In Bohemia, in the Czech Republic, there is a strange place called Terezin. It is located some 45 miles from Prague. This walled-in fortress with 12 ramparts in the shape of a star was built in the 18th Century by Emperor Joseph II of Austria to honor his mother Maria Teresa. Instead of becoming a great fortress, Terezin became a sleepy army garrison which contained homes, taverns, a post office, a bank, a brewery and a church. This star-shaped fortress seems to have been forced onto a countryside which contains no high mountains or deep ravines or swift rivers - only blue hills, green meadows, fruit trees and tall poplars. On a high plain, with nothing defensible in sight, Terezin stands alone.
Today, Terezin is mostly a ghost town. But, during the Second World War years, Terezin was something else altogether. It was a place of famine and fear. Somewhere, far away in Berlin, men in Nazi uniforms decided Terezin would be one of hundreds of places used to eliminate the Jews in Europe. It became a stopping place in the movement of Jews from Moravia, Bohemia, and eventually all over Europe to gas chambers in the east, mostly Auschwitz. Terezin was called a "model camp" because propaganda films were made there and foreigners were brought there to show the good life of Jews in their "happy" Ghetto. However, evil laughs at truth. 15,000 children came through Terezin. Only 100 lived. Preserved from the barracks, suitcases, and hidden places in Terezin over 4,500 works of children's art and poetry tell stories of children which seem more like the stuff of cruel fairy tales about evil wizards and witches than the somber reality of young children facing their dying days.
In "The Butterfly," 13 year old Pavel Friedmann writes:
The last, the very last,
so richly, brightly dazingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears
would sing against a white stone...
Such, such a yellow is carried
lightly `way up high.
It went away I'm sure
because it wished to kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
and the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live here,
In the ghetto.
(Pavel Friedmann, 1/7/1921-9/29/1944, found in I have not seen a butterfly around here, The Jewish Museum, Prague, 1993, p.7).
My son, Daniel, was Pavel Friedmann's age when I first read these words. Children and ghettos. Butterflies absent and death present. These should not be. Their drawings and their poems should not be. But, since they are, they do speak to us. Their voices of reminder, truth, and hope have been preserved and they cry out to us for truth and justice in our day. They serve as reminders that children should have life, should have a future. They should have hope. They should have a way through the darkness. On this Children's Sabbath, Pavel and the children of Terezin, Gabrielle Simone and the children of Columbus, Obad and the children of Baghdad, Anna and the children of Kabal call to us across the ages and now the miles to be the ones who grant them justice.
They need us to bother God. They need us to pray and act in such a way that God must pay attention to the little voices of pain and fear. They need us to call upon God in the same way that the widow in today's parable from Luke 18 called upon the unjust judge.
This parable was told by Jesus to show people that it is necessary always to pray and never to lose heart (Luke 18:1). We don't know what the widow in this story needed - although it is not hard to guess. Since she was a widow, her case probably concerns her dead husband's estate. Under Jewish law of Jesus' time, she could not inherit it. The estate went straight to her sons or her brother-in-law. She is allowed to live off of it unless someone is trying to cheat her out of it. One can only imagine that this is the case.
The widow goes to the judge, who we must remember, is not a respectable judge. By his own admission, he does not fear God or respect any person. Maybe he thinks that makes him a better judge - more impartial, or something like that. Whatever the case, God does not get to him. People do not get to him. But, this widow gets to him, at least partially because she throws a mean right punch. Although the English does not show the humor, in the Greek, the judge uses a boxing term for the widow. He says, "Though I have no fear of God and respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out with continued blows under the eye." His self-interest for responding to her is not equity or justice, but conceit. He does not want to walk around town with a black eye and have to make up stories about how he got it. Anyone seeing how the widow has been tearing into him day and night will know where he got it. Since he cannot stand that idea, the judge grants her justice to save face. (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, Cowley Publications, Boston, Mass., 1999, p. 200).
That is the way justice is granted, sometimes. It is granted by judges, elected leaders, and others with power, money, and the law on their side who feel bothered by widows, orphans, immigrants, children, the dispossessed, the poor, and their advocates. In order to save their faces, they grant justice. We would like to believe they do it for the right reasons. But, when they have no respect for God or people, it takes the cry of those for whom persistence is their only path to break through injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way, "justice delayed is justice denied." The widow must have stopped by the King household, too! He knew her voice and her face. He too responded to her cries - but for the right reasons.
"Give me justice!" the widow yelled at the judge. "Do your job! Answer me now or answer me later, but I will be coming back every day and every night - forever - until you deal with me." So he dealt with her. But, the passage doesn't end where justice is granted. At the end of the parable Jesus asks, "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" You get the feeling Jesus didn't know many persistent widows, or at least enough of them. He didn't know folks who had enough faith to stay with the injustices of their day or anything - forever. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "Then as now, people prayed like they brushed their teeth - once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program" (Ibid, pp. 201-202).
We need to change our prayer life and our pursuit of justice from brushing twice a day to bothering God all day long. We have to keep chasing after God's heart. We have to bother God and know that God will bother us right back.
Since returning to Columbus last month, I have stood before you inviting you to come to the BREAD action meeting tomorrow night at First Church of God. Tomorrow night, Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy and her challenger, David Goodman will be there. Although we invited her six months ago, we know that Commissioner Shoemaker has chosen give a speech somewhere else. Her challenger Paula Brooks will be at the meeting. Important questions about access to health care and affordable low income housing will be asked of the candidates tomorrow night. They will each be given four minutes to respond. In addition, we will welcome two hispanic churches making BREAD a truly bi-lingual organization. By winter over 50 congregations will be part of BREAD.
I feel like the widow in today's gospel. I have come to you week in and week out appealing to you to join me in the effort of justice. I have witnessed very few sign-ups for this mission and for this meeting which will be the largest single gathering of citizens in this election season. I have heard very little feedback. The feedback I hear is often negative and disheartening. I hear, "We don't like the way BREAD makes public officials feel put on the spot. We don't like the way you force BREAD on us."
I have listened. You need to hear me, now. This is personal. I grew up in a loving family which cherished education and nurtured my faith. I have parents (my mom is here today, along with my big sister) who guided my feet in paths of righteousness and peace. I had healthy food every day, a roof over my head, hugs and kisses and the knowledge that if I needed a medical care, it would be there for me. We had moderate income, but we had love, hope, and faith everyday, I had a charmed and blessed childhood. Out of such priviledge, I was called by Jesus Christ to serve others. I worked first among poor children. Today, I am haunted by memories of those children, many of whom had lives oppressed by pain and poverty. To them, I have dedicated the last 27 years of my life. I see their hungry faces. I hear their cries at night. They are for me, the widow calling for justice, now.
And just as some have expressed what they don't like about the work I do with BREAD, I must say to you some things I don't like. I don't like seeing over 130,000 men, women, and children in my community without health insurance and adequate health care. I don't like seeing mothers forced to choose between treating their cancer or feeding their children. I don't like seeing families who lack safe, affordable low income housing in my community. I don't like seeing a reading program for the poorest and most challenged children of my city being tossed aside when there is money to fund its continuance, and it has proven valuable, effective and successful. So if I bother you, please know that it is because I believe we must grant justice to the poor, now. If I trouble you, it is because I feel troubled in these times by a city, a county, a state, and a nation which has a growing number of poor, under-employed, and unemployed people and a growing number of hopeless, helpless children getting older by the minute. I don't like this. And I will speak out about it. I will bother you on behalf of those who have no voice or such a small voice that no one can hear them. I cannot be silent because I know how good a better life is. And I believe it should be possible for all children everywhere and all people everywhere to have one, too.
To quote Jesus, "If I do not speak, these very stones will cry out! I do not want it written and left behind by my children or my children's children what was penned by Pavel Friedman before his death at age fourteen. I don't want it said, "that butterflies don't live here." So I will bother public officies. I will bother God. And I will bother you until justice is granted. Amen.
Copyright 2004 First Congregational Church, UCC, Columbus Ohio