The Reverend Robin Sims-Williams
One of the great things about being a parent in London is the fantastic collection of museums which are free to visit. It’s great to see children suddenly caught by a painting or a display that catches their imagination in some way. And of course, the great thing about it, is that as a parent it is an enjoyable place to spend an afternoon. But, if I get caught looking at something for too long, my 2 year old daughter is off. When that happens - All the great works of art and fascinating information must be left behind. The only thing that matters is locating her.
I often wonder what you say when you are asked, what is Christianity about? or What did Jesus do? or What is the Good News? or Why do you go to Church each week?
Perhaps you say it is an opportunity for a moment of reflection in a busy week. Or maybe it’s just that the Church offers a sense of Community. Maybe it's about being a part of something larger than yourself. Stumped by questions like this we can tend to resort to platitudes. Paul, in the reading we had today from his letter to Timothy says this ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ But what is he saving us from? from sin? from ourselves? from our own failings? What is it really all about?
One of the things that I am expected to do since I became a priest is forgive sins. We do it as part of this service each week as a community. It’s one of the four main things we do each week. Forgiving sins. Proclaiming the Good News. Praying for others and sharing the bread and wine of Communion. So it is obviously a really important part of what church is about.
Some people feel very strongly about having somebody they can admit their sins to personally and be forgiven. If I’m honest, and I doubt I’m alone in this, when I’m not happy with something I’ve done or if I’m not satisfied with how I’ve reacted to someone. I will seek out a friend tell them, looking for some encouragement. Looking for some kind of confirmation that I've not done anything that bad. Acknowledgement that I am forgiven for my shortcomings.
Unspoken, unchecked or normalised, this sort of guilt can become feelings of shame, which is so very destructive - getting in the way of friendships and relationships.
As clergy we are regularly talking to people. Sometimes they are strangers who seek us out here, sometimes we bump into them in a shop or a cafe, sometimes it's a more familiar face, just wanting to chat. It’s something we really enjoy doing. It is striking, whatever the topic, a significant aspect of the conversation is about getting things off your chest and having it acknowledged that it isn't really that big a deal.
And forgiving sins was a key part of what Jesus did. Again and again he was telling people their sins were forgiven, often just before healing them - a kind of statement - which of these things is more important.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is challenged as to why he is eating with those unholy tax collectors and sinners. And he responds with two parables, I'll focus on the first one, the parable of the Lost Sheep. The shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search for the one who is lost.
When I’m telling the story with children, I begin with an introduction to the story of the Good Shepherd. Saying that the Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name, I take a moment to stroke each of the sheep as they are brought out of the paddock, and they know his voice and go where he leads them.
This introduction puts the children into the context of the Good Shepherd who knows us each, everything we've done and everything we've left undone, but loves us for who we are. He doesn't just know a sheep is missing because there are only 99 when he counted, he knows the one which is missing.
Jesus tells the parable assuming we would all know that you leave the 99 to find the lost sheep, but looking out into the congregation I don't imagine many of you have a flock of sheep in the garden. So what image from today’s world can help us to get the impact of the parable?
On this 15th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and on the Pentagon in Washington, perhaps the example of the incredible work the emergency services performed on that day. Risking their own lives and trusting their families would be ok, they focussed their efforts on finding those lost in the rubble of those buildings. There are numerous other similar examples from other terrorist attacks and natural disasters. Those who put there lives at stake to save the life of another, and then rejoice when they have succeeded in rescuing them. They don’t know the people they are saving - not what they’ve done or haven’t done - nothing they have done earn them the right to be saved.
That’s the extent God is willing to go too. Only God does it because he knows and love us each individually. God is seeking us out to forgive us our sins because we all struggle. We all fail to be the people we want to be. We all do things we aren’t happy with. But Jesus says ‘You are forgiven.’ And there is nothing that we can do to make God’s love for us become invalid. Much like there is nothing we can do to make God love us. God loves us because we are ourselves. And that is what we as a Church are called to do. To love one another for who we are. Not because we’re all nice to each other. Or because we might have good prospects or be a good networking opportunity. And that is what makes this a community worth being a part of. So don’t let the shame of not knowing another persons name stop you. Especially on a name badge Sunday… go seek out the people we know least well or who are visiting and love them as God loves them, because that is what Church is about.