In St. Pauls’ letter to the Galatians that we had read to us this evening, he contrasts the desires of the flesh with the things of the Spirit. One set would appear to sit in direct opposition to the other. But isn’t it true that we often see aspects, dimensions of the divine if you will, in the most unexpected places and amongst the most unlikely people.
And this is self evidently true when we poke our noses above the ecclesial parapet and engage with the greater humanity. I suppose, to use a gospel image, I want to assert that the goats are not as beyond the pail as we might first be led to think. In this regard I am reminded of the diaries of Oswin Creighton, a member of the Royal Army Chaplain Department, who served with distinction throughout the First World War. And he was not alone when he observed that the average Tommy Atkins from the rough end of the trench, whose maison d’etre, whilst slogging it out in the mud of Northern France, was decidedly on the fleshy side – I’m conscious that we have choir boys here this evening – that same Tommy Atkins was also capable, and indeed demonstrated the highest form of Christlike sacrifice in crawling under heavy, withering fire into no-mans land to rescue a fallen comrade. I can think of so many other examples in my linited and very different expereince with the armed forces. Rayner McBirney of the Royal Irish, who went some way to prevent me from going over an ice ridge in Grytirkan in the South Atlantic; staff sergeant Merill who in the teeth of an horrendous amphibious landing exercise said to me, “Padre Sir, you just stay near me” – sound advice as I swim like a brick. Or an old friend of mine, I can still see his face in the mess at Shawbury, John Coxen who was killed in Iraq at Christmas. A man who was profoundly good, a gentle, peacful, patient loving man. And yet he like the others I mention this evening were also a bit fleshy!
And what I say can be replicated in so many other instances as well. Yes indeed a the sharp end of service life it may be more apparently dramatic; but what about those other realms of everyday life – the men and women who serve in the police, the fire service, the ambulance service, or in our hosiptals and all manner of humanity that exists behind the doors of millions of homes. You see God in the most unlikely of places and amongst the most unexpected people.
And what I say this evening is not some wishy washy, limp sentimentality, woven into my mind by the expereince of serving in the traditions of our services nor seen through a rosy haze that I name the great British people. Far from it, for it is a theological statement that requires us to think and therefore to illuminate and define our understanding of the Almighty. It is a deeply incarnational view that acknowledges that matter matters and that human life in all its many contradicitons and imperfections has the capacity to convey the love of God, both within and without the Church.
Studdant Kennedy, popularly known as Woodbine Willie was another collossus of a chaplain born out of the horro of the Great War. He, like Oswin Creighton saw how in its exposure to the waste of humanity in the trenches, the Church found itself so often unable to articulate the truth of the Gospel. Ironically, maybe even paradoxically, it was the Church that ended up being taught by those fleshy Tommy Atkins. A different vision of God emerged, a braoder comprehension of his transcendence took form – and we are still learning the same lessons 100 years later. The Church is still learning how it is that God must be taken out of the box, it is still learning to affirm rather than judge; the cataracs of her impaired vision still needs attention in order that she may see that what God created was and is as a starting point good; impaired and fractured may be but nonetheless the repository for the potential for God’s love.
It strikes me that in all that is good and true, and noble and honest and kind and loveable in human endeavour and relaitons that we see the very imprint of the character of God himself. Belief in God, a thing of the past, a quaint medievak pastime, a gentle sop for insecure people – I think not. Isn’t it fascinating where we see God – in the most unexpected places and in the lives of the most unlikely people. Amen.
Rev’d Hugh Bearn, Vicar of St. Anne’s Tottington and Chaplain to the Queen
20th May 2007