homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
The Feast of Edmund, King of East Anglia, November 20, 2014
In the late ninth century, the four Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were invaded by the Great Heathen Army of Denmark—well, at least, their enemies called them that. They called themselves the Great Viking Army. Either way, this “great army” swept into Britain under the leadership of Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless. (Did you know that? I didn’t.) They took over a giant swath of the island, including the little country of East Anglia, where Edmund was king.
Edmund of Anglia was probably a real king, and he was probably martyred in this invasion. Other than that, most of the information we have about Edmund is hearsay from an Archbishop of Canterbury 90 years later, who heard it from someone who claimed to be Edmund’s armor bearer, so … you know. Grain of salt. But Edmund became universally loved in that part of the country, his fame peaking about forty to fifty years after his death, when coins honoring him became very popular.
The story goes that Edmund came to the throne at the age of 15, but the invasion didn’t take place until he was 29. Two Danish Vikings named Hinguar and Hubba, whose force of men had been burning, looting and plundering the countryside, offered to share the loot with Edmund if he would renounce his faith, ban Christianity, and act as their puppet king. Edmund refused, choosing to fight the invading force instead. Though he fought valiantly, he was captured, tortured, beaten, shot through with arrows, and beheaded. Edmund’s traditional site of burial is a place now called Bury St. Edmunds.
You know, every November, as our weekly Bible readings turn gloomy and dark, I wind up preaching a lot about death and what it might mean to prepare for it. The feasts of martyrs inevitably turn our thoughts in this direction as well. I wonder what Edmund did throughout his life to prepare for the moment of his death. I wonder what I am doing, and what you are doing.
Do you ever wonder how you would react if your life were threatened on account of your Christian faith? I sure have. But we don’t even need to get that extreme. When faced with a crisis, whether life-threatening or not, what is the source of the strength you need to overcome it?
The first letter of Peter instructs us to be ready at all times to give an accounting for the hope that is in us—that is, a defense of our faith—maybe the “elevator speech” I mentioned last week. Yet Jesus’ promise in Matthew’s gospel says something rather like the opposite. Jesus counsels us not to worry too much in advance about a situation like this. Rather, we are to live our lives knowing that we are in the presence of God, and this is what will prepare us in ways that we can’t begin to understand now. In the same way, it is not running a marathon that enables us to run marathons—it is the exercise we do in the weeks, months, and years leading up to it. Moments of crisis—including martyrdom—work the same way.
Jesus counsels his disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It seems that most people prefer to be one or the other—shrewd, or sheltered. I don’t know how shrewd Edmund was. It sounds like the Great Heathen Army was not something that could be avoided, and as Edmund learned, it could not be appeased except through moral concessions that the king was not willing to make. So whether wise or innocent or both, Edmund came to a moment of decision, and he chose to stick to his principles. He decided that it was not acceptable for him to fold under pressure.
I have a friend who came to her bus stop one day and saw a man and a woman there. The man was aggravated about something. He took the woman’s scarf off her neck and started beating her across the face with it. My friend acknowledged that she was afraid, but she knew something had to be done. She stepped up to the man and said, “Hey, are we going to have a problem here?” Immediately the man shrank back and began to make excuses: “I’ve had a very bad day.” The woman said nothing, but she was visibly upset and crying. A large, burly man stepped up behind my friend to support her, and that helped her feel bolder.
Eventually the bus came, and everybody got on board. The man and the woman didn’t look at each other at all; the woman sat on the edge of her seat as if she wished she could be anywhere else. My friend was the first to get off the bus.
As she told me the story, and she wondered: “Did I do the right thing?” It bugged her for days: “What should I have done differently? I didn’t know what to say, so I just said things. I wasn’t prepared for anything like that.”
I replied, “But you were prepared, and you know that because you acted. Something prepared you. The sum total of your life experiences prepared you in some way to choose to do the courageous thing instead of the easy thing.” My interpretation is that the Holy Spirit gave her exactly the words that were needed.
My friend went on: “I just hope I didn’t make things worse for the woman later on, when the two of them are alone.” I commended my friend’s bravery and sensitivity, and I acknowledged that she was right: we don’t know. But we can never know all the consequences of our actions. We can only do what we believe to be right, and often that’s the courageous thing instead of the easy thing. And when it comes to those we’re not likely to cross paths with ever again on this side of the grave, well … we can pray for them as often as we like.
It’s a small example. It’s not martyrdom. But I’m glad my friend stood up to the man, sending him a clear message. She gave an accounting of the hope that is in her: that the world should be different than it is. Nobody should never have to cower in fear. Such a world is not OK and must not be allowed to go unchallenged. There was no excuse for this man’s violent behavior.
I remember times in my own life when I have succeeded or failed at doing the courageous thing. I remember failing completely to call out words of blatant racism. On another occasion, I remember hearing misogynistic language and not letting it go, but giving my account in no uncertain terms. So today I want to commend to all of us the courage of King Edmund of East Anglia, and also of my friend at the bus stop. Amen.