Br. James Koester
1 Thessalonians 5:21b-24 | Psalm 126 | Luke 12:4-12

Many of you who have heard me preach over the years will know that I grew up in St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Regina. St. Mary’s had been founded about the time of the First War as an alternative to the Cathedral and at one time would have described itself as a cassock – surplice –and –stole, cross, but no candlesticks, Holy Communion second and fourth Sundays and Morning Prayer all the other Sundays sort of place. The Cathedral on the other hand had … wait for it … candles on the altar!  My grandmother remembers the rector sometime in the 1940’s putting candles on the altar at St. Mary’s. When he asked her what she thought, her response was they looked pretty. Obviously others didn’t. The candles disappeared a week later.

St. Mary’s was a small town sort of Church. My grandparents attended the “early” service and we the later one. We went to public school with many of the kids who were in Sunday school with us and one year my Sunday school teacher was also my grade 1 teacher. My father served on the vestry and as a sidesman with men he had grown up and gone to school with and the children of people, who went to Sunday school with him, were now in Sunday school with my siblings and me.

I sometimes think that the script writers of Leave It to Beaver spent their time hanging around St. Mary’s Church, Davin School and Angus Crescent. As wonderful as my childhood was, there was a part of me just waiting to discover the world beyond; to find out what went on in other houses, other schools, other churches. Once I did, there was no turning back, at least not to St. Mary’s. My world, at least my ecclesiastical world was blown wide open when I walked through the doors of St. Michael and All Angel’s Church in Winnipeg. I was introduced to the wonderful world of vestments, candles, high mass, processions and all the rest. You can only begin to imagine how hard I fell for it all. Indeed to a certain degree, I have never recovered, because after all, I am here today and not the rector of St. Mary’s.

One of the things that I began to do as a fully fledged Anglo Catholic was to purchase little tracts on all sorts of things. I remember one series of tracts that I loved: Why Candles? Or Why Incense? Or Call Me Father; or An Anglo Catholic Book of Prayers. I was in heaven. Soon enough, at the drop of a hat I could talk to you about the finer points of liturgical worship and explain why it should be done this way and not that way. In no time I could get my way through the various Prayer Book lectionaries, finding the lessons for daily Morning or Evening Prayer with the attendant psalms. It was during this time in my life that I found a small little booklet, which I still treasure, entitled Praying With … In a small page or two, the author told the story of a particular saint or holy person, gave some of their own words, and offered suggestions for prayer. It was in that book that I was introduced to the Martyrs of New Guinea, whose feast we keep today, and where my imagination was forever altered.

In a nutshell that martyrs of New Guinea were a group of Anglicans: English, Australian and Papuan who were killed either by the invading Imperial Japanese Army or non-Christian Papuans in 1942. All of them have an incredible story to tell, but one story had the power to enthrall a 16 year old, and continues to move a 57 year old.

In my book, Praying With … was the story of a young English missionary named Vivian Redlich. It wasn’t much of a story, at least not in three or four lines, but two things stuck me profoundly: the quotation of his own words, and what he did.

July 27th 1942

Somewhere in the Papuan Bush

My dear Dad

The war has busted up here. I got back from Doguara and ran right into it, and am now somewhere in my parish hoping to carry on, tho’ my people are horribly scared. No news of May, and I am cut off from contacting her – my staff O.K. so far, but in another spot.

I’m trying to stick whatever happens. If I don’t come out of it, just rest content that I have tried to do my job faithfully. Last chance of getting word out: so forgive brevity.

God Bless you all,

In those few brief lines, I realized that anything was possible. Indeed, if I just did what Vivian did, even I could do the impossible. My dear Dad, I’m trying to stick whatever happens. If I don’t come out of it, just rest content that I have tried to do my job faithfully.

It doesn’t take great heroics to be a saint. It doesn’t even take enormous amounts of courage. All it takes is a willingness to try to stick, whatever happens and the courage to try to be faithful. What more can God ask of us? Indeed, what more does God want from us than the willingness to stick to and an attempt to be faithful?

There are many things that I know can’t do, but there are two things that I can. I can try to stick, whatever and I can certainly try to be faithful. Really, that’s all I can do, and really, that’s all God wants of you. To try to be faithful, and to try to stick, whatever happens. It’s not much, but because of Vivian’s willingness to try to stick, whatever happened and to try to be faithful an enormous amount became possible.

Harry Bitmead, a government doctor, stationed at the same place wrote this about what happened next.

After the departure of the boat, Fr Vivian had made his way quickly back to Sangara. He found the Japanese everywhere, and about to destroy the mission.

When I arrived at the shelter there was quite a crowd of natives round about. Fr Vivian spoke to them thus: “I am your missionary. I have come back to you because I knew you would need your father. I am not going to run away from you. I am going to remain to help you as long as you will let me. To-morrow is Sunday. I shall say Mass, and any who wish may communicate.” Shortly after dark he returned to the mission house to collect some church equipment. He returned about midnight and told me that as yet nothing had been touched in the mission, but the Japanese had told the people of their intention to destroy the place on Sunday.

Shortly after dawn he woke me up saying: “There is a big number of people here. I am going down to say Mass.” He began to vest, and was nearly finished when a native boy rushed to us crying: “Father! Doctor! Go; do not wait! During the night Embogi came and took a look at where you are, and has just gone to tell the Japanese, because he wants them to come and kill you.”

There was dead silence. I looked at Fr Vivian. He bowed his head in prayer for a few moments, and then said to the people: “To-day is Sunday. It is God’s day. I shall say Mass. We shall worship God.”

The dense silence of the jungle was broken only by the sound of the priest’s voice praying for his people. Then came the rustle of movement as those bare brown feet moved near the altar at the time of communion. [1]

Shortly after this, the Japanese appeared and Vivian was taken prisoner. Sixty years later his grave was discovered and the tin chalice he had used, was handed over to his family by descendants of the Papuan man who had killed him. In time this story repeated itself across Papua New Guinea and today we celebrate them as martyrs, not because God asked them to be martyrs, but because he asked them to try to be faithful.

There comes a time when all of us are given the gift of martyrdom. It may not come as dramatically as it did for Vivian and the others in New Guinea but it will come. And all we can do is to be faithful to whatever God has asked. It may not result in the loss of your life, but it will come when all you can do is stick, whatever happens.

In a world where there are so many victims: victims of war, disease, abuse, genocide, victims who suffer against their will, the witness of the martyrs is profound, because unlike a victim a martyr suffers and dies not because of what they have seen with their eyes, but what they have envisioned with their hearts.

And therein lies the heart of the matter, and the reason we remember today. Vivian, like all martyrs, indeed like all Christians, had envisioned something with his heart and was prepared to die for that vision.

He had envisioned a world ruled not by the petty jealousies of nationalism or imperialism, but by the gospel value of love, and in the end, he was prepared to die for that. He stayed, not because he wasn’t afraid, but because he loved, and in the end, he was prepared to die for that. He stuck, whatever happened, not because he was trapped, but because he loved, and in the end, he was prepared to die for that. He tried to be faithful, not because he was heroic, but because he loved, and in the end, he was prepared to die for that. He was martyred because he had envisioned a world ruled by love, and in the end, he was prepared to die for that.

All of us as Christians have had a vision of a world ruled by love. Sooner or later, perhaps it has already happened, perhaps it will happen tonight, or tomorrow or next week, that vision of a world ruled by love will be challenged. It might not take much to challenge that vision. It might take an invading army. But, God won’t trap you to defending that vision. God won’t demand heroics to defend that vision. God won’t even ask for great acts of courage. What God will ask is the willingness to try to stick, whatever happens and the desire at least to attempt to be faithful to that vision.

It’s not much, but sometimes that’s all it takes, and like Vivian and his companions, it will make a saint out of you, and after all, that’s not such a bad thing.

[1] The Road from Gona, Dorothy Tomkins and Brian Hughs, London, 1970, page 55 – 62 as quoted in They Still Speak ed Robert J. Wright page 161 – 162

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  1. Peter Littlefield on September 5, 2014 at 13:47

    this sermon really gets to the heart of something. i found it very touching. thank you, br james.

  2. PMcLoughlin on September 5, 2014 at 07:57

    Thank you for this post. It brought to mind a wonderful book: Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II (1988)
    by Darlene Deibler Rose
    I was changed by it.

  3. Pam on September 4, 2014 at 10:08

    As head of adult Christian formation at my church, we are preparing to show a very powerful movie called Weapons of the Spirit. Perhaps you’ve seen it. It’s the story of a small village in France, Le Chambon, where the whole town chose to harbor Jews who were fleeing the Nazi terrors. The villagers did not see themselves as heroes; they just saw themselves as living their lives as they understood God wanted them to. In terms of your sermon, they stuck it out and were faithful to the vision of love they had come to see in their hearts. They did not have to pay the ultimate sacrifice, unlike Vivian. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s worth doing so.

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