Holocaust Memorial Service

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
   and have scattered us among the nations. 
You sold your people for a pittance, 
   gaining nothing from their sale. 
You have made us a reproach to our neighbours, 
   the scorn and derision of those around us.
(Pslam 44:11-13)

How does a gathered church, a gathered community of worshippers, lament and grieve in common, in the face of great cruelty?

When pain is just mine – just my anger, just my sickness, just my tears - we naturally retreat inwards. We shut ourselves behind doors, and behind faces of ‘everything is fine’. Pain separates one from another.

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem By Rembrandt

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem By Rembrandt

A lament is defined as a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. As a gathered people, to enter into a lament is to say we are not alone, such pain is universal. Perhaps it is in our past, perhaps we are living it now, or perhaps it is to come, but ultimately we are not alone in our pain.

This service is a collective lament in the face of an unjust world, in the face of genocide, in the face of the horror one does to another. Out of shared sorrow comes hope, comes forth a vision of what might occur. Lament opens our heart to wrestle with the spectrum of human experience, for sorrow leads to comfort. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Seventy-one years ago the Nazi death camps were liberated by the Soviets, the British, and the American armies. Today we remember the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis, and we remember the other genocides and acts of ethnic cleansing in our modern times.

It is said that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. For this reason this morning we invoke this spectre of unimaginable suffering and cruelty. That we might never forget. But more still that we might recognise this spectre at work today, where genocide is not a distant memory, where people are driven from their homes, and where religion and ideology are warped into a cruel vehicle of bloodshed, injustice, and intolerance.

We weep with the dispossessed, with Abdul Salam who escaped the on-going genocide in Darfur, for families ripped apart, divided by towering walls, for a people marked with bands around their wrists, with a people held hostage under a black flag of hatred.

How can we fathom such cruelty? So many silenced. So much lost.

Listen, Lord! Hear my prayer for justice!
Listen to my plea.
Hear my prayer,
For my lips do not deceive.
My judgment comes from you,
For your eyes see what is right

In Psalm 137 we heard the cries of a dispossessed people. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Words of pain and despair. Words of anger, to wrestle with God. Has he forsaken us?

In 2008 a BBC television drama was aired called ‘God on Trial’; a fictional story about the Jews in Auschwitz putting God on trial, questioning if God had broken his covenant with the Jewish people.

Scene from 'God on Trial' 2008.

Scene from 'God on Trial' 2008.

Fictional maybe, but maybe not. In the context, in the moment, it seems plausible, so appropriate, that God must have been put on trial. Maybe just in the hearts of men and women in those forsaken places, but put on trial none the less.

In the course of that drama, some cry that to even question God in this way is blasphemy. Some point to science, and how absurd it is to think that here, on this insignificant rock in a universe so vast, we might be a chosen people. There is no God to find guilty. Some give accounts of the cruelty they experienced at the hands of Nazis. ‘Where is our free will?’ they cry. Some discuss the cruelty of God in the Old Testament, who would kill firstborns, flood and destroy all humanity, order a chosen people to take a land by force and crush all inhabitants. Perhaps God’s very nature is cruelty.

As the trial concludes one pleads, ‘They took away our property, our names, cut our hair, took away our children, even the fillings in our teeth. Don’t let them take our God too. The covenant is ours. God is ours, even if he doesn’t exist… We should keep him.’ And yet, they conclude that God is guilty as charged; a covenant breaker. And then the doors of their block open, and Nazi officers come to take them away.

‘What do we do now?’ one cries out. Now God is guilty what do we do now? ‘Now we pray’ another replies.

Is this not the very apex of a lament? To accuse your God of negligence, when all hope is lost, and when darkness is closing in. In the Nazi holocaust, two thirds of all the Jews in Europe perished, some six million. And that number rises to eleven million when you include all the other non-Jewish victims. The Polish people, the Romani people, priests and pastors, homosexuals, people with disabilities, Free-masons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all those refusing to ‘Heil, Hitler!’ Those who spoke out against the Nazi war machine.

It seems to me that in the lamenting of these people - Anne Frank feeling guilty, the priest Martin Niemöller regretting not taking a stand when the ‘other’ was persecuted, and in the grieving of the Jews as is echoed throughout the Hebrew Bible, throughout their persecuted history, in the death camps themselves - God was profoundly present.

To say that God is everywhere and in everything does not mean that God is the cause, directly or indirectly, of everything that happens. These horrible things that happened, are happening, and will happen again, do not fit into a God ordained plan. This is the blasphemous thought: there is no puppet master. To ask where God is, to lament in the face of injustice, to dream of what could be, is to act contrary to the wealthy and powerful, who so often want to treat this earth as if it belongs to them more than others. More to me than them. In our self-centredness we see our complicity in the greatest sort of evil.

The Yellow star Jewish people had to wear under the Nazis. 

The Yellow star Jewish people had to wear under the Nazis. 

But, the psalmist declares, the earth is the Lords, and the fullness thereof. God is the encompassing reality, she is the encompassing spirit in which we all have our being, and to recognise this as such is to not place my individual self at the centre of the universe, but the ‘other’, our neighbour, the outward motion of love.

In this respect then then, to lament with your brother or sister is one of the most selfless acts, a humanising act. To feel another’s pain, to enter into cooperate paining, brings our focus and our attention off the self and opens us to each other, to that universal hurting. Lamenting is worship!

It was in the desert, in the wilderness, that the Jewish people came to understand the worth of God. And echoing this, it was in the wilderness that Jesus came to understand the worth of God. Lamenting is part of the journey of faith, from isolation to the presence of God.

To lament is to invite a new spirit of reconciliation, a new hope, a new dream of what is going to be. It begs for that new beginning! It inaugurates it. It claims it as a reality of what is to come.

Jesus hangs upon the cross. He laments, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ This is the start of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer…’

Out of lament comes new hope. It claims it as a reality of what is to come. Psalm 22 concludes:

The poor will eat and be satisfied;
    those who seek God will praise him—

All the ends of the earth
    will remember and turn to God,

and all the families of the nations
    will bow down before him,

They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

Out of lament comes greater recognition of our shared humanity. A deeper longing to ask, ‘how are you really?’. A society that takes the common good seriously. A standing up for the persecuted and marginalised.

Listen, Lord! Hear my prayer for justice!
Listen to my plea.
Hear my prayer,
For my lips do not deceive.
My judgment comes from you,
For your eyes see what is right