Reverend Chris Chivers Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 13th February 2005
It is the evening of Shrove Tuesday, 13 February 1945, and as the dull, cloudiness of the day gives way to nightfall, the thoughts of a young Church of Ireland minister, turn to the next morning, Ash Wednesday. He has now been a prisoner of war in Germany for three years, following the two that he spent as a field worker with the YMCA in North Africa. There he had helped to establish a centre in Tobruk for use by all faiths to care for the social, physical, and spiritual needs of those engaged in desert warfare. But here, in the camp, his ministry has been very different, a constant challenge simply to keep up the morale of his fellow prisoners. His thoughts drift towards what he will say the following morning when another Lent - perhaps their last will begin in the camp. But suddenly there is the sound of a humming which gets louder and louder. Planes fill the sky. And then the heavens are ablaze with lights, like a constellation of Christmas trees, as another prisoner will later describe them. The priest stares, momentarily transfixed by their brightness. The sight is captivating, almost beautiful. But then, in horror, he realises that these lights are thousands and thousands of bombs falling towards the nearby city of Dresden. The camp overlooks the city. It is very windy, and the padre sees the fire pass swiftly from building to building as an inferno of flames engulfs the city hour by hour. And as night turns to morning so the smell of the bombing reaches him and his fellow prisoners, the stench of charred wood and burnt flesh. Ash Wednesday has dawned.
And as it dawns so feelings of protest, anger, despair, and determination surge within him. This hatred and vengeance must be stopped. The world, he says to himself, must be changed. Such destructiveness must never happen again.
The feelings are so strong that twenty years later, in 1965, long after he has returned to his own country, Northern Ireland, the priest, Ray Davey, founds the Corrymeela Community there, to prevent hatred and bitterness spilling over into violence and revenge, and to do so by bringing together groups of Roman Catholic and Protestant children and young people, at a residential centre on Irelands north coast, to give them an opportunity to get to know each other, to explore their differences, and to make new friends. As time goes by, so these friendships continue to grow. Children and young people reach out to one another across the divides of sectarian mistrust. And forty years later in the year 2005, Ray Davey, the man who started it all, is still busy, at 90 years of age, encouraging this process of reconciliation to deepen.
It is now the summer of 1991 and three friends in their early twenties are on holiday in Delhi, enjoying a quiet, late afternoon drink. A heaving mass of Indias populace seems to be passing by the place where they are sitting, offering them a snap-shot of the glory and grief of Indian life, its huge vitality and immense poverty, as these friends reflect on what the next few years and beyond might hold for them. One of them, Jamie Rumble, is already a high flier, with a first from Cambridge where he has been Captain of the Golf team, and where he has won a blue in each of his three years as an undergraduate. He is a young man with a passion for people, and a terrific sense - no doubt heightened by this trip to India of the injustices which hamper the development of the worlds most disadvantaged citizens. As he sees the vitality and poverty of the people passing before his eyes, he explains to his friends how he wants to do something to ensure that everyone gets a chance to develop their potential, and how he wants to use vocational and skills education as a tool to achieve this. Following the conversation he scribbles a note in his diary:
We talked away for about an hour and a half, asking each other what we would like to leave behind us - me, an e ducational system which was practical, fun, and involved everyone.
Little was Jamie to know, however, that but four years later, ten years ago tomorrow in fact, after a long and courageous battle with pancreatic cancer, and at the age of only 26, life itself would be behind him, his dream unfulfilled, but initiated nonetheless in work for the development charity Raleigh International, work which gives many young people some chance to better their lot, and which now continues in Africa through the Jamie Rumble Fund - a fund to which half our offertory this morning will be donated.
Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, I have offered you two pictures, two moments of awakening, a diptych if you like, which springs directly from the passage we heard as our first reading. Traditionally, because of St Pauls letters, especially Romans chapter 7, and also as a result of the writings of the fourth century saint, Augustine of Hippo, Genesis chapter 3, from which we heard an extract - together with some introductory verses from chapter 2 - has been taken to be a mythological account of that key moment in human history known as the Fall, the moment when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, ate the fruit of the tree in the centre of Eden, acquired the knowledge of the difference between good and evil, and discovered their mortality. And given our Lenten context, and the horror of an anniversary like todays when we recall that between 25 and 40, 000 people, a figure greater than all the civilian deaths in London during the whole of the Second World War, were incinerated in one night when bombs rained down on Dresden, a city whose beauty was all but reduced to scorched earth, not because the attack was strategically necessary for the prosecution of war, but simply because the allies wanted to inflict terror, and to take revenge for the bombings of Coventry, Bristol, London, and the like; given all this, we do well to hold before ourselves the reality of our fallenness. But the danger here - it is a pitfall each year in our keeping of Lent - is that we can get to the point where we so wallow in our sinfulness, that we fail to transcend it. Which is where a different, complimentary tradition to that which sees Genesis 3 as the historic moment of fall, a tradition reminding us that fallen-ness is not all that there is to be said about human beings, is so important. For this tradition, which comes from an earlier saint, the second century Irenaeus, would suggest that Genesis 3 is as much about an over-abrupt rise - human beings so nearly attaining to the status of the divine - as humans tumbling towards disgrace and misery.
This rise takes the form of an appropriate and necessary awakening to reality at different levels. Adam and Eve, for instance, awaken to their sexuality. In their nakedness, they discover what all of us have to come to terms with, namely that we are embodied. They discern, like us, that this embodiment, this fleshliness exposes vulnerability and neediness. But this of course has its positive side. Before Genesis 3 God does all the creating. After Genesis 3 there is the joy of procreation, co-operation with God in his creative work, work which finds its fulfilment in the riskiness of intimacy, the beauties and comforts of real friendship, and the pleasurable arduousness of parenthood. And as human beings discover this side of their nature - it is of course a symbol of discovery and awakening in so many other ways - so their god-given vocation as moral and spiritual beings, people meant for relationships, is revealed. In Genesis 2 we were told that God creates us in his image and likeness. Genesis 3 awakens us to what this actually means. As St Irenaeus put it in one his sermons, Being but recently made, man and woman had to grow up first.
And its this growing up which is the key. For the flip, the positive side of human disobedience is a necessary awakening to reality, to the fundamental difference, for instance, between good and evil. There have to be choices. Human beings have to take on responsibility for making such choices. Without this, life would be hopeless, anarchy. And in this sense it is St Irenaeus again who so rightly encapsulates the other side of the gospel of Genesis 3 when he says that the glory of God is human beings fully alive. So Genesis 3 is on the one hand a rather depressing tale about how humans get it all wrong - a tale we need to hold before us in the face of the Dresdens of this world - but it is also, paradoxically, an exciting invitation to all of us to be alive to our truest selves, to become, through Gods grace, fully what we can be.
And if we can hold both the Augustinian and the Irenaean interpretations creatively in tension we may perhaps see that each day, in Lent as much as at any other time of the year, we are called not only to wrestle with the reality of our own, of the worlds fallen-ness, but to recognise like the two people with whom I began, that in such wrestling, in such responding to the reality of the world as we see it, we may actually begin to transcend fallen-ness, and to be awakened to the glorious possibilities of life as it can be lived, as we become nothing less than fully alive. Alive, as was Ray Davey, to the God who at the moment of the greatest human sinfulness - in the ash of Dresden, on a cross at Calvary - finds a way to disclose his desire for the world, a way for his kingdom to break through, a way to inspire his followers to seek a different road, the one that led Ray Davey to Corrymeela, and all that it has modelled for peace and stability in Northern Ireland and beyond. Alive then, as was Jamie Rumble, to all that needs transforming, to the terrible injustices of the world, alive, even at the personal cost of a cross of appalling pain and suffering, to the wonderfully creative and redemptive possibilities that life offers each and every one of us to reveal Gods glory, now and always. Amen.