Sermon for St Mark’s at Pentecost
St Columba was not an easy man. Patrick, Brigid and Columba are the three great saints of Ireland, but none fits the image of a gentle giant. Abbot and missionary, Columba is credited with bringing Christianity to wild Scotland. The Abbey he founded, Iona, is still active today off the west coast of Scotland, and was the dominant religious and political institution in that part of the world for centuries. He was a prophet and poet, wrote prayers and hymns, was deeply pious, founded Christian communities and influenced politics for all his adult life. But Columba was not an easy man. He was born in County Donegal in what we know as Northern Ireland about AD 521, and was descended from the great Irish High King Niall of the Nine Hostages. Columba was both clever and well-educated. He was a striking figure, of large stature and powerfully built, with a loud melodious voice who could be heard, ‘from one hilltop to another’. He was a force to be dealt with. Now there are schools and churches, cathedrals and monasteries, colleges and hospitals named for him from Ireland to Canada to India. There are Episcopal, Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches which honor his legacy, and even the Irish national airline, Aer Lingus, dubbed one of its Airbus 330s “St Columba”.
Columba was no stranger to conflict. He once rallied his clan into armed conflict against the king when the king’s soldiers violated the rights of sanctuary in one of Columba’s communities. An exiled prince was living in sanctuary at the monastery, yet the soldiers broke the sacred tradition and dragged the man out. In the ensuing troubles, soldiers, monks and innocents died. More provocative, though, was his conflict with St Finnian over ownership of a copy of the Psalms. Columba had made a copy in his own hand of an original in Finnian’s library, with the intention of using it for missionary purposes. Abbot Finnian disputed his claim to the copy, but Columba was persistent. There was first verbal conflict, then violent conflict as the other monks took sides, and men were killed. For that violence, Columba was banished from Ireland. Abbot Finnian allowed him to take twelve companions but exiled him to the North Atlantic. The exiles were not allowed to land until Ireland was out of sight, a punishment which amounted to a probable death sentence. But as it happened, Columba found his refuge 60 miles north of Ireland, where he landed and established his community. The name of the island is Iona, and the Liturgy we used in Lent and will use next Sunday comes from that holy place.
It is interesting that his name in Gaelic means ‘dove’, because Columba did not at all like the depiction of the Holy Spirit as a dove. He believed a dove was too gentle, that the Spirit he found in Scripture was wild and thrilling and challenging in ways that doves could never be. Columba’s image for the Spirit? The wild goose. I am delighted to see that it is a goose which St Mark’s carries in procession today. Bravo!
Why highlight Columba on the Day of Pentecost? First, I admire his strength and independence. Second, his Feast day is this Friday, June 9, and throughout the summer I want to remember the saints on whose shoulders we stand today. But mainly, I remember Columba on Pentecost because we have so sanitized the Christian experience today, and frankly, so domesticated God, that the awesome God of the Bible and Christian experience is no longer recognizable among us. Columba was a powerful man, but not easy. And he made a difference. St Brigid was notoriously hard to get along with, but what a compassionate woman. If you were a poor person, Brigid was exactly who you wanted to see. You may have heard of St Jerome, a fifth century theologian, who made a translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew that we call the Vulgate. It was one of many pivotal ways Jerome advanced the cause of Christianity, but he was cantankerous and rude and most of his colleagues were afraid of him. Martin Luther King, Jr., was no pushover, and people who knew Mother Teresa say she was profoundly holy, but was sharp and direct and did not suffer fools gladly. These are God’s holy ones, yet you and I have grown up with the image that Christians ought be nice, and do the right things, and make no waves. That is not the Jesus I know. As one teacher recently said, “Jesus gave the Empire fits, but now the Church just wants to fit in the Empire.” And a proverb I heard in seminary: “Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I am not advocating a rude and obnoxious Church. We have shown and do show that side of us when we exclude or demean other denominations, and there is no place for that behavior among the people of God. There is no place for rudeness and aggression against folks of other faiths, or of no chosen faith, just as there is no place for violence in families. I am advocating, though, for a holy robust Church, an energetic Church which sings at the top of our lungs, a “fired up” Church, and there is plenty of injustice around to occupy our healing attention. I would like to see a Church which is candid, not afraid of risking offence, which honors the fear of God as awesome power and love. We need not just settlers and shepherds, but pioneers and prophets, for the Gospel to be heard. The Church needs to reclaim resistance as a Gospel value, and not keep silent when there is trouble around.
The Pentecost experience Luke presents in Acts is not gentle but stunning, with awesome signs and wonders. There was rushing wind, like a tornado. Jesus’ disciples, who had for fear been meeting in secret, were caught up in an ecstatic experience of God. They could no longer keep still or keep silent. The great good news of Jesus was bursting out of them. And were that not enough, somehow Jews outside in the streets, from other nations, heard the good news in their own languages. These same disciples became missionaries, and though their lives would not get easier by any means, they were now bold, and decisive, and fearless, never again to retreat.
St Peter, in his sermon later that day, recalled the prophet Joel (2.28): “…God declares that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dram dreams.” Let us welcome that Spirit, for we have that same great good news that the disciples had, and we live in a world which needs justice, community and the awesome love of God. May a bit of that Pentecost fire come upon us, and bring us alive, for as William Sloane Coffin once wrote: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.” Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.