Am I really THAT important in His plan? Does my service really make that big of a difference? I’m only one person . . . --Statements and questions such as these pop up from time to time in ministry. Sometimes, as we engage in ministries which are long running or have no real expectation of victory, Christians can get bogged down on the outcome of their efforts. For example, ever feel exasperated at serving the Community Meal month after month year after year? Ever think we are wasting our times trying to help families stretch their grocery dollars or food stamps? Ever get tired of collecting food for the food bank? All are natural victims to outcome thinking. Have we really made a dent in hunger in our community? Ever wonder what business we have taking on a multibillion dollar shadowy industry? After all, we are fighting it with barely a six figure budget. Ever wonder why we work hard trying to help those in our community who minister to battered women and their children in Christ’s name? Have we really made a dent in the amount of spouse abuse in our community? Those kinds of frustrations are natural for human beings and for churches. We like to see an outcome from our efforts. We like to know we are making a difference. Fortunately for each one of us gathered here this week, we remember a saint whose service is etched in our collective DNA. Yes, it is that time of the year when we remember our patron, Alban, and the ministry for which he is known.
I was laughing earlier this week with the ladies from Thursday morning and from teasing a certain Welsh parishioner. We had only the lives of three saints to discuss last week. Naturally, our interest gravitated more to the life and death of Alban. One lady asked why we had chosen Alban. Alban is not the most famous of saints. Iowa may have two churches that bear his name, but there does not seem to be many in the United States. Jan Chapman said he had been chosen by a vote of the parishioners. Apparently, in the beginning, we entertained David and Alban as patrons. I joked, as is my wont, that it must not have been a big battle. After all, who around here would choose the patron saint of vegetarians as our own namesake? That bit, as you might have imagined, provoked a bit of a response among those closely tied to Wales.
All kidding aside, our forefathers and foremothers made an interesting choice. For those of you new to this community and unaware of Alban’s claim to fame, I will be brief. Alban was a Roman soldier serving in England. It used to be accepted that this occurred around the early 300‘s AD, but now scholarship seems to be pointing to a century before, under the persecutions of Septimius Severus a century before. An itinerant priest fleeing from persecution found his way into our namesake’s tent. The soldier, upon hearing the Gospel from the priest, converted to Christianity. The new convert then changed clothes with the priest and sent the priest on his way, hoping to preserve his life. The soldier was arrested, tortured, and eventually killed. The cathedral of St. Alban’s in England, is built on the site where the new convert was executed for his faith.
The story of his martyrdom was apparently etched into the collective of the local population. As a Roman soldier, our patron had the power of the state on his side. Something, however, grabbed him to the point that he was willing to give up that life. People turned out in droves to witness the execution. So many came, allegedly, that the soldiers and Alban could not make their way across the bridge over the river Ver to the site of the execution. Alban had to pray to God to stop the waters of the Ver, which He did, so that they could cross over on dry ground. Alban also prayed that he might be given water to to wash himself before meeting God. God answered that prayer by causing a spring to bubble to the surface where Alban could wash. The story goes that the execution was so moved by these miracles that he refused to chop the head off the former soldier. The second executioner, presumably the first’s assistant, did the deed and, depending on which version you accept, either had his eyes pop out of his head and died or had his heart stop beating in his chest and died the very moment the axe touched the neck our beloved patron.
If we had written this story, we likely would have not allowed Alban to die. Had we written this story, perhaps we would have given Alban the opportunity to preach the Gospel to his commanders and bring a legion or governor into a right relationship with God through Christ, mirroring what happened to him thanks to that priest. Unfortunately, we don’t write the story. And fortunately for Alban, our Lord does, and He can redeem all things, even death itself! Why do I remind us of that? If you are new to St. Alban’s, you might think the priest got away. He didn’t. He apparently returned upon hearing of Alban’s capture and was summarily executed. The first execution, you know--the one who recognized God at work in the life of Alban, was also killed for refusing to put Alban to death. Three senseless deaths. Three quick senseless deaths. How could the life of the priest and the new convert ever make a difference?
Both, of course, served God faithfully. The priest apparently travelled and shared the Gospel with any who would listen, even Roman soldiers he stumbled upon while fleeing authorities, knowing that to do so was to court death. The easy thing to do would be to take off the priestly attire and blend in by not sharing the Gospel. But, thankfully for us, the priest was faithfully obedient. Alban, too, chose to be faithfully obedient. How easy would it have been to pretend that the priest stole his clothes or knocked him out and switched clothes? Or, upon questioning, how easy would it have been to deny Christ and pinch the incense at the altar in honor of the Roman gods? After all, Alban had not know Christ for very long, had he? Why the extreme behavior? Both simply obeyed faithfully what God called them to do, and they trusted that God would give meaning to their ministry.
We often pray that God can do more than we ever ask or imagine. The ministry of our patron certainly bears witness to that truth in our own lives. The state won. Their lives were snuffed out, by all accounts, rather quickly. And yet, the sight of a Roman soldier laying down his life for Christ, made a lasting impression on the local village. People not only turned out to witness Alban’s martyrdom, they remembered it! Tertullian, an early Church bishop who likely preceded our patron by a few decades, once wrote that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. What he meant was later experienced by those who came to Britain at the instruction of the Pope. In the late 6th century, word reached Rome that English pagans would convert in great numbers if enough priests could be found to instruct them properly. What helped Christianity stay alive in the minds of the general public? Among them was the witness of our beloved saint.
Brothers and sisters, as I noted earlier, it is normal to want to know that our work makes a difference. Who does not like to see results? But the conversion and death of our saint reminds us that we cannot give meaning nor results to our work. Only God can give results; He is the One who appoints meaning. Since our meeting with the bishop’s staff last month, I have been reflecting on the ministries of the parish. There are, as they noted, a lot of interesting corporate ministries happening in our midst. As I have spent time reflecting, however, I realize that a large number of you have some amazing individual ministries at work among those whom we serve. One goes to a prison where the supply of prisoners never dwindles. Another serves those who are dying or near death by reminding those suffering of the promises of our Lord. Several among us have vibrant prayer lives. They don’t just go through the motions of praying, they do so determinedly expecting an answer from God! One of us has the gift of hospitality, of doing those odd jobs that makes our gatherings more pleasant. Nine of us (10 counting Maralyn) each year volunteer time and energy discerning God’s will for this parish. One of us has taken on the cause of immigrants and refugees in a manner that honors our patron, who is the patron of refugees and immigrants. Several of us volunteer time to help care for people in our lives, either through companionship or performing odd jobs or even the preparation of meals. Some of us have been called to be advocates, in one way or another, speaking of the needs of those on the margins in this community, reminding ourselves and the community around us that foreclosures, or unemployment, or bullying, or whatever are not just numbers. They are lives, lives redeemed by our Lord at cost of His body and His blood.
In the face of such intense personal ministries, and the corporate ministries which we as a parish have adopted, it is sometimes easy to feel as if our work amounts to nothing, as if we are living the life of Sisyphus rolling his boulder to no significant end. You and I like have a particular response in mind when we begin any ministry. But you and I are reminded, both in the readings assigned for his day and in the life and martyrdom of our saint, that it is our Lord who assigns significance and it is our Lord who cultivates the results. All we can do is serve where He calls us to serve, trusting that He does nothing without purpose. We may act on His authority and with His blessing, but only He has the power to redeem all things. That knowledge ought to inspire us! That knowledge ought to free us! If we are not responsible for anything other than faithful effort, then we are never failures when we act in His name to the glory of Christ. Never. The same Lord, who took an itinerant priest, a soldier’s conversion, and a couple martyr’s deaths and inscribed them on the hearts of those who witnessed the events is the same Lord who calls you to serve Him. And just as He was faithful to Alban, so He will be to you and to me. All we must do is faithfully perform those tasks He has given us to do. The rest is up to Him.
Brothers and sisters, you are each called to a community of faith which remembers the witness of Alban some 18 centuries later, this despite edicts and persecutions and any number of world events which threatened the spread of our faith in the Empire and in the time surrounding its collapse. The same God who saw the Church through that difficult period will see you through yours. When you wonder if it is worth it, when you wonder whether your effort truly makes any difference, think on Alban who remembered that he and that priest and all who would come after, were of inestimable value to the One who first gave up His life at the hands of Romans who measured their successes by military victories and accumulated wealth, those same Romans who are now extinct and a memory while His bride, the Church, you, continues about His will.