Sermon: St Oswald, King and Martyr
Preached on 5th August 2012
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
I enjoy detective novels but when I discovered a series that is based in Brighton and Hove, where I grew up, things changed. Suddenly I really could visualise things happening and it became much more real. One murder happened in a road about half a mile from where I grew up and the murderer’s hide-out turned out to be next door but two or three to where my brother once lived. I could imagine the buildings where people walked, the streets where or car chases happened. The stories took on a life of their own, a reality of their own, once they had scenery that I knew.
Today we celebrate Oswald, King of Northumbria. He is not fictional, like the people in the books I read, but he shared our scenery; we cannot ignore him but can imagine him and his story can take on new life. He is much beloved in this Cathedral, where his head is buried with St Cuthbert in the Feretory.
I realise that some people, especially our visitors, may not know much about Oswald. Bede tells us that he was born around 605, the son of the king of Northumbria. After his father’s death, Oswald and his brothers were exiled to western Scotland, possibly to Iona, where they were influenced by Columba’s monks and baptised. In 634 Oswald returned to Northumbria where Cadwalla was massacring the people having killed King Edwin. After setting up a cross as his standard and leading his men in prayer on the night before battle, Oswald defeated Cadwalla’s much larger army at Heavenfield, near Hexham, and reclaimed the throne. There is also a story that Columba, who died some 35 years earlier, had appeared to him in a vision promising heavenly assistance.
Oswald asked the monks at Iona to send missionaries to convert and guide his people. The first monk they sent went back and reported that he could make no progress due to the ungovernability, obstinacy and barbarous temperament of Oswald’s people, so they sent Aidan instead. Oswald let Aidan choose where to base his monastery and his mission. Aidan chose Lindisfarne and Oswald then worked closely with Aidan, travelling the countryside, acting as Aidan’s translator. In Bede’s words, “while the Bishop, who was not fluent in the English language, preached the gospel, it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his ealdormen and thegns; for he himself had obtained perfect command of the Irish tongue during his long exile.”
Oswald was killed at Oswestry on 5th August 642, fighting the Mercians led by King Penda. His head was rescued from the battlefield and is buried in this cathedral, in Cuthbert’s tomb, which is why you sometimes see pictures or statues of Cuthbert holding Oswald’s head. Soon stories spread of miracles occurring at the place of his death, as they had at the place where he knelt to pray before battle, and he was effectively canonised by local opinion.
Bede describes Oswald’s faith in these terms,
“Thus instructed [by Aidan], Oswald not only learned to hope for the kingdom of heaven, which had been unknown to his ancestors, but was also granted by Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, an earthly kingdom greater than they enjoyed. … Although he reached the height of such power, Oswald was always wonderfully humble, kindly and generous to the poor and strangers.” Bede goes on to describe how he gave his food away to the poor and even had his silver dish broken up and given away.
In the light of that brief biography, listen again to the words we heard earlier from Isaiah, writing in a time of political and military instability not unlike that facing the English in 633 and 634 when King Cadwalla was wreaking havoc in Northumbria.
“See, a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice. 2 Each will be like a hiding-place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.”
The bible’s understanding of kingship is not always so sanguine; it is always slightly ambivalent about monarchy and its potential to become oppressive. When the people first asked Samuel to give them a king, there are two different sources of the story mingled together. One is very pessimistic, seeing this request as disobedience by the people and warning that the king would feather his own nest, tax the people heavily, enslave them and conscript them into the army. So the visionary words in Isaiah about the righteousness and justice of the king who will provide shelter and security, refreshment and restoration are hopeful but not a foregone conclusion.
However, where the king is righteous, Isaiah describes the impact on the people around him; they reap the benefits not only of peace but of their own transformation and growth as they and their society are changed for the better:
Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed,
and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.
4 The minds of the rash will have good judgement,
and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.
5 A fool will no longer be called noble,
nor a villain be said to be honourable.
After the merciless violence and killings wreaked by Cadwalla, sadly echoed too often today, currently in Syria, the transformation of this region under King Oswald must have been breath-taking and a cause for thanksgiving among the people. So today, we can give thanks for Oswald’s stability and godliness as a king, given to the well-being of his subjects, and his humility in acting as translator and travelling companion for a monk who came to proclaim the gospel. Having seen the Queen’s generous participation and public acting debut alongside James Bond in the Olympic opening extravaganza, we get a feel for what it would be like for the people to see King Oswald translating for a monk. In the words of Paul to the Corinthians, Oswald was prepared to proclaim the foolishness of the cross, which is in fact the power of God for salvation. He placed his royal reputation on the line for the gospel.
The trouble with saints is that the church has ascribed such holiness to them, letting accretions of sanctity build up, so the image we have of saints centuries later bears little resemblance to the person her siblings knew as a nuisance or who was the despair of his mother. When their weaknesses are revealed, they do not fit with the image we have formed of the person and we find it hard to accept them. Thus, Mother Teresa’s life time of doubts and difficulty in prayer expressed in letters made public after his death, "I utter words of community prayers -- and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give -- but my prayer of union is not there any longer -- I no longer pray" shocked the world. Christians were less surprised than non-Christians for whom this was deeply unsettling because mature Christians know the struggles of faith that are not easily resolved but are part and parcel of what it means to be a true saint who remains faithful through thick and thin.
Reading Bede’s account of Oswald it would be easy to ascribe to him an unreal aura of holiness. Here was a king who was humble, a monarch who was cared for his people, a man in whose wake miracles occurred. The danger is that we make him into someone not like us; someone who had it easier than we do, who was more disposed to devotion, more at home with holiness.
That is why it is so important that in Durham we celebrate Oswald as a man of our region, a man who saw the scenery we see, who knew the biting chill of a north east winter, the crisp beauty of a clear spring day, and was awestruck by the sheer loveliness of the play of light and dark on the landscape that we enjoy today. He was a man who, barring the small matter of 1500 years, is our neighbour, a saint in our locality. A shared landscape makes humans out of saints, it makes them one of us. And when that happens, we are challenged more than ever by their lives and their examples because they are at heart no different from us. They do not let us off the hook but force us to do what Paul asked the Corinthians to do,
“Consider you own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despise in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are.”
God is the great leveller of saint and sinner, king and commoner. Through Aidan, God reduced Oswald to nothing, the king became a translator, serving the monk.
Saints who share our landscape, like Oswald, challenge us to forge holiness in our own day as they did in theirs. Holiness is not just about being ethereally splendid, it is about being people who embody God’s presence in the world today. Oswald is remembered as a saint all these centuries later because he was holy in the midst of daily life in this region. The mess of the aftermath of war was the crucible of his holiness. The tangle of economic downturn is the crucible of ours.
To give you an example of what this might mean: since 2008, the percentage of working age people in employment in this region has gone down from 73% to 66.7%. That is a shocking fall in four years and behind that statistic lie numerous shattered lives. The County Council’s target is to return it to 73% by 2030. Alongside this, an additional 23,000 houses are needed in the County by then just to accommodate the housing needs of residents, never mind people moving in. the consequences of relieving these needs will impact our lives, whether in taxes, increased development, increased traffic or other ways. The County Durham Plan is about to be published for consultation and our responses to that are part of our holy living.
On Thursday, the Today programme reported a wellbeing survey by the NHS shows that five of the six places having the highest level of prescribing anti-depressant drugs are in the north east – Redcar and Cleveland, County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle and Sunderland. Only Blackpool has more. It was also said that County Durham is second in the list of the most unhappy places according to an NHS survey, although I don’t know all the details and a long discussion followed about the correlation of unhappiness and anti-depressants. Whatever the details, this concentration of lack of well-being is the context in which we as Christians in this region – following Oswald centuries ago – bear witness to God’s love; the challenge is how we will do that not just in terms of personal morality and devotion, which are a part of holy living, but in daily life in the public sphere where there are competing interests and we might have to set aside our interests in order to meet the needs of others. King Oswald is remembered not just because he was personally pious but because he worked for the well-being of the people of this region. Can we do less?
With God we do not have to wait until our situation is perfect before we can grow in holiness. We follow Oswald’s example in getting on with what God has given us to do with prayer and practical living. Isaiah spoke of kings who would be “like a hiding-place from the wind, a covert from the tempest, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land”. What a vocation for each one of us. We know that this Cathedral functions in that way for numerous people who come here bringing their distress to God, seeking out our chaplains, leaving their prayers which we offer next day. We have the stories of lives transformed by coming here for help. Imagine how life in your neighbourhood could be transformed if we all took seriously the possibility that, as God’s people, we too could be places of refuge and safety for people we meet; if each one of us this week looked for opportunities to be a stream in a dry place for someone thirsty for help or to be a rock offering shade for someone exhausted by the demands of their situation. If we are willing to follow Oswald’s example and offer ourselves in humble service, there is no doubt that we will find God sends people in our direction.
Isaiah 32:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-end