I spent the final years of my professional life living and working on Mount Saint Alban in Washington, D.C., so when the opportunity came around to say something about Alban the Christian saint and martyr on his feast day I couldn’t pass it by. Mount Saint Alban in D.C. is the home to Washington National Cathedral and its three sister institutions—National Cathedral School for girls, Beauvoir [elementary] School, and of course St Albans School for boys. If you do a Google search for St. Alban, it is this latter institution (including the astronomical tuition it now commands) that gets most of the mentions.
The historical St. Alban was, of course, the first British martyr. But in the way we tend to trivialize all saints (St. Francis loved domestic pets, St. Valentine flowers and chocolate, St. Christopher surfing), St. Alban seems to be revered mostly because he died on a hill. The slightly elevated place near London where St. Alban was killed is known as Mount Saint Alban, and its Washington descendant got its name when Joseph Nourse—the first Register of the United States Treasury under four presidents and a renowned nepotist and social climber—bought the farm at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues and christened it “Mount Alban”. The rest, of course, is history. Except that everybody around the cathedral at least seems to have forgotten the life and witness Saint Alban himself.
You here in Westwood have not, so let’s spend the next few minutes reminding ourselves why we honor Saint Alban and then reflecting on what his witness might mean for us today.
We don’t know a lot about the historical Alban, but the Venerable Bede says that he died in the third or fourth century during a Roman persecution. According to Bede, Alban converted to Christianity after witnessing the extraordinary piety of a priest whom he eventually sheltered. When the soldiers came to his house seeking the priest, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and offered himself to the soldiers in the priest’s place. After a series of trials, Alban was beheaded. They say his head rolled downhill and a well sprung up where it landed, but that will have to wait for another sermon.
There are other supposedly miraculous things that happened during Alban’s execution, but when we strip them away here is what we have: a story of hospitality and sacrifice. Alban got in trouble when he offered shelter to a Christian priest who was being hunted. And he stayed in trouble when he continued to profess belief in the Christian God and not in the Roman Emperor. Hospitality and sacrifice. How do these virtues of the third century speak to us in the twenty-first?
Listen again to these words of Jesus from today’s gospel [Matthew 10: 34-42]:
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
The story of Alban is important for all of us—cathedral denizens, Westwood parishioners-- because it reminds us of what a Christian person is supposed to be and do. I think in twenty-first century America we have become confused about that. In the American public imagination, Christians are seen as people who tell others how they should live—a kind of super aggregation of Dana Carvey church ladies. Within the church itself, we seem to be a group that wants to argue about what we think Christianity is supposed to mean. Public Christianity has become a hyper-virtuous scolding. In-house Christianity has turned into an endless series of theological litmus tests.
At its best, however, Christianity has never been about telling other people how to live or what to think. Indeed, at its best Christianity has never been much about “meaning” at all. The gospel is not about thought. It is about action. In a pragmatic tradition like ours (Anglicanism), following Jesus has always been less about theology and more about behavior. We imitate Jesus not by trying to think like him. We imitate Jesus in trying to act like him. It’s the same with those exemplary Christians, the saints. We trivialize saints by downplaying their witness and emphasizing the cute things associated with them. We trivialize Jesus by turning his community into an academy, a debating society, or an association of scolds.
In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus does not tell his companions what to think or what to tell others to think. Instead, he tells his companions what to do; and there are only two things. He tells them to welcome others as they would welcome him. He tells them that if they want to save their lives they must lose them. He talks about hospitality. He talks about sacrifice.
Hospitality and sacrifice: plain and simple yet hard to pull off. No doubt it is easier to argue about the creed, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection or to lecture others about their reproductive lives than it is to practice hospitality and exemplify sacrifice. But these two practices—and not speculation about them—are what Jesus commands. Give a cup of cold water to these little ones. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Plain, simple, yet hard to do.
It is easier to name a mountain after a saint than it is to pattern your life by him. Because their examples are so challenging, we will always treat saints as mascots rather than examples. But the fact that you all give one day a year to celebrate Saint Alban says something about the nature of this faith community; it says that you remain committed to patterning yourselves as a parish after the example of his witness. And just as Jesus advises us in the gospel, so did St. Alban live his life in the service of these two virtues. Give a cup of cold water to these little ones: hospitality. Those who lose their life for my sake will find it: sacrifice. These are fitting virtues for an urban faith community, especially today.
First there is hospitality. Alban sheltered a person who was being unjustly pursued by the state. In third century Roman Britain, Christian clergy were the hunted. In twenty-first century nativist America there are a host of people in jeopardy, but in our place and moment it is undocumented immigrants and the refugees who need our sheltering care. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” Under Susan’s leadership, you here at St. Alban’s have begun the work of collaborating with others to offer sanctuary to those who are now the targets of our own government. In so doing you are following the example of Alban, your patron saint. The sanctuary movement has both scriptural and saintly warrant. There is nothing else you all can do together as important as this. Offering sanctuary to the undocumented is not only good scriptural and spiritual practice. It is a witness to a confused church and world of what Christianity is actually about.
And then there is sacrifice. Somewhere along the line we Americans turned Christianity into a philosophy of happiness and success. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being happy or successful. It’s when we turn happiness and success into Christian virtues that we get into trouble. Happiness and success are fine, but they are at best accidents, and they are not the point of the Christian life. The point of the Christian life is in losing oneself on behalf of others, and in so doing finding not only oneself but finally getting what it’s all about. We talk about sacrifice as if it’s the bitter pill we must swallow as part of all this Jesus business. In doing so we miss the joy of what the Jesus movement is all about. In spite of what you might see on TV or hear from our national leaders, generosity and compassion are not only virtues—they are pleasures. A lifetime of being kind and other-directed actually turns you into somebody you might want to be. Not the kind of news you’re going to get from an early morning presidential tweet, but there you are.
Your patron, St. Alban, knew all that. He offered hospitality to one in danger and finally gave his life as a witness to the generous and embracing love he found in donning the priest’s cloak. You and I will probably not be called to martyrdom, but we are called, as was Alban, to lives of hospitality and sacrifice. As followers of Jesus and companions of Alban, our job is neither to make it to the top nor to tell others how to live. As followers of Jesus and companions of Alban, our job is to welcome others and lose ourselves in their service. It’s a simple calling, and a noble one. As we gather now around God’s table, to that calling we once again commit ourselves, and for that calling we continue as always to give thanks. Amen.