ONLY JUSTICE – AND THE AMBLESIDE JEWS – A Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Preached at the Unity Week United Service at St Mary’s, Fordingbridge, on Sunday, January 27th, 2019 – also Holocaust Memorial Day.

 Deut. 16:11-20, Luke 4:14-21

Lord God, take my words and speak through them, take our minds and think through them, take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

There’s not been very much in the news this week to make my heart sing.  However, there was one thing on Tuesday evening that really piqued my interest: and that was the enormous rise in the sales of poetry books.  Can you believe it?  After many years of sales just bobbing along at about the same level, suddenly, in the past two years, there has been a 25% increase in the sales of poetry books.  And, equally extraordinary, is that the rise has been fuelled by young people, by lots of people reading poetry on the internet – apparently Instagram is a top place for finding good poetry – young people reading poetry on the internet, and then going out and buying the books.

Really, the young people of today, spending their time reading poetry?  Fantastic!

And I wonder how much that is a reflection of the world we live in, where discourse is continually being cheapened, where politicians are displaying very poor leadership skills, where some world leaders communicate in rude and demeaning Tweets.

These young poetry lovers are looking for language that means something, language that gives life, language that speaks of truth, of depth, of something beyond the everyday.

So, have we, as the Church of this place, all our Churches worshipping together – have we got something to offer?

Of course, we have.  We speak of the Word made flesh, the creative Word of God, the Word made flesh who speaks, and lives, and dies, and rises again.

Our Gospel Reading this morning comes from Luke 4, what is sometimes called ‘The Nazareth Manifesto’, the first words we hear from Jesus as an adult.

Now, the structure of the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel is fascinating – we don’t always look at Bible stories in the context of their wider settings, but it’s a really useful thing to do.

All of chapter one is about the birth of John the Baptist, the overshadowing of Mary by the Holy Spirit, and the interactions between Elizabeth and Mary, and it contains two of the great pieces of poetry of the New Testament – the ‘Song of Mary’, usually called the ‘Magnificat’, and the ‘Song of Zechariah’, usually called the ‘Benedictus’.  In chapter one – and we always need to remember that the verse and chapter divisions only date from around the 16th century; the original was written without verses, chapters, or sections headings – in chapter one Luke is setting out the preliminaries.

In chapter two, Jesus is born, is visited by the shepherds, is circumcised, is presented in the Temple – the occasion of the third great poem in Luke, the ‘Song of Simeon’, the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, and we hear the one story in the New Testament of Jesus as a child – his visit to the Temple when he was twelve.

Chapter three returns to John the Baptist, who quotes from the Prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord”’ [Lk 3:4], and Jesus is baptised, ‘And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”’ [Lk 3:22].

And the chapter ends with a genealogy, tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to Adam, the son of God – these genealogies are hardly ever read, but we reflected on the Matthean version at the Unity Week Prayers in Hyde on Wednesday afternoon, and it was well worth the time spent thinking about it.

And so, we arrive at chapter 4, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days, being tempted, and, eventually, we reach our Gospel reading, when Jesus returns to Galilee, and pitches up at the Synagogue in Nazareth, ‘as was his custom’ [Lk 4:16].

And after all of this, what are his first words as he begins his ministry of preaching the Kingdom of God?  Where does he go, he, the Son of God and the Word of God, to set out what he is on earth for?

Like John the Baptist, he reaches for Isaiah, that great Prophet of the Old Testament, and reads,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’ [Lk 4:18-19].

What sort of a Word is this?  It’s not setting forth his doctrine of God; it’s not calling people to repentance; it’s not on the surface of things really demanding anything of his hearers.

And yet, it’s enough to set him on his path to the Cross and to Resurrection.  Those few simple words, very familiar to his hearers, but now put into a new context, tell all those in authority to beware – God is not automatically on their side.  Instead, God chooses to have a bias towards those who need him most, a bias to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, all those on the outside, rather than those on the inside – who already probably have the resources to look after themselves.

Is that the message we as the Church proclaim today?  It’s a real challenge for us, especially for us a Western Christians, living in an extraordinarily favoured part of the world, in spite of all the difficulties we face in this country.

Perhaps if our message were more like Jesus’s, and if our words were clearer and more challenging, and if we were able to speak of justice and peace and compassion and hope more effectively, all those young people and others who are longing for words that make a difference would be attracted to the man behind the message, Jesus Christ himself.

Today, as well as being the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, is also Holocaust Memorial Day, chiefly commemorating the murder of some 6 million Jews, and many Romas, homosexuals, disabled people and others, during the Second World War.  The full horror of the Nazi killing machine is impossible to comprehend, and one can only catch glimpses of it through novels, history books, films, poetry, museums, such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and in other ways.  I’ve just finished reading a difficult but ultimately hopeful account of survival called, ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’, which I recommend.  The numbers of those who died are very difficult to estimate, as many of the records were destroyed towards the end of the War, but of the estimated 6 million who died, around 1½ million were children.

But I want to tell you the story of 300 children who survived.  They are known as the Ambleside Jews, Ambleside being a town at the Head of Windermere in the Lake District.

In 1945, the British Government welcomed around 750 children who were rescued from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  This was following the 1939 Kindertransport, when around 10,000 predominantly Jewish children were brought here from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.  Of the 750 who arrived in 1945, 300 were transported directly from Auschwitz to the Lake District, landing at Carlisle Airport, and being bussed to Ambleside, to an Estate called Calgarth.

You can hear more about this by downloading the BBC Radio 4 edition of ‘Open Country’ from last November called ‘The Windermere Boys’, where you can hear some of the boys themselves talking about their experiences, and what it was like.

When these 300 boys, aged 3-16, came to Calgarth, they were amazed to find that they had beds, toilets, food – there’s a story that when bread was put on the table for them at meal times, it all disappeared into their pockets – they didn’t know whether there would be another meal after this one or not.

Here’s part of a wonderful eye-witness account – when they first arrived, all the clothes they needed hadn’t arrived, but that didn’t stop them enjoying themselves: ‘I was walking home from school and I saw big white strip coming towards me on the street.  I didn’t know what on earth it was.  As it got closer I realised it a long line of boys.  They had arrived from Poland but their new clothes hadn’t.  They didn’t let that stop them though, so they were walking through the streets in their white vests and underwear.

‘There were lovely boys.  Part of the lake was once cordoned off to make a swimming pool and the boys would often be down there.  They were all so delighted and grateful to have been brought here.  It was hard to believe the atrocities they had seen and lived through. They said coming to Windermere was like being in paradise’ [https://www.lancashirelife.co.uk/out-about/places/the-inspiring-story-of-how-windermere-helped-300-jewish-chldren-fleeing-the-nazis-1-1646490].

It’s a wonderful, hope-filled story, and shows how this country can be when it rises to the need of a particular hour.  But there is an interesting postscript – and this is where your buttons come in.  You might like to hold them now.

The Calgarth Estate was largely demolished, and is now the site of a secondary school, called ‘The Lake School’, and a couple of years ago, the students had a visit from one of the Ambleside Boys – now an old man, of course.  They were amazed to hear the story of what had happened on the site of their school, and one of the pupils, known as ‘B’ wanted to find some way of visualising the 6 million who died in the Holocaust, and especially the 1½ million children.  So, she came up with the idea of collecting buttons, one for each child, which will form the basis of a permanent memorial in the Lake District.  This plea for buttons went viral, and they’ve been collected from all over the world – exceeding the 1½ million initially requested, and now within sight of the 6 million to commemorate all of those who died.

As a symbol of hope, of remembrance, and of our desire for justice with peace for all people, you are invited to hold the button for a moment longer, and think of the one life which it represents, and then, during our next song, the buttons will be collected, and later on sent to the Lake School as our contribution to the permanent memorial.  And I’d be very glad to have a volunteer to count them before they are sent off.

As we hold our button, as we think of Jesus, the Word made flesh, and as we remember those who died in the Holocaust, and as we look forward with hope, a reflection from the Unity Week Prayers.

Hope

Forgive us how we’ve devalued you:

‘We live in hope’ and yet don’t hope to live,

‘Hope so’, when we have none in our hearts.

 

Show us who you really are:

disturb the deathly ease of our despair

and give us the courage to embrace your pain:

impudent in the face of hate,

unrelenting under oppression,

daring to resist the entropy of division.

 

Goad us to take up that felon’s cross

whose agony laid empty the grave.

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