Gaza, days of Gomorrah, and Jurgen Moltmann

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to ponder Mark 4:26-34. The English Standard Version divides the selection into two parts. It supplies each part with a heading. The heading for the first part, verses 26-29, is “The Parable of the Seed Growing;” the heading for the second part, verses 30-34, is “The Parable of the Mustard Seed.”

Both parts concern the kingdom of God: the communion, the fellowship, the network, of people who put themselves under the reign of God in Christ. People who’ve been overcome by God in Christ. People who strain to learn and to do what God wills, in the places to which God has called them.

We’ve seen the images. Gaza. Rubble. Black smoke. Bodies. Children. Women. Men. Soldiers. Rockets. Missiles. We’ve seen the numbers. Days of Gaza. Deaths. Soldiers. Rockets. Missiles. We’ve seen the tears. Heard the weeping. Read the reports.

What images, numbers and reports crossed your path last week?

Last week, I came across Gomorrah. During the second world war, the allies gave the name “Gomorrah” to a firebombing operation they conducted on the city of Hamburg, in the last week of July 1943. Their goal was to completely destroy the city.

Gomorrah is the name of a city God completely destroyed. You can read about it in Genesis chapters 18 and 19. It was God’s punishment for abuse and inhospitality.

On one of the days of Gomorrah in Hamburg, a German soldier called Jurgen Moltmann was an anti-aircraft gunner in a German army battery whose members, equipment and facilities were almost entirely destroyed.

At the end of that day of Gomorrah, Moltmann surveyed the carnage in his city. Rubble. Black smoke. Bodies. Children. Women. Men.

Moltmann, 17-years-old, asked “God, where are you?”

Moltmann’s parents didn’t believe in God. But they sent him to confirmation classes. That was in the old days, when you couldn’t take communion if you weren’t confirmed. During confirmation classes, the pastor is supposed to teach the basics of the Christian faith. Moltmann’s pastor didn’t. Moltmann later wrote that he taught them nonsense.

On that day of Gomorrah, Moltmann, 17-years-old, asked “God, where are you?”

Does God answer when someone asks “God, where are you?”

For Moltmann, the answer came in a Prisoner of War camp. In Scotland. Outside the town of Kilmarnock. In Camp 22. A camp where prisoners could volunteer to go out and work in the town. A time when his former enemies first treated him as a human. As Moltmann wrote, in 2007, in his autobiography, A Broad Place:

“The Scottish overseers and their families were the first who came to meet us, their former enemies, with a hospitality that profoundly shamed us. We heard no reproaches, we were not blamed, we experienced a simple and warm common humanity which made it possible for us to live with the past of our own people, without repressing it and without growing callous.” (Page 28)

Moltmann listed that experience of Scottish working men as the first thing which “raised [him] from depression to a new hope in life.” The second was a Bible. It’s such a touching passage, I will cite it in full:

“One day a well-meaning army chaplain came to our camp and after a brief address distributed Bibles. Some of us would certainly rather have had a few cigarettes. I read the book in the evenings without much understanding until I came upon the psalms of lament in the Old Testament. Psalm 30 caught my attention particularly:

“I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself.
My life is as nothing before thee [Luther’s version].
Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry.
Hold not thou thy peace at my tears,
For I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

“That was an echo from my own soul, and it called that soul to God. I didn’t experience any sudden illumination, but I came back to these words every evening. Then I read Mark’s Gospel as a whole and came to the story of the passion; when I heard Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I felt growing within me the conviction: this is someone who understands you completely, who is with you in your cry to God and has felt the same forsakenness you are living in now. I began to understand the assailed, forsaken Christ because I knew that he understood me. The divine brother in need, the companion on the way, who goes with you through this ‘valley of the shadow of death’ the fellow-sufferer who carries you, with your suffering. I summoned up the courage to live again, and I was slowly but surely seized by a great hope for the resurrection into God’s ‘wide space where there is no more cramping.’ This perception of Christ did not come all of a sudden and overnight, either, but it became more and more important for me, and I read the story of the passion again and again, for preference in the Gospel of Mark.” (Page 30)

Moltmann would later become one of the most influential pastor-theologians of the 20th century. He died two weeks ago, on June 3, 2024. According to Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who was mentored by Moltmann, over 500 Ph.D. theses have been written about Moltmann (Yale Center for Faith and Culture).

What does Moltmann’s story tell us about the kingdom of God? We don’t know what happened to many others whom the Scottish workmen befriended. We don’t know what happened to many others at Camp 22 who received Bibles that day. But we know one of those two seeds helped Moltmann find shade in which to make a nest in God, in Christ.

And Moltmann’s writings provided meaning and friendship for millions more. Listen to these verses from the passage for Sunday:

31 [The kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Peace be with you.

1 thought on “Gaza, days of Gomorrah, and Jurgen Moltmann”

  1. Poignant and powerful …. This cry of a human heart then the mind and will to quest for understanding post carnage and destruction from victors- victimhood to Christus victor

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