Tag Archives: Jesus

God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

May I speak and may you hear though the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

Treasure in Clay Jars

 

Jars of clay

What is it that makes us special? Thoughts from this morning’s sermon focussing on the reading 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I am nobody special. I will never become a worldwide known church leader. I will probably never become a diocesan-wide known church leader, but that’s okay. I will never be troubled by celebrity and stardom. I may appear from time to time in some charming local newspaper article about fetes or fundraising, but the paparazzi will not be camped outside of my door; that’s not a problem. My name will never be immortalized with a monument set up by the local community, although perhaps for a generation there will be some who will speak fondly of me, it won’t matter.

A remnant of my thoughts may continue to exist somewhere in the ether of the world-wide web, but it will probably be something that people accidentally come across whilst searching for something else, an amusing diversion, but quickly clicked away from – and that will be absolutely fine.

This isn’t an attempt at false modesty or to deny that any gifts or talents that I may have aren’t being put to good use. It isn’t to say that my existence is worthless or that I haven’t loved and been loved. It’s just that I am not special in my own right. But then very few people are. In the bible, those whom God chose to make known his message, were very often the most ordinary of people, they did not seek to proclaim themselves, in fact they were often reluctant to do so. But they trusted that God would give them the words to say, the actions to do and the courage to keep on trusting even when things looked like it would come to nothing.

Take for example Mary, the mother of Jesus, a young girl chosen not for her status, for we hear in the Magnificat, her song of praise to God when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, that ‘God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’. Nor for her connections, betrothed as she was to a humble carpenter; but someone who was a woman of great humility and whose strength came from her knowing that she had achieved nothing except what God had enabled her to do, ‘for the Mighty One has done great things for me’.

Or perhaps we can think of Peter, a simple fisherman, whose enthusiasm often overtook his reasoning, whose bluntness many times led him to say exactly what he thought rather than reflect on what he was being taught. Tender hearted and inconsolable when he realised that he had thought only of himself when challenged about his relationship with Jesus, but who, when filled with the Holy Spirit was bold and fearless in proclaiming the gospel, ‘But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them’.

And of course there are many more from inarticulate Moses; through ‘I know best’ Jonah; to womanizing David, all unlikely choices to participate in God’s mission, all fragile human beings in their own right, but they were given the power to be something special… Like humble clay pots they contained a treasure.

Now if you’re going to place a valuable thing in some sort of vessel would you choose a clay jar? Yet, it really is the most appropriate material.

I wonder how many of you saw the series, The Great British Pottery Throw Down, a bit like the Great British Bake Off, but baking of another sort, in which contestants were given various types of clay and challenged to make things from simple drinking pots to whole toilet systems. Workhorse utilities to elaborate designs and functions yet fashioned from that most basic commodity, a lump of earth.

Middleport-Pottery-in-the-Summer-The-Great-Exhibition-Pottery-Throwdown-25

Pottery Toilet from the Great British Pottery Throw Down

When Paul is referring to jars of clay, he is referring to humankind itself – that we are the clay jars, a metaphor that takes us back to the description in Genesis, of God forming humans from the dust of the earth. However, we are called to hold within us the shining treasure, ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. But the fact remains that vessels made of clay are not very sturdy. If you tip over or drop a piece of pottery it is easily broken, but Paul says there is a reason for God trusting us to hold within us this treasure. We are reminded that on our own we have no power, no special strengths or talents, we are as fragile as a jar of clay, but God’s all-surpassing power ensures that this clay can sustain all sorts of pressures so that his divine treasure is taken care of.

Paul reminds us that even as fragile, human beings, easily broken it is not only Christ’s life, but also his death that has made a change in us. He goes on to describe it in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”(Galatians 2:20); Reminding us again that as jars of clay, we can’t depend on our own power and strength.

And the overriding purpose for this is ‘so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies’. As Christians we are called to act as guiding lights and at other times flash warning signs; we need to seek out those in darkness and draw people into the light. We are called to live our lives as beacons of hope to those around us. Each of us will do this in different ways, some of us will become blazing flares that light up the whole sky around us, whilst others will be the constant inextinguishable glow of embers providing warmth and comfort.

Like an ordinary lump of clay, God forms each and every one of us into something that is useful and beautiful; like a potter he fires us in the kiln of life to give us extra strength, and he places within us the light of Christ so that we can shine out of the darkness.

As I said at the beginning, I nor anybody else is special if we live in our own right, but when we become the bearers of Christ’s light then that makes us special beyond measure.

Amen

The Potter's Hands

A Heart of Stone?

Heart of Stone

Evensong Message for Pentecost 2018 – Reading Ezekiel 36:22-28 and Acts 2:22-38

Today we celebrate Pentecost – an outpouring of the Holy Spirit – sent just as Jesus had promised – enabling and transforming those who were willing to receive it, with physical signs of flames and wind and a universal understanding of the truth being spoken to those listening and watching this in amazement. Just as Ezekiel had prophesied here was a gathering of the nations to hear the Word that would then spread out like wildfire from Jesus’ own land to ignite the flame that would become a global phenomenon – the birth of Christianity, with its message of faith, hope and love.

Here was something new then – or was it?

Surely people had had faith before? Jesus himself was a Jew, part of a well organised and structured faith; and whilst there were not necessarily a large number of organised religions as we would think of them today, there were many faith traditions. The Roman and Greek pantheon for example, Norse and Celtic traditions, many of which were Polytheistic, and often had an emphasis on communal public worship, and sacrifice (either of animals or humans) as an offering to the Gods; going right back to simple sun worship and pantheism.

 Hope is perhaps a little bit more difficult to measure prior to Christianity. What is it people were hoping for? For many it did centre on there being more to life than our brief span of three score years and ten – four score at a push. For the Greeks, a favoured few, were considered to have been physically immortalized and brought to live forever in places like Elysium. For others it was the ability to be reincarnated and to have the chance to live again, back on earth, albeit in a different way; but for most people, at the moment of death there was, however, no hope of anything but continued existence as a disembodied soul, endlessly swirling around in a cosmic soup.

And of course there was love, whether it was a strong feeling of affection and concern arising from kinship or close friendship or accompanied by sexual attraction. We all know that the Greek and Roman gods indulged in love with a relish, both among themselves and mere mortals, but rarely was it considered a love that was for all peoples, a love that begged relationship and which sought reconciliation as its ultimate goal.

Christianity though was and is different. Faith was not just something you did, it is how you live; hope was not limited, it is tangible and everlasting and love was not exclusive, it is mutual and unconditional. This wasn’t some distant deity dandling human beings like puppets, this is a God who lives right alongside us.

In order to love one has to engage with our minds and our hearts. The two organs in a human body that not only sustain life but which enable us to understand what life is all about. But it is our hearts that pump blood around our bodies to every other organ which enable us to think, to feel, to touch, to sense and which have become universal symbols of love; and a heart that does not love can be said to be as lifeless and useless as a heart of stone.

A heart of stone does not allow our ears to hear the cries of those in need or our eyes to see injustice being done. A heart of stone does not allow us to feel emotions of compassion or joy, it does not permit our arms and hands to reach out to hug or be hugged or comforted.

 A heart of stone does not allow us the desire to know God and to become followers of Christ, because a heart of stone cannot love either itself or others. Even so, God is able to reach out to the most hard-hearted individuals and to use them for his glory.

 ‘A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body
the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’.

However, having a heart of flesh is not an easy thing to live with. A heart of flesh can feel the keenest of suffering, the deepest of sorrows and the innermost pain. There are times when it is almost unbearable to experience these things, but our hearts do not give up

The fact is that the heart it is the hardest working muscle in the body – the first organ to form during development of the body, and the last to shut down in death. But that’s just physiology. The difference is the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in the form of love that enables us to ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.’

 When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost, it was the Spirit that enabled him to declare so boldly that despite what the people had done to Jesus, there was no power on earth that could have held him down and he used the scriptures to back up this declaration.

Quoting from Psalm 16, the Michtam of David, or the Golden Psalm, he spelt our very clearly the faith, the hope and the love Jesus knew was his in God,

“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

 It was the witness of the disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit that persuaded others that indeed, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah. As it says, ‘they were cut to the heart’. To the very centre of their being.

 When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish, whether it is showing compassion, sharing joy, or seeking peace. When our hearts beat to the same rhythm as God’s then nothing will be the same and everything will be transformed by love

Love of the Holy Spirit

 

Love One Another…

Love One Another Blog

The end of the Easter season is fast approaching and we will pack away our Alleluia responses for another year (liturgically and in theory). So before we do so here is a reminder that that our praise of God comes not just in liturgical form but in practical acts of loving one another as well.

Based on the following readings: John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Who’s still excited that it’s still Easter? Perhaps our Alleluia’s that we waited so long to hear after Lent as little more subdued, not quite so resounding? Well, we’ve come to the Sixth Sunday of Easter and we should be excited because the Easter season is building to its climax. Over these past weeks we have been celebrating the joy of the resurrections and the presence of the risen Christ appearing to his first disciples and being among us still. And yet on Thursday it will be Ascension Day when we remember Jesus’ departure from his disciples and his return to be with his heavenly Father for all eternity. We are therefore, liturgically at least, reaching a turning point.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Jesus had been preparing his apprehensive disciples for the shock when he is taken away from them; wanting to give them reassurance of his continuing love and presence with them afterwards, and giving them instructions for how the church (with a small c) should live. Of course, as disciples today, we can never get back behind Easter, because we hear Jesus’ reassurances in the light of our Easter experience, knowing that he rose from the dead to be with them and with us. So his warnings of his imminent departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit as a guide, resonate in our experience as we look toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, soon to come.

So, here today we hear Jesus continuing to give his disciples ‘commandments’, underlying all of which is the commandment given by God to Moses, the imperative that people should show by their lives what their God is like, which Jesus has fulfilled utterly. The example that Jesus gives, of his own willingness to die for his friends, is not a comforting one. Is that, then, to be the measure of love?

Well the gospel suggests that sometimes it is, and we know that nearly all of Jesus’ original disciples were called to do that in one way or another and those who followed after them were often martyred for their faith. However, the verses that follow this commandment suggest that there are other interim measures too.

One such measure is the role that we play, ‘I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. This sharing between Father and Son is extended to us. We are not simply issued with instructions that we must follow without needing to understand them. Instead we are invited to God’s table, to eat and discuss and share his great plan for the world.

Therefore, it naturally follows that one mark of our ‘love’ for one another and God will be our willingness to extend this invitation to others. Not to be an introverted, cozy warm church where we are all having a wonderful time, but ‘Come and join us at God’s table, come and help us to work out with God what to do next’. I wonder if you can remember when you received that invitation? Not simply an invitation to come to church, but the sense that God was calling you, through Jesus, come and find out more; a sense that you had been chosen to be part of the whole Christian way of life and love. As Jesus tells his disciples that they didn’t chose him, but he chose them. In the same way it is not we who chose God, but God who, in his grace, approached us with a call and an offer made out of his love.

This is certainly the experience of Peter and his companions as they watch Cornelius and his household respond to the love of God. They hear these strangers praising God long before they have gone through all the rules and regulations of what you’ll need to do be a proper Christian! Even so everyone needs guidance and God has this in hand when he gives us our different gifts and talents, both academic and practical.

The thing about guidance though it that it should be more about learning than teaching.  We learn better when we engage with our whole bodies – as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we need to love with all our mind, our body and our soul… I know that I have learned more about loving one another from people who have demonstrated this unconditional love of Christ, people who show love and compassion to loved ones with dementia, never getting annoyed or frustrated. People who give their time to serve others without any thought of reward or recompense. People who do things cheerfully and willingly, who never moan that it’s always them left to do something, when others have walked away oblivious to the fact that they might have shared a task.

It is deeply challenging and amplifying to see the word of God at work in the lives of others, and to see that before me and my feeble attempts at love got anywhere near a situation, that God’s love was already at work. I’m standing here talking to you this morning about love, but who remembers anything I or anyone else has said, if all you hear is someone ‘telling’ you? In fact, research shows that within just one hour, if nothing is done with new information, most people will have forgotten about 50% of what they learned. After 24 hours, this will be 70%, and if a week passes without that information being used, up to 90% of it could be lost.

Maybe then, I need to get us to do something a bit more practical to try to help us learn, and I’ve put this in the middle of my talk to see who’s still listening up to this point! Something that will help us think about being called to love one another whoever that might be. So when it comes to exchange the peace this morning, rather than simply shake someone’s hand, then look past them for the next hand to shake – as you take that person’s hand, briefly look them in the eye, offer them the words of peace, but let this thought go through your mind each time you do…. ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’ Remember no need for fuss, just simply use that thought each time, ‘This is someone I am called to love – how might I do that?’

That’s something then to help us to share love between like-minded people, but we are also chosen in love and for love, and are sent out into the world to love one another. So that’s a thought we should have in our head every time we meet other people as well. Because, sometimes we live as if we were sent into the world to compete with one another, or to dispute with one another, or even to quarrel with one another. Many tell people to love each other when their whole lives are a demonstration that that is the last thing they do themselves. That is not the way of love.

However, we can become confused about being ‘commanded’ to love – perhaps our natural instinct is to say, ‘well actually I don’t think I can love in the same way that you did Jesus’. When Jesus talks about commanding, this is not a peremptory legalistic order, neither is it quite an instructional encouragement, it’s more a necessary requirement. The fact is that you cannot legislate for love, but God, through Jesus, can command us to love and discovering the difference between the two is one of the great arts of being human. The ‘command’ to love is given by one who has himself done everything that love can do. When mothers and fathers love their child, they create a context in which the child is free to love them in return. When a ruler really does love his or her subjects, and when this becomes clear by generous and warm-hearted actions, he or she creates a context in which the subjects can and will love them in return.

So when Jesus issues the command that we are to love one another, we do so because he has acted out and will act out the greatest thing that love can do. He has made us more human, not less because we do this in freedom and joy. So that we can bear fruit that will last, whether in terms of a single life changed because we loved somebody as Jesus loved us, or in terms of a single decision that we had to take, … or a single task we had to perform… through which, though we couldn’t see it at the time, the world became a different place.

So let’s enjoy these last few days of the Easter season. Alleluia, Christ is risen!…. he is risen indeed, alleluia!

He Has Risen

 

 

Day Nine – A Lost and Changing Identity: The Story Of A Most Extraordinary Survivor

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel at Yad Vashem

Jakub Weksler Waszkinel at Yad Vashem

As the problem of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head once more in British politics, I was moved to visit again the story of an amazing man whom I had the privilege of hearing tell his story at Yad Vashem. Jakub Weksler Waszkinel works there in the archives, but as a baby survived the Holocaust in Poland. This is his story, mainly in his own words.

‘I was born in Poland in 1943. I don’t know the exact date, but it was accepted that I celebrated it on the 25th March. However, my teacher seemed to think it should be the 28th February and asked me to speak to my mother and father. My father said that nobody knows – but how could that be? The fact was I didn’t look anything like my parents, which always made me feel uneasy. I had dark curly hair whereas my parent were Slavic in appearance and I would ask my father “why am I different?” His explanation was that a stork had dropped me down the chimney, they had cleaned me up but my hair remained black. Perplexed, I asked “why the chimney?” His reply was that it was winter and the doors and windows were closed.

I don’t remember anything specific about the war, but we lived near the station at Vilna (Hebrew for Vilnius, Lithuania) and the transports left from there for Poland. What I do remember is feeling very scared, full of fear, at the sound of planes – my mother said I was an anxious child and stuttered as a boy. At age five I encountered my first anti-Semitic event; I was returning home when two drunk men passed me and uttered the words ‘Jewish bastard’. They kept looking back and smiling, making fun of it. It panicked me, and when I got home I told my mother and asked her, ‘What is a Jew?’. She asked me who had called me that and I replied the neighbours. I repeated my question, but she just hugged and cried and said, “Remember, good smart people don’t talk that way and drunk people don’t even love their own children”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an isolated incident, but mother always helped me calm down.

During bible classes I found out all about the Jews, presented as mostly horrible people because they had killed Christ. The bibles had paintings of stereotypical Jews and I began to be afraid of them. Even so I understood deep down that they had not murdered Jesus Christ. After all Jesus was a Jew and I thought this is your Jew – why mine – because he really loves me. Such a difference between school and home, where there was no mention of Jews.

Yet something still bothered me deep inside. My mother and father loved me very much, it was not just words but a sincere love. This love was demonstrated after I went to a party and heard an accordion being played. I was very excited and went home asking if I could have one, thinking it was a toy. However, we didn’t have any money, we were very poor. I whispered my wish and rubbed my father’s hands, calloused from hard work. Unbelievably they sold their cow to buy an accordion for me.

It was a strong, close relationship and I loved going to church and praying with them. At home I played make belief of being a priest and took a collection in matchsticks, before offering a blessing, ‘God bless you’. But my outward appearance still troubled me, I so desperately wanted to look like my father; and I believed that I did up until the age of ten, as they had shaved my head to prevent lice, but now I had hair again. I still pestered my mother for an explanation, and although in everything else she always told me the truth, I was met by silence and tears.

In exasperation I looked in the mirror and declared, “If I am a Jew see what I will do!” However, despite this assertion I didn’t want to be a Jew who had killed Jesus. Furthermore there were no Jews living around us, so I didn’t know what it was meant to be like – I just wanted to be an ordinary Polish child.

I didn’t encounter any problems at Middle school, I learnt the accordion and even bought a new one; I read poetry and forgot about being a priest. If I was asked what I wanted when I grew up I would answer that I wanted to get married and have children. Then in my last Religious Knowledge lesson the teacher priest asked us again and I heard the words coming out of my mouth, “I am going to be a priest”. This rather alarmed me as I despite going to church I felt I was a non-believer. Still, in the evening I told my parents that I was going to become a priest. My father’s reaction was puzzling. As a very religious man (I had seen him every night on his knees, praying) I thought that this would please him. Instead he asked me what I was going to do about all the young ladies and playing the accordion. He thought it was better that I become a doctor, but I reminded him that I didn’t like blood. Then what about an artist, he suggested, which was confusing as he had previously said the artistic life was bad. Basically do anything else rather than go to the seminary. My response was that, “I can go wherever I want. I can’t make promises to the wind.” So I went to the seminary to start my studies.

In October of that year I received a message that my father wanted to see me. I asked could it wait until the Christmas holidays, but no, he wanted to see me immediately. When he came I could tell he was very sad. After lunch we went to the chapel and he fell on his knees and started crying. I had never seen him like this before. When we came out I asked him why? Surely I wasn’t doing anything bad. A few days later I received a telephone call to say that my father had died.

This was a complete shock, and I felt responsible. At the funeral my mother reassured me that I hadn’t killed him, but that I could choose not to go back to the seminary. I did return and spoke to the Rector, “What shall I do?” He said I was in shock and to come back after a month, when I decided to remain there, “I won’t stop and I will be a good priest”.

It takes six years to become a Catholic Priest with a lot of studying the Bible. I had never had a bible at home and in it I saw the beautiful world of Judaism; the prophets were poetic and the New Testament confirmed that the Jews didn’t murder Jesus, symbiotic of my suffering, suffering of victim not perpetrator. When it came to make my vows as a deacon I needed to present my qualifications to become a priest and there were some doubts as to whether I had been baptised. The Jewish fear came back and I recalled the childhood name-calling. Maybe my parents may have known but they didn’t tell me, it was just rumour and gossip. So I had a conditional baptism and my Godmother, who is still alive wrote me a letter and came in 1966 when I was priested

Still the ugliness continued. My first year in the parish was good until someone reminded me of who I really was. The local train driver asked whether I knew what they were saying about me? Are you a Jew?

Then I went away to study at university – John Paul II was my ethics tutor. Nobody talked about the Holocaust in Poland, and parts of the country were still very anti-Semitic. On All Saints Day in 1968 I went to a cemetery where there was a Tomb of Fallen Soldiers. Nobody really went there as it was gloomy and dark. As I light a candle and was praying, I looked up to sky and noticed the dates 1941-1945 on the soldier’s helmet. I went back to the university to find out the history of those dates; the history of Poland during the war. It was the first time that I heard about the extermination of the Jews. It led me to think, was my mother raped? Maybe my mother isn’t my mother?

In 1975 she came to live with me, but she didn’t want to talk about the war, just said it was a bad time, but I needed to know and I gave my mother a book about the Jews. She started to cry and I asked her quite forcibly, “Am I a Jew?” Her response was, “Do I not love you?” I knew she loved me very much but I realised there was something there. It took three uneasy years before she felt able to tell me the truth.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel Two Mothers

Jakub’s two mothers – his birth mother, Batia, is on the right and his Polish mother, Emilia, on the left

I know the date and time of my second birth, the 23rd February 1978 at 7pm after dinner. She decided the time had come, that I must know. “You had beautiful parents who loved you very much, but they were Jews. I saved you from death. What their names were I don’t know”.

“What does that mean, that I am a Jew?” I asked. We cried a lot.

“You are important,” she said eventually, “Not your name. You had a very smart mother. I went into the Ghetto and spoke with her, but said I couldn’t take you because as a boy you had been circumcised, . Your birth mother’s response was that she knew I was a believer in Jesus, and he was a Jew, and if I saved her Jewish son, when he grows up he will be a priest!”… By then I had been 12 years a priest. She went on that in 1941 over a period of 3-4 days the Russians had murdered almost the entire Jewish population. The only ones that were left were those who were useful and my father had been a cobbler, a good shoemaker, a profession helpful to the Germans, which is why they were still there in 1943.

What was I to do with this information? I wrote to the Pope, John Paul II, the same man who had taught me at university, and asked for prayer. He responded, ‘Dear brother’, such wonderful words. The next fourteen years were very difficult as I began to find out more about my Jewish heritage. Then in 1992 a local nun came to visit Israel and when she looked at my native town immediately identified the names of my parents and was even able to find a photograph of them. I discovered my father’s name and that I had a brother, Samuel, and I apparently have my mother’s eyes.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel

The Jewish Catholic Priest

In July of that year I myself came to Israel. I had been in contact with my father’s brother and his family (who were very religious) and had written to them enclosing a picture of me in my collar. However, when I came down the steps of the plane there was no one in sight. Then I spotted my ‘grandfather’ with his cane. He recognised me because he said I walked like my father. Their first words were, “So you’re a priest, eh!” and wanted me to explain about the persecution of the Jews over the last 2000 years. My response was that I was not 2000 years old! How many times have I been baptised? It doesn’t matter. I asked to go with my uncle to the synagogue, after all Jesus went to the synagogue.

After my visit I wrote again to the Pope, I didn’t want any secrets, but I wanted to keep all my names on my identity cards, which wasn’t normal, but I received a letter with all my names and managed to change everything. l am a Polish citizen, but my nationality is Jewish [In Israel the Jewish status of a person is considered a matter of nationality]. I also asked that my Polish ‘parents’ be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations’ as they didn’t give back a Jewish child, “I wasn’t a suitcase to be handed back”. On the 1st December 1995 a plaque was unveiled with their names, and it turned out that the reason his mother was in the Ghetto was that they were thinking of adopting and had heard about a baby and wanted to save him.

Jakub Weksler Waxzinel's Polish Parents in Righteous Among Nations

Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel – Honoured as Righteous Gentiles

In 2009 I came to live here in Israel on a kibbutz in the Jordan valley. It was a religious kibbutz and at the beginning everyone was afraid that I was a missionary, but we grew to love each other and they didn’t want me to leave a  year later when I decided to come to Jerusalem. I lived for a time in a Catholic house but now in a Jewish senior’s home and work here at Yad Vashem.

In 2012 I found my mother’s family and I am now a happy Jew. All I want now is to be a Jew, like Jesus – who wasn’t a priest or a Christian.

Shalom!’

Perhaps it’s good to remember that one’s identity is not always found in our outward expression of faith, but internally, in the heart and mind and soul which God knows better than anyone and loves us all just the same.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Summary of the Law from Common Worship

Jakub’s, or Yaakov as he prefers to be called, life was documented by Ronit Kertsner in the 2011 file ‘Torn’. He discovered his real parents were Yaakov and Batia Weksler and that he had been born in Swieciany, a shtetl near Vilna. He also learned that Batia had been an ardent Zionist and that she and her husband had an older son, Samuel. On April 4, 1943, Yaakov, Batia and three-year-old Samuel were put on a transport to Vilna. From there, Batia and Samuel were sent to Sobibor, and Yaakov to Stutthof. They all perished in the camps.

 

Shoah…An Obliteration of Potential

Shoah - an obliteration of potential

Shoah – an obliteration of potential

A sermon preached on Candlemas, honouring Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, based on Luke 2:22-40

May I speak and may you hear, through the Grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

A Jewish family… mother, father and precious new born baby son… entering the temple in Jerusalem, some 33 to 40 days after his birth, to fulfil a rite of passage required under the law of Moses; the purification of his mother with a simple offering, for those without wealth or status, of a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons.

Three people learning what it means to be a family, with little or no inkling of what life lies ahead of them, but filled with dreams and aspirations of what their son may grow up to be. Maybe for Joseph, a son to follow in the family tradition, to become a skilled carpenter working alongside him, and for Mary, a child who will grow up strong and healthy, perhaps achieving far greater things than his parents had by becoming a rabbi or priest.

We have to remember that this was taking place quite some time before three strangers from the East would turn up on their doorstep, with their unusual gifts, and a warning in a dream that would cause the family to flee across the border into Egypt. And yet the season of Epiphany draws to a close today with this story of Simeon revealing the poignant potential Jesus is destined to fulfil.

A potential that was to bring salvation for those who believe in him, both to Jews and Gentiles at the expense of those who would oppose him, , ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. A potential that is offered to each and every one of us, to every child that is born. A potential that is to be nurtured and encouraged whatever shape or form it may take. A potential that can be torn away, stamped on and destroyed.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly
John 10:10

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, a day set aside from our November Remembrance Day; when we remember those who fought and gave their lives not only in the 1st World War but also in the 2nd World War, where they stood up aside the evil tyranny of the Nazi regime. Holocaust Memorial Day is a special day to remember the six million Jews as well as other victims, who were murdered simply because of their religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation, bringing the total nearer to eleven million lives.

As a dry statistic, eleven million people is probably unimaginable, but imagine that you drove to the outskirts of London and suddenly the roads, houses and buildings were empty, deserted, every single place, right into the centre of the city. Everyone had disappeared, leaving behind most of their possessions, gone without a trace. Not a single living person remaining.

For the Jews living in Nazi occupied countries, these disappearances were happening in every city, town and village. The streets were falling silent, no one rushing about their daily business, no children playing in streets or shouting and laughing in parks and playgrounds. For among those six million almost a quarter of them were children, 1.5 million lives. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential or their dreams for the future.

Those six million people who were not born as victims, but who had their hopes and dreams brutally stripped away because of an ideology that condemned them to death just because they were Jewish.

Some of you will know that late last year I undertook a ten day seminar at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they not only educate people about the events and the peoples of the Holocaust or Shoah, as they prefer to call it, but also strive to preserve the memories and stories of the victims. Their photographic archive contains hundreds of photographs of Jewish people; people who smiled, danced, took part in sports and musical events, got married and enjoyed holidays and family occasions; with no awareness of the fate that awaited them; each now frozen in time for posterity, as the camera captured their everyday lives.

Pre-War Jewish Life

There are also photos of beloved children, dressed up and posed in their Sabbath best, no different I doubt to the snapshots we have, brought out years later to embarrass our offspring, except these children would face no future embarrassment.

This recognition of unfulfilled hope is echoed in another part of the site, where the Children’s Memorial has been created by hollowing out an under underground cavern, which has its own symbolism. It is entered by a descent that funnels you into a darkened room. In the gloom the images of several unnamed children stare out from photographs, as the sound of a mournful lament softly plays.

Then further down, feeling your way into the darkness, you enter what appears to be a room filled with stars. The effect is created by just five candles, which are replaced each day, reflected by mirrors to produce an infinity of tiny lights. In this twilight we listened to just a few of the names of some 1800 of the children, their ages and where they were from; a representation of stolen lives. It is very moving and I immediately thought of my own children

But it is the photographs that haunt me because it makes these children more tangible, and despite not knowing their names, they are no longer anonymous. In your service sheet is a slip of paper with some photographs on it, take a look at it now [see below].

Shoah Children Victims

Florika Liebmann, Unknown and Raphael Altmann

On the left is Florika Liebmann. She was born in 1934 in Szeged, Hungary to Bela and Szenka Liebmann. Bela was a Jewish photographer and businessman who ran an optical and photographic supply store, as well as doing photography in local theatres. During World War Two, he was conscripted into the Hungarian labour service. Szenka and Florika were deported, and in April 1945 were killed along with 38 other victims, in the village of Weissenbach by retreating SS soldiers.

On the right is Raphael Altmann. He was born in 1937 in Wilmersdorf, Germany to Kurt and Grietje Altmann. He was the oldest of four children, including his brothers Martijn and Fred. During the German occupation, the family was expelled to Zeist, in the Netherlands, from where they went into hiding in late 1942. When they could no longer stay together, the parents gave their two older children to a children’s house in Zeist. The house had an escape procedure, but in real time things went wrong. The headmistress was arrested with the children and sent to the Westerbork camp. The children were sent from this camp on to Auschwitz, where they perished on 26 March 1944. Kurt and Grietje, however, hid in four different places with their youngest son Fred and managed to survive. Raphael and Martijn never got to meet their sister Sophia, who was born in 1949

And the picture in the middle, what do you see there? A disabled child? A child with Downs Syndrome? Or a child who was lovingly dressed in his smart sailor’s suit, with polished, laced up boots and no doubt one of his daddy’s ties. I couldn’t find a name or a history for this young man, but he is known to have been victim of the Holocaust and he is representative of one of at least 5,000 disabled children who were murdered under the Nazi regime.

The Nazis falsely believed that some human beings were superior to others and they aimed to develop and preserve a pure Aryan master race. To do this they strove to select those they believed to be the most ‘perfect’ human beings and to deliberately remove from society those considered ‘undesirable’, including the disabled.

German midwives and doctors were ordered to report any child known to them who was born deaf or blind, with paralysis or with a neurological disorder such as Down’s Syndrome, and these children were systematically removed from institutions and families, although not without some reluctance on the parents’ part, from whom the final euthanasia was hidden.

Hitler and his regime justified this by endorsing opinions as expressed by Madison Grant, the author of The Passing of the Great Race, who said, “Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life, tend to prevent […] the elimination of defective infants … The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Nazi Propaganda Against the Disabled

Translation: 60,000 Reichsmark is what this person suffering with a hereditary defect costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Fellow citizen that is your money too.

The Nazis took Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, in particular the idea of survival of the fittest in the animal kingdom, and applied them to the human world and society, however, the valuable of human life doesn’t just rely on its usefulness to others, but more importantly its capacity to love and be loved, and God places in each and every one of us an overriding potential for love.

Not just then, but nowadays, there is also a danger that we stifle this potential even before a child is born. A recent warning by the Church of England was that the future existence of people with Down’s Syndrome is ‘under question’ with the introduction of a new Non-Invasive Prenatal blood test to test for the condition, that the Church is concerned will lead to more terminations because of people’s fears and concerns about their ability to raise a disabled child and misconceptions about the condition itself.

I believe there are compelling and justifiable reasons why a pregnancy might be terminated, particularly if it is for the health and mental wellbeing of the woman or of the unborn child, but not for a sense of seeking ‘perfection’. Some woman reportedly, when they were told that the child they were carrying had Down’s Syndrome were presented with this information as ‘bad news’.

Actress and screenwriter, Sally Phillips, whose son Olly has Down’s, recently addressed this in the BBC documentary ‘A World without Down’s Syndrome’ revealed that when he was born, the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry’, the nurse on duty wept, and nothing positive was expressed. She discovered however, that far from being a tragedy their lives have been transformed by Olly, who is now twelve and attending a mainstream secondary school.

As she says, ‘Having Olly in my life has changed me and my family for the better. He has slightly worse impulse control which means he often says exactly what everyone is thinking but is too shy to say and he is also incredibly caring and gifted emotionally, really focussing on how others are feeling by noticing when people are upset when I don’t.’

And we do well to remember that discriminating against the disabled, disables us and diminishes us. There is no perfect human being, not me or you, nor anyone else apart from the person of Jesus, and no-one should be robbed of their potential for a full and meaningful life.

Simeon, when he looked at the baby that was in his arms, rejoiced that he was being given this opportunity to see for himself the person sent to bring about God’s plan of salvation for all, ‘the light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’; and we know that Jesus was able to fulfil his potential by making the ultimate sacrifice of dying on the cross. It was part of God’s all-encompassing plan of his will being done on earth, but it was also Jesus’ choice and decision to go through with it, no one else’s.

Definitely ‘good news’, however, this still didn’t negate the sorrow that would be felt by Mary his mother. The sword that would pierce her soul, should also prick our own conscience so that we don’t forget those millions of innocent lives that ended so abruptly and so brutally. Children who never got the chance to grow up and fulfil their potential.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to remember the millions of people who were murdered, not just as an anonymous mass, but having looked into the eyes of the people in these photographs realising that they were people, just as we are. We don’t know everyone’s name but we can pause to reflect on their suffering and remember their ‘untold stories’. We can also make a clear promise to speak out against discrimination which judges some lives to be of less value than others today

In that way all may grow strong, be filled with wisdom and know that the favour of God rests on them.

Amen

HMD 2018

 

 

 

A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

A voice a calling out

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent recalling John the Baptist as the ‘one calling out in the wilderness’, and the call to be that voice today.

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I wonder how many of you will admit to watching ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’? Not that I’m saying there’s anything wrong if you do. I think we all have a natural curiosity to watch people who for one reason or another are deemed famous, doing things that are strange or unusual. I must admit that if I hear in the news that someone is proving to be a real character, I might flick over and catch part of an episode to see what all the fuss is about.

Of course it’s easy for us nowadays, with satellite TV and catch up, to bring things that are happening ‘live’ into the comfort of our living rooms or on our mobile devices to satisfy our curiosity, but in Jesus’ day any apparent fame was broadcast by word of mouth and only those who were serious about finding our more would make the effort to travel long distances on the testimony of a friend or neighbour; and yet, we hear in Luke’s gospel that ‘the crowds’ were coming out to see John the Baptist; and today in John’s gospel we catch a sense that the strict traditionalists, the Pharisee’s, had got wind of a strange and curious man doing things that were unsettling and causing ripples in their neat and tidy well-ordered lives. Who was this man?

Obviously, not concerned enough to distance themselves from undertaking their strict religious observances in the temple in Jerusalem, but enough to send a contingent of representatives to find out more, just in case. What then did they find as they journeyed out into the wilderness around the River Jordan? The gospel writer tells us that the place they found John was at Bethany – not the village just east of Jerusalem, near the Mount of Olives, that was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No this Bethany, although nowadays not officially known, would have had to have been about 50 miles to the North of Jerusalem, in Jordan, and is thought to be modern day Al-Maghtas, an Arabic word for a site of baptism or immersion and which has been venerated as such since the Byzantine period.

That’s the place but what about the man? John, even by biblical standards, would have presented an eccentric appearance, dressed in camel hair clothing secured with a leather belt and a physique that was sculpted by a diet of locusts and wild honey, one can imagine his wild hair and austere demeanour were not the things that were attracting the people to him. He probably looked like an ancient prophet, if not smelt like an ancient prophet and his words echoed the prophecies of those Old Testament prophets who had gone before him. Perhaps his disregard for his own personal appearance confirmed his humble and self-effacing nature, but let’s be under no doubt, John was no shy wallflower, he knew what his role was and he was certain about the mission he was undertaking.

In answer to their attempts to guess his identify, he wasn’t the Messiah and he wasn’t the re-embodiment of the prophet Elijah, but he was the messenger that the prophet Isaiah had said would appear as a herald to prepare the way for the Messiah’s appearance; to make straight the paths, to smooth the way, to give people a chance to re-order their lives before it was too late. Yet Isaiah had mentioned nothing about the need to be baptised in order to repent of your sins and certainly this form of baptism was not something that the Jewish people would have seen as normal. Ritualistic washing, however had been practised since the time of Moses, through the Leviticus laws when a person needed to be cleansed and purified in order to be able to make sacrifices in the Temple.

This ritual was later expanded to taking a dip in a ‘mikveh’ or immersion pool, with steps leading down on one side and then up on the other, having passed through the pool of water; think of the pools of Siloam and Bethsaida, that were used for high days and holidays at the Temple site. And as with a lot of Jewish ritual law there are six different options that satisfy the requirements starting with pits, to cisterns refreshed by rainwater, custom-built ritual baths, then fountains, then flowing waters. But natural lakes and rivers were considered to be the best, so the ‘living waters’ of the River Jordan were definitely ideal.

But as John says this is only the preliminaries, water would give way to immersion in the Holy Spirit, and he was very, very clear of his unworthiness to carry out this form of baptism. There was another coming after him. Curiosity satisfied then for the Pharisees’ researchers, they would no doubt return to their leaders with more food for thought than reassurances. But that still leaves us with the question of why so many people were attracted to the message that John was voicing and what that means for us today. What was this baptism of repentance that he offered?

Like ourselves this Advent, the people had been watching and waiting, in fact they had been waiting for over 400 years. This period of seemingly divine silence is the name given to the period of time between the last of the Old Testament prophets and the arrival of Jesus in the New Testament. It had begun with Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return, ‘I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes,’ hence the Pharisee’s question and was now to end with its fulfilment in the coming of John the Baptist.

Silence however didn’t mean that the people had been living in limbo, because despite the lack of Scripture detailing this period, a great deal happened. The Jewish homeland had first of all been taken over from the Persians by the Greek Empire followed by an Egyptian occupation. Then halfway through the Syrians overtook Jerusalem, followed by the Greek king, Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the Holy of Holies within the temple which led to a revolt, led by the Maccabee brothers to retake control of the Jerusalem, only to be conquered by the Roman Empire, the state the people found themselves in now.

You can understand, therefore, when the strange and unusual figure of John appeared in the wilderness, calling people to repent, to turn back to God , then they were ready and curious enough to seek him out. There were some, like the Pharisees, who came to the Jordan to observe John’s ministry but who had no desire to step into the water themselves. However, even those who did wade into the river, it wasn’t enough to be ritually purified, John’s baptism was more than that – it was a symbolic representation of changing one’s mind and going a new direction – a direction that pointed toward Jesus. His was the voice calling as we are called to be that voice.

On a personal level, I have always been reminded that this task has been passed on to us each time I say out loud the Benedictus during Morning Prayer. The second half of the canticle is an address by Zechariah to his own son, John the Baptist,

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.

You, my child… that you is directed at each and everyone one of us to be the voice, offering the knowledge that points people toward Christ. With John’s baptism, a person repented of sin, acknowledged their need for salvation, and was therefore ready to place their faith in Jesus Christ. It foreshadowed what Jesus would, did and still does accomplish, as the Benedictus goes on to say

In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John the Baptist wasn’t a B-list celebrity in the jungle or wilderness, someone you think you’ve heard of but you’re not sure you recognise them – he was definitely A-list, but he wasn’t the main attraction. His baptism was a purification ceremony meant to ready the peoples’ hearts to receive their Saviour. In this season of Advent we too are watching and waiting to receive once again with joy our Saviour. It’s an event worth calling out about…

Amen

John_The_Baptist