Sermon for Second Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
“We walk by faith, not by sight”
As I read these words, which come at the end of today’s second reading, I thought of Chris Wessels.
Some years ago I was a guest lecturer at the Moravian Theological Seminary in Cape Town, South Africa. I was there to teach seminary students basics of communication. My seminar ended with each of my students giving a two minute talk on a topic of their own choosing. They had to do this talk in English, a real challenge for most of the students since their primary languages were Afrikaners and Xhosa.
During my time in South Africa, I met the Rev. Christopher Wessels. This is his story:
It would seem to most of us a rather innocent act: At a World Council of Churches meeting in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1976, the Rev. Christopher Wessels volunteered to take notes for the “coloured” (mixed race) small group and then report on that group’s discussion, part of a WCC sponsored anti-apartheid meeting during the worst of the apartheid days in South Africa. But, Wessels knew what his actions might mean to the white authorities who were watching him because of his past anti-apartheid activities. That evening Wessels told his wife to “expect at knock at the door at midnight.”
And this knock came soon afterwards.
Because of his anti-apartheid activity, taking notes and delivering a small group report at a church meeting, Wessels was imprisoned without charge and tortured for 69 days. His location was kept a secret from his church, family and friends. His family did not know where Wessels was or even if he was dead or alive. He was kept in an isolation cell and not allowed any clothing. Nor was he allowed to shave or wash. Wessels was fed a mixture of corn and water called “mealy meal,” which gives you an image of what it must have tasted and looked like. He used one of the three blankets they gave him for sleeping for clothing. Even with this blanket, Wessels unprotected lower legs and feet were always cold, even to the point of frostbite.
Wessels’ jailors regularly tortured and beat him, trying to get him to confess to crimes against the state, crimes he had not committed. Despite the torture, Wessels told them nothing. Sixty-nine cold days passed.
Normally, before the release of a prisoner like Wessels, the jailors would have transferred him to another jail and fed him lots of starchy foods to fatten them up before their release. That way they could say, “See, jail is not so bad” when a prisoner was released. But, Wessels was too sick and very near death. His jailors decided that, since he was going to die anyway, they would release him without trying to fatten him up first. And, even though they expected Wessels immanent death, they also banned him from his home in Port Elizabeth. Late one night they dumped him on his wife’s doorstep.
Fortunately, Wessels did not die, but was nursed slowly back to health by his family and friends. He told me that the hardest part of his return home was that his then newborn son, Christopher, had forgotten his father during Wessels absence. Only when Wessels used the name he had called Christopher in the two months he had had with his son before he was jailed, Christopho, did his son remember and reach out to his Daddy.
When I heard this story, Wessels was pastor of Elsies River Moravian Church and professor of Church History at the Moravian Theological Centre, both in Capetown, South Africa. He has since retired.
By the time I met Wessels, which was several years after the fall of apartheid, he had become a much-beloved leader of the church and community. Port Elizabeth has a street named in his honor. Health problems from his imprisonment lingered, but he was enjoying his life and ministry.
I first heard this story as we were traveling by car from Capetown to Port Elizabeth on the beautiful coastal highway. I was sitting in the back seat as Wessels poured out his story from the front seat. I was enthralled and horrified at the same time.
Finally, when Chris finished his story, I had to ask, “Why are you not bitter? What is it that has allowed you to live a life of love and ministry among the South African people and not a life of hate and isolation?” reactions I would expect from such injustice and mistreatment.
Wessels simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “Faith. My faith in Jesus Christ brought me through the torture and imprisonment and all the other injustices of apartheid.”
Pastor Wessels had no room in his life for bitterness. He continued to “walk by faith” independent of what he had seen in his life.
I thought of Wessels again recently when we here at Mt. Olive collected funds for ELCA Disaster Response for the victims of the earthquake in Nepal. I was so pleased to see a photo recently, one I shared on our congregation’s Facebook page, of Lutheran World Relief quilts, like the ones made our own Samaritan Sewers, being handed out in Nepal. You see it is very likely that the blanket that Wessels wore as his only clothing during his imprisonment came from Church World Service, another agency that works with and for the ELCA in disaster-relief situations in other countries. Thus, it was very likely that the blankets that Chris Wessels slept in and wore were donated by church folks like you and me.
So, the next time you think what we give to our congregation is not all that important, I ask you to remember my friend Chris Wessels, especially the donated blankets which kept him alive during his imprisonment.
And, the next time your faith seems a little weak or uncertain, I ask you also to remember Chris Wessels who continued to “walk by faith” even in the face of torture and what appeared to be his immanent death.
Hopefully, none of us will ever have our faith tested the way Christopher Wessels’ faith was tested. But, each of us will encounter tests of our faith along the way: disappointments, sorrows, health issues, to name just a few. Pastor Wessel’s example helps us to know that, whatever life throws at us, we all can “walk by faith and not by sight.” Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Walking by Faith
Sermon for Second Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
June 6/7, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California