"Summer Saints IV -- Three Men and a Baby"
And no, this is not about the 1980s movie by the same title, starring Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and Ted Danson.
It is about three men, Alban, Maximilian, Abraham, and a boy, Isaac. And a random ram.
About seventeen hundred years ago, Alban, a Roman soldier was stationed in Verulamiun, a settlement about 25 miles north of today’s London, and pretty close to what eventually would be the home of today's Aylett Nurseries, in Hertfordshire.
There, Alban met a Christian priest fleeing from persecution and decided to shelter him for a couple of days. The priest prayed and "kept watch" day and night, and Alban was so impressed with the priest's faith and piety that he found himself emulating him and soon converted to Christianity.
Eventually, the authorities got wind that Alban was sheltering a Christian priest. So, orders were given to make a strict search of Alban's house. As they came to seize the priest, Alban put on the priest's cloak and clothing and presented himself to the soldiers in place of his guest. In the commotion, the priest escaped.
Alban was dragged in front of the magistrate, but he refused to tell where the Christian priest was in hiding and, much less, to renounce his new Christian faith. So, after being flogged, he was put to death. As time went by, Alban’s witness to the faith, inspired many to follow in Christ’s steps.
Eventually, as the persecution ceased, a larger settlement, churches, and today’s Cathedral were built. Today is the city of St. Alban’s, home of over eighty thousand people.
St Alban is considered to be the first Christian martyr in England, and he is specially remembered as simple lay person offering his life for the sake of others, in this case, a priest.
Fast forward to 1941. Poland was under Nazi control. Like a little island, there was a monastery in the city of Teresin, founded by Fr. Maximilian Kolbe in 1927. During the German occupation he continued work at his friary where he and other friars provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland including 2,000 Jews whom he hid from German persecution.
On 17 February 1941, the monastery was shut down by the German authorities. That day Kolbe and four others were arrested by the Gestapo. On 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner 16670.
At the end of July 1941, a prisoner escaped from the camp, prompting the camp commander to pick ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker to deter further escape attempts.
When one of the selected men cried out, "My wife! My children!" Kolbe volunteered to take his place. In his prison cell Kolbe led the prisoners in prayer. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After they had been starved and deprived of water for two weeks, only Kolbe and three others remained alive. Eventually, they were finished up by injection.
Franciszek Gajowniczek, the man Kolbe saved at Auschwitz, survived the Holocaust and was present as a guest at both the beatification and the canonization ceremonies. Maximilian Kolbe is considered a Martyr of Charity.
Jesus said that “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Both Alban and Maximilian, in their own way, they followed their Master’s words to the letter.
Today’s first lesson recalls for us the story of Abraham and Isaac. In traditional Jewish history, and in reference that Abraham bound his son ready to be sacrificed, the story is known as “The Binding” of Isaac.
Rabbi Yanki Tauber asks, “What is it that sets apart this from the countless other instances of human martyrdom and self-sacrifice? Such question has been raised since time immemorial.
“For the binding of Isaac has come to represent the ultimate in the Jew’s devotion to God. And on Rosh Hashanah, when the world trembles in judgment before God, we evoke the binding of Isaac by sounding the horn of a ram (reminiscent of the ram which replaced Isaac as an offering).
“Obviously, the supreme test of a person’s faith is his willingness to sacrifice his very existence for its sake. But what is so unique about Abraham’s sacrifice?One might perhaps explain that the willingness to sacrifice one’s child is a far greater demonstration of faith than to forfeit one’s own life.
But in this, too, Abraham was not unique, as we have seen. Both St Alban and St Maximilian are just some examples of those who gave all of themselves for the sake of someone else. And, for sure, through the history there are many, many more instances of self-sacrifice.
However, “For to sacrifice one’s self is not the same as to sacrifice one’s life. There is a world of difference between the two.
“The human story includes many chapters of heroic sacrifice. Every generation and society has had its martyrs—individuals who gave their lives for their faith, for their homeland, and for virtually every cause under the sun.”
But what made Abraham unique was his willingness to bind himself to do something that he could not make sense – and even as wise as he was, to learn from an extremely difficult plight.
In other words, Abraham is not our Father in Faith in theological terms. He never wrote treatises about God not he preached and taught at the local synagogue.
The faith that Abraham portraits is the faith that, if we are willing, we all can model in our daily lives. It is the faith that tells us that even if it doesn’t make human sense of what happens in our daily life, we can always lift up our eyes and try to look beyond our predicament. It is the faith that will help us to look beyond the dreadful and terrible no-win situations that sometimes we face in our lives and to look around for a “random ram.”
It was the faith that little Isaac learnt from his father. And it is the kind of faith that we can learn to apply – if only we are willing to look around for the random ram.
But there is more. Today is almost the Eve of Independence Day. As we look around, tune in to the news, and interact with our fellow Americans, it is not difficult to realize that we are going through a difficult season. 9/11, the pandemic, politics and politicians, the economy, and a generational change – A traumatic and dislocating generational change as nonother in human history. They all have combined to bring about a perfect storm bringing downpours of division and enmity and of violence and intolerance and even hatred.
Churches who are supposed to be the living testimony of the unity of the Body of Christ are rent asunder by forces from without and, it is sad to say, from within. Churches that should be pillars of faith and goodness, witnessing that “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth” are driven to infighting and division.
I wish that all that I’ve said wouldn’t be true. But sadly, it is. And worse, like little Isaac up in the mountain it appears that we have been bound to a terrible end, with no way out.
But here is the good news. Like Abraham today we are called to lift up our eyes with faith. A faith that will help us to look beyond the dreadful and terrible no-win situations that our nation faces, and to look around not for a “random ram” but for the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Salvation is God’s. Our salvation doesn’t depend on Supreme Court decisions, the siren-songs of politicians, the ballot box, or even violence. Our salvation’s is God’s and nonother. That is our creed, and our faith, and it will be our strength and our hope -- as long as we are willing to open our eyes.
A faith that invites – Nay! A faith that urges us to forge ploughshares out of weapons, to follow the example of Jesus, “who though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to,” and offered himself for you and for me.
A faith calling to set aside self-righteousness and “Biblical smugness” – for as the Bible itself reminds all, “No one is righteous— not even one.”
So, today let me lift up to God in gratitude the example that it is this humble congregation. I am sure that through the last few years you may have heard me saying things that may have make you curl your toes. And, yes, may I say that it may have been the same from this side of the pulpit?
But I would like to believe that we have discovered to live together in peace, in finding ways to serve God and neighbor rather than trying to score points. Empowered by the Spirit of Love we have chosen to serve no other agenda than that of God’s overpowering mercy and grace.
In other words, together we have learned to lift up our eyes to Jesus, who, as St Paul writes, has unbound us from the slavery of sin and taught us to live in peace, looking for the best in others, and helping us to live under grace and not under the law.
May God in his mercy bless this humble seed that it is St David’s and make it grow for the harvest of the Kingdom. May God’s name be praised.
Three men and a baby, a random ram, and the Lamb of God. That’s our lesson for today. Amen.