Sunday, June 22, 2008

St. Alban's Day Sermon

St. Alban’s Day
Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 34:1-8; I John 3:143-16; Matthew 10:24-39
Sunday, June 22, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

This being St. Alban’s Day, the feast day of our patron saint, it’s probably worth a brief history lesson to remind ourselves who Alban was.

Alban is the earliest Christian in Britain known by name, and according to tradition, is the first British martyr. Before his conversion, Alban was a pagan, a Roman soldier, living near London, in the early third century. According to the Venerable Bede, Alban converted to Christianity while providing shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing persecution by the Roman authorities. Alban was so touched by his guest’s piety and devotion to prayer that he began to follow the priest’s example of faith and devotion. After awhile, he asked to receive instruction in the Christian faith and was baptized. When the Roman authorities eventually tracked the priest to Alban’s home, Alban assisted the priest in his escape by switching clothes with him. When the soldiers arrived at Alban’s home, they found him dressed in the priest’s cloak, and believing him to be the priest, arrested him and took him to the authorities. His identity as an imposter was quickly discovered, but he was nonetheless tried for aiding the escape of the priest, as well as for abandoning the Roman religion in favor of Christianity. The Venerable Bede gives the following account of Alban’s trial:

When Alban was brought in, the judge happened to be standing before an altar offering sacrifice to devils . . . “What is your family and race?” demanded the judge. “How does my family concern you?” replied Alban. “If you wish to know the truth about my religion, know that I am a Christian and am ready to do a Christian’s duty.” “I demand to know your name,” insisted the judge. “Tell me at once.” “My parents named me Alban,” he answered, “and I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things” (LFF, 294).

The judge ordered that Alban be flogged for his insolence and refusal to return to the Roman religion. Alban bore this torture with patience and even gladness. When the judge saw that no torture would make Alban renounce his devotion to Christ, he ordered Alban’s immediate decapitation. On the way to his execution, Alban performed several miracles. The executioner was so moved with what he saw that he threw down his sword and “begged that he might be thought worthy to die with the martyr if he could not die in his place” (Bede, 53). Both Alban and the first executioner were beheaded by another executioner. Astonished by the miracles experienced prior to and immediately following Alban’s execution, the judge called a halt to the persecution of Christians and himself became a follower of Christ.

In light of this story of St. Alban’s martyrdom, it’s easy to see why the Church has chosen today’s Gospel lesson as the appointed reading for today. Particularly when you consider the account of Alban’s trial, where the judge inquires about Alban’s family history, to which Alban essentially responds that his family is immaterial. The important thing about him is that he is a Christian, that he worships and adores the living and true God. Alban is saying that his faith is more important than his family or his nation.

In this vain, in the Gospel for today, Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.”

Now I’m pretty sure that a lot of you have a problem with this particular part of Matthew’s Gospel. I know a lot of people who do. Frankly, it makes me a little uncomfortable. It doesn’t mesh with my own experience of reality. As some of you know, my father was in the military, and I spent the first 16 years of my life moving from one duty station to the next. With all this moving around, I really only had two constant things in my life. The first was my family. We were the only ones we could count on to always be there. And the second was the Church. Whenever we arrived at a new duty station, one of our first priorities was to find a new church home. Their faith is important to my parents, and so they attempted to provide that grounding, that stability, in the lives of me and my sister, as well. So for me, family and church were both of prime importance, the only constants I had during my early life. I cannot even fathom an experience like the one Matthew’s Jesus conveys – one that pits family member against family member over the issue of faith. That’s not my reality. And I would venture to say that most of you can make the same claim. Even if you don’t come from religious or Christian families, your choice to become a Christian or to attend a different church probably didn’t result in any significant division in your family. For Alban, yes. For others in the early church, yes. For us, not so much.

So how does this passage from Matthew speak to us? Well, first it should be noted that family in the first century did not necessarily have the same emotional meaning we attribute to it today. In the first century, the family had a more decidedly economic nature and function. Remember that in that day and age, women were little more than property. In many cultures, children were considered little more than animals. The family was more often than not, a means to an end. The family was the means of ensuring economic stability and continuity, usually through primogenitor. The family was a ready-made source of labor. And for some, it was a source of power. That’s not to say that families did not love and care for each other. Some did. But more than a sentimental love, the primary emotion attributed to relationship with one’s family was loyalty. Loyalty to the family was essential to its functioning and maintenance. Loyalty was mandatory. The wellbeing of the family depended on such loyalty – absolute loyalty in all things, including matters of faith.

I have to agree with contemporary Biblical scholar Holly Hearon who has speculated that Jesus’ use of familial imagery “likely refer[s] to more than just the domestic household; [it] speak[s] to the variety of relationships that hold society together” (Hearon, 122). So for Hearon, when Jesus talks about setting family member against family member, he is talking about disruption of the primary loyalties that hold not only families, but society itself together. He is saying that being his disciples, his followers, takes precedence over all other loyalties. And if necessary, discipleship requires the rejection of conflicting loyalties.

For me, this is the critical point. I don’t think Jesus is saying we have to abandon family, that we have to reject government, that we have to eschew society. But I do think Jesus is saying that if push comes to shove, if conflict arises between following him and following what is generally expected by our family, our government, our society, we need to be prepared to make a choice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the twentieth century martyr, wrote in his book of the same name, the Cost of Discipleship is costly. Discipleship demands submission to the law of Christ, to the law of the cross. That law means abandoning attachments to this world in favor of Christ and his promise of a new and eternal life.

The lives of the saints, the lives of the martyrs, are meant to be an example for us of what it means to be so devoted to Christ that they would be willing to give anything, to pay any price, for their faith. Particularly in the case of the martyrs, they paid the ultimate price – the loss of their lives, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of new and eternal life. And yet, they make it look so easy. Alban had a choice. Stand up for his new-found faith, for his new-found God by rejecting the pagan religion of his birth, by rejecting the persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities, or to renounce Christ and be complacent to the persecution of his people. For him, it was seemingly an easy choice. He didn’t have to think too much about what to do. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice. Stand up for his faith, to continue proclaiming the Gospel by denouncing Nazi tyranny, or to keep his mouth shut and go into hiding. For him, it was seemingly an easy choice. He didn’t have to think too much about what to do. Both men paid for their loyalties, for their choices, with their lives.

Today, we are not faced with such choices. We do not need to make such radical choices as between loyalty to our religion and loyalty to a repressive regime. Yet, for us, the choices may not be so clear cut. Nonetheless, as Holly Hearon notes, “the gospel can lead to conflict, even with the very fabric of society, as we struggle to live a true and genuine response to what we believe the gospel asks of us” (Hearon, 122). These struggles, these choices, can often be very subtle, and hence, very difficult to make.

Do we support a war on terror in a foreign nation that may save countless lives, yet puts our own men and women at risk of injury and even death?

Do we support policies that will provide additional energy reserves, boosting our personal and national economic conditions, but which may also result in increased degradation to the environment, or impact the food supply to the world’s hungry?

Do we support government farm policies that will provide us with cheaper food prices, while potentially harming family farms?

These are but a few of the choices we have to make in our day. The list goes on and on. Just open any newspaper and you will find them.

Wherever we turn, we are faced with such choices, with discerning how to balance the competing needs of ourselves and others with the gospel mandate for social justice and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we make one choice, we risk harming one set of people. If we make the opposite choice, we risk harming another set of people. And regardless of the choices we make, we risk division within the fabric of society and our social institutions. We risk division within the family of humanity.

Unlike Alban, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for living the gospel, we do not face such consequences for our choice to live the gospel. But that does not mean we do not have to struggle with what it means to live the gospel. In some ways, we maybe have an even more difficult time of it, because we have to struggle with what it means to live the gospel day in and day out. As Parker Palmer writes, “Right action requires that we respond faithfully to our own inner truth and to the truth around us” (Palmer, 115). For us, that inner truth is informed by the Gospel, by the life of Christ, who calls us to be his hands and feet and heart in a broken and hurting world.

Unlike Alban, who was martyred for the choices he made, we are not martyred for the tough day-to-day choices we make as we live the law of Christ. It only feels that way, sometimes. The good news is that, unlike Alban, we have a community of faith with whom we can share in the struggle of what it means to live the gospel. We have this community, a safe place, a new family of our own making, of Christ’s own making, in which we can openly explore and discuss and argue and pray about what it means to live the gospel, about how we are to face the tough questions that may lead us to division within our families and the rest of society. And it is because of the strength of this community of faith that when we are asked about our family, about our loyalties, we are able to boldly say, along with Alban our patron,, “I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. London: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Hearon, Holly, et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006. New York: Church Publishing, 2006.

Palmer, Parker. The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Building on a Strong Foundation

Third Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 4)
Deuteronomy 11:18-21,26-28; Psalm 31:1-5,19-24; Romans 3:21-25a,28; Matthew 7:21-27
Sunday, June 4, 2008 (8:00 am) – St. Alban’s, Westwood

To be honest, I have been struggling with the imagery Jesus uses in today’s Gospel lesson. I have no problems with the imagery of a house built on sand not withstanding a storm. That is obvious. What I struggle with is the imagery that a house built on rock, on a solid foundation, will withstand a storm. What does this imagery say to the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as they look at row after row of homes and businesses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina? Their homes were built on solid foundations, yet did not bear up against a mighty storm. What does this imagery say to the people of Parsons, Kansas, my family’s home town, as they witness the devastation of 800 homes and the destruction of downtown when a tornado ripped through town on April 19, 2000? Their homes were built on solid foundations, yet did not withstand a mighty storm. Or closer to home – what does this imagery say to those of us in Southern California who have witnessed terrible destruction caused by such natural events as the Northridge Earthquake in 1994? Homes and businesses destroyed, freeway bridges collapsed. The homes destroyed in that earthquake were built on solid foundations, yet did not hold up under the assault of natural disaster.

How can we expect such imagery to be of comfort and consolation to the thousands upon thousands of people who every year in this country have their lives literally turned upside down by storms and other natural disasters? To say nothing of the millions worldwide who experience similar tragedies, such as recently occurred with the cyclone in Myanmar or the earthquake in China. For such people, this imagery of the safety and comfort of a home, of a life, built on a solid foundation is itself consolation that is built on sand. It does not hold up to real-life experience.

Now, to be fair to Jesus, this parable, which comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, is, strictly speaking, about the Last Judgment. He is letting us know what will be expected at that time. He is saying that to truly be his followers, for us to be admitted to the kingdom, we need to truly have lived a life of faith. Saying the words are not enough. We have to truly mean what we say, and demonstrate that in the way we live. Hearing the will of God is not enough. We must do the will God. For this to happen, we need a solid foundation, built on Christ.

So while the parable is really meant to be a guideline regarding what we can expect at the Last Judgment, it also gives us something to work on in this life, before the Last Judgment, in preparation for the Last Judgment. It’s like having a sneak-peak at what is going to be on the final exam so we know what we need to study, what we need to concentrate our efforts on.

I think this is little more evident in today’s Old Testament lesson. The lesson from Deuteronomy essentially says the same thing that the Gospel lesson does, only using different words. Deuteronomy tells us that we must put the word of God in our hearts and souls, binding it on our hands and on our foreheads. We must make the world of God part of who we are, not only within us, but on us, in a visible manner, for all the world to see. While this lesson conveys the same general message as the Gospel, it differs in its sense of timing. It places the timing not in the future at the Last Judgment, but in the present. This is not something we need to do eventually before the Last Judgment. It is something we need to do now. We need to be living the word of God, doing the will of God, now. In so doing, we are at work helping to build the foundation that will support us in the future.

There is also one other subtle difference between Deuteronomy and the Gospel lesson that is important to note. That is the result of our work. The Gospel tells us that a house built on rock, on a solid foundation, will withstand the storm, while the house build on sand, a less than solid foundation, will not withstand the storm. Deuteronomy, on the other hand, places the results, the consequences, in terms of blessing and curse. In this passage, God says, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today.” I think this an important distinction. I think it is a more expansive distinction. The Gospel account of the consequences are personal – our house will stand or fall, depending on the foundation we chose to build on. The Old Testament account expands the potential impact. There will be blessing or curse, depending on what we choose to do. The way I read this, the blessing or curse will certainly accrue to us individually. But our actions can also be a blessing or curse to others.

Maybe an example will help pull it all together.

About a week ago, I was in a meeting of the Friday Pilgrims’ Way group in the Upper Lounge. One of the members had to leave the room to take a phone call. A couple minutes later, there was a loud, urgent pounding on the doors leading out to the patio. I thought the person may have gone outside to take the call and got locked out. I got up to go let her in. It turned out not to be our group member, but a homeless man. Before I could say anything, he said, “Please, you’ve got to help me! You’re my last hope.” Now I must confess, I was not exactly in the best of moods. But this guy sounded almost panicked. So I stepped outside, offered him a seat on the bench by the door, sat down, and asked him to tell me what was wrong.

He proceeded to tell me that he had an opportunity to turn his life around. He had a lead on a job, but needed to get cleaned up before this woman would hire him. All he needed was a little money so he could buy a razor and some toiletries, get a haircut, and go to Goodwill to get a new set of clothes. And if he got this job, he would be able to find a place to live and get off the streets. He was not asking for a handout. He was willing to do any type of work to earn the money. As he told me his story, I found my heart softening a bit. I sensed great sincerity in what he was telling me. Of course, I’ve been suckered before. People telling me sob stories, promising that they would return the money when they got on their feet, and never seeing them again. So, I was still a little skeptical.

He went on to tell me how his faith in humanity had been shattered. How he had been mistreated, verbally and physically, just because he’s homeless. This abuse had slowly destroyed his faith in other people. But he still had his faith in God, and that had helped him get through the rough times. Until that morning. He told me how earlier that day, he approached someone and asked her for help. She proceeded to tell him homeless people would be better off dead. That comment was the fatal blow to this man’s self-esteem and to his faith. How could one person say something like that to another? He had never done anything to her. She didn’t even know him. As a result of an insensitive comment, he had completely lost faith in humanity and was starting to think maybe she was right. Because of this, he was even questioning his faith in God and in the Church. He knew he was a child of God, but what if that woman was right? By this point, he was crying. He had been deeply wounded. His validity and worth as a human being had been called into question. His faith, the one thing he truly had, was crumbling before his eyes.

As I listened to David talk, I realized several things. First, that what Deuteronomy says is true. How we live our lives can be a blessing or a curse, not only to ourselves but to others. In his case, someone had not obeyed the commandments of the Lord, resulting in a curse. Not necessarily a curse on herself – only God can decide that. But it had certainly resulted in a curse on David – one that had demoralized him and caused him to call his worthiness into question, one that was calling his very faith into question. The second thing I realized was that all was not lost. There was hope. David still had a foundation. The house built upon it had fallen, but the foundation still seemed to be intact – maybe with a few cracks, but I could see hints that it was still intact, still salvageable.

In that moment, I realized that maybe David was right. Maybe I was his last hope. Now I don’t like thinking of myself in such absolute terms, in such grandiose terms. But I decided that I needed to do something to help this man. He was obviously in pain – emotional pain and spiritual pain. I had to try to do something to save him from spiraling deeper into despair. I told him to stay put and went to my office. I returned a minute later with a $20 bill. I sat down, took his hand, but the money into his hand and held it tightly in mine. I told him it wasn’t much, but it would help. I told him that he was a beloved child of God who deserved a chance, who deserved to be treated as a human being. I told him to get himself cleaned up, to get that job, and to prove that woman wrong. By this time, David was crying again. They were not tears of despair, but rather tears of hope, tears of gratitude that someone had a little faith in him.

He said he didn’t know if or when he would be able to repay me. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I told him the best thing he could do would be just to come back after he had gotten his life turned around and let me know how it all turned out. And if he could repay me, great. If not, at some point in the future, to remember this and to do something to help someone else in need. As he got ready to leave, I gave him a hug. One of the last things he said to me was that my faith in him helped restore his faith in humanity and his faith in himself. His foundation was indeed still intact. And he had already started to rebuild his house on it.

To some, David was a curse. But to me, he was a blessing. David was a living reminder that just because we have a solid foundation does not necessarily mean that negative things will not happen in our lives. As the people of New Orleans, Parsons, Northridge, Myanmar, or China will tell you, even with the most solid of foundations, something unexpected can happen to knock down your house, or at least cause it a little storm damage. But more importantly, David reminded me of a valuable insight – one that has been shown by the people of New Orleans, Parsons, and Northridge, as I have seen in the lives of many of you – that no matter what happens, as long as the foundation is strong, as long as the foundation remains, you can always rebuild.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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