Friday, June 20, 2014

Inspiration and Challenge (St. Alban's Day, June 22 2014)

Homily:  St. Alban's Day, June 22 2014, St. Albans
Readings:  Wisdom 3.1-9; Ps 34.1-8; Rom 6.1b-11; Mt 10.32-42

Happy St. Alban's Day!  It was in 1865 that the first rector of this parish, Thomas Bedford-Jones made the following announcement:

"A new church is to be built in the city of Ottawa. It is to be dedicated to St. Alban, the first Englishman martyred for Christ [in] A.D. 303. The estimated cost is £3,000, barely sufficient to provide a plain church with accommodation for 600 persons. It is to be a Free Church, ever open to Christian worshippers, and its ministers & services are to be wholly maintained (if possible) by weekly offerings of grateful hearts. It is to be a church in which daily prayer and praise shall ascend to the throne of grace and in which the reformed ritual of our ancient Anglican faith shall be conducted in full and strict accordance with sanctions of the Book of Common Prayer – nothing more but nothing less.”

Why do you think the Rev. Bedford-Jones would choose St. Alban as the saint to whom this building was to be dedicated?  Well, he was an English saint, and of course back in 1865, that was important!  But that wasn’t the only reason.  You heard me tell the story of St. Alban to the children at the beginning of our service today.  Alban was a soldier in one of the Roman legions stationed just north of London, who, though he was a pagan, gave shelter to a Christian priest who was fleeing persecution.  He took the priest into his home, and as a result of his conversations with the priest, Alban became a Christian and was baptized.

But the Roman authorities soon discovered where the priest was hiding and came to the house to seize him.  In order to allow the priest to escape, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and allowed himself to be taken captive in his place.  When the military governor discovered what had happened, he offered Alban the opportunity to recant his Christian faith and to offer the pagan sacrifices required by Roman law.  Alban refused and declared “I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things.”  And for that, he was condemned to death and beheaded, the first Christian martyr in England.

When I hear the story of St. Alban, I find it to be both an inspiration and a challenge.  The part about welcoming and sheltering the refugee, the one who is oppressed and terrified, I find that tremendously inspiring.  The part about dying as a martyr, I find that tremendously challenging.

Let’s start with the inspirational piece.  Clearly the founding rector of this parish, Thomas Bedford-Jones was also inspired by the welcoming attitude and action of St. Alban.  St. Albans Church was founded because of the influx of people to Ottawa as a result of Queen Victoria’s naming of this city as the capital of the new Dominion of Canada.  Those people included military personnel, civil servants, labourers and their families.  And Bedford-Jones envisioned a church where all were welcome, and rich and poor would be seated side-by-side in the pews.  That’s not the way it usually worked in Anglican churches in those days.  Pews were rented by wealthy folk, with the highest rents near the front, and poor people would stand at the back if there was room.  When Bedford-Jones declared that St. Albans would be ‘Free Church’, meaning there would be no renting of pews, it was a radical act and a break with tradition.  Many thought he was foolish, and were not surprised when the early parish of St. Albans, deprived of pew rents, was always strapped for cash.  But from its earliest days, all were welcome at St. Albans, and rich and poor, labourers and Prime Ministers all sat together.

I like to think that we are continuing with that welcoming tradition here at St. Albans today.  It is a privilege for us to work in partnership with Centre 454 in opening our doors and offering a place of welcome to all, including those who are homeless and faced with the challenges of poverty in our city.  Some people call this place their “living-room”, and I think that both St. Alban and Thomas Bedford-Jones would be pleased to hear that.

Jesus reminds his followers of the importance of hospitality in our gospel reading today.  “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  Whenever we welcome someone into our midst, we are welcoming God into our midst.  It’s just that important. 

Welcoming is one of our core values as a community, one of the most important things we do.  And sometimes we do it really well.  I remember one Sunday morning, the service was just ending and I was walking down the aisle as the last verse of the last song was being sung, when I saw a man coming in through the main door of the church carrying a mattress.  This kind of puzzled me, so I went over to him, and asked him “Why are you bringing your mattress into church?”  He replied, “Because that nice lady over there told me to!”  I saw that he was pointing towards Carrol, but I was still a bit confused.  It turns out that he was in the process of moving, and he’d been walking past the church with his mattress.  When he’d heard us singing our last song, he’d come in to listen. Carrol had noticed, and so she'd gone to talk with him and she invited him to join us for refreshments after the service. But his mattress was still outside, and there was a risk of rain. So, Carrol had told him to bring in his mattress, and that's just what he was doing as I was walking down the aisle.  He stayed for refreshments, and Paul was back a few weeks later, and then he moved to Halifax.

Hospitality means welcoming people as they are.  Even if they’re carrying a mattress.  Even if they’re fleeing persecution in third century England.

That’s the inspirational piece of St. Alban’s story for me, the welcoming of the stranger.  The challenging piece is the death part.

You see, I suspect that if I had been St. Alban, when that Roman military governor had questioned me, I would probably have tried to wiggle my way out of it, claiming it had all been a misunderstanding, and offering those pagan sacrifices with my fingers crossed behind my back. 

St. Alban really took to heart those words of Jesus that we heard in today’s gospel:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

I’m not sure whether in similar circumstances I could do the same.  You see, I’m afraid of death. 

Death is not something we talk about a lot.  But our scriptures do talk a lot about death.  In our same gospel reading Jesus says, “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 

Metaphorical?  Yes, sometimes, but for St. Alban those words were literally about dying. 

In our second reading from Romans, Paul is talking about baptism.  One of the things he writes is the following:  “Did you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

That is one of the ways the church understands baptism.  And yet, if you recall a few weeks ago when Elise was baptized, I don’t think that I said very much if anything about her being baptized into Christ’s death.  I usually talk about baptism as new life, as being born as a child of God into God’s family.

It was almost a year ago today that our Sunday book club was finishing up the book Spiritual Formation by Henri Nouwen, which talks about the movements that we need to make as part of our spiritual growth.  The final chapter was called ‘From Denying to Befriending Death’.  In it Nouwen argues that we must move from fearing death to befriending death, but that to do so requires a radical trust and a radical hope which enables us to discover and reclaim the deeper spiritual truth of who we are:  children of God, who will never be separated from the love of God, not even by death.

And so as we enter our Open Space this morning, I offer you a choice for reflection and discussion this morning.

The first question is, what does it mean and what does it take for us to be welcoming community.

The second question is, what does it mean and what would it take for you to befriend death.

Inspiration and challenge.

Happy St. Alban's Day!


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