Epiphany 4 - Holocaust Memorial Day Sermon


Epiphany 4 Yesterday was the annual Holocaust remembrance day, and this year it happened at a time when people are reeling from the events in Israel and Gaza. People’s natural horror at what is unfolding, and their despair for those involved, has led to a re-examination of all that has led to this terrible situation, and criticism of leaders and countries who have contributed to this dreadful moment. Howver, when Jewish people around the world are experiencing hostility and worse from those who wish to vent their anger and frustration, we must be very careful not to confuse those who are turly to blame, with others who may be Jewish or Palestinian but have not brought this about. In a terrible irony that speaks so deeply to the events of the 1930’s and 40’s, people on both sides are being singled out for their religion, and held accountable for things they have not had any direct connection with. In the same way people of Arab origin and Muslim faith have also been targeted by people unable to differentiate between individual extremists and terrorist groups, and the bulk of faithful, peaceful and god fearing people who happen to be Muslim or Arab. After the horrors of WW1, a defeated Germany was subject to a harsh settlement at the Versailles conference that ended almost inevitably in a de-stabilization of their economy, and made it possible for extremists of all sides to whip up support for their often violent solutions, where groups were singled out for revenge – and which in time led to the demonization of Jews that led to 6 million European Jews being slaughtered within the lifetime of many of you here. Along with them other groups were also singled out for hatred and death, people that blame could be easily attached to, or who were considered worthless – the disabled, political rebels, cultural and musical figures, gay and lesbian people, and so many others. When people hijack the rule of law, overturn democracy and use the weapons of hate and peddle the lie that some people are less than human, this is where the world is led. Putting labels on people helps to make them anonymous. When we see images newly made colour of the victims of the holocaust, or see images of the people suffering in Gaza or the Ukraine, we don’t see anonymous people, but real people clearly like us, people who can suffer and experience terror and fear, people who are being cut off from the considerations of humanity that we take for granted. Like all acts of remembrance, there are several reasons why we consider it worthwhile to continue to mark them. Not least to remind the world of how wrong things can go, and to remind people of the dangers that we still face. In a recent poll in the US less than half of young people actually thought the holocaust was a real event, and who knows what that figure is worldwide? We are perhaps more than any other generation in history at the mercy of lies, false information and media manipulation. We have world leaders, or those seeking re-election who blatantly repeat lies knowing that people often come to believe what they want to believe, despite the improbability of it. We live in a world where so-called ‘strong men’ lead countries in barely disguised tyranny, people who in effect are not elected, rule by lies and violence, and seek to justify their actions, as they always have, by targeting groups that are easy pickings. Many of these countries are murdering the very people the Nazi’s did, and yet we frequently do not call them out, and in fact often sell them weapons. Sounds crazy doesn’t it… Our readings today take us in Deuteronomy to the reluctance of Moses to accept the call of God to be a prophet to His people. And one can understand why, for prophets are called to speak truth to power, to challenge the status quo, to say things people do not want to hear and ask them to make changes they don’t wish to make. God understands full well that in many ways we are weak, want a quiet life, cherish things which make us comfortable. It is always a hard path to do otherwise. Often prophets are recognized after they have done they work, in their lifetimes they frequently experience hostility and worse. We may now look back with horror at the treatment of slaves, or the apartheid regime of South Africa, but many so-called decent people saw nothing wrong in either. Many bishops of the Church owned slaves, and argued for compensation for their property when slavery was abolished, and Margaret Thatcher thought Nelson Mandela a dangerous terrorist without knowing anything about him. In our Gospel we have a story which on the face of it is a little puzzling. We are familiar with Jesus casting our demons of various kinds, the ancient world knew nothing of the diseases of the brain and mind, and saw these as evidence of the culpability of the sufferer, and someone who had by their weakness allowed the devil to take up control of their lives. But this story is different. The unnamed man in this story is actually witnessing to the truth of who Jesus is – the holy one of God. Jesus was teaching in the local synagogue in the small town of Capernaum, and was receiving a very good response – his hearers saw authenticity in his teaching, so different it says from the words of the teachers of the law. So what did the man take such exception too? “ what do you want with us Jesus of Nazareth, have you come to destroy us?”, seems a very odd response to someone he thinks is the holy one of God. Surely it is because sitting listening to Jesus speaking the truth of God it dawned on him that all he had held dear was in fact but a pale imitation of the real good news of God? And I suspect it quickly dawned on the hearer that this was the end of the interpretation of the scriptures that he had always found solace in. He was being challenged, and despite seeing truth in this young man, but shocked by the implications. In many ways this man is central to much of what we are thinking about today. It is easier for us all to identify what needs to change, than to change them – preachers as much as anyone else, or even more. Prophecy is still a dangerous life to lead, and acquiescence in things we don’t consider right still a dire temptation. But recall what Pastor Martin Niemoller said: First they came for the Communists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Communist Then they came for the Socialists And I did not speak out Because I was not a Socialist Then they came for the trade unionists And I did not speak out Because I was not a trade unionist Then they came for the Jews And I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew Then they came for me And there was no one left To speak out for me He had initially been a Nazi sympathizer, and anti-semite, but was imprisoned in in Sachenhausen concentration camp for his opposition. After the world he toured the world as an act of contrition for his former views, bearing witness to the evil he had opposed, and this poem was written in 1947. In dangerous times, where truth itself is threatened once again, this poem which has been on my desk since student days, is as salutary now as ever. Amen