Canon Michael Rawson, Interim Dean of Southwark
The Interim Dean's sermon, preached at Choral Evensong on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2023.
For over 11 years I was parish priest in a former woollen town in West Yorkshire, called Gomersal. I have wonderful memories of serving the people there and sharing their lives – their joys and their sorrows – and offering it all to God in worship. There were amazing people in the church and those who never darkened the doors who opened their hearts and homes to me and it was a real privilege to be there for so long. Among them it is two sisters, Betty and Mary, who really stood out. They were recently retired from the local woollen mills and had never lived away from the town, worshipping at St Mary’s church since they were baptised there as infants. They could be relied upon to be at everything, including morning prayer every day, and they would turn their hand to anything. They had such big hearts and there was never an edge to them. Their flat was a second home to me and they would often invite me for meals or a drink and when asked would give me their wisdom about the church, congregation and town in general. I could discuss anything with them and knew that it would go no further and I always left their home feeling better than I had arrived. I was truly blessed having them in my life.
In our readings this afternoon we hear about two women who similarly gave practical and spiritual support to others.
In the first lesson we hear how when passing through Shunem, Elisha is invited to eat with a wealthy woman and her husband and they eventually build a room for him to stay in when passing through the town. She can see that he is a holy man and seeks to care for him. In return he promises that she will give birth to a son which she does but sadly the child falls ill and dies. Elisha brings the child back to life and gives him back to his mother.
In the second lesson, we hear that Paul and his companions meet with some of the women of Philippi who gathered outside by the river to pray together. One of the women, Lydia, is a Gentile, and a women of real substance. She has her independence and is a successful businesswoman, dealing in purple cloth which is the expensive end of the clothing market, worn by those of high rank. Luke tells us of her conversion, that ‘The Lord opened her heart to believe.’ She was open to seeking God in prayer, and open to the Lord speaking into her personal situation. So in speaking with her, Paul received a very positive and encouraging response and Lydia and her household were baptised. But more than that, she gave very practical help and hospitality to Paul and his companions, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ Not only did she open her heart to God’s love, but there was a practical and generous outpouring of love and support for others.
For me it was Betty and Mary who showed such love and encouragement to me over many years but I’m sure each of us will have been nurtured and enfolded by people over the years who have helped us to become the people we are today. Perhaps these readings this afternoon will prompt us to remember those who have accompanied us on our journey of faith over the years, reflecting the divine heart of love and pointing us in the way of Christ. And maybe it will also open our own eyes and hearts to those around us and how we might help and support them.
For all these holy souls we bring our thanks and praise to God today.