The village of Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for the heroic action it took nearly three centuries ago when an outbreak of bubonic plague afflicted the community. At the time plague was rife in London, where the infection was spread by fleas. It was carried to Eyam in a flea-ridden bale of cloth sent to a tailor’s workshop.
Because the cloth felt rather damp when it was unpacked, it was spread out to dry by the fire, thereby releasing its unwelcome inhabitants. The tailor’s apprentice died within a week and after several more deaths the village turned to the vicar and his Puritan predecessor for advice.
They decided on a radical strategy. No one was to enter or leave the village but instead a ring of stones was set which acted as a cordon sanitaire. Food and supplies were deposited at the boundary where villagers left money in a bowl of vinegar.
Instead of worshipping in the church, outdoor services were held so that a safe distance could be observed between worshippers. Over the course of fourteen months many of the villagers died but their quarantine arrangements meant that the plague did not spread beyond the village.
We live in difficult times. The corona virus pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people. On the one hand we hear of panic buying which has led to supermarket shelves being emptied as people stockpile essential goods. On the other hand, medical staff up and down the country are daily risking their own safety to test and care for people infected with the virus.
And there are individual heroes, such as the Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm and who was accused of spreading an anti-social lie until the authorities could no longer deny the truth of what he was saying; sadly he lost his life after becoming infected with corona virus.
The Chinese authorities have subsequently been praised by the World Health Organisation for the radical measures they took to try to prevent the spread of infection. In the process many people have had to sacrifice their individual liberty for the sake of the wider community.
This is maybe not the jolliest of addresses on Mothering Sunday but our readings today all speak in one way or another about family and family responsibilities. The Old Testament reading tells the story of Hannah, who was desperate for a child and prayed for a son whom she would give up to God to be a servant of the Temple. Her life had been blighted by childlessness so this was a sacrifice she was glad to make. God granted her prayer and Hannah kept her side of the bargain. When the time came for her little boy to be weaned, she gave him up to God’s service.
The Gospel reading involves a different kind of family situation. Here it is Jesus on the Cross, commending his mother and the beloved disciple to each other’s care. “‘Woman, here is your son,’ he says to Mary. And to John he says, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’” Jesus is offering himself for the wider human family, but he is still able to think about his own immediate family.
In the epistle, the New Testament reading, Paul talks about the virtues expected of individuals within the Christian family: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
The current crisis offers an opportunity for us to foster these values within our church family for the sake of our local community. Compassion and kindness are essential if vulnerable people are to be supported, whether they are isolated because they are in the ‘at risk’ group, or whether they are self-isolating because they are already sick. Fetching shopping or being at the end of the phone are two ways in which we can help.
It is a time when we should also exercise patience. People vary enormously in the way they react in a crisis and we should be patient with anybody whose dread of infection makes them a prisoner in their own home. They too need our compassion and our help.
It is a time for the community itself to develop cohesion and to rise above any disputes. ‘Above all clothe yourselves with love,’ Paul says, ‘which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’
We cannot afford to be anything other than united in the current crisis. It is not going to last for ever but it is unlikely to be over quickly, so we have ready to be in this for the long haul.
It is also an opportunity to do some personal housekeeping and try to resolve anything which might be holding us back in our spiritual lives. If there are people with whom, for whatever reason, we are at odds, this is the time to mend fences and build bridges. Christian ministers know that reconciliation is particularly important when life hangs by a thread. Do not let this opportunity pass you by if you need to say sorry to someone or, conversely, do not make it difficult for somebody to say sorry to you.
It is also a very good time to rediscover the importance of Bible reading if that is what we need to do. In the current enforced ‘leisure’ most of us should have ample time on our hands for the things which can sometimes get neglected in the midst of busy lives. It is also an opportunity to encourage those around us to consider the importance of their spiritual side. The pressure of the situation means that it might be easier than normal to have this kind of serious conversation.
Finally, let’s not forget the importance of prayer, not only our personal prayers but also prayer for others and for the needs of the whole world.
On this Mothering Sunday family comes first, but we need to enlarge our view of family to include not just our immediate relatives, but our extended human family and the ultimate and heavenly family to which we all belong.