Wednesday, June 07, 2017

London Bridge and the commandments of Jesus

Exodus 20.1-17, Matthew 22:36-40
Do you have any school rules at  your school, or did you have school rules when you used to be a pupil? One of the rules when I started secondary school was that boys must wear a cap, so my parent dutifully bought one for 7/6, which was a fair bit of money in those days. On my first day I turned up wearing the new cap but one of the older boys said, ‘Put that away right now or someone will snatch it off your head and you’ll spend the rest of the day chasing round trying to get it back.’ So I stuffed it in my pocket and never wore it again. My parents were not pleased.
But that was nothing compared to the money we wasted on two knee length pleated woollen skirts which the school rules said my daughter Jenny must wear when she went to secondary school. On her first day I dropped her off just as an older girl walked in front of the car wearing nothing - well, I mean she did have shoes and tights on - but otherwise nothing more than a little tie, a blouse, a blazer and a fairly broad black cotton belt . She had no skirt on of any description, so far as I could see, and certainly not a knee-length one. I knew immediately that we’d been had! And Helen had to set to and make Jenny two new plain skirts which weren’t as cheeky as the belt version but only came down to an inch above the knee.
Well anyway, we were taking tea in the servants’ hall at Hanbury Hall the other week, as you do, when some other rules caught my eye - the house rules for the servants. Someone had helpfully put them up on the wall in case we were new servants, or visiting for the first time to look after our master or mistress during their stay.
There are only ten commandments in the Bible, and Jesus boiled them down to three, but at Hanbury Hall there were 17 rules to be obeyed. The first one forbade servants from playing games for money and using abusive language. That’s two rules really, isn’t it? But presumably whoever drew up the rules felt that people who use abusive language are likely to be the same sort of daredevils who are apt to play Monopoly for real money.
The rules don’t say what they mean by abusive language, either. Is it calling someone else ‘fat’ or ‘stupid’ because they’ve beaten us at Tiddlywinks? Or does it mean swearing? Perhaps we’d better not test the boundaries! Who knows what might happen if we did?
When I was a child my grandmother used to say that bairns should be seen and not heard. This never seemed right to me, and fortunately it didn’t seem right to my parents either. But that’s how it was for servants at Hanbury Hall. They must be seen but not heard!
They couldn’t even talk to one another in the hearing of their so-called ‘betters’’. And if they met a member of the family, or one of their guests, on the stairs they had to stand aside to make way for them and look away instead of looking at them.
Although they weren’t allowed to answer back - or start a conversation with - the people they worked for, even just to say ‘goodnight’, the servants still had to pay careful attention when they were being spoken to. They had to stand still and look at the person speaking to them - unless, of course, they met on the stairs. And they had to say, ‘Yes Sir’ or ‘Yes Ma’am’ when they were given an order, just to show that they’d heard.
You might think that when they heard the doorbell ring the servants ought to have  stopped what they were doing to answer it. But no, they were to ignore it. Only the butler could answer the door!
And there could be no snacking in their bedrooms - not even a biscuit and a cup of cocoa. The servants could only eat in the servants’ hall and they had to be punctual for meals otherwise, presumably, they didn’t get to eat at all.
And that wasn’t the only time when punctuality was called for. They had to be in for the night by half-past ten sharp, and if they stayed in the house on their evening off, they had better have a good book to read or some sewing or model-making to do, because there wasn’t any TV or radio and they couldn’t have any visitors - not even members of their own family.
Any maid servant who was found with a member of the opposite sex when she was off work would be dismissed, ‘without a hearing’ the rules say. This only applied to girls, mind you, not boys. So long as they were meeting members of the opposite sex outside the house, boys might get away with it. And boys were allowed to smoke too, whereas it was forbidden for female servants to smoke. So these rules were never about fairness, let alone equality.
You may say, of course, that - like school rules - the servants’ rules were made to be broken and the servants probably ignored them cheerfully. You may also say that you never missed an episode of Downton Abbey and a lot of these rules were broken there.
But at least we live in a different sort of society now, don’t we, where most houses don’t have servants any more and even those which do wouldn’t dare to treat them like this. We like to feel that we have a lot less rules and we can do more or less as we wish. The servants’ rules are still on the wall at Hanbury Hall, but no one takes any notice of them except as a reminder of a bygone age.
Yet those rules I mentioned from the Bible - the Ten Commandments and the commandments of Jesus - still apply to us. They haven’t gone away. But like us with the rules we’ve inherited, Jesus takes the roles from the Old Testament and boils them down to what really matters: ‘Love God and love others as much as you love yourself,” or - in another version - “love one another the way I have loved you.”
When we baptise a small child we obviously don’t expect her to make all the promises we might expect from an older person but we are asking something of her family, her friends and the church where she belongs. We’re asking them, you, us, to be a good example to her - to love God and love one another the way Jesus loves her and the way we should like to be loved.
No other rules really matter, but these rules are exacting enough. In the second version of his commandment about love, the one in John’s Gospel, Jesus told his friends, “Now I tell you to love each other, as I have loved you. And the greatest way to show love for your friends is to die for them.” In fact St Paul pointed out, in his letter to his friends in Rome, that Jesus’ love went even further than that. He wrote, “God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful,” in other words even before we were his friends. Can we love like that?
Kirsty Boden, a 28 year-old nurse, died last weekend “because she ran towards danger in an effort to help strangers who had been attacked on London Bridge.” I hope it never comes to a matter of life and death, but we’re asked to love others that much. The men who stabbed her claimed they were doing it out of love for God, but the true expression of love for God is to show love to one another.

No comments: