St Swinthun’s Patronal Martyr Worthy 8th July 2018
As our guest preacher, the Vicar of Sunnyside and Bourne End, known to us simply as ‘Rebecca’, said in her sermon to us, St Swithun is normally associated with rain. But there was not a cloud in the horizon as we took refuge in the cool of St Swithun’s to escape from the heat of the afternoon. So it was an experience in itself to don cassock, surplice, scarf and academic hood for the evening. A sort of sauna experience… A number of people said that I should be wearing Bermuda shorts or swimming trunks underneath.
It was wonderful to welcome so many people from Martyr Worthy who support the work of the church during the year. There were churchwardens, PCC members, Friends of St Swithun’s, DCC members, fundraisers, flower arrangers, sidesmen (and women), eucharistic assistants, door openers, bell ringers, cleaners as well as some of our visiting clergy and organists. But it was a particular treat to see Rev Rebecca Fardell again 18 months after she left the Parish to take up her first post as vicar near Berkhampstead.
After Evensong we moved to the Pinder’s beautiful garden for drinks. Thank you to Charles and Isobel for their wonderful hospitality and Andrew Impey expressed his thanks to all those who contribute so much to the life of the Parish.
Thank you to all involved and to Rebecca for joining us from her already busy schedule in Sunnyside and Bourne End and for fighting her way round the M25 to get to us.
Rebecca’s talk follows:
2 Corinthians 12.2-10
I would like to begin by thanking Andrew and Robin for inviting me to preach at this special service in the life of Martyr Worthy. It is both a privilege and a joy to be back in the Itchen Valley and to see you all again. I am looking forward to catching up with you over drinks after the service.
Unless you have had delight of knowing Winchester or the Itchen Valley, or are familiar with one of the other 34 communities with a church dedicated to St Swithun in this country, or perhaps have visited Stavanger in Norway, your knowledge of St Swithun is probably limited to the popular legend which links his day with the weather. My Granny – who lived in Winchester for almost half her life but still considered herself a Yorkshire woman – swore by the significance of the weather on St Swithun’s Day. She was convinced it would accurately predict how wet – or dry – the following 40 days would turn out to be. So if you want to know whether this heatwave is going to continue, make a note of the weather on 15th July.
Apparently, Swithun’s role as a weather forecaster dates not from an event during his lifetime, but from what happened 90 years after his death. In 971it was decided to move his remains from the humble grave outside the walls of the cathedral where he had been buried at his own request, to a glorious shrine within the building. The day on which his remains were moved, there was dramatic rainfall which was not only taken as a sign of Swithun’s spiritual power but meant that his name is forever linked with rain.
It is perhaps understandable that the good folk of Winchester did not wish to leave Swithun’s remains where they could be walked over by pilgrims. In his lifetime, he had been a man of significance. Educated at Winchester Minster, he served as chaplain to the King of Wessex and was responsible for educating the king’s son, Ethelwulf. When Ethelwulf became king, Swithun was appointed Bishop of Winchester, a role he held until his death and a position which grew in importance and influence as the kingdom of Wessex grew in reputation and significance in the face of Viking attacks on this land.
Although Swithun was initially remembered for his intellectual ability and learning, later legends gave him a reputation for compassion and evangelism. The most famous of these is probably the story of the eggs. A woman had her basket of eggs maliciously broken by workmen on a bridge in Winchester; Swithun restored them for her.
Swithun had much to boast about: he held positions of rank; he built and restored many churches; he had a reputation for learning. Yet he travelled around his diocese on foot and when he held a banquet, it was the poor he invited. Swithun had such a name for the sincerity of his Christian faith that it was commented on by William of Malmesbury, England’s foremost historian in the 12th century. His deathbed request to be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where passers-by should walk over his grave and raindrops from the eaves fall upon it seems entirely in keeping with the way in which he lived his life.
St Paul was another highly educated and important man who had much to boast about but chose not to. Indeed, he refrains from it he tells the Corinthians so that ‘no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me’ (12.6). Paul wanted his words and deeds to speak for themselves. He wanted people to know that anything good he had achieved, anything admirable about him was due to Christ at work in him and through him. He was not looking for people to admire him or to follow him but longing for people to come to know Christ and follow Christ. That’s why he says he will boast only in his weaknesses and why he is reconciled to his thorn in the flesh. They are proof to the Corinthians and to all who have read his letter since, that God’s grace is sufficient for them as it was for Paul.
The reason we remember saints like Swithun and Paul is that they show us what a life of faith looks like. They are very human but are worked examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Their lives exist as testimony to what Jesus did for them; their stories help to encourage us and challenge us as we seek to live as followers of Jesus. I believe that our reading from Corinthians gives us an encouragement and a challenge this evening as we gather to give thanks to God for this church and worshipping community.
To begin with the challenge: I wonder what you boast about. Another way of asking this is what do you put your confidence in? What gives you your sense of identity? In a community like the Itchen Valley we are blessed in so many ways and most of us live lives of enormous privilege: we have benefitted from good education; have or have retired from great jobs; own big houses; would be considered important by many in the world. There is nothing wrong with these things in themselves, indeed they are blessings to thank God for, but they are not firm foundations on which to ground our sense of significance or identity. Jobs can be lost, as can houses. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul lists his claims to fame – his parentage, his education, his elite religious status – and describes them as excrement (actually the word is much stronger and more vulgar than that) compared with knowing Jesus as his Lord (Philippians 3.3ff). Like Swithun, Paul knew that his identity was as the beloved child of God. He knew that what mattered was that God loved him so much that he sent his son to die for him. That is the message which Jesus sent the twelve disciples out to share with the world: a message about how they should turn back to God and live as his children. We live in a broken world that is desperate for this message: a message of love and hope that is best shared by showing those we meet that it is true through what we say and what we do. What they need, what we need, is God’s grace which he freely gives to those who turn to him.
That is the challenge and it is one that can seem a bit daunting, so the encouragement is that that same grace is all we need. Paul had experienced an extraordinary vision of heaven which was beyond his power to describe but he would not boast in this. Paul knew what was important. He knew that it was his weaknesses which made him dependent on God and God’s grace was more than sufficient for him. God at work in him would enable him to do the work that God had called him to do. I confess that this is an enormous encouragement and relief to me in what God has called me to do! However strong we are feeling today, however weak, God’s grace is more than sufficient. In fact the good news is even better, for it is when we recognise our weaknesses, when we recognise that it is hard, it is then that we are strong because it is then that we truly depend on God and not try to do life on our own.
This evening, I believe that God wants to remind us that his grace is sufficient for you and for me. His amazing, extravagant grace which he offers to each and every one of us is sufficient. We need nothing more. And because the power of Christ is in all who believe in him…because the Holy Spirit inspires us and strengthens us and transforms us…we too can say ‘whenever I am weak I am strong’. Amen.