OF THE DEPTHS
For our sermon time this morning, I'm going to tell you two different stories, that I think are really two versions of the same story. One of them comes from scripture and the other is more contemporary.
The scripture story is the Old Testament reading for this morning, out of the book of Lamentations. Lamentations, it is thought, was written by the prophet Jeremiah, and it was written in the wake of the capture of Jerusalem by Babylon. It was an awful time, and most of the book of Lamentations is just that, a weeping and a lament over the great city that has fallen, over the people who are taken into captivity, over the temple where God had promised always to be and then suddenly the temple was no more. It was the greatest faith crisis to that time in the history of Israel.
But it was also, as with all war, an absolute horror. Sometimes we think of the seige of a city as somehow less violent than people marching out onto the field and slaughtering one another. But a seige is a terrible thing, as an attacking army surrounds a city. It blocks off any supplies coming into the city, so that eventually there is no water, there is no food, and the people within the city walls starve to death. They watched their families die, and in that time of the seige of Jerusalem they even resorted to cannibalism as parents watched their children die and then ate them for food. It was an awful time. The wonder of the book of Lamentations is not the extreme pain and anguish that we see in most of its verses, but is this little window in chapter 3, where Jeremiah, in the midst of death and destruction, tells of his faith. He has gone on with his lament and his grieving for some time, and beginning in verse 19 he says,
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
It's astounding. I think it helps us now and again to hear some of the great expressions of faith, both in scripture and in contemporary life. Because of that, for the other part of the sermon I'm going to read to you from Corrie ten Boom's book, The Hiding Place. This is her autobiography that takes place during World War II. The ten Boom family is Dutch, and they've participated in the resistance movement in Holland by hiding Jews and helping them to escape form the Nazis and to escape to a safer part of the world.
Much of the book tells of that effort and how it came to be, but then comes the day when someone they decided to trust betrayed them, and the whole family was arrested. They spent months in two different Dutch prisons, where the father died. Then the two sisters, Corrie who wrote the book, and her sister Betsy, were taken to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. What I'm going to read to you is from their time in Ravensbruck, and you'll hear the horrors of what they suffered. But more amazingly, you'll hear the faith that they expressed in the midst of that. I'm not going to interpret it this morning. I'll tell you the story and then let you decide for yourselves how God is speaking to you through the other story of amazing faith.
Morning roll call at Ravensbruck came half an hour earlier than at Vught. By 4:30 a.m. we had to be standing outside in the black pre-dawn chill, standing at parade attention in blocks of 100 women, 10 wide, 10 deep. Sometimes after hours of this we would gain the shelter of the barracks, only to hear the whistle: "Everybody out, fall in for roll call."
Barracks 8 was in the quarantine compound. Next to us, perhaps as a deliberate warning to newcomers, were located the punishment barracks. From there, all day long, and often into the night, came the sounds of hell itself. They were not the sounds of anger or of any human emotion, but of a cruelty altogether detached -- blows landing in regular rhythm, screams keeping pace. We would stand in our ten-deep ranks with our hands trembling at our sides, longing to jam them against our ears to make the sounds stop.
The instant of dismissal we would mob the doors of barracks 8, stepping on each other's heels in our eagerness to get inside, to shrink the world back to understandable proportions, but it grew harder and harder. Even within these four walls there was too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering. Every day something else failed to make sense, something else grew too heavy. "Will you carry this too, Lord Jesus?"
But as the rest of the world grew stranger, one thing became increasingly clear, and that was the reason the two of us were here. Why others should suffer we were not shown. As for us, from morning until lights out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of help and hope. Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the Word of God.
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us." I would look about us as Betsy read, watching the light leap from face to face. "More than conquerors." It was not a wish. It was a fact. We knew it. We experienced it minute by minute. Poor, hated, hungry, we are more than conquerors. Not "we shall be" -- we are.
Life in Ravensbruck took place on two separate levels, mutually impossible. One, the observable, external life, grew every day more horrible. The other, the life we lived with God, grew daily better, truth upon truth, glory upon glory. Sometimes I would slip the Bible from its little sack with hands that shook, so mysterious had it become to me. It was new, it had just been written. I marveled sometimes that the ink was dry. I had believed the Bible always, but reading it now had nothing to do with belief. It was simply a description of the way things were -- of hell and of heaven, of how men are and how God acts. I had read a thousand times the story of Jesus' arrest, of how soldiers had slapped him, laughed at him, flogged him. Now such happenings had faces and voices.
Fridays. The recurrent humiliation of medical inspection. The hospital corridor in which we waited was unheated, and a fall chill had settled into the walls. Still, we were forbidden even to wrap ourselves in our own arms, but had to maintain our erect, hands-at-sides position as we filed slowly past a phalanx of grinning guards. How there could have been any pleasure in the sight of these stick-thin legs and hunger-bloated stomachs, I could not imagine. Surely there is no more wretched sight than the human body, unloved and uncared for. Nor could I see the necessity for the complete undressing. When we finally reached the examining room, a doctor looked down each throat, another, a dentist presumably, at our teeth, a third in between each finger, and that was all. We trooped again down the long cold corridor and picked up our X-marked dresses at the door.
But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting shivering in the corridor that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me. "He hung naked on the cross." I had not known. I had not thought. The paintings, the carved crucifixes, showed at least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh, at the time itself, on that other Friday morning, there had been no reverence, no more than I saw in the faces around us now. I leaned toward Betsy ahead of me in line. Her shoulder blades stood out sharp and thin against her blue mottled skin. "Betsy, they took his clothes too." Ahead of me I heard a little gasp. "Oh Corrie...and I never thanked him."
Every day the sun rose a little later. The bite took longer to leave the air. "It will be better," everyone assured everyone else, "when we move into permanent barracks. We'll have a blanket apiece, a bed of our own." Each of us painted into the picture her own greatest need. For me it was a dispensary where Betsy could get medication for her cough. "There'll be a nurse assigned to the barracks." I said it so often that I convinced myself.
The move to permanent quarters came the second week in October. We were marched ten abreast along a wide cinder avenue, and then into a narrower street of barracks. Several times the column halted while numbers were read out -- names were never used at Ravensbruck. At last Betsy's and mine were called. "Prisoner 66729. Prisoner 66730." We stepped out of line with a dozen or so others, and stared at the long gray front of Barracks 28. Half its windows seemed to have been broken and replaced with rags.
A door in the center led us into a large room where 200 or more women bent over knitting needles. On tables between them were piles of woollen socks, in army gray. On either side, doors opened into two still larger rooms, by far the largest dormitories we had yet seen. Betsy and I followed a prisoner guide through a door at the right. Because of the broken windows, the large room was in semi-twilight. Our noses told us first that the place was filthy. Somewhere plumbing had backed up. The bedding was soiled and rancid. Then, as our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we saw that there were no individual beds at all, but great square piers, stacked three high and wedged side to side and end to end, with only an occasional narrow aisle slicing through.
We followed our guide single file -- the aisle was not wide enough for two -- fighting back the claustrophobia of these platforms rising everywhere above us. The tremendous room was nearly empty of people. They must have been out on various work crews. At last she pointed to a second tier in the center of a large block. To reach it, we had to stand on the bottom level, haul ourselves up, and then crawl across three other straw covered platforms to reach the one that we would share with -- how many? The deck above was too close to let us sit up. We lay back, struggling against the nausea that swept over us from the reeking straw. We could hear the women that had arrived with us finding their places.
Suddenly I sat up, striking my head on the cross slats above. Something had pinched my leg. "Fleas!" I cried. "Betsy, this place is swarming with them!" We scrambled across the intervening platforms, heads low to avoid another bump, dropped down to the aisle, and edged our way to a patch of light. "Here! And another one!" I wailed. "Betsy, how can we live in such a place?" "Show us. Show us how." It was said so matter-of-factly it took me a second to realize she was praying. More and more, the distinction between prayer and the rest of life seemed to be vanishing for Betsy.
"Corrie," she said excitedly. "He's given us the answer. Before we asked, as he always does. In the Bible this morning. Where was it? Read that part again." I glanced down the long dim aisle to make sure no guard was in sight, then drew the Bible from its pouch. It was in first Thessalonians. "Here it is. 'Comfort the frightened. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another, and to all.' " It seemed written expressly to Ravensbruck.
"Go on," said Betsy. "That wasn't all." "Oh yes. '...to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus....'" "That's it, Corrie! That's his answer! Give thanks in all circumstances. That's what we can do. We can start right now to thank God for every single thing about this new barracks."
I stared at her, then around me at the dark, foul-aired room. "Such as?" I said. "Such as being assigned here together." I bit my lip. "Oh yes, Lord Jesus." "Such as what you're holding in your hands." I looked down at the Bible. "Yes, thank you dear Lord, that there was no inspection when we entered here. Thank you for all the women here in this room who will meet you in these pages." "Yes," said Betsy. "Thank you for the very crowding here. Since we're packed so close that many more will hear." She looked at me expectantly. "Corrie?" she prodded. "Oh all right. Thank you for the jammed, crammed, stuffed, packed, suffocating crowds." "Thank you," Betsy went on serenely, "for the fleas and for...." The fleas? This was too much. "Betsy, there's no way even God can make me grateful for a flea!" "Give thanks in ALL circumstances," she quoted. "It doesn't say 'in PLEASANT circumstances.' Fleas are part of this place where God has put us. And so we stood between piers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas.
As it turned out, the fleas were the reason that the guards stayed away from the barracks.
Betsy died in Ravensbruck. Corrie was released, accidentally. Corrie tells of the death of her sister. She wasn't allowed to visit in the hospital, but she did manage to find a window where she could look in and see her sister's bed as she wasted away. There was no medical attention, of course. Finally she looked in one day and saw what was basically a naked skeleton. It took her a minute to realize it was her sister, and then the body was taken away. One nurse found her to allow her to come and see the body. She didn't really want to because she had seen through the window this disfigured thing. But when she was taken to see the body, a miracle had happened, and her sister was again her sister. Her face was filled out as if she had never starved, and God's glory was in her face and she was at peace.
Corrie spent the rest of her life traveling and telling of the goodness of God, helping those who had been harmed by the war, Nazis as well as others. One day when she was speaking somewhere she recognized a face. It was the face of one of those grinning guards that every Friday had watched the parade of naked women go by. He put out his hand to her, not knowing who she was. She struggled for a minute, and then she put out her hand, grasped his, and forgave him. Amen.
The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Bantam Books, 1974. Copyright 1971 by Corrie ten Boom and John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Reading from pages 194-199.
Sermon © 2007, Anne Robertson
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