Sunday Sermon – 11 August 2019

Let’s have a Tidy Up Session

Didn’t there used to be a saying linking, by implication, orderliness with near sainthood? Something like “A tidy room reveals a tidy mind.” Or was it expressed from the opposite viewpoint? “An untidy dwelling reveals a disorderly mind”. I think I have heard it said that a good cook washes up as they go along, implying that piling everything in the sink until later raises doubts about the quality of the final dish. The pronouncement that you can learn much about a person from the state of the kitchen cupboard shelves, clearly tells us that the house-wife, or, in these days when equal opportunities is a subject regulated by legislation, the male acting chef for the day, who keeps the tea-bags next to soap-powder in a canister labelled “Self-raising Flour” is a very dubious character.

Yes, the virtuous imply, there is a clear link between consistent cataloguing and character. If, these saintly persons are wont to suggest, disorderly habits are not listed among the seven deadly sins, then they ought to have been.

Thank goodness, I thought as I wrote those words, the congregation can’t see the top of my desk with its resemblance to a Bank holiday picnic site on the next day, neither are you, my friends, in a position to open the drawers beneath. Not that there isn’t order within the chaos. Of course there is a system under-pining the apparent haphazard placement of papers. Documents, though they might appear to have been piled with careless abandon, are placed to a plan; unfortunately few others are able to comprehend my scheme’s subtleties. In any case I mean to sort the papers out tomorrow, or failing that, certainly the day after. Always provided I am not too busy.

One of the many advantages of having a computer and storing documents within it, is it enables one to search rapidly through masses of material and find the very thing one is looking for. At least, that is so, if you can remember the name of the wretched file in the first place. But not for the first time in this pulpit I wander. I am in danger of losing my way among the lost files and the piles of unanswered correspondence.

To come back to my point about tidiness. There is pleasure derived from being able to put one’s hand, whether in an actual or a metaphorical sense, on what one wants, when one needs it. It might be the reference book on the bookshelf, the packet of dried apricots in the larder, the letter from a friend, the date of birthday, the appropriate word of comfort to offer to a distraught child. Unless what we need is placed, to use the clumsy jargon of the bureaucrat, in retrievable form, then we are unable to live meaningfully. Food rots unused in the cupboard, our congratulation or condolence card is not posted, the words we speak don’t properly reflect our thoughts.

A filing system of sorts, plus at least one or two helpful sign-posts in the maze of everyday life, an index, or at the very least a list of contents, in our catalogue of papers, dates and chattels, is a necessity if we are to stay sane when all around the world appears to be rushing madly by.

I have so far talked, almost exclusively about material objects, “…shoes – and ships – and sealing wax, of cabbages…” as it were, but what about kings? That is to say, where do our fellow humans fit in? How to we decide under which heading, and into which folder, to put our neighbour, our colleague, or the stranger walking down the street?

It being so clearly the case that the attempt to put people into categories is a thousand times more difficult even than devising a filing system for personal bric-a-brac, isn’t it astonishing that so much of life revolves round the very task of categorising, putting our opinions of other people into neat boxes? Further, with what ease we do it!

Sometimes these are relatively minor decisions. Blondes, as all the world knows, are marked as being dumb, i.e. simpletons; red heads have fiery tempers; and baldness is equated with wisdom. This explains why I was born with head covered with fair curls, have an equitable temper, and still retain a full head of hair!

Much more serious is filing people according to race, nationality, creed, ethnic background and the like, into pre-determined groupings. This method of registering allows such statements to be made, or to go unchallenged, as “All Jews are by nature money grabbers, who through fraud and sharp practice take advantage of the gullibility of the rest of us”. “Most of the crime is committed by the blacks who, unlike us, are all inherently dishonest and violent.” “The poor, given bathrooms, will only use the bath to store coal”. “All foreigners, naturally along with Australians, cheat at games.”

One could go on at length, for the examples are legion. The odd, disturbing, fact is that these opinions are mouthed, or implicitly accepted, not only by some who declare themselves agnostic or atheist, but by many who profess themselves Christian. Surely near the core of Christian belief is the proposition that all men and women are equal in the sight of God. Prejudiced judgements imply that they are not.

There is a huge difference in life experience between an Anglo-Saxon living in England in the 21st century and an Old Testament Jew living in the Middle East three thousand years ago. Yet we read Old Testament stories and, whilst noting the life-style is different, readily identify with the fears and the emotions of the people of those times. Basically, they are the same as ours. Why then is it thought that the West Indian neighbour, or the Somali citizen, or the member of any other race, is fundamentally different from a white indigenous United Kingdom resident. Their hopes, fears and emotions are, we imply, different from ours. “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” Shylock asked.

But then judgement of others based on intolerance, fed by prejudice is not confined to racial bigotry. We too readily categorise by sex, by age, by social class, by income, by accent, to mention just a few of the boxes into which we place others.

How much more difficult it seems to be to accept that whereas most of us defy simply categorisation because we ourselves are such a mixture of good, bad and the doubtful, others can easily be slotted in the appropriate box in the filing cabinet. If he or she has a foreign-sounding name we cannot be surprised that he or she has not matched our own spotless character. Is it not an absolute fact that the English are fair-minded, the Irish hot-tempered and rather stupid, the Scots parsimonious, and the Welsh devious? Thank God human nature is more complex than that. Many of us are a pretty mixed concoction anyway, with the odd unidentified ingredient thrown into the mix.

We applaud Jesus’ championship of the tax-collector, the poor fishermen, and the woman taken in adultery. We are delighted that it was the “foreigner”, the Samaritan, who rescued the Jewish victim of an assault. Over and over again Jesus pointed out that you can’t categorise and judge. Beams and motes abound irrespective of rank or nationality; the first are last, the last are first; the sinner anoints the feet of the saint whilst Jesus washes the feet of his disciples; the master is the servant; the widow is generous with the mite; the rich man mean with his gold. Everything is mixed up, and the filing cabinet is in a shambles.

The truth is that none of us fits into one pigeon-hole comfortably. Each one of us is selfish and generous in turn; we are both foolish and wise; we are spiteful and kindly; we can be broad-minded one minute, and hopelessly prejudiced the next. No nation’s people consist only of the good; no race has a monopoly of evil. Prejudice is at the top of a polished slope, descending through discrimination and victimisation and on ultimately to the camps of Belsen, atrocities in the Balkans and genocide in central Africa.

Filing cabinets have their uses provided that we don’t force things into the folders we have decided upon previously, rather than into the section that they merit. But as far as people are concerned, each person is a cabinet unto him or herself. They contain numerous separate files and folders, with labels like “Acts of Generosity”, “Selfish Decisions”, “Thoughtful Gestures”, “Mean-minded Thoughts”, “Prejudices” and “Ignorant Judgements”. Each one of us, if we are honest, must admit that we have entries in all these folders, fewer in some, many more in others.

The parable of sheep and goats has to my mind a fundamental flaw. It implies that there are two species of people. We are merely warned not be premature in dividing one from the other. But my interpretation of the Christian message goes further.

If the suggestion is that one animal is to be preferred to the other – that one represents the good – the other evil, then surely we are, as it were, a cross-breed of both sheep and goat. Recognising this, we must start with ourselves, and then extend outwards. “Unto thine own self be true” should lead to three thoughts.

First, after noting the muddle in the filing cabinet that contains our virtues and vices, we must charitably view any perceived lack of order in other peoples’ cupboards. A failure to find a simple system within a single box-file, is not a matter for which we should condemn others; the jumble reflects reality. Order too frequently reflects prejudice.

Secondly, we must accept that our own cabinet, like that of others, must contain many files, both good and bad. The little girl who, when good, was “very, very good”, but had another side when “she was horrid” is a one of us. We might wish it wasn’t so; most of us struggle continually to become uni-lateralists who are never horrid, but it is not a battle in which final victory is won. At least it isn’t in my case. Maybe others are more successful.

Thirdly, that the files on us reveal what we are truly, not what others might think we are. They ought to do so, for some are written by ourselves, then hidden at the back of the drawer. We know they are there, which ought to make us at least hesitate to show surprise, or to judge too harshly what might be in the files on others.

Filing cabinets come in a variety of styles and colours, but it is the contents that reveal the real truth.

Now I really must finish, and go and sort that desk top out. See what lies below. No gold, that’s for sure.

C.J. Rosling January 2004

Hucklow 1 February 2004
Stannington 2 May 2004

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