A few people have asked me for reflections from our recent trip to Yad Vashem – the holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Today I preached at the Remembrance Service at St Peter’s – the readings were from Malachi and Luke.
4See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.
Both of today’s Bible readings remind us that there will be times of catastrophe. Times when it feels like the world is going to end and there is little or no chance of survival. For many, this is how it must have felt in the World Wars. When I visited the jungle in Calais, some refugees felt the evictions and bulldozing were the end for them. This time a year ago people on an evening out in Paris experienced a night of horror, lives ended with shocking brutality. Some people in America feel their world is changing beyond recognition now while others feel like there is a positive movement of change.
As many of you know – I have been in Jerusalem for the last two weeks studying the holocaust and for the Jewish people those terrible years certainly felt like the end of the world as they faced horror upon horror. In our Luke reading, written after the destruction of the temple, once again the Jewish people – including those who followed Jesus – would have felt that their world had ended.
Today’s readings offer people in the midst of the storm of life something to hold on to. A sense of order in the chaos and the hope of justice in the devastation. The idea that it is possible to maintain through endurance some kind of integrity. And with that comes the idea that God has not abandoned his creation and remains somehow present in the worst horrors we can imagine. Gisel, an 89 year old survivor of Auschwitz concluded her 2 hour testimony by saying to us – God was with me, through it all. God is the greatest thing in the universe.
Times of war, famine, danger and persecution show our humanity in its purest form. When life is easy and unchallenging we can all seem like pretty decent people, minding our own business, earning a living and bringing up our families.
When our lives are threatened and the structures disappear the reality of our human state is writ large. Again in Calais I saw this – generosity alongside abject poverty, violence lurking alongside altruism, protectiveness alongside survival instincts.
In war times we hear similar stories – stories of courage, friendship, sacrifice and leadership set in a world of violence, hardship, terror and uncertainty. We see in short, life in death and we see God’s presence in the actions of our neighbours.
After the devastation of the holocaust, many people have asked ‘where was God’ and many people both Christian and Jewish have lost their faith. The theologian Dorothee Solle says: “God was very weak at that time, because he had no friends in Germany. According to the tradition, God has no other hands than ours, and during the Shoah, God was very alone. God is indeed in need of humans.”
I would say God had a few friends – there were of course those who supported and rescued Jewish people across Europe – people of no faith, Christians and Muslims.
Eva Fleischner writes: “We should not think of people who helped Jews during the holocaust as heroes or saints, not only because they would refuse this label, but because it would let us off the hook too easily ….these are flesh and blood creatures who embody the potential for goodness that exists in all of us.”
At the end of the today’s reading from Luke, Jesus promises his disciples that by endurance the disciples will gain their souls or perhaps their lives. Those who rescued the Jews are examples of people who have endured and remain with their soul or their life. They are commemorated at Yad Vashem where I studied as the Righteous among the nations.
In a book I was reading while I was away the main character is involved in a car crash as a passenger in a taxi in Bombay. After a while a mob forms and begins beating the driver who caused the accident. Greg, the narrator of the book, is horrified by his own inaction. He says: “Sometimes what we call cowardice is being taken by surprise while what we call courage is simply being well prepared.”
So how do we prepare ourselves to endure, how do we prepare for times when courage is needed.
I would like to offer three ideas:
Firstly: We need to draw from our faith and then be ready to rely on God. In the Luke reading, Jesus promises the disciples that God will give them the words they need when they are under the most extreme pressure. There are resources available to us when we are beyond our own human resources. But we make ourselves ready to receive from God by rooting ourselves in faith.
John Weinder – a rescuer of Jewish people – says this: “My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young my parents always encouraged us, my sister and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves and we also knew from the Bible that Jesus Christ who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service to others.’
Secondly – and I don’t think this contradicts my first point – we need to not belong to anything so completely that we stop listening to our own soul and conscience. Some commentators say that Jesus in the Luke passage is interrupting the people who are too bound up in the importance of the temple. He is trying to point them beyond the institution to something deeper. Equally researchers found that Christians who rescued Jews all shared a sense of separateness or individuality. They were people who were not unduly influenced by their social environment. They were people who were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the on the support and approval of others. They were usually at peace with themselves and with their own idea of right and wrong and their character had been formed by a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.
Thirdly – we need to remember. To remember means literally to put back together. Today we remember those killed in Paris exactly a year ago and we mourn the senseless loss of life when hatred stalked the streets of a neighbouring city. At Yad Vashem the purpose of the museum is to restore humanity to those who had everything taken from them. Today we remember those who gave their lives in the service of the nation, whose lives were cut short, sacrificed for our safety. This time last year Bob (from our congregation) told me the story of four young engineers who were killed when a landmine caught in a tree in Sparkhill exploded as they sought to diffuse it. Hours before they had diffused a bomb buried 22 feet down in the garden of a nine-year-old boy – that boy is now 85 and continues to thank them for saving his life.
In our worship, week by week, we remember Jesus who modeled for us unquenchable love – love that is willing to lay down its life for its friends. In our remembering of divine love we are made fully human – capable of endurance in times of conflict, of loving in times of hatred, of living when death is all around. And so, with gratitude for those we remember today, let us live with love burning in our hearts and, whatever is happening around us let us never forget that love is what makes us human, love is what makes us like Jesus.