Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Courage of Alphege

Today is the Feast of Alphege who served as Archbishop of Canterbury in the early years of the eleventh century. Here is a prayer for remembering his life and witness:
O loving God, your martyr bishop Alphege of Canterbury suffered violent death when he refused to permit a ransom to be extorted from his people: Grant that all pastors of your flock may pattern themselves on the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the sheep; and who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
For the past seven and a half months, I have served as the Chair of the Search Committee for the ninth bishop of my diocese, Western Massachusetts. Today the slate of names we came up with has been passed along to the Standing Committee and my official duties now come to an end as the Transition Committee picks up the next phase of that work of introducing the nominees to the diocese. I was invited to preach the homily at our cathedral today as we passed the baton. Here is what I said:  

I have been ordained since 1988, but I cannot recall every having the Feast of Alphege fall on a day when I have had a midweek liturgy. If it has, I’ve blocked it from my memory. 

If our goal had been to coordinate this important moment in the life of our diocese with a great saint of the Church we might have done better: F.D. Maurice was earlier this month, Anselm and Catherine of Siena are just around the corner. The Feast of Richard Hooker or George Herbert would have been nice, but they didn’t have the good sense to die in April.

So here we are, on the Feast of Alphege, who was an Archbishop of Canterbury during troubled times. Rowan may be feeling like he’s been put through the ringer, but he hasn’t had to deal with the Viking invasions like Alphege did, and now he gets to go back and punt on the Cam. When Alphege was captured by the Danes in 1011, he refused to allow a personal ransom to be collected from his already over-burdened people. Seven months later he was brutally martyred. 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that the Danes were “much stirred against the Bishop, because he would not promise them any fee, and forbade that any man should give anything for him. They were also much drunken … and took the Bishop, and led him to their hustings, on the eve of the Saturday after Easter … and then they shamefully killed him. They overwhelmed him with bones and horns of oxen; and one of them smote him with an axe-iron on the head; so that he sunk downwards with the blow. And his holy blood fell on the earth, whilst his sacred soul was sent to the realm of God.”

I hope we don’t have to expect, or require, that degree of courage from our next bishop. Even so, we do expect courage. When people like Alphege heard Jesus saying things like, "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more,” they took it to heart.

And it’s true, you know. What would happen for each of us as baptized persons—in our work in the world, as deacons and priests and bishops if we worried less about the small stuff and more about fidelity to Christ? What if we reminded ourselves, daily, when we face a tough decision at work or in church: “hey..what’s the worst they can do to me, kill me?” I am humbled by such a witness. And they lived not only in ages past, you know—there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God. 

You just need to know where to look. I think of another Archbishop half way around the world and nearly a thousand years after Alphege, standing at an altar in San Salvador celebrating the Holy Eucharist, and gunned down because he refused to back down from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I hope that whomever we elect as our ninth bishop, that we will get at least some of that courageous faith of the martyrs.  

Most of us in Western Massachusetts do not lie awake at night worried about being martyred for our faith. But I think we do worry a lot about failure. We worry a lot about the future. We worry a lot about what people might think. And all that worry can paralyze us from being the kind of Christians of whom Alphege might be proud. 

I hope and pray that from this slate we elect a bishop who is not afraid: not afraid to fail, not afraid to die and therefore—and most importantly—not afraid to live and to embrace the Easter life that is ours in Jesus Christ. I know that you join me in asking God to grant Doug and Mark and Nancy and Ron and Rich wisdom and courage for the facing of these days. 

Why should we ever fear in times of trouble? (Psalm 49:5) The answer to the question raised by the psalmist is self-evident to those who put their trust in God. It is found in the life and witness of people like Alphege, who reveal to us something of the love of the Good Shepherd upon whom we are all called to pattern our lives. As we gather at this Table, in this Cathedral, we know that we truly are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And they sing, and they cheer us on, and they remind us who is at the center of it all. 

Because we don’t have the whole world in “our hands”—and because it is a form of idolatry to think we do—we are free to pay attention to the things that we have been entrusted to care for in this little corner of God’s realm here in Western Massachusetts. And to do that work that God has given us to do with courage and hope, with a little less fear—or at least a little less paralyzed by our fears. 

What’s the worst they can do? Kill us? We have already died with Christ, and we are already being raised to new life in him. We have nothing to fear.

Let’s live like we believe that.

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