Broken Glass and Torn Veil: Worshiping the One God after Kristallnacht
A Sermon on Deuteronomy 6, Hebrews 7, and Mark 12
Christians and Jews worship one God, the same God, of Abraham and Sarah, of Miriam and Moses, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yet, fifty years ago this week (November 6, 1988) people in Germany, themselves named with the name of Christ, vandalized Jewish community buildings — synagogues, homes, places of business — and often claimed they were acting in the name of God. This day began the public part of a program of intense harassment of Jewish people that involved all of Europe and culminated in the killing of more than six million Jewish people, along with at least a million others: whole families, whole towns, in what we have learned to call a "holocaust."
The fact that we worship one God, the same God, was not enough for opening the hearts of many Christians to their Jewish neighbors. Something made it possible for Christians to transfer their loyalty, to transfer the reverence and worship, to their earthly leader, their Fuhrer, to Adolf Hitler, and they were not fully conscious that they did so. They continued to go to church. Many whole congregations and pastors continued to go through the motions of formal Christianity, but their allegiance had shifte1. Their actions showed it.
They shut their eyes to the sight of their Jewish neighbors being gathered up and shipped away on trains. They shut their ears to what they heard was happening to them in so-called "work camps," When the opportunity came to aid, many Christians — most Christians, though thankfully not all — shut their doors and often convinced themselves they were serving God by doing so. They weren't only Germans. In the United States we heard no cry of resistance when we refused to accept refugees from this most massive of all pogroms. Where were Christians with conscience?
How does this happen? We can read books of explanations from historians and sociologists, economists and psychologists. But the spiritual root of the reasons is that Christians who are able to turn on their neighbors have lost a true sense of who God is and of what God really wants from human beings.
If we can shut our ears to the pleas for solidarity from our sisters and brothers, we have lost track of the Word of God. We have lost sight of our connection with sisters and brothers who are part of the same family, whose forbears in faith are the same as ours, who were called into being by the same Word of God that finally came to us through generations of Hebrew interpreters whose faith became what we now know as Judaism.
But people who called themselves Christians had gotten so far away from the Word of God they couldn't tell the Word of God from a Word of fraud. The Law of God receded before a new barrage of laws from a government bent on conquest. In forgetting God's law, Christians became prey of laws that contradict everything that God has tried to teach us.
My point is this. When we forget even our own Christian scriptures — as well as our inheritance from generations of forbears in faith in the One God — we arc vulnerable to seduction by any kind of "god" that appeals to our fears, our desires, our vanity. Even when that "god" would turn against members of our own family.
And so 50 years ago a world full of Christians — not only Germany — were vulnerable and allowed a duly elected politician to lead his "Christian" nation in a program of conquest by war that included a systematic policy of terror against our own kin, against the ancient family in which our Jesus was born, and in which he remained our faithful elder brother all his life.
It was as a Hebrew rabbi that Jesus taught when he answered the scribes' questions in the Mark lesson: "Whose wife will she be?" "Which commandment is the first of all?"
I said earlier that we lost sight of our connection with sisters and brothers who are part of the same family because surely we knew it once. We who arc Christians and base our faith on God's revelation in Jesus Christ realize that to know Jesus we must meet him as he is given to us in scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments. We rejoice in the fact that, before the beginning of written history, God chose to speak the truth of God and Humanity through a particular people.
To the Hebrews God gave the story in Genesis, telling that earth and all creation are from God, given into human stewardship; telling that all humanity is one family, children of the same family tree.
To the Hebrews God gave the law about welcoming strangers, about justice and shalom for the oppressed.
To the Hebrews God gave the command we have heard read from Deuteronomy 6: HEAR, O ISRAEL, THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE. AND YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.
We who are Christians have claimed this revelation as our own, have insisted that this Bible is whole, that God's word is whole, that our life comes from faith in God who gives us the Holy Word through the human words of scripture.
Remember God's law! But what about this? We who are Christians rightly celebrate our freedom in Christ. We celebrated, just last weekend, "Reformation Sunday" and recalled Martin Luther's ringing affirmation — from Paul's letter to the Romans — that the just live by faith and not by works of the law. We are right to be glad that we are freed by Christ to live confidently in God's grace, not trusting our own righteous acts or fearing God's judgment for our unrighteous actions. We may trust God's acceptance alone for our redemption from sin and for beginning a new life. We cherish the story Jesus told in Luke 15 about a young man who left his home, taking with him his share of the family inheritance, and who wasted it all in a faraway country. He came to himself, realizing he was wasting his very life, and came home willing to take whatever punishment his father might give him in order to return home. We remember with joy that Jesus said his father welcomed him with open arms and threw a party for him. It is a wonderful story for us Gentiles, children of the one God, who have lived our lives in a tradition far from the law of Moses and the laws of God.
But we are wrong if we remember only the first part of Jesus' story. There was another son, an older brother, who stayed home. He obeyed his farther and was as dutiful toward him as any scribe or Pharisee toward the law of Moses. This son chafed at the father's free forgiveness of the scoundrel son and complained. Jesus said he, too, was loved and encouraged: "Son, everything I have is yours!"
Many scholars believe that Jesus had his own Jewish family in mind as he spoke, that he was appealed to them with his words about the older brother, just as he was appealing to us Gentiles with his words about the prodigal son.
So the question is pointed for us this morning, pointed right at our hearts: How shall we worship One God after Kristallnacht, how shall we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength? How Shall we worship the One God, who is God of Jew and Christian, in the shadow of this most shadowed period of our history?
We can begin by remembering the corollary of Jesus' teaching and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is a call that includes anyone whom God put in our path, as Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan shows.
But deeper and more troubling is the question: What does it mean to love our neighbor? To love God? And for this we must keep in touch with God's word.
It is not enough to pledge allegiance to God's word in general. If we don't really know what scripture says, we make it up and twist it in our minds to fit what we want it to say. It is not enough to hear the parts of the Word of God we want to hear, to read only the Psalms because they comfort us, or only the apocalypse because it allows us to feel vengeance against evildoers.
If we are to abide by God's Word, we must read it, study it, learn it continually. We'll have to read it critically because there is so much prejudice we bring to it. The scholars can help us peel back the layers of confusion to hear the text as it was given to its first hearers. And we'll have to read it humbly, letting it criticize us, letting the Word speak to us through the words on the page, so that through the Bible God can apply the true Word about God and humanity to our hearts, to our time of need.
This is hard, but it is not new. Ancient Israel knew this. The words of our call to worship from Psalm 119 express deep love of God which is love for God's law.
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! I will praise thee with an upright heart, when I learn thy righteous ordinances. Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things out of thy law. Blessed be thou, O Lord; teach me thy statutes.
And let us not think that by "law" Israel meant mere rules, mere restrictions. Hear the testimony of a Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, Writing today in a book called: Christian Faith and the Bible of Judaism:
There is a constant interplay between everyday affairs and the Word of God in the Torah (Scripture). The deep structure of human existence, framed by scripture and formed out of God's will, as spelled out in the Torah forms the foundation of our everyday life.
No Christian could say it better. God's Word is the deep truth about the way things are for us human beings, and interpreting it is a two-way communication. One might even call it a form of prayer. Jesus himself put it in the words we have read from Mark 12:29-31.
But we grow blind, it seems, to God's Word. It is as though a veil hides out eyes. God is too much for us. We are human, after all, and God is God. And between God's glory and our eyes are barriers: our finitude, our human limitations, and — of course —the sin that leads us to prefer our own way to the way of God. Together these barriers mean that we have trouble telling what God wills and trouble doing it.
It has never been easy to guide our life by God's law. The prophets of ancient Israel had to remind their people again and again to return to God, to turn away from the fraudulent God-substitutes to hear God's own word as the guide for their life. And it was hard for them. Even with the Exodus as a recent reality, with the law coming to them direct from the Source, even with the prophets all bearing witness right in their own town to God's powerful call to them and care for them, it was hard. Israel stumbled and fell all the time and God kept restoring them.
How much more is it hard for Gentiles like us who came to God "cold", so to speak? For us Swedes and Japanese, Ghanaians and Salvadorans and Americans? How shall we guide our lives by the Word of God? For us it is much harder to see the Bible as family history. For us, it seems like a foreign book.
For us, God has provided the way, the truth, and the life, in Jesus, our human elder brother, who for us became God in human flesh, who showed us God so potently that we dare to call him the Son of the Living God.
It is Jesus, says the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 9 of that book, who opened the way for us through the barrier of our human limitations and the barrier of our sin. This is the action we call "atonement," which God accomplished in Jesus' death and restoration to life. This is the meaning of the symbol of the torn veil at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, when, the gospels tell us, the curtain, or veil, of the Temple in Jerusalem was torn in half.
For us, the way to God is clear; it is Jesus, our anointed one. But even he is not an absolutely new way. He is the same way ancient Israel has always known: the way of God's own word.
For in him "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace... and we beheld his Glory, the Glory of the only Son of the Father."
This day Jesus invites us to his table, to renew our connection with him by sharing in the mystery of the world of the One God, become flesh. Come to the table in faith that God — the God of Jew and Christian — welcomes you, and receive what Jesus gives you, and me, and us together. It will strengthen us to know and obey the Word of God, which is the foundation of our everyday life.