A Sermon for the Feast of St Columba
(Text of a sermon preached at St Columba's Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta on June 13, 2010. Texts are: Micah 4:1-5; Ps 34:9-15; Rom 15:1-6; John 12:20-26)
I am so pleased to be here with you at St Columba’s on your patronal feast day - the day we remember St Columba, missionary and evangelist in Scotland, founder of monastic communities in Iona as well as Durrow and Kells in Ireland, who followed in the steps of Jesus and of Paul in ministering to those who were considered pagan outsiders, the ungodly - the Greeks in Jesus’ and Paul’s day, the Picts in Columba’s day.
The collect for the day (posted as today's morning collect) reminds us that it take courage to be a herald and evangelist, a missionary, a proclaimer of the splendor of God’s grace to those who don’t know about the splendor of God’s grace.
It takes courage to tell others about the splendor of God’s grace. We’d rather keep to ourselves, rather not sound like some crazy person who drank the Christian Kool-Aid, we’d rather just do what we do quietly and without fuss, mostly.
And why not? The splendor of God’s grace doesn’t look much like something most people would understand. For the first century Greeks and Jews, it looked like a failed messiah, a man crucified by the Empire, followed by an empty tomb and some women (of all people) claiming that the dead had been raised.
For those who had been deported to Babylon in the sixth century before Christ by means of an overwhelming and vicious war machine of King Nebuchadnezzar that flattened the magnificent Temple and led the people away with hooks in their noses, it was equally ridiculous: the notion that swords would be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and that people would sit under their own vines instead of by the waters of Babylon where they currently sat and wept as they remembered Zion.
It takes courage, and maybe experience too, to say out loud and in front of everybody - and really mean it - that God’s splendor is about plenty and peace and not learning war any more.
Columba was named for the dove and yet he got into violence himself, urging his clan to make war on the King of Ireland, a war that resulted in three thousand deaths. His penance was to go into exile in Scotland and to preach the splendor of God’s peace to those who did not know it, and so the missionary community on the island of Iona was born.
What will it take for us, I wonder, to be able to be the heralds of the splendor of God’s grace and peace to the warring world, the hungry world, the polluted world, the broken world?
What will it take for us to proclaim that God’s grace and peace is not crazy even if the rest of the world wants to tell us that it sounds nice but of course is impossible?
The rest of the world, even the Christian world, will remind us that he poor will always be with us, and the rich will turn away from God, and nation will always go out against nation with swords and spears or tanks and bombs, and only in heaven will anyone see the splendor of God’s peace.
And yet we have a God who proclaims that actually with God all things are possible. We have a God whose vision is of people turning their swords into plowshares and not learning war any more. We have a God who weeps over death and practices generosity and wants no one to make us afraid. That’s not just about being in heaven. God wants those things for us now. And here. Such is the splendor of God’s grace that Jesus and Paul and Columba and we are all charged to proclaim.
The passage today from Micah is one of my all-time, super favorite readings from all of the Bible. I believe that this is one of God’s all-time super favorite passages too, because not only does the prophet Micah proclaim this oracle to God’s people here but the prophet Isaiah proclaims the exact same thing in chapter two of that prophet’s book.
So this must be important - this message that it is God who will make things right and meanwhile we are to trade in our love of war for love of feeding people, and not to learn war any more. That these are the ways of God that we are to learn in the house of God.
Equally important is the notion about fear and being made afraid. “Fear not!” has to be one of the most frequently found phrases in the entire Bible. Stand in awe of God, we are often told, but do not be afraid. Angels, God’s messengers, say, “fear not!” But see the nuance in how Micah says it, how he expresses God’s great desire for us: when we have given up our swords, when we have engaged in the industry of feeding and healing,we shall be at home in God’s world and no one will make us afraid. God desires that no one will make us afraid.
And this is the crux of the matter, is it not? That in this life other people make us afraid. Some of them do it deliberately - playing on our fears to manipulate us into being defensive and hateful and to goad us into acting uncharitably. And people who are different from us make us afraid whether they mean to or not. People who look different, who act different, who speak other languages that we cannot understand, who dress or behave in ways we do not understand. We make people, God’s children all, into The Other and then fear them because of it.
This is why we make war, this is why we refuse to see poverty and degradation for what it is - an offense against God. This is why we excuse ourselves from treating our neighbor as our self. Because we are afraid and we are made afraid and we are kept afraid.
And so I come back to courage. It takes courage to get past being afraid, being chronically anxious and worried, worried about money, worried about jobs,worried about the oil in the Gulf and wars in the Middle East, worried about our children and our country and our neighbors, worried about death and dying and all of the things we worry about and are afraid of.
It takes courage to preach peace and proclaim that we are created for community and not for division in the face of a society hardened by and to the ill effects of war and poverty and hunger and hatred and fear and fear-mongering. It takes courage to be a missionary and a herald of the news that our ways are not God’s ways and that we are supposed to learn God’s ways.
Because God’s ways look ridiculous. Welcoming the wayward, eating with outcasts, practicing radical forgiveness, siding with the poor, the stranger, the immigrant, the ones society wishes to exclude and harass and marginalize. God’s ways look like generosity without borders and such is just not a popular message in the world today.
But it is a message of salvation. We need this message from heaven to know how to live on earth. If we wish to be free from fear, which is God’s great desire for us - see, it’s all over the Bible! - we have to have the courage to proclaim the splendor of God’s grace and peace on earth as it is in heaven, no matter how kooky it sounds.
Let me give you an example. There is an Israeli man named Rami Elhanan whose father was imprisoned at Auschwitz and whose daughter was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem when she was fourteen. He had never met a Palestinian but he hated them all, he had hated them all his life because that was what people told him he should do.
After his daughter died, a friend asked him to come to a group called The Parents Circle Family Forum, which is made up of both Palestinians and Israelis who have lost family members to violence between Arabs and Israelis. Elhanan told his friend he was crazy to visit to his home at such a time and ask him to come and meet some Palestinians. But eventually he went, and he met people like Mazen Faraj, a Palestinian whose father had been killed by Israeli soldiers as he walked home from the market carrying a sack of groceries that they assumed to be something else.
As they listened to one another’s stories of horrible pain and grief, they began to realize that they were all suffering from the same thing - the profoundly human experience of fear and grief and pain. They realized that both Israeli and Palestinian blood runs red in the veins and on the ground and all bitter tears are salty and borne of raw grief and that they could continue to use their suffering as an excuse to promote violence or as as the fuel to promote a passion for peace and a stop to the world’s murderous ways of hatred and fear.
And so they beat their swords into plowshares and worked to promote reconciliation instead of vengeance, to stop the cycle of violence, to show the world a picture of reconciliation and the courage it takes to preach peace and proclaim the kinship of all people. Elchanan and Faraj, who call one another brother, have traveled around the world together to tell their stories to anyone who will listen, from Arab and Israeli school children to people gathered at a Roman Catholic church in Atlanta a couple of years ago.
In 2004 a group from the Parents Circle decided to participate in a bold and courageous act in the midst of the continuing conflict in the Middle East. Here is how Elhanan described it in his own words: “[A]fter one of the worst days, which were especially bloody, we decided to use an unusual tactic to touch peoples’ hearts. We invited our brothers and sisters, members of Palestinian bereaved families, to Magen David Adom (Israeli Red Cross) in Jerusalem to donate blood for Israeli victims. We, on the other hand, slipped across the enemy lines and reached the hospital in Ramallah where we donated blood for Palestinian victims. On the same evening, whilst in the studio of the Israeli television, an interviewer asked, in a voice both wondrous and shocked: How could you donate blood to the enemy?! We answered that it is far less painful to donate blood to the needy than to spill it ... as though it was water….”
Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, that the Lord may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths, that we may have the courage to beat our swords into plowshares and not learn war any more. That we may have the courage to preach peace and reconciliation. That we may have the courage to be heralds of the good news that God is love and that we do not have to live our lives in bondage to and crippled by hatred and fear.
Let no one make you afraid any more.