Rev Canon Jonathan Herbert- Sunday sermon 26-4-2020

Read the sermon by Rev Canon Jonathan Herbert preached at Hilfield Friary on Sunday 26th April 2020


The Stranger on the Road

It was night we were walking on the backroads and the canal towpaths as  we were desperate to get out of the city. We were traveling in the dark to avoid being picked up by the police during this lockdown. We were terrified of catching the virus, scared of passing it on, fed up with putting ourselves at such risk. Worried too about breaking the quarantine controls. My cousin and I both work for the NHS I’m a GP he works as a radiographer but we’ve both been working on the frontline in intensive care with those with Covid19. It’s been harrowing seeing patients dying struggling for breath, hanging between life and death. Several of our close colleagues have caught the infection and died. We’ve got a few days to leave, we just had to get out of London. Right at this moment, I don’t know whether we can go back to work, we both feel so stressed, so rung out. Most of the doctors who’ve died, like us were first or second-generation immigrants to this country. We’ve had to work so hard, sacrifice so much put up with racism, much worse since this Brexit thing, yet we carried on believing in our vocation to serve others and the democratic institutions of this country. Now we’re not so sure; we feel so tired so disillusioned.

We were talking about all this when we met the stranger. First of all he made us jump when he appeared out of nowhere wearing his mask and a baseball cap pulled down over his face. I thought we were going to be mugged or knifed, but immediately he put his gloved hands up and said “Peace” and you know what? a kind of peace did fall upon us. ‘ Mind if I join you?’ he asked. We nodded feeling safer with another and there was something strangely familiar about the man. We walked on a bit in silence, enjoying the lack of traffic in the shutdown city, looking up sometimes at the night sky becoming clearer as we left the city, and the air too we noticed for once tasted clean. Then he asked us ‘what were you talking about on the road, you were deep in conversation and looked troubled when I met you?’

‘You what! What do you think we were talking about! Covid19 of course! The only thing anyone’s been talking about for the last bloody 6 weeks!

What’s Covid he asked. You must be joking, have you been in a time capsule or something these last weeks of the crisis. We both came to this country full of hope, as newly qualified health workers to work for the great British NHS 10 years ago. We were fleeing repression in our own country. Since we’ve been here, we’ve seen the slow running down of the health and adult care services, reduction in resources, and with Brexit, our families no longer feel at home here, and now with this plague, our friends are dying? We had hoped. We had hoped for so much, now all that has turned to dust like the dust on this path.

The stranger then began to speak, and though it was the middle of the night we both seemed to wake up as his presence was strangely compelling, and he just seemed to KNOW.

He spoke of how things maybe just had to get worse before they could get better, how we were at a crossroads in human history how we could go on as we are spending money on nuclear weapons, high-speed trains, rushing around the world on aeroplanes. Or instead begin to invest in public health, community resources, education, and our environment; sustainable stuff

He said Covid or whatever you call it, was just one symptom of a society that was sick and in need of healing.

’ Your leaders still think they can control everything, and they love an enemy to fight. The ‘War on Terror’, ‘War against this Pandemic’, but most things they can’t control, like poverty growing inequality, growing addiction,obesity depression, suicide, environmental degradation. You know that in the West if we carry on farming as we are the soil is so degraded that we only have 60 harvests left”

Then he went on to take us through a tour of human history, pointing out where things had gone wrong and when we had chosen death instead of life and where we should have gone and could still go. He spoke about the teaching of the Buddha and how too often rather than following the path of enlightenment, Buddhism had been turned into a nationalistic religion. He spoke of the beauty of the holiness laws in Judaism and the call to justice of the prophets. He spoke of Islam the transformative power of submission. He spoke to of Jesus, his call to conversion and how the radical inclusion of the Kingdom of God he preached had been gradually watered down  . As we walked on he told us about the radicals and reformers, Francis of Assisi, his call to simplicity and a sense of interconnection with all things. Mahatma Ghandi and his work for peace and unity. Of Martin Luther King and his call to freedom and the breaking down of segregation between peoples, of Nelson Mandela, of the Suffragettes, of those who campaigned for justice for LGBT people. In our own day he pointed to Extinction Rebellion and the new sustainable world the movement envisioned.

Time just passed so quickly as we listened and before we knew it we were at my cousins cottage. He went as if to go on but we urged him to come in for tea, food and a nap.

“But what about social distancing he said?”

“You’ve had it haven’t you?” Ibrahim said

“Yes and it nearly killed me, but I’m better now, no temperature or nothing. But I’m not afraid any more”

So he came in took off his mask, exposing the thick grey beard I suspected him of having, leaving his shoes at the door. I put the kettle on, as we sat at the table with steaming mugs of tea he pulled out and unwrapped this fresh loaf of bread and the smell of it filled the room. He said “do you mind if I give thanks”

He prayed giving thanks for our togetherness, tore the bread up and shared soft chunks with us, and at that moment a huge peace descended on the house, tears ran down my face I looked at my cousin and he was crying and smiling at the same time. We sat ate drank the tea in silence then the stranger got up to go.

.”There’s one last thing I want to say to you” we listened intently

“So much of what seems to be wrong with our western world is that we fear death, we’re in denial of the one thing sure to happen to us. We hide away the bodies of the dead, pay other people to handle and dispose of them, we have a fetish for youthfulness, we push ourselves to keep fit to live that bit longer. We long for material security, when ultimately there is none.

What if we embraced death and walked towards it and gave up trying to be in control?”

With that he put on his hat and mask and smiling with his eyes turned and left.

What did we do? We quickly showered got on the bus and were back in the flat in central London within the hour. I spent the rest of the morning contacting my families and friends about this extraordinary encounter.

And you know what? We couldn’t wait to get back to work.

And you know what else? We never even asked him his name.