A reminder, once again of the life of St Oswald.
Oswald was a member of the Irthing family – there’s still a village just east of Carlisle called Irthington. He was born around 604, the son of the Northumbrian King Aethelfrith. A victim of political change Oswald became a refugee: he spent his childhood in exile on the Island of Iona where he heard about Christianity and became a Christian – he had previously been a pagan. The icon on the front of our service sheet shows St Columba of Iona talking to Oswald.
Eventually Oswald and his family returned to Northumbria. Determined to regain his kingdom, Oswald assembled an army at Heavenfield near Hexham, where he erected a wooden cross, gathered his army around it, and prayed for victory. Despite being heavily outnumbered Oswald won the day and regained his kingdom. There is a most beautiful church at Heavenfield, standing in the middle of a field full of wildflowers. If you ever have the chance to go, please do – it’s easy enough to get there and back in a day by car.
Oswald’s next task was to convert his subjects to Christianity. St Aidan was put in charge of this task but Oswald had to translate his sermons as Aidan only spoke Irish – the two went around Oswald’s Kingdom together, preaching and teaching and a great many people turned to Christianity. Aidan became the Bishop of Lindisfarne. Aidan and Oswald’s mission was part of a great flowering of Christianity in 7th Century Northumbria – their work was continued by Cuthbert, Wilfrid, Edwin, Hilda and Benedict Biscop. This is the age of the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels and many beautiful carved stone crosses which are still part of the landscape even today.
One of the things I love about Oswald is that, although a King, he became a servant in the cause of the Gospel. He didn’t mind getting his hands dirty – neither his feet; travelling around his Kingdom before proper roads were built must have been a muddy business. He put himself second in command to Aidan, even before he became a Bishop.
In this Oswald followed his master, Jesus, also remembered as a King, also a servant, also one who trudged muddy roads, getting his hands and feet dirty.
This is why we have sung ‘Brother, Sister, let me serve you’ today. The words are worth thinking about. How can we be as Christ to others? How can we walk alongside people and share their burdens? How can we hold the light of Christ for others, enabling them to find their way in times of darkness. How can we share people’s joy and accompany them in times of sorrow?
These are big questions! Our Patron Saint, Oswald reminds us that our lives as Christians should be lives of service. It’s easy to put this to one side for all kinds of reasons; we’re too busy, too stressed, not well enough, too old, too young, too tired, not clever enough. But this call to service is our calling as Christians – Jesus told us that, in so far as we help and serve others, we help him, and in so far as we turn away from we turn away from him. It’s not optional!
I think what we can learn from Oswald is that we can offer what we can do. He happened to be able to speak Irish and English – so he used this gift in the service of Christ. It would, very likely, not have been much use if Oswald decided to help the blacksmith re-shoe horses, or the royal seamstress with making clothes – these probably weren’t his skills. He offered what he could.
We all have gifts and skills to offer – what are yours? Are you a good listener? Are you able to drive people to the supermarket or the doctor? Do you make good cakes? Are you good with children or good at singing? Can you wield a duster or a hoe? These are gifts – the fruit of God’s generosity and love. Gifts are called gifts because they’re given – presents. What gift has God given you? What’s inside that parcel that came into the world with you, and has grown and developed alongside you?
Whatever your gift, it’s something that can be used in God’s service. We are called to get our hands dirty in one way or another, to put ourselves out sometimes. We are called, like Oswald, to be servants of the Servant. How will you fulfill your calling as a Christian this week? How will you put to use the particular gift that God has given you?