In our country the month of April tends to have bright and beautiful images and connotations associated with it; remember April love, April showers and Easter, which most of the time falls in April. About the worst association we tend to make with April is April 15. We cannot escape death and taxes, an association which should not be so negative since paying taxes means we have been gainfully employed and that our assets have exceeded our liabilities. Yet April has very dark memories for many in our country and in the world. April 24 is the anniversary of the Armenian massacre by the Turks in 1915 and April 13 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, a date that was later moved to the 27 Nissan in the Jewish calendar in order not to conflict with Passover. That event is now remembered as Yom Ha Shoa, the Holocaust Observance.
Lent is a most appropriate time to ponder the Christian response to humanity's inhumanity to other people. After all, Lent is a time when we remember the passion and death of our savior, Jesus Christ. It is amazing how, as Christians, we have participated in the denial of the two major massacres which have scarred the twentieth century. The killings of Christian Armenians by Ottoman Empire Muslim Turks were first reported by Christian missionaries and officially denounced by our government. Eventually, however, our political, economic and military interests have moved us to silence, if not denial.
In the case of the Holocaust we tend to see it as an aberration and a few even dare deny that it ever happened. The extermination of six million Jews was not an aberration but the culmination of centuries of hate. It is extremely sad to realize that the time of Lent when Christians needed to ponder the suffering of one Jew, Jesus Christ, we provoked fear and inflicted pain on thousands and thousands of Jews over the Centuries. Pogroms, the persecutions of Jews, usually took place during Lent as vindictive actions against those that we claimed cried out crucify him, crucify him.
Dr. David Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from Wiener Neustadt in Austria writes in his book Reluctant Return that Holy Week was a time for Jewish children to stay indoors. I have heard the same from many older Jewish people even in our own country. I heard that they got in fights during the time of Lent when they were called Christ-killers. Can you imagine that?
The Scripture readings for today offer an interesting example of texts which, when misunderstood, can fuel, and, indeed, have fueled anti-Semitism. In Jeremiah we read that in the coming days God will make a new covenant, written in our soft hearts and not in hard stones. We have conveniently interpreted that to mean that we Christians alone are the people of the New Covenant, the New Testament.
In spite of the clear references to my people, Israel, in the text we have made ourselves into a new Israel believing that God has abrogated the original covenant with Abraham and Moses. Extreme forms of this thinking constitute the foundation of hate groups like the Aryan Nation, who see themselves as the only spiritual Israel entitled, indeed mandated and empowered to destroy the real Jews as well as other ethnic minorities. People who read the Jeremiah passage in this narrow way are aided and abetted by the Gospel lesson today which juxtaposes the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees with the acceptance of Christ by the Greeks who tell Phillip we wish to see Jesus.
For the last ten years I have committed myself to preach at least once a year about the Holocaust and to invite a Jewish leader to preach to the congregation under my care about Jewish-Christian relations. I believe that in order to prevent violence against Jews in the future we need to remind ourselves constantly that, contrary to what several hate groups proclaim, the Holocaust did indeed happen. We must remember that the death of six million Jews in the Nazi Reich was connected with a tradition of misinterpretation and misuse of Scriptures that on the surface appear anti-Semitic and have been in the background of the rift between Christians and Jews. I preach about Jewish Christian relations because it is important also to remember the heroic and faithful gentiles who helped Jews to survive and, most importantly, I remain committed to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive so that it may never happen again to the Jews or to any other persecuted minority.
The Gospel text must first be seen in its original context and then brought into our time. The Gospel of John, and in fact all of the Gospels, were written after the destruction of the second Temple in the seventieth year of our Common Era. The followers of Jesus were jockeying for position among several religious factions within Judaism. Whenever we read the term "the Jews" in the Gospels, we must translate that to mean "those Jews who disagree with us Jews who also have admitted a few gentiles. By the time of the writer of the Gospel of John the majority of potential converts are no longer Jews but gentiles, or, as our text implies, Greeks. The Evangelist sets out to discredit Pharisaic Judaism, the branch of Judaism that emerged after the destruction of the Temple with more followers who were convinced that the continuation of Judaism was intimately tied with a strict adherence to the Torah. All of the debates in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees must be seen in light of the constant struggle between the followers of Jesus and the followers of the Pharisee party after the destruction of the Temple. All this became obsolete with the triumph of Constantine and the decree by him that made our faith the official religion of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, leaders of our faith at that time, urged by Constantine, turned the recently acquired freedom and power into authority to decree what was to be believed and who was to be accepted and tolerated. Judaism was pushed to the fringes of the Empire and by the Middle Ages the intolerance turned into persecutions and executions, both spontaneous as well as officially sanctioned especially during Lent.
It is very sad to realize that the emergence of Islam in the Seventh century provided the first major space of freedom for our Jewish brothers and sisters and also for Christians who were not under the sphere of influence and power of Western Christians. Modern Jews look back to the years of Muslim presence in southern Spain, then known as Al-Andaluz as the Golden Era of Judaism. This was the place and time when Jewish letters, science and arts flourished. Iberia never experienced the Dark Ages but it was because of the tolerance of Muslim leaders not because of Christian compassion. In fact, when Western Crusaders reached Jerusalem Jews and Eastern Christians sought refuge and protection under the Muslim Caliph rather than risking living under Christian rule. The Golden Era for Judaism in Spain ended when the Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, united Castilla, Aragon, Leon and Granada defeating the Moors and then forcing Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The brain drain was incredible but what was worse is that those Jews who converted under duress were still labeled as Marranos, which means pigs.
The rise of Protestantism in the XVI Century did little to improve the lot of Jews in Europe. In fact, in the early years of Protestantism it was worse for the Jews who now were lumped together by the Inquisition with the Protestants and persecuted, incarcerated, tried and executed in the name of the purity of Christian belief. In addition, Protestant reformers were not able to shed centuries of hate. Luther's anti-Semitic statements were denounced and rejected only in the last quarter of the XX Century. Only the seeds of acceptance were planted with the rise of Protestantism. Schindler's List notwithstanding, the majority of those who rescued and assisted Jews during the Holocaust were Protestant. The King of Sweden, Raoul Wallenberg, the Huguenot Community of Le Chambon and their Pastor, Andre Trocme, are a few noteworthy examples.
In this year of Jubilee, the year 2000 of the Common Era, we must begin the process of correctly interpreting and proclaiming those texts which, like the one for today, appear to be anti-Semitic. Furthermore, we must become actively involved in ministries of reconciliation with Jewish people in our own communities, especially during Lent. I know many Reform and Reconstruction Judaism Rabbis who are eager to participate and even lead Passover Seders in Christian churches. The fact that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder can offer precisely the link we need during this time to create goodwill, appreciation and even admiration for our older siblings in the faith, the Jews.
We must also acquaint ourselves with efforts at reconciliation going on in other parts of the world. At the beginning of this sermon I mentioned Dr. David Weiss. Dr. Weiss is a world renowned immunologist who lived in Wiener Neustadt in Austria. His father was a Rabbi who enjoyed the respect and support of his community and was advised to leave shortly after the Nazi takeover of Austria, the Anschluss. A Christian church in Wiener Neustadt invited Dr. Weiss and forty other Holocaust Survivors to return for a visit to their native town. The book Reluctant Return tells the story of that return and, more importantly for us Christians, it describes the committed Free Church in Austria that has made reconciliation with the Jews the centerpiece of their ministry.
Reverend Helmuth Eiwen and his wife Uli lead this Free Church which calls itself the Ichtus Community. Helmuth was a pastor in the Lutheran Church when his wife began to have dreams and visions which led them to an ancient city wall which has remnants of desecrated Jewish tombs imbedded in it. This wall was built in the XII Century and is a witness to the presence of Jews as well as their first exile from there.
Shortly after the Eiwens discovered the remnants of the ancient city wall, Uli was kneeling at the chancel railing waiting for communion when she shrieked that a huge Swastika was rising from the floor of the chancel. Convinced that God was asking them to do something special in relation to the persecuted and expelled Jews, the Eiwens researched the history of the parish. They discovered that the pastor in charge at the time of the Anschluss, the Nazi take over, had torn his Lutheran vestments and revealed an SS uniform under the vestments and had saluted and shouted Heil Hitler at the opening of the service. This was all the proof the Eiwens needed; Helmuth resigned from the state supported Lutheran church and started the Free Church, which they now call the Ichtus Community. Dr. Weiss has great praise for these committed gentiles who have made it their mission to bring some measure of peace and reconciliation between Jews and Christians. In his book he summarizes his concluding remarks at the end of the Week of Encounter between the survivors of Wiener Neustadt and members of the religious, educational and political life of the town.
I speak of the Torah...the quintessential message of the Torah--the noun is in the feminine--is expressed in the aphorism, "All her ways are pleasance, and all her paths are peace." The aphorism expresses a point of departure throughout Jewish jurisprudence: Where a statute or decree does not meet a given moment's concern for peace and compassion, the rabbis may suspend the specific rule. The principle overrides. It is sovereign over the affairs of all humanity, Jew and Gentile...I begin with this because I wish to show that we see God's grace hovering over all his creatures. We and you, I say to Helmuth and Uli and Ichtus, strive in different tracks but under the same auspices. I become extravagant...and give prominence to a midrash. I call heaven and earth to witness that whether it be Gentile or Israelite, man or woman, slave or handmaid, according to the deeds which he does, so will the Holy Spirit rest on him. Then I add, is this not in the spirit of modern Christianity? Does this not solve the disputes between the descendants of the Pharisees and the descendants of Jesus and the disciples?
In this year of Jubilee, the year of our Lord 2000, we must make a commitment to end the enmity between Christians and Jews. Let Lent become a time when we repent of the death of millions of Jews as we remember the death of the one Jew we claim to love, follow and obey.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, you dwelt among us in Jesus the Christ. Help us remember that he was a Jew nurtured in the faith of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Amos. Give us the humility we need to learn from Jesus' religion that we might become true disciples of the Christ. Empower us to be agents of reconciliation and peace with all but especially with those we've wronged and persecuted so long in the past, our older brothers and sisters, the Jews. We pray in the name of the Jew we claim to honor, serve, and follow, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.