At the close of the movie Camelot, just before the last battle scene when everything would be destroyed, the old King Arthur talks to a young boy, instructing him to continue to tell the story of his knights and of his dreams. He turns to the boy and says,”Never forget, boy, that in the great sea of life, some of the drops do sparkle.”
Today at St. James we honor one of our own, the Reverend Richard Royall Baker III, who was Rector of St. James’s for twenty-one years from 1957 until 1978. Dick Baker led this parish through the turbulent years of the sixties and most of the seventies. He was also the man courageous enough to follow Churchill Gibson, the paradigm of a Richmond Episcopal priest.
Dick Baker was cut from a different cloth than most, and he soon became a rector unafraid to embrace the future. In the sixties when St. Catherine’s School was distressed by discussions over integration, Richard Baker bravely advocated what was right in spite of the hostility of very many of us in this parish who did not have the vision not only to see the future, but to do what Jesus would have done. The parson, as he liked to fancy himself, was a scholar and a teacher, so it is fitting indeed that we name our education building at 1133 West Franklin Street, The Richard Royall Baker House.
Some say he was stubborn. What is clear, looking back, is that Dick held to what he believed was what Jesus would have him do. There could have been no more difficult time in my imagination to be rector of St. James’s. Not only did he have to follow Churchill Gibson, whose ghost still haunts these precincts, but he came to St. James’s just as the nation was about to explode into conflict–first over civil rights, and second over the war in Viet Nam. And if that was not enough, the Church decided to alter its worship by changing the Book of Common Prayer and finally by ordaining women into the priesthood. All of this occurred when Dick Baker was Rector.
The swirling of events in society affected the Church, sometimes for the better. Dick Baker’s pastoral leadership brought Transactual Analysis to St. James’s. It was a tough sell, but in the end it helped some of us to understand the gifts God had given us and–for the first time–to recognize those gifts in ourselves. Jesus said that we should love others as we love ourselves, and for many of us, coming to the place where we could allow ourselves to love ourselves was a huge stretch. Once there, however, God’s grace seemed a little more real and closer to us.
Stuart Circle Parish remains one of the best ecumenical organizations in the country and is still a model for urban churches. It was Richard Baker’s vision that crystallized this idea of ecumenical partnership. Every Palm Sunday as we gather for our collective service and parade, who can forget the foresight and energy that brought us together so many years ago?
From where I sit, it must have been an awesome task, not just because of all the changes that were taking place around St. James’s, but also the changes that were forced upon this parish. It took a sure and certain strength of spirit to endure through those days, and many a priest was broken by them.
My mother likes to tell me that I have never gotten out of my childhood because I still like things like King Arthur and the knights of the round table. She may be right. There is a reason why myths endure–not because they are real, but because nobility and chivalry inspire us. Jesus once said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” You cannot get much more chivalrous than that. Self-sacrifice, courage, daring, honor, justice, love– all the qualities that are supposed to be those of a knight in shining armor are also those things we hold as virtues of Christian character.
Among the stories of Arthur, the most famous knight in shinning armor was Lancelot, and we all know the tale of how he falls in love with Guenevere, and thus loses himself. What gives a story its lasting power is its relationship with reality. There are no perfect knights. All of us fall short of what God intended for us. We make mistakes. We give into temptation. We hurt others. But that is not the end of us or our story. Christianity today and always has been the religion of the second chance, of forgiveness, of starting over. The evil that we do does not negate the good that we do. Nobility is not tarnished by error, so we can say with King Arthur that “in the great sea of life, some of the drops do sparkle.”
Did you notice the words of the prophet Habakkuk? “Be astonished! Be Astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.” What a hopeful prophet! And doesn’t he strike deep into our faith by pointing to God at work in us and around us even when we cannot quite see God? Certainly that was true for this parish with the Reverend Richard Royal Baker. He did some astonishing ministry here that looking back we recognize, but in his day not everyone would able to see his vision.
Then there is the letter sent from Timothy that reads, “… for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord….” A lot of us are cowards when it comes to living out our faith, we are ashamed to be Christians because others might criticize us, or reject us, or–worse–think us fools. When push comes to shove, we retreat from our faith lest we be embarrassed by this world. I once knew a woman who used to say that what she wanted from her Christian faith was ” peace.” I can remember telling her time and time again that she was in the wrong religion. While Christianity may give us some inner peace, it will never let us be at peace with this world. Neither was Dick Baker at peace with this world. He was certainly no coward, nor was he ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a true knight of the cross as in the days of old; and so should we all be, for if we do not feel an immense fire about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, then we may be Episcopalians, but we are not Christians.
If we had faith the size of a mustard seed we could do and be so much more than we are. It’s interesting that Jesus compares faith and–in another parable–the Kingdom of God to mustard seeds. The point of all of this is not to make sure we carry our Grey Poupon, but to show us that the mustard plant starts as a small seed and grows into a large shrub of three or four feet, or even higher. Even more, mustard plants tend to take over where they are not wanted. They tend to grow out of control. And Jesus says that faith is like that–a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties. Something you will never be really able to control.
All of us know that Richard Royall Baker was a man of great faith in his Lord. He demonstrated to us in very real terms that you cannot control the way God is moving. Whether we did not wish to have integration, or a new prayer book, or women in the clergy, God was in control–not our traditions or prejudices. He taught us to not be afraid and to have faith in the future so long as Christ was by our side.
Christian faith is not passive. No one knew this better than Dick Baker. It is not vested in a vague and distant future, but in the immediate actions of our life. It is not primarily personal, hoping for our own individual salvation, or that good things will happen to us. Faith is trusting that the actions we take on behalf of the Lord, however small they may seem to us, will help extend Christ’s love in the world. It is inclusive and not exclusive. It seeks to build community and never wishes the destruction of anyone. It is how we grow, not through selfish wishes, but through unselfish hope.
Because of men and women like Richard Royall Baker III, we know who we are, and more importantly we know whose we are. Courage does not come from doing brave things. Courage does not give us identity. But courage arises out of our identity as Christ’s people. We know who are, because we know whose we are.
In the legends of King Arthur there is a moment when the Lady of the Lake explains to a young Lancelot that knights first came into being as divinely appointed to combat the envy and greed of the world:
They were tall and strong, the handsome and robust, the
loyal, the valiant, and the bold….A knight must be
merciful without wickedness, affable without treachery,
compassionate towards the suffering, and openhanded. He
must be ready to help the needy and to confound robbers
and murderers, a just judge without favor or hate. He
must prefer death to dishonor. He must protect the Holy
Church, for she cannot defend herself.
I’ve always taken that description as a definition of nobility. The Reverend Dick Baker, pastor and friend, was a noble man. He was, if you will, a knight of the church: valiant, bold, courageous and true. Would that all of us could be so.
Our world seems altogether lacking in nobility, but such appearance may be deceiving. For it is not the mighty who perform the acts of God, but the lowly, the ordinary, the faithful who would valiant be. You and I–well, we’re knights of the Church, too. Keeping the faith day by day, coming to the rescue, fighting injustice, singing praise to God, and living forgiveness. It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. If you want something to be proud of, to give your heart to, to wear upon your chest, then look around you for it is all around you, this place Dick Baker loved, and we love–this Church, this community, this band of happy pilgrims walking the way with Jesus. And let us remember King Arthur’s final words, “in the great sea of life, some of the drops do sparkle.”