Florence Nightingale Service 2021 Sermon

Over the last year nurses, midwives and health visitors across the world have been a sign of hope. You have rolled up your sleeves and given of yourselves more than either we or you would have imagined, and we are profoundly thankful.

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Sarah Mullally DBE
Bishop of London

Wednesday, 12th May 2021 at 5.00 PM

Over the last year nurses, midwives and health visitors across the world have been a sign of hope. You have rolled up your sleeves (well above the elbows unless covered in PPE) and given of yourselves more than either we or you would have imagined, and we are profoundly thankful.

As Herbert writes you have given your time, your tears, even your prayers and we have loitered in hope.

I recall as if it was yesterday kneeling at the feet of an elderly patient in the Old South Western Hospital in South London as a student nurse. I was washing his feet. He had not spoken once during his stay but as I surrounded his feet with a warm cotton towel, he began to speak of his wife who had died some years ago and how she had washed his feet and that I was the only woman apart from her to ever touch them. The simple act had reminded him of her loving touch which had given him hope when she was alive.

I don’t know what Personal Protective Equipment has allowed you as nurses to do in the last year but you have metaphorically knelt at people’s feet and poured yourselves out as water, to give dignity and care, and to bring comfort and hope. You have done it not once, but day after day. For those in life and in death not because you are heroes but because you are professional carers.

The act of washing feet reminds us of the intimate and deeply compassionate human connections which give us life. Those kindnesses which lift our spirits because they honour one another as infinitely valuable and cherished and held in love – which, for me, speaks of God’s constant loving presence among us in whatever circumstances and conditions life lands us.

Perhaps in this past year of all years we have experienced more powerfully than ever the importance of touch - of physical connection - in bringing hope. We have been forced to distance ourselves physically from those we think of as our own flesh and blood, unable to reach out to family and friends with whom hugs, a hand reached out in care, an arm around a shoulder, would in other times – with no need for words - convey love, closeness, compassion and care.

There is a foot-washing story in the Christian Gospels, where a woman weeping, began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears. Then in a radical departure from custom she let down her hair and wiped them, kissed them, and poured perfume on them.

There are few of us who have not poured out our tears metaphorically over the feet of others in the last year. In Herbert’s poem he, like the psalmist, stores up his tears in a bottle and hands them over. And hope recognises the potential of this gift and in return offers a few green eares, promising a harvest.

The theologian Belden Lane says ‘in the beginning you weep. The starting point for many things is grief, the place where endings seem so absolute. One would think it should be otherwise but the pain … is antecedent to every new opening on our lives’.

We have wept for the loss of those we love, for loss of freedom or financial security and I know that for many in the health service you have wept at the pressure of work, the pressure of decisions, the pressure that has come from not providing the quality of care you had wanted to – you know you have done your best in circumstances that we never dreamed of. Do not be ashamed that you have wept or still weep for tears are the beginning of hope.

Our reasons for weeping may be clear or deep held within us. Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ Matthew 28:11.

As the woman weeps over Jesus’ feet the reality is that God is working and tells us that we can act in hope in spite of the doubts which at times may feel overwhelming; we can behave as though things are going to get better even though we’re really not sure that they are, or when they will – that is the hope, that is the hope of which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ speaks.

To hope in this way is not about denying the fear, the loss, the pain which are very much a part of life for many people at least for some of the time. But because we have the assurance of God’s presence in the world’s pain, it gives us a model for our response to our fear and loss and to human suffering: God is there for us and we are called to be there for others. Hope is not about optimism. It points us to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ and it gives us a new optic, which tells us that the best is yet to come. It is that which holds us here in the present like the anchor which Herbert speaks about.

St Augustine famously said Hope has two beautiful daughters; Anger (at the ways things are) and Courage (to put them right). Herbert’s poem tells us that Hope never domesticates and settles down. Like the hope lived out by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole.

Florence’s faith, her call to service, was to save lives and her opportunity to serve was the Crimean War. She was like nurses in all wars – from World War Two, through to our efforts against Covid-19 - who have taken on new roles and sacrificed their own freedom for others.

In the Crimea, most of the soldiers died from disease, not bullets. Florence herself nearly died when she came down with some form of typhus, as many nurses did.