Feast of Alfred the Great - Michigan Diocesan Convention

Detroit, Michigan
October 25, 2013
Katharine Jefferts Schori

Today we’re remembering Alfred the Great, who was king of the West Saxons and then the first king of all England.  Born in 849 as fourth son to King Aethelwulf, at a time of pretty constant Danish incursions, he became king at age 22 after his father and brothers died.  He’s the only English monarch called “the great,” and there is good reason.  Within just a few years he managed to pretty much end the Danish invasions, lift their siege on London, and unite the English under his rule.  He set up a comprehensive justice system, by combining several Saxon law codes and adding the Ten Commandments, to produce the basis of English Common Law.  He started monasteries and a convent, where he left his daughter in charge.  He focused on education as what was most needed by a people wearied and dispirited by the violence of war.  He is the kind of leader that reading from Wisdom is talking about, “The multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world, and a sensible king is the stability of any people.”  He wasn’t just sensible, he was wise and humble and deeply faithful, building on an abiding sense of Christian duty and love of God and neighbor.

On Wednesday a future king of England was baptized, as the beginning of his formation for the same kind of faithful leadership.  Monarchy is out of favor for all sorts of reasons, but the kind of life-long vocational formation that Prince George will receive is fundamentally the same thing Alfred was encouraging, and that we still urge for all baptized people.  It is also what we and many others see as the foundation of an effective and appropriate education for all human beings – how to live a good and faithful life.  It’s why Jews and Muslims and agnostics send their children to Episcopal schools.

Alfred was unusual in his day because he could read, but he didn’t learn until he was about 12.  Apparently there wasn’t anyone around to teach him earlier, but that absence seems to have begun a lifelong passion for education, and for resources in the local language.  Alfred lived a long time before the English Reformation, but he insisted that people should be able to read and learn in the language of their daily speech.  “Teach them Latin later,” he said, “after they’ve learned in their own tongue.”  He did a lot of translation himself, beginning with Gregory the Great’s treatise on Pastoral Care.  This faithful layman collected prayers, translated psalms, attended mass daily, and lived a vocation that encouraged love of all neighbors. 

We may not live in a time of Viking invasions, but we do live with the violence of poverty and economic exploitation.  We’re in the midst of a season of profound political conflict that frequently erupts in verbal and psychological warfare.  We are besieged by advertising and consumerism, as well as by the violence that seeks to exclude anyone different from the “norm” that is one’s own nuclear community.  The ongoing invasion around here isn’t from northern marauders – Canadians are rarely compared to Vikings! – and it’s not coming across our more distant southern borders either.  The current barbarian invasion comes from the selfishness within human souls – and it finds allies within all of us with frightful ease.  Detroit and a good part of this diocese are in the midst of an economic upheaval that has much in common with the displacement, fear, and disorientation of the Viking raids, only today’s raiders use financial instruments rather than spears and swords.

In times like these, sensible leaders still seek after wisdom.  Leadership is a holy gift, meant to be used for the good of all – all humanity and all creation.  Leadership of all sorts – by kings and presidents, mayors and parents, teachers and convention delegates – is about loving relationship with God and neighbor.  Leadership promotes justice as the outward evidence of that holy and loving relationship.  That is wisdom, the good treasure of the heart that Jesus speaks about.  Even though most of us today think of the heart as the seat of emotion, the biblical worldview understands the heart as the seat of thoughtful decision-making, the fount of righteousness, the location of the will.  When one’s life is built on the rock of ages, wisdom is what comes forth from the heart. 

Alfred’s answer to the violence of his age was the kind of social housekeeping called justice – work that builds capacity for serving all members of society, setting out a communal foundation so all neighbors might live more abundant lives.  Even in the way he negotiated peace with the Danes, by encouraging the Danish king to be baptized and publicly join the fellowship of the just, Alfred modeled that community of greater justice.  The work of solidifying the legal code, which makes justice the predictable norm, and bringing greater stability to public life, which is the work of peace-building, all depend on education.  He encouraged the kind of education that grows healthy and wise hearts. 

That sort of education and formation is essential to gospel transformation here – and everywhere – both in time of conflict and of greater peace.  Until individuals know themselves and others to be made in the image of God, until we begin to really believe we are beloved of God, no lasting peace is possible.  The best we can hope for is a ceasefire, like the one on the Korean Peninsula, where people remain deeply fearful and suspicious of others.  That defensive stance is pretty characteristic of the larger society around us – most of the time we live with a ceasefire mentality at best, and verbal warfare and shooting people who stand in our way have become common responses to fear and suspicion.

The foundation we have is the love of God, a love so radical that it casts out fear.  Formation helps our roots run deep into that matrix of God’s love and it helps our connections grow and spread widely, linking with other parts of the body.  The work of the Church at every level is to build and extend that foundation of living stones.  This diocese is in the business of forming Christian leaders who have wise hearts, bent on helping others discover the wonder of love that transforms fear and violence into new life.

Coming in from the airport yesterday, I noticed plenty of abandoned buildings, some decorated with street art and graffiti.  One said simply, “Nekst.”  My initial thought was that this was a sign of hope for what will come in this place.  But the spelling threw me.  What is this about, I wondered?  Well, Nekst was the tag of a famous graffiti artist, who has works in many of the large cities in this country.  He died late last year, and his buddies painted a number of pieces here in Detroit[1] as well as a three-block long tribute to him in Brooklyn.  It makes me wonder what this Church knows about Nekst and his friends, who are also in the transformation business – making cities more beautiful, in their eyes, taking back the night.  Nekst painted with some others with pretty fascinating tags – Wyse, Chaos, Sage…   If we think Theology on Tap is a reasonable evangelical endeavor, what about God and Graffiti?  Who’s going to engage these artists of the night?  Who’s Nekst, and what’s next in the holy healing of this community?[2]

There’s a long history around here of getting involved in dodgy ministries.  There’s a church across the street that used to be much closer to the river.  It used to be an Episcopal Church, and it was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad.  Slaves escaped to Canada through a tunnel that began in its sub-basement.[3]  The merchants and parishioners who set up that system of liberation knew something about transformation and building communities of justice.

You know something about a foundation built on rock.  The hearts around here are grounded in wisdom.  Wise hearts know about love of neighbors.  How are these hearts of wisdom going to gather and form others to apply love to the chaos and despair out there?  Who’s next (Nekst) in your neighborhood?