Sunday Sermon – 18 November 2018

…Three’s a Crowd

Surely many of the congregation, well at least the older ones, or maybe I ought to say those of more mature years, remember the time when we got proper tickets on public transport and not today’s flimsy thin bits of paper. “Why does the inspector at the barrier punch a hole in the ticket?” the child once asked. “It is to enable you to pass through”, was the ambiguous answer.

The train tickets were once of thick card, the old tram or bus tickets of stout paper, of different colours according to price; halfpenny ones were green and penny ones white as I remember. They had four numbers printed across the top, with the price of the ticket displayed in the middle, giving five numbers in all. This combination allowed interesting games to be invented to while away a journey.

There was a difference of opinion as to how to deal with a half, as in a penny ha’pence ticket. Some ignored the half, but in our rules we added the figures together so 1½d (1+1+2) became four, 2½d (2+1+2) five and so on. One knew the day was going to be a lucky one if a seven appeared among the five numbers on the ticket. A seven pence ticket with four sevens at the top was likened to winning the lottery. Some saw significance in the number 5, though I can’t remember why. Older children might play a form of the card game cribbage, the five numbers representing five playing cards; girls calculated, by applying a formula to the sum of the numbers, the age at which they would marry and likely size of the family they could expect to produce on reaching womanhood. Others will recall different games associated with the ticket numbers for variations were endless.

Thinking back, the odd numbers seem to have been more valued than the even ones. The odd numbers were where the lucky numbers lay, The nines and threes as well as the sevens and fives, but why this should be so I don’t know. Personally, I prefer even to odd. Those awkward prime numbers which won’t share out nicely are, with one exception, all odd numbers. Eleven, unlucky thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three and the rest of the prime numbers are all rather ugly figures to my mind.

Give me two, four, six, eight anytime; comfortable, attractive, rounded figures. Four square is about honesty, reliability, solidity, unlike the triple-sided triangle with nasty sharp corners; three-legged stools will topple the unwary, give me a proper chair or stool with four good legs every time.

So many enjoyable things in life are connected with even numbers, particularly the twos. Fish and chips, with salt and vinegar, is a meal made in heaven, to be followed by strawberries and cream. Daisy was wooed in the music hall ditty by a young man on a bike with a promise to buy a tandem; boy meets girl, eventually becoming man and wife. Two by two the animals entered the ark, whilst the rain came down in another handy couple, cats and dogs according to reports. Grommet and Wallace share cheese and biscuits, and possibly tripe and onions as well.

Frequently the pair is composed of two parts each complementing the other as the two form one whole. Steak and kidney are not in opposition as ingredients of the pie. Both stand in their own right, but as partners together they form a unity which is greater than the parts.
But let us turn to less frivolous examples. In the 23rd Psalm goodness and mercy are linked. Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, sang the psalmist. Goodness and mercy are not one and the same.

They are admirable, desirable virtues in their own right, but, coming together, form a unity which is greater than either alone. Mercy, as with sympathy, provides the necessary savoury filling to what could otherwise be a rather worthy pastry case labelled goodness. Sympathy, coupled with understanding, is to be preferred to the demonstration of either quality in isolation. The wholeness of the person exhibiting this synthesis is rightly applauded.

Peace and quiet may exist each in its own right, but real contentment is experienced as they come together, fusing into a whole spiritual experience: the peace which passes all understanding as the memorable phrase puts it..
The philosophy of a complete life which Jesus espoused to his disciples was linked to pairing.

The commandments which governed a good life were boiled down to an essential two – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. To love God alone is to have a theory which might not be put into practice. Sincere love of neighbour arises out of, and is sustained by, a religious philosophy founded upon the love of the Creator.

You will recall that the coin had two sides. Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God. James coupled faith with works, belief needing to be demonstrated in action; conviction put to practical use in serving others. Wholeness arises from the coming together of these two sides of a person’s nature. They are the two legs which enables a man or woman to stride through life confidently. To neglect one in favour of the other is to limp rather than run, to stumble and eventually to fall.

Frank Sinatra once sang, “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage. It’s an institute you can’t disparage. Dad was told by mother, you can’t have one without the other.”
And of course therein rests a truth. We have the power of choice. As the chef chooses the ingredients with care, balancing the one against the other to obtain the optimum result, so we in life balance, or too often fail to balance, our pairs. I must stop returning to food metaphors less you all go home hungry. I’ll try to think of a different comparator. We may devote ourselves completely to our faith, our love of God, until we become introverted, isolated, other-worldly and oblivious to the needs of others.

On the other hand we may be so involved with ministering to neighbours that we have no time to renew strength. The ability to place in perspective is weakened. Time to meditate, to look beyond our own narrow lives, our selfish cares and interests, is essential for spiritual health. The complete and mature person has learnt to balance on both limbs.

Twin features of what might be described in a shorthand way as the good life are choice and balance. A visual illustration of balance might be a pair of scales. If you overload one scale pan at the expense of the other, balance is lost.

A debate calls for the presentation of two opposing points of view; a discussion in which all have the same opinion is lifeless and unsatisfying. Opinions are formed as counter-views are weighed and evaluated. An alternation of sunshine and showers, as well as giving us an endless opportunity for discussion – conversation surely would die if weather was constant – enhances our appreciation of both types of meteorological phenomena. (A preponderance of wet August days recently, with little balancing sunshine has not brought joy in its train. Too much of one and too little of the other.)
Our lives are ultimately judged by our success in this balancing process. Our failures are brought about as we give undue and unprincipled emphasis to one of the components at the expense of the other. If self-indulgence becomes more important than duty to others, then we are egotistical and self-centred. If spirituality is disregarded for pleasure seeking, then selfishness becomes our trademark.

If we suppress or ignore the criticisms of others, then arrogance and pride mark our existence. The still, small voice within must curb our judgements if we are to approach the standards implied by a Christian life.

Though we have self-will and are free to make our own choice, I believe the choice cannot be wisely exercised without the help which comes from that force for which we use the omnibus term, God. That force, that power, whatever it may be, enables us the better to use our inadequate judgement. The knowledge that we are in the presence of other seekers, other searchers for truth, helps support us. That is an essential pairing, oneself and the congregation.

“Two’s Company” is a splendid phrase, evoking a picture of happiness and contentment. We think of husband and wife, mother and child, father and son, God and people, tutor and scholar, and countless further examples. A vignette showing hand in hand, arm in arm, or hand on shoulder appropriately illustrates the book of friendship.

We are free to walk through life in solitude if we so choose. We are free, if we so desire, to reject the pair and select the single, seek only power without curb, to receive and never to give. But if we do, our road will be indeed a lonely one, satisfaction and completeness will be denied, balance will not be achieved, and our mouths will taste the gall but seldom the sweetness.

I concede that occasions arise when larger combinations might be the most appropriate pattern, even if involving an odd number, but in general, “three’s a crowd” will apply. Novelists are fond of writing on a theme around the eternal triangle, which brings unhappiness in its wake. Mrs. Malaprop might well have spoken of the infernal triangle, wherein tension rather than peace is an outcome.

Tragedy and ill-luck may or may not come in packages of three. Allegedly seven years of ill-fortune awaits the one who breaks a mirror. What is, I believe, proven is that a surer formula for happiness is based upon a duality, a pairing. Two is not only company, it is peace and contentment. Though there are those who see true religion as being based on a Trinity, I find a duality more to my taste. Two is not only company, it is also a comfort.

So my lucky numbers are even, not odd. Numbers you can divide and share, not those intransigent prime numbers. Pairing and sharing are twin pillars supporting a good day.

C.J. Rosling 26 April 1992

As “Pairs”

Fulwood 26 April 1992; 30 June 1996
Chesterfield 26 April 1992
Mexborough 3 October 1993; 25 August 1996
Upper 14 October 1994
Underbank 28 July 1996
Doncaster 18 August 1996
Hucklow 22 September 1996; 2 December 2001
Bradford 22 February 1998

As “Pairsmark2”

Hucklow 24th August 2008

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