Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sermon on the Feast of St. Alban

Christ Hospital
June 22, 2005

Sermon on the Feast of St. Alban

In the Episcopal Church today is the day that each year we remember St. Alban. I guess he’s not a household name, not one of the better known saints – people like St. Francis or St. Anthony – but I think he is someone worth remembering. He lived in Britain a long time ago – way back in the third century. At first he was not a Christian, but during a time when the Romans were killing Christians, Alban took in a Christian priest and hid him from the Romans. As they were living together, Alban came to admire the priest’s holiness and decided to become a Christian. Eventually the Romans came to Alban’s house and Alban did something really amazing. He put on the priest’s clothes and was arrested, tortured and eventually killed in the priest’s place.

So today we remember Alban as a remarkably courageous and faithful person. He made the supreme sacrifice; he gave his life to protect someone he cared about. But, I find myself wondering about the other character in this story – the priest. Imagine for a second, the priest is someone who has committed his life to his faith. He’s obviously a holy man and a good teacher. We know that Alban is so impressed by him that he becomes a Christian and then Alban even gives his life for the priest.

I wonder, how did the priest feel during all of this? Well, it seems to me that even with his faith, the priest was probably pretty afraid of the Romans. After all, we know he did hide from them in Alban’s house. The priest must have known very well that if he was captured the Romans would torture him and kill him. Maybe the priest even had some doubts about his faith. Maybe the priest wondered – where is God? Why is God letting me down? Why is God letting this happen to me? Sure the priest talked a good game – he was a good preacher and a good teacher. But now he was really suffering and I bet he was searching for the presence of God.

And I believe in this story God works through Alban. The student teaches the teacher. Alban puts his faith into action. By putting on the priest’s clothing, Alban literally lifts the burden, for a time. Of course, Alban’s sacrifice doesn’t make everything all better. The Romans are still around and it’s safe to guess that eventually they caught up with the priest and he had to suffer too. But I think in the midst of the priest’s suffering and pain he would have remembered Alban’s sacrifice – and seen it as a sign that God is at work in the world. Maybe the priest would have seen Alban’s sacrifice as a reminder that God does not promise a life without pain and suffering, but God does promise to be present in our suffering – and we can see God at work if we are really mindful – if we really pay attention. In the words of Psalm 34, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who trust in him!”

I have to admit that I have felt very intimidated preparing for this talk today. To be honest, I’ve dreaded it! I have wondered how can I stand here in the chapel and talk about suffering when so many of you watching in your hospital rooms are facing the challenges and fears of illness. So, I humbly offer my own experience – I hope and pray that something in my own story can offer you some hope – some sense that God is present, even right now, especially right now, when maybe things seem very bleak and the suffering is great.

I used to be a high school history teacher. It was work that I enjoyed very much, and I think I was pretty good at it! But about four years ago my grandmother was sick right here in Christ Hospital. Since it was over my Christmas vacation I was able to spend a lot of time with her – more than since I was a kid. We got to talk a lot. It was a great gift. I really admired how she had lived her life so faithfully and faced her illness with peace and confidence. She taught me more about faith than a thousand sermons and books. After that experience I got to thinking seriously about my own life and I came to believe that God might be calling me to be something other than a high school teacher – that God might be calling me to be a priest.

To make a long story short, I found myself this past September beginning to study in a seminary. The teacher was now the student. It was a difficult experience – it was hard to leave my old, familiar life. It was hard to give up my paycheck. It was hard to give up control. I used to grade papers and now professors were grading my work! How dare they! It was a hard year and I found myself exhausted and drained by the end. I often wondered - where is God? Had I made a big mistake? I felt loss and fear.

Recently someone asked me if I feel God’s presence in my life. I’m embarrassed to say I fumbled around for an answer and the best I could come up with was “well, sometimes, I guess.” But since that conversation, over the past few days I really thought about God’s presence in my life – I tried to really pay attention. I was surprised by what I saw.

Last week I was walking through the Journal Square PATH station on Saturday afternoon. I noticed a man who was disheveled and probably homeless – unfortunately a pretty common sight at the Square. Then I saw a very nicely dressed woman looking around nervously, almost as if she was trying to make sure that no one was watching. She quickly walked over to the man, reached into her bag, handed him a package and said, “Here’s something for you to eat.” Just as quickly she was gone. A brief, beautiful moment. But, looking back on it, it was for me a sign of God’s presence in the world – even right here in Jersey City!

This past Sunday I visited a different Episcopal church, one out in the suburbs. It was a very nice service, but I was startled when it came time for the collection. As I placed my crumpled bills into the collection plate, the usher took my hand, forcefully shook it and said “Mr. Murphy, I want to thank you. I’ll explain later.” My wife looked at me and I shrugged, I didn’t think I had ever seen this man before. After the service he caught up with me in the back of the church. It turns out that three years ago he and his wife had decided to send their son to my old school because of what I had said during a talk I gave at the school’s open house. The father was so happy and enthusiastic – it seemed to be one of the best decisions their family had ever made. He was so proud that his son was growing into a fine young man, doing well in school – active in the church – he had just returned from a weeklong service trip where he worked to help the hungry and the homeless. I have to admit I was a little embarrassed by the father’s gratitude, but it was also for me another sign of God’s presence in the world. It was a reminder that God is at work in me and the people around me – even when I’m not paying attention.

Finally these past few weeks serving and learning here at Christ Hospital have been great gifts. The staff has been so kind and generous, even though they are so busy and under so much pressure. And it has been such a privilege to talk and pray with the patients. You have shared your stories, your joys and sorrows. You have told me about your doubts and your faith, your fear and your hope.

Using our own words we have prayed to God the hope of Psalm 31:
“Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
For you are my crag and my stronghold;
For the sake of your name, lead me and guide me.”
“Into your hands I commend my spirit,
For you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.”

I think the story of St. Alban and the priest, and the story of our own lives, teach us that God is indeed present, both in the good times and in the times of pain and suffering. This afternoon let us pray that we will open our hearts and our minds to God’s presence among us so that God may be our comfort and our strength, our hope and our support, our light and our way.