Sunday Sermon – 15 April 2018

Is Everything Filed in Order?

Some-one asked me the other day if I was an orderly sort of person. At first I thought they meant, was I a well-behaved citizen, or was I constantly in trouble for disorderly conduct. So, naturally, I felt a little hurt. However, I rapidly discovered that the inquirer was asking, did I arrange my goods and affairs in a tidy, systematic manner.

When I thought about it, I had some difficulty in answering, because, like many others, I lurch between the extremes of tidiness and disarray. I would like to think that I order my affairs in a business-like way, but admittedly often fail to do so. The drawers of my desk are a clutter, but the book-shelves are arranged to a plan. Mind you, it is a plan that few others can understand, but there is a system about it. My diary and address books are in order, but the top of the desk is normally covered with papers that I mean to sort out tomorrow, or failing that, certainly the day after. Always provided I am not too busy.

I keep my tools in a tool-box. But for some reason, when I need the screw-driver or the drill, it has mysteriously disappeared, having taken itself off to a different location entirely. I blame the rest of the family for that, for I always, well nearly always, put things back where I find them. Then I have a filing cabinet.

I expect that most folk try their hand at one time or another at creating a filing system, or similar, so the valuable bits of saved information are readily to hand. I confidently suggest that most of us have discovered that filing is not as simple as it first appears.

We decide that we will file our letters and bills or receipts. All starts off well; Mabel Smith’s letters are filed under “Smith, M.”, Horace Green letters go under “Green, H.”, the butchers bills and receipts are under “Butcher”, and bakers under “Baker”. Then Horace marries Mabel, so “Smith M.” becomes “Green M.”, which makes for confusion. The butcher starts selling bread, and the baker has a freezer from which frozen meat may be purchased.

So we are faced with a problem. Where do we file the receipt when we bought bread-cakes at the butchers whilst purchasing the pork chops. And the last time we bought a loaf at the bakers, we also bought a piece of frozen gammon. Or, we file newspaper cuttings and find that on the back of a recipe for Christmas pudding is an article on pruning roses which we need to keep. Is it filed under gardening or Christmas recipes?

The file for “Miscellaneous” grows ever larger, and the pile of “Awaiting filing” grows ever nearer the ceiling. And when we look for that interesting article on french polishing that we know we saved, it is nowhere to be found. That is until it’s accidentally unearthed months later under “Painting and Decorating”, because it was part of a long article on “Interior Design made Simple”.

Yes, if only things wouldn’t change, if only letters, papers, cuttings, books and the rest would fit neatly into the categories we devise, how much more straight-forward life would be. Of course we can create card indexes, and cross-references, but they become so time consuming to complete, and so complicated to follow, that ere long the whole task is given up.

And if that is true of material things, how much more so does it become when one deals with people. I have spent a deal of my life writing school reports on children, and supplying references for adults. What a task that is. No matter what care one takes, how inadequate is the invariable result. Words like “but” and “nevertheless”, phrases like “if only” and “on the whole” keep creeping in. Most children fall in the category of the girl in the nursery rhyme,

“When she was good, she was very, very good,
But when she was bad, she was horrid”

And of course that pattern is not confined to children, it is true of most of us. People on the whole are an amalgam of good, bad and indifferent. And because this includes us, how we react at any moment to others is determined, not only by how they behave, but by how we feel at the time. Few there are who are not a incongruous mixture of the saint and sinner, capable of both generosity and meanness, compassion and indifference, tenderness and harshness. If these qualities are not in equal measure, then certainly there are substantial proportions of each.

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 affairs, 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?

Sometimes these are minor affairs. Blonds are marked down as being dumb, red heads have fiery tempers, and baldness is equated with wisdom. This explains why I have kept 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 are inherently dishonest and violent.” “The poor, given bathrooms, will only use the bath to store coal”. “All foreigners 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 1995 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. 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 values, fears and emotions are, we imply, different from ours.

How much more difficult it seems to be to accept that whereas most of us defy categorisation because we are such a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, the foreigner is different, and can easily be slotted in the appropriate box in the filing cabinet. If he has an un-English name we cannot be surprised that he is a drug dealer, because they are all like that. Of course if she is black, she must be guilty. The English are fair-minded, the Irish hot-tempered, the Scots mean, and the Welsh devious. Thank God human nature is more complex than that.

We applaud Jesus’s 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.

One of the Psalms asks “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.” We can equally ask, “How are we able to sing the Lord’s song, when we inhabit a land that so often accepts stereotyping by prejudice? Where black is bad and white is good, where rich only err, but poor sin.”

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, and many more beside.

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 is different.

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 lack of order in other peoples’ cupboards.

Secondly, to accept that our own cabinet, like everyone else’s, contains many files, both good and bad.

Thirdly, that the files reveal what we are, not what others might think we are.

Cabinets come in a variety of styles and colours, but it is the contents that reveal the real truth. Christianity is about opening the drawers and looking inside.

C.J. Rosling. 2 June 1995

Fulwood 4 June 1995
Hucklow 11 January 1997

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