A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson on 9 August 2020
Last Wednesday, 5th August, was the feast of St Oswald. I suspect some of you will be saying “Saint who?”. It is possible that those of you who did not have the great blessing of coming from the North East of England may not have heard of this Northumbrian saint! I grew up knowing about him, and the other great Northumbrian saints, Aidan and Cuthbert. I was a Girl Guide, and we wore a badge showing the county we came from; for Northumberland, this was the figure of Oswald.
Oswald was born in 604 AD, the eldest son of an Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria. The early Medieval kingdom of Northumbria was an empire composed of lesser kingdoms, stretching down the East side of the country from the Firth of Forth to the Humber. These were turbulent times of almost constant warfare. When Oswald was about 12 his father was killed in a battle. His mother fled with her children to the kingdom in Scotland which included Iona. Oswald and his brothers were baptised and educated by the monks of Iona.
So why does the church celebrate this man? One reason is that he died in battle against a pagan king in 642 and is classed as a martyr. Other reasons are shown by two events in his life, which relate to this morning’s readings.
First, how he became king. In 624 Northumbria was under the overlordship of Cadwallon, king of an area corresponding to modern North Wales and the Midlands. Oswald was encouraged by the Abbott of Iona to recover his kingdom, so he led a small army towards Cadwallon’s camp. The night before the attack he had a vision of St Columba, the founder of Iona, telling him to trust God. Oswald then ordered a cross to be set up in his camp and his followers promised to become Christians. Early the next morning, Oswald’s small army attacked Cadwallon’s much larger army and was completely victorious. Oswald became king of Northumbria.
In this story, we see Oswald’s faith in God. Just as Peter was challenged to do something most unlikely to succeed and stepped out of the boat in faith, so Oswald undertook the recovery of his kingdom in faith even though he was greatly outnumbered. Could God be challenging us now, in this time when the pattern of everyday life has been altered for everyone, do so something that seems unlikely to succeed? That challenge could be related to the next story about Oswald.
As soon as Oswald was in charge he wanted his people to share his faith in Christ. He asked the Abbott of Iona to send some monks to preach the Gospel in Northumbria. The first mission was not a success because its leader was a stern man who patronised his hearers and was contemptuous of their beliefs. He returned to Iona saying that it was impossible to convert these people. Another monk, Aidan, challenged this conclusion, saying that a gentler approach was needed to convince pagans of the truth of Christianity. He was sent with a fresh mission, and Oswald gave him the island of Lindisfarne as his base. Aidan’s gentle and humble approach was successful and people were baptised in huge numbers.
The reading from Romans says: ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ Oswald wanted to have that good news of Christ brought to his people. But the story has lessons: we are called to bring the good news to our friends and neighbours. Could this be God’s challenge to us? And we must remember Aidan; this has to be done gently and with humility. As St Francis said: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”
Oswald’s life still has effects today. He is important to the story of how this country became Christian. There is still a cross at the site of his camp, now called Heavenfields. He was involved in giving Dorchester to the missionary bishop, Birinius. And one of our great artistic treasures, the Lindisfarne Gospels, came from the monastery he helped to found.
I will finish with the collect for 5th August: Lord God Almighty, who so kindled the faith of King Oswald with your Spirit that he set up the sign of the cross in his kingdom and turned his people to the light of Christ: grant that we, being fired with the same Spirit, may always bear our cross before the world and be found faithful servants of the gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen