Sermon - 27th January 2019
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In that calendar of the lgbt communities which runs alongside the church calendar, we are just about one week away from entering LGBT History Month - otherwise known as the month of February.
This can be a reflective time for many of us as we gain new insights into how the recognition and understanding of lgbt sexualities and gender identities emerged within our societies over time, usually coupled with some appreciation of what the pioneers of our communities had to go through to bring us to where we are. Wisely, I think, each February we seek to learn the lessons of our history.
But just before we reach the end of January, another commemoration finds its place in our communities’ calendar and invites us to recall some of the worst acts of inhumanity which our species has ever perpetrated upon itself. On January 27th each year - today, this year - we face the challenges of Holocaust Memorial Day.
The word ‘holocaust’ comes from the ancient Greek practice of sacrificing animals to the gods of the Greek pantheon. As part of the ritual, the whole animal had to be burned until the entirety of the sacrifice had been consumed by the fire: nothing must remain. The first part of the term, ‘holo’ means ‘whole’ or ‘entire’; the second part - from which we get our English word ‘caustic’ - means ‘to burn’. And so, to describe something as a ‘holocaust’ means it is an attempt to dispose of something so that no remnant of it exists.
Today, in Western Europe, the term is most closely associated with the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and the Second World War in which Jews, Poles, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and political opponents of the regime, other minorities, and the mentally and physically disabled were killed in staggeringly large numbers - around 6 million Jews, and around 6 million people from the other communities that were persecuted.
And our world would be a wonderful place if we could look around us and say that holocausts, and genocides, and tribal conflicts, which seek to dispose of peoples and races and cultures so that no remnant of them exists, are no longer part of our world: but Holocaust Memorial Day tells a different story.
Since the end of the Second World War when the scale of Nazi atrocities came to light, other genocides have been carried out which Holocaust Memorial Day seeks to commemorate:
- Over 2 million killed in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979;
- Around 1 million killed in a period of 100 days in Rwanda in 1994;
- Around 8000 Muslim men and boys aged 13 and over killed in Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995;
- Over 200,000 civilians killed during the civil war in the Sudanese region of Darfur in 2003.
- And eventually we will be able to put some kind of number to the deaths arising from the Syrian civil war, and all its associated regional conflicts, still occurring in our present day.
Sixty years of historical research have given us more insight into the Nazi-driven holocaust than is the case with any of the other atrocities. They are disturbing insights because they reflect some deeply troubling aspects of human nature.
I leave it to you to decide whether these or similar characteristics are present in words we still hear, opinions we still encounter, and even actions we still see in today’s world. Listen to these:
- The passing of laws to remove the civil rights of certain groups in society, usually coupled with an ideology that some types of people are simply undeserving of even basic human rights. In extremist Nazi ideology, there was a phrase which translates as ‘lives unworthy of life’.
- The linking together of public records so that personal identities, birth dates, nationalities and family connections can be checked and those not worthy of the state’s protection and services can be rooted out and action taken against them.
The inaction of churches and other faith communities, perhaps progressing to a kind of passive acceptance, or even active collusion with repressive state policies.
- The involvement of government departments and other state-controlled agencies in the withdrawal of civil and human rights from those deemed unworthy of such rights.
- Distorted beliefs in racial purity, usually coupled with fears around threats to national cultures and heritage, often expressed in support for segregation, separate development, isolation, and the creation of ghettos.
Those were some of the beliefs, social theories and political ideologies which were seized upon by Nazi extremists and out of which the most appalling atrocities eventually emerged.
So today we spend a few minutes recalling that, within the 11 million total killings perpetrated by the Nazi regime, there were a significant number of lgbt people, like you and me, whom a massive and hugely efficient state bureaucracy had designated as ‘lives unworthy of life’.
So, having engaged with our time of memorial, what shall we do with it? Perhaps our answer comes from a Romanian-born Jew, who was born in 1928 and died in 2016, who spent time in Auschwitz and survived the Nazi holocaust. Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and was a prolific author, activist and academic. And one of his most memorable expressions of the true essence of what the Bible teaches us is, “Thou shalt not stand idly by”.
We are blest because we are disciples of a teacher from Nazareth who said to the world. “I came that you may have life in all its abundance”. He recognised that his faith in God would not allow him to stand idly by. He commissioned his followers to take his message to the ends of the earth. And he taught that no-one is excluded from the love of God. For Jesus, there were no “lives unworthy of life”.
We are blest because we belong to a faith community which does not stand idly by. We declare our values around Christian Spirituality, Christian Community, and Christian Social Action, and we know we have changed lives and saved lives through our mission which serves and celebrates the lgbt communities, by challenging injustice and inequality, and by sharing God’s love for all people.
And we are blest because we are able to live lives which are very different to the lives of our lgbt sisters and brothers who faced the holocausts and genocides which the Memorial Day commemorates. For some of us, circumstances may be different but many lives are still not easy or settled, and repressive regimes can still form part of our past experiences. But we believe in a God of grace who blesses us where we are, and who heals us in readiness for who we are to become.
It is good to learn the lessons of our history and to commemorate the acts of courage and sacrifice which paved the way for our lives today. But, for every glance we take backwards in reflection and memorial, our faith challenges us to take a step forwards toward healing, wholeness, justice and abundant life.
We thank God for our many blessings, as disciples of Jesus, as members of this church community, and as people of our time and place, all of which enable us to look back in recollection and to move forward with confidence that we are part of the action through which God’s kingdom will come where life will be abundant, free and blest for every child of God.