August 20, 2017

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            The Dachau Concentration Camp was the first of its kind to be opened in Germany.  It opened in 1933 under direct orders from Heinrich Himmler, and it functioned originally as a labor camp, where tens of thousands of prisoners including Jewish citizens, artists, homosexuals, and enemies of Nazi Germany were forced into labor.  Dachau’s original purpose as a place of forced labor gradually changed as Hitler’s final solution calling for the death of millions transformed Dachau into a death camp.  There were 32,000 documented deaths at the camp, including 1,034 Christian clergy.  It is believed that there were thousands more deaths that went undocumented.  Dachau was the end result of a perverse and unchristian ideology in which one group of people, Nazis, believed other races, sexual orientations, and religions were a drain on the purity of their country. 

            Dachau was liberated by Allied forces on April 26, 1945.  For the Orthodox church, Easter was late that year, falling just a few weeks later on May 6.  And so on Easter Sunday, in a prison cell block, Greek and Serbian priests gathered to celebrate Easter at Dachau, boldly proclaiming resurrection in a hellish place known only by death and hate.

            Today, there is a Jewish Memorial at Dachau, designed by a German architect, and built in 1967.  Inside the memorial is a prayer room that is approximately six feet underground.   To get to this room, you walk down a ramp that goes into the earth.  It is dark there.  Some have interpreted the underground room as a metaphor for the underground gas chambers at Auschwitz or the crematorium ovens at Dachau, but this was not the architect’s intent.  Rather, the underground room represents the hiding places of the Jews who tried to escape Nazi persecution.  

            When you go into this room, there are no windows.  It is solemn.  But in the midst of the darkness, there is light.  Light falls from a hole in the ceiling that opens to the sky.  From this hole in the ceiling, a stone Menorah is visible, extending outward with seven arms.  The Menorah’s visibility reminds those in the dark room that somehow in death and darkness, God is present.

            “I ask then, has God rejected his people?” writes Paul, the author of Romans.  We hear these words today in the reading from Paul’s letter in which Paul, a Jew, advocates for the inclusion of all people – Jewish and non-Jewish – as part of God’s family.  That is the central theme of this – Paul’s greatest work.  Simply put, Paul argues that Jews and people who would later be called “Christian” are equally embraced by God.  One is not more favored than the other.  One is not right, the other wrong.  Both traditions of Judaism and what we would later call Christianity were, in Paul’s mind, equal, period. 

            In Charlottesville, Virginia, last week, protestors gathered carrying confederate flags and flags bearing the symbol of nazi Germany, chanting nazi-era slogans and saying, and I quote “Jews will not replace us.”  When I hear that, I have no choice but to speak against the hate.  I have no choice as a priest, as a follower of Jesus to say simply, clearly, and unambiguously: there is no place for racism, bigotry, homophobia, or hate of any kind, period.  White supremacy is clearly evil.  It saddens me deeply that this simple message seems so difficult for our president to articulate.  [not about the president, president didn’t invent racism, it’s bigger than the president].

            Russell Moore, an American theologian, ethicist, and preacher associated with the Southern Baptist Convention offered a response to the events in Charlottesville last week, saying, and I quote:  “the so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core.  We should say so.”  Why do I quote Dr. Moore?  Because his statement was offensive to a group of people, though not the group you might expect.  The group offended by Dr. Moore’s words was the Church of Satan who replied on Twitter to Dr. Moore on August 12, saying: “[Charlottesville was] not satanic, please leave us out of this.”  In case you missed that, even the church of Satan doesn’t want to be associated with Charlottesville!   

            What do we do? How do we respond?  In Matthew 5:43 Jesus says, ‘You have heard it said that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  If I understand Jesus correctly, I am to pray for my enemy.  I am to pray for those who persecute me.  There is nothing easy about this for me.  Praying for intolerant and hateful people, I don’t know if I can do.  And that’s the problem. 

            See, I would be lying if I told you that I am at a place of having compassion toward people's intolerant and bigoted beliefs.  I would be lying if I said I was able to see even the most hateful person as someone lovingly created in God's image.  I am at a place right now where I think the only response to the hate and intolerance I see is just more hate and intolerance toward people who are hateful and intolerant!  And that’s not going to get me anywhere.  That’s not what Jesus is advocating in Matthew 5:43.

            Jesus advocates compassion, and there is a reason for this.  Our capacity to show compassion to the most hate-filled person will be an indication of the nature of our Christianity.  Few can do this.  One person who could was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his role in attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at German death camp days before Hitler’s death, learned to see the German prison guards as his brothers in Christ.  As a prisoner, he ministered to them, and he prayed for them.  He practiced compassion, living Matthew 5:43.    

            The promise that we make, and which is made on our behalf at our baptism is that we will resist evil and respect the dignity of every human being.  The luxury of this moment, if there is one, is that evil is so easy to identify.  Resist it.  Resist evil not with just more hate, resist the evil of prejudice not with just more prejudice.  But choose the way of Jesus, which is to resist evil with love and compassion.  Because if you show compassion toward evil, the evil will flee from your presence, always.  There is a light within you.  A light that falls upon you like the light that is in Dachau that withstands all darkness and hate.  The world needs that light – the world needs your light.  Let it shine, let everyone see it, and when your light shines with the light of Jesus, the darkness which seems to be everywhere will be revealed for what it really is – merely a speck, almost unnoticeable in the midst of Christ’s almighty love.  AMEN.