November 11, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert
We gather today on this Veteran’s Day as we honor those among us who have served. We are also in the midst of November when we are mindful of Thanksgiving fast approaching and the many blessings of our lives. Last Sunday, we had the opportunity to remember and to honor the people in our lives who are now gone and in a special way the holy men and women who were our first teachers of faith and of the love of God. Today, in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we hear tender words of support expressed by Paul to the early faith community in Thessalonica that he had founded.
Let us pray,
O God, we long to rest in you,
to trust in your goodness, in your care for us,
in your abundant life.
But we don’t know how to rest
And we have forgotten how to trust:
Slow us down, Holy One.
Attend to us, Holy One,
And show us that you are our salvation and our resting place. Amen.
The first letter to the Thessalonians from which we read today is considered by most scholars to have been the first letter Paul wrote, perhaps as early as the year 50, not that long after the death of Jesus. The people in that community were grieving over the deaths of some in their community and asking questions about when the promised return of the Lord would come. Many of the early Christian communities, you may recall, believed that Jesus Christ would return soon, and at least in their lifetime and so they were asking guidance from Paul about this concern. In the letter Paul is reminding them that he and his companions had suffered in nearby Philippi before going to Thessalonica and he emphasizes that they were not motivated by deceit or flattery but truly by their desire to please God. Paul uses this very tender language to describe their ministry like that of a nursing mother who cares for her children…and later he speaks of their care for the community like that of a loving father for his children. Paul is trying to emphasize the great gentleness and affection that he and his companions have for this community.
I recently heard for the first time the story of a remarkable and heroic woman during the 2nd World War and of her amazing care for children. When I read the passage for today, I was reminded of this courageous woman and her heroic acts on behalf of many children whom she met in her work at that time.
Irena Sendler was serving as a social worker in Warsaw, Poland during World War II when she masterminded the risky rescue operations of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Under the pretext of inspecting the ghetto’s sanitary conditions during a typhoid outbreak, Mrs Sendler and her assistants went inside in search of children who could be smuggled out and given a chance of survival by living with Christian families. During her early visits, she realized how desperate the conditions in the ghetto were and she convinced families to allow her to try to smuggle the children out to give them a chance at life, for she believed that many would die from the disease and desperate conditions in the ghetto. She and her team came up with unique ways of sneaking the children out safely. Babies and small children were smuggled out in ambulances and in trams, sometimes wrapped up as packages. Teenagers escaped by joining teams of workers forced to labor outside the ghetto.
These children were then placed with families, or in orphanages, hospitals or convents. She had the real hope of one day uniting the children with their families – most of whom sadly perished in the Nazis’ death camps and so she wrote the children’s real names on slips of paper that she kept at home.
When German police came to arrest her in 1943, an assistant managed to hide the slips, which Sendler later buried in a jar under an apple tree in an associate’s yard. After the war, she found the jar with the names and discovered
some 2,500 names were recorded. “It took a true miracle to save a Jewish child,” said Elzbieta Ficowska, who was saved by Sendler’s team as a baby in 1942. “Mrs Sendler saved not only us, but also our children and grandchildren and the generations to come.”
We know that anyone caught helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland risked being shot, along with family members – a fate Sendler only barely escaped herself after the 1943 raid by the Gestapo. The Nazis took her to an infamous prison, which few left alive. She was tortured but she refused to betray her team. “I kept silent. I preferred to die than to reveal our activity,” she was quoted as saying in the biography written about her life entitled, “Mother of the Children of the Holocaust.” In 1965, Sendler became one of the first so-called Righteous Gentiles honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for wartime heroics. This amazing woman died just a few years ago at the age of 98.
What I love about this story is that this woman risked her life to save other people’s children. Many of us imagine what we would do to protect our own families and especially our children. The care that mothers and fathers have for their children is often without limits and that is why Paul uses these words to speak of his affection for this community of faith. Paul too risked his life to go out and preach the Gospel, to help found the many faith communities he visited in his extensive travels after his own conversion. And he wrote these many letters when he was away from them to encourage them, to remind them of his support and care for them, and most importantly to remind them of the love of Christ and the hope of Christ for each of them. Paul modeled this love and care to them and encouraged them to treat one another with that same measure of great love and care.
On this day, we may think of all of the wars that have taken place over the last century and before. Many of us have ancestors who served in wars as far back as the Civil War, the First World War, and sadly, other wars throughout history. Even this week, we heard of a father of 7, serving in Afghanistan, who lost his life. I recall that my wonderful and gentle Uncle Bill, who served as a marine in the second World War and died just a year ago at 94, spoke very little over the years of his Service. He saw horrendous things at Guadal Canal and in the Pacific, and he once said to me that while he was proud of his service, he wondered, “how can you be proud of having to take another person’s life?” It is a very difficult thing that is asked of all men and women who serve in the military and certainly for their family and friends. And we know too well how many come back scarred, physically, emotionally and in so many ways. Anyone I know who has served in combat never romanticizes it or seeks to diminish the real pain and suffering that many experience.
We may not all have the opportunity to do something grand or heroic in our lives; but each of us can do small things. We can show love; we can live a life consistent with our beliefs; we can care for our neighbors and yes, even take risks, to extend our love and care to those beyond our circle of family and friends to those most in need.
Mother Teresa once spoke of these simple ways of showing love when she said,
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”