Sunday Sermon – 28 October 2018

Cranks and Eccentrics

When I left school and got my first job, I travelled to the place of employment by train. From home into Manchester, where I worked, was about eight miles. A weekly season train ticket cost five shillings, 25 pence in today’s currency. For that sum you could travel on six days of the week as often as you wished. The train, which stopped at every station on route, some half a dozen in all, took less than 25 minutes to cover the distance. Neither leaves in autumn or the wrong kind of snow in winter delayed its passage.

Pulling the train was a steam engine, belonging to either the London North Eastern Railway Company, or the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company (LNER, or LMS for short), for our station was a junction served by both railway companies. Occasionally the engine was a “namer”, with a metal plate on the side on which was embossed the name of a city, or of a battle, or maybe of some once famous general or admiral.

Two men were needed to drive the great machine. One was the actual driver, manipulating the controls. The other, a stoker, or fireman, constantly shovelling coal into a furnace, which heated the boiler, to generate the steam, the source of the power which drove the engine, thus enabling it to pull the carriages forward. The fire was voracious, and literally tons of coal would be consumed on an express journey, say between London and Glasgow, or Manchester and |Edinburgh.

Steam engines are now museum pieces, replaced by diesel or electric power units I think unit is the correct, rather anonymous name. But a recent picture in the newspaper of a newly restored, lovingly rebuilt, steam engine, dwarfing the men who had spent hours working on the restoration, started me thinking about these glorious monsters of my youth.

Huge as these machines are, the components which cause the forward or backward movement are a comparatively small part of the whole. Most of the massive structure, the engine, and the tender attached to it, the two weighing up to fifty tons or more, contained the boiler, the firebox, the storage tank for water, space to hold coal for the fire, and yard upon yard of tubing wherein water is converted into steam. What actually created movement began in the cylinders and the pistons on the outside of the engine. Steam from the boiler entered the iron tubular cylinders forcing, with great power, the pistons backwards and forwards.

Attached to the pistons heavy steel bars, known as the crank-shafts which are n are connected to the huge driving wheels in such a way as to be jointed at a point between the centre of the great wheel and its rim. The term for rotating off-centre of a wheel, is eccentric.

The crank-shafts or cranks, and the attachment to the wheels, or the eccentrics, are an essential, nay crucial, part of the whole operation. Remove the crank, detach the eccentric, and the whole train would become immobile, stuck in one place; no progress could be made. Ladies in the congregation who may not be mechanically minded may recall the treadle sewing machine. The treadle went backwards and forward, as did the pistons of an engine, but the attachment to the wheel being off-centre, made the wheel go round. And so the sewing machine came to life through a crank and an eccentric.

Of course it is not possible to isolate one part of the steam engine and say that is the only bit that matters, for the machine functions as a whole. In a well-known, oft-quoted, passage in a letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that the human body is like that. Not all ear, or where would be the seeing. Not all eye, or where would be the speaking. The body is made up of many parts, each complementary, each dependent upon the rest. And that is equally true of the steam engine, or the treadle sewing machine.

I looked up both crank and eccentric in the dictionary. Among other definitions mentioned were:- awkward, obstinate, holding odd views, not easily to be persuaded to change an opinion. For crank and eccentric are terms applied to people as well as to machinery. As people, they are not the most comfortable to work alongside, to live with, or to befriend. It is a good job they are in a minority. A society exclusively composed of cranks would never get agreement on anything. Too many eccentrics and the rest of us would be driven mad with frustration.

The source of the strength or power of the steam engine lies in the boiler, where water is turned into steam. To do this the fire, constantly fed with a fresh supply of coal, must burn hot and fierce. The steam then is fed, in a controlled way, to the pistons, with the cranks and eccentrics finally converting the power into movement.

But enough of steam engines. Let’s change the subject.
Have you ever thought what an odd lot Jesus’s disciples must have been! There was Peter, with a tendency to boast of his constancy and then to chicken out when challenged, later to be filled with remorse. Thomas the sceptic, who believed what he saw, but didn’t readily accept other people’s word. An ex-tax collector, therefore member of a profession which makes disreputable second-hand car salesmen, and may I add hastily that not all are disreputable, but makes those that are, sound respectable. And so one could go on. The whole band of disciples would argue amongst themselves as to who was top dog. A bunch of cranks and eccentrics if ever there was one. How on earth did Jesus come to select such a motley crew?

Could it be that long before steam engines were invented, seventeen hundred years before James Watt watched a kettle lid lift as the water boiled, a millennium and three quarters before Stevenson designed and built “The Rocket”, that Jesus knew if movement is to be made, cranks and eccentrics are going to be required? After all, he was himself something of a crank. An eccentric who quarrelled with the church leaders of his time.

The power of the message came from Jesus’s preaching and teaching, burning with passion, steaming with conviction. But the spread of that message, the movement which became a world wide force called Christianity, was due to a bunch of cranks and eccentrics who suffered privation, hardship, and persecution as they roamed far and wide, preaching, teaching, converting.

They were persecuted because they did not conform to the wishes of those in authority. They were cussed in their stubbornness, irritatingly determined to preach a gospel at odds with the conventional beliefs of the time.

They made many enemies. But it was to be proved, as is so often the case, that the unaccustomed message of today becomes the accepted doctrine of tomorrow. Uncomfortable as cranks and eccentrics can be, their insistence on defying the traditional is one of the secrets of making progress.

A group of people with common beliefs, or a shared philosophy frequently is referred to as a Movement. We have Movements in politics, in literature, art and drama. And we have religious Movements. Those who join such bodies use language that paints word pictures of activity. They say “we want to move things forward”, “we wish to advance ideas”, “we are determined to make progress”, “our aim is to move away from the past into a new future”. The very language associated with Movements is that of activity. And cranks and eccentrics are to be found at the centre of that activity.

Not all are cranks, or where would be the furnace? Not all are eccentrics, for without a boiler no steam would be generated. There are many diverse parts, none to be more valued than the other, all essential, but if shared beliefs are to be converted into movements, then the cranks and eccentrics must play a part. Unitarians evolved within a broader movement known as non-conformity. Refusal to conform is the mark of the crank, the watchword of the eccentric. The history of non-conformity is littered with the names of cranks and eccentrics who wouldn’t be silenced. They were a pain in the neck, or whichever other part of the anatomy you choose to name. Often infuriating friend and foe alike. But they moved things on. Prominent in the story of social reform are those who drew their strength from non-conformity, and Unitarians are well-represented on that roll of honour. Cranks in their day, frequently dismissed as mere eccentrics, they changed the nature of their society, bringing hope to many, greater freedom others.

In most of us there is a resistance to change, a suspicion of that which is new. Change is inevitable, we accept, but let it come with stealth rather than burst upon us with a roar. Gradual and small steps rather than leaps and strides. Free-wheeling along is easier than speedy, driven progress. And that for the most part is right. But there are times when that is not enough. Power has to be harnessed and momentum gained, for the need to change is imperative. Then the cranks push forward, the eccentrics convert power into movement, the wheels turn, and change comes about.

To dismiss as unimportant the non-conformists, the cranks and eccentrics in the world, is to say that we are happy to stay put. All’s right with the world, we imply, and we would rather stay where we are than risk taking a journey into the unknown. But in our hearts we know that though much progress has been made towards a better world, there is still much to be done. New ideas have to be explored. The journey is by no means over.

Heat may be generated, and, in the boiler house, ideas formed as charged vapour. But creating power does not in itself move things forward. The steam may dissipate into the air rather than provide forward movement. The stubborn, awkward, uncomfortable crank coupled with the off-centre odd-ball eccentric is needed to give a push in the right place at an appropriate time to get things moving.

It takes all sorts to make the world, as the old cliché has it. There is a place for dreamers as well as for doers. There is a need for stokers as well as drivers. The humble rivet as well as the mighty wheels make up the machine. My plea this morning is that the role of the cranks and eccentrics should be recognised.

An essential tool of the driver and fireman of the old steam engine was the oil-can. The soothing fluid had to be regularly applied to the joints of the cranks and the connections of the eccentrics. So it is in life. The oil of understanding and lubrication of smoothing words are needed from time to time to ensure abrasion is minimised, but no crank, no progress; no eccentric and we stick in the same place.

The eccentrics saw the vision. The cranks spread the message of Christianity. It is for us to become the furnace and the boiler providing the power which they translate into movement.

C.J. Rosling 4 April 1997

Hucklow 6 April 1997, 25 April 2005
Mexborough 6 April 1997
Fulwood 15 June 1997
Bradford 26 October 1997
Upper 28 Dec. 1997
Stannington 8 August 1999

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