Holocaust Memorial Sermon, 31st January 2016

Sermon at Lancaster Priory – Holocaust Memorial 2016

Rev. Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster

The season of Epiphany which is now drawing to its end, is not just an opportunity to prolong the celebrations of Christmas from its traditional 12 days, to a longer period of 40 days until the feast of Candlemas, on 2nd February. The readings, and themes of the season have a very clear theological message, which goes well beyond the good news of Christmas, namely, that Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God is born to save us from our sins. The Epiphany is all about how Christ is revealed to the whole world – not just as the culmination of the Hebrew Scriptures, “as foretold in the prophets” – but this revelation is good news for the whole world, for every creature, and for those who were thousands of years away from being born – for you and for me, and for every member of the human family here on earth. The Baptism of Jesus revealed him to everyone present with the very voice of God confirming his presence. John the Baptist confirmed him as the Lamb of God – and in the first of his “signs” or miracles, Jesus showed his power over created matter by turning water into wine. All of these events have been passed on to all believers in the Gospel accounts of the early life and ministry of Jesus, and they constitute his “Manifestation to the Gentiles” or in everyday terms, what he did showed that his deeds of power were for the whole world, and not must for one particular group. “For God so loved THE WORLD…”

By calendar coincidence, we have kept, and are keeping some other observances in this period. Last week, we completed Christian Unity Week, and Michael reminded us of our need to keep before us the vision of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church – a vision we all need to prevent the people from perishing. And this week we have been focussing on Holocaust Memorial Day, focussed on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when we remember the Shoah, the Holocaust – to keep before us that nightmare of how far humanity is capable of going against the will of God by being a force of destruction and evil – rather than one human family which seeks to follow the God of Creation, the Prince of Peace, and the Life-giving Spirit of Love.

So, especially at this season, even though it should be a mark of our faith at all times, let us focus on how ‘who we are’, and how our life as Christians is a witness to the world of that love.

First, let us reflect on today, as we will welcome other faith groups to our Church to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. We do this with love, and with open hearts as we remember all communities who have suffered as a result of the appalling violence of the 2nd World War, and its consequences which continue to scar human lives, and which prevent the full human flourishing of all God’s people. We invite local faith communities to gather with us, united by our common humanity, yet divided by our faith traditions. And as we gather, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Bah’ai, Buddhists and indeed, non-believers too, we show the greatest respect to each other and their faith – or lack of faith; though we, as Christians hold fast to our own faith in Christ Jesus and, without apology, continue to proclaim His name in this place where he has been worshipped for nearly two millennia, and his love for all his people. And though we will not agree on many issues of our beliefs, on this occasion above all, we seek to be united by our common humanity and our desire, not only to see peace in the world, but also to be people who are peace-makers in our own communities and spheres of influence.

When we kept our observance of Christian Unity Week, we affirmed our hope that the Unity for which Our Lord prayed in John 17 might become a reality, and that a deep unity might be built which means that we can walk together, work together, and by our common witness to the world, be a force for good among families, communities, and nations throughout the world. But we have to acknowledge the scandal of our disunity. The most important text for Christian Unity has to be the words of Jesus as recorded by St John: “I pray that they may be one, that the world might believe.” Jesus doesn’t call us to be one so we can have a great love-fest celebrating our same-ness; there is a purpose for unity, and it is a goal that, even after 2,000 years, we have not yet met – and are probably further away from meeting it than in the entire history of the Church – that the world might believe.

Why is it, do you think, that people do not believe in God? I’m sure you have all interacted with people who do not believe, and they may – with a bit of encouragement, be able to tell you why it is that they do not believe in God. Perhaps, you may also have the courage to tell them why it is that you do believe in God.

For me, the hardest accusations to respond to, are based on the violence that exists in the world which is based on religious intolerance and hatred. And here I have to hold my hands up and say, “Yes, that exists, and we, the Church, must bow our heads in shame for the violence that has its origins in how we have expressed our faith in the past.” Going back to the Crusades, unspeakable evil was unleashed on many innocent people, allegedly in the name of the Christian Church. The present evil in the Middle East, with Da’esh, or so-called Islamic State has its roots in that ancient conflict, and we need to accept the responsibility on behalf of our forefathers (and yes, it was the fathers who were responsible!) for creating a culture of hatred and genocidal destruction which continues to the present day.

But you don’t have to go that far to see the problems with Christian Unity facing major problems. In recent weeks we have witnessed a meeting – no, not a meeting, that is too formal a word for what it was; it was a “Gathering” of the Primates of the Anglican Communion. Indeed, like many, I agree that the term is not entirely helpful, when a dictionary gives the following definition:

any placental mammal of the order Primates, typically having flexible hands and feet with opposable first digits, good eyesight, and, in the higher apes, a highly developed brain: 

But of course we know that we are actually referring to the senior bishops or archbishops of the national churches which make up the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as first among equals of the Communion, called this gathering (not a formal meeting which would have given a certain authority to the assembly which its members refused to give it) to consider where the various national churches currently stand in relationship to the Communion, defined as being in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, from whose authority all the other churches came into being, and into relationship with each other. There were some positive things to come out of the meeting. Each archbishop spoke about the issues affecting them, from climate change in the Pacific island nations which are at risk from being flooded out of very existence with rising sea levels, to the threat of terrorism to Christian communities in the Middle East, from threats against Christian churches in Pakistan, to the challenge of militant Islam in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa.

But despite these massive subjects of global significance, the one subject which caused most dissent among the gathered church leaders was one which affects many people at the very core of their being. Representing 160 countries from across the world there could not be a more diverse group on God’s earth. The different ways people live their lives could not be more extreme between the Arctic Circle and the Horn of Africa, the Patagonian plains or the sprawling cities of India or East Asia. And this has been this vexed subject of human sexuality – and in particular, the issue of homosexuality.

Here in the UK, as in the USA and Canada, and many countries in Western hemisphere, tremendous steps have been made in the last 50 years to achieve a decriminalisation of something that was a criminal offence almost universally less than half a century ago. In 79 countries around the world, however, simply being homosexual remains illegal. Five of those countries, Iran, Mauretania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria, Iraq, and Somalia are still executing people for the crime of being lesbian or gay. Uganda is still considering introducing the death penalty for homosexuality. While in the west, there are lesbian and gay heads of state and heads of government from Iceland to Luxembourg, while in Saudi Arabia men are beheaded in a public square for the crime of being gay. In Iraq, they are bound hand and feet and thrown to their deaths from the top of the highest building in town.

How can any international meeting, even a church meeting – bring together people from such diverse backgrounds and cultures, and expect them to agree on almost anything at all? What was remarkable after the Canterbury meeting was that the Anglican Communion decided to continue to “walk together” even though they had sought to exercise discipline on the American Episcopal Church for having the temerity to change its teachings to define marriage as simply being between two people who love each other. Many Church members in other denominations responded with joy to this decisions. Other churches of our communion will be debating this in the coming years. Canada, Scotland, and perhaps even in England, we will be able to debate this and to make real in our churches what has become a reality in our society, that families are no longer made based on just one type of sexual relationship.

This decision is causing huge pain across the different national churches. There is the pain of those LGBT members who have been driven out of their churches, and there is the searing pain in families where a young soul has chosen to commit suicide, rather than live with the rejection that can be found  in many communities for being lesbian or gay; and there is the pain of those who feel that the status quo of society has been undermined by radical new changes in social structures, with the introduction of civil partnerships and marriage.

Today we are keeping our annual Holocaust Memorial Day observation. Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust said this:

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In the spirit of that commitment, I have always worked – and will always work for the inclusion of those who have been marginalised, excluded, and abused, and those who continue be vilified for who they are. Whilst I see the pain and sorrow of those who continue to resist any changes, I will continue to do all I can to achieve equality for all people – the right to be equal in law, and equal in church for who people are.

To me that is based on God’s love for the world – that he sent his Son to save. It is based on Jesus’ saying that when he is lifted up, he would draw all people to himself.  It is based on the prophecy that God would pour out his spirit on all his people.

I began by reflecting on how God’s love is revealed to the whole world through Jesus.

I end by suggesting that we can reveal God’s love for the world today by being agents of His love for all people – without exception; the love of a God who conquered darkness with light, and hate with love. And that will reveal to our world, a God to whom people can turn without fear of rejection because of who God created them to be.

And may all people come to know that God of Love, Jesus Christ His Son, the Prince of Peace, and the Holy Spirit, Source of all life and love. Amen.