Sunday, February 2, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Rabbis chanted mournful prayers, Christian clerics and others also prayed as many gathered nine years ago at a monument for 1.1 million victims who died in the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As darkness fell voices were heard reading the names of those who were murdered.
Events commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day were held this past Monday, January 27th around the world. The day also marked the 75 years that have passed since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau in what was then Nazi-occupied Poland. Auschwitz was initially intended to house Polish political prisoners but it eventually became the largest of the Nazi’s extermination camps for Hitler’s “final solution.”
Most of the victims were Jews but records indicate more than 70,000 were Poles, 21,000 were Roma and 15,000 were Soviet prisoners of war and thousands of others. By the end of the war, more than 6 million men, women and children exterminated.
Whenever we think of the Holocaust there is tendency for us to insist that it was a “unique” occurrence in human history. But Norbert Lammert, the speaker of the German Parliament in 2011 said, “The memory of those events and aberrations obliges us to respect all people equally . . . and to confront violations of human rights [not only in Germany but] everywhere else in the world” (The Maui News, Friday, January 28, 2011, D4). Lammert’s remarks remind us that every generation appears destined to face its own atrocities.
Between 1966 and 1976 the Chinese Cultural Revolution claimed the lives of several million people. As the Red Guard swept across China, the Khmer Rouge swept across Kampuchea just as the cultural revolution in China was coming to an end. Approximately 1.5 to 2 million people died between 1975 and 1979 from starvation, disease, exhaustion and execution due to the polices of Khmer Rouge. Between 200,000 – 300,000 Chinese Cambodians, 90,000 Muslims and 20,000 Vietnamese Cambodians.
In 1994 at least 1 million Tutsis and Hutus were murdered in Rwanda over the course of 100 days. In 1995, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, men and boys, were exterminated in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs.
In 2017 the estimated death toll from the genocide in Darfur, Sudan stood at over 480,000 people. Today, the killing and persecution of others continues including the Uighurs in China, the Yazidis in Syria, the Yemenis in Yemen, the Rohingyas in Myanmar, the Kurds in the Middle East, the Hazaras in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Koreans in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Time and time again we have witnessed in our own lives the enormous suffering we are capable of inflicting upon one another as human beings. I suspect most of us here this morning would like to think of ourselves as compassionate people.
We may find great comfort in the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We may see ourselves among the blessed and so we look out upon the world with rose-tinted glasses.
But we know that Jesus’ words were not intended to only be a source of comfort. They were meant to also compel us to see how the good news of Jesus Christ challenges our views of the world and turns them upside down.
Douglas Hall taught theology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada for many years. He is the author of a number of books including The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World and Lighten Our Darkness: Towards an Indigenous Theology of the Cross. Those who know Hall will say he is a sharp critic of “institutional religion.” He took aim at churches that seem to avoid the reality of suffering in the world.
There “is a positiveness that is phony and ridiculous,” he said, “a bright and happy message that has all the depth of a singing commercial” (Christian Century, Chicago, Illinois, January 11, 2011, page 3). John M. Buchanan, the former editor of the magazine Christian Century, said of Hall: “His critiques sting, but I have always found them to be honest and to spring not from self-righteousness but from a humility grounded in the mystery of God and in a hopeful longing for the church to be the body of Christ on earth, doing the things Jesus did” (Ibid.).
In our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus calls the disciples together. They travel throughout Galilee teaching and healing and sharing the good news that God’s realm is breaking into the world. It is a message that the people desperately need to hear.
The Gospel According to Matthew was written to a group of new Christians at a time of great turmoil. The temple had been destroyed and the people had scattered. Jesus was no longer with them.
What laws will govern their life together now? What will the community look like? What is the good news for those trying to be faithful in a world that is hostile to them? Matthew wants to show us that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s experience. In our reading, Jesus is shown as the new Moses, teaching from the mountain as Moses did when he gave the law to Israel.
What appears in our reading this morning is the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. It begins with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes. It is a teaching that Jesus directs to the disciples and to the larger group of men and women who accompany him. In the same way that Moses gave the law to Israel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes as the way of life for those who commit themselves to follow him. His vision of God’s reign on earth is a radical vision of wholeness for all people.
There are a series of sentences beginning with the world blessed. In some translations the word happy is used. But the teaching is not so much about happiness as it is about blessedness. To be blessed is not simply to be happy but to know that God is always with us.
Blessings come to those who are “poor in spirit” or humble of heart; to those who are gentle and show mercy, to those who hunger and thirst for God’s ways. But Charles Cook, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas points out that “we live in a time when the blessings given are to those who succeed, often at the expense of others. To be poor in spirit, peaceful, merciful and meek will get you nowhere in a culture grounded in competition and fear” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 308). He adds, “Perhaps that is why most references to the Beatitudes imply that in giving this instruction, Jesus was literally turning the values of the world upside down” (Ibid.).
It is tempting for us to turn the Beatitudes into a bright and happy message. But we know the world in which we live is filled with pain and suffering. It was no different in Matthew’s day and it is no different in our own. How are we to live in such a world?
Douglas Hall offers his words on encouragement in Lighten Our Darkness when he writes: “The theology of the Cross declares God is with us – Emmanuel. [God] is alongside [our] suffering [and] in the darkest place of [our] dark night. [We] do not have to look for [God] in the sky beyond the stars, in infinite light, in glory unimaginable. [God] is incarnate. That means [God] has been crucified. For to become flesh, to become one of us, means not only to be born but also to die, to fall” (Christian Century, Ibid.).
Rather than detach ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to be engaged with those who suffer. We are called to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8) and to know that God is with us.
In the darkness of the Holocaust and in the darkness of our own day, God is with us as we stand with all who suffer. When our world falls down and explanations can’t be found, we will climb to holy ground, we will rise.
We will rise!
Because we choose love. Amen.