Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
Day after day in March we saw the disturbing scenes from around Europe of hospitals filled to capacity, exhausted medical staff caring for Covid patients and on the edge of burnout
By April those scenes were being played out in our own hospitals.
Towards the end of that month I began volunteering with the Chaplaincy at Guy’s and St Thomas’. I was familiar with both hospitals when visiting parishioners but it felt very different being part of the team. I was initially struck by how quiet the public spaces of the hospital were, devoid of visitors. I expected to find frantic activity on the wards and although a hive of activity there was a real calm and sense of purpose throughout the hospital. My induction on Good Friday centred around hygiene and safety procedures and how to don and doff the correct PPE, depending on the type of patient and the ward I was visiting, including neonatal and Covid critical care. At a time when I couldn’t celebrate the Eucharist, it was a humbling experience to be able to take Communion to patients on the wards. Only the most sick patients were able to receive visitors so for the majority it was the staff and chaplains who stood in for relatives and friends. The time taken to put on and remove PPE was a time for speaking with clinical staff and to offer care and support for them. I spent many hours in the wellbeing zones where staff could have a break from the wards, relaxing with a coffee and the endless food donations, enjoy a massage chair and chat. I found those conversations both energizing and yet humbling. Here were the most amazing people who were beyond exhausted and giving their all. Many worked at huge personal cost, living in hotels to protect their families. They echoed the words of St Paul in our second reading, ‘I am being poured out like a libation.’ I spent a morning with Mia Hiborn the lead chaplain at Honor Oak Crematorium, taking the funerals of nine homeless men, none of whom had a living relative or friend to say farewell. Two chaplains and four funeral workers were those entrusted to honour these men and commend them to the care and peace of God. All we knew about them was their name and their age, displayed on the coffin plate.
Ministry in hospital was both heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures. It was a time of personal growth for me and also renewing my sense of vocation as a priest and pastor. That ministry reminded me of the servant nature of priesthood, meeting people in their need and responding to their hopes and fears; of being a channel of God’s healing grace, of God’s peace and wholeness.
The Spring lockdown brought a sense of unity and common purpose to our country and indeed to the whole world. We were all in it together and it was only by working as one that we would have any chance of beating the virus. As time has gone on the fault lines are reopening and many have reverted to a more confrontational approach with political point scoring. Today we face rising infection rates and from this weekend much tougher restrictions. What can our response as people of faith and as a church be to the new situation in which we find ourselves?
The passage from Luke tells of the sending out of disciples to preach the Kingdom of God, not simply by words, but by their deeds of healing and responding to the needs of those among whom they are living. Luke was obviously not living in a Tier Two region when Jesus says, whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’. Though they are told not to go from house to house. The word ‘Peace’ is key. Shalom in Hebrew, meaning peace, yes; but also wholeness and completeness. It’s not some fluffy and cuddly warm feeling. Rather this is about binding up the broken and making whole once more. How might we be the eyes, the hands, the heart of Jesus bring Shalom to God’s people? My experience of frontline NHS staff was that they met people in their sickness and frailty, and worked tirelessly to restore them, body and soul. St Luke’s gospel stands out from the other gospels as one of inclusivity in which Jesus reaches out to those on the margins, the outcast and the broken, those whom the world would rather ignore. He binds up their wounds and makes them whole once more. In his writing, Luke opens wide the kingdom of God for all to come in, from north and south, east and west. This isn’t a gospel for the favoured few but rather for everyone, where all are first born daughters and sons of God. Everyone is truly in this together.
In the gospel Jesus is clearly sending out his followers to live and proclaim the kingdom. He didn’t ask them to get someone else to do it. ‘Take my Shalom, my peace and bring wholeness to others.’ This gospel is about us. It’s not about delegation. At a national level the churches are called to be at the forefront of debate, encouraging and being part of a culture which gives voice to those who have no voice; living out a vision of God’s inclusive kingdom where all are valued. Our religious leaders need to be speaking out on behalf of the refugee and asylum seeker, those who are trafficked and in modern slavery; the food poor and homeless; the low-waged and unemployed.
And what is the gospel saying to us today? Where are we compelled to bring Shalom, God’s healing and wholeness? It could be about our attitudes to others different from us; the man outside Waterloo station with all his world in a shopping trolley; campaigning for a living wage and helping others to eat well; fighting modern slavery by the way we shop; responding to the climate emergency; honouring and respecting people who serve our daily needs; caring for our elderly and isolated neighbour. For each of us there will be a different response. But each of us can make a change to our society with acts of kindness, healing and a recognition of the dignity of all as children of God. Each of us can live out the words of Isaiah:
Strengthen the weak hands,
And make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.