Sermon: Reverence for Life
The Revd Prof. Douglas J. Davies, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University
Preached on 29th April 2012
by The Revd Prof. Douglas J. Davies
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit –the Lord and Giver of Life. Amen.
Why should a cathedral have flowers in it?
That is the question I will try to answer in this sermon. It is, however, such a large task that I will need to take us on something of a journey to answer it, so imagine yourself in Africa, surrounded by dense jungle, you hear the cry of birds, the constant sound of insects, the sun is close to setting and your canoe is heading towards a herd of hippopotamuses. You are, in fact, one of the more famous men in the world but you are not there as part of the TV series, ‘I am celebrity get me out of here’. In fact you got yourself there by your own will and against the advice of many friends and colleagues who said it would be a waste of your talent. Though, if such competitions had existed, you would probably have been a winner on the Europe has Talent show. Indeed, you would do so before the end of your days because you did receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Just now, however, you are a well-known musician, you conduct the Paris Bach Choir, you have written that immense book on J. S. Bach, and your skills as an organist are admired by many. For those more familiar with the worlds of philosophy and theology you are also well known, though some theologians think you are a bit of a heretic. This was a time, for example, when many argued over what you could really know about the life of Jesus, and on the place of St Paul and early Christianity, and this man had strong views on these topics and his books were well known across Europe and the world. He had also been principal of a theological college while also pursuing his theological work and his musical activities. But one day he happened to pick up a magazine describing the need for doctors –not for doctors of philosophy, or theology, or even for doctors of music, but of medicine. And Albert, for that was his Christian name, thought that this was something he should do. A clear sense of vocation came to him amidst his already successful life. Notwithstanding that he was already past student age he now trained as a doctor while keeping up much of this other work. This is some individual!
Shortly after qualifying as a doctor in 1911 he marries and the happy pair set off for Africa where, in the tropical Congo they establish a very basic hospital. Here, Albert Schweitzer, to give his full name, begins his work as a medical missionary far from anything like a Harley Street for rich folk attracted by his reputation. He was faced by many practical difficulties, one was money –indeed, when he ran out he returned periodically to Europe to give organ recitals to support his funding. On one occasion a poor Dutch farm worker was coming out of one of these recitals and when asked what he was doing there said: ‘I came to see a man who did something while everybody else just talked’.
Amidst all his activities, however, Schweitzer was more troubled intellectually and in terms of his faith than over material needs. How should Christians live? That was his question to himself. And this was an important question because Albert lived through the First World War, even being briefly interned as a foreign alien prisoner of war for a short period. But just look at his intellectual problem: two of the greatest Christian nations upon earth were slaughtering each other’s young men. Germany, the culture that produced Bach and his magnificent music, Great Britain with its inventors and social philosophers, these two worlds that had shared a religious Reformation and linked their Christianities with Kings, Queens, and Princes: these had blasted the living daylights out of each other and slaughtering thousands of young men, many from this part of the world. Christian ethics made little sense to Schweitzer any more.
And it was as these thoughts swirled around his mind, at a time when he had been searching for an answer, with no answer coming, that he got into that canoe to go upriver to visit a sick friend. And as his canoe paddled through that herd of hippopotami, or hippopotamuses if you like; as dusk fell it dawned on him –it came in a phrase –‘reverence for life’. This was to be a sure basis for ethics. This came to him as a revelation, a revelation amidst his new vocation.
And this is why a cathedral should have flowers in it: flowers as symbols of life. Our great stone pillars alone will not do; they stand for other things: our magnificent ceiling and bishop’s throne, they too cover other themes. I love them all. They last a thousand years: but flowers last only for days.
Historically speaking, reverence for life had not been of high priority in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially as the Industrial revolution took hold and made millions of white Europeans slaves in mines and factories. Life became cheap: and war was its market place
It was, then, through his philosophy, theology, and history of culture, and his treating of the sick, that Albert Schweitzer came to see life – this strange phenomenon, to see life, as worthy of reverence. Here Christians have some catching up to do, for our Buddhist brothers and sisters have pondered this theme for millennia, as have some other Indian traditions. In Europe we have romanticized ‘nature’ without reverencing life.
Today this issue of reverence for life is more important than ever and takes a wide variety of forms that I can only briefly sketch today.
Ethically ‘reverence for life’ appears in terms of two increasingly common ideas, respect, and dignity. People long for respect in life and dignity in dying and in death: neither is possible without reverence for life. When Schweitzer preached on reverence for life in 1919 he argued that it was more important than loving your neighbour, for how you even begin to love some you might not even like unless the very life that is in them is something precious to you.
Scientifically and culturally, too, our planet is potentially frail as far as our human existence on its thin, soil-based, skin is concerned. Reverence for life is a much needed practical attitude pervaded by an emotion of deep gratitude. Reverence for life can be the foundation for Christian Ecology. And then the Science and Religion debate too has this as a possible base.
Again, to hold ‘life’ in reverence is, it seems to me, the basis for common ground between believer and unbeliever alike, between people of all faiths and none. It lies at the heart of all ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom. It rises to the surface when a young woman like Claire Squires dies just as she completes the London marathon running for The Samaritans- a moment when thousands have responded to an idea of charity because it has a human face. We know in the abstract that The Samaritans really do have a reverence for life, but just now we see it through a single person. We can put a face to the idea of its own form of reverence for life: and the money rolls in. And how utterly different this is from the Norwegian trial of Anders Breivik and the slaughter of so many young Norwegians last year!
Or, at quite a different level, we can think more personally of reverence for life as part of our sense of embodiment, touching our sense of gratitude for our life and a sense of its time-limitedness before our death.
I noted earlier that many thought Schweitzer a bit heretical and it may well be that as you sit here today it half crosses your mind that my sermon is a bit heretical; because, as you would rightly argue, reverence belongs to God alone: surely reverence for life is some sort of paganism or nature worship. For some folk that may well be. But perhaps Christian eyes see through some very interesting lenses and one of these takes us to one creative focus enshrined in the theological formula describing the Holy Spirit as The Lord and Giver of Life. Not simply life in baptism nor in confirmation, but in the power that moved across the face of the watery birth of the world. Inviting us to look back at everything described in the first creation myth of Genesis when God commanded plants, animals and man to bear fruit and multiply, and God saw that all this was good.
But today my suggestion is that ‘reverence for life’ be one way of bringing so many ideas together, including respect and dignity, ecology, and our personal self-reflection upon our vitality and mortality and focusing them in flowers. A cathedral needs flowers, flower arrangers and lists of helpers because flowers offer a powerful symbol of life: they share in what they signify –something amazing and relatively short.
Doubtless I could have chosen some other symbol, blood, for example, or worms perhaps, as with the young man some days ago who picked up the worms triggered by recent rains to leave the earth for the pavement on Palace Green. He picked them up and placed them back on the grass - but flowers are easier and I leave you with them.
For the light that dawned at sunset, bringing reverence for life to Schweitzer’s darkened heart, we give thanks O Lord, through thy Son Jesus Christ, in whom was life indeed, and who, with Thy Holy Spirit, The Lord and Giver of Life, is our life now and ever. Amen.