Sermon: Putting yourself into their shoes
The Right Reverend Mark Bryant, Bishop of Jarrow
Preached on 28th July 2011
by The Right Reverend Mark Bryant
Tonight as you are launched into your ministry as Pastoral Assistants I want to encourage you to put yourselves into the shoes of other people. I wonder if that may not be at the heart of pastoral ministry, this putting ourselves into the shoes of others.
I am quite sure that there will have been a lot in your training about listening, and if you are able to take listening seriously, and listen to people absolutely openly and attentively, you will find yourselves starting to be drawn into their shoes. That I think is a great deal of what we are about – putting ourselves into other people’s shoes.
We put ourselves in other people’s shoes because that is what God does. What we rather grandly call the Incarnation or the Christmas Story is about God – who is behind all that is – putting himself into human flesh, and putting himself into the shoes of human beings. In Jesus, God puts himself into the shoes of people living in first century Palestine, living with all the ordinary anxieties of very human family and every human community, coping with the additional pressures of a Roman occupation, and all the difficulties that brings. And Jesus does that because he wants to show us that God is a ‘putting yourself into other people’s shoes’ sort of God.
I was very struck last Christmas by the final episode of the BBC Nativity, in which when the angel appeared to the shepherds he spoke particularly to the young boy who had robbed a Roman soldier in order to get money to pay the medical bills for his ill wife, and the angel said to this particular shepherd that God had come to earth that night for people such as him. In other words God was putting himself into the shoes of a young shepherd who was worried about his young wife, who could not pay his rent and therefore got his sheep taken away from him, for whom in a strange way there seemed no hope. That’s what God does, and that’s what you are called to do – to put yourselves into the shoes of other people.
I don’t think this is going to be easy if you take this seriously.
First, you will open yourselves up to all sorts of sadness and pain, and some of that pain won’t be able to be sorted. You simply will not be able to do anything about it, because nothing can be done about it. And if you are really taking this business seriously you will from time to time find yourselves entering into hopelessness and powerlessness, and that is often a rather uncomfortable place to be. Please God because you are there sometimes that hopelessness and powerlessness and loneliness will become for a moment a little more bearable, but if you are really going to stand in someone else’s shoes you will learn quite a lot about that, and all you will be able to do is to simply take that and lay it before God, and perhaps using some of the words of the great Psalms of Lament tell God that you are not really at all sure what all this is about, and perhaps even at times tell him you don’t think much of it.
This will also challenge the way you see the world, as you enter into the shoes of the asylum seeker, or the young parent who can’t get to the doctor because the buses run, if they run at all, at the wrong times. Or you get into the shoes of the elderly church-goer who feels totally let down by the church since she is no longer able to get to it. It will I think lead you time and time again to ask if what is going on really is alright, and in the same way that those who worked with the first wave of asylum seekers, or longer ago, encountered some of the first people in this country to be living with HIV Aids, in the way that some of those people found themselves saying ‘we have got to do something about this’, so that may happen to you and you may find the way you see the world being challenged.
I have a growing sense of what our society needs more than anything else is people who will start to stand in the shoes of others. One of the novels which I have found most thought provoking over the last year is ‘A Week in December’ by Sebastian Faulks. It is a story of a whole number of very very different people in London in a week one December, and the strong and overriding impression that I am left with at the end of the novel is all sorts of catastrophes seem to be about to loom, is that the tragedy of our human society is that we are all living in bubbles totally isolated from one another, and it is because of that that all sorts of things go wrong, and we do things without having any sense of what the effect is upon other people. Our society desperately needs people who will put themselves into the shoes of other people.
So this may not be easy as you enter into people’s pain, as you start to find all your assumptions about the way the world works suddenly challenged, but in the midst of all this there is a real chance with God’s help that you will be a blessing. Christians want to say that somehow the world is a better place because Jesus who is God has come and shared his life. Somehow all of the activities that human beings do are now blessed because God has come and put himself in our shoes.
And so there is a real opportunity in ways that won’t always be obvious, and ways which you certainly won’t be able to imagine yet, in which with God’s help you may be able to be a blessing as you put yourself into the shoes of other people.
There is one assembly that I remember from my days at school, given by the Headmaster. My memory was that he was a rather austere and distinctly uninspiring person, or certainly that was how I remember him, but I remember that one Wednesday morning, which was his assembly morning, he simply came onto the stage in the Assembly Hall and gave us a quote from the painter Vincent Van Gough. He gave us the quote “He who gives sympathy, gives life”, and with that in absolutely record time he walked off the stage.
I have no idea whether Van Gough actually said or wrote that, but nonetheless it remains with me to this day. He who gives sympathy, gives life. And that also is what happens to those who put themselves into the shoes of others – they give life. In the same way that Jesus, who came to put himself into our shoes, was able to say ‘I have come so that they may have life, and may have it in all its fullness’.
May God bless you richly as you begin your ministry as Pastoral Assistants, and discover a little bit more about what it means to place yourself into the shoes of others.