Because we’re celebrating St Aidan today, after whom our church is named, I want to reflect a little on the readings as they pertain to his life, and also as they pertain to the year or two ahead of us as a community.
The gospel reading comes after Jesus has been talking about how hard it is for the rich to find the kin-dom of heaven, because they’re too wedded to material possessions. That leads Peter to pipe up on behalf of the group of Jesus’ closest male disciples, “What about us? We’ve left everything to follow you.”
Leaving everything behind is often part of discipleship, and it certainly applied to Aidan. He was an Irish monk living in the religious community on the island of Iona off the West coast of Scotland, and when he was sent to bring the gospel to Northumbria in what is now the NE of England, he and the handful of monks who went with him would have left everything behind that they knew. They would have brought maybe one spare set of clothing and a Bible, but virtually nothing else. They would be starting from scratch.
Aidan went because he saw the need for a gentle and patient approach to the pagans of Northumbria, and when his abbot asked him to go, he obeyed. He would have made a long and arduous journey by land and sea to this unknown and potentially hostile place. And the first thing he did was establish a new monastery – not under the protective shadow of King Oswald’s castle in Bamburgh, but out at sea on the tiny island of Lindisfarne.
Once the monastery was set up, Aidan and his brother monks began preaching, and Aidan became renowned for his humble, grounded approach, walking from village to village conversing with the people, and caring especially for the poor. He no doubt appreciated the king’s patronage and support, but avoided royal banquets like the plague, and gave away royal gifts as soon as he was given them.
Like St Paul’s description of his own ministry, trying to be “all things to be all people,” in other words meeting people as and where they were, Aidan came down to ordinary people’s level and just tried to gently teach and help them.
As I reflect on these characteristics of Aidan’s work, I think of the year or two ahead of us here at St Aidan’s Church. Soon we’ll be leaving behind a good portion of the property and possessions we’ve had for many years, when the sale of the hall and parish lawn are finalized. When they’re sold we’ll enter a transition period of having to travel light, like Aidan did, as we divest ourselves of the hall’s contents and prepare to do ministry more simply.
Then when we’re ready to start renovating the church at last, we’ll have to move out of it and borrow back the hall for Sunday mornings, and find a way to have our services without pews and stained glass and an organ and all the accoutrements.
But we’ll be putting ourselves through all this not because we’re shrinking and dying, but because we’re alive and growing and changing. We need to rebuild and renew and renovate and revitalize our building, so that it serves us well for the next century in a very different society.
We’ll never go back, I don’t think, to the glory days when everyone went to church and there were hundreds of kids in Sunday school and Anglicans were triumphantly thick on the ground here. We’ve entered a humbler era. What we need to do is find ways to connect with a generation that is largely unchurched; find ways to serve a community that is spiritually starving and searching. And just as Aidan didn’t start from the protective shadow of the king’s castle, we can’t start from the position of power and privilege we used to have. We’ve got to be down to earth, walking and talking with people outside our walls, listening to their needs, learning their language as Aidan had to.
Peter’s question is a poignant one for us: “What will we have? We’ve given up so much, what’s in it for us?” St Paul says that preaching the gospel is both an obligation and a blessing. We exist as a church in order to serve others, not ourselves, Yet we are blessed as we do that. Jesus says to the disciples, “You’ll receive a hundredfold. But you’ll also have to learn humility: the first will be last, and the last will be first.”
We will have to learn how to trust, how to let go gracefully, how to look beyond the walls we’ve had around us for so long, and how to be founded first and foremost on prayer and faith and simplicity.
Lindisfarne is an unusual island, in that twice a day it’s connected to the mainland by a long sandbar that’s uncovered at low tide. Then when the tide comes in it’s cut off again, as a true island. It’s like the ebb and flow of our being with God and connecting with the world: drawing in for our souls to be nourished by God in prayer and worship, and then going forward into the world in love and service.
As we look ahead over the next year or two of transition, let’s commit ourselves to that ebb and flow: to turning to God to encourage and strengthen and renew us, and then to turning outwards to the world around us to engage with it in fresh ways.
We couldn’t have a better model and mentor and patron than Aidan. His trust, his humility, his lack of attachment to material possessions, his care for the people he was sent to – all these characteristics are ones we need to pray for. So St Aidan, pray for us! And my friends, let’s pray for each other and encourage each other. And may we be good news for the world. Amen.