The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
When I arrived at University, thousands of miles from where I had left high school, feeling completely ill-prepared to start studying in a very different education system. But when I arrived I found that people already knew me, or at least they thought they did. The expectations that people had of me from having known my brother had both their benefits and their draw backs. My uncertainty was washed away, however, by a tutor’s confidence that if my brother had managed to do well, I’d be fine.
The notes that appeared in my mail box from people who had been his contemporaries, welcoming me, were at times a bit off-putting. Though it made me feel at home, I did at times feel the expectations were a bit daunting. The reality was they were expecting me to be another version of my brother. Sims-Williams 2.0 … or something like that.
This can, of course, be very unhealthy. When people are expecting you to be somebody who you aren't, living up to a family member's legacy, or Christ's. This is what leads to the kind of guilt and even shame which is not life-giving, but draining as it denies the goodness of being yourself. But, having people talking to me with the view that I could achieve things that I hadn’t even tried was incredibly encouraging - and it went beyond my studies.
When I arrived at University I wasn’t the model of physical prowess you see before you today. But the assumption from many was that I would be on the river rowing. My brother was still, at that time, coming back to coach boats, known throughout the boat club as a current personality. The view was that all I needed to do was get out there and work at it, that if I put in the hours, doing a sport I had no previous experience of, I could do well. I found that blind confidence in me, the way I was seen not as who I was, but what they assumed I’d become, massively encouraging, it drove me to work at it.
For any child growing up, that sense of what is possible is very important. If the belief is that you can never be anything more or different from what you are now, or from what your family is, then it can be very difficult to push out of those assumptions. It can also be difficult to be forced to become something you are not - having to deny your own person to meet expectations. Personal expectations of what is possible, are an enormous barrier to becoming what you really want to become.
During training I did a placement in the chaplaincy of a mental health hospital, spending time with patients on a secure ward, some of those there would otherwise be in prison. Many of them suffered from a lack of hope. But the staff had an inspiring approach. The head sister said she would always find something she liked in each new patient. The staff would work with each of the patients to understand what they wanted to do, to be. Nobody was ever told - well you’ll never do that. Instead they would help the patients to consider what they needed to do now, and what the steps were, to work towards their goal. The staff saw them not just for who they were at that moment, or for what they had done, but also for who they could become.
Jesus’ parable of the Mustard seed tells us that small things can make a big difference. How something as insignificant as being kind to the person next to you on the tube can have enormous repercussions. As a gardener I have tried, unsuccessfully, some seed harvesting, I am aware of some of the challenges, particularly early farmers and agriculturalists must have faced; keeping back some of the seeds, trying to protect them in dry and cool storage, away from disease, in hopes of what their seeds, these small capsules of life would one day become, the crop it would produce in the coming year.
But what is the Mustard bush? What are we aspiring to? what is success? Working as a Tech assistant to the head of systems engineering. He was acted as a mentor to me and so one time we were discussing what my goals were. After giving saying what positions I wanted to take, I was surprised by what he reflected back to me, that he had always just looked to try and work to his strengths and keep doing better or more difficult jobs than the ones he’d done before. It struck me, he wasn’t aspiring to wealth or fortune, his aspiration was to do what he enjoyed and did well, and then to work at it and become better at it. In doing that, to become a better, more competent version of himself - to realise the person he had the potential to become. - and that is where, I think, true joy and contentment lies.
So what is the Kingdom of Heaven like? It is what we as individuals, and as a community, have the potential to become. We won’t get there in this life. But we are like the mustard seed - tiny, insignificant, difficult to imagine how big and beautiful we can become, but our aspiration to be part of the Kingdom of Heaven should encourage us to find our potential to become better versions of ourselves. Getting ever closer to that great bush we can become.
And if community means anything, if being part of the church means anything, if Paul means anything in his letter to the Corinthians when he says ‘no longer regard anybody from a human point of view… everything has become new’ or when he so often refers to all Christians as Saints. It means to be a community we should treat each other, support each other as if we were already that better more competent version of ourselves which we will become in the fullness of time. Not to judge one another against some model of what we think they should be, but have the vision to see who they are and can be. And if we treat each other as the heavenly person that we can become, what limits are there on what we can be. C.S.Lewis, in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, described the best, most wonderful joy and contentment of this world to be but a shadow of the joy and contentment of Heaven. Now that’s something to aspire to. Amen.