‘A cover is not the book’: Identity and Choices

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns, 2018, Walt Disney Pictures

This Lent these sermons and our Lent group are based on themes taken from the film ‘Mary Poppins Returns’. This was in the cinemas around Christmas last year. Whether or not you have seen the film the themes can stand on their own. The film picks up the story when the children in the first film have grown up and Michael, the young boy, now has a family of his own. Their lives have been struck by tragedy when his wife died and 17 Cherry Tree Lane, the family home, has a cloud of sadness over it, the pall of mourning. In the first week we explored grief and loss. Last week the nanny who stays as long as she is needed turned up attached to the youngest member of the Banks household, Georgie’s kite. As to be expected she has a few surprises in store and bathtime involves a dive into the bubbles for an underwater world of imagination and fun. This brought us an opportunity to look at the importance of imagination for faith.

Today we are going to move on to look at who we really are. The children get into an argument in the nursery. A squabble breaks out over a ceramic bowl with a picture of a carriage scene on it. The bowl gets chipped and because it belonged to their mother this breakage hurts more than a broken pot should. It is a link with the very person they miss most and so the grief is very strong. Something more than glue is needed here and with a spin of the bowl the children and Mary Poppins jump into the picture on bowl and into a cartoon world where dogs and horses talk. They end up at the Royal Doulton Music Hall fair and in the big top a show is about to begin. In this imaginary world the cartoon characters recognize them instantly as being important guests and they have front row seats.

A song ensues about the cover not being the same as book. What matters most is what is inside and this is where the true value and true nature is seen. The story can be very different. A cover is not the book and this becomes an exploration of how different people can look one thing on the outside but are actually something very different inside. They look respectable but are they? They look one thing but who knows what is really going on inside. Often this is reflected in the choices people make and how they display their character and identity. To mix up my films for a moment, there is a scene in one of the Harry Potter films (and indeed the book) where Harry is worried that he has some strong similarities with Voldemort. His headmaster, the wise Dumbledore, tells him that it is not in how they are alike that matters so much as in the choices they make. This shows the real difference between them. What is inside will make a profound difference to what they do.

Jesus said something very similar when he talked about what is inside a person defining them, not what food they eat on the outside (Matthew 15:10-20). Character comes through and that gives the lie or the truth to who they really are.

Our Epistle this morning came from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I read through the whole of that letter the other day in one sitting. I recommend doing this, it gives a much better sense of the thread than the way we tend to chop up the books of the Bible into chunks to be easily digested. 1 Corinthians was written by Paul to a church that he felt needed quite a few things setting straight. They had rather lost the plot, not least in terms of personal morality and that came through in the passage we have just read (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Paul tells them to live lives that reflect their status in Christ; their outward living should reflect their inner faith and hope. How they live is to spring from what they believe. The cover is to reflect the book and at the moment it is not. This won’t do and he gives them quite a telling off. The implication is that the cover is false because the inside is not true. They need to shape up.

There is quite a bit going on at the moment about integrity in public life and in private life. We only have to read the press to see stories where those who should be trusted and looked to as example-setters fall flat when we dig a bit deeper. The Recall Petition that we have in this parliamentary constituency has been triggered by a conviction in court that calls into question the trustworthiness of the current holder. To be an MP is to be one who makes laws and so it is incompatible with that office to have been convicted in court for perverting the course of justice and that is why she was sentenced. If you read the judge’s summing up, he was compassionate but also clear “I sentence you on the basis that by November 2017 you realised what was going on and took the disastrous decision to stand by the false information that had previously been submitted by your brother”. That is perverting the course of justice, whatever the family loyalties that lay behind it, and that is why the Recall Petition has been triggered by the Speaker of the House of Commons.

The difficult for all of us is that there can be misplaced loyalties and these can get us into bother. We are expected to act with integrity and sometimes this requires what is known as ‘courageous integrity’. This is where we make a stand that costs us personally because we have to point out that what is happening is not right and needs to be addressed. We cannot maintain integrity if a certain situation or course of actions continues and it can be courageous to make this stand. It might lead to having to blow the whistle or call in a higher level of authority to bring in the necessary accountability. That can be a very uncomfortable position to be in, it can be painful and stretch at loyalties and friendships. But it is what is required when trust is placed in us. If we don’t do it, we conspire with whatever is happening that should not be happening and we become complicit in it. In that turn of events the story inside the book that is us fails to match the cover illustration. A cover is not the book and we show our character, who we are, by the choices we make.

Jesus had some more harsh words where integrity was questionable. He called religious leaders whom he accused of hypocrisy ‘white-washed tombs’ (Matthew 23:27-28). They look smart and bright on the outside, even pure and clean, but inside there is a rotting corpse. Like an apple that is being eaten away from the inside when we cut into it, it is not as appetizing as we had hoped, so the motives and inner plans of these leaders did not match their outward appearance.

The gospel reading we heard this morning used another image, this time of a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit (Luke 13:1-9). For someone wanting to harvest it for food in due season, it is no use if it doesn’t produce ripe fruit. The verdict is to chop it down. It is wasting the soil, a drain on nutrients that could be put to better use. But a stay of execution comes so that it can be given another chance, with appropriate feeding and care. The implied message in this is that while there will be times we don’t measure up, that does not mean we are irredeemable. With nurture and care, with mentoring and guidance, we may find that we can grow and shape up. All of us will have people we are grateful to because they gave us the guidance and inspiration we needed to grow in grace and in what the Bible refers to as the stature of Christ; to grow to be like him and shaped by him. Character doesn’t come from nowhere, it needs shaping, inspiring and enabling to grow and develop. Look for good role models to help you and see how you can be a good role model for others.

A cover is not the book. We display who we are by how we live, the choices we make, especially when the going gets tough. Integrity, when it is tested, may need to be courageous; we need to step up and be counted. If we proclaim the faith of Jesus Christ we are to show it in how we live with integrity and that brings certain standards. We all need role models for this, and ultimately our aim is to grow in our likeness of Christ, to be shaped by him and thereby be people who display his grace and love and blessing.

Third Sermon in a series for Lent based on themes drawn from the film Mary Poppins Returns, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 24th March 2019

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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