4 February 2018 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Genesis 2: 4b-7

When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, there was neither shrub nor plant growing on the earth, because the Lord God had sent no rain; nor was there anyone to till the ground. Moisture used to well up out of the earth and water all the surface of the earth.

The Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living creature.

Luke 8: 26-35

So they landed in the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped ashore he was met by a man from the town who was possessed by demons. For a long time he had worn neither clothes nor lived in a house, but stayed among the tombs. When he saw Jesus he cried out, and fell at his feet. ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ he shouted. ‘I implore you, do not torment me’. For Jesus was already commanding the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many a time it had seized him, and then, for safety’s sake, they would secure him with chains and fetters; but each time he broke loose and was driven by the demon out into the wilds.

Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Legion,’ he replied. This was because so many demons had taken possession of him. And they begged him not to banish them to the abyss.
There was a large herd of pigs nearby, feeding on the hillside; and the demons begged him to let them go into these pigs. He gave them leave; the demons came out of the man and went into the pigs, and the herd rushed over the ledge into the lake and were drowned.
When the men in charge of them saw what had happened, they took to their heels and carried the news to the town and countryside; and the people came out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone out sitting at his feet clothed and in his right mind, they were afraid.

———

“Peace”
“Shalom”

On the 27th of January 1945, the allied forces liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. As the camps were liberated and the Nazi regime collapsed it became clearer and clearer just how many millions of lives had been eradicated by the Nazis. Lily Ebert, a holocaust survivor says “Auschwitz was really a factory for killing, and human beings were used as fuel. I survived and promised myself, I will tell the world what happened.”

Last weekend, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust Memorial Day was marked in this country and elsewhere. We heard from survivors and their descendants about what happened, about what humans are capable of doing to each other.

We heard how many human lives were taken. So many that if a minute’s silence were kept for each life, there would be 11 years of nothingness. In excess of six million lives; human beings into whom God had breathed the breath of life. The breath of life given by God, and choked out by other human beings. Voices cry from other genocides too: from Cambodia, a death toll exceeding two million; over a million slaughtered in Rwanda; thousands massacred in Srebrenica under our very noses; half a million dead in Darfur, the number rising every day.

“Peace”
“Shalom”

It can feel like there hasn’t been much of it about recently.

Slaughter and genocide are nothing new of course. The first book of Samuel in the Old Testament describes a massacre in the reign of King Saul, which would have been around the late 11th century BCE. A massacre prompted by the prophet Samuel passing on what he believed to be the word of the Lord God: “Go now, fall upon the Amalekites, destroy them…Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and donkeys.”

Can this really be the same Lord God that breathed the breath of life into human nostrils?? “Spare no one…children and babes in arms”. If this doesn’t cause us to question almost everything it means to be a human being, what will? If this doesn’t cause us to question the steps to which every religion and ideology will go to preserve itself, I fear nothing will.

Gregory Stanton, a Professor of Genocide Studies identifies a number of steps common to most genocides. Broadly speaking, according to Stanton, genocides begin with something as simple as “Classification”: identifying divisions within societies; identifying “us” and “them”.

“As [Jesus] stepped ashore he was met by a man from the town who was possessed by demons.” How easy it must have been in Jesus’ day to demonise someone you disagreed with, literally: “Get away from me, you have a demon.” It was said about Jesus himself.

A further step along Stanton’s road to genocide is “Symbolisation”, think of the coloured stars the Nazis used to mark their enemies: Jews, homosexuals, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Roma people.

“For a long time, he had neither worn clothes nor lived in a house.” What starker symbol of your division from normal, civilised society than being stripped naked and made homeless?? Jesus in his own crucifixion was stripped of his garments.

Further down the road is “Dehumanisation”. In the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were referred to as “cockroaches”. The Nazis referred to Jews as “vermin”.

“‘What is your name?’ ‘Legion,’ he replied.” The man in our story has been depersonalised to the point that he no longer has a real name. He is simply legion. A hive of demons. A swarm of vermin. Jesus was flogged and beaten – no different from any other enemy of the Roman Empire.

Yet further on we come to Persecution and Extermination. You don’t need me to spell out the ghettos, the pogroms, the systematic approach to death taken in genocide.

“They would secure him with chains and fetters;” “I implore you, do not torment me.” said the man. This was someone accustomed to being tormented, and bound against his will. He was treated by his townsfolk with violence, which he returned with further violence. Jesus, bound and tormented gave no violence for violence. He prayed for those who persecuted him, asking for their forgiveness.

The man possessed by demons lives in the tombs. Life is as death for him, he is a living corpse. To his fellow townsfolk he is as good as dead; perhaps they wish he were dead?? The stench of death lies heavily across this whole episode. In this chapel as in almost any church, we cannot escape the instrument of Jesus’ own death. It adorns our altar here.

“Peace”
“Shalom”

This is all a rather round-about way of getting to what tonight’s sermon is supposed to be about – Peace. Peace as a Christian virtue. Peace as a Christian practice. I wouldn’t presume to give you a definition of this. But I will try to give you two examples.

Jesus’ question to the man possessed by demons: “What is your name?” The man is addressed, possibly for the first time in a long time, as a human being. Names are powerful things. Each prisoner, each victim of every concentration camp and death camp had their name taken away: reduced to only a number.

Jesus wants to know who this man is, who he truly is, not the “legion” of demons that has come to define him. An intervention of sorts, not violent, breaking that downward spiral that leads from Classification to Dehumanisation to Persecution and Extermination. I don’t want to classify you, I want to know your name, I want to know who you are.

“When they came to Jesus and found the man…they were afraid.” Why? Jesus has quickly and quietly brought peace to a troubled soul. Chains will no longer be needed to restrain this man; he sits clothed before them, no longer shamed with his nakedness. The man is just like the rest of the townsfolk again. Jesus has, in effect, said “Look. This person is really no different from you or me.” Classification has been undone.

“Peace”
“Shalom”

On the 10th of March 1943, nearly 9000 Bulgarian Jews were being loaded onto trains destined for the death camp at Treblinka in Poland. The Bulgarian Orthodox bishop, Kirill, an outspoken opponent of the Nazis in Bulgaria, came to the train station with 300 members of his church, pushed through the cordon of unprepared SS men, and forced his way into a train car loaded with Jews.

According to some accounts, as he reached them, Kirill shouted a text from the Old Testament Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

The SS men threw him out of the train car. He forced himself into another. He was thrown out of that one, so he walked to the front of the train to lie down on the tracks if the train started to move.

His actions sparked a protest within the Bulgarian parliament, leaders of all political parties sending protests to the government and King of Bulgaria. The next day the Jews were freed from the train station and allowed to return to their homes.

The Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was galvanised and continued to oppose efforts to deport Bulgaria’s Jews. The death of the King later in 1943 stopped the deportation attempts once and for all.

At the beginning of World War II, the Jewish population of Bulgaria was 48,000. At the end it was 50,000.

On the 11th of November 2001, Yad Vashem – Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Centre – recognized Bishop Kirill of Bulgaria as Righteous Among the Nations.

“Peace”
“Shalom”

A poem by Avram Schaufeld, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Do not ask

Do not ask
How did you survive?
Because this is a question that causes me pain
and brings back memories…
I know that you mean well and are sympathetic
and would like me to talk to your youth group
or your son who is writing a paper on the Holocaust
and I could help him with the subject which is part of his exams.
You add with a smile, that no amount of reading is the same
as talking to a survivor.
From your eager expression I can guess
what you expect me to tell him.
About our bravery and how our faith in God
helped us to survive.
I lie and say I am too busy
that I have other commitments
and quickly take my leave and turn away
So that you cannot see the hurt in my eyes
Do not ask me why…

The man who had been possessed by demons sits at Jesus’ feet, in the place of a pupil. He sits listening to the words of his master. I don’t know what Jesus says as he breathes those words of life into him. I don’t know what he says, but I think it sounds something like

“Peace”
“Shalom”

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