Memorial at Westerbork

I can’t escape the fact that in living memory 6 million Jews and countless millions of others were rounded up, transported, selected and executed by, in the main, baptised Christians.

The Shoah was, as it describes, a catastrophe for European Jewry and it remains, to this day, the darkest episode in the history of the Christian Church, a Church that, when it is minded to do so, still struggles to understand the consequences of almost two millennia of anti-Judaism.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, arguably one of the most famous stories ever told, is as good (no pun intended) a place to start as anywhere.  For too long many in our congregations have believed it to be about doing ‘good’, about being the one who stoops to help someone in need.  Bestowing titles upon the parables often does us no favours; ‘The Good Samaritan’ is a case in point.  You see, it’s not really about a Samaritan who comes to the aid of a victim on the dusty road to Jericho.  It’s much deeper than that. It’s about a guy who asked Jesus to tell him who is neighbour was so that he might love him.

And the answer is so shattering that the guy can’t even bring himself to utter the race, the ethnicity, the religion, of the one who had been of assistance to the victim.

Our neighbour includes the different, the one who doesn’t share our creed.

Our neighbour includes the one whose culture is alien to ours.

Our neighbour is someone we wouldn’t normally talk to, eat with, let alone love to the point of endangering our own existence.

When Jesus shared his parable with the guy who’d asked who is neighbour was he drew on an old story.

At the time of King Ahaz thousands of men, women and children of Judah were captured by Israel.  On their way back to Israel they had to pass through Samaria.  It was there that Oded stopped them.  He shamed the captors before they scurried off leaving behind the captives.  The newly-released were clothed, given sandals, provided with food and drink, anointed and carried on the backs of donkeys to, yes, Jericho before the good Samaritans returned home (2 Chronicles 28.9-15).

The guy who asked Jesus the question would have known his people’s history.  He just needed to be reminded of it.

Many of us in the Christian Church know our history.  We just need to be reminded of it on a frequent basis.  Holocaust Memorial Day is one such occasion.  We have walked by all too often when our neighbour has been in need; truth is we may even have been the perpetrator of the crime.

That is the sadness, the terrible, terrible sadness of not remembering who our neighbour is.

 

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Almost two thousand years and we still haven’t got it right!

Paul may have declared that ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ” (Gal. 3.28).  But it doesn’t always seem that way.

This is why a descendant of his spiritual line would stand and share a dream:

that the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

that children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Last week was Martin Luther King Day in the US and next year on 28 August it will be 50 years since the speech was delivered on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial.  Even though there is now a President of mixed race in the White House, even though much has been accomplished over the years there is still a very long way to go.  Slavery grips and wrecks the lives of many and not always that far from here in the form of sexploitation, people trafficking and ruthless employers paying well below the minimum wage.

Clearly all is not perfect in our world.

Almost two thousand years and we still haven’t got it right.

This is why German theologian and Church historian Adolf von Harnack is claimed to have said a century ago “Christ preached the Kingdom of God and we ended up with the Church.”

All is not perfect in our Church.

There is some recognition of this imperfection early on.  John’s account has Jesus in Gethsemane pleading for the disciples and their mission: protection, sanctification and unity are the themes of his petition. I can’t help but feel that these features were an issue for John’s community.

It didn’t take long for reckless disunity to rear its head.  And two millennia on the Church is spilt into a thousand and more expressions each with their own perspective and belief.

So much energy has been spent, particularly since the trauma of two World Wars to promote unity, both across nation states and Christian denominations.  Yet much of it has come to nothing.  We again live in an age of fractious decentralisation and a new desire for localism that may or may not be the best way ahead.  The theory is good, at first glance it is attractive but when the European Union fails or the United Kingdom is broken up in independence referenda what are we left with?

As Christians we live in hope; neither in a perfect state nor in a sense of a utopian ideal but in hope.  And hope is transformational.  We are in constant flux.  Suffering is part of life.  The struggle is ever present.  But holding on to a better way and a glorious outcome is the goal of all our longing.

How we face this challenge is key to how we live our lives and exercise our discipleship.

I often met a man on my morning dog walk.  He could often be seen waiting at a railway crossing, for his brother, a train driver who would be passing shortly.  ‘You will hear him toot his horn when he sees me’ he once said. And I did, about five minutes later when I was far from the crossing, I heard the horn.  But time passed without me seeing the man.  One day there he was, in his usual spot.  It was good to see him again and I told him so.  ‘Is your brother about to go by?’ I asked.  ‘I lost him’ he replied, ‘Christmas day, heart attack over the meal, in his forties’. The man was still there, paying homage to his brother and his memory.

Christ may have won for us victory over death and death may have lost its sting but such claims wouldn’t have helped my acquaintance in his sorrow.  It is presence, standing alongside, accepting the reality of the situation and embracing the sadness that will provide a longer term process of renewal and rejoicing in life again.

All is not perfect.

Two thousand years and we still haven’t got it right.

But we don’t give up.

We may live in age of uncertainly and fear but we don’t give up.  The economic downturn has reminded us of our frailty and the temporary nature of our existence; pension schemes collapsing, the cost of living rising, and a million 16-24 year olds out of work.  But we don’t give up challenging injustice and inequality.

We live in an age when the unity of the Christian Church may sometimes seem like a pipedream, where the aspirations of our recent past have faltered in the bureaucratic jungle of ecumenical jargon.  But we don’t give up on our relationships with one another as we seek to impact upon our wider neighbourhood.

We still live in an age where suffering and sin stalk our lives.  I was once asked, by another dog walker , how God could forgive Hitler.  My reply surprised her ‘I am sorry I don’t know, in fact I don’t know how he can forgive me.  But then again if I did know I would be God.’  We may struggle to comprehend infinite grace but we don’t give up on our quest for a deeper understanding of how God should be bothered with us.

The prophet Habakkuk was speaking at a time of great upheaval.  The world that he and his contemporaries had come to accept as the norm was about to be shattered, Babylon was rising in the east and the people of Judah were under threat of destruction.

Habakkuk echoes the sentiments of many.  What is this all about?  Why doesn’t God do something?

Then the book ends with the following passage:

‘Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.’ (3.17-19)

 

Almost two thousand years and we still haven’t got it right!

In the world injustice and oppression remain.

In the Church disunity and division remain.

In life suffering and death remain.

Clearly all is not perfect.

But we don’t give up.

For still the Sovereign God strengthens me, lightens my load and lifts me to see a new horizon.