A sermon preached at Godshill, Hale and Fordingbridge Churches on St Swithun’s Day, July 15th, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick
a.m.: Ps. 20
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
That’s a challenging Gospel Reading.
As part of the Sermon on the Mount, and following on from the Beatitudes, Jesus said to the crowds: ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ [Matt 5:43-4, 48].
That really is a ‘counsel of perfection’! Can Jesus really have thought that his fallible friends, the Disciples, could ever have been perfect, let alone the large crowds who have come out to him on the mountain?
Or, more likely, is he exaggerating to make a point? Even bad people love those who love them back. But, he says, I tell you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’.
And what sort of perfection does he mean? What would it be like to be perfect, if we could follow his command?
I think that if we could grasp what Jesus is trying to tell us in these verses, then the Christian life would become a lot less complicated, and a lot more inclusive and appealing. If we could really learn to love everyone, our enemies and our friends, those we like and those we can’t stand – if we could really learn to love everyone, then everything else would fall into place. Love would be the benchmark for all of our actions.
I’ve had a week of really interesting conversations – with the 30 or so teenaged Air Training Cadets during the ‘Padre’s Hour’ on Tuesday, as we discussed forgiveness, suffering, hatred and cannabis!; with the little children, KS1, of Hyde School on Wednesday, as we talked about the story of the Little Red Hen [FB: It’s in the Children’s Corner here if you want to remind yourselves of the story] – and the two possible endings to the story; with the Year 6 children of Breamore School as we planned the End-of-Year Service for this week, and their contribution, reflecting on ‘Everyday Heroes’; and with some friends who kindly brought a take-away with them on Friday night, and wanted to talk about prayer.
And all of these conversations boil down to love – love of God, and love of our neighbour. Love should be the benchmark for all of our actions.
Today is St Swithun’s Day. No doubt the weather forecasts were broadcast from Winchester Cathedral this morning, where he is buried, as they usually are on his Feast Day, and you probably know the poem:
St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare
Or a Buckinghamshire variation has:
If on St Swithun’s day it really pours
You’re better off to stay indoors.
There is probably some truth to this saying – if it’s unsettled on July 15th, it probably will be for the coming weeks, and vice versa if it’s fine – which it looks like it will be this year.
Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from 852 until his death in 862 or 863. Little is known of his life that can be traced with historical certainty. Swithun was born of noble parents in Wessex, an area that was in the process of becoming the most influential of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and he was educated at Winchester Minster. When he had passed boyhood, he received clerical orders from Helmstan, Bishop of Winchester, and was chosen to become Chaplain to Egbert, King of Wessex, and given the responsibility for the education of Egbert’s son Ethelwulf.
On the death of Helmstan, he was appointed as Bishop of Winchester by the now King Ethelwulf, with the consent of the clergy. He was elected and consecrated on the 30th October, 852, by Abp Ceolnoth. During the period of his office the Kingdom of Wessex grew in reputation and influence throughout the land, despite Viking attacks. The post of Bishop of Winchester also grew in importance and influence during the time of Ethelwulf’s reign.
Later legends give Swithun a reputation for compassion and evangelism, but it is his intellectual ability and learning for which he was first remembered.
He is credited with having caused the Latin Annals of his See to be edited and so to have contributed to the later compilation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, the most influential history of Anglo-Saxon times.
He was a builder and his works included a stone bridge across the Itchen at the eastern gate of Winchester. The statue of him in the Great Screen at Winchester Cathedral shows him holding a model of the bridge he built – there is a photograph in Partners this week.
His kindness is illustrated by a legend of his making whole a basket of eggs carried by a market-woman that was broken on his bridge. When crossing the bridge, she was jostled and dropped her basket of eggs. The saint took pity on her – and made her broken eggs whole.
These sorts of legends are common about saints, especially famous ones, and, like all the legends surrounding St Nicholas, they often have a basis in a grain of historical truth.
As evidence of his humility it is told that when Swithun was about to dedicate a Church, he always went to it on foot however great the distance, going by night to escape observation. I often wonder whether he came to any of our Churches in the mid-ninth century.
His humility caused him, when dying, to ask to be buried outside the main door of the Cathedral in a place where he would be trodden on by the feet of passers-by and receive raindrops from the eaves. He died on 2nd July 862 or 863 and was duly buried just outside the threshold.
However, some 90 years later, when the new Saxon Cathedral was being built, Ethelwold, the great Bishop of Winchester at that time, decided to move Swithun’s remains into a shrine in the Cathedral, despite dire warnings that to move the bones would bring about terrible storms. Swithun was duly translated on July 15th, 971 and, though many cures were claimed and other miracles observed, it apparently rained for forty days as forecast.
His commemoration in popular culture seems to date from this period rather than from his life.
In 1093, once the initial phase of the current Norman Cathedral next to the Old Minster had been completed, Swithun was again translated, apparently without incident, to the Retro-Quire, which was then enlarged around 1200 to cope with the flood of pilgrims coming to his shrine. The Shrine lasted until the 1530s when it was destroyed under the reforms of Henry VIII, and very little of the original Shrine and of St Swithun remains.
However, you’ll be pleased to know that in the 12th century, Bishop Reinhald, formerly a monk of Winchester, travelled to Norway, taking Swithun’s right arm with him, and it was placed in the newly-consecrated Cathedral in Stavanger, dedicated to Swithun, and there it remains to this day. And we still maintain links with Stavanger Cathedral to this day.
One or two things we might want to note from the life of St Swithun.
He was a monk in the Benedictine Community of Winchester. One of the great strengths of the Rule of St Benedict is the notion of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger in the name of Christ.
The second strand of the life of St Swithun is his concern for the poor, for the marginalised. He noticed people around him in need – the old woman whose eggs got broken, for example, or the fact that the poor of Winchester needed a bridge across the river, so that they could trade more effectively.
And the third strand of Swithun’s life is his intellectual life. He was a life-long learner – one of the great themes of education in our day. How do we continue to be learners, in our Christian lives as well as in all other parts of our lives? How do we stop ourselves getting stuck intellectually and on the journey of faith?
The four PCCs of the Partnership have been working on our values, what we really think we are about as the Churches and Parishes of the Benefice. And the phrase we’ve come up with, after much prayer and discussion, is ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’ [Repeat]. I hope it’s a phrase which will resonate with you, and be memorable enough to guide us in our praying and our decision-making: ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’.
It will begin to appear on Partners, PCC Agendas, Parish Magazines, the website, and so on.
It’s a cross-shaped phrase [Explain].
St Swithun was a great Bishop of Winchester, by all accounts a genuine human being, and a great Patron Saint of the Diocese, and his ministry seems to embody the values we have discerned for ourselves: ‘Growing in Faith, Reaching Out to All’.