A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 31 January 2021- 16:30
1 Samuel 3:1-20 and 1 Corinthians 14: 12-20
I found it incredibly moving, this last week, to watch Russell T Davies’ new TV drama, “It’s a Sin”. This Channel 4 series is set in the 1980s, and is a compassionate, serious, sometimes irreverent, and ultimately heart-breaking portrayal of the effects of Aids on the gay community at that time. The story follows the lives of three young gay men, Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin, and Jill, who becomes Ritchie’s best friend at university. All of them have just moved to London, as students, and as they meet one another and become friends, they commit themselves to enjoying every freedom the city has to offer. Their lives are full of adventure, dancing, partying and having fun. But the group arrive in 1981, just as the first reports of a new disease are making their way across the Atlantic. And as the series progresses, we see the fear and panic as people fall ill, not knowing much at all about this new disease except that it is deathly and that there is, as yet, no treatment or cure.
All of this has resonance for us, in these times of Covid. We can empathise more readily than before with the fear and uncertainty, and the different ways in which the characters react. Ritchie, at least at first, is in denial. Jill, with her slight distance from what was seen by many as “the gay plague,” arms herself with knowledge, keeping meticulously up-to-date with medical developments and discoveries. We can also empathise with simple, everyday pleasures coming to an abrupt and painful end, and the shock of having to cope with a completely new and bleak situation. The characters are relatable and drawn with real tenderness. “I had so much fun,” says one of them, as he lies dying in a hospital bed, “that’s what people will forget. That it was so much fun.” Their humour and friendship carry you through, as the series heads towards its devastating conclusion.
Grief and sadness are all around us at the moment. But what struck me most about “It’s a Sin” was the power of simple acts of kindness. The character of Jill is based on a real person, Jill Nalder, an actor who plays Jill’s mother in the series. At the end of the series, we see the young Jill walking through a deserted Aids ward, the corridors eerily quiet, and sitting at the bedsides of her friends, holding their hands until they die. She also visits other patients, strangers, sitting beside them as they lie alone and without friends, and talks to them and asks their names. Rumours continued to circulate that HIV could be spread by touch, and the series shows how even the simplest of gestures, such as holding someone’s hand, is so powerful. Now 60 and living through a second major health crisis, Jill Nalder reflected in a newspaper interview this week that, during Aids, physical contact became essential. As well as hands being held in hospital beds, patients were comforted with hugs and cups of tea. All that is now of course impossible with Covid-19. “That is the absolute contrast,” she said. Being able to be with someone and hold them is so powerful. It’s unbearable to think of people dying of Aids completely alone.”
This week I also read “Breathtaking,” an account by a doctor, Rachel Clarke, of working on the front line in the first wave of Covid. I was struck in this book too, by how much she talked about the power of physical gesture to show love and comfort. “The caring bit of health-care”, she reflects, “is often seen through misty eyes- hand holding, thoughtful gestures and going the extra mile, but care is inescapably visceral”. She returns to this theme again and again, talking about the inadequacy of having to break bad news to relatives over the phone instead of sitting side by side with all the alertness to visual cues and gesture that can bring. Reading this book, I was amazed by the many small ways in which busy medical staff try to compensate for this lack of personal contact, for example by writing, in snatches of calm, patient diaries that include personal touches as well as details of the medical care they have received, to be given to relatives or to bring comfort to patients themselves, when they are emerging dazed from an ICU coma for example and hallucinating, providing an alternative reality based in fact, not psychosis, for them to hold on to. When a patient is admitted with Covid, Clarke asks the next-of-kin on the phone to tell her about him, what he enjoys and what kind of man he is, “any details [that] may help build a rapport with my patient that reaches beyond my visor and mask.”
To convey to someone that they are loved, that they are human and a person who matters, has never felt so important. And it’s this kind of visceral love that motivates both of our scripture readings this evening. First we had the story of Samuel, who keeps waking up in the night hearing the voice of God calling him, but mistakes it for Eli. I tend to think that this story is primarily about Samuel and his error of mistaking God’s voice for Eli’s, that shows he still needs to grow up into the prophet and leader he is to become. But really, it’s about the God who persists in calling him, and doesn’t give up, but keeps trying three times until the boy is ready to respond. Like other prophets personally called by name, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, the story of Samuel shows above all the tenacity of God’s love that grips and holds on to the loved one no matter what.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, urging them to understand that their ways of worshipping, and in particular the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues that some of them are flaunting, are no good if they fail to apply love. Paul knows the power of the divine love that will not let him go- like the prophets before him, he has been called in a vision and given a new name, becoming the apostle Paul. In the previous chapter, Paul has spoken about love in words of incredible beauty: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love… I am nothing,” he writes.. “Love is patient; love is kind… love never ends.” This isn’t the kind of love that flaunts its gifts in inspiring theatrics or acts of heroism; it’s a love that is never ending, quietly constant, that will never give up doing all it can to build up all members of the community in hope in the resurrection of Jesus.
“Yes, he was here, a diary will tell you- amid all the jangling and machinery and the endless tubes- but he was loved, he was human, he was a person who mattered, and we enfolded him within our care.” Dr Rachel Clarke’s words bear witness to the fact that each of those who have died is a person, someone we loved and someone who loved us. Her words, like Russell T Davies’ drama, and the words of scripture, remind us of the power of the love that does not let us go, expressed in small acts of care. In the grief and sadness that overwhelm us, it is the compassion of friends and strangers- the kindness that we witness every day, praying for us, helping us- that remind us that we are loved and that there is still hope.