Posted by: owizblog | November 3, 2014

Square Pegs: Sermon for Communion on the Beatitudes, UCB, 2 November 2014

I’d like to start off our thoughts this morning about the three readings we’ve just heard with a rather strange quotation. It’s from a lecture delivered over two hundred years ago, at the Royal Institution, by the Reveerend Sydney Smith. Smith was a very fine preacher, whose first book was a collection of sermons preached at Charlotte Street Chapel in Edinburgh, a genuine intellectual, a very fine and beloved shepherd of his people in his Yorkshire parish, and, though you’d never guess from this snippet, a wit and after-dinner speaker who was capable of reducing his intimate audiences to begging him to stop the flow of side-splitting remarks, because all the laughing was hurting them too much. This is an extract from a lecture entitled “On the Conduct of the Understanding”, one of a series he delivered at the Royal Institution; see if you can spot which phrase we use regularly he invented in the course of this oration:

“If you choose to represent the various parts in life by holes upon a table, of different shapes,—some circular, some triangular, some square, some oblong,—and the person acting these parts by bits of wood of similar shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, and a square person has squeezed himself into the round hole. The officer and the office, the doer and the thing done, seldom fit so exactly, that we can say they were almost made for each other.”

You’ve probably got it; here it is:

It’s not a comfortable thing, is it, being a square peg in a round hole. The feeling that where you are, what you are doing, either right now, or generally in life isn’t a good fit. There are bits of most days, bits of most jobs, bits of every life, that leave us feeling like that.

This can make us feel like that, this Communion Table. Let me tackle that one straight away: this isn’t where the sermon is going at all, but here we all are, coming to the highest, holiest worship Christians offer, Jesus’ own worship from the Upper Room. And we’re about to be offered, all of us, me as well as you, the bread and the wine as from Christ’s hands – because when we receive these things from our neighbour in the pew, we should understand that we receive them as from Christ’s own hands. That is how holy this is.

By the way, that’s a good opportunity for me to explain something to you about why it is that the Minister takes the bread and the wine first, before anyone else. In some churches, the Minister doesn’t do that; in some churches, the Minister serves the Elders, and is served by them. That seems a very humble, Christian way of doing it, and the thought behind it is lovely – but completely wrong. I can only say “No, after you!” if I’m the host. But the Minister isn’t, absolutely isn’t, the host. Christ is the host. And if I say to the Elders “You serve me!” that may seem that I am elevating them to a place of honour, and humbly accepting the elements from them. But that would mean that I was receiving the elements from the Elders, and not as from the hands of Christ himself. No, at this table we are all equal, and Christ is the host, and the only reason the Minister takes the elements first is that the Minister is standing next to them after they are set apart. Christ is the host, and we all receive as from his hands.

That’s how important, and huge, and holy, this is.

So how does that make you feel?

Like a square peg in a round hole?

Surely not. This is your place, preoared for you. You are here because Christ wants you to be here. You are here because you belong. We’ve said it so many times before, but we can never say it too often. You belong here as nowhere else on earth. And because of that, you know you have your proper place in God’s creation, and no-one can take it away from you.

There’s a story, true, and shattering in its simplicity, from a rural parish, on Arran, I think, of a Communion service in the early nineteenth century. A young girl was taking communion for the first time, and when the bread came to her, the Minister, who was within a few feet of her, noticed her hesitate. It must have been one of those strange moments when someone knows with absolute clarity what someone else is thinking; he understood why she was drawing back.

He said to her, very softly, “Tak’ it, lassie. It’s fer sinners…”

No judging. No weighing and measuring. Quite the opposite, in fact. A simple sharing of the knowledge that there are things here at this point, before this holiness, that might make any of us pause, wonder if we really fit, really belong. And we do. And sometimes all we need to be reminded of is that if I am a square peg here, so is everyone else, and by the love and grace of God in Christ, all the holes must be square too, because we all fit…

That’s all I want to say about that – beyond that when, in a few minutes’ time I invite you all to come to partake at the table, it isn’t my invitation, and yes, it really is for you.

But I would like to keep our thoughts centred on this image of square pegs and round holes, and I’d like to take you back to our three readings this morning, all of them (this sometimes happens) from the New Testament – and I’d like to suggest that this is one of the best images there is of what we are called to be as members of the Church, as disciples of Jesus, in the real world out there. Square pegs in round holes.

The Christian calling isn’t to fit. The Christian calling is to not-fit.

Because if we fitted the world outside, we’d have nothing to say to it.

But more than that, we’d be useless to it. Sometimes, it’s the very incongruity, the squareness of the peg and the violence that it does to the neat framework of round holes, that constitutes the usefulness.

Here’s a small object of desire.

space pen

It’s a felt pen. It’s a very special pen, inasmuch as it has done something that I would love to do. It’s been in space. There’s actually a website, in fact there are probably several, devoted to the sale of things that have been into space. Things that astronauts took up with them, brought back down to earth with them – and, well, if a felt pen, a pair of sunglasses, or even used toothbrushes come back to earth from actual space missions, nobody’s going to throw them away. In fact, they can be worth small fortunes: a pencil flown on Gemini 5 was sold for $2,300 at auction in 2006. A pair of sunglasses that went to the moon on Apollo 17 with Eugene Cernan went for $20,315. And Buzz Aldrin’s Lactona toothbrush from Apollo 11 lunar-flown toothbrush sold for $18,400 in 2004. Pete Conrad’s toothpaste from Apollo 12 didn’t make that much!

But the most famous wee artefact of this kind, as far as I know, didn’t come back to earth.


As the lunar module of Apollo 11, carrying Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, the first men to the Moon, was about to blast off the lunar surface in July 1969, Aldrin noticed a piece of plastic lying on the cabin floor. To his horror, he realized it was the end of the circuit breaker, the fuse-type mechanism that had to be pushed in for the module’s motor to fire. If the motor didn’t fire, they would be stranded on the Moon forever. Both men were famously calm and unflappable, and Aldrin, in the best traditions of test-piloting did a quick review of what might be done.

Then he took a felt pen…


…and jammed it into the hole.

It was what nobody had ever intended should be done – but in this situation, it worked. It wasn’t “for that.” It wasn’t meant to be relevant to that situation, that crisis. But in the end, it was what was needed.

The poor. The meek. The peacemakers. The pure of heart. What have people like that to do with real life in the real world? This is a hard world, and you need to be hard-headed, tough-minded, to live in it. In fact, you don’t take it seriously unless you study the way it works, and pattern yourself to what is relevant to it, what it seems to demand. You have to toughen yourself up, unless you are going to be a square peg. If you are a square peg, then being knocked into the round holes that are the only ones available, will be painful, and disfiguring, and will force you to lose those corners, those awkward bits of yourself that stop you fitting. That’s if the mallets don’t actually break you as they force you in.

But where does that lead us? If being realistic means being hard-headed, doing what it takes, getting with the plan, doing what the situation demands – where does that take us? Well, this week, it took our government to a terrible place.

I’m going to do something I very rarely do: I’m going to quote from a newspaper, in this case, the Daily Telegraph:

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children seeking sanctuary from the chaos and carnage of places like Syria and Libya wash up in their ramshackle craft on the Mediterranean coastline. The countries that constitute their destination – Italy, Greece, Spain – have found themselves on the front line a mini-humanitarian crisis.

“But our politicians have now found the answer. And it’s a bold one. We’re going to take those refugees, and we’re going to drown them.

“Britain – along with its EU partners – is backing the withdrawal of search and rescue support from the Mediterranean. According to a statement from Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean”. She added that the government believes there is “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.”

In other words, if they know that someone will try to rescue them if things go wrong, these poor people will only be encouraged – so they need to be left to drown if things do go wrong.

It’s good to see that the Telegraph was able to say, a couple of days later:

…that “Churches have condemned the British Government as un-Christian over its rejection of rescue missions for refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.”

It beggars belief that anyone should need to say it. But it also needs, I think, to be pointed out that politicians got to this point by assuming that the world works in a certain way, and that you have to fit in with the way the world works.

This, if you like, is the ultimate horror of trying to fit, of trying to be the shape the world wants you to be, of trying to make yourself round for what you think are the inevitable round holes.

Now, that’s a particularly shocking instance, because virtually everyone can agree that there’s just a wrongness there. The astonishing thing is that political leaders couldn’t see it. That’s what asking how we fit in, how we go with the flow, how we court electability by making ourselves a perfect fit with what we think society wants, gets us. We model ourselves on others, and we lose our selves.

But there are many situations where the shaping power of the world is much less obvious than that. There are times when the Church’s calling to be awkward, the calling of Jesus’ disciples to be the awkward squad, to make waves, to refuse to be content with the way things are, brings us into conflict, makes us unpopular, makes us feel like misfits.

There’s a reason for that.

The world isn’t the way it should be. It isn’t the way God wants it to be. And it’s our job to live in the world the way it is – which demands real, hardheaded realism – and yet to live in the world according to how it should be.
That’s the opposite of the Church’s calling. Think again of Buzz Aldrin’s felt pen. The point isn’t to look like what’s needed. The point isn’t to be what everybody thinks is needed. The point is to be what really is needed – and to know that we are that.

There are times when the Church’s calling to be awkward, the calling of Jesus’ disciples to be the awkward squad, to make waves, to refuse to be content with the way things are, brings us into conflict, makes us unpopular, makes us feel like misfits.

There’s a reason for that.

The world isn’t the way it should be. It isn’t the way God wants it to be. And it’s our job to live in the world the way it is – which demands real, hardheaded realism – and yet to live in the world according to how it should be.

One of the downsides of the Bible’s invitation to “think in pictures” is that sometimes we get stuck with particular pictures, hung up on them. If we can only picture Jesus in Palestinian peasant dress of the first century, how are we supposed to recognize Christ in the need of people wearing suits, jackets, jeans, trainers, t-shirts or dresses?

And when we hear a word like “Kingdom”, or a phrase like “the Kingdom of God” we perhaps get all sorts of pictures flooding into our minds that get between us and what we should be thinking about. Take a second to think about this expression “Kingdom of God”…

…think of all the pictures that crowd into your mind…

..and now, throw them all out!

Kingdom means, quite simply, rule.

The Kingdom of God means the rule of God. Things the way God wants the, to be.

And talking about, believing in, the Kingdom of God is just this, no more, no less: it’s talking about the way things should be, but aren’t. The way God wants them to be, but they are not. And, because we are talking about God, and hope, the way they will be…

That’s what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven…”

But this kingdom isn’t our plan, our vision for the world. That’s where the zealots, and the extremists, and the so-called religious radicals, go veering off on crazy, literally mad, tangents of their own. They think they know what God wants done, they think God wants them to do it, and they are sure they are right.

And they are completely wrong. That’s not God’s kingdom they are serving, but their own dreams, their own fantasies, as often as not fantasies of retribution, and violence, and judgmentalism, which are based not on what God wants, but on their understanding of God, their picture of God. And that can never be right. In fact, it’s always idolatry. Idolatry is just exactly putting our picture of God where only God should be.

Our calling is more subtle, and much different.

Our calling is to look at the world and say “This should not be.” It is not possible that God should want this…” We are called to be the awkward squad. We are called to be the square pegs that proclaim that the holes should not be the shape they are. And that’s a risky business. In fact, Jesus tells us so.

As we come to the Communion Table, as we recognize that this is the feast of the kingdom, that we are the people called to look beyond the world as it is, and to live out of the world as it shall be, out of the Kingdom, with all the tension with the world that that implies, let’s hear Jesus himself tell us what our calling is:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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