This sermon is part of a Summer at the Movies Series and refers to the movie 'The Zookeeper's Wife" Scripture readings for this Sunday are Esther 4:9-14, Psalm 64, Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 25:31-45
Jan and Antonina Zabinski owned a zoo
That’s an unlikely beginning for a story of courage and heroism
But God uses the most unlikely people to accomplish surprising things
Jan and Antonina ran a zoo
In Warsaw, Poland
In the 1930’s and 40’s
If you remember your history, you will remember that when the Nazis occupied Warsaw, they first bombed the city. The zoo was devastated, animals were killed. Some animals escaped and were rounded up and returned to the zoo.
Jan and Antonina began again, caring for the animals. But the Nazis decided the remaining animals had to be killed. The food and resources that would keep these animals alive in winter were needed for the German war effort.
The Nazis determined to close the zoo, dismantling it to provide war resources.
But Jan and Antonina had a plan. You see, the Nazis were also busy dismantling the lives of the Jews in Warsaw. First it was little things - an armband, a curfew, shops closing, restrictions on travel.
Now Jan and Antonina's Jewish friends were being rounded up into one horrific ghetto - little food, little water, no wood for fire, large families crowded into one room.
Jan and Antonina had a plan. A dangerous plan. Inviting just a Jewish couple to hid in their house at a time when even offering a Jew a glass of water could get them shot was a huge risk for them and their young son. But they did, asking a couple who they were friends with to move in and hide. The woman accepted, but the man declined as he was too well known in the community.
As things got progressively worse for the Jews, Jan and Antonina realized that they could not just help one or two. They had much more room than that. They had the underground enclosures for the animals. They could save more Jews.
To do this, they needed to save the zoo from destruction. So they offered to raise pigs in the old - above ground - animal enclosures. Pigs that would provide meat for the German soldiers.
Jan would go to the ghetto to gather scraps to feed the pigs, smuggling out a few Jews at a time, to hid at the zoo until the resistance could move them out of Warsaw. A member of the labor bureau allowed him to use Jews for labor at the zoo - Jews who walked out the gate of the ghetto and disappeared, with new identities.
Antonina would care for their guests. Since a part of the zoo was being used as a Nazi animal breeding program, she had to make sure her guests were not discovered. They had a code - if she played a certain song in the day, they were to hide. Another song at night, and one by one, children, women, and men gathered in the Zabinski living room, spending the night hours in a semblance of normal life sharing wine and food and and each other’s company.
Two simple people - one atheist and one catholic - saved 300 Jews.
Jan and Antonina’s daughter Teresa, who was born during the occupation, said her parents never considered themselves heroes:
“My parents told me that they did only what should have been done — it was their obligation to do that. They were just decent people. They said decent people should do the same, nothing else. I’d like as many people as possible to understand what actually happened here in Warsaw during the war, and how much humanity and love can do." (quote from PEOPLE magazine interview)
300 hundred Jews were saved by Antonina and Jan. I know that seems a drop in a bucket of the approximately 6 milion Jews that were killed (not to mention the 9 million other people the Nazi’s murdered - mostly civilians).
Two people stood up for what is right. Stood up against the Nazi war machine.
It’s an inspiring story. We’ve all heard stories of the heroic deeds of those who resisted the Nazis.
But what does it mean for us, today, for us personally in the communities we live?
When I first selected this movie and thought about what I would say today, I was going to say “ now you probably will never have to stand up against Nazis. But God has put you here for such a time as this."
I was going to talk about the courage it takes to see Jesus in the least of these and work to feed the hungry and thirsty, provide shelter for the homeless and clothes for the naked. To welcome the stranger - refugees. To visit the sick and work for adequate medical care. To visit the prisoner and demand just humane treatment for those incarcerated.
But then...last weekend I watched videos of young men carrying torches and Nazi flags in the streets of an American city - Charlottesville VA.
I heard the stories from colleagues attending a prayer meeting to pray for peace and unity about how the church was surrounded by these men - these neo-Nazis, shouting and threatening the worshipers inside. How they couldn’t leave for over 30 minutes and then had to escape out a side door and back streets to safety.
I saw a post from a WWII vet - "I fought the Nazi’s 73 years ago and if I have to I will fight them again!"
So I’m not sure anymore that we won’t be called to stand up against Nazis.
I am sure that we are called to stand up against white supremacy and hatred.
God created all of us - every single person
Every single race, ethnicity
Every single gender and orientation
Every single ability level
No matter who you are
No matter who you meet
God created us all in the image of God.
And if we remember from the Shack - God is especially fond of each one of us. Jesus loves the little children (and every living human being is child to God) of the world red and yellow black and white. They are precious in his sight.
There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. In fact, in the kingdom of heaven we see Jesus in those we would consider the least of these.
So when I hear the story of the sheep and the goats, I get nervous.
I don’t know if we’re going to be called into account - there’s a difference of opinion of what “all the nations” means. Is it all unbelieving nations, so those who have lived according to God’s way of Love are rewarded for their actions even if they didn't believe?
Or does it include all nations - believing and not - being judged? I hope not - because I know I don’t do a very good job of seeing Jesus in the least of these. Especially if offering a glass of water means I could get shot!
Especially if talking about racism and white supremacy makes my congregation uncomfortable or offended.
And yet that is exactly what I am called to do. To stand against hate and call out racism and white supremacy as a sin.
To recognize my own complicity in racism and confess it.
To work for equality and justice for everyone.
If my sermon today offended you - I’m sorry. If so I would love to talk more with you. Call me, we’ll talk.
If I challenged you today - call me, we’ll talk.
If you're sitting there thinking, this sermon doesn't have anything to do with me - PLEASE call me. We need to talk.
Let’s talk -there are great resources from the synod to explore the facets of racism as we learn to love others as God loves us.
And that is exactly what we are called to do.
And I believe we have been placed here for just such a time as this. To stand up for what is right. To stand up for the values of the kingdom of heaven.
And I’m going to say it again - in the kingdom of heaven, all are truly equal in God’s sight. In the kingdom of heaven, all are fed, all are sheltered, all are loved, all are welcomed.
As Christians, baptized into the family of God, filled with God’s spirit and love - this is our calling.
This is who we are.