Tag Archives: Elephant Man

Sermon – Upper Clyde Parish Church, Sunday 12 August 2018

If you remember, last Sunday we thought about words that don’t have loving actions being empty and meaningless.

We considered the damage that vicious, sarcastic, cruel words can have.

And we referenced what James wrote in his letter about the tongue being a deadly weapon, insofar as while it can be used to praise God and our neighbours, it can also ignite (as it were) a forest fire.

Remember his words, “the tongue is a small part of the body…..”. Then adds “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body”

But how many folk have we come across, who destroy others with their, slander, mockery, spite and malice?

It even extends to those who are supposedly Christians.

When I was the NHS healthcare chaplain for NHS Dumfries and Galloway, my first office at the Infirmary also had the patient print out list for ministers who were visiting their Parishioners.

One in particular was a right joker…. or so he thought.

Now, it’s probably not escaped your attention that I’m more like Zacchaeus in stature than Goliath!

The visiting clergyman would usually say, on coming into this shared office- “don’t get up (oh you are!).”

One conversation somehow got round to my not drinking milk (I was probably making a cup of coffee at the time)

“You don’t drink milk – what not even CONDENSED milk?”

Oh how we chuckled!

Especially when he added, “But, surely, you’re going to have some SHORTbread with your cuppa!”

This was a few years ago, of course – and I’m still 5 feet 5”…………..


………………And sadly…… he’s now 6 feet under!!!!

Oh, I mentioned Goliath…. and that brings me to David, the shepherd boy who became a King.

David was the youngest of Jesse’s sons. His brothers were obvious choices for kingship, in that they were big brawny lads.

But David was held in such low regard by his own family that he wasn’t even invited to the ceremony organised by Samuel.

In fact, he was out in the fields looking after the sheep – the work of a servant.

And look at this: David isn’t even mentioned by name. His father refers to him only as “the youngest” such was the low esteem in which he seems to have been held.

How did his brothers react. Who knows. But they were there, we’re told, when he was anointed.

My guess is that either they couldn’t care less, or worse, made fun of someone whom they considered a butt for their jokes and teasing.

In today’s society, it is so often the apparently weakest who are targets for mockery or abuse.
This spirit of mockery is spreading like wildfire at home, school, college, with youngsters especially suffering online or actual bullying.! Mocking, teasing, criticising and humiliating the victim are corrosive.
When my late wife, Helen, underwent not-too-wonderful reconstruction at a certain hospital in Livingston, she was drugged up to the eyeballs with morphine, other heavy duty analgesics as befits such radical surgery and the emotional trauma that is coterminous with it.

After a couple of nights – post operation – she got out of her bed, opened the door and, in a total daze, wandered down the corridor toward the exit.

The crackle of dimwit nurses at the station, looking up from comparing their “adventures” and showing off their latest phone photos, suddenly noticed this disorientated woman heading toward the door.

“What are you doing, Helen?” patronisingly

“I need to speak to my husband”

“Back to bed with you”

No suggestion that they would phone me in the morning to say that she was distressed.

The next morning, she apologised.

And the response: “Don’t worry – it gave us all a good laugh!”

A good laugh?

Probably the same kind of mentality that would have had them visiting “lunatic asylums”, as they were called in those days, to look at the patients shouting and dribbling and “doing tricks” (unintentionally).

Rich Londoners flocked to Bedlam to laugh at the antics of the inmates: a visit to the madhouse was a good day out, ranking with a public execution and featuring in all the popular tourist guides.

Why don’t we all have a laugh at those with emotional, mental or physical disabilities?

Do you remember that most moving film, “The Elephant Man”?

It tells the true story of Joseph Carey Merrick. He was an urbane and intelligent man with very severe deformities who was first exhibited at a freak show as the “Elephant Man”

Merrick was born in Leicester, and began to develop abnormally during the first few years of his life: his skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed enlarged lips, and a bony lump grew on his forehead, one of his arms and both of his feet became enlarged and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness.

This “freak” was exhibited as some kind of monstrosity for the amusement of the punters at a freak show, where he was mocked and laughed at.

However, he was rescued from this appalling cruelty by a doctor, Frederick Treves, and went on to become well known in society circles in London

The Elephant man…….in the name of entertainment.

How easy for many people to have a laugh at those who are not “normal” (aye, but there’s the rub: what is normality and just who is “normal” here?)

And it’s not something from the politically incorrect past.

The ancient comic tradition of mocking people’s impairments is still going strong today.

Should we be laughing at, for example, Jack Douglas’s comic turns in the Carry On films for resembling epileptic fits and Ronnie Barker’s character Arkwright in Open All Hours for using his stutter to get a cheap laugh.

There’s also a tradition in British comedy dating from Shakespeare to laugh at characters’ lack of intellect.

But that’s fiction……how about reality?

Dr Tom Shakespeare of the University of Newcastle explained that: “People have always found those who look different or behave differently to be figures of fun. It’s a way to bolster your own social norms by denigrating others.”
On one occasion, many moons ago, I was at a particular conference for mental health care chaplains and one of the “guest” speakers told a “joke” along similar lines to this:

“I was walking past the mental hospital the other day, and all the patients were shouting ,’13….13….13′

“The fence was too high to see over, but I saw a little gap in the planks and looked through to see what was going on.

“Somebody poked me in the eye with a stick.

“Then they all started shouting ’14….14….14”

One of my mental health care chaplaincy colleagues – a sensitive and caring man – looked at the lecturer, and very quietly and in measured tones, said, “Who is that ‘joke’ directed at?”

Laugh with; never laugh at

Remember – from our story about David being chosen:

Man judges by the outward looks, but God looks at the heart

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A Sermon for “Passion Sunday” (the old Lectionary)

Passion Sunday

A few years ago,the season of Lent had a slightly different structure than it does now.

Some of you will remember that this particular Sunday was known as “Passion Sunday” when we thought about and meditated upon the meaning and significance of Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

In the last few years, however, you will typically see that next Sunday – which was always known as “Palm Sunday” – is now labeled “Passion (Palm) Sunday, incorporating the Entry into Jerusalem and going beyond that triumphant day to consider the approach to Christ’s crucifixion.

Nevertheless, I’d like us today to take as our theme what would have been traditionally associated with the focus of the old “Passion Sunday” – the pain and suffering of Jesus.

But first let us pray:

Living God

As we approach the days leading up to your Son’s suffering and death, may our eyes today fix firmly upon his Cross and may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer

SERMON: “The laughter of Derision”




Mark’s Gospel records that the soldiers before his crucifixion mocked Jesus.

In the 17th and 18th verses of the 15th chapter: “They clothed him in purple”. (Purple being the colour associated with royalty, of course) “and made a crown of thorns” – a crown… but oh the irony – it would have certainly given them a “good laugh” – and this they “put on his head, and began to salute him: ‘Hail! The King of the Jews’”

What a jolly jape for them! What a laugh! This juvenile mickey-taking must have had them in stitches.

How cruel. How hurtful. Not clever; but condescendingly wicked.

I remember reading about a so-called tribute to that magnificently awful self-styled “poet and tragedian” the wonderfully bad bard of Dundee, William Topaz McGonagall. This particular accolade was written in 1891 by students from Glasgow University who talked of his splendid achievements, professing the hope that some of the inspiration of the great man would be passed on to them from afar.

It’s an acutely cruel piece of sarcasm.



As always when he was being made fun of, McGonagall missed the point entirely and was happy to accept apparent praise from such educated men.

So many others ridiculed this figure of fun, who really did think that he was making a serious contribution to literature.

But the last laugh is on him. He is still widely read and gives pleasure to thousands with his ill-constructed doggerel.

Others – not as naive as McGonagall – can be wounded and distressed by such verbal sneers and ridicule which can sting and maim and destroy.

Think of how children’s laughter can have its cruel elements. The strong pick on the weak – the poor laddie, the disabled girl, the slower pupil.

How children can gloat when they triumph over another child. How they laugh when they see something demolished or kicked out of shape.

Sadly, many adults haven’t outgrown this sadistic childish trait.

I guess all of you will know the story of “The Elephant Man” who lived at the end of the 19th century.

John Merrick was grotesquely deformed, his body and face distorted, his skin thick and pendulous, hanging in folds – resembling the hide of an elephant.

People flocked to see him at carnivals and sideshows, where he was billed as “Half a man; half an elephant”

Exhibited as a freak, an object of mocking disgust, Merrick was eventually freed from those wanting a cheap laugh.

He was, it was discovered, a gentle, highly intelligent, sensitive man with a romantic imagination. This makes his degradation at the hands of others all the worse.

An eminent surgeon of the day, Sir Frederick Treves, helped to rehabilitate him – even introducing him into high society…. he became a favourite of the then Princess of Wales (later to become Queen Alexandra).




How often the objects of our humiliation are, in reality, not weaker than us – but rise above our puerile insults and jibes, appearing stronger, more noble, better than us.

Supremely – how true of Jesus in the scenario we remember today.

The soldiers dressed him up with the Imperial purple, the Royal cloak, and on his head placed that other symbol of majesty, the crown….. though this crown was fashioned from twisted thorn leaves.

And they made a show of homage and obeisance as they pretended to worship him.

In reality, they were mocking the freak, taunting the weakened fool, humiliating the deluded weakling who misguidedly talked about the Kingdom.

Oh, the irony! They may have tried to make a caricature of Jesus as King, while the truth is that he is the King of Kings!

Beneath the jest, there was an eternal truth.

And Christ rose above it all. He may have been treated as a ribald crowd would a figure of fun, but he suffered them – and would suffer FOR them – and rode out his humiliation with dignity.

Through the centuries and continuing to this very day and this very hour, there has been many a burlesque of allegiance to Christ, near matching the mockery of the soldiers.

A crown has been put on his head, a crown of formal declaration, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

People have stood in reverence as those words have sounded out to the stirring words of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

But how many really mean it? How many are taking it lightly, half-heartedly, perhaps even with a tinge of mockery underpinning it?

On the spot where this mockery of Christ was supposed to have taken place, a church has been built. It’s name? “The Chapel of the Derision”



It’s a strange combination of words, isn’t it? Chapel; derision

But is it really so paradoxical? If there should be a church of Christ in which class and race lines are drawn, a church in which Christ’s teaching of self-sacrifice and humility and compassion is disregarded, would it not, in truth, be a chapel of derision?

There’s an old internet story – an urban legend – of an American pastor who transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food….NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit n the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation……..”We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek”….The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation…..The homeless man sitting in the back stood up…..and started walking down the aisle…..the clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him….he walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment….then he recited:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning…many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame…. he then said….Today I see a gathering of people……not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples…when will YOU decide to become disciples?



It’s not necessarily a factually true story, but isn’t it true of how many so-called Christians make a mockery of what we are called to do?

Today, on this Passion Sunday – or call it what you will – let us be glad (yes, “glad”)… even joyful and happy… a happiness shot through with love, adoration and praise, giving true homage to the one who could never be hurt by mockery, never wounded by cruel laughter, but who rose above it all.

We commemorate not a time of humiliation, but celebrate a time of victory.

So let us “bring forth the Royal diadem and crown him Lord of all”!


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