A sermon preached at the induction of Rev Henry Swindon as a chaplain at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital on 15 July.
I remember once going on a routine visit to the Renal Dialysis Unit while I was a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital. If there’s anywhere that could show the truth of what today’s reading from Romans says about creation, it’s a hospital; and in particular, chronic units like renal dialysis. St Paul writes of a creation ‘in bondage to decay’ and ‘subjected to futility’. What more futile existence could there be than sitting in renal dialysis several times a week, depending on machines to stay alive, hoping against hope month after month for a transplant to come up?
I never quite knew what I was going to encounter entering any ward, especially this one. I often felt out of my depth in the renal unit.
On this occasion in I walked, and I went up to the first bed. I’d never met this patient before. He was an Asian man, and he positively beamed a welcome at me. Before I could sit down, he announced with the same infectious smile, ‘Life is suffering!’
I thought to myself, I know where you’re coming from. ‘Life is suffering’ is how the ‘First Noble Truth’ of Buddhism is often expressed. And I had a lovely time with this Buddhist gentle man, allowing him to share the joy in his soul with me. I really hope I helped him, because by the time I left his side, I was certainly feeling really great!
Yet on the face of it, ‘Life is suffering’ is a pretty pessimistic and downbeat outlook on life. And I don’t know enough about Buddhism to say differently. But this patient had allowed this confronting truth to light up his inner being. Even while sitting for hours at a time in the Wesley Renal Dialysis Unit.
The creation may well be ‘subjected to futility’—and we can see that in the suffering of people, in broken lives, and in the wholesale degradation of nature itself. The creation may well be ‘in bondage to decay’—but is that the last word?
The Apostle Paul says no. It’s far from the last word. In this passage, which many people will hear in church this Sunday, Paul’s last word is hope. He says:
…in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Ok St Paul, what does that mean? Perhaps in part it means something like this: As they go through life, people get ill, people often suffer unfairly. Things aren’t how they’re really meant to be. We aren’t living in Paradise. Yet for us it’s not hopeless! We can live in hope. We have a risen Lord who has gone through the gateway of death before us—and for us. We may trust that God’s last word is hope.
Henry, you are a vehicle of hope in this place. You point beyond yourself to Jesus, the Great Physician, the true Source of Hope. As a chaplain in St Andrew’s Hospital, you just can’t help but do that. His risen life, his healing, his Spirit are with you. You are a sign of these things. Be encouraged.
Mind you, you’re not the only vehicle of hope here. You work of course as part of a team, a great bunch of colleagues who will support you and pray with and for you. But that’s not all. There are others here, God’s chosen lights, who will brighten up your path.
Some of God’s chosen lights may even greet you with the words, ‘Life is suffering!’ When I’d finished my time with my Buddhist friend, I wondered if I’d done enough. Should I have talked to him about Jesus? If I’d known more about Buddhism, would I have been more effective?
Looking back, I think I possibly felt a bit like our Lord may have about the centurion’s faith: ‘Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ The centurion wasn’t a member of the covenant people of Israel, but he had great faith.
The Buddhist renal patient may not have ‘known Jesus’ in the sense that we speak of it, but I believe that he knew the way of suffering and rising again in his very flesh and bones. I believe that he had intuited that life comes out of experiences of loss and grief and dying. I believe that Jesus walked with him on this way and that when this man one day would see Jesus face to face, he’d recognise an old and valued friend.
So I did the modest thing that a chaplain so often does. I sat with him, listened, and became a vehicle of hope for him as he made sense of his own experience in his own terms.
I didn’t tell him that Jesus died for him, but I hope—there’s that word again—I hope that I pointed to Jesus by my actions. It’s helpful sometimes to recall what St Francis is said to have said—preach Christ at all times, and if necessary use words.
I couldn’t have a discussion that showed off my vast knowledge of Buddhism, which could easily be contained on the back of a postage stamp. But if God wanted an expert on Christian-Buddhist dialogue to meet with this man, God could arrange that to happen. God wanted me that day, even though I felt inadequate. God was happy for me to sit with him and listen. Henry, God wants you here. He wants you to be ‘you’ here. You are a vehicle of hope. You don’t have to be Kath or Peter or even Theo. You are required to be yourself with the people you come across—Henry Swindon, person of faith, vehicle of hope. That’s the best way for you to be the presence of Jesus Christ for them. No one else on God’s earth can be Henry Swindon.
So Henry, being a vehicle of hope and being authentically yourself are pretty closely intertwined. What an easy job you have—not! As you commence this ministry, be assured of our support, our friendship and our prayers. Be assured also that there are other vehicles of hope in this hospital. Keep your eyes open for them—because some of them will be a very welcome surprise indeed.