St. Alban's Day
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Today is St. Alban’s Day, the feast of our patronal saint, when we usually have a sermon about our parish, its history, its mission, and its future — a happy, buoyant sermon. It’s a day when we tell our story. This will not be that homily. (I don’t think many of you are surprised to hear that.) I do not know how to honor the memory of Alban, a man who died for Christ in a week in which nine Christians were gunned down in their own church and still give you a cheerful homily. If Alban’s death means anything, it means we can’t just celebrate ourselves and pretend that those other deaths did not happen.
I did not know the nine men and women who perished at Emanuel AME Zion Church. I did not know them, and they lived far away, yet, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and their death touches our lives. That’s the gift Christ gave us: a primal and unbreakable unity with all who profess his name, wherever they happen to be — a unity that overrides all other markers of identity which can be used to separate us from one another. When Alban was interrogated by the Romans, they asked him his family and his race, and he replied, “How does my family concern you?…I am a Christian, and ready to do a Christian’s duty.” This week, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “As those in Christ, this descendant of Confederate veterans has more in common with a Nigerian Christian than I do with a non-Christian white Mississippian who knows the right use of “y’all” and how to make sweet tea.” That deep identification is why we celebrate St. Alban, or any martyr: in Christ, we are truly one.
In that unity lies our hope — and I would say, our only hope — of being set free from this poison of racism which arrived on our soil with the first European settlers and which seems determined never to allow us to know genuine peace. Someone reminded me this week that for a martyr — or any Christian — death is victory. She was right, but this incident does not feel to me like victory. For those who died, perhaps, but to me, this is one more terrible reminder that I live in a country in which my brothers and sisters, who are in Christ my own flesh and blood, are living in a shooting gallery — and that’s not a reality that I am willing to live with. I hope that you are not, either.
We heard, this morning, the story of David and Goliath — one of my favorites. When I grew up in Judaism, we were encouraged to see ourselves as David: the small, persecuted minority who had, for thousands of years, faced down the enemies of God with our feeble weapons of blessings and candles and Torah, and I still take comfort in that thought when I am feeling overwhelmed. But as an adult, I am compelled to admit that I, a white American, am seen by too many as Goliath: part of a brute force that seeks to crush their lives, sometimes by action , more often by indifference. And so, today, I don’t feel that I can claim a simple solidarity with the men and women of Emanuel AME Zion Church. As Rachel Dolezal has shown us, it’s not as simple as crossing over to the other side. I do not live with the daily fear that those I love will be treated with contempt — or worse, and when I came here this morning, I did not really think that some racist bigot might join in our worship and then gun us down. Christ has united us with those men and women, but that unity, which has been given to us, must also be earned.
Many years ago, I saw a film called In the Valley of Elah, which is the place in which David fought Goliath. It was a good film, which far too few people saw, and it traces the story we heard this morning through the context of the Iraq War. We see a veteran reading to a little boy about David as he falls asleep, dreaming of the day when he will be the champion of God. We see American soldiers enduring awful conditions in an alien land, trying to be the champions of their country.
Near the end (spoiler alert!), one of those soldiers tells about a time when he and his buddies were in a tank and a young Iraqi boy, perhaps ten years old, picked up a handful of stones and stepped into the street and stood in front of the tank, hoping with his feeble weapons to turn back the armored giant that was rolling down the streets of his country. The Americans inside the tank, who were facing a dangerous insurgency, one which placed IEDs in the most innocent of objects and which used children to lure soldiers into danger, had been ordered to stop for nothing. For absolutely nothing. And the soldier, who had not been at the viewfinder, said, “But that’s crazy talk. For myself, I believe we must have hit a dog. Yes, it must have been a dog.” He was about the only soldier involved in that incident who had not gone crazy, and he had altered his memory to something that could be endured.
How do we remember our story? Like the soldier in the movie, the man who gunned down those people in Charleston (I will not name him this morning. He does not deserve to be named in a Christian pulpit.) — that man believed a story that departed from reality. He believed that black people “were raping our women and taking over our country,” and his website shows that he thought of himself as some modern-day David. “I have no choice,” he wrote. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” In their own stories, everyone is a hero.
For my money, the most salient thing about the Hebrew Bible is the relentless honesty with which the ancient Hebrews told their own story. That honesty makes it unique among ancient chronicles. Most of them sound something like this: “Then King Magnificent took the throne of his ancestors. He was a great king, a mighty king, wise and powerful. He conquered many lands, and built enormous palaces, and when he was gathered to his fathers, his son Magnificent II took the throne, and he was even better than his father.” Only in the Hebrew Bible do we find passages like this one: “In the fifty-second year of King Azariah of Judah, Pekah sone of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria; he reigned for twenty years. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin.” (2 Kings 15:27-28) (That’s the official chronicle, folks!) Thanks to that honesty, we know that the boy-hero who slew the giant became the youth who refused to harm his king, even when that king was trying to kill him, and both became the man who later committed adultery and murdered the husband of his paramour. We have the good and the bad of it, and that gives us an essential freedom.
When the Hebrews went into exile in Babylon, they asked how this thing could have come about — how it was that God seemed to have deserted God’s own people. And they wrestled with their despair, and they prayed for understanding, and they realized that they had deserted God. This was not unjust punishment, but a call to live in a better way. It was a call to integrity — not just personal integrity, but communal integrity: crafting a society that honors the dignity of every human being. Telling our story honestly is the foundation of that integrity.
And what of Alban? To us who follow Christ, he is a hero, the first martyr of Britain, a Roman soldier who is also the first Christian in Britain whose name is known to us. Around 304, he sheltered a Christian priest, and when his own colleagues came to get the priest, he exchanged clothes with the priest and gave himself up to death in the man’s place.
That’s our version. The Romans probably told it differently, something about capturing an insurgent, one of those dangerous Christians. They were not wrong.
They were not wrong, because a Christian should be dangerous. We are dangerous because we are the most free people in the world. Whatever the outward conditions of our lives — whether we live in a pleasant home in a free society or in a prison cell where guards watch our every move — we have an interior freedom that is the gift of Christ alone. We know that we have nothing lasting to lose. The enemies of peace can take our homes, our bodies, and our lives, but nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39) The disciples cried out on the stormy sea, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”, but we know (and those men and women in Charleston knew) that our God does care. God cares whenever one of his children perishes; God cares, and God saves, and God redeems. But people are crying out the same question to us: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The question is not whether God cares, but whether we do.
Yesterday, I was meeting with the vestry in our annual retreat, working to set priorities for the year, and we were talking about the purpose of our community. A lot of people used the word “support”; this is a place where we support one another well, in joy and in sorrow. But they also spoke of the need to continue to expand that support beyond our own walls, beyond the support we give in feeding the hungry, beyond the support we give in housing the homeless, beyond the support we give in working to transform the lives of children in this city and abroad. So today I’d like to invite us into a time of discernment to see how we can support our brothers and sisters of color, not in words of solidarity, but in effective action. We at St. Alban’s are better at charity than we are at advocacy, which is strange for a parish with as many lobbyists as we’ve got, but this is work that we should all be able to embrace. Not one of us is proud of the racist violence that haunts our nation.
As a first step, I’d like to invite you to participate in a work of continuous prayer. There are sign-up sheets at the back of the church: my hope is that over the next year, we can commit to having one person in this congregation pray each day for the healing of racism in our country. It may seem like a small step, but it will train us in using the weapons of Christ.
When David faced Goliath, Saul tried to clothe him in his own armor: fine armor of bronze, fit for a king. But David realized that he could not even walk in it; it was the tool of a different sort of man. Even so, we must learn to walk in ways that are not the ways of violence. In our popular culture, the villains use guns and bombs — but so do the heroes. Dirty Harry, Luke Skywalker, Rambo, even Harry Potter– all these use violence to fight violence. But the master’s tools can never take down the master’s house. When Nadine Collier, niece of one of the people who were killed in Charleston, confronted the alleged killer and said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she was using the weapons of Christ — and her words did not come cheap. We, too, must learn to fight with the weapons of peace and of true justice, for we work in the name of the Lord of Hosts, who loves those people who are perishing.
I’d like to leave you today with some words from Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr who wrote the first versions of our prayerbook. While he was in prison, waiting to be killed, he wrote, “I have learned by experience… that God never shines forth more brightly, and pours out the beams of his strength and firmness of spirit, more clearly or impressively upon the minds of his people, than when they are under the most extreme pain and distress, both of mind and body; that he may then more especially show himself to be the God of his people, when he seems to have altogether forsaken them; then raising them up when they think he is bringing them low; then glorifying them when he is thought to be confounding them; then quickening them when he is thought to be destroying them.”  That is our mystery: that the God who raised up Jesus from the dead will raise us up also, but he will raise us up together. And that work of resurrection is not for the next life onl,; it begins in this one; each time we stop to lift one another from the ashes, one person, one gesture, one act of resistance at a time. The people of St. Alban’s have been doing that work in this place and around the world since 1854, but the need has only grown stronger. Shall we, then, continue?
 For most of my life, I have assumed that the “giant” was a kind of fish tale; that he was a very large man who grew larger with each retelling. A couple years ago, however, I was visiting a museum in Norway and found myself standing in front of the skeleton of a Viking chief who had been afflicted with a form of giantism. He was eight feet tall, strong-boned and a revered fighter, just about exactly what we hear about Goliath. I now concede that Goliath was, at least, possible.
 Letter to Peter Martyr.