Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Trinity Sunday, 3rd June 2007
“He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” John 16:14
There is a major anniversary this week. Thursday 7th June is the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Messines; the spot on the map in Belgium where Irishmen stood shoulder to shoulder in the trenches; the spot on the map where members of the Ulster and Irish divisions went ‘over the top’ together; the spot on the map that has become a symbol of reconciliation, where a stone Round Tower marks a Peace Park dedicated to the memory of the past, but also a hope for the future.
My memory of Messines is sitting on the grass and eating sandwiches, using the Round Tower to provide shadow from the hot August sunshine. The cows in the adjoining field stood and watched, bemused. A local man walking his dog appeared from the other side of the round tower, perhaps he was wondering who might have arrived in the foreign car parked at the gates. “Bonjour, monsieur”, we greeted him. With a cheery wave he greeted us and went on his way. We felt that we were on our own territory, Belgian locals were welcome, but this was a place apart from its neighbourhood. Three stone columns alongside the path to the round tower told the story in blunt terms – 36th (Ulster) Division 32,186 Killed Wounded Missing; 16th (Irish) Division 28,398 Killed Wounded Missing; 10th (Irish) Division 9, 363 Killed Wounded Missing.
Stone slabs laid into the grass record lines from various writers, including the following from Francis Ledwidge of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, who was to die in action in 1917:
It is too late now to retrieve
a fallen dream, too late to grieve
a name unmade, but not too late
to thank the gods for what is great;
a keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
is greater than a poet’s art.
and greater than a poet’s fame
a little grave that has no name.
Ledwidge struggles for some meaning, some significance, in the slaughter going on around him, bravely asserting that an unmarked grave is more important than fame as a writer. The irony is that it was only because he was a poet that Ledwidge’s name is recalled at Messines, while countless thousand other names are forgotten.
It’s hard to stand in the Peace Park and imagine what it was like in 1917, but we do need those pictures in our minds because when we don’t have those pictures, then we start to forget. When we forget, we allow things to happen again and again and again. Perhaps when a history of Ireland is written that is neither Nationalist nor Unionist, the men of Messines will have as much a place as the men of the GPO and the men of the Somme.
Imagination helps us to understand events. Imagination, hopefully, enables us to avoid those events being repeated.
Imagination is not something that comes easily to us. Since the 18th century Enlightenment we have become less and less used to using our imaginations. We regard imagining as something for our childhood years, something that went with the stories we were told when we were young. The age in which we grew up was an age when we were told that what mattered was what we could see, what we could touch. Reality, we were told, is the here and now, unless something can be measured, unless something can be analysed, then we were told that it was not real.
Losing the capacity for imagination meant that wars became about sets of statistics. Messines and the whole First World War in history became not the experiences of those involved, but lists of casualties, descriptions of the forces and the weapons involved, timetables of events. Without a capacity for imagination, we have no understanding of what the Western Front was like for those who were there.
The loss of the power to imagine didn’t just mean that history became about numbers and quantities, it also meant that we lost touch with other realities. The loss of people’s ability to think about God came about because of a loss of imagination.
Today, Trinity Sunday, is about God as he is. It is about God who cannot be quantified, who cannot be measured, who cannot be analysed. It is about God in his mysteriousness. We read Jesus’ words this morning and if I had come down the church and said, ‘what does this mean?’ we could not have answered. What does it mean when Jesus says, ‘He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you’? I’m not really sure what he means. I could tell you what some of the textbooks suggest, but that wouldn’t give us a full answer.
What I think Jesus wants us to do is to use our imagination. God in himself is beyond all understanding, but Jesus wants us to grasp after some insight into God. Believing in Jesus, following him, demands this leap into the unknown, into thinking in a way where everything cannot be explained. Jesus promises that the Spirit of truth ‘will lead you into all truth’. The Spirit cannot be encountered in a rational scientific way, the Spirit can only be met in our imagination, in our emotions, in those parts of our mind that are not caught up with statistics and numbers and measurements.
Imagination is what we need to grasp the big concepts, to reach out to those things that can’t be explained through our human reason. Imagination is what we need to approach God.
When the ceremonies take place on Thursday, ask yourself whether those there have really imagined what it was like, and, if they have really imagined what it was like, why are men still sent to fight war after war after war?
And when you are thinking about imagining Messines, ask yourself about imagining even bigger ideas, ask yourself about imagining God. Jesus promises his disciples when they reach out into the unknown, then God will meet with them, the ‘Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you’. God meets with us when we reach out to him. All that is asked of us is to just imagine, just imagine.