The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
It feels like there is a never ending cycle of finger pointing sometimes. This week the media and politicians have been very keen to point fingers at The Rev Paul Flowers and the Cooperative bank. Paul Flowers, a Methodist minister, has been caught buying hard drugs and his credentials as chairman of a financial institute have been brought into question. It seems the last few years have been a roundabout of finger-pointing, targeting politicians expenses, media hacking, energy company profits, etc. etc.
Today we hear that as Jesus hangs on the cross, a criminal hangs on either side of him. The first points the finger, along with those standing around; "You’re the Messiah, the king of the Jews! save yourself."
As with Paul Flowers, and the Cooperative Bank more generally, there is something particularly pleasing about pointing out when the leader of the pack falls on their face. Being able to question the integrity of the ethical bank, and point to the failure of a Christian minister, has clearly been somewhat pleasurable for others in the public. Perhaps people were thinking; Jesus was so self righteous, so good, claiming to be the son of God, where was his God now?
Scrutiny of politicians, journalists, bankers and other public figures is right and necessary, but underlining this kind of finger pointing can be an attempt to set ourselves as different, we aren’t the one who messed up like that. We define ourselves by how we are different from others. And take delight when doing so has the potential to make out that we are better than them.
It’s natural to define ourselves by what makes us different. It’s important that we recognise and accept our differences, ignoring difference doesn’t help us understand who we are, nor does it magically create some kind of more equitable society. Ignoring differences creates a wishy washy indescribable blob of homogenous humanity. On the contrary, we are each individually and wonderfully made. We are defined by who we are and the communities and groupings we are involved in. By being baptised today Julian develops his identity, as a member of the Church, a follower of Christ. That is not to say Julian is the same as everybody else in the Church, if you take a moment now to look around, you don’t have to look very hard to see that we are not all identical.
One of my favourite children's books is called ‘A Bit Lost’. In it a baby owl falls from his nest, loosing his mummy. A squirrel happens upon the baby owl and seeks to help him find his mother. The baby owl tries to explain what she looks like to the squirrel, but his descriptions are inadequate. When he says she’s big, the squirrel takes him to a bear, when he says she has pointy ears, he’s taken to a bunny, when he says she has big eyes, he’s taken to a frog. Eventually baby and mother are reunited, but the point, apart from not getting separated from your mother, is that our attributes are all relative. Book doesn’t suggest that the bear or the bunny are inferior to the owl, just that they aren’t the baby’s mummy.
So while it might define who we are, our nationality and our faith, our bank or our occupation, like our eye and hair colour, does not make us either better or inferior to anybody else. No more or less likely to make a mistake.
The second criminal hanging on the cross chastises the first, ‘we are getting what we deserve, but he's done nothing wrong.’ He then asks Jesus, ‘remember me when you enter your kingdom’ Jesus’ response flows so easily out of this, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’, that we can forget to think about the criminal’s request. What does Jesus know of this Criminal to recommend him for a place in Jesus’ Kingdom? That he is a criminal worthy of capital punishment! The refrain of ‘remember’ in the Old Testament generally requests God remembers those who have wronged the author, remember how bad they were to me, remember how they forgot to worship God, make sure they get their just reward. But here the criminal is doing something differently. He’s taking an enormous risk, asking Jesus to remember him, but for what? He’s just said he’s getting the punishment he deserved. And he’s asking the one who was sent to deliver justice to remember him. What does he think Jesus is going to do when he enters his Kingdom? Welcome him with open arms?
Fundamentally, the second criminal is being honest about his situation, he’s not pointing fingers, though perhaps he is asking for mercy, or at least, for a justice which will restore him, enable him to enter into God’s kingdom. He’s trusting Jesus with the truth. Jesus’ response is to grasp him in divine love and carry him into paradise.
Honesty about our situation is so hard to come by. It’s easy to speak the truth about somebody else’s failings, but when it’s taking responsibility for our own mistakes, we try to minimise them, to justify them as a necessary evil, or that it was out of our control. Never being honest about what we’ve done can result in us never realising it’s impact, and never considering what we could do to make amends. Internet forums, with their anonymity, are a surprising home for confessions, and for normalising against a broad spectrum of people. A parent can go on and describe how they think they might have overreacted to their child’s behaviour. A legion of parents then respond with their honest sometimes brutal views, but amongst the noise there can also be the restorative common experience, I did that too, and the encouragement to do better next time.
Common experience. We are each unique, but we are brought together by a common experience. Here is the thing with the story of Jesus, it is about a common experience. A common situation. In a talk on togetherness this past week, the former archbishop of Canterbury said that what unites us all, in the midst of all our differences is, that we are embodied persons in a material world, brought into existence by a gratuitous love. And through Christ, God shares that experience. In sharing it with us Jesus opened up that mercy for us all, that we are all grasped by that gratuitous divine love.
Today, in the church calendar, we celebrate Christ the King. On the Cross we are told there was an inscription saying; ‘This is the King of the Jews’. Like the crowd around Jesus and the first criminal, this sign is a form of mockery, pointing the finger at the supposed King, being killed at the request of his own people. But the mistake is not that Jesus is King, but the suggestion that he is just the King of the Jews. What we celebrate today is that Jesus is King of all creation, that Julian, and everyone here, and everyone, everyone out there is part of that Kingdom.
Like the protection that any head of state demands for the bearers of it’s passports, being subjects of God demands we are each treated in a certain way, and treat one another in a certain way. With the same dignity and respect and love we would treat God. As we look in each others eyes, as we speak to each other, when we meet somebody in the street, or push past in a rush to get somewhere, avoiding their eyes, we should ask ourselves if we are treating the other people around us with that dignity, that love? I was struck yesterday as we attempted to climb out of the Tube at Bond street by the sheer volume of people on Oxford street at this time of year. How do you treat everybody with dignity and love when all you want is to get to that escalator and those other 200 people on the platform are in your way.
Traditionally today, stir up Sunday, people begin to prepare for the Christmas. As our calendars get filled with pre-Christmas events we can start to feel overwhelmed. By the time we come to Christmas day the last thing we want to do is celebrate Jesus’ birth. Our patience so thin, it can be hard to love our own family, let alone everybody else. So when you feel like that, take a moment and remember that you are loved, breath in that all encompassing love of God, and breath out all the things which keep you from loving yourself, God or those around you. Trust in that Mercy of God. So that we all, along with Julian, may seek to treat each person we meet as if they were God standing in front of us.