174a Hoylake Road
The story of the Starfish
John 13 vv 1-17
A man was walking along a tropical beach one hot afternoon after a storm. The storm tide had washed ashore thousands upon thousands of starfish and now with the sun high in the sky, the stranded starfish were slowly drying out and dying in the heat. As the man was walking, he saw a young boy. The boy was picking up the starfish one by one and throwing them back into the waves. When the man finally reached him, he said to the boy: “There are thousands of these starfish on the beach! What you’re doing isn’t making any difference!” The boy thought for a moment, then smiled and gently scooped up another starfish from the sand, throwing it back into the sea. “I can make a difference to that one…” And he picked up another starfish and threw it back. “And to that one, and to that one…”
During the coronavirus pandemic we are being drowned in statistics. That is nothing new. The last century has seen a steady march (I hesitate to call it progress) towards seeing people as numbers, what the French theologian Gabriel Marcel called technolatry. Numbers, it seems, make the world go around. Where would the PCW be without the number-crunching of our Presbytery Strategy Plans? Number of members please? Number in your Sunday School? Number of ministers and elders in your Presbytery? Number of buildings? I was interested to hear the reaction of Ken Mullin, the elder who has taken responsibility for compiling the figure for Northern Presbytery’s plan: a time-consuming task (just ask his wife, Chris). He says that you need to go beyond the numbers, and in the stories that emerge, you will see that sometimes it is our smaller chapels that are most active in their local community. But, Ken says, you will not see that in the numbers!
Every day now, I go to John Hopkins University’s website and look at the latest virus numbers. The outbreak is broken down, country by country, region by region; the numbers divided between new hospital admissions, new deaths, total deaths and so on. 2,000…3,000…10,000…100,000… 1,000,000. During each day I revisit the website several times. The numbers for Belgium are not in yet! Will France beat Spain for second spot? It is a sick version of the Eurovision Song Contest voting compered by The Grim Reaper. Do neighbouring Baltic countries vote for each other? “Here are the results of the Portuguese jury…”
For the sad fact is that numbers do not touch us. They do not feel. They do not cry. They do not tell us the stories. When I was admitted to hospital, the first thing that happened was that I was given a plastic bangle with my barcode on it, like a can of baked beans. What had happened to my name? I wanted to tell my story! I remember my primary school teacher used to get cross with me over some of the sums I had done (they were called sums in The Dark Ages) when we were adding things. Two what, she would say? Two apples? Two oranges? Two elephants? We had to identify what it was we were counting. And of course, she was right. Numbers in themselves do not mean anything.
Forget the graphs and statistics from the daily coronavirus briefing from Downing Street. Instead, look at Fergus Walsh’s excellent and powerful reporting for the BBC from inside the Intensive Care Unit at UCH London dealing with Covid-19 patients. Fergus is the first journalist to be allowed to enter such a vital place in the country’s frontline in this invisible war: invited there because the staff wanted their stories to be heard. Suddenly, we saw glimpses of the real nurses and doctors fighting the virus; we saw their names, looked into their tired eyes. Fergus then interviewed Imran Hamid, aged 37 and though still poorly with Covid-19, out of intensive care. (As an aside, before he was struck by coronavirus, Imran was a very fit man who had run back-to-back marathons.) Every word of his answers to Fergus was clearly draining him and it made for harrowing viewing – but he wanted to talk, however difficult that was as he was still on oxygen. He said he wanted his story to be heard. (Some good news: two days later, Imran is home, reunited with his wife and two young children.)
The greatest novel about war in the English language is, arguably, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. Because what Faulks does is to tell individual stories about a few of the millions who died in the Great War. The heroine of his novel is a young woman today, Elizabeth, who discovers her grandfather’s diary. Before that, her grandfather was just a name. Nothing more. Eventually, after she finishes the diary, she feels she knows him as a real person. Elizabeth then travels to the Menin Gate which marks the spot at which half a million Commonwealth soldiers died in just a few weeks. She looks up at the huge archway of marble and sees thousands and thousands of names, stretching over every inch of stone. She asks a gardener if these were the names of everyone killed. “Oh no,” says the gardener, “These are just the names of the lost – those we never found.” “My God” she says, “Nobody told me.” She bursts into tears. “Nobody told me!”
Try this as a little exercise: each of us has eight biological great-grandparents. How many of their Christian names can you remember? Gold stars if you get more than three! Bill Bryson in his book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, concludes by noting that for those who choose to be buried, decomposition in a sealed coffin takes a long time – between five and forty years if you are not embalmed. The average grave is visited for only about fifteen years, so most of us take a lot longer to vanish from the Earth than we do from other people’s memories. Each of us wants to be remembered, loved and cherished not as numbers but as individuals: people who feel, who dream, who love, who think, who fear. But for how long will you be remembered?
The gospel is about stopping that march towards anonymity. For at every moment from his own almost anonymous birthplace at Bethlehem to an unmarked grave outside Jerusalem, Jesus has given people back their identity, their story. He calls them not by numbers but by name. “Zacchaeus! Come down from that tree! Tonight, I will dine with you. Tonight, I will listen to your story!” “Simon, I will call you Peter. Come, follow me!” This is a Jesus who is not interested in numbers but in individuals.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the events of Thursday of Holy Week. The act of foot-washing is not something you can do to five or ten people at a time. Jesus goes to his disciples one by one. He has heard their stories; he knows each one of them better than they know themselves. Now they will listen to his story over bread and wine, but before that he will give one last commission, a reminder that as individuals they matter and as individuals, they are to love one another. (Remember Linus’ protest to Lucy in the Snoopy comic strip: “I love mankind. Its people I can’t stand!”) One by one Jesus washes their feet, taking time over each precious and unique person. Thus, he gives back to each of them, even the disciple who will betray him (to whom we will return on Friday evening), their humanity. They will live on not as numbers but as real people who loved and dreamed and cried and laughed. From now until the miracle of Easter Day, the crowd takes backstage, only once appearing in the final act of this drama and that is when Jesus is presented with Barabbas to Pilate. Every other scene will be between individuals, personal encounters between two or three people. Easter itself, for that matter, is not a mass event witnessed by numbers but by two or three whose individual stories will change the world – one person at a time.
As we hear those awful daily statistics on Britain’s coronavirus figures, we must never forget there are people like Imran behind those numbers, real living people with stories to be told, with families, with dreams to be fulfilled, hopes and fears that need to be heard. But there is something else that the story of the starfish tells us, and something that Jesus shows us in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine: there are times when words are not important. Or as Saint Francis famously put it, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”
Being there for the other person is what matters. Sometimes words are not important. Tom, an experienced hospice chaplain, was called in to the hospice one evening to the bedside of a young man in his thirties who was dying of a brain tumour. When he went along the corridor towards the room where the man lay, he noticed the door was ajar. He looked inside for a moment and saw two young children and the man’s wife by the bed crying their eyes out, kneeling with their heads sobbing into the bedclothes. Tom did not have the courage to go in; he said to himself that he had work to be done and walked past. Twice more that night he passed the open door to that room. Finally, he plucked up the courage to go inside, but once in the room he was lost for words. He could only stand there, his hand on the wife’s shaking shoulder. Then he left. That night the young man died and the next day his widow came to Tom’s office. “I would like you to take my husband’s funeral.” Tom was taken aback. “But last night I did nothing! I should have said something, done more than I did.” The woman smiled through her tears. “Oh, but you did. You see, you stepped inside the room. Many others passed by last night, but you were the only one to be there with us.”
Tonight, Jesus is there for his disciples. Well, no! He is there for James. And John. And Peter. And Thomas. And Levi. And Matthew. And, yes, Judas. Not numbers but names – individuals with stories, hopes, dreams, fears. And he is here tonight – for you. If you are reading this on our church website, I may not know your name. I don’t know your story, but God does. One at a time, Jesus serves his disciples without words just as one at a time he will gently pick you up and care for you. And as he does, he will ensure that your story, like that of James and John and Peter and Thomas, will live on.
It has been an unusual Holy Week thus far to say the least. I have developed a new routine: in the morning I write tomorrow’s sermon for the church website, then I spend all afternoon writing letters – yep, no computer, no emails, no text messages, just proper old-fashioned handwritten letters (my name is Bond, Basildon Bond) to some of our old and vulnerable church members living through lockdown in their homes or in care. Each letter is personal, but I always say one thing: You have not been forgotten.
Let us pray that there will always be those who will be there for us, in silence or calling us by our precious individual names, ensuring we do not become another statistic. May your story live on, so that when the drama of your spiritual journey comes to an earthly end, your children’s children will not say “My God, nobody told me!”