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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