Sunday Sermon- 5 August 2018

The most Beautiful Stew in The World

All the world loves a story. A catalogue of best-loved stories will contain a substantial section of titles said to be written for children, but which delight adults just as much, if not more. Many of the most memorable children’s books are like that – Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Peter Pan – the list is substantial. One of the joys of looking after children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces is that it gives one the excuse to refresh the memory by re-reading stories of old under the guise of telling them to children.

One of my favourite narratives is “The Wind in the Willows”. Like many good plots it has a moralistic theme which is subtle and unobtrusive. Good eventually triumphs over evil; pleasures are shared, sacrifices made, friendships honoured, weaknesses forgiven. But the joy is not so much in the in the moral, rather in a beautifully written tale, with an enthralling story-line. Fear and pleasure, excitement and placidity, are perfectly balanced. There are many memorable passages in the book, and I was reminded of one of them by a remark heard by chance one morning on the Today programme of the radio some years ago. I’ll come to that in a minute.

I am sure you remember something of the plot. Ratty and Mole’s friend Toad has a fascination for motor cars. Eventually this leads him into criminal behaviour, and he is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, for stealing a motor-car, driving recklessly and seeking to evade the police. The passage in the book to which I refer comes after Toad has escaped from prison disguised as a washer-woman. He is on the run. Having been thrown into the waters of the canal by a barge-woman who sees through his disguise, he retaliates by stealing the horse which tows the canal barge. Riding across the Common he meets a Gypsy, who is sitting beside a fire over which hangs a stew-pot. From the iron cauldron

“…came forth bubblings and gurglings, and a vague suggestive steaminess. And smells – warm, rich and varied smells – that twined and twisted and wreathed themselves at last into one complete, voluptuous, perfect smell that seemed like the very soul of Nature taking form and appearing to her children, a true Goddess, a mother of solace and comfort.”

The ravenously hungry Toad, who has not eaten that day, bargained away the horse he had stolen in exchange for a meal from the pot. Whereupon the Gypsy

“…tilted up the pot, and a glorious stream of hot rich stew gurgled into the plate. It was, indeed, the most beautiful stew in the world…”

And what was the remark on “Thought for To-day” that brought this passage to mind? It was Rabbi Blue, speaking some years ago, on the morning Radio 4 programme. Those who have heard him will know that food ranked with religion as one of the important constituents of the good life.

He was fond of cooking himself, and spoke of a stew he had made recently into which went left-overs and some dishes which had been comparative failures. For, he said, “A stew, like the love of God, is big enough to encompass all our mistakes.”

It was that remark, “… the love of God is big enough to encompass all our mistakes”, which caught my attention, has stuck in my mind since, and which reminded me of the Gypsy’s “…most beautiful stew in the world…”

The use of everyday articles, scenes or events to help the understanding of the profound is a well-used device. The best known examples are among the parables of the New Testament. The grain of mustard seed, the leaven or yeast in the bread, the lost coin, the sower broadcasting his seeds, the candle which is placed high, are all familiar images.
The stew which is big enough to encompass all our mistakes is surely worthy to be added to the list.

We struggle frequently to understand the meaning of the words and sonorous phrases used in our worship. The peace of God which passes all understanding, forgiveness, repentance, confession, salvation, the love of God and so on – at least I struggle and I suspect I am not alone.

Perhaps at this stage of our development. some ideas are too difficult for us to fully grasp. As a young child may find difficulty in translating the written symbol into words as he struggles to learn to read, so we hear the words and phrases, without fully comprehending the meaning. Paul likened it to seeing through the glass darkly.

He asserted that our understanding is only partial. We may boast of our knowledge and grasp of the truth, but in reality we are only on the shores of an ocean which stretches way beyond a distant and unexplored horizon. And so it is with the love of God. We partially comprehend but the vastness of the conception overwhelms us.

The love of God which can absorb our failings, remaining consistent in spite of our sins and weaknesses, is a powerful image. It is eternal, we say, that is, it is without beginning and without end.

The word eternal is glibly repeated, but when we think about it, what does that mean? Something that has no starting or finishing point is difficult to imagine. And yet, if the love of God is to mean anything it has to have been always present and without end.

A mathematician makes use of eternity in his or her calculations. Whole branches of mathematics are based upon the notion of infinity – that is without boundaries, going on for ever. “For ever and ever, world without end” is a familiar enough phrase to a Christian church-goer. And yet I doubt if any of us fully grasp the complete meaning of such words as “infinite” or “infinity”, “eternal” or “eternity”.
And so we turn to metaphor and simile to help us. The love of God is like a stew, which is big enough to encompass all our mistakes. As the air we breathe surrounds us, enveloping us and insinuating itself into every nook and cranny, so we are bathed in the love of God, unable to escape it.

The Psalmist sang of the impossibility of hiding from God. On the same theme, Francis Thompson in his poem “The Hound of Heaven” describes the fruitless attempt to flee from Him. God’s love is all pervasive.

God’s love is not about ignoring errors, or even about making allowances. It is about absorbing and transforming. Our love for one another is frequently selective.

You might say we are choosy about the ingredients, accepting the one but rejecting the other. Into the Gypsy’s stew which Toad so enjoyed, everything had been added –

“…partridges and pheasants and chickens and hares and rabbits and pea-hens and guinea-fowls and one or two other things.”

It was the most beautiful stew in the world. Rabbi Blue’s stew took in that which had been left on one side, those things which were below par, and blended them into a marvellous whole. God’s love accepts what is there. It is big enough to encompass all our mistakes.

Rabbi Blue, as I recall, was concocting his stew because he was to entertain others to a meal. It was to be a shared, convivial occasion, and no doubt that is how it turned out to be. Who would have known of the Gypsy’s stew if it had not been shared with Toad?

And so too is the love of God shared. It is not given exclusively to the chosen few. In contrast to the Gypsy’s stew, it has not to be bargained for. It is freely available, day or night, twenty four hours a day. “We never close” is the apt slogan for the heavenly all the year round restaurant.

Not one of us can say with truthfulness that we invariably do all those things which ought to be done, or leave undone all those things which ought not to be done.

As with the girl in the nursery rhyme, though there may be times when we are very, very good, there are certainly other occasions when we are horrid. That all the ingredients which make up our lives, the edible and the inedible shall we say, can be gathered together in God’s great stew-pan and be transformed into the rich, comforting gravy of life is a source of wonder. The metaphor may be faulty and inexact; the reality is sure.

It may be difficult to accept that God’s Love is non-discriminating, all-embracing, unquestioning and open to all.

Our own love so often is given much more reluctantly, and with strings attached. But Rabbi Blue’s observation, made semi-humorously albeit with underlying profound seriousness, was right to the point.

The love of God does encompass all, the good, the bad and the indifferent. It is the most beautiful stew in the world.

If we are to be worthy of the title “Children of God” then we must learn to make stews. Stews which are the most beautiful within the world, and beyond the world. Stews which are big enough to absorb the perceived faults of others, the known short-comings of ourselves, and bind all into one homogeneous, harmonious whole.

Love makes the world go round, was the title of a popular song of yesteryear. Be that as it may, love is the basis of peace, harmony and contentment. Love of God and by God is the core of spirituality.

Respect for others is the key-stone which allows neighbour to live with neighbour. And the stew which is big enough to encompass all mistakes is the essential nourishment for human and spiritual life.

So let us retire to the kitchen and start the preparations. And remember to be catholic in the choice of the ingredients, for the joy of the stew is in its ability to absorb all, and transform the mediocre into the magnificent.

C.J. Rosling 19 November 1995

Fulwood 19 November 1995
Hucklow 21 January 1996; 5 December 1999
Chesterfield 21 January 1996
Mexborough 12 May 1996
Upper Chapel 20 February 2000

And in a more abbreviated form preached in local churches in 1987

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