Sunday Sermon – 3 June 2018

Pictures on the Wall

A few years ago, (I cannot be more accurate than that, for as one grows older time is telescoped and accurate recollection becomes more problematical) my wife and I visited an old friend. She had been widowed for some years, and lived alone in her bungalow, though her daughter and friends visited her almost daily. She died not very long ago, as biblical language would have it, “full of years”. But I am meandering, and in danger of losing the point of the story.

During the visit, a polite enquiry about a picture hanging on the wall which had attracted my attention, led to a tour of inspection of the numerous pictures which adorned the walls of her home. Each had a story. This one had been purchased early in her married life; another was a view of a landscape which had held particular attraction for her late husband; a colourful water painting was a constant reminder of the dear friend who painted it before presenting it as a gift. So the commentary went on. She enjoyed giving it, and I gained pleasure, not only from her obvious enjoyment in the telling, but from seeing the pictures themselves against the background of her explanation.

Our house, like most homes, contains numerous pictures, some on the walls, more in cupboards or on shelves waiting to be hung one of these fine days, when time permits. There are photographs, some framed and displayed, many more in albums or loose in drawers, waiting to be put into albums one of these fine days, when time permits. Some have been waiting rather a long time now! Retirement brings leisure, but palpably not time for all the jobs one has put off for years.

Our pictures are unlikely ever to arouse interest on “The Antique Road Show”. Sotheby’s will never want to auction them, and perhaps most would be passed over at a car boot sale. But they have a priceless quality, for, like our widow friend’s pictures, they are a trigger for memory, associated with happy occasions. There is a water-colour of a Sheffield view which was a surprise, spontaneous gift from a group of colleagues with whom I served for some years. I look at it and see kindness and friendship, in addition to the scene depicted.

A small oil painting given by a good friend hangs near my desk, valued just as much for what it represents in friendship as for the subject chosen, which happens to be Underbank Chapel. But I need not go on. All of us are to some degree collectors. Few are the homes that are furnished, not only with pictures, posters or photographs, but also with a multiplicity of articles which are reminders of times past, of people no longer physically close to us, of holidays spent, of childhood parties, of affections demonstrated.

The old lady speaks to her grand-daughter. “That vase was my grandmother’s; this brooch a twenty-first birthday present; my father always sat in that chair; see, here is the spoon your mother first used when she was a baby.” Such histories value common objects as irreplaceable treasures.

To be surrounded by, or at least to have within near reach, these material pleasures – these aids to memory – is, to use a phrase of an ex-Prime Minister, to be at ease with oneself. The material possessions take on an additional dimension. They become not objects, but icons. These symbols are more than mere inanimate articles, they represent our inmost sensibilities.

This need to have with us, or around us, a physical object to assuage our fears and comfort us in times of need, is present even in our earliest days. The young child will grab his or her cuddly teddy bear, soft blanket, or familiar toy when frightened or hurt, or to bring peace to mind and body so that sleep may descend.

We adults take into our territory, symbolic icons. The office or the work-space is adorned with photographs of our family, with trinkets donated by work-mates, with pictures that recall a life other than that of work. The soldier in his barracks or tent, softens the stark surroundings with personal possessions which mean something to him. The bedside locker in the public hospital ward invariably will contain personal trinkets so that the impersonal nature of the surroundings may be alleviated.

Material goods are acquired for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is a kind of one-up-man-ship; a wish to have something the neighbours have not got in order to feel superior to them. Or it may be greed, covetousness, to have for the sake of having. Ignoble reasons like these, leading to the worship of material things, has rightly been condemned down the ages. But the love of those things which enrich our lives, which bring peace and a feeling of security to which I was referring earlier, is of a different dimension. Our goods have gained a value which is not monetary, more than sentimentality, but akin to spiritual prop.

There is a school of thought which says that we should abandon all material possessions; that ownership gets in the way of true Christian living; that our goods become our gods, our possessions our prayer books, our valuables replace the verities. Of course it would be foolish to deny that such can be a danger, a temptation into which we too readily fall.

But material goods should never, can never, replace spiritual values. If the goods themselves become the objects of worship, if we worship and value our car, our television set, our new three-piece suite, or whatever, above all things, then we are diminished as persons. But if the picture reminds us of the joy of friendship, the photograph of happy occasions, the ring of vows made, the watch of a parent who loved and supported us, then the object is not one to be valued for itself alone, but to be cherished as a reminder that love, understanding, goodness and self-sacrifice still exist, even though the world seems dark and the future obscure.

When we go away, however enjoyable the visit or exciting the holiday, we seldom return without a sense of relief. “It’s nice to be home”, we say. This phrase, “Nice to be home”, is significant. We don’t say “It is nice to be back in the house”, for there is a subtle difference between house and home. The home is more than the house. “Home is the sailor, home from the sea”, wrote Stevenson. The evocative words portrayed a picture of much more than a simple statement that the journey had ended.

A home is full of warmth, not necessarily the warmth that comes from central heating – though that helps – but the warmth that comes from love and laughter, from sorrow and sympathy, from full hearts and friendship. Those things which help transform a house into a home are stored within the house. They are the photographs, the pictures and the knick-knacks that lie on shelves, adorn walls or hide in closets within the edifice.

But inanimate objects in themselves don’t create those qualities which make a building into a home. We can pack the structure from cellar to attic with the most exquisite goods, or with memorabilia, and yet it remains a house. The picture on the wall contains no store of love in itself. It is absorbed into it when it is given as a gift, or when it is purchased in company with another that it may give pleasure and joy to both. The china plate is valued because she who first owned it loved it, and some of that love reflects from it, as we handle it with care. Our fingers wrap round the knife and fork, and we feel the warmth retained from other hands that once held the same artefacts.

Our goods may be as idols to be worshipped, and if so they are as cold and impersonal as any other images. Stand and admire from afar but do not touch, is a chill attitude to life. But if we are warm and loving in our relationships, that warmth is captured by the things around us. That love may be reflected to others, re-absorbed and transmitted onward.

The centre of a home is a family, be it large or small. Essentially it is people and their love and understanding for one another which make a home. We use this concept of family when we speak of the family of God, of which we are all members. And as families gather in houses and thereby elevate them into homes, so we gather in our places of worship, our chapels, churches, cathedrals, temples, synagogues or mosques.

Sometimes the walls of these buildings are decorated with tablets or pictures, the windows may contain stained glass. These are visible reminders and obvious reminders of the devotions given by past members of the family. There are of course many others whose contribution was as great but who are not so marked.

Or the walls may be plain, and windows clear. However they may be, for the house of God to become a home of worship, then there must be warmth and love in the hearts of those who inhabit it. Just as the gewgaws and baubles in our homes absorb something of the character of the owner and the ambience of the occasion, so the walls and interiors of the buildings used for worship absorb the sense of occasion, the devoutness of the worshippers, the dedication of the congregation. There may not be visible signs but the atmosphere has been created.

Our houses of God become homes for the family of God when the place is full of memories of good people with noble aspirations. And a home need not be ancient to have memories, for memories can be recent. An ancient pile may still be a house after the passage of many years, whilst the newly build house rapidly becomes a home. The key is with those who dwell within, not through the mere passage of time.

We may look at the pictures on our walls, the photographs in our albums, or the china in our cabinet with fond memories, with happy thoughts, with appreciation for good friends, devoted parents and loving companions. But that is not enough. Our memories and our gratitude needs to be a spur to our so living that others in their turn will look on our lives with thankfulness.

Likewise in our homes of God, the warmth created by others past and present will dissipate unless it is constantly renewed. Todays artefacts may become the dust of tomorrow, but goodness and mercy must be eternal in the hearts of men and women. Let us cherish, but not worship, those material goods which are reminders of the world of goodness and mercy, and the warmth of human kindness and understanding.

And as we cherish them, let us imbibe them with our love, so that it overflows , enriching the lives of others as well as our own. That which is conceived, or received, or given in love, is more precious than jewels. more valued than gold. For without love, we are nothing.

C.J. Rosling 9 May 1993

Fulwood 9 May 1993 23 January 2000
Hucklow 26 Sep 1993 14 Sep 1997 12 Aug 2001
Mexborough 26 September 1993 1 November 1998

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