Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on July 12 2009.
Lamentations 1: 1-6.
Last week, in preparation for this service, I visited the Midwest Center for Holocaust Studies by the Sprint campus. I receive their excellent newsletter. I thought it was a museum, but it is not. It is a small library and resource center. So instead of quietly, privately roaming around looking at exhibits, the director came out and asked how she could help. I explained that I was a Baptist pastor and told her about this service. She was not exactly enthusiastic.
No doubt she has met or heard Baptist preachers before and she knows that they are capable of moralistic, triumphalistic, simplistic sermons and theology reduced to, “It’s all God’s will.” She is a scholar, a historian, a Ph.D., and she is a child of Holocaust survivors. She has no patience for moralistic, triumphalistic, simplistic Christian approaches to the Holocaust.
Finally I said, “I’m not that kind of Baptist.” And then we began to talk.
I am the kind of Baptist who reads the Book of Lamentations and finds many questions and no easy answer to human sorrow and suffering. I find a writer, probably Jeremiah, overwhelmed, angry, confused, torn by the reality of evil, suffering and death who blames God, blames people, grieves, complains, rages and hopes (just a little). He asks, How can God be Lord in the face of horrendous evil? If God is omnipotent and good, why is there so much human suffering?
The suffering he speaks of is different, however, from the Holocaust. The Babylonian destruction and desecration of Jerusalem and everything holy in it, horrible and significant though it was for the people, had parallels in antiquity. It wasn’t the first time. That does not diminish the suffering. Radical suffering is intolerable no matter what the cause, but Lamentations speaks of it from familiarity as well as horror.
The Holocaust, however, is unparalleled. One theologian writes that its “reality outstripped…even the most demented and vile contortions of the human mind….” Never before in modern history has one people pursued the extinction of another so systematically and intentionally. “When Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945 and the genocide stopped, fully two thirds of Europe’s Jews, or one third of Jews world wide, were dead.” Nazis targeted for death and hunted down every person who was Jewish meaning, had at least one Jewish grandparent, without exception. As Elie Wiesel writes, “Not all victims were Jews but all Jews were victims.”
The questions of Lamentations echo in Jesus’ suffering on the cross, “God, Where are you?”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel put the question a different way on the 65th anniversary of D-Day (largest amphibian assault in history on the shores of Normandy), June 6, this year. She stood with President Barack Obama and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the site of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. “How could this happen? How could Germany wreak such havoc in Europe and the world?”
I asked the same question two years ago when Peter and I visited Dachau. We walked from the train station to the concentration camp site on a hot sunny day, following signs, the same route prisoners had marched 65 – 70 years ago. It does something to you. Afterward, we walked around the town. You know, Dachau was a beautiful village in Germany long before it became known for its concentration camp. And it is beautiful still. A carnival was going – music, dancing, pretzels, ice cream, laughter and singing. Nazi soldiers, Gestapo, came from these good schools, homes, churches and carnivals.
And we must not forget. Merkel said, “We Germans see it as part of our country’s raison d’etre to keep the everlasting memory alive of the break with civilization that was the Shoah. Only in this way will we be able to shape our future.”
Our youth will visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. this Thursday. They will see a model of a crematorium with a long line of women, men, children, pushed by guards, guns, bayonets and German shepherd dogs through the doors.
They will be able to step into a cattle car into which Jews were crammed without food, water, sanitation, to be transported to extermination camps.
They will see mountains of shoes that survive while those who wore them, who walked, ran, skipped, tripped and danced in them, are gone.
They will see how step by step, fear by fear, lie by lie, the Weimar Republic, the homeland of two of my great grandparents, a nation of great thinkers, scientists, artists and theologians, voted for Hitler, turned their lives, their government, their morals, their faith over to the Nazis and Holocaust and war.
We must remember that the history of the Holocaust goes beyond Nazi atrocities, however. Christians were there. In 1934, The Baptist World Alliance met in Berlin. Some were gravely concerned about what they sensed in the air; others were quite impressed with the purity of Hitler’s life and the cleaning up of German morals! Early on, many Christian leaders welcomed the promise of the Nazi regime. One wrote, “[The swastika] has simply become the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol is reviling our Germany…. The swastika flags round the altar radiate hope – hope that the day is at last about to dawn” (Christiche Welt, 1933).”
As nations around the world began to realize what was happening they had opportunities to help, to accept desperate refugees, and many, including our own country, did not.
In the midst of evil there were examples of kindness, goodness and courage. Some pastors and priests resisted. The Danish people managed to smuggle almost their entire Jewish community, some 7,200 people, by boat, to neutral Sweden and safety.
Another story was brought to light in 1999 by four Protestant high school girls in Uniontown, Kansas doing a National History Day project. Their teacher noticed a reference to a Polish Catholic social worker by the name of Irena Sendler that said she had rescued 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto during the war. He thought it must be a typo because he had never heard of her, but the girls found out that it was it not a typo. This woman brought children out of the ghetto under stacks of stretchers, in body bags, at the bottom of tool boxes, through sewers and in trucks with dogs trained to bark wildly whenever a soldier approached.
The students wrote a play, Life In A Jar, for the jars in which Sendler buried the names of the children she rescued and the families who adopted them. Irena Sendler became a world hero though she said, “The real heroes of the story were the Jewish parents and grandparents who entrusted their children to a stranger in hope that they might live.”
We rightly celebrate and remember courageous clergy, Irena Sendler, the Danish people and others, but also we must remember that rescuers like these represented less than one-half of 1% of occupied Europe’s total population.
In addition to 6 million Jews who were murdered, there were also 5 million political and cultural dissidents, Russians and Poles, Jehovah’s witnesses, habitual criminals, Gypsies, priests and ministers, “lazy” workers, mentally and physically disabled people, lesbians and gay men. In addition, tens of millions of soldiers and civilians died fighting the Nazis.
It is no wonder that any of those soldiers came home stunned and shocked into silence, as President Obama said his uncle had. Evil of this magnitude is so great that even to read about it is difficult. Dick Olson taught a class for adults during Vacation Bible School this summer on the Christian Response to the Holocaust. Some hesitated to take such a class because it would be depressing.
What is more depressing is to avoid it. Elie Wiesel has made it his life work to help the world remember. At that D-Day anniversary at Buchenwald, he said in a way he was coming to visit his father’s grave, except his father, who died in the camp, had no grave except somewhere in the sky. The sky has become the largest cemetery of the Jewish people. And, Wiesel said, it is our sacred duty to remember.
Lamentations remembers and refuses to be silent. The writer names the grief and will not avoid it. The implicit message is that somehow, remembering and speaking help make the grief endurable, sufferable. Naming grief makes it ultimately consolable, healable. The suffering ones survive. We refuse to vanish, refuse to be swallowed by grief, refuse to let others vanish. Life endures.
And also, we find strength to stand against evil next time. We have placed shoes on this table where we gather to share the Lord’s supper, guided by his words to us, “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we remember, we can refuse to hate – next time. When we remember, we can choose to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly – next time.
It is our sacred duty to remember.