Saturday, June 15, 2013

Thoughts on the Life and Witness of Sally Baker

Today Saint Faith's celebrates the life of Sally Baker who died at the beginning of May.  She was one of the living stones upon which this parish has been built and we give thanks to God for all that Sally gave to this place of help, hope and home.

Click here for an audio recording of the Sermon as preached at Sally's funeral today.

Thoughts on the Witness of Sally Baker
15 June 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

         In the summer of 1976 I accompanied a group of high school students on a summer tour of Germany.  At the time I was under-employed, so the invitation from the teacher who had been my supervising teacher during my teaching practicum was a welcome one.  I had lived in Germany from 1961 to 1963, but, due to my father’s security clearance and the reality of the Cold War, most of our family trips had been from Germany to England to visit my maternal grandparents.

         Our tour began in Frankfurt, then on to Heidelberg, north to Berlin, finally south to a small town near Regensburg where we were to spend most of our time being hosted by local families.  From Regensburg we travelled south to Austria and then to Munich, just in time for the 4th of July 1976, the bicentennial of the American War of Independence.

         One morning we took a trip into the surrounding suburbs and small agricultural towns that surround the city of Munich.  We pulled into a car park in an area surrounded by small farms and the homes of commuters.  We had arrived at Dachau, one of the first concentration camps established by the Nazis in the early 1930’s.  Several hours later a very different group of students and chaperones left.

         You may know that the persecution of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis and their allies was not secret.  Jews throughout Europe attempted to flee, but the majority of western democratic nations were unwilling to accept an influx of Jewish refugees.  The United Kingdom accepted some, mostly children.  The United States accepted Jewish celebrities, but not many.  Canada accepted very few indeed.

         In 1937 a young seventeen-year-old woman had begun to work as a secretary in the Chinese consulate in London.  China had been invaded by the Japanese and the government of Chang Kai-shek controlled only a limited part of the country.  One day, she told a group of us, a well-dressed European gentleman came to visit the Chinese consul.  After he had left, the consul provided all the secretarial staff with a form letter granting visas to China for any Jewish applicant who presented her or his passport in person or by mail.  The secretaries did not need to consult the consul; each one of them had the authority to issue the visas.  And so they did.  We know that some Jews found their way to China and then to other destinations due to the visas issued through the London consulate.  I am sure that somewhere in the Israeli archives there may be a census of the survivors of the Shoah who escaped by this means.

         What some of you may not know is the identity of that seventeen-year-old woman I have just described.  Her name is Sally Baker and may her name be remembered as a blessing for ever.  She was one of the few non-Jews who worked for the rescue of the victims of the Nazi persecution.  She died before I could ask her to tell me more about this story.

         In the Jewish tradition there is a saying:  To save one life is to save the whole world.  I have no idea how many people are alive today whose parents or grandparents were the recipient of a visa signed by Sally.  I have no idea how many contributions to human society and culture have been made by people whose families were saved by a simple signature.  But I can say this:  our world is richer for the simple actions of Sally, working the Chinese consulate more than seventy years ago.

         I tell you this story because people often come to funerals with voiced or unvoiced questions about what happens to us after we die.  These are real questions to which no certain answer can be given, but they are questions that I ponder as I enter my sixties.  I am sure that I am not alone.

         What the Christian faith teaches is that we are meant for eternal life.  Eternal life is more than just a future hope in a life in communion with God, with each other and with all those who have gone before us.  Eternal life is fundamentally a dimension of our present lives; it means living each day guided by the core values of our faith:

  • to do justice;
  • to love steadfastly;
  • to walk humbly with God.

To live out these values is to experience the fullness of life in the present and to know the presence of God in every facet of our living.

         Sally knew these values; Sally lived these values as well as she could.  She knew eternal life even as she hoped in God’s promise that this life continues beyond the grave.  She did justice and our world is richer.  She loved steadfastly and we mourn its absence in this moment even as we hope to know it in the future.  She walked humbly with God and rejoiced in all the wonders of God’s creation, wonders that we hope she is even now reveling in their beauty and diversity.

         One life can change a world and Sally’s life has changed the world.  For this, even at the moment of her death and our sorrow, there is only one word to say:  Alleluia!

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