A sermon: Ursula Pavel, Mothers and Emma Grace


A sermon preached on May 13, 2007, Mother’s Day, and the occasion for the baptism of Emma Grace Crowningshield, based upon Revelation 21:10, 22 – 22:5.

Last Sunday evening, many of us had the profound privilege of hearing Ursula Pavel speak in this very pulpit, describing her first hand encounter with evil on a truly horrifying scale as a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust. 

Ursula’s mother wasn’t born Jewish.  She fell in love with a Jewish man — converted, married, and together they had two children:  Ursula,  and her younger brother, whom they called “Bubschen.” 

When the Nazis began rounding up the Jews in Germany, for some reason they first called sixteen year old Ursula to report for deportation to a so-called ‘work camp’.  Her mother and father, concerned to keep the family together, and certain that soon enough they, too would be deported as well, requested that the whole family be allowed to join Ursula in her deportation. 

The Nazis were happy to take Ursula’s father and her brother, who both were born Jewish, but they refused to take her mother, since she had been born Christian. 

And so her mother was left behind, never to see her beloved husband and son again. 

When they arrived at Auschwitz, Ursula was immediately separated from her brother and father.  She would never see them again; they were promptly executed in the gas chambers. 

Somehow Ursula survived where the vast majority of those sent to Auschwitz were murdered.  Maintaining her physical vitality in the starkest of conditions, Ursula was among the few who were taken from the camp to work in German factories. 

In contrast to the heartlessness of the vast majority of her captors, Ursula remembers the kindness shown to her by two young German soldiers who intervened at some risk to themselves in order to save her life, and how, in the course of a train ride they shared, these soldiers wept heart-wrenching tears over the terrible cruelty their people were committing against the Jews

This being Mother’s Day, I want to read the description from Ursula’s book of her reunion with her mother after a 500 mile bicycle ride with her girlfriend, Buschi, following the liberation of the camps, a full three years after her deportation.

“It was late in the afternoon, a beautiful sunny day.  Lippborg has only one main street.  When we pushed our bikes up the street, I saw my mother in the middle of the street, carrying a large stack of clean washing on her way to my grandmother.  I recognized her instantly.  I had remembered her with black hair, but it had turned completely gray.  When she saw us, she had dropped the whole load of washing right there in the street.  Tears were running down her cheeks.  She looked at me and Buschi, and beyond.  She stared down the road, her whole body seemed rigid.  She turned back to us, and she realized that nobody else was with us.  She embraced me and her first words were:  ‘Daddy and Bubschen are not coming back?’  She was crying and asking me a question and making a statement.  She was shouting my Aunt Minchen’s name.  People came out of their houses.  My mother kept repeating over and over again and again:  ‘My child is back!  My child is back!’”   (p. 115)

I know this is hard stuff to listen to, and I expect that many of us came to church on Mother’s Day hoping to hear something a good deal more upbeat.  But the truth of the matter is that although motherhood brings great joy, it also lays upon the hearts of women the lioness’s share of the suffering of this world.  To be a mother is to live inside the sufferings of one’s children.  Wherever someone suffers great pain in this world, generally speaking, there is a mother suffering somewhere as well.

Shortly after the reunion of Ursula and her mother,  they traveled together here to the United States, where Ursula came to know a good deal of happiness.   She married a wonderful husband with whom she shared 51 years of marriage before his death. 
She was blessed by the joy of motherhood, bringing two fine sons into the world. 
Her loving husband encouraged Ursula not to dwell on the darkness she had witnessed —
But to give herself time to heal — time to allow life to grow strong within her after having seen so much death.   And so it was only in her later years, when certain people began to publicly deny the reality of what happened in the Holocaust, that Ursula felt compelled to speak out and describe the horror of what she had experienced. 

Ursula is a gracious, gentle, kindhearted woman.  Her spirit deeply touched our spirits. 
During the question and answer period, our neighbor, Rabbi Ron Kaplan asked Ursula to comment on how her experience of the holocaust had affected her faith.  

Ursula answered honestly:  she had come to doubt God.  How could a good God stand aside and allow such terrible suffering and injustice to take place?   For years Ursula hadn’t been able to attend a Seder meal at Passover.   Growing up, Ursula’s little brother had been the one to read the central questions in the ritual, and the pain of his absence had been more than she could bear. 

In recent years, however, Ursula had been able to share once again in Seder meals, affirming her tradition, if not her faith. 

And so this morning I feel compelled to try and reflect upon the spiritual meanings of Ursula’s powerful testimony. 

And the first thing to be said is simply that Ursula’s story reminds us that evil is very real, although more often than not its manifestations are very subtle.  And that at the heart of human life there is a great struggle between the forces of good and evil. 

What is evil?  Somebody suggested that a way to get a handle on this is to think of the word “live” spelled backwards. L-i-v-e; e-v-i-l.   Evil is that which destroys life. 
Wherever human beings are treated as disposable, as things rather than as precious, indeed, sacred — well, that’s evil.  And in this age we are also recognizing that evil is involved in the destruction of life in other forms as well — that there is evil involved in the destruction of the plant and animal life of our planet. 

I don’t think it is common for us to look at life as a great struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil,  and in part this is because it is our good fortune to live somewhat removed from the more overt expressions of evil:  war and starvation and the like.  We see life as being about any number of other things:  it’s about finding happiness, or achieving security.  We devote a good deal more attention to what we’ll make for dinner or how our child’s soccer team is doing than we do to attending to the presence of good and evil. 

But the struggle between good and evil is always there, regardless of where we live.                                                  It involves the day to day choices we make regarding how we relate to the life around us and within us; whether we are nurturing, encouraging, embracing of life or whether we are in various ways destroying life.   It also involves whether we are able to humble ourselves in recognition of the dark capacities that live within our own hearts —  the very thing the Nazis could not or would not do.   They only saw the darkness that was not their own. 

But the lure of evil also comes in us in the temptation to look the other way — like the Priest and the Levite in Jesus’ story who passed on by the man whose life was draining away, lying beaten and bloody at the side of the road. 

The evil of the Holocaust that overwhelmed Germany was orchestrated by a relatively few, but in order for this evil to take over, it required the compliance of the many — the willingness to be led along like unquestioning sheep. 

This morning we baptized Emma Grace.  To bring a child into this world is an act of courage; for it requires a conscious engagement in the struggle between good and evil. 
And so at the very outset of the liturgy, two questions were asked of Keith and Audrey that deal directly with the struggle between good and evil, and by extension, the same questions were asked of us as well:

Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

To state the obvious, if evil is real, then so is goodness.  In a certain sense, in this world at least, goodness has no meaning except as it involves a conscious choice for the light over against the darkness. 

Candles only reveal their light in the midst of darkness. 

Ursula spoke of the kindness shown to her by the two young German soldiers; their goodness was so striking because it intentionally went against the stampede of the herd.

And Ursula herself is a shining example of goodness:  to come through what she endured and still be able to affirm life and to want to align herself with the light in the midst of the darkness.  This is a kind of faith — a faith I would say God cares more about than simply the intellectual conviction that the creator of the universe is good. 

And when we witness such faith, we are moved deeply, inspired to be more intentional about our own choices for goodness.  If it is our good fortune not to have to deal with what Ursula had to deal with, what we nonetheless have to deal with by way of evil is real — dangerously real — maybe we can find inspiration in the courage of her life for the more common place struggles of our lives to do good rather than evil.

But I would like to address Ursula’s honest confession that she found it hard to believe in God after what she had witnessed. 

 I’d like to say simply this.  If this life is the only life there is, then surely Ursula is right to question God‘s reality, or God‘s goodness.  Life in this world isn’t fair.  There are many, many people who get crushed by the evil of this world — who get an absolutely raw deal out of life.  There is no way to deny this.  

But this morning we heard a piece of scripture that records a vision received by a man named John, and  I believe that what John caught a glimpse of in his vision is real.  And because of this, until we reach that distant shore, the jury is still out on the question of ultimate justice of the universe.

Living in his lonely prison cell on the island of Patmos, John saw what he called the holy city of Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, adorned as a bride for her husband, a place where all the tears are wiped away, where there is no pain or death, and everyone is made new.   A place where

… all the heartbroken mothers get their sons and daughters back safely home, and their hearts are made whole again;
… where there is no need for the sun or the moon and there is no night, because the very light of God fills every corner of the place;
… where there is no need to lock the doors, because everybody is trustworthy and welcome, and there’s always room in the circle — the only thing you can’t bring into the circle is cruelty and deceit; evil in all its life-killing manifestations gets left outside or you can’t come in.

But it’s so wonderful inside that holy city that in the end  I believe most everybody chooses to leave all the bad stuff outside, and come on in where it so very beautiful. 
And John tells us that in the holy city there’s this river full of the water of life, shining bright like crystal, flowing from the very throne of God. 

And its so very beautiful there that once we get there, all the sufferings that have been experienced in this world will seem like a drop of water in comparison to the beauty of that crystal river flowing from the throne of God. 

The tree of life is there, too, the fruit of which we’ve already tasted in the best moments of this life, and the leaves of this tree will one day bring about the healing of the nations, bringing an end to war and genocide and brutality and starvation.

So let us hold on to the vision as we would raise little Emma up; let us share the fruit of the tree of life; let us be together a community where Jesus is at home and you can catch a  glimpse of the holy city of God. 

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