A Room Full of Friends: Those Who Sacrificed Greatly for Their Faith
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 4, 2021
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 26:1-8; Luke 9:23-37
This morning we continue the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends. For those new to the series, my goal is to share some of my favorite authors whose books reside on my shelves. Over the years, they have become dear friends. Today’s focus is on people who have sacrificed in tremendous ways because of their faith.
Whenever I think of such people, Corrie Ten Boom immediately comes to mind. Born in 1892, Corrie’s family were devoted members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They owned a small jewelry store in a narrow little house in the heart of the Jewish section of Amsterdam. There they met and became friends with some wonderful Jewish people. At the time, Corrie lived with her older sister and her father. She was 48, unmarried, and working as a watchmaker in the shop that was started by her grandfather.
Corrie’s involvement with the Dutch underground began by giving temporary shelter to her Jewish neighbors who were being driven out of their homes. She found places for them to stay in the countryside. Soon word spread and more arrived seeking shelter. In time, Corrie constructed a false wall in her bedroom so she could hide people behind it. After a year and a half, her home developed into the center of an underground ring that reached throughout Holland. But on February 28, 1944 a Nazi informant came seeking help. Before the end of the day, her home was raided, and she and her family were arrested.
Corrie’s father died within 10 days from an illness, but Corrie and her older sister, Betsie, remained in a series of prisons and concentration camps, first in Holland and then in Germany. In later writings, Corrie explains how she struggled with and overcame the hate that she had for the man who betrayed her family and how she and Betsie gave comfort to other inmates. She describes a typical evening in which they would use their secreted Bible to hold worship services. She writes,
At first Betsie and I called these meetings with great timidity. But as night after night went by and no guard ever came near us, we grew bolder. A single meeting night might include a recital of the Magnificat in Latin by a group of Roman Catholics, a whispered hymn by some Lutherans, and a chant by Eastern Orthodox women. With each moment the crowd around us would swell, packing the nearby platforms, hanging over the edges, until the high structures groaned and swayed. At last, either Betsie or I would open the Bible. Because only the Hollanders could understand the Dutch text we would translate aloud in German. And then we would hear the life-giving words passed back along the aisles in French, Polish, Russian, Czech, and back into Dutch. They were little previews of heaven, these evenings beneath the light bulb.
Betsie, never strong in health, grew steadily weaker and died in December. Some of her last words to Corrie were, “We must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here.”
Due to a clerical error, Corrie was released from Ravensbruck one week before all women her age were killed. She made her way back to Haarlem, and tried for resume her life, but found her heart wasn’t in it. Instead, she had a burning desire to travel and tell her family’s story. In time, she documented the story in such books as The Hiding Place and Tramp for the Lord.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, son of a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Berlin, was born in 1906. He was an outstanding student and gifted pianist. Although his family expected he would have a career in music, at the age of 14, he announced his desire to become a minister and theologian. They were less than pleased. By the age of 25 he was a lecturer in systematic theology. In time he became a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. He organized and for a time led the underground seminary of the Confessing Church. His book Life Together describes the life of the Christian community in that seminary, and his book The Cost of Discipleship attacks what he calls “cheap grace.” He writes, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
After a time of deep prayer and introspection, Bonhoeffer joined his brother-in-law and a few others to plan the overthrow of Hitler in 1939. Though their plan failed, in April of 1943, two men arrived in a black Mercedes, put Bonhoeffer in the car, and drove away. He spent two years in prison, corresponding with family and friends, pastoring fellow prisoners, and reflecting on the meaning of “Jesus Christ for today.” On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer had just finished conducting a service of worship when two soldiers came in, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us.” It was the standard summons to a condemned prisoner. As he left, he said to another prisoner, “This is the end—but for me, the beginning—of life.” He was hanged the next day, less than a week before the Allies arrived.
Immaculee Ilibagiza wrote Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. In it she tells her story about the Rwandan genocide that erupted with a savagery that shocked the world. In just 100 days, an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis were killed.
In the early spring of 1994, Immaculee was visiting her family while on break from the university. Signs of trouble with the Hutu majority had been mounting and at dinner one evening, her brother implored her father to move the family away. Her father was the chief administrator of a Roman Catholic school and a figure of authority in the region. He had lived through two previous civil wars and remained confident that order could be restored. The very next day a plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu president, was struck by missiles, and crashed, killing all on board. A well-organized campaign by Hutu extremists against Tutsis soon followed.
Government ministers began to openly threaten Tutsis on state radio. Soon, hundreds of people crowded around Immaculee’s home, seeking guidance from her father. He appealed in vain for help from local authorities. Soon her family dispersed. Her father arranged for her to hide in the home of a local Episcopal priest, in a bathroom, where she found seven other young women. The 3 X 6-foot bathroom was assumed to be a temporary shelter. The eight women would spend the next three months there.
Repeatedly, Hutu gangs came to search the house, carrying lists of names of Tutsis unaccounted for but they never attempted to enter the bathroom. Immaculee writes, “It’s a feeling I can’t explain. I remember dry [mouth]. I didn’t even have saliva to swallow. It was something like all your body became paralyzed. You don’t think anymore.” Immaculee began talking to God. She prayed constantly, clutching her father’s red rosary in her hand. She promised not to seek vengeance if her life was spared. At the same time, she had a growing certainty that none of her family had survived. In her words: “I remember I dreamt about Jesus, and he was telling me, ‘Well, when you come out, there will be no one in your life in your family. And I want you to know that, even if they took care of you, I can take care of you better, so I want you to trust me. I’d like you always to pray’ — and that was so real. It was a thing that was so real that I didn’t doubt.”
On July 7, 1994, after most of the killing had ended, Immaculee and the other women emerged from their hiding place. Just as she feared—her family was gone. Only one brother survived because he happened to be out of the country. So much horror. So much hatred. So much loss. Still, Immaculee betrays no bitterness at the events that claimed most of her family. Instead, she stresses understanding and forgiveness: “I don’t want just to hate somebody. I felt bad enough that I don’t want just to hold this kind of bad feeling in my heart for long, if I can help it,” she writes.
Such hateful, horrible things have happened down through the ages—even to people of faith—often in the name of God. Yet Jesus, God’s beloved Son, walked the dusty roads of Palestine listening to people’s stories and responding with understanding and love and mercy. Many people became angry with him because he was kind and good to the wrong people. It was one of the reasons they killed him.
Jesus offered an alternative vision for the world—one which valued love over hate, serving over being served, sacrifice over self-indulgence, truth over deception, justice over injustice, inclusion over exclusion, generosity over greed, humility over arrogance, forgiveness over revenge, healing over hurting, and peace over war.
Jesus modeled how to live with one another and inspired people to build bridges of goodwill. We need bridges of goodwill—in our country—in the world. No doubt there are serious issues at stake and sometimes even after prayerful consideration, people of good faith disagree. So, the question is this: How can we model the way of Jesus—listen to each other’s stories—respond with empathy and grace—love each other—no matter what?
Today we celebrate the freedoms we have as citizens of this great nation we call home. But let us never forget that our citizenship in God’s kingdom matters even more. It is a place where every believer is invited to—called to—dwell. As citizens, it behooves us to practice being neighbors in a neighborhood filled with people of difference colors, different nationalities, different denominations, different backgrounds, and different beliefs. It is a kin-dom of love and God calls every believer to BE love—to BE Christ for the world—no matter the cost. Amen.