This is the text of a sermon delivered at Cliftonville Moravian Church (www.cliftonvillemoravian.org) on 1st July 2018:
One of the recurring motifs in the biblical narrative is that of redemption.
There are three words for ‘redemption’ that we come across in the Bible. In the Old Testament Hebrew, there is one word, and two in the New Testament Greek. In the New International Bible Dictionary, the word ‘redemption’ is defined as ‘a metaphor used in both OT and NT to describe God’s merciful and costly action on behalf of his people (sinful human beings)’.
Redemption can be both collective, such as God redeeming Israel from Egypt, or individual as found in the powerful parable of the Prodigal Son, or the biography of Saul of Tarsus (who became the Apostle Paul).
Recently, I’ve been pondering the issue of redemption. Why? Well I’ve just finished reading a book entitled: ‘In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement’ by John Heminway. It’s a fascinating biography of a woman called Anne Spoerry (13 May 1918 – 2 February 1999), a French-born doctor. She came to be widely known because she spent most of her career in Kenya as a “flying doctor”; in-fact she was the first female flying doctor.
Spoerry’s contribution to health care was legendary. She cared for more than a million people; her impact on the people of East Africa was enormous. She was responsible for the mass vaccinations that took place along the Kenyan coast. Indeed, the distinguished conservationist Richard Leakey said of Spoerry’s work: “She probably saved more lives than any other individual in east Africa – if not the whole continent.”
But Spoerry carried with her a dark secret that was only fully revealed after her death.
During the war, Spoerry was active in the French resistance, where she did some heroic work. She was imprisoned as a result. It was that period of incarceration, or more specifically a part of it, that would leave an indelible mark on Spoerry’s character.
As a prisoner in Ravensbrück concentration camp, Spoerry used her skills as a trainee doctor to her advantage. Camp life was brutal and cruel; with medical training it was possible to avoid the very worst of those conditions.
Spoerry ended up in Block 10, which housed women diagnosed with tuberculosis alongside those branded as ‘lunatics’. During a 4-month period, she was heavily influenced by the Block Commander, another prisoner named Carmen Mory; that influence was dark and troubling.
After the war it was alleged that in Block 10, Spoerry had been involved in torture and involuntary euthanasia (lethal injections of air and barbiturates). Three trials took place – Spoerry was acquitted due to lack of evidence, but the stain on her character was never erased and many questions were never answered.
And so she moved to Africa, far away from the post-war maelstrom that would make life very difficult for her.
Dr LaPorz, who knew Spoerry in Ravensbrück, commented that ‘she went to Africa for redemption’. Perhaps that’s true? Maybe that’s exactly what Spoerry was seeking, either consciously or sub-consciously? Africa, with it’s obvious need for highly trained medics who were willing to work long hours in difficult conditions for little recompense, was the ideal location for someone in her position.
Whatever her motivation, Spoerry did make a difference, as we’ve already established. But it’s impossible, and wrong, to argue that this erases the grave actions of the past. Some might say though, that the abnormal environment of the concentration camp, where life was cheap and survival paramount, was the perfect breeding ground for acts of barbarism – where prisoner inflicted that which would otherwise be unconscionable, upon other prisoners.
I’m drawn here to the words of Dov Paisikowic, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz. He was forced to dispose of those bodies removed from the gas chambers; his experiences were horrific, and quite frankly, unimaginable. But he knew what it was like to live under the constant threat of death. He said this of his experiences, in the 1973 Documentary, ‘The World at War’:‘No one who hasn’t gone through these things can know what the will to live is. Every person, without exception is capable of doing the worst thing to live for just another minute’.
That’s such a sobering thought from a man who knew, through the vilest of experiences, something of human nature in extremis, where courage exists alongside weakness, hope alongside despair.
What do we say then, to the question of how much good is required to redeem the nihilistic and the ungodly? Well, the first point to make is that a mathematical equation, where good cancels out bad, is completely inappropriate. Life is not that simple.
Yet we know from those words from Carlo Carretto I read at the beginning of the service, that we humans are ‘capable of high ideals and base enormities, the dwelling place of peace and a jungle of violence’. We are a mass of contradictions: people are not all bad or all good; all of us are sinners in need of redemption.
Was Ann Spoerry redeemed? As Christians we know that the gift of redemption is not ours to give away. It is not us who sit in judgement; it is God; redemption lies, not in human hands, but in God’s. And we ought to be thankful for that; judging is too heavy a burden for us to bare.
After all, it is God, not you or I, who knows the secrets of our hearts. It is God who sees us as we are, and not as we would like to be, or would like to be; it is God who penetrates the depth of our being and knows us intimately and comprehensively. This reality is expressed beautifully in 1 Samuel 16:7,
‘But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”’
And there are many specific passages that enhance our understanding of divine redemption, and make it clear that by returning to God, faithfully and with our hearts wide-open, we are redeemed. That is the only measure that makes sense in a complicated and fallen world; nothing we do in this life, except reaching out to God, earns us redemption.
Each one of us, not just Anne Spoerry, needs redemption, where the love of God is manifested and perfected and the transformation complete. In Isaiah 44:22, we hear the words of God: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.” And this is echoed in the New Testament, in Acts 3:19, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord”.
Human nature is complex and our behaviour at times, inexplicable. Sometimes the most extreme examples force us to confront our own inadequacies and contradictions. These examples, like the story of Anne Spoerry, lead us to look beyond the earthly questions and to ask: ‘Where is God in all of this’?
Ultimately though, we come back again and again to the same conclusion – redemption, and all other existential questions, cannot be understood apart from God. As is written in Proverbs 3:6 – ‘In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths’.
Let us do just that – acknowledge God, and to turn to him in prayer with the difficult questions that confront us, today, in the week ahead, and always.
You can watch CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewing John Heminway, author of ‘In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement’ by clicking here: