St Cuthbert’s Day

Matthew 18:10–14

I used to try to impress upon students that they should never, under any circumstances, begin a sermon with a joke. Preachers tell jokes in order to grab attention and get people on their side. ‘You’ve already got their attention’, I would say. ‘Nothing else can happen until you sit down. And they are already on your side, unless you contrive to put them off with some lame joke’.
Anyway, a certain believer finds himself lost at sea, stranded on a sandbank, half a mile off-shore, too far out to swim for safety. The tide is coming in, and soon the water is up to his knees. So he prays to God to save his life. Pretty soon, a fishing boat spots him, and comes to offer help. ‘It’s Ok,’ he says, ‘ I don’t need your help. God will save me.’ And eventually, with a shrug of the captain’s shoulders, the fishing boat chugs away. The water is up to his shoulders now, but he’s spotted by the coast-guard helicopter. ‘It’s Ok,’ he says to the man on the end of the winch line. ‘I don’t need rescue. God will save me.’
Having drowned, he arrives at the pearly gates. ‘I prayed to God to save me,’ he angrily declares to St Peter. ‘What went wrong?’ ‘Well, we arranged a fishing boat,’ replies St Peter, ‘and you waved that away. We sent a helicopter, and you refused that as well. I’m afraid after that we were out of options’. Shouldn’t we have faith that we will be saved, though beset as we are by so many and great dangers? Restricting the chalice at Holy Communion; not shaking hands, trying to wash whenever we’ve had contact with anything: should we not just pray? Do we have faith, or do we not?
I read a tragic story this week about what became known as Spanish Flu. It wasn’t actually Spanish at all, but the rest of Europe was at war when it first broke out so that information about the casualties was suppressed. Only the Spanish reported cases, hence the name. But it went on to kill huge numbers of people after the end of the First World War, some even here in the Allen Valleys, not least because huge numbers of troops were travelling back through crowded transit camps from the trenches and the battlefields across the world.
The city of Zamora in Spain was particularly badly hit. In defiance of all the medical advice, the bishop there declared a ‘novena’– evening prayers on nine consecutive days – in honour of Saint Rocco, the patron saint of plague and pestilence. This involved the faithful lining up to kiss the saint’s relics, at around the time that the outbreak peaked. Zamora went on to record the highest flu-related death rate of any city in Spain, and one of the highest in Europe.
There is a strange sect in South Korea right now which is being blamed for the very high incidence of Corona virus in that country, although I don’t know whether or not they have been careless. So you could argue that we should all just have faith; but you could also argue that God has already been helping us by giving us the wits to develop soap and hand-sanitisers, and to take many other sensible precautions to slow its progress, and he isn’t going to wave a magic wand.
(Of course that’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I am taking sensible precautions; you are stockpiling, he is panic-buying).
Where does Jesus’ story about the lost sheep in our gospel fit into all this? The last time I preached on this passage, Marjorie Anderson ✝RIP stopped at the church door, and told me the story of a Sunday School class. ‘“Why do you think the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep and went looking for the one that got lost?” asked the curate. “Happen it was the tup”, answered a small but wise voice’. The most valuable beast in the flock, perhaps, without which the flock would not survive into the future. It is deeply comforting to remember that each of us is considered by Jesus to be the most valuable sheep, sought out and saved.
And I had a great sermon thereon for today, written and ready by the middle of the week. It was all about being lost and being found, like the sheep in the story. It’s in the bin at home, if you want to read it! For events have moved on quite quickly these last few days. Our bishop and our archbishops have tried to take a responsible lead, like concerned shepherds; giving appropriate advice, rather than panicking like a flock of frightened sheep. We’ll be following their recommendations. We need to think out how best to respond to the threat of epidemic here in our parishes.
And on our patronal festival, we think also of St Cuthbert, preaching the gospel to his scattered flock around Northumberland. But our earliest Christian ancestors knew well that their faith might actually cost them their lives. St Stephen is the first martyr there in the early chapters of the book of Acts. St Cuthbert’s church on Lindisfarne was raided by the Vikings, and his remains carried in search of sanctuary all round our Northumberland dales, one step ahead of the marauders. Plague repeatedly swept across Europe in the Middle Ages and beyond, far more deadly than our modest Corona virus. At the behest of the village church, whole communities, like Eyam in Derbyshire, self-isolated, in order to staunch the progress of the plague.
We don’t know how the next weeks and months will unfold. The Roman Catholic archbishop is preparing his congregations for the suspension of Mass. The pope will likely stream his Easter-day address online, rather than gather the faithful in St Peter’s Square. Travel is restricted, borders are closed. Politicians address us in serious tones. Some of the papers are relishing the chance to whip us up into panic by speculating about how bad it’s all going to get. But it does look as though public gatherings for sports events and music festivals will be pulled. Schools might be closed, although that isn’t certain. We already know that people exhibiting symptoms that might indicate the virus are being asked to quarantine themselves. We don’t know whether we’ll be asked to suspend church worship.
Rather than casting ourselves as the sheep in the story at a time like this, might we better be cast as the shepherd? Looking out for each other, and those around us as the weeks unfold? Not defying the medical precautions we’ve been advised to take, so much as working with them. Rather than visiting, for instance, checking by phone, or email, or whatever on people who are on their own for any reason. Perhaps doing so more often than we normally would. Thinking creatively; recognising the gravity of the facts, but without surrendering to the despair that comes from the wilder speculations. Offering calm, offering comfort, helping to understand people’s anxieties, looking for whatever good God might bring out of all of this. Taking a shepherd’s view of all that’s happening.
© Jon Russell 2020