top of page
  • Jo Page

Tree of Life - sermon, St. John's-on-Sand-Creek

Coll de Belitres, 1939

I hope and I pray that the majority of Christian pastors who put their well-crafted sermons to bed on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon or evening—as I did—rewrote their sermons the Saturday night of the Tree of Life murders. I did.

But the sermon I originally wrote is sadly so related in theme to what happened in Pittsburgh on Saturday--Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest--that I am stitching the new sermon to the old sermon. I deeply desire that you see the seams that join them. And I take as our starting topic--fear.

Last summer I spent almost three weeks in Spain and in France, where I had rented a little house in the country, not very far from the Mediterranean. The morning we left Barcelona we opted for the coastal route north, cruising through Costa Brava villages, stopping for lunch on a sunny terrace smack dab on the seashore. By afternoon, the coastal road began its ascent into the easternmost reaches of the Pyrenees which run all the way down to the seaside, steep and jagged.

And the road? It corkscrewed and climbed, this windy, vertiginous passage, winding ever higher, leaving behind the small Catalan town of Portbou, the last one before the French border (but keep Portbou in mind; I’ll come back to it.)

At the border, the Spanish N-road 260 unceremoniously becomes the French D-road 914. Two hundred or so yards farther on there is a pull off, an unassuming pull-off with a stomach-lurching view of the sea to your right, mountain summit to your left. My friend parked, opened the door and got out. “I’ll stay put,” I said. I didn’t need to walk around at the top of the world.

Well, that lasted about a minute. I slowly moved away from the safety of the car’s enclosure, and tested my shaking legs in the windy gusts. I was fine. Maybe I wouldn’t blow off the mountain top, after all. Maybe I was safe. I looked around.

Then I climbed a hundred or so feet even higher where a handful of people milled about a memorial site, photos and posters narrating the story of the Coll de Belitres, which is where we were. It was here in early 1939, as the Spanish Civil War was drawing to a close, that almost half a million refugees made their way by whatever means possible over the Coll de Belitres to the open French borders—opened only for a total of ten days, from January 28 to February 6th.

In those ten days 480,000 people made this arduous journey over this rugged mountain into an uncertain exile, seeking shelter, even if it turned out to be the roughest of concentration camps—which it did. Some 350,000 more fled Spain through a mountain pass just slightly further west. To quote the Somalian poet, Warshan Shire:

No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well

But that is not the end of the story of the Coll de Belitres. Hardly.

Only a few years later, with the outbreak of World War II, an untold number of people fled France for Spain, crossing the Coll de Belitres in the opposite direction. Police controls were being intensified in France and those arriving could not be sure that the new fascist government in Spain would receive them. But to remain in France meant internment and likely death for many--Roma people, gays, intellectuals, communists—but primarily French Jews or Jews who had sought shelter in France when it was unsafe to stay in Germany or Austria. They crossed this steep, inhospitable pass with nothing—no possessions. And once over, all those arriving came to Portbou, the Catalan town I’d mentioned earlier.

It was to Portbou that the major novelists Heinrich Mann and Franz Werfel came—Werfel, whose novels were burned by the Nazis, among them a book on the Armenian genocide.

It was here the composer, Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma Mahler Werfel, fled from persecution; here where the major German political philosopher and repatriated American, Hannah Arendt, arrived from a French internment camp, eventually making her way to New York (her grave is on the grounds of Bard College). It was at Portbou that the German biochemist, Otto Meyerof, who had won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1922, arrived from exile in Paris after having had to leave Germany—despite being a Nobelist--once the Nazis came to power.

But there was no promise of safety on the Spanish side of the border, either. The novelist and social theorist, Walter Benjamin, had been in a concentration camp in central France. Upon release, he came across the Pyrenees and he, too, came to Portbou. But the very next day, he was told that Spain would return him to France. Hearing that, he committed suicide. To him, death was preferable to that return. He is buried at Portbou. His brother, Georg, died in a camp in Austria two years later.


I want you to know that during that short roadside stop at Coll de Belitre, I only learned about the 480,000 defeated Spanish Republicans escaping the Nationalists in Spain. Remember this was a display on French soil, after all, so they didn’t go on and note that only mere years later, many, many crossed this pass to leave persecution in France.

I learned most of what I just told you about that after I got back home and did some research. But as I walked back to the car then, buckled my seatbelt and resumed our holiday rambling on this impeccably maintained road through coastal resort villages, I felt ashamed that I had been frightened. If I had been frightened to be driving here in a well-serviced rental car on a well-paved road on a sunny summer day in peace time, what would it have taken for me to make the crossing on a perilous road in war time and bitter winter weather with no guarantee of what awaited me?

What did it take for nearly a million people to cross the Coll de Belitre?

Let’s let that question hang in the air for a sec. We will get back to it.

*** *** ***

Yesterday, during a bris, the ceremony marking the eighth day of a Jewish baby’s life, eleven people were shot and killed at Tree of Life synagogue just outside of Pittsburgh. Six more were injured, four of them police officers. Before he opened fire, Robert Bowers shouted a violent anti-Judaic threat consistent with the kinds of violent, vile and hateful things he regularly posted online.

The Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh posted this on their website:

The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.

“Human beings have moral agency.” As Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism--that booklet of instruction most Lutheran children were required to learn, sometimes by heart—“what does this mean?” What does this mean: “Human beings have moral agency?” You know what it means. My sister has it defined on a bumper sticker on her car. It’s succinct: Be good. Don’t be bad.

We’ve gotten bad at being good in this country. We need to do better. We do.

Today we are both hosts and the recipients of the talents of singers from Berith Shalom, the synagogue in Troy where Dan is also music director. The synagogue’s name, Berith Shalom, means “promise of peace” or “covenant of peace”—this I remember from my long-ago Hebrew.

And so it is an odd and auspicious time that our guests are here with us on Reformation Sunday, of all times, and the day after the worst attack on Jews in America since the beginning of our history. But anti-Semitic attacks go back much, much farther than the beginning of American history.

The history of anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism, in its often violent and organized iterations is well-known, though I fear not well-known enough. Because here’s the thing: the man of the hour today, Martin Luther, the man we do revere as the founder of what I find to be the most faithful understanding of what it means to be Christian—and I have devoted my life, my whole life to that, as you know—that man, Martin Luther, was an unrepentant and vocal anti-Semite. And if this doesn’t make us all sad and uncomfortable, it really, really should.

We have to own that. Luther was a thorough-going and articulate anti-Semite. As he grew much older, his writings changed from sympathy toward the plight of Jews against whom medieval Europe had long enacted pograms and prejudices; late in his life Luther’s writings about Judaism turned to condemnation, insult and invective. And yes, we do like to say “well, that was late in his life” (which is true). We like to say “None of that writing is anywhere to be found in the documents by which we identify ourselves as Lutherans.” And that is true, too. We like to say that “It was maybe after too many beers. Luther liked beer. He really liked beer. Sometimes maybe he drank too many beers.” Beer seems a handy excuse nowadays, yes?

Well, maybe Luther was an old-ish man. And maybe he drank too many beers. But as recently as just a generation and a half-ago, Luther’s later writings were used in support of a Nazi agenda. And though as American Lutherans, 70-80 years on we like to talk about the German Confessing Church which strongly opposed Nazi policy, in reality the German Confessing Church was only about ten percent of the state church, which was Lutheran.

And you know what? We need to own that. We need to be in prayer about that—and not just in any prayer, but in confession about that. We need to seek contrition and work for atonement. Because, in case there was any doubt, virulent and violent anti-Semitism has not been laid to rest in some unmarked grave. Not one bit. As this most recent massacre attests.

Here’s the thing: our work to make the world a better place, the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam” which I have talked about before in other sermons—tikkun olam is not limited. We are called to make the world a better place. All over the place.

The upsurge in trash-talk and bullying, the normalization of racism and misogyny, the coy appeal of Facebook memes and easy jingoism, the fomenting and enacting of violence against groups it is somehow easy to hate? Guess what? That is not tikkun olam.

It is not only not that; it is also ungodly. I feel as though I am on steady ground when I say that Jesus would not like it. Hashem (whose name be praised), would not like it. Allah would not like it. We need not be partisan in our confession and atonement. We need not be divided by religious diversity in our confession and atonement. When it comes to tikkun olam, to making the world a better place, we are best, in fact, when we are not divided, but struggling in faith to unite.

And so I come back to that question we left hanging in the air a few minutes ago, that question about that perilous mountain pass through which nearly a million people passed, first seeking dubious sanctuary in France, then a few years later seeking dubious sanctuary from France in Franco’s fascist Spain. Here’s the question, in case you’ve forgotten: What did it take for nearly a million people to cross the Coll de Belitres?

Well, you know: desperation.

Because borders are never, ever, ever fun crossings. I’ve seen the twice-fenced southern border of our country. And I saw the wind-scoured Spanish-French pass. And there are countless other borders I haven’t seen that may be worse or worse than I can imagine.

But when people of faith hear that people are desperate, people of faith listen first. They hold their condemnation. And they act to redress hatred--institutionalized, glorified, sound-byte-sized or otherwise. Because that is the God-directed thing to do. And also because, plenty of people of faith know full well what it is like to be the object of hatred.

Persecution is an old and rusty doorbell, but there is always some hard-hearted power seeker eager to push it again and again.

The figure in our gospel story this morning, blind Bartimaeus, seeks healing. And he is bold enough—well, he is also smart enough--to listen when Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord,” he says, “Let me see again.”

Let us let that be our prayer, as well.

The eyes of faith, though, cannot be sealed shut. They cannot be blindfolded by the fabulous distractions that fascinate and numb us. The eyes of faith call us again and again to say again and again with Bartimaeus “Lord, let me see again.”

And once we see, we can understand more of what good we can do for the sake of the people of God’s creation. Tikkun olam is not a call to arms, but a call to action. And to mercy. Because as we read late in the Greek scriptures of the second testament, there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

We love because God who made all of us—all of us—first loved all of us.

And now--in wisdom and humility, let all God’s people say “Amen.”

141 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page