Friday, December 15, 2017

Know Jesus


Advent 3 B 17

John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me . . .”

On December 8, 1941 Japan invaded the Philippines. After the fall of Corregidor  May 2, 1942 they interned more than 3,000 civilians, Americans, British, and others in classroom buildings at the University of St. Thomas in Manilla. Interning foreign nationals is common in war time. Some Germans spent parts of 1917 and 1918 at Hot Springs, NC. From 1942-45 the United States interned more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, even though 62% of them were American citizens. Canada interned about 21,000 people, 2/3 of whom had been born in Canada. We have a friend at Deerfield who was interned as a young child.

I tell you all this to introduce an internment Christmas story I once heard.  Over the bed an internee had hung a crucifix and on a table below had made a crèche with sticks and scraps of cloth. A Japanese guard pointed questioningly at the figure of the child in the manger and was told, “Jesus.” Then the guard pointed at the crucifix and was told, “Jesus.” He put his hands together, bowed, and said, “So sorry!”    

This same Jesus whose birth we remember at Christmas is our crucified and risen Lord, our crucified and risen Lord whom we love and serve. We love him, we serve him, but do we know him?  In St. John’s gospel we read how John the Baptist, as he was questioned by the Jewish authorities, spoke to the crowd, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me . . .”

Do we know Jesus?  Is it as true for us as it was for those who heard John the Baptist, that Jesus is “one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me . . .”   Bishop Tim Smith of the NC Synod wrote this year in an Advent meditation, “A simple philosophical exercise: “Who am I?” Immediately we must ask, in order to answer that, “Who tells me who I am?” The answer to that second question is everybody, from parents to teachers to pastors to politicians to advertisers and more.” 

We know a lot about Jesus, the babe in the manger, the crucified and risen Lord, the itinerant preacher whose teachings reveal God to us. Jesus wants us to know him. He stands at the doors of our life waiting for our invitation to come in. When we open the door of faith he does come in and makes himself known.  So in the quiet times I encourage you to get to know Jesus as Jesus makes himself known to you.

As you get to know him, be alert to Jesus as John spoke of him, “one among you whom you do not know.”  First semester in seminary we were assigned Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer was born in 1875, a Lutheran pastor’s son from Alsace, a gifted organist interpreter and biographer of Johan Sebastian Bach. He was a theologian, ordained, and later served as a medical missionary in west Africa In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He died at his hospital in Gabon, west Africa, in 1965.

 The  Quest of the Historical Jesus examines all the 19th century biographies of Jesus and shows how much the Jesus they portray looks like the  biographer. Then Schweitzer wrote a biography that looks like Schweitzer. Every biography of Jesus since tells us much about the writer.

We want to believe in a Jesus who is like us. But Jesus calls us to be like him.

As you get to know Jesus in your prayers and meditations and Bible study be alert to the strangeness of Jesus, be alert to the ways he is different, be alert to the ways Jesus calls us out of spiritual comfort into new life.

John said, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me . . .”

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Hope and Isaiah


Advent 2B 2017 Newland

          We are called to be people of hope, people who trust in the love and mercy of God, in all our life, in this world and the world to come.

          The Book of the Prophet Isaiah has 66 chapters. The first 39 chapters tell of the last days of the southern kingdom of Judah. Then Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and the leaders of the people taken into exile in Babylon 586 years before Christ. Two generations later Babylon fell to the Persians, who allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. Gradually they did so and the last 27 chapters of Isaiah tell God’s word to the returning exiles.

          The Jews who returned had heard from their parents and grandparents of the land of milk and honey, the beauty of the Temple, the joy of living in Judah. Our children and grandchildren occasionally ask us about the past, and we all tend to describe the good parts. Going back to places where we lived as children is always a shock. The houses and the rooms are much smaller than we remember them. So we can imagine some of the returning exiles’ reactions, particularly from the reluctant spouses. “What have you gotten us into? This is not like grandmother described it. This “homecoming” idea is a big mistake. We’re being punished like our grandparents were. We should have stayed in Babylon.”  They forgot that their ancestors in the desert said the same things about Egypt.

          To this dispirited group, the word of the Lord comes by Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”

          The penalty has been paid. By his death on the cross Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, and for our sins, our individual sins and the sins that come because we live in a world filled with sin and evil and pain and injustice and hopelessness.  We can live in hope because on Easter Day Jesus rose from the dead. Because he lives, we live, and we live in hope. The Holy Spirit of God came at Pentecost to in-spirit us in God’s hope.

          The exiles had followed the route our father Abraham had taken. From southern Iraq they went up the river across Syria and then down the valleys past the Sea of Galilee and down the mountain road to Jerusalem. It took several months on a rough road. The returning exiles knew first-hand about the wilderness and the desert, the valleys and the mountains, the uneven ground and the rough places.  They understood the call of the Lord, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The exiles understood the call to hope.

          We all know about physical, emotional, and spiritual valleys and mountains, uneven ground and rough places. And we know how the Lord has brought us through them into the place where we are now. For some of us it was easier than for others, but we’re in this together, to help each other, to hope together.

          Deciding to leave the familiar in Babylon to return to Judea was not easy. Families were divided. Some left; others stayed. During the 500 years of Europe’s Dark Ages Babylon was the center of Jewish learning, and Jews were only forced out after the founding of Israel in 1948. The returning exiles knew from experience about the pain of broken personal relationships.

          We know about pain and loss and the loneliness that invites us to lose hope. We know how “people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades . . . surely the people are grass.”

To the exiles, and to us, Isaiah comes with a word of hope, the word of the Lord. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Our hope is in God’s promise. We are called to take the long view, the view from the mountain top, to trust in the love and power of God who “comes with might,” feeds “his flock like a shepherd,” who gathers us his precious lambs in his arms, and carries us next to his heart, and gently leads.

          St. Peter reminds us that we live in God’s time, and encourages us to patience. “With the  Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

          John the Baptist called the people of Jesus time to repentance, and John continues to call us to repentance. We are exiles in a sin-filled world who are on the road – the sometimes rough road – to God’s kingdom. We are sinners saved by God’s grace in Jesus. And while we are on the road we are called to hope, to hope for our final redemption, to look in hope for God at work in the world and in us.

          December can be a dark month, a time of despair and loss and pain and hopelessness.  But Advent is a time of hope, hope in Jesus’ final triumph, hope in our redemption, hope both in the last day and hope every day. In the busy days let us hope for the guiding of God’s Holy Spirit. In the sad moments let us look in hope for God’s love and power. In the happy times let us hope for the fullness of God’s love and joy in our lives, in the lives of those we love and those we have trouble loving, and in those whom we do not know with whom we share life in the world redeemed by Jesus death and resurrection. Amen.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Big end? Advent 1


Advent 1B 12/3/17

Religion and science agree that the world as we know it will end. According to the NASA website: the universe began with the big bang 13.8 billion years ago. Our sun came together 4.5 billion years ago and will become a red giant in about 5 billion years. But the earth will become too hot for life in just one billion years.

The first signs of human beings are found in Africa about 200,000 years ago and in Europe and Asia about 60,000 years ago. Historical records begin 6000 years ago.

Predictions of the end of the world have been frequent – and continue. Atomic war is a current fear. Europe, Asia, and much of North America lie within the range of North Korean missiles and atomic bombs. Other human caused dangers include global warming, overpopulation and world famine, and (according to Wikipedia and in alphabetical order) artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cyberattack, environmental disaster, and mineral resource exhaustion

Natural dangers not man made include asteroid impact, extraterrestrial invasion, natural climate change, cosmic threats (including Mercury’s orbit becoming so unstable so the planet crashes into the earth or gamma ray bursts or a solar flare), geomagnetic reversal, a global pandemic caused by naturally arising pathogens, a mega-tsunami, and volcanism. A current volcanic explosion in Bali is expected this winter to lower the world’s temperature by one degree.

Fears of future disaster based in science and in Scripture have in common very vague future dates and probabilities.  Today’s reading from Isaiah was probably written down about 500 years before Christ, after the leaders of the people had returned from their two generation exile in Babylon after the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 586. That destruction was as much a reality to the people who heard the prophecy as say the Depression is to us. The Depression and World War II were life changing events in our parents’ lives. For us they are past events we don’t want to repeat.    

Jesus’ teaching about the end times is also found in St. Mathew 24 and St. Luke 21. It was part of the teaching of the early church. For almost 300 years church members were persecuted for their belief. For long periods of time Christians lived lives of peace among their pagan neighbors, but then without much warning a small conflict might bring out the mob and death and destruction would follow. It was roughly like the situation of the Muslim Rohinga in Burma, or the former conflict in Bosnia, or the situation of Christians in Pakistan or some other Muslim majority countries – social pressure, with some occasional but usually short-lived government persecution  We join in prayer for these and for other persecuted and abused peoples.

When we are under attack we look for redemption.  And God in his grace and love offers us redemption, his love and support. The memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem is in the midst of a grove of trees each one given to remember one of the righteous who helped save Jews from Nazi murderers. 

When we are under attack by the temptation to sin, we remember God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When we are tempted to despair, God gives us hope, the hope of new life in Jesus.

So this Advent season, let us be aware that the end is coming – the end of the world as we know it, the end of our lives on this earth – and let us be prepared and watchful.

We watch 4 Sundays for Christmas. We watch and wait as St. Paul reminded the church in Corinth, “not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Christ the King


Christ the King November 26, 2017

On December 11, 1925 Pope Pius 11th ordered the last Sunday in October be kept as a feast of Christ the King. He acted in response to the political situation in Italy and throughout the world.  In 1969 the observance of Christ the King was moved to the Sunday before Advent.

The Russian Communist revolution of November, 1917, and the wars that followed it terrorized the world. Many countries chose hyper-nationalist governments that repressed all forms of dissent. In the United States Attorney General Mitchell Palmer led a federal government attack on labor unions, and there were race riots, and new restrictions on immigration.  

In Italy on October 28, 1922 Benito Mussolini’s Fascists seized control of the government. In June, 1924, the Fascists kidnapped and murdered Giacomo Matteotti, an opposition member of the Italian parliament. In Germany Adolf Hitler organized a Fascist private army, and in November 1923 Hitler tried to overthrow the government of Bavaria. He was sent to prison where he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which was published in early 1925.

. The Fascists were political gangsters, determined to maintain order at the expense of justice, Fascism promised social order and opposed Communist social revolution. Both Fascism and Communism were totalitarian ideologies, incompatible with Christian faith.

          Celebrating the feast of Christ the King is a political act. Christians proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” Because Jesus is Lord the early church refused to burn incense to the Roman Emperor as a god and bore the consequence of martyrdom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, joined the plot to kill Hitler. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador opposed the civil war in that country and was machine-gunned at the altar. The Rev. Emmanuel Allah Ditta, a priest of the Church of Pakistan, 14 parishioners and the Muslim guard were murdered when a gunman broke in at the end of the church service and opened fire with an automatic rifle. In Iran, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani has been imprisoned for serving as a Christian pastor. The Iranian courts say, “Once a Muslim, always a Muslim;” Pastor Nadarkhani says, “Jesus is Lord.”

          We are blessed to live in a country where the power of government comes from the votes of the people, not from the barrel of a gun. The use of military power in the United States is cotrolled by the civil government. The stars and stripes represent “one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty is not absolute. Human justice at best only approximates God’s perfect justice. But Christ our King calls us to pray today to the “God of power and might” from whom “we inherit the riches of his grace” for “the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve.”  With God’s wisdom and strength we have made as a nation some progress toward the Pledge of Allegiance’s promise of, “liberty and justice for all,” but we still have some way to go in ordering our common life for our common good.

          Our churches historically support the good work of government. Luther was supported by the Elector of Saxony. Luther used his time in protective custody to translate the New Testament into German. The separate identity of the Church of England began in popular and government opposition to what was seen as unjust and tyrannical rule from Rome. At the American Revolution some in the Church of England and in the Lutheran churches in America supported royal authority, while others were Patriots. One Patriot was Peter Muhlenberg, a son of Pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the apostle of American Lutheranism. His great nephew reported that Peter was serving as pastor in Woodstock in the Shenandoah Valley, in a Church of England parish, on January 21, 1776, preached from Ecclesiastes chapter 3, “To every thing there is a season . . . a time for war and a time for peace” and that day enlisted 162 men from the congregation in the 8th Virginia Regiment of the Continental army. Peter later became a major general and after the war returned to Pennsylvania where he served in the first, 3rd and 5th sessions of Congress.   

          Our Christian call is to engage in the life of the community. Jesus is Lord; Christ is King, and we demonstrate that Lordship and that Kingship in our own lives, in the lives of our families, our work places, and our common political life.

          We will all face the final judgment of God. Today’s readings from Ezekiel and St. Matthew’s Gospel tell of God’s final judgment. God’s judgment is real; God’s judgment is final, and God’s judgment is finally just and true.

       We all stand condemned. We have not, as individuals, as church, as nation, adequately fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, nor visited the prisoners. We’ve all done some of these, but as individuals and as a nation we have not loved God with our whole hearts; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done,” and there is no spiritual health in us.

       But the good news, the good news of our salvation is that Jesus our Lord, Christ our King, was content to die for us, to die to set us free from sin. For us and from all who will claim his sacrifice he bears the penalty of our sins and his judgment. By his resurrection he gives us day by day a new opportunity to love and serve him.

       On this Feast of Christ the King, a feast established in the conflict of Christian faith and totalitarian values, let us by his grace recommit ourselves to love and serve Jesus, our Lord and our King, this day and every day that is given to us. Amen.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Talents


Talents Nov. 19, 2017
 
Our scripture readings for the next few weeks are about the end times when the world as we know it will cease and Christians believe the Lord will come in glory to judge the living and the dead. In that last day - whether it be the last day of the world as we know it, or our own last day -  the voice of God proclaims his vindication . On some level we all seek vindication. We love to be able to say “I told you so.” But as we grow in God’s spirit we learn that it is God who will say, “I told you so.”  And we will, in truth, say, “Yes, you did.”  In that last day we will not plead our own good works, we will plead not our own merits, but we will plead Jesus Christ.  That is the truth of the Christian faith, both Catholic and Reformation - not us but Christ.

Zephaniah proclaimed God’s message 600 years before Christ. In his day as in ours some were complacent and said in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  We are always tempted to live as practical atheists, without reference to God in what we say, think, and do.  We are as tempted as were the people to whom Zephaniah preached to put our trust in our wealth. But as the prophet reminds us, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them.”

Zephaniah lived in a time of political turmoil. Judah was an Assyrian client state on the border of an increasingly powerful Egypt. Assyria had exiled the people of Israel and besieged Jerusalem just 55 years before Zephaniah wrote.  For the people who remained in Judah destruction was a living memory. We have recently seen in Houston and in Puerto Rico that God sends rain on the just and the unjust, that both rich and poor can be flooded out and we suffer together.

Most of us are fortunate. We have worked hard and used the talents God has given us. We will go home to a warm house. We’ll have plenty of food for Thanksgiving and for the week. When we get sick we will be able to pay for medical advice and treatment and drugs. We may not have all we want, but generally we have much of what we need.

Jesus’ parable of the talents encourages us to make the best of what we have. A talent was a measure of weight. Talents of gold and silver were worth many years’ income. We are not told how long the owner was away, but it was long enough for the talents that were put to use to double. In a time before paper money, inflation, and the Federal Reserve, even the servant who buried the money could have made the interest. A modern savings account would have lost value. But the servant who buried the talent suffered from bad theology.   He understood the master as “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid,” When people encounter God, their normal first reaction is fear, but from Abraham in Genesis 15 to Moses in Exodus 3 to the Blessed Virgin Mary in St. Luke 1, God’s first word to us is, “Fear not!”

The commentaries tell us Luther drew the distinction between servile fear and filial fear. Servile fear is the fear of consequences. A mild example is how I watch my speed on Rt. 221 from Marion – 55, 50, 45, 35, sometimes reasonable, sometimes not, but I don’t want a ticket, and I don’t want to be delayed on the way.  Filial fear is the respect we have for those in spiritual or parental authority. I help with Rotary Youth Exchange, bringing 10th and 11th grade students from Europe, Latin America, and southeast Asia to study for a year here and sending American students abroad. We drill them in the 5D’s – forbidden behaviors – Don’t Drink, Drug, Drive, Date Exclusively, and Don’t Do Anything Dumb Your Mother Wouldn’t Approve Of – filial fear.

The one talent servant had servile fear of the master, and that fear paralyzed him. God’s love in Jesus Christ sets us free from servile rear.  And the mutual love and respect among the persons of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is both an example of the love and respect we are to have for God and for one another, and also the power of the Holy Spirit working I us to make that love and respect possible.   

St. Paul reminds us that the end is near. He draws an analogy with pregnancy. We who have children know something of those last few weeks of discomfort. Our granddaughters, for medical reasons, were delivered by Cesarean section. Our daughter Sarah knew the day and the hour. In St. Paul’s time, and for much of human history, mothers and fathers knew only approximately when the time of labor was to begin.

In the meantime we are called to live in preparation -  awake and sober, as people who belong to the day, in faith and love, with the hope of salvation, encouraging one another and building up one another – as St. Paul says, “as indeed you are doing.”   

When the world as we know it comes to an end and the Lord comes in glory to judge God will say, “I told you so.”  And we will plead not our own merits, but we will plead Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Bridesmaids Oil

All four Scripture lessons today deserve some comment, the Gospel first and longer, then the Epistle, Amos, and the Psalm.   Do you remember the old church camp and Bible school song?  The version I remember goes:

 Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, Give me oil in my lamp I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Keep me burning till the light of day
Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna, Sing Hosanna to the King of Kings

Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna Sing Hosanna to the King

There are lots of other verses:
Give me joy in my heart keep me praising       

Give me love in my heart keep me serving
Give me peace in my heart keep me resting       
Hide your word in my heart, keep me learning,
Make me fishers of men, keep me searching
Some others are these:
Give me wax on my board, keep me surfing for the Lord...

Give me coffee in my cup, lift Him up, up, up...
Give me water in my shower God is power, power, power...
Give me gas in my Ford, keep me truckin' for the Lord...

Give me gas for my Chevy Keep my testimony heavy
Give me wheels for my skates, then I’ll roll to heaven’s gate.
Give me Nikes for my feet, I’ll be preachin’ on the street
Give me chicken on my plate, God is great, great, great...
Give me umption in my gumption, help me function for the Lord...
Give me beans in my burrito, God is neat-o, neat-o, neat-o... 

Give me salt on my Fritos, God is neat-os, neat-os, neat-os....
Give me hot sauce in my taco, let me witness in Morocco
(from England) Give me batteries for my torch, keep me shining  
I’m sure there are more. 

In Christian history the oil of this parable has had many meanings. In our time reserves are important – material reserves and spiritual reserves. Last year a Federal Reserve survey said nearly half the people in this country could not raise $400 in an emergency. In terms of net worth – 10% have less than $1,000, half less than $100,000,10% more than 1,200.000. My church pension is funded by an 18% assessment for 37 years, and I paid into social security.  But pensions are going away and savings are not making up for them. We need to build up our material and financial reserves.

More importantly we need to build up our spiritual reserves. Regular prayer, regular bible study, regular worship, regular Christian service – all these help us grow in God’s love and grace. We can’t pass on what we have not received for ourselves. In   Christ Jesus we are forgiven sinners. We have been given new life in Jesus Christ. God has given us the Holy Spirit – the spirit of God’s truth, the spirit of God’s power to overcome the temptations of this life. Focusing our attention on God’s gifts helps us keep our spiritual oil flasks filled.   

We all know the feeling of burnout – to be overworked and under-appreciated. It is easy to burn out. Overwork is a subset of the sin of pride. Make time for God. Remember “this is my father’s world.” He is in charge, and he wants us rested, and filled with his Spirit.  

Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, Give me oil in my lamp I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Keep me burning till the light of day

Today’s Epistle reading from Thessalonians includes the proof text for the Rapture. 4:17 “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” You may have seen the bumper sticker, “In case of Rapture this car will be unmanned.” The Rapture is one way of understanding the final coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time.

That Jesus will come at the end of time again is a matter of faith. How and when he will come is pious opinion and speculation. Our task is to remember how Jesus has come to us our lives, to be wise, prepared with extra oil to obey Jesus’ command to keep alert and awake.

We all look for the Day of the Lord, the day of judgment Amos writes about. We tend to think of it as our day of vindication. Amos reminds us God’s judgment is righteous, and that we are to live by God’s standards, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  

And the Psalm reminds us of our need for God’s deliverance.  I am poor and needy; come to me quickly, O God.  You are my helper and my deliverer; O LORD, do not tarry.”  

 Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, Give me oil in my lamp I pray.
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning,
Keep me burning till the light of day
Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna, Sing Hosanna to the King of Kings

Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna .Sing Hosanna to the King

Thursday, November 2, 2017

All Saints Sunday 17


All Saints Sunday November 5, 2017

“Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.” The Church of the Savior is coming up on our 40th anniversary. Our first service was July 2, 1978 in Smokey Chapel. Almost 5 years later in April, 1983 the Lutheran Episcopal fellowship was officially organized, and the first weekend in July that year Bishops Wolber and Weinhauer dedicated our church.  It’s like a marriage; we keep the public wedding anniversary, but the relationship really began some time before that.

The God who made us loves us. Our personal relationship with God begins before birth, before we are aware, before we can become aware. The paradox is that we are born alone and we die alone, but we do not live alone. At birth we have mother, father, and other members of a family, a community of people who care about us.  We become part of a spiritual community, the mystical body of Christ. We are spiritual descendants of Abraham, joined in his covenant with God, and joined in the new covenant of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

It is a covenant of faith. In Acts 16, when the Philippian jailer asked “What must I do to be saved, St. Paul told him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” In the last chapter of St. Mark’s gospel Jesus said, (16:16) “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”  Faith and baptism are signs of salvation. Faith is God’s gift. Faith is not dependent on feelings; feelings come and go, but faith, God’s love, and God’s salvation in Jesus is everlasting.

Baptism is a sign to us of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Lutheran, Episcopal, Orthodox, Catholic churches all agree about the sacrament of baptism. The Episcopal catechism (BCP 857) defines sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” We are spiritual bodies, and baptism is our bodily response to God’s gift of faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

We are blessed to be able freely to respond to God in baptism. Many cannot. In the late 19th century British missionaries opened hospitals in Persia. From the village of Tafti a young woman came to learn to be a nurse, but in obedience to her Muslim parents she returned home and married a Muslim. She was a secret Christian, and her son Hassan was later an army officer and then a priest and the first native Persian Anglican bishop. He served there for 20 years, but when the revolutionaries attacked him, wounded his wife, and murdered his son, he fled to England. The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) wrote of “anonymous Christians,” like Bishop Deqani-Tafti’s mother, Christians prevented by circumstances from being baptized or enjoying the benefits of church fellowship. In the early church people were baptized only at Easter after several years preparation. Sometimes these catechumens were martyred in persecutions before they could be baptized. The church said they had been “baptized by desire” and counted them among the saints.

Baptism is an important human response to God’s grace freely given all his people, but of the ways churches have misused their spiritual authority to impose restrictions on the grace of God. The Spanish speaking congregation at St. Paul’s Church, Smithfield, NC, where I was twice interim rector, began when some Spanish speaking men came to the employer, a member of that church, to complain that the local Roman Catholic church would not baptize their children because the parents had not been married in the church in Mexico. In that country the civil marriage is done at city hall; the church wedding costs extra. The boss responded, “We’re Episcopalians; we baptize anybody.” I did some Spanish language baptisms there. 

When I was rector in Shelby, Jenny Schwartz, a beautiful and talented 11 year old, was a leader of the youth choir. Her mother Florence was active in the church; her father Mike was from a leading Jewish family in Georgetown, SC. We noticed that when Jenny sang her father cane to church. When I visited them we’d talk about God and Jesus. One Sunday was a baptism; Jenny and the youth choir sang.  As I went down the aisle at the closing hymn, Mike asked me, “Can I be baptized?” “Yes, when?” “Now?” When the hymn ended I said, “If you a roast in the oven feel free to leave. The rest please stay for Mike Schwartz’s baptism.” We formed a men’s group and twice a month for almost a year met for breakfast and discussion to help Mike learn and grow in the Christian faith.

Florence died young of cancer, but Jenny and Mike continue in the church. Florence, with Hassan Dequani-Tafti, his wife, and his mother, continue in the communion of saints, “one communion in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord.”   

My mother used to say, “We’re all examples for one another; some of us are good examples.” Everyone I have known in the body of Christ has contributed to my spiritual growth. On this All Saints Sunday I invite you to remember and to thank God for those saints who have contributed to your own spiritual growth, and I want to list some of the saints who have been God’s agents in my own spiritual life. First are my parents, Nelson and Elizabeth Rightmyer. Most of what I know of God’s love and grace I learned at home. My father was a priest and a seminary professor; that helped. Walden Pell was headmaster at St. Andrew’s School, Middletown, Delaware. When his office door was open we could go in and talk about anything. God is always available.  Jim Reynolds was Chaplain; I learned from him about the beauty of holiness. Tom Fraser was bishop of North Carolina. He taught the younger clergy by word and example to be hard on ourselves and easy on others.  I could go on, but you get the idea. Give thanks to God who has made know to you by his Word Jesus and the example of the saints in your life that he loves you, that Jesus has saved us and given us new life in the Holy Spirit who guides us and all the saints in truth and power.  Amen