The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
Over the last couple of weeks, in preparation for today, when the playgroups that meet here at St John’s during the week have sung that old favourite, Old MacDonald, they’ve been including the verse where Old MacDonald had a horse, that is when the horse isn’t voted out for a dinosaur. To my surprise, when an explanation was offered, ‘after all we are the horse church’ it was met by some with surprise. Usually, as I travel around London and meeting people who ask where I’m based, they either know about June playing the piano at the Kendal or St John’s - isn’t that the horse church. But apart from a stuffed toy - most would be disappointed if they came looking for evidence on any day of the year other than this. Perhaps one day there will be a great monument to the Vicar’s faithful steed, Gulliver, in the centre of the aisle. But I suspect that would only happen long after the Vicar had left.
There is however one horse here - on a stained glass window in the North Aisle a horse with no rider and a man sitting bemused next to it, you’d think if there were armour and crown, he was calling out, ‘a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!’
No it’s not Richard III, but rather Saint Paul. There is no horse in scripture, but it is a common practice to depict Paul at his conversion falling from a horse. Paul was one of those people who was first among men. As the horse suggests, he was someone of great authority, sent to sort out those among the Jewish community who were following this man-God Jesus after he had died. And sort them out in a vicious way, this was persecution, have no doubt. But as the image suggests, Paul’s authority is toppled, he becomes a blind man dependent on the good will of the community he has been persecuting.
It is written on the psyche of this country, the natural tendency to favour the underdog. Why else would my facebook and twitter start going wild yesterday in shouts of support for the fantastic playing of Japan against South Africa. In reality, in some way we recognise in the underdog something of ourselves. We are after all, each flawed, however much we try to hide it, we know our weaknesses, and live in hope of being accepted in spite of them.
But our weaknesses are part of what makes us who we are and can help us to find great strength, both in the way we adapt to them and in the way we respond to them. Embracing our failures, our frailty even our vulnerability can make us far stronger. Like the person who accepts their appearance and simply works it or the person who knows their limitations and finds the best possible systems to manage them. Hence that most annoying of interview questions, ‘What are your most significant weaknesses.’ In reality the people who know our weaknesses best, sometimes better than we know them ourselves, are the people who love us. They love us not simply in spite of the fact that we sneeze too loudly or make annoying jokes, but in a way because we do, because that is part of what makes us who we are.
Paul, having fallen from his horse, and suffering from what is described as a thorn in his flesh, and a small and contemptible poor voice, goes on to teach people throughout the Greco-Roman world about God’s love for them in Jesus. The very things which should make it impossible for Paul to be the spokesperson for the new Church are part of what make his teaching, his proclamation of God’s love so compelling. Because if anybody should have been beyond loving, if anybody should have been beyond saving, surely it was him, his voice, his affliction, was surely only what you would expect for a vile man.
Paul’s human authority might have been toppled when he fell from his horse, But the last shall become first and the first shall become first. Paul went out seeking the least in the kingdom, those who weren’t even among God’s people and told them of God’s love for them.
Because like the people who love us most, in spite of and even because of our failings, God loves us for who we are, not just who we might become, but for who we are. And that love is more powerful than we can imagine because it shines a light on our true selves. And in our weakness, in the humility and vulnerability of knowing our own failings, we can begin to understand, to empathise with one another. To accept and love one another, and to become the people God has made us to be, full of the love and compassion God has made us to share.