Sunday, July 13, 2008

Calling Alban and all the Saints!

This past Thursday, I shared with the Thorns (yes there is another man coming now) among the Roses Bible Study that my seminarian class wanted to choose "Jesus wept" as its class verse. A number of the roses laughed and wanted to know the why's. As I shared with them, those called into the church in 2003 had to be an odd bunch. Nobody had any idea what was going to happen to the church into which many of us were called. So, we received an early lesson in trusting God. That allowed for a certain amount of freedom. So, as a seminarian class, we earned a reputation as a joyful bunch. We used all kinds of excuses to get together and throw parties. At one lunch during my first year, Dean President Peter Moore came up and asked me if I knew that seminary was not supposed to be like college. "We don't throw keggers in the church. Our ministry is far too important to be deemed a bunch of partyers." Never mind the fact that we probably could not scrape up the money for kegs of good beers, most of us were adult Episcopalians and liked stronger drinks ("where three or four Episcopalians are gathered there is always a fifth" may have been on Moses' third tablet of commandments). Plus, we all had homework and, in the case of your priest, many of us had parish ministry to attend to as well. I simply reminded Dean Moore that we were the future of the church. Rev. Scott Garno chimed in with the "Jesus wept." And it stuck. We know that Dean Moore did not step down because of us, as he had previously announced his intention to retire, but he did thank us all for making the transition to retirement so much easier.

A couple of the ladies asked what we settled on as our class verse. I told them we settled on "My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness." Those of us called to seminary through diocesan processes understood our calling. We were being called to be faithful laborers, faithful shepherds to Him who had called each of us. And, given the state of the church and our abilities to quickly settle things, recognized our own impotence in such matters. And yet, those who had gone through diocesan processes had been granted a certain freedom. Whatever comes out of the current mess will be radically different from the church each one of us had come to love in the years prior to accepting a call. I told then Bishop-elect Scarfe during an interview that the result would be one either of us jettisoning our catholic standing of church and becoming more congregationalist than we would ever like to admit or we would jettison some of our Protestant understandings and become a bit more papal. In short, things were out of our control. And in His. Hence our class verse. We knew that He would be needed if we were to accomplish anything to glorify Him. It was a lesson that was drummed into me each time I called Bishop Scarfe with another job offer. As I was offered interviews in Durham England, Singapore, Tennessee, and other parts of the world my senior year, Bishop Scarfe would kindly, but firmly, refuse to release me to explore calls to these other regions. As classmate after classmate secured jobs, I had yet to interview. Each of you has been given two years to get to know me, so you can imagine how I was chaffing on the inside. Yet, God's reminder was always there. Whether it was a lady at THE St. Alban's who stopped an ordinand to talk about her worry for her church, a parish which asked a seminarian to minister and train among them because God had seemingly abandoned them so many times before, the discovery of an envelope with $100 bill in it when we had no money to even buy groceries, or even the gift of David when we thought we were done with our family, God was always reminding me He was in charge and that I was very weak indeed. How would this ever work out?

What does all this have to do with our readings from this week? Cheekily, I could leave that question unanswered as so many chose not to celebrate the Feast of St. Alban's with us this past weekend, and no one would be the wiser. Yet, the story of Alban speaks to our own impotence in many matters of life. Alban laid down his life to protect an itinerant monk. Were you and I in charge of this story, the priest likely would have gotten safely away, and Alban would have died the hero's death. Yet, we know from the records that not only was the priest captured and killed shortly thereafter, but even the first executioner was killed for failing to perform his duties on our patron saint. One selfless act led to three deaths. How in the world can such nonsense ever be explained or redeemed? And yet, here we are some 17 or 18 centuries later recounting the story. Witnesses were so moved that the story was passed down generation after generation. The local Roman governor, it is said, was so moved by the events of the day that he ceased to persecute the local Christians. And what is more amazing is that you and I know the story. We may not know the name of the priest or the executioner, but their story remains even to this day. If that is not God's power at work, I do not know what is. That story should have ended with their deaths; yet people were moved by their witness to the point of preserving the story. And that story survived the confusion caused by invading warrior queens, invading hordes, and even the conquering of England itself. Too may times that story should have died. Yet, through each event, the story has survived; and the witness remains.

Each of us called by God to St. Alban's ought to take fearful heart in the story of our patron saint. Given his and our Lord's suffering, we ought not be surprised when we find ourselves suffering. In the past few weeks, a number of parishioners and AFM recipients have come to me looking for answers. Some have seriously considered ending their lives their troubles have seemed so insurmountable. Relationships have soured to the point that there seems to be no hope that they can ever be restored. The economic conditions have become so overwhelming that their seems no way to provide for one's life. The recent floods have simply rubbed salt in many of our open wounds. "I could barely pay my bills before, and now God decides I need to spend money fixing other stuff." Even the Vestry, during its recent retreat, noted how as a parish we face real economic troubles. Our income is nowhere near meeting our expenses. Other parishes more directly impacted by the recent flooding, tornados, or government raids seem to lack the resources necessary to help their brothers and sisters let alone their neighbors and strangers. Even our diocese struggles with these questions as a body. How can we do ministry when so many are struggling? All of us together, individuals, parishes, and dioceses are asking "What can I do?" "What can we do?"

Alban's story reminds us that there is not a lot that we can do, but there is no end to what He can do. If we are faithfully discerning His call on our lives as individuals, parishes, and dioceses He will make things possible. When we go to Him in prayer recognizing our weakness and His strength, He will provide. His provision may not be the solution you or I or deacons or priests or even bishops expect or even desire, but He promises to provide. Over the past few weeks our readings from Matthew have reminded us of our value to God relative to the sparrow and the grain in the field, and Jesus has even addressed our worries directly and reminded us that our Father in heaven has numbered our hairs. He knows our needs. He knows our wants, but He promises to meet our needs no matter the obstacles. And the same God who raised His Son from the dead, the same God who redeemed each one of us, the same God who promised Abraham and Sarah that their children would be as numerous as the stars, the same God who preserved the story of Alban is the God who promises to meet all your needs, whatever they may be! What obstacle in your life are you trying to solve? In what part of your life are you not up to the task? Thankfully and mercifully none of it is ever up to us. Once we begin to figure that out, we can get out of His way and on to our knees. And when we acknowledge our weakness and our need of Him, the results can be nothing short of miraculous! The same God who preserved the story of our patron saint and the raised our Lord from death has made the offer to us. On whom will you depend? Yourself, or Him?


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