Worcester College, Oxford 15 February 2015
Corporal works of mercy – Visit the Sick. James 5:15-20 Mark 6:7-13
Ely Cathedral, where it’s my joy to work and where I have the privilege of being the Head of the Foundation, has, you will not be surprised to know, a long history, It would not be appropriate to relate it all now, suffice to say that for a significant part of its history it was a monastery – first of all a double monastery for men and women founded by St Etheldreda in the year 673. Etheldreda’s monastery flourished for 200 years before being destroyed by the Danes, It was then refounded as a Benedictine monastery in 970 – at the heart of the new monastery was the shrine of St. Etheldreda. She had died in the year 680 from a tumour of the neck, reputedly as a divine punishment for having worn necklaces in her younger days – in reality it was the result of the plague that killed several nuns at the time. 17 years after her death her body was found to be incorrupt = the tumour on her neck healed – and the linen clothes in which she was buried as fresh as the day she had been buried. Her body was place in a stone sarcophagus and reburied. When later placed in the monastic cathedral it became focus for vast numbers of medieval pilgrims until the shrine was destroyed in 1541 at the dissolution of the monasteries. We now have a simple slate slab marking the place where her great shrine was.
Though the shrine was destroyed, the vision of St Etheldreda and of St Benedict lives on as we continue in words of our mission statement “to joyfully respond to the love of God in worship outreach, welcome and care.” Although not bound by the Rule of St Benedict, we remember the rock from which we were hewn as each day, at Morning Prayer, we read a short extract from his Rule: so much of it has an enduring relevance ….this is what Benedict says about ‘The Sick’
“Before and above all, care must be taken of the sick, that they may be served in very truth as Christ is served, because he has said ‘I was sick and you visited me’ and ’as long as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me (Mtt25:40) But let the sick themselves consider that they are served for the honour of God and let them not grieve their brothers who serve them by making unnecessary demands. These must, however, be patiently borne with, because from such as these a more beautiful reward is gained. Let the Abbot’s concern be that they suffer no neglect.”
“Before and above all care must be taken of the sick”. The corporal acts of mercy that are the subject of your sermons this term, of which visiting the sick is one, are all in their different ways, responses to the fact that the God who we worship, the God who made us, is merciful. If we’re not careful we can get caught up in that old debate about justification by faith or by works – Martin Luther has a great deal to answer for in mistranslating letter to the Romans and talking about justification by faith ‘alone’ (the word ‘alone’ does not appear in the original text) – but that’s another sermon. Faith and works are two sides of a coin – one cannot be a reality without the other – and neither of them earn us anything in respect of God – rather they are both a response to the complete mercy of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. Put very prosaically – if we have been shown mercy then we cannot really help ourselves in being merciful also; “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful”.
The reality also is that, most of the time, this stuff isn’t easy – not least because, as Benedict hinted at, the sick can be really difficult and demanding – very often understandably so, but that doesn’t stop caring for them being jolly hard work. There are those one visits who never seem to complain, who bear their suffering with great grace and are a particular joy to be with– and there are those who seem positively to relish ill health, who when one visits perhaps are using you as a someone on whom to overload a vast amount of anger and frustration – probably a good thing, better dumped on the visitor than on the person who may be alongside them many more hours of the day – but nevertheless, they can be very stressful to visit.
Mercy received must become mercy given if it is to have any value. And given because that is where the kingdom of God breaks in – our two readings this evening referred to the anointing and healing of the sick as something that disciples of Jesus were particularly sent out to do – and his Church still does so today. When I visit the sick I always carry holy oil with me, it sits on the mantelpiece in my study alongside my stole and sick communion set, I regularly anoint and pray with them using the words prescribed that say “I anoint you in the name of God who gives you life. Receive Christ’s forgiveness, his healing and his love. May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ grant you the riches of his grace, his wholeness and his peace.” The kingdom breaks in because, as St Benedict reflected from St Matthew’s gospel “I was sick and you visited me”. Mother Teresa frequently emphasised the sublime dignity we have in serving Jesus in others – and a profound dignity it is indeed. She once said “we should not serve the poor like they were Jesus, we should serve the poor because they are Jesus”.
That’s why Benedict says ‘before and above all care must be taken of the sick….the sick must not be neglected’ – because in them we’re serving Jesus.
This priority given by Benedict to the poor also caused me to reflect on behaviours beyond the personal and individual to the corporate, because the way we behave corporately, as a community, as a society as a nation matters too. On a large scale as well as on a small one, those who are and are not considered a priority says a massive amount about our underlying priorities and values.
There is a certain amount of public debate around at the moment about ‘values’ – British values – Christian values – are they one and the same thing? what does it mean, if anything, to say that we are a Christian country? Are there values shared by all irrespective of faith or religious practice? I guess values like respect, honesty and integrity are going to be common to all – whereas self-sacrificing love is possibly particularly Christian – very particularly so. The difficulty with the debate is that Christianity at its heart isn’t a values system ..As the Archbishop of Canterbury has recently pointed out, Christianity’s not first of all about being nice to people – at its heart it’s a relationship with God, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit – we’re hopefully nice to people in response again to the mercy of God.
So that personal relationship has knock-ons….and particularly in the realm of the sick, not just individually but corporately.
In what is going to be an extremely long run in into the next General Election the National Health Service will be a political football that gets kicked around with a great deal of energy and no small amount of hot air will be expended upon it.
How we treat the sick, the priority we do or don’t give them says a great deal about us as a society – and where we find ourselves in the debate says a great deal too about where we see God and where we see Jesus. This time five years ago I was staying for three weeks at the National Cathedral in Washington DC at the time that President Obama was struggling to get his health reforms through….it was real challenge for me, and remains one, to see how anyone who calls themselves a Christian could object to those reforms. If access to basic health care and provision is first of all about the size of your bank balance then things are skewed – at least they are from a perspective that wants to call itself Christian.
As individuals Christians are encouraged and lauded for the care they take of those in need – Christian communities were at the forefront of the hospice movement to take but on obvious example – but the wider questions about corporate responsibility must not be shied away from.
A famous Brazilian RC Archbishop Helder Camara once said “when I care for the poor they call me a saint – when I ask, why are they poor, they call me a communist”.
So I finish with those words of St Benedict that we heard earlier – and suggest that they are a corporate instruction as well as an individual one:
“Before and above all, care must be taken of the sick, that they may be served in very truth as Christ is served, because he has said ‘I was sick and you visited me’ and ’as long as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me (Mtt25:40)”
To the one and only merciful God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all honour and Glory. Amen.