St Bride's: Sermons

Just as I am

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Our near neighbours Goldman Sachs have been in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. They are now embroiled in a court case accused of Securities fraud, their Chairman summoned before the Senate Committee in Washington, and all this against a background of the banking industry again being accused of offering vastly inflated salary packages and huge bonuses. Now, I'm not going to comment on their case this morning, I'm not qualified to, except to quote someone I was talking to the other day who'd been in business most of his life.

He said that "the trouble with many businesses today is that what seems to matter is short term profit rather than long-term sustainability. People want to make a quick buck rather than building up a business, looking after their workers, then handing it on to their children or the next generation and so contributing to the well being of the local community. Now, as long as they get their bonus and share options they don't really worry about anything else."

That kind of attitude leads to a pretty stressful business environment. I was talking recently to someone working in a big commercial firm who had been working very hard to impress her boss because she knew redundancies were imminent in her department - so she worked extra hours and took on extra responsibilities - and she had succeeded. But the pressure hadn't stopped. Fewer staff meant more work for those left, and she was acutely aware that some of the younger staff would love her job. She felt exhausted and stressed; always under pressure to impress the boss, always conscious of those coming up behind her waiting their opportunity for her to flag so that they could nudge her aside and take her place.

The sad thing was that although a practising Christian she didn't get much comfort from her faith. Because her picture of God was just like her boss - someone who had high expectations of her. She said she often felt guilty that she was not doing enough at church or caring enough for others. She always felt that she was striving to measure up, and that no matter how hard she tried to impress God and earn God's acceptance, she always fell short.

What a pity she hadn't come across a little book published 50 years ago, written by JB Phillips called "Your God is too Small", in which he looks at a number of these commonly held images - God as policeman, demanding parent, managing director, absolute perfectionist and so on, and shows how far from the true Christian understanding of God they all are. I think a lot of people share that lady's misconceptions about God.

A more positive image would be that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep. This image clearly had a very strong resonance for the early Christian Church. It appears frequently on Christian tombs in the catacombs in Rome and it speaks of a relationship of dependence and trust, of love and care such as the real-life shepherd had for his flock in 1st century Palestine. Jesus as Good Shepherd promises his protection and says that nothing will snatch those who follow him out of his hands. This love and care, just like the real shepherd's, is not dependent on anything the sheep - that's you and me - do. They are cared for because that is what the Good Shepherd is committed to.

This image is a powerful corrective to those stern images we may have in the back of our minds, as the lady I was talking to had. Jesus Christ is not a severe parent, a demanding managing director, a stern policeman, a difficult boss. He gives us the gift of his love not as a reward for reaching a certain standard of behaviour or commitment, but as a gift. It's a gift that won't be taken away from us if we let God down because he has promised to hold on to us come what may.

St George's Day, I took part in a celebration at St Botolph's, Bishopsgate, at which I slew the Dragon, a ritual re-enactment of the triumph of good over evil - and it struck me that that's a metaphor that applies to us all, that we all have dragons to slay - especially the dragons of fear and anxiety and guilt and stress.

We live in a high-pressure world where stakes are high, rewards are excessive, and where we often feel we have to prove ourselves over and over again. And we can easily assume that God's love too, depends on our performance, especially when we know that the heart of our faith is about repentance and change. But we change our ways not to earn acceptance from God but out of gratitude for his unceasing unconditional love which remains constant. That's what the lady I was speaking to needed to hear, it's what our Gospel reading reminds us of, whether we're a banker, a solicitor, a teacher, a car salesman, a musician, or a housewife. It's summed up in the words of the well-known hymn:

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,

Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve.

Because Thy promise I believe.

O Lamb of God, I come. Amen.

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