Feast of Anskar, Archbishop and Missionary
February 3, 2012
The Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls
Chief Operating Officer, The Episcopal Church
Today is the Feast of Anskar, Archbishop of Hamburg, Missionary to Denmark and Sweden. Not exactly a household name. Still, unlike many saints of this period of history, like Brigid of Ireland from earlier this week, Anskar is someone we actually know a little bit about.
We remember Anskar for his missionary efforts in Scandinavia, because of which he is known as the Apostle of the North. I do not tell you that to impress you with my knowledge of church history, for you, too, can read Wikipedia as well as I. I tell you because of the curious, or perhaps not so curious, tension in Anskar’s ministry. It has to do with how our own calendar of saints lists him—Archbishop of Hamburg and Missionary to Denmark and Sweden. Archbishop and Missionary.
This is an inherent tension, and it is very much one in which we live today. It is the tension of stability and change, of being settled and being a traveler, of safety and adventure. It is this, the tension between safety and adventure with which I am most concerned. The ministry of a bishop, if one is not careful, can be more about being stable and settled than about change, traveling, and adventure. Anskar is a reminder to us that it does not have to be. So is Scott Benhase, I believe Being a missionary, however, which Anskar also was, is the counterbalance to the archbishop part. Being a missionary is inherently about change, traveling, and adventure.
And the thing I really want to mention to you about Anskar’s life is some of how that tension between archbishop and missionary played out in his life and ministry. In the course of his ministry, in 845, the Danes sacked Hamburg, rendering Anskar’s nascent archdiocese unviable, thus leaving Anskar without a base and, more importantly, without revenue for his work. Here is where it gets interesting.
In order to solve this problem, the king decided to combine the more prosperous district around Bremen with the now ransacked diocese of Hamburg. It was a sensible solution except it did not make the Bishop of Cologne, whose diocese had included the wealthy town of Bremen up to that point, happy. It was no small controversy in Anskar’s day, and it finally required the intervention of the Pope himself to resolve. My guess is that the Bishop of Cologne got a cash settlement from someone.
Now, here’s my point. Archbishop and missionary. The reason they do not go together without tension is that one is about vested interests and the other is about upsetting vested interests. Fundamentally, the missionary effort is about upsetting vested interests. It is about upsetting vested interests in a distant place, which is the meaning of repentance, literally turning from the way things are, the vested interests, toward the vision of the reign of God. And even more importantly, it is about upsetting those vested interests within ourselves.
The fact that vested interests resist the missionary imperative of the Gospel was not new in Anskar’s day, and it is not new in our own. It has always been so. But that being the case, we must not let it be the last word. We must, like Anskar, be willing to, indeed insistent upon, upsetting the vested interests in the service of the Gospel. Here is the difficulty. The Gospel and the Church are not synonyms. The Church is full of vested interests. That’s the archbishop part of this. Not so the Gospel. That’s the missionary part. Salvation is in the Gospel, even more than it is in the Church.
The Book of Acts records the words of the risen Jesus to his disciples in Jerusalem. He said,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem; in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (Acts 1:8-9)
What is going on is the very tension we have been speaking about. The inherent direction of the Gospel is outward—from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It is the same in the Gospel assigned for this day.
He called the twelve and began to send them out [send them out] two by two. . . . He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. (Mk. 6:7-9)
In other words, Jesus wanted his disciples to be prepared to travel, to pack light, to take a walking stick, to be prepared for adventure. The inherent direction of the Christian movement is outward. The way is outward, toward adventure.
It is no accidental detail that it was at this very moment in the story from Acts, just as Jesus gives the missionary imperative to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth
that Jesus is lifted up and taken from their sight. Otherwise, the danger is far too great that our attention on Jesus would distract us from the movement outward. It is with Jesus removed from our sight that our attention is irrevocably directed outward, that we must direct ourselves outward. For, in the absence of the Jesus we once saw, the only place we can find him now is in serving those he said he would be among—the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the sick, the imprisoned. The only way for us to find him now is to move outward, to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. That is mission. That is a grand adventure. And the reason for it is that it is in that, and most certainly not in the vested interests that resist it, that we find Jesus. The somewhat counterintuitive good news, it seems to me, is that it is in adventure, the adventure of seeking Jesus in the poor, that we are saved. It is not in our safety. It is not in our stability. It is most certainly not in our vested interests or our resistance to change. It is in Jesus only.
And that yields this uncomfortable reality. If this is right, that the only way to Jesus now is to turn outward, the vested interests are not going to be happy because their well-being turns on just the opposite. It is the same thing as the Bishop of Cologne’s reaction to what happened to Bremen. It is the same thing as reaction to the people of Assisi to a poor monk’s efforts to love the poor at San Damiano. It would serve us well, I think, to remember, as most of gathered in this room can, that it was the same when a preacher or our own home state, Martin Luther King, said that we had reached a time when the vested interests would have to yield to God’s dream for us, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” and that the other Nobel Prize winner from our state, President Jimmy Carter, in his inaugural address as governor addressed the vested interests directly: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination [in Georgia] is over.” As with all missionary efforts, their goals are never quite realized. It is why the adventure goes on and must go on. And as long as that is the case, which this side of the kingdom of God it will be, we will live in the tension between archbishop and missionary, between vested interest and adventure. God’s Church may falter in this tension from time to time. But ultimately, adventure, which to say mission, always wins.
By mission, I do not mean what Episcopalians often mean by mission, which is finding someone to help us pay the bills, which is to say to support the vested interests. I mean something much more adventurous than that. I mean something that, in fact, puts the vested interests at risk. I mean something that uses the vested interests as a means to a greater end. I do not mean making more of what already is. I mean making what has not yet been. I mean things like introducing people to Jesus by forming worshipping communities where they have not existed before and where they are not likely to pad our institutional bank accounts—in nursing homes, in the garage where the neighborhood rock band practices, in the city park where the homeless sleep, in prisons (which you are already doing), around the unemployment office, in places where people need to have good news proclaimed. I mean teaching children to read who are in danger of being left behind forever because they can’t, which is freeing the oppressed. I mean preparing meals for people who have AIDS (which you are also already doing), which is healing the sick. What I mean is not asking what’s in it for us, which is a vested interest question, but where do we find Jesus, which is a missionary question.
Now is our missionary moment. The ninth century was Anskar’s. The first century was for that group of disciples gathered in Jerusalem. This is ours. I believe we are about to seize it, the vested interests in the way things are notwithstanding. And the reason I believe that is that missionary people are the ones who are always seeking Jesus, as are you. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Stacy F. Sauls