Choose Life

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September 08, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death."

Whatever else you do, don’t tease the parrot. Not that there were many animals around, but for all that, there was a zoo – at least they called it a zoo. It was little more than an enclosure for some foxes from the forest, and a dovecot built on top of it for some birds. But it was surrounded with lovely flowers, and it was probably a great place to relax after a hard day’s work, when you had been busy at your job…. Your job of killing several thousand people...per day. 

So nice to have that little bit of life, as you rolled up your sleeves, grabbed your whip, and propelled thousands upon thousands of people – almost entirely Jews, but a small number of gypsies – to their deaths. The zoo; the lovely, shaggy St Bernard gently wandering around. Oh, and the commandant’s parrot – in which, apparently, he took considerable delight, and had a sign put up, telling his staff not to tease the parrot.

If you were into mass murder, if playing a role in genocide appealed to you, if you thought that your resumé might be enhanced with a line or two about engaging in best practices in efficient uses of poison and cremation, then the bucolic setting of Treblinka, little more than ninety minutes drive into the countryside north east of Warsaw, was probably a lovely place to practice such a career. Provided, of course, you didn’t tease the commandant’s parrot.

Treblinka was the first of three death camps that I visited three weeks ago, when with a considerable number of other Christian pastors and teachers from Chicago and the wider church, I made an extraordinary and life-changing study tour to Poland, to learn both of the dizzy heights of Jewish civilization that had come to pass in that country, and of its eradication in little more than a heartbeat, as the Nazi’s grip on Europe solidified in the 1930s and brought about the Second World War.

Led by Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, an Orthodox rabbinic scholar based at Chicago’s Jewish Federation, we journeyed from the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto, into the countryside, to learn of the work of the mobile killing units that carried out the first phase of Operation Rheinhard, and thence to see three of the six death camps the Nazis created in occupied Poland in the early 1940s – Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz. Between them, the places of death for about two million people.

And as the ‘transports’ (by which we mean the cattle trucks in which the Jews – and others – were deported from their homes and from the ghettos that had segregated them from the rest of society), as the transports arrived after a journey that may have lasted up to ten days, and done so without food, sanitation or water. As these degraded and devalued human beings took their first footsteps in Auschwitz, about the first person they encountered was an SS doctor, who would, like Moses, set before them life and death.

Those deemed to be capable of sustaining some sustained physical labor would be sent to the right, to become inmates of the brutal and oppressive regime that was the concentration camp. They received life – although not exactly life in its fullest abundance. Not exactly the life ‘that really is life’, to quote the end of the first letter to Timothy. And the rest - about 75% of the total – the rest were sent to the left. And they received death - immediate extermination in the gas chambers.

And as these millions of Jews were enslaved and/or murdered, some of their fellow human beings, members of the Nazi SS, got on with their day to day life supervising and enacting these processes and procedures. Processes and procedures so beyond rational belief and thought, processes and procedures so evil, so bizarre, that, from our own perspective, it is barely possible to imagine how it could ever have happened. And as they got on with their jobs, they lived their lives.

On the eve of our journey, we sent a link to a ten-minute video with the deliberately disconcerting title ‘Happy Nazis’ – a photo montage about the life of some of these SS officers whose days were spent supervising and instigating mass murder. And thus we saw photos of a group of them on an outing to a resort, no more than about 30 minutes from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some fifteen uniformed men and women – all smiles and gleeful behavior, one clutching an accordion – taken on the ‘works outing’ in the summer of 1944, when the slaughter was at its highest.

Life and death – blessings and curses. And the commandant’s parrot – which was not to be teased.

But we – thank God – we come here this morning in the safety, security and freedom, of life in an economically vibrant and democratically governed country and city. None of us here this morning have lived through any horrors akin to those endured by the millions of Jews and the other minorities persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis. None of us here this morning have chosen or even been conscripted into a company of ‘happy’ people whose day job just happened to be the en masse liquidation of an entire ethnic group. It is, I think, pretty much true to say that those of us privileged to gather together in worship this morning, as we celebrate the start of a new ‘program year’ of life at St James – we are able to take real choices over many, if not all, the things that matter in our lives.

We are able, as Moses said, to choose to love and serve the Lord our God – or we can choose to ‘bow down to other gods and serve them’. We are able – genuinely able – to choose life and blessings, or death and curses. So the only real question, I guess, is how well do we do our choosing?

Because the problem is that choices are not always straight forward. We get seduced so very, very easily by what Moses identified as those other gods. And we know that such gods can take all sorts of seductive forms and identities: riches, power, status, lusts of many kinds, worldly affirmation and success… truly, the list is pretty much endless.

And the call of God – the call of the one God, and the call of the Gospel – this call to love the Lord our God and walk in God’s ways, this can seem counter-cultural, crazy and completely irrelevant. And there is nothing new in this.

In that wonderful vignette about life in the Roman Empire in the mid First Century of the common era that is the 25-verse letter to Philemon, most of which formed our second reading. In this eloquent and brief snippet of the New Testament, we see Paul making a hugely counter-cultural request that, in effect, asks the wealthy and successful Philemon to abandon all the societal principles by which he and all those around him live their lives.

Paul asks Philemon to pardon and release his runaway slave, Onesimus.  And because of Paul’s estimation of Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus Paul feels capable of making this demand which, in the context of its own age, was absolutely destructive to the fabric of Roman society, and little short of revolutionary.

And as we – that part of the Body of Christ that is St James Episcopal Cathedral – as we gather together at the start of the fall, and prepare ourselves for another year in which I hope our common mind is to grow more and more as disciples, we need to open our ears to this counter-cultural call to be what our beloved Presiding Bishop refers to as Crazy Christians. We need to hear ever more clearly the choice that God sets before us for life and blessing, or death and curses.

We need to do this as we navigate lives through the midst of ever more divided political ideologies at home and abroad. We need to do this as we navigate lives through over-crowded calendars, and the pressure of ever more demands on our time and on our resources. We need to do this as we navigate lives that are constantly attracted by the siren voices of those things which press the sinful buttons of our own, individual natures.

For these sirens are the things which block our resolution to be true disciples committed to following Jesus. And nothing, so the gospel reminds us, nothing should do this – not even father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself. That is what it means to be a disciple, and to live by God’s call.

Because God’s call to us is a cross-shaped call. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. And nothing is more crazy and counter-cultural than the cross of Christ. But if you say that, you will certainly be teasing the parrot – and that’s the way that leads to trouble.

Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous survivor of the terrible regime at Auschwitz, in his famous book Night gives the world horrific insights into the conditions that were experienced in this hell upon earth. In a particularly chilling passage, he talks of the public execution of three prisoners, one of whom was a child.

The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were places around their necks…

“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal the three chairs were tipped over… Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”

The Nazi authorities believed that they were the ones who got to choose life and death, blessing and curse. They believed that as they meted out mass murder to six million Jews, they had dealt the ultimate curse to God’s children of the First Covenant, while, for themselves, they had chosen blessing and life. But God outwitted them, because God was there, hanging from the gallows, just as God was also there on Golgotha on a dark Friday afternoon 2000 years ago.

Because – when the chips go down – God does not desert the darkest places that humans create, because God does not desert God’s children when they choose life and blessing. The problem, the real problem, is when God’s children make the other choice.

At the end of this shocking ten minute video of the ‘happy Nazis’ at play in their resort, the noted Holocaust scholar and historian Rebecca Erbelding, says of the SS officers in the photos,

They don’t look evil – they look like normal people. How does a person get to that point when mass killing is socially acceptable, and morally acceptable to a person? It’s very difficult, and this album raises that question more than the holocaust itself.

The question that I believe Dr Erbelding sees in the ‘happy Nazis’ relates to the choices they made. For they chose to bow down to other gods and serve them, and, despite their happy day out at the resort, theirs was the real choice of death and curse – theirs, and not their victims. And that – thank God – has been the judgement of the world, let alone of God, on their evil and extraordinary choice. But will it have teased the parrot?

This fall, as we re-gather and re-group as the Body of Christ, we have the chance to make some wonderful journeys together in discipleship. We are looking as a community at how we can be more intentional not just about how we welcome people, but about how we actually invite them to come to know God alongside us. Next week we will be asking again how we consider the choices of blessing or curse that we make with our financial resources, as we start our annual stewardship campaign.

We are going to have the chance how to live a more Jesus-centered life, walking ‘the Way of Love’ in a teaching series produced by the Presiding Bishop. We are going to have the chance to study the living Word of the gospels in our Sunday Dean’s Forum gatherings. And we are going to gather week by week to break bread, hear Scripture, and refashion ourselves as Christ’s Body as we gather around the altar, and then go into the world to serve our God and our neighbor.

And as we follow Jesus in these and in so many other ways, as we strive to choose life and blessing over death and curses, then do you know what? We will really be teasing the parrot.

Because – bizarrely – for me, the detail of the commandant’s parrot at Treblinka was the thing which most affected me. The precious parrot that was not to be teased, and was thus so much more precious than the hundreds of thousands of God’s children who were murdered in that place of evil – it was that parrot, and what it stood for that got under my skin. For me, as I traced my path through this legacy of evil made so terribly incarnate by the Nazis, the parrot became for me the icon of those choices between life and death, those choices between God’s blessing, and the curses that humans can be so good at foisting on each other.

But the very particular thing about parrots, is that they demonstrate to the world the values and choices of those whose company they keep. A parrot that repeats swear words has an owner that swears. And so, as we start our new program year, striving to follow Jesus and carry our cross, we need to make sure that the spiritual parrot that sits alongside us repeats to the world the words and the choices that tell those around us who we have chosen to follow, and whether it is the Lord our God or the others gods to whom we are bowing down.

And, I very much hope and pray, if we had found ourselves in the vicinity of the commandant’s parrot, we would certainly have teased it, as we confused its ears and its mimcry with our talk of choosing life and blessings, and serving the One God, and following faithfully as a disciple of Jesus. That would most certainly have teased this parrot, whose owner walked in the counsel of the wicked, and who took no delight in the law of the Lord.

And, as we were reminded by the Choir just now, many, many centuries ago, an anonymous song-writer sung out just such a song in Hebrew. And Jews and Christians at their best, have been good parrots in knowing the difference between the way of the righteous and the counsel of the wicked ever since. So we should pray now that as we have heard the psalmist’s words, we may sing them ourselves, and tease that parrot, now and always.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked;
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.