Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 16, 2022
The story is told of Jesus changing water into wine. It was a miracle; something that could not be explained; or explained away. Miracles are not confined to olden days. God continues to work miracles – working through everyday people to create something miraculous.
People who end up with a saint in front of their name have their legends embellished with astounding deeds. But what really makes a saint is simply doing the right thing. People are often well remembered for doing the right thing because the right thing is not always the easy thing to do. The right thing is sometimes a miracle.
There was a Christian minister known as Nicholas of Myra. He lived in Asia Minor, which is now part of modern-day Turkey. He was known as a man of kindness, compassion and generosity. Sometime after his death the Church gave him the title, “Saint.”
If we know nothing of Nicholas the Christian minister, we at least have heard of “St. Nicholas.” Nicholas of Myra would sometimes give to people in secret. It was said that if the poor left their shoes outside his door, he would place a coin in them. There remains today a reminder of an act of generosity and justice performed by a Christian minister some 1600 years ago.
As in much of history people struggled to survive and living in poverty was a life and death reality. There was a family in Myra who fell upon hard times. They owed money and the debt had to be paid. They didn’t have the money to pay. The bailiffs would come around take whatever assets there were to pay the debt.
In this case, the only assets in this family were human capital, in the form of three daughters. Unless their father could pay what he owed, his three daughters would be sold to pay the debt. Which likely meant they would be sold into slavery as prostitutes.
Before this happened, Nicholas went to their house one night and put three bags of gold down their chimney, enough to pay the debt and save the three girls from being sold.
And so, when you are out and about on your travels and you pass by a pawn shop, look up over the door and you will often see a reminder of St. Nicholas and his quiet generosity. Three golden balls, a symbol of last chances and last hopes to redeem your situation.
One time in Glasgow I was asked to talk to a class of primary students who were studying comparative religion about “what it means to be a Christian.” These were younger students and the teacher said they liked to ask questions, so I told them a story about a saint named Maximillian Kolbe. He was a Roman Catholic priest in Poland in the years leading up to WWII.
Father Kolbe was involved in rescuing Jews from the Nazis. Through his efforts close to 2000 people escaped Poland. He was arrested and eventually sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. One day the guards chose ten prisoners who were to be killed in retribution for one prisoner who went missing. That was one of their methods for keeping people in the camp. For every escapee, ten people from that prisoner’s bunker would be executed.
In this case, the ten men were to be locked in a shed until they all died of starvation. One of the ten men selected at random broke down and begged for his life, crying that he had a wife and family. Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place in the death shed. The guards allowed this, and the ten men were packed into the room. After many days three of them remained alive. The shed was needed for a new batch of prisoners and so the three, one of whom was Father Kolbe, were killed with injections of carbolic acid.
After telling the story, which included more color and details, I told the children, “What Father Kolbe did is what I think it means to be a Christian.” Then through their questions we began to unpack the story. Issues such as standing up for something you believe in, standing up for friends, and exploring the profound preciousness of a human life and what it would take for someone to die in place of another person.
A lot of questions at that age revolve around “why?” Some of them get at the core of the mindless fascism represented by the Nazis. “Why did they put them in a room to starve instead of just shooting them?”
“Because they killed so many people, they were bored with killing and had to think up ways of killing people that were entertaining.”
We talked about the value of life. We talked about how families were separated and only the people who could work were allowed to live. The rest were killed; old people, children, the sick and the infirm. Pregnant women? Yes, pregnant women.
One girl wanted to know, “If a woman was pregnant couldn’t she bring a note saying she couldn’t work until after her baby was born?”
“No,” I said, “there were no notes.” There were sometimes people like Father Kolbe. He gave an extraordinary gift, his own life for another. The man whose place he took survived Auschwitz and lived to the age of 95.
Sometimes people discover sainthood simply by trying live in answer to the question, “What does it meant to call yourself a Christian?”
In Tamarack there was a fellow named Martin Berg. Martin raised cattle, drove a truck and ran a feed store. He was always busy doing something. Most Sundays he was in church with his family. He could be very demanding at times, but only because he demanded a lot from himself.
One day Martin brought a friend to church. His name was Brian. Brian was in his thirties and he was developmentally disabled. Brian seemed happy to be there and everybody he met was like his new friend. He started coming to church every Sunday. I found out he was living with Martin and his family.
Martin taught Brian how to drive a truck. He could drive it around the farmyard fairly well, although he once knocked the barn door off its hinges. He was good at rounding up cattle for shipment. I was curious. Who was this guy, where did he come from, and why was he living with the Bergs? I asked Martin, “What’s the story on Brian?”
Brian had been living south of Tamarack in Lawler. It had once been a railroad station for farmers but had long since ceased to be a stop or destination. Brian lived with his mother until she died, then he stayed on in the house. He was hardly able to take care of himself. He had a social worker who operated out of a town sixty miles away. It was easy for him to be out of sight and out of mind of the state’s social care network.
Brian’s only income was a monthly social security payment from the government. It was barely enough to cover his basic necessities. Every month when the social security check arrived, Brian’s “friends” showed up. They would go with him to cash the check and then they would party for a day or two before leaving; leaving him without money for food or anything else. Brian would wander around begging for food.
One day he had wandered into Tamarack near where Martin lived. Brian was wandering around, dirty, disheveled and begging for food.
Martin found Brian and he was not content just to make him a sandwich and send him on his way. He went to Brian’s to see for himself and found the hovel of what was once his mother’s house. People had pretty much stripped it clean. So Martin took Brian home, got him cleaned up and gave him a place to live. He took Brian to the bank and helped him set up a savings account for his social security payments. He gave him a job and paid him for his work. He helped him buy new clothes and taught him how to take care of himself.
A lot of people will adopt children, and even children with special needs. But Martin went out and for all intents and purposes, adopted a grown man, a total stranger, hardly ten years younger than himself, and treated him like his own son. He gave him a life. Once when I was on a truck run with Martin, I asked him, “Why did you do that?”
He answered, “How could I call myself a Christian if I didn’t do something?” Martin’s actions implied, “Now that the Word has been made flesh, how can I do otherwise?” The life God makes possible required him to act.
The miracle that I witnessed was not that Brian “became a Christian” or discovered religion. Brian simply discovered for himself, perhaps for the first time in his life, that he was a person of inherent dignity and worth.
When you do the right thing, it may not be the easy thing, but we never pray for easy lives. As the writer Phillip Brooks said, “Pray to be stronger. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.” Amen.