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Feast of Saint Aidan

1 Cor 9:16-23; Ps 85:8-13; Mt 19:27-30

The Rev'd Margaret Dyer-Chamberlain

August 27, 2023

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts and the actions of our lives be acceptable in your sight, Oh God our strength and our redeemer.

My mother, who died two years ago at age 90, was a person who taught herself how to use a computer when she was in her early 70s because she wanted to communicate with her grandchildren via email. Shortly after mastering that, she was an avid googler of information well into her late 80s. In fact, the last google search I remember my mother engaging, in the summer of 2020, was – you might be surprised to hear – about our very own St. Aidan. I had sent my mother our order of service for the Feast of St. Aidan and she read it carefully and called me to say that she had been googling about him. “I realized I didn’t know very much about St. Aidan,” my mother shared with me. “I wanted to learn more.”

I’ve not preached on this day before here at St. Aidan’s and so I thought I would bring my mother’s yearning to learn more about St. Aidan – to my homily this morning. In particular, I’ve been wondering about how the life of St. Aidan might help us to learn about our own journeys of faith. What might the life of St. Aidan teach us? What was his story?

I’m going to begin to unpack this question by starting with Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians because, in this text, I think Paul is communicating significant parallels with the life and perspective of St. Aidan. Paul talks about the obligation and the entrusted commission of people of faith to proclaim the gospel – and to do this, as he out it, free of charge. He said ”I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

St Aidan embodied this obligation and this commission. One source I read wrote that he “politely conversed with the people he saw and slowly interested them in Christianity.” As Marilyn Geist noted in an excellent account of St. Aidan in one of our past bulletins, the historian Bede wrote that “He cultivated peace and love, unity and humility; he was above anger and greed, and despised greed and conceit.” A small book I recently read by Simon Webb wrote that St Aidan hoped to “find the right message to fit his task of preaching to a particular set of people in a particular time and place.” Aidan was a person who founded schools, churches and monasteries, and helped them grow and develop. He made it a point to cultivate the next generation of church leaders. He prayed. He spoke truth to power. He was generous to the poor and to anyone who needed help. He refused to believe that the people around him – the Northumbrians - were what some called “stubborn, unteachable barbarians.” Instead, he met everyone where they were. He offered a quiet life of education and learning in a culture that was all about epic battles and war. It couldn’t have been easy.

Nor is it easy for us. The life and example of St. Aidan has caused me to think about what it means to be obligated and commissioned to building up justice and peace in our troubled world. In a world where there are not that many people of faith around us. Certainly not so many Episcopalians, especially in the Bay area. We sometimes call this the work of building the beloved community. I’ve also been thinking more deeply about the concept of beloved community because I just read our very own Bishop Marc’s recent book, “Brothers in the Beloved Community, the friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.” Building up the beloved community is a big lift. Nonviolence educator Kazu Haga put it this way:

Building Beloved Community is not about loving the people who are easy to love. It is about cultivating love for those that are difficult to love. Those people over there. The others. Those who root for the Los Angeles Lakers. The people who voted for that guy. The people who work in the very systems that are destroying our communities. The corrupt corporate CEO. The foreign dictator responsible for countless deaths.

Bishop Marc’s book traces what he calls “the lineage of the Beloved Community” – the philosophers, theologians and activists on whose shoulders we stand – people who have described the dream of God and the idea of what the beloved community might be. It’s a fascinating read, starting with the work of philosopher Josiah Royce who wrote “The Problem of Christianity,” diagnosing the issues of his time (in World War 1) and predicting that they would worsen. A minister and union organizer, A.J. Muste, picked up on Royce’s ideas around the time of World War 11, followed by Howard Thurman who extended the idea to include race relations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, setting the stage for Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh’s interfaith dialogue and friendship.

We know a lot about Martin Luther King Jr. and probably less about Thich Nhat Hanh. Martin Luther King introduced to our nation and the world the concept of non-violence – which wasn’t a popular idea for many activists in the 1960s. But he persisted. “The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers” he wrote. “But, the way of nonviolence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.”

And what about Thich Nhat Hanh? He was a Vietnamese buddhist leader who was explained to the world what his people were going through. He wrote,

The term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ was created during the time of the Vietnam War. As monks, nuns, and laypeople during the war, many of us practiced sitting and walking meditation. But we would hear the bombs falling around us, and the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were motivated by the desire to relive the suffering in us and around us.

I guess what strikes me about this amazing lineage is that each of these people knew that the world in which they lived was flawed, broken and in need of God’s redeeming love. And each of them did what they could to bring wholeness and hope and peace. Just as St. Aidan did, in his time, a time that was every bit as difficult.

Which brings me to us. Kazu Haga, who I quoted before, also wrote:

If you are not struggling to love people, if you are not trying to build understanding with those you disagree with, then you are not really doing the work of building Beloved Community.

We live in a bit of a bubble in the Bay area, and as a result we might feel that our opportunities to build understanding with those we disagree are somewhat limited. But at the same time, we all face conflicts in our lives and our news feeds are full of the division and hatred and anxiety all around us. And so – the notion of struggling to love people feels compelling to me. It’s the imperative from God to choose love over hate. It’s the image of being like St. Aidan who politely conversed with people while holding his ground. It’s the reminder of those who have come before us to build the beloved community. And it’s the push to build on what they have done, in our own ways. To bring what we can to the lineage, to use Bishop Marc’s vocabulary.

I’m also remembering what Cameron preached about last Sunday – which was about our stories – how the stories of our lives and the stories of others call out to us – and what they mean to us. Cameron began his sermon with this prayer - “God of the story, you are in and out of the stories we read, calling us into them.”

So – friends – what is our story? How are we building up the beloved community? How do we find joy along the way? Cameron also recently wrote in the Flame about the fierce call to joy in our lives – and the preciousness of joy. It’s really important, in all of the hard work in front of us, to notice joy – even in the tiny moments and glimmers amidst the pain. We are, after all, a joyful community of the spirit – that’s what we call ourselves. I like to think about what joy looked like for St. Aidan – how do we think he found joy? And I like to think about how we might consider carrying the joy coming from our legacy into the world today. I like to think about what it looks like for us to be right next to Peter in our Gospel text today – Peter who said – “Look, we have left everything and followed you. We have left everything and followed you.”

I’d like to close, this morning, with the last lines from Bishop Marc’s book that I have been referencing. To me, they link back to the work of St. Aidan, they speak to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and they point us to our path forward. They also speak to the notion posited in our Gospel text today, which is all about following Jesus and loving our neighbors. This is what Bishop Marc wrote:

If you are part of a religion, please stay loyal to that religion, but make it transparent to the Beloved Community - see the Beloved Community shimmering in its nearness within your sacred rites and in the loving circles of others who share your faith. If you are outside of religion, do not feel any pressure to become part of one, but please respect your spiritual self, your inner self, and nurture it with all the love and creativity you can muster. And for each of you, save some of your energy – your intelligence, your knowledge and wisdom, your bodily energy and skill – for the work of repairing, building and maintaining the Beloved Community.

I am pretty sure that St. Aidan would have smiled to read these words. I think he would have loved that Bishop Marc talked both about those who are part of a religious group, and those who were not – because there is a place for every person with God. I think he would have resonated with the idea of the Beloved Community, something that his life’s work was all about.

And back to my mom for a moment. As I think about her googling about St. Aidan, trying better to understand who he was, I think of us. May we continue to search for the meaning that St. Aidan brings to our lives. May we continue to be curious about our stories and the stories of others. May we share our stories, and reach out to our neighbors, building up the beloved community one step at a time. Amen.

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