August 31, 2011

Aidan of Lidnisfarne

Did I spell that right? Anyway, here's my homily for his feast today. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” This is one of those statements that most of us wish Jesus had never said, the classic catch 22, damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. If you listen to the world, and follow the American dream, if you seek success, luxury, material happiness, if you strive to be first, if you get everything you wish for on earth, you will only end up last in the kingdom of God. If, instead, you seek after the kingdom, giving up material luxuries to help the poor, risk being used to help the needy, endanger your relationships to love the unlovable, if you seek after God by giving up everything and becoming last in this world, well, then, you will be first in the Kingdom of God. It would be a whole lot nicer if we could be first both ways, right? First here, first there... shouldn't it work that way? Jesus says, you can't have it both ways, and Aidan of Lindisfarne, whom the Church remembers today, learned that the hard way. Christianity first made its way to northern England in 627 with the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria, but after his death in 632 a vicious pagan uprising threatened to squelch the Gospel for good. Eventually, Edwin's nephew, Oswald became king and summoned from his place of exile, the island Monestary of Iona, a missionary named Corman, who failed miserably in his attempt to convert the Anglo-Saxons of northern England. Bishop Corman, note that key title, returned to Iona complaining that the Northumbrians were a savage, stubborn, and unteachable people. Here's where the story gets fun, or at least where the story gets real human: a story that could have taken place anywhere at any time in human history. The young upstart, Aidan, suggested to the good bishop that “perhaps he was too harsh with them, and they might have responded better to a gentler approach.” Needless to say, Aidan found himself on the first ferry off Iona with instructions to convert Northumbria. The first shall be last. But the story doesn't end there, as I believe, it doesn't in Jesus' classic conundrum. Aidan, an Irishman who spoke no English, now on a hopeless mission to convert the English speaking Northumbrans, would, by the grace of God find his way back from last and least, to a saint remembered fifteen hundred years later. So successful was his mission, that it has been suggested that Aidan be named the Patron Saint of all England. His approach was simple, be a human being and talk to people. Aidan would walk from village to village, politely conversing with whoever he met along the way and slowly bringing forth in them an interest in what made him tick: his faith in the resurrected Jesus. It is said that King Oswald, who often acted as interpreter for Aidan, gave him a horse so that he wouldn't have to walk, but Aidan promptly gave it to a beggar. Aidan patiently walked along side people, he talked to them on their own level, and turned the tide of Northumbria toward faith in the risen Christ. Often, I make the mistake of reading Jesus' words without any human quality to them. They become like fortune cookie slogans, useful only on face value. But this well known saying of Jesus, that the last will be first and the first will be last, I'm starting to think of it more like shampoo instructions: wash, rinse, repeat. The first will be last, the last will be first, and when the first become last, they're next in line to be first, and vice verse. As I'm keen to say, it isn't just about the next life, but this stuff makes sense here and now too. In the end, however, whether you are first or last or somewhere in between, we can glean some good advice from the life of dear Aidan, just be real, be a fellow human being on the journey of life, listen to people and you'll impact more for the gospel than any big-tooth-smiling-thousand-dollar-suit-wearing-fancy-story-telling-tv-preacher could ever dream of. The first will be last and the last will be first, and thanks be to God the cycle continues. Amen.

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