temple or mosque (or whatever their place of worship might be) into the work-place and the market-place, and made everyday tasks a homage to their deity.

To return to the definition of words. “Other-worldly” is shown in my dictionary as having two meanings. One is to do with spiritual things, with an alternative, meaning given as advocating impractical ideas. It is far from uncommon for words to have more than one meaning. But what appears to be the case with “other-worldly” is that the two meanings have become entangled, if not amalgamated. To many, that which is described as spiritual is assumed to be also impractical. And being impractical, separated from day to day living.

True religion is overwhelmingly practical. There are countless individuals who have shown in their own lives that this is so. In every land from north to south, from east to west, from times long forgotten up to the present day, men and women, some famous throughout the world, others anonymous, have served and continue to serve their neighbours. As managers or menial workers, in hospital, in Town Hall, in small shop, in multinational company, in paid employment, in voluntary service, in high profile jobs or in humble ways, you find those whose service to their fellow men and women is powered by the engine within that embracing, comprehensive term, spiritual values.

These people give the lie, by their life and service, to the suggestion that spiritual and impractical are interchangeable terms. Their practical contribution grows from their spirituality. Their religious belief is tried, tested and honed by public duty every single day of their life, as well as in private worship.

The complaint heard too often, that the church gets involved in areas that should not be within its province, describes a situation which is far from the truth. It is in the absence of standards set by religious teaching from everyday life that injustice lives, misery is harboured, and intolerance breeds. The establishing of these standards, ensuring that they are maintained and monitored in their application, is done by men and women. I believe that in undertaking this duty, men and women are best guided by and sustained in the task through a sincerely held religious faith.

Worldly is said to be about the secular life, the life of every day. It is described as the life of work and of leisure, earning our daily bread, enjoying sport and pastimes, meeting others in pub or club, in theatre, on golf-course or bowling green. It is shopping in the supermarket, driving on the road, walking along the street, or playing in the park. Worldly is contrasted with the other-worldly spiritual life of worship, prayer and contemplation.

But my whole argument is that to separate the worldly and the other-worldly as distinct, and even contradictory, is to devalue both. Life without a spiritual dimension is bland, tasteless and unsatisfying, like fish without tartar sauce, or steak without mustard, or salt which has lost its savour. Conversely, a spirituality not tested in the everyday world is empty, if not meaningless. What James called faith without works is to proclaim with the mouth but not to reflect in the deed.

Both the epithets “worldly” and “other-worldly” are in their turn variously used derisively, as missiles to harm and to hurt. But both are honourable terms if used as two aspects of a partner-ship, a marriage, not of convenience, but, if you will, of necessity; of necessity because neither partner can flourish in the absence of the other.

One might ask how can religious values be brought into all aspects of life when there is a multiplicity of faiths, and, in the Christian religion alone, a wide variety of sects. But though beliefs may differ, modes of worship vary and practices contrast, all true religions have, or should have, common values. It is of the importance of bringing those values into the daily round, the common task, of which I speak. I suggest those values include compassion and mercy, tolerance and understanding, love and charity, sympathy and consideration, patience and peace of mind.

Which of us would deny the inclusion of any one of these in a litany of our belief, alongside other manifestations of a love and respect for fellow beings? These “other-worldly” spiritual values savour the worldly life, making it at the lowest estimate, tolerable, but more frequently positively enjoyable. Far from being impracticable, they are the essentials in our diet – the vitamins on which healthy life depends.

It used to be customary to start a sermon with a biblical text, but I will reverse the process and conclude with one from the epistle of James.
“You see then that a person is justified by deeds, and not by faith in itself.”

C.J. Rosling 25 June 1994
Fulwood 26 June 1994
Mexborough 19 February 1995
Hucklow 2 July 2000

Sunday Sermon – 13 October 2019

Equal Rights

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 just a single 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, or the motor car, to be 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.

Another 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.

So 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 97 years of age this summer. When she 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 some years after her retirement.

My friend was born in a world where there were no radio sets carrying speech and music. She was a young woman before crystal sets received the human voice, and wireless sets and the BBC came into every home. Television broadcasts were hardly known until she reached her early fifties. Many common illnesses now treated by doctor’s prescription were killers throughout most of her working life. Horse drawn vehicles, steam trains and ships were virtually the sole means of transport during her 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 woman’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.

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, there to be forcible fed.

Women voted for the first time less than five years before I was born. 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-five years or so. 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 woman 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. May the child born today grow to see a world where equality is not a matter for comment, but represents the accepted norm.

C.J. Rosling 13 October 1991

Chesterfield 13 Oct. 1991
Fulwood 10 May 1992 (adapted as MAYQUEEN)
Hucklow 9 August 1992
Mexborough 9 August 1992

Sunday Sermon – 6 October 2019

Knowledge, Understanding and Wisdom

Long ago, in the first half of the seventeenth century, a minor writer named Owen Felltham wrote his short essay on the value of acquiring knowledge in order to, and I paraphrase his words, give one something to think about in old age. I expect most of us would suggest that though that might be one reason for education, there are certainly many more compelling arguments to support a thirst for learning. But for whatever reason, like it or not, we all from a very early age fill our heads with facts. Then as we grow old we regurgitate them, thus boring younger people as we repeat experiences from our youth, over and over again.

Some facts might be regarded as more useful than others. I once knew a man whose boast it was that if you gave him any year in the last sixty or so he would name the winner in that year of the Grand National, the Derby and many other horse races as well. Quite a feat of memory without doubt; but to my mind, as one whose knowledge of horse-racing would rest comfortably on the head of a pin, of rather less practical use than say multiplication tables, or, since we went metric, and I shall come to recipes in a few moments, knowing how many millilitres in ¾ of a pint.

All of us, I admit, carry round a huge amount of what might be dubbed junk facts, of little value and even less interest. But it isn’t always easy to distinguish the rubbish from the gems. In any event, we frequently have little control over what sticks in the mind and what disappears without trace. I remember clearly the name of my first infant school teacher, who taught me to read seventy five years ago, but that couple’s name to whom I was introduced the other day already completely escapes me.

Mr. Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ had no doubt about it. Education was about memorising facts. “Now you know what a horse is”, he said to the poor girl who had failed to answer his question. It had been subsequently described by a fellow pupil, the know-all Blitzer, as being a quadruped, a grazing animal, which shed its coat as the seasons changed, whose hooves required to be shod with iron, had forty teeth, an examination of which would enable the age of the animal to be determined. Gradgrind, Charles Dickens grotesque business man, knew the importance of knowledge. Knowledge gained through the assimilation of facts. Any facts, all facts, the drier the better.

Of course, Gradgrind had a point. From an early age, even before we learn to speak, we humans are acquiring facts, some of more significance than others. Trivial facts, important facts, some retained, many forgotten.

Do you remember the school-master in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village”?

The village all declared how much he knew;
‘Twas certain he could write, and cipher too;
Lands he could measure, terms and tides
And even the story ran that he could gauge:
In arguing, too, the parson owned his skill,
For even though vanquished he could argue still;

While words of learned length, and thundering
Amazed the gazing rustics ranged around;
And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew
That one small head could carry all he knew,

It is amazing how much can be crammed into one small head. Mind you, it does eventually get full. How else can it be explained that as we grow older things we were told only a few minutes ago are completely forgotten? Obviously, it is because our heads are full to busting. We have been stuffing them since infancy and there is no room for any more facts to be crammed into the skull.

But getting hold of facts is only the beginning. It is like the first stage in baking a cake, where you assemble the ingredients. Then comes the harder, if more interesting, bit. The printed recipe reveals, underneath the list of ingredients needed, the heading, ‘Method’. So the eggs, flour, fat and the rest have to go into the bowl to be stirred, mixed and blended; so the mind must relate facts to one another, and bring experience to bear. The facts are the ingredients of knowledge. Intelligence is the spoon which stirs the selected elements.

Gradgrind’s horse is truly a grazing quadruped, but more besides. No romance permitted, he failed to notice it also has beauty, motion, strength. It leaps fences, it drags carts, it carries burdens, it roams freely, it gallops with streaming mane. It once enabled man to till the land and gather the harvest. It pulled chariots into battle; black plumed, it drew the hearse to the cemetery. It competed in the sport of kings. It was the hero in Dick Turpin’s epic ride to York. The horse helped shape the history of mankind. To understand the horse needs the facts to be gathered, assessed, mixed with the spices and herbs garnered from gardens and fields where beauty dwells, and love blossoms.

Facts are cold, inert objects which, when assembled, ordered and weighed, enable us to become knowledgeable. A necessary stage on the road to understanding. Oh dear, I am now mixing metaphors as well as ingredients, but I hope you can follow my thinking.

A couple of examples, from my own experience, of how facts might lead, through knowledge, to greater understanding.

The boy, the senior teacher told the governors, had undoubtedly behaved in a violent, anti-social manner. The facts were not disputed. His rudeness was inexcusable; his out-burst threatened the safety of others. Why should any-one want to act in such an anti-social manner to others. He ought to be banished. Perhaps you should know, said the head-teacher, that the boy’s father died a couple of Christmas’s ago of a heroin overdose, and his mother’s new partner is suspected of abusing the lad. A couple more facts to stir into the mixture.

All I know about Hazel is that she wrote a poem which I found in a small anthology of verse written by children, and published by a teacher of English. I suspect that the adults who encountered her, saw Hazel as quiet, patient, maybe lacking in ambition. But she wrote what I take to be a cry from the heart.

I’m sitting in the classroom waiting.
I’m standing at the bus stop waiting.
The teacher says I’ll be with you in a minute,
but then I’m still waiting.
I’m standing outside the football ground waiting
to go into the kop.
I’m sitting in the Doctor’s surgery waiting in agony.
Waiting is my life, it’s all I ever do.
I would like to be the first one too.

As the facts are assembled, we sympathise and understand a little more.

Last Sunday, Roy Wain quoted from the Book of Job, and I too have a quotation from that story. Job railed against fate, which had brought great troubles upon him. His bitter words brought a reprimand God; “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

Job ruefully and remorsefully, confessed.

Who is he that hides counsel without understanding?
Yea, I, Job, uttered what I understood not,
Things too wonderful for me, which I knew not.

One moves from facts, through knowledge, to understanding. Our understanding is built upon the knowledge we have. But for the few there is a further stage. That of wisdom. And what is wisdom?

When I am stuck for a definition I turn to my dictionary. Wisdom, it says, is making use of knowledge to judge rightly, to be skilful in applying learning.

The owl is said to be wise. Remember the nursery rhyme.

A wise old owl sat in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke.
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that wise old bird.

Whether owls deserve the reputation for wisdom or not I don’t know. I suspect not. However, the message that listening, thought, contemplation are essential steps to take before making judgement is valid. Wisdom is part of the postscript, not to be found in the introduction, or the preface.

But as well as facts to be learnt, knowledge followed by understanding, there is something in addition to be added to the pot before wisdom is achieved.

A story is told of a simple working lad, maybe he was a shepherd boy, could have been a carpenter, or perhaps he swept the streets. I cannot be sure, and it is not central to the tale. The young man gained a reputation for wisdom, giving advice to colleagues, who respected his judgement. The story goes on, because he was acknowledged to be wise he was elevated in the land and asked to sit in judgement in the higher courts of the country.

But there were those who envied his good fortune. “Have you noticed”, they whispered, “that box which goes everywhere with him as he travels about? Do you know, when folk ask what it contains, he always simply replies, ‘it’s my treasure’”.

“Ah yes, treasure. I believe it contains the bribes he dishonestly takes from those who seek a favourable judgement,” asserted another.

The rumours grew so persistent, that eventually the poor man was forced to open the box and reveal its contents. The box contained the working clothes he had kept from his original, menial employment. “They are with me to remind me that I am not a grand academic, but a humble workman. It wouldn’t do to think I am on a higher level than those I try to serve.”

I start with facts, go on to knowledge, hopefully to understand the better. But if I aspire to be wise, then I must learn to be humble, and that is the hardest part of all.

When Solomon became king, we are told, he said, “….I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or to come in”. Then went on to pray, “Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad”.

Centuries later didn’t Jesus charge his followers to become as little children?

C.J. Rosling April 2004

Hucklow 18th April 2004

Sunday Sermon – 29 September 2019


One has to be careful, or lucky, if one chooses to preach on the topic of water, especially if one announces the subject in advance. Who knows whether or not one will be speaking against a background of parched countryside or addressing a congregation who have been drenched to the skin as they travelled to church.

Over the last few months, floods have devastated many parts of the land, and the earth, apart from hard-core surfaces, oozes moisture around the feet that tread it. Yet only a few years ago we experienced a summer drought, and stand-pipes were seen in the streets in some areas of the north. The Prince of Wales speaking in the south west of the country, pointed out the disasters caused by drought, only to have his speech drowned out by sound created by a sudden unexpected storm as torrential rain beat upon the marquee in which he stood. The press and television news enjoyed it immensely. “Long may he reign”, commented one newspaper.

There are many reasons why one might wish to talk on the subject of water on a Sunday morning in Hucklow Old Chapel, not least because religion is deeply concerned, amongst other things, with matters of life and death. Water, its presence or absence, is the crucial determinant of whether life shall exist or not. Life on our planet appeared only after water had condensed out of the poisonous gases which surrounded the young sphere. Life, when it arrived, appeared first within the seas and oceans, later to spread over the land, and into the skies above. Life is ever threatened, and ultimately extinguished, in the absence of water.

Space probes, even as I speak, are travelling to Mars, with sensitive, sophisticated instruments on board to ascertain whether water is present below the surface. If there is water, the chances are increased that there is also, or was once, some form of life on the barren planet.

A central role is played by water in determining the quality of life, or indeed, whether life exists at all. Literally, water resolves matters of life and death. And this is reflected in the work of many Christian and other religious charities, who use funds for furnishing and maintaining water supplies as a priority in those lands smitten by famine and drought. When disasters such as earth-quakes strike, ensuring supplies of clean water for the survivors is a priority.

In our own country, it was the provision of clean water and the building of sewage systems during the nineteenth century which dramatically improved the length and the quality of life, probably more fundamentally than any other action. Not without cause did our Victorian forebears preach, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. The secret of, if not ever-lasting life, then certainly of prolonged life, depended heavily upon building reservoirs and the construction of sewage farms

One could make out a strong case that pollution of water supplies, the wasteful consumption of water, the greed of directors of water companies as they award themselves large salary increases, the denial of clean water to communities, are profoundly irreligious acts. However, I will leave that to another day, for I would follow this morning other trains of thought.

It is because water is central to the existence of all living creatures that it has long had a place in the language of religious imagery. There are innumerable examples in the Bible, both Old and New Testament. There is the story of David the King, for example, hiding in the cave of Adullam thirsting for water and dreaming of pure contents of the well at Bethlehem, which was located upon the other side of the enemy lines.

You will remember that three brave men risked their lives to fetch David a drink of water from the well. He then couldn’t drink it because it was too precious, representing, as it did, a sacrifice that others were prepared to make for him. The water here was a symbol for the bravery of men prepared to sacrifice their own lives for the comfort of friends.

The waters of Babylon were a symbol of the pain of captivity. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, asked the exiles, longing for freedom in the land of their ancestors. In the New Testament there are a number of references to the “water of everlasting life”, a token of hope and promise.

Sometimes part of our devotions involve a service for naming of a child. In such a service, water plays a central part. Here again it is a symbol, though the symbolism of the water will mean different things to different people.

A traditional belief centres round the cleansing properties of water. By using water in a service of baptism, one is washing away the contamination of sin that rests upon the child, some would say. I’m afraid that is not how I see it. To me the naming of the child, the christening service, is primarily a service of four aspects; those of joy, of hope, of celebration, and of welcome.

A new life brought among us is a joyful yet humbling experience, for who can see new life emerge without being astounded – awe-struck at the miracle that is life. And no matter how often it is witnessed, the miracle is new and fresh. Those of us who hold, however tenuously, to a belief in God, who speak of God the Creator, are strengthened in our faith by this supreme illustration of creation, the presence of new life. A birth reinforces faith. So the service is one of joy.

Such a service is one of hope, for new life is a promise. It is a start of the journey that is life; a lengthy one we trust. Long or short we cannot know, for we cannot see forward into the unknown. “All hidden lies the future ways.” starts a well-loved christening hymn. But we surround the child with hope, love and good wishes, praying that he may do better than us, may explore the world, spreading love and hope to others as he journeys on. So the service is one of hope.

It one of celebration. I looked up celebration in a Thesaurus, a book which suggests words of a similar meaning. One word given under celebration was coronation. What can be more suitable as, for the day at any rate, the child is king or queen. In one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament, Jesus places the child in the centre, and quite rightly so. So the service is one of celebration. We salute the king.

And it is a service of welcome.

The artefact around which such services are conducted is the font. Water symbolising the beginning of life, and its continuity. John the Baptist baptising in the Sea of Galilee, we name our children in our churches and chapels with the water of life.

Another powerful metaphor of life frequently employed with the theme of water, is to compare a human span of existence to a river or stream. The source is a small spring, the end of the journey is the entry to the great sea whose horizon disappears into the eternal distance.

So back to water, the true elixir of life. Water is essential to life. But life is more than mere vegetable or animal existence. We may have difficulty in finding the language to describe exactly what consists of a good and full life, but we know it has components of love, of sacrifice, of understanding, of worship, of creativity and much more beside. So in naming a child and anointing his head with water, in speaking of the river of life or the ocean of eternity, we are symbolically recognising not existence alone, but true life.

One last thought. Life is not only found in water; water is found within life. You remember that couplet from the Ancient Mariner

“Water, water, everywhere
Yet ne’er a drop to drink”

The mariner was at sea, surrounded by water, yet unable to drink it because it was salt, so his life was at risk. Most of our bodies are composed of water, some eighty percent or more, I am told. Physical life requires a renewal of water to the body, or we shrivel and die.

If water is symbolic of life in its true fullness, then the individual requires constant supply of this nourishment, just as the physical body needs its liquid supply. Feeding love, care, compassion and understanding is not a task like giving one injection that will last a life-time. Just as we need constant liquid intake throughout our lives, so we need constant spiritual renewal, if we are not to become dried up husks.

Throughout our lives we need to drink of the waters, both literally and symbolically. As we give love, so we need to be surrounded and immersed in love. Words with which we sometimes commence our services come to mind.

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

They that wait upon the Lord drink deeply of the waters. They renew their life, not merely physically by drinking water on which we all depend, but by the transfusion of liquid spiritual renewal.

In my view the “water of spiritual life” is as it were a solution with the ingredients of love, of compassion, of understanding, of a belief in service to others and in the inter-dependency of the human race. The renewal of faith is essential if these ideals, these vital constituents of a complete life, are not, as it were to dry up leaving a seared and dried body behind.

The parched body of mankind is revived by water, not only from the kitchen tap, but from the fountain of faith which dances in our places of worship.

C.J. Rosling

Fulwood 21 June 1992
Mexborough 21 February 1993
Hucklow February 2001

Sunday Sermon – 22 September 2019

Welsh Sunday

I am pleased and honoured to be invited to conduct this Welsh Sunday service, if a trifled puzzled. Let me tell you why.

My father was born in Belfast, the family moving to Oban, in Scotland when he was a few weeks old. A few years later, they were to settle in Bradford, from whence, as a young man, father went to London where he married my mother.

Mother’s family lived in Birkenhead, where mother was born. When she was what would now be described as a teenager, her father and mother took a shop in London. She moved with them, and it was in London that my parents met.

Though I was born in London, from the age of two I have lived, first in the Manchester area on one side of the Pennines, and then, for the last forty five years in Sheffield, on the east of that range of hills. My wife, our children and grandchildren are Sheffield born and bred.

So, though I might claim some connection with three of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, I am unable to establish any Welsh connection, other than some holidays spent in the Principality. So to be invited to give the address on this day bespeaks a touching mark of trust, not to say of tolerance.

The question of seeking identity and membership of a group is important for us. It is deeply ingrained in our make-up. The initial group membership of which we become aware is the family. The parents, the brothers and sisters, perhaps grand-parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are the society in which we first find comfort, security and a sense of belonging.

As time passes we extend and vary our group membership. Our school and college, clubs and societies, work-places, supporters’ groups, neighbourhood gatherings, churches or chapels, and a multitude of other social collectives, extend, and maybe partly replace, the family as the set in which we identify ourselves as members.

This group identity is an important part of existence. It is in the group that we meet fellow beings with whom we share our interests, develop our understandings, treasure our history, preserve the skills, literature and folk-lore created by our ancestors, and explore ideas which become in their time the wisdom of future generations.

Though we voluntarily identify with many groups, we early become aware that through birth or residence, we are classified into tribal, regional or national sets. We are Cockneys, Glaswegians, Dubliners or claim Swansea as our birth-place; we are Celts, Scots, Irish, Cornish or Cumbrians; we are Welsh and proud of it; we are British, and, less certainly and more reservedly, Europeans.

And what does membership of the group mean? What does it entail?

For the insider, the membership bestows pride and privilege. To the outsider, so often unwarranted exclusiveness. To be born a Yorkshireman means, given the requisite skills, entitlement to play cricket for the County. Similarly for the Welshman, it is perhaps to don the red vest and play Rugby Union for country at Cardiff Arms Park.

One or two of my friends Welsh friends describe themselves describe themselves as Rugby fanatics. They tell me that in South Wales, at least, Rugby is akin to a religion. (Story of St. David).

But deeper and more seriously than that, and embracing all ages and sexes, to identify with a nationality or place of birth is to have an affinity with, and a conceit in, what is, in abstract terms, referred to as a culture. In the case of Wales, it is an ancient language of which its guardians are rightly jealous; a love of poetry and music, with a particular well-merited reputation for choral singing; a history of defiance to the invader allied to a fierce determination not to allow national identity to be submerged.

It is to be part of a nation who has produced some magical orators – Aneurin Bevan, Lloyd George, Michael Foot amongst many others. Welsh actors, play-wrights, poets, musicians, teachers, and preachers have and do excite and inspire. All is a part of the heritage of Wales.

I forget who coined the phrase, and of whom he was speaking, but it applies aptly to the Welsh – “.. they sing like angels, they fight like devils”. As a nation they have absorbed their tragedies, not least those connected with coal mining and the spoil heaps above Aberfan. They have experienced and endured hardship. Yes, to be Welsh is to inherit all this and much more, and the non-Welshman cannot be expected to comprehend the extent of it.

This, and in similar ways, is how the insider, the member of any society sees it. As part of the collective, any collective, be it a tribal, national or religious group, one has a perspective, no doubt the true perspective. But then the outsider so often has a meaner, prejudiced view.

The Jew loves his religious heritage, and points to the achievements of his race in religion and the arts; but the anti-semitic outside speaks of Jews as untrustworthy, unscrupulous money-lenders, or avaricious wealth grabbers; the Afro-Caribbean, the Pakistani, the Indian have in their varying cultures and national characteristics, a treasure house which enriches us all. Yet to the ignorant, racist, non-member they are perceived as an alien threat, responsible for most crime, a barely civilised subservient people.

There is a dichotomy here. The strength of the national, tribal if you like, groupings is that they seek to preserve the cultural wealth of the past, adding to it by current experience.

This preserving, creative force is truly civilising. Whatever we mean by God and religion, and we will have individual convictions or beliefs, surely in common is the theme that God encompasses creativity, beauty, art and literature. So preservation and cultivation of a living cultural heritage is surely a religious undertaking.

National pride is in itself admirable in as much as it sets itself to honour the achievements of the past, to enrich the present by preserving the best of that tradition, and so to live that future generations will recall with gratitude our contributions and our stewardship.

Yet those very national groupings themselves create enmities, jealousies and strife. As we admire our own cultures and, through ignorance, fear or failure to live up to the precepts we profess, we so frequently denigrate the members of communities other than our own. There is a trap into which we so often fall, that by glorying in our own culture we devalue that of others.

The most widely known, most frequently quoted, of all the parables of Jesus, is the parable of the good Samaritan. The parable, you recall, was told in order to illustrate graphically the answer to a question, “Who is my neighbour?” Remember, the story was told in Judea, not Samaria. The hearers, not of the tribal grouping of the Samaritans, no doubt felt some enmity towards this alien tribe. Hence the added impact to the vivid tale. Many hearers, in rejoicing in their own faith and culture had no doubt scorned that of the Samaritans.

Jesus, the Jew, was proud of his heritage. But the preservation of his culture was not exclusive of love of all humanity. Exactly the reverse was true. The human story is enlightened by the amalgamation of cultures. The story becomes a tragedy if and when we, in our anxiety to safeguard our own culture, seek to denigrate, or even destroy, the heritage of others.

National rivalries are often the result of being so blinded by the sparkling of our own jewels, that we fail to recognise the treasures others hold. Or even worse, seek to destroy those other riches in the mistaken belief that thereby our own wealth will be enhanced.

It is good that we from time to time have what are essentially nationalistic occasions – our Welsh Sundays and the like. We should remember our roots, our national heroes, the achievements secured, the countless unsung men and women who have in their time contributed to a Welsh character that knows warmth, resilience, generosity, christian integrity, not to mention a love of language and its delivery in accents akin to music.

The non-conformist traditions and the glorious hymn tunes which stir the souls of more than welsh men and women should and must be preserved.

But just as nations are composed of families, so the whole kingdom of God embraces all peoples and nations. We rejoice today in acknowledgement of what one section has contributed to the society of mankind as a whole. In doing so, we are mindful that many peoples, of different colours, creeds and nationalities make valued contributions in the house of the Lord. He values them all from the widow’s mite to the king’s ransom.

It is not for us value one contribution, whether that of the individual or of the nation, more than the other. All are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

Our final hymn, set to a fine Welsh hymn tune, reminds us that humanity is as one in the love of God. Pride in our heritage bestows upon us the responsibility to glory in and preserve the wider inheritance of mankind as a whole.

We glory in not merely our own cultural treasure, but in the treasures held by all. For all are the treasures of the Kingdom.

C.J. Rosling

Chesterfield 24 February 1991

Sunday Sermon – 15 September 2019

We Plough the fields and Scatter

Each of the traditional church festivals – Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and the rest – has a special aura. But surely harvest has a unique atmosphere all of its own. The hymns are full bodied and robust, like a mature red wine. The prayers are vigorous, full of gratitude seasoned with a mixture of hope and wonder. The air within the building is full of evocative smells, like a well-stocked green-grocer’s shop. The perfume of flowers mingles with scent of ripened fruit. The eye is greeted by glorious autumn colours. A spirit of joy, mixed with a fair dollop of self-satisfaction, pervades the service. None of this is said in criticism, for I greatly enjoy harvest. It certainly ranks near the top of the chart of most agreeable church occasions.

After marriage, following a short period of flat-dwelling, our first house was a newly built, semi-detached home. It was blessed, or cursed according to your point of view, with a back-garden of about a fifth of an acre of virgin field, redundant with waist-high nettles, couch grass, willow-herb and buttercup. Brambles grew unchecked, convolvulus flourished.

I tackled the ground with the enthusiasm of youth, cased in a shell of ignorance barely breached by avid reading of library books on gardening. Yet, lo and behold, in due course we ate potatoes and cabbage, peas and beans, produced by our own labours from the previously unproductive earth. Home-grown flowers decked our window-sills, even cucumbers grew in a cold-frame. None were prize specimens, merely “… poor things yet mine own”. Nevertheless, I shared the smugness of the apocryphal countryman in the old joke, who replied dryly when the vicar commented that he and God had done a good job with the garden, “Ay, but you should have seen it when God had it to himself”.

But in reality, harvest festival is an acceptance that partnership is an essential pre-condition for successful harvesting. We may till and sow, but whether there is a crop to reap depends on a mysterious force of life within the seed, and this is not in our power to give. On the other hand, the efforts of mankind are an essential part of the process. The full fruits are not obtained when God has it to himself. Through man’s intervention, the increase in productivity of land has been tenfold, fifty-fold and even a hundredfold.

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, so say the words of an old popular song. Be that as it may, God the life-force and men and women together produce the harvest. It must be a true, even if not equal, partnership. The song went on to say, “You can’t have one without the other”. I’m not going to argue about love and marriage, but I do contend that God and the people in partnership are fundamental to the successful harvest. You can’t have one without the other.

We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land.
Yet, it is feed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.

Do you recall Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”? Or did you see the subsequent film? The book describes the trials and the exploitation of American mid-western agricultural labouring families, driven eastwards from previously highly productive lands. That land had been rendered barren by ignorance and greed. The earth had become a dust-bowl. The fertile soil literally blown away because greed had led men to take all, and put nothing back. No doubt God murmured as he viewed the desert where once lush crops flourished, “You should have seen it before men had it to themselves”.

There must be a partnership. If nations ignore that fact, and in their arrogance, ignorance or through a false sense of superiority, try to dissolve the union, then disaster strikes. Far from the desert blossoming as the rose, the green field is transformed into arid wasteland. Life and fertility are ever precariously balanced, with death and barrenness on either side of the tight-rope. The true farmer and his wife, the gardener, the plantation owner, are all too well aware that their labours can only succeed if they are in tune with, and not antagonistic towards, what are often referred to as the laws of nature. Nature is another word for that spiritual, creative power we call God. So harvest is a reminder of partnership, the need to work in harmony.

Long ago, early man evolved from being simply a hunter who gathered wild fruits and berries, to become a cultivator of land. The earth was tilled, crops were gathered and herds of domestic cattle reared. The lesson was quickly learned that to be successful it was necessary to co-operate with others. A partnership with fellow beings was a pre-condition for productive agriculture. Also discovered was the truth that, to achieve lasting success, the farmer must respect the land, work with the rhythm of the seasons, and save the seed-corn for future sowing. A teaching that is no less true today than it was in early times.

So surely harvest time reminds us not only of our debt to, but our duty towards, God. But further, that if all is to be safely gathered in, we must share the burden with others and work in harmony with them. As the variety of our crops has increased, so has the need for, and the extent of, the partnership grown. Our partner may be in the antipodes, in Africa, in the islands to the westwards or on the continents of the east. Our reliance on the neighbour is now not merely to the inhabitant of the same village, or to the resident in the same country, but stretches to include an unknown toiler in a field thousands of miles distant.

Harvest festival encompasses not a single aspect of living, but a whole range of attitudes and experiences. It may once have been a pagan celebration of a successful gathering in of the necessary food which would enable life to be sustained throughout the winter, but within a christian setting it is something beyond that narrow concept.

I spoke a few minutes ago of the American novel, the Grapes of Wrath. The Americans call their harvest festival, Thanksgiving. And thanksgiving is also a part of our celebration. “All good gifts around us..” we sing. And indeed, God’s contribution to the partnership are gifts. Centrally the gift of life with its power of continual renewal. And the appropriate reaction by a recipient of a gift is to voice gratitude – to say “Thank you”. So as well as a recognition of our association with God as labourers in the field, we come to express thankfulness. Our debt acknowledged in words and in song, in prayer and meditation.

Coupled with gratitude is wonder. Wonder at the infinite variety of life; wonder at the inter-dependency of one form of life upon other species; wonder at the miracle of life itself. Wonder and worship not only begin with the same letter, but the concepts are woven inextricably together. Worship without wonder is salt that has lost its savour.

And yet another component of the Harvest Festival is that of hope. We hope that our future hunger shall be satisfied. The words of the old covenant, that there shall be for ever, “seed-time and harvest” gave comfort in ancient times, and may give comfort today.

But we now recognise that there is a qualification to the promise. Poisoned land may not produce, contaminated soil will give tainted crops. There are sheep grazing on British soil whose flesh is unfit for consumption because of radio-active fall-out. Excessive nitrates spread on land are washed into rivers affecting the lives of those who drink of its waters. The hope for the future is dependent upon acting responsibly in the present. Caring for and respecting the environment in which we dwell.

A covenant is not simply an unconditional promise, it implies an agreement, a commitment, a bargain if you like. It is based on trust, nurtured in commitment. Harvest will follow seed-time provided we do our part, and do not subvert or sabotage the golden cycle; disregard the fragile balance that allows the earth to be fruitful.

Dust-bowls, polluted land and rivers, impure air, sullied lakes and oceans are not God given, but man made. Harvest celebration should surely include time to reflect on our responsibility towards generations yet to come. If hope is to move from being merely pious to the certainty of faith, then we need to accept that the covenant is not an unconditional guarantee. It is, if you like, a treaty.

Finally, harvest ought to be an occasion of which we reflect about how the fruits of the earth are distributed. An old political slogan spoke of, “To each according to need, from each according to ability.” The world has still the capacity to produce enough to feed all its peoples, yet one third of the world goes hungry. To each according to need is a part of the equation yet to be solved.

We have spoken of partnership. A partnership between us and our maker, and a partnership between fellow beings. A partnership that is implicit in our responsibility to generations yet unborn. And there is a partnership to be forged with those go hungry whilst others feast.

Harvest can be purely a smug self-congratulatory orgy, but there is no real, lasting joy or satisfaction in that. The joy of harvest surely is a recognition of, and a renewal of faith in, our inter-dependency upon one another. It is an opportunity to bask awhile in the warmth of the love of God who is the source of all life, the creator of all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small. It allows us the space to stand in awe.

Traditionally, part of the harvest celebration has been in feasting together, in the harvest supper. No accident that it is celebrated in company, for the essence of harvest is that it emphasises “we” and “us”, rather than “I”, “me” and “my”.

“Man shall not live by bread alone”, preached Jesus. Harvest is not simply gratitude and pleasure the fruit of the earth will sustain our physical existence. It is a time of re-affirmation in the faith in values which sustain true life. We consider again a relationship with God, and debt to, as well as a responsibility for, others with whom we share this earth. The harvest succeeds when true partnership, with God and with other fellows, is strong.

So may we go forth, glad that we have shared our joy, lifted in the company of one another, and determined to maintain and strengthen partnership, co-operation, and equality in the service of the creator of us all. Having come as thankful people, may we depart to labour on.

C.J. Rosling 7 October 1994

Mexborough 9 October 1994
Hucklow 24 September 1995

Sunday Sermon – 8 September 2019

Pillar of Society?

It is a well established fact, with many examples which might be quoted to prove the point, that from distant times right up to the present, the pulpit has been used as a sounding post from which personal opinions may be broadcast under the guise of expressing holy writ.

Further, it is not unknown that, those holding contrary views to the preacher are named, maybe shamed, but certainly left in no doubt that their views are perverse, possible heretical, and not to be left unchallenged. Aggressive confrontation is not in my nature, but with sadness in my heart, and possibly with tongue straying towards the inner lining of the cheek, I have based the words I wish to speak this morning as directly contradicting those of a very good friend. I cannot remain silent, although what was written was without any doubt done so in good faith. Nevertheless, Roy Wain, uncharacteristically, has got it wrong when in the latest edition of the always interesting, readable Hucklow calendar he linked my name to a pillar. In due course I shall explain why.

But not yet. For two reasons.

First, as is my wont, I feel the urge to digress. The digression is important for it provides background support for my, I was going to say views, but they are more than opinions, rather convictions. Secondly, as writers of murder mysteries will confirm, explanations are for the last page, otherwise readers lose interest, and listeners allow their attention to wander. I don’t want anyone dozing off before I’ve finished. No sermon ought to be accompanied by what is euphemistically referred to as deep breathing, as the eyes are rested.

On my shelves at home in what I have grandly named my study, are several books of biography and autobiography. One of my many defects, a weakness which I share with a large proportion of the population, is to enjoy gossip about other people’s secrets. Biographies are a rich quarry from which scandal may be mined. “Well, who would have thought?,” “Or fancy such goings on!” are phrases to set the pulses racing. But more seriously, admiration for the courage and determination which such non-fiction frequently reveals, is a source of inspiration in one’s own life.

One of the autobiographical books on my shelves is that of Leah Manning, a name which I suspect means nothing to most, if not, all present this morning. Yet Leah Manning was a remarkable lady; firm of purpose, with a passion for justice and a champion of the under-privileged. She was an intelligent, talented woman born in an age when clever, strong-willed women were not generally applauded, or welcomed. Society gave greater credence even to stupid men than to clever and articulate women.

It is not my intention this morning to go into many biographical details – possibly some other time – but a brief sketch may give a flavour of her life. Leah was born in the east end of London, brought up in the 1890’s in a middle-class, staunchly Methodist family. Her ancestors, silk merchants, were Huguenot émigrés who had fled to London from Lyon. Following her birth, her parents emigrated to Canada, leaving her to be brought up by grand-parents in a caring, loving environment. She trained as a teacher in Cambridge, and was still doing some teaching in a girls’ independent school in her eighties. Most of her teaching life though was spent in poor, downtown schools. She did voluntary nursing in the evenings after a day in school during the First World War, tending casualties from the dreadful battlefields of France and Flanders.

She became a radical left-wing socialist, persuaded to join the Fabian Society by a life-long friend, Hugh Dalton, who was destined to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945. Leah was a member of Parliament for just a year in 1930, and again from 1945-1950. Before the second World War she became President of the National Union of Teachers. Ever active in local politics, she opened and ran family planning clinics in the nineteen twenties and thirties, was something of a hell-raiser when fighting for the poor, particularly when women and children were the oppressed. A thorn in the side of bumbling bureaucrats, a practical helper to many a struggling family, her out-spoken left-wing views didn’t endear her to every-one, but her practical compassion made her many friends.

But what sticks in the memory after reading her autobiography is the final chapter. It is only one page long, so I will read it to you.

“It’s the system I hate,” shouted the young student at the demonstration. I had every sympathy with him. I had said the same when I was a student and had thought I could do something about it. Now, when I look back over a long life, I find I have been able to achieve nothing of what I had in mind, that things are worse in the world today than when I was eighteen.

It is true that under the Welfare State there are no children dying of malnutrition. But in other parts of the world they daily die from hunger. It is true that thousands of council houses have been built, but thousands still live in slums. I was a pacifist and shouted, “No more war.” Since I was eighteen there have been two world wars; there is war today in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the great powers constantly build weapons that are more and more horrific, with which to destroy civilisation. I do not know how I can still be an optimist, but when I feel a little depressed by this confrontation of my failures, I turn again to my favourite prayer from Michael Quoist’s Prayers of Life:

The bricklayer laid a brick on the bed of cement.
Then with a precise stroke of his trowel spread
another layer.
And without a by-your-leave laid on another brick.
The foundations grew visibly.
The building rose tall and strong to shelter men.
I thought, Lord, of that brick buried in the darkness
at the base of the big building.
No one sees it, but it accomplishes its task and the
other bricks need it.

Lord, what difference if I am on the roof top or in the foundation of your building, so long as I stand faithfully in my place.

Leah Manning wrote that final chapter more than thirty years ago. (my copy of her book is priced both in £.s.d. and at £2.20) but it could have been written yesterday with no less accuracy.

I remember reading, a long time ago, that when Sir Christopher Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral with its great dome he planned no pillars to support the roof, believing, rightly, that it would remain firmly in place by virtue of the fact that the stresses were balanced, that his calculations established that the structure would stand secure without columns to hold it up. Others insisted that there be pillars, so they were built. But Wren told the builders to stop short of the roof, leaving a gap of a couple of feet at the top of each column. The gap could not be detected from ground level Thus was honour satisfied. Wren’s deception confirmed his own judgement without humiliating his opponents

I don’t know whether this story is true, but it sounds credible and I believe in it. In a great cathedral there may be many columns, those great pillars of stone which soar heavenwards and catch the eye are few in number, and maybe not all are needed. They are imposing, eye-catching but sometimes not strictly necessary.

But there are many times as many bricks and dressed stones in a great cathedral as pillars, some clearly visible but most unnoticed. Indeed some are below the ground, and others in obscure and hidden places. The strength of the structure is far more dependent on bricks than on pillars, always providing that they hold firm.

There is a place for pillars, but the numbers are limited and only the best are worthy to hold up the roof. But bricks in the millions are required, and my ambition is to be amongst them, and to be regarded, if at all, as a brick that stands firm.

Additionally, I want to be where many good friends, including Roy Wain, and all my many other friends and colleagues, will be.

Cannot speak for others, but for myself, please don’t call me a pillar. Sorry to denounce you in public, Roy.

I trust you will bide your time and get your own back. There is plenty of scope for that.

C.J. Rosling 10 January 2003

Hucklow 19 January 2003

Sunday Sermon – 1 September 2019

Mirror, Mirror

One of the most well-known, enduring, and arguably best-loved of the films made by the late Walt Disney is surely “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. And from that film it is lines spoken by the Wicked Queen which are the most frequently quoted, or more often, parodied, “Mirror, mirror on the wall….” A true mirror reveals the unpalatable truth for good or for bad, bringing joy or despair to the viewer.

In a previous house, for a time there hung a full length mirror on a wall opposite the bedroom door. The result was that as one emerged in the morning, the first sight was of a strange, bleary figure staggering towards you. A frightening experience, for if there is a time when we all are to be seen at our worst it is surely first thing in the morning. The mirror has now been moved to a different location, I’m thankful to say.

Not that most of us would dispense with a mirror altogether – but we do wish to choose our moment when to glance at it. Coming upon our reflection unexpectedly can be a nasty shock to the system, not to mention serious damage done to the ego. I suppose there is a little of Narcissus in most of us. Narcissus you recall was the beautiful youth in Greek mythology who spend hours gazing at his reflection in the water, until he eventually became a flower growing at the water’s edge, so he could gaze at his reflection for ever. Few, I guess, can honestly say that they have never looked in the mirror, and like God surveying the world created over six days, “saw that it was good”.

But a mirror is not merely an apparatus to encourage self-admiration. It is a device whereby we may see ourselves as we are seen by others. Or at least, we have that opportunity, though often the interpretation of the reflection is not completely without bias.

Achieving unbiased, critical self-examination is one of the most difficult of exercises. We tend to veer to the extremes, finding the middle course elusive. At one extreme the faults are over-stated, the defects magnified, the positive features over-looked. Thus depression and a feeling hopelessness is the result. Or, at the other extreme, conceit disguises short-comings. We are self-satisfied. Vanity precludes criticism, over-riding any suggestion that the image is flawed.

But a looking glass, a mirror, is a device which shows the external view, the outer covering which encloses the real person within. And though that external shell can be affected by what lies within, it is not necessarily so. Ill-temper, pain, compassion or other emotions may mark the surface, though this is not invariably the case. The real person requires more than a reflected image to reveal it. To see what we really are, to use a medical illustration, requires in addition, an X-ray or a body scan, rather than a simple likeness on a piece of polished glass.

Self-examination is an attempt to probe beneath the surface, allowing an evaluation of what is there to be discovered. We say of others, do we not, when you really get to know him, or her, you see a different picture. Really getting to know ourselves can be more difficult even than knowing someone else.

Was it not Rabbie Burns who wished that we could see ourselves as others see us? Though in this context, the self that others see refers not merely to the outward, but to the whole person.

In his novel, Lord Jim, Conrad had the central character musing,

“I didn’t know what he was playing up to – if he was playing up to anything at all – and I expect he did not know either; for it is my belief no man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.”

We are all aware of these “artful dodges” even if we don’t quite understand them. The special pleadings, the evasions and the excuses are recognised more readily when employed by others, but curiously difficult to acknowledge when used by oneself.

In the Authorised Version of the Bible, there is a powerful phrase in the story of the prodigal son. All money spent, deserted by friends, and with hunger racking his body, the son reflected upon his position. At this point, the story reads, “Then, he came to himself”. A vivid phrase to describe the process of self-examination, with the reflection seen starkly and accurately. “Mirror, mirror on the wall…, show me the person I really am. Show me myself.”

But why should we want to know ourselves in this sense? Is it merely morbid curiosity? The prodigal son needed to come to himself, because until that happened he was unable to retrieve a life which had fallen into emptiness, misery and futility. But more than that, it was at that stage he could relate his life to others, to see what was good, and begin to understand the “artful dodges” which allow the pretence that a mirror image is actually the real person.

Who am I? What am I? Where am I? and Why am I? are questions at the heart of spiritual experience. And naturally we start by looking at ourselves. We travel down what Francis Thompson called, in his poem, The Hound of Heaven,

“….the labyrinthine ways
Of our own mind;………”

Examining “who I am” is a quest for an identity. But more than that, is a search that leads to humility. We can hardly pursue this test without coming to see how small we are in the whole scheme of things. We may fill important positions in small ponds, or even large lakes, but we are dwarfed in the vast oceans. A whale may be a monster in a loch, but is a mere speck in great seas. Surely this is what Jesus meant by becoming as a little child, asking “Who am I?” and deflating the over-stretched ego.

It is impossible to face sincerely the question “who” and remain pompous and self-important, which is an explanation of why the image in the mirror can be unwelcome.

I said a moment ago that “why” is also a search for an identity, which leads me on, for so in a way, is the question “What am I?”.

What I am is may be determined by my actions and behaviour to others. If I am arrogant and ill-tempered, I am surely tyrannical and dictatorial. If I am weak and indecisive, I will be vacuous and ineffective. If I am covetous, I am greedy and selfish. An analysis of what I am is the start which enables me the better to relate to others, to acquire compassion and understanding, to practice tolerance and forgiveness.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, show me who and what I am.”

Any vehicle driver quickly learns that one of the most important pieces of equipment is the mirror. The mirror reveals where the vehicle and driver are in relationship to the other vehicles, and to the road and surrounding objects. Where am I needs assistance from the mirror if an adequate answer is to be found. Where have I come from, where am I going to, what is this place I have reached? The question “where” is no less important than those of “why” and “what” if we are to live a wholesome and satisfying life.

This does not mean constantly gazing, Narcissus like, upon the mirror image, but looking frequently and appropriately asking the questions and accepting the answers. The car driver who fixes his eyes permanently upon the mirror to the exclusion of all else will soon meet disaster. He will know where he has come from, but have no idea where he is heading. A crash is inevitable.

I have left to last the question “Why am I?”. This is the most difficult and profound question of all, and perhaps incapable of being answered completely. Down the ages philosophers and divines have wrestled with the challenge, providing various theories, but no complete solution. Paul referred to this in that famous letter to the Corinthians, when he wrote of seeing in a glass darkly. The mirror is clouded, we have no sharp image.

Some would argue that the question is meaningless. There is no why. Life is accidental, mechanical, purposeless. As Macbeth groaned,

“Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps on this petty pace
From day to day.”

All is empty and without meaning. But most Christians and many others would reject that conclusion. The answer may be elusive but the question is valid. By believing that there is an answer, many accept the force of the questions we can answer, at least in part, the “who, what, where”. For the time being, not knowing “why” in full, we get by with at least a partial answer: “That I may love God, and strive to love my neighbour”.

So we come the full circle. The Wicked Queen valued her mirror when it gave agreeable answers. Her wrath was aroused when the answer was truthful but unacceptable. This was the root of her evil, she could not bear the truth.

Used judiciously, mirrors are valuable, nay essential tools in our lives. A reliable mirror will report accurately and truthfully.

The extent to which we can accept this is a measure of our maturity.

The extent to which we employ, in Conrad’s words “artful dodges to escape from the grim shadow of self-knowledge” measures the failure to live up to our beliefs.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me who, what, where, and why I am, and I promise to try not to dodge the answer”, might well be our daily prayer.

C.J. Rosling 13 February 1994

Fulwood 13 February 1994
Mexborough 13 March 1994
Mexborough 25 May 1997
Hucklow 7 March 1999
Bradford 19 April 1999
Stannington 29 August 1999
Upper Chapel 3 November 2002