Baltic Commemoration Service, 17 June

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This year we mark 14 June against a very particular, indeed unique, setting. Of course we all know that this year we remember 100 years of the proclamation of independence for all 3 Baltic countries.   For Lithuania it is different, because this is 100 years since the renewal of independence, for Estonia and Latvia the first moment of true independence ever. 

But we need to remember that that is precisely what it is: 100 years since the proclamations. We have not, any of us, enjoyed a century of freedom and self-determination. In fact, this second period of liberation, now 27 years long, is longer than our first time, from 1918-1940. And in between all our countries suffered an era  of oppression, extreme and harsh at times, which has come to be symbolised by, or summed up in our remembrance of the year of terror 1940-1941, and the horror of the night of 14 June.

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If ever the Baltic peoples thought that Soviet rule was going to be more or less like all the other foreign rulers who have divided up our lands over the years, and that we would just get through it somehow, this one night showed all too clearly that this was different. 

So today we sit, in stillness, and with words and music, with symbols and silence, we live with these very mixed emotions and memories. We give thanks for new freedoms; we weep for those who were taken, and those who were left. We look forward, with slightly battered and cynical hopes, but still without despair, to the future; but we know all too well what the past holds. We know, too, that we must not forget, because that will make future horrors more likely to happen. 

For Christians, the inevitable question is – why did God let this happen? Why, if God loves us, didn’t God prevent the deportations, the torture and the deaths? Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, famously said: “There is Auschwitz, so there cannot be God.”

Where was God when the wolves came with midnight knocks in Tallinn and Viljandi, in Vilnius and Klaipeda, in Rīga and Jelgava; when the cattle trucks were packed with people – men and women, young and old? Where was God when the deported were suffering the long, thirsty, fearful journeys to Omsk, to Irkutsk, to the Vjatlag? This, perhaps, is the hardest and thorniest question that Christians, and indeed people of other faiths are faced with. 

We can, though, find comfort and the beginnings of an answer in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus compares himself here to a (or the) Good Shepherd. The hired hand – the herdsman who is working in the gig economy in 21st century terms – won’t ever risk his own life to save someone else’s  animals, to rescue another person’s property from danger. But the good shepherd knows his animals and cares for them; the good shepherd lives alongside his animals, feeding them beside still waters, caring for without thought for his own welfare. 

So where was God on 14 June? God was with the lambs of the flock; God was there in the cattle trucks, in the desperate prayers and the tears. God walked the tundra and the taiga, alongside the lonely and the frightened. And God was there in the hope that did not die, in the hidden services and communions that were celebrated by priests and pastors in huts and camps. As with so many atrocities committed over the centuries, Christ, the Good Shepherd, was crucified again in the camps of the Gulag, and the cellars of the KGB. Because he is the Good Shepherd, he does not abandon us in times of pain and hardship, because he knows himself what it is to be wrongfully arrested, interrogated, humiliated and killed; because he loves us, each one of us – including the guards and the KGB officers.

Between Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Moldova close to 100 000 people were deported. One of them was my mother’s first husband, Alfrēds Tālnora. He had been a civilian worker with the police, and that was enough for him to be arrested in  the spring of 1941, deported, and shot in the prison in Astrakhan in October of the same year. He had no other family, and probably no one except for me and my family even remember that he once lived. There are countless men and women like him, unknown, unremembered, buried somewhere in the vastness of Siberia. It is a comfort to hear the words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”; for it means that all these souls are both known and remembered by God. 

I hope and pray that in his cell, and in his last moments, Alfrēds Tālnora knew the comfort of God’s presence. I hope and pray that his killers, too, became aware of the terrible wrong that they did, and that they knew the love and care of the Good Shepherd in the end. I hope and pray that all our countries, who have borne the burden of these crimes for so many years, will soon find truth, reconciliation and healing.

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I hope and pray that the truth will enable us to forgive, even while we do not forget. For the truth will set us free – free from the suspicion, mistrust and lies that have scarred our societies since 1941. 

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John 10.7-15

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Sermon preached at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. 

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