Monday, 9 June 2008

St Columba's Day.

Today is the Feast of St Columba of Iona ... and it's Johnny Depp's 44th birthday! Rejoice according to taste. Here's a precis of the sermon I preached yesterday.

"St Columba, I would argue, was one of the most significant figures in world history. A native of Donegal and a prince of the then royal house of Ulster, he turned his back on a secular career and devoted his life to the service of God. After entering the religious life and training with St Finnian, he used his influence to found a number of monasteries in his native Ireland. A man of prodigious talents, it was his very giftedness that got him into trouble. He was a skilled copyist of illuminated manuscripts and he copied a set of the gospels belonging to his mentor Finnian without first asking permission. A court decision awarded the copy to Finnian, but Columba's clan got involved in the dispute and it all ended in a battle with the loss of 3,000 lives. Columba was so appalled at the result of his pride that he swore never to set foot in his native Ireland until he had converted 3000 new souls to Christ to atone for the 3000 who had died. Thus he left Ireland and settled on Iona and began to reach out to the pagan Picts. He successors reached out further to Northumbria and founded the great mission station on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It was their efforts that began the conversion of Britain to the Christian faith, which led into due course to the Christian ethos of the British Empire and the USA. Truly, Columba shaped the path of world history.

The idea of a monk as missionary may seem strange to us today. After all ,mission = Billy Graham or the Alpha Course, doesn't it? Perhaps in our minds we think monks are those who have withdrawn from the normal world, drawn up the barriers and concentrated on their own salvation and spiritual journey. In Columba's day, that wasn't quite the case. Yes they sought solitude and went to out of the way places to commune with God. But they were also farmers who had to work the land to survive, builders who constructed their own homes and worship centres, teachers who instructed the children in reading and writing, as well as prayer and scripture and mediciners who healed the sick. They were men of prayer who were fully and actively engaged in the life of the community, as well as in their own faith journey and the proclamation of the Gospel and the building of the Kingdom.

The monastic model of mission and outreach may have much to teach us as we think about how we in Christ Church reach out as a community of faith in our society today. I have personal experience of two very different types of religious community. Firstly, I spent 3 months as a student living as part of the community at Iona Abbey,where Columba was based 1400 years ago. The resident group was made up of men and women, married and single from a variety of backgrounds and ages. No one took vows, we volunteered to work at the Abbey for a set period. We shared tasks, washing up, cooking, waiting on tables, gardening, repairs etc. We ate and worshipped together daily. We provided hospitality to day trippers and groups of pilgrims. Some worked with deprived children from the inner city. The Community's outreach probably reached people and places where the yuppie targeted Alpha would never think of going.

I also know something of the life of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield in Yorkshire. It's a much more "traditional" monastic community. Men only, big church, habits, sung office and silence. It helps to run a theological college and offers a ministry of hospitality to visitors. Not much to say to us then. Except that on a typical Saturday, there can be 200+ using the monastery, from retreats to training courses for clergy and laity and even local kids football teams using the monks two pitches! Ecumenically, they host a Romanian Orthodox congregation every Sunday in the lower Church. Their hospitality powerfully touches all sorts of people. And it makes a difference because that monastery is in Dewsbury, where the BNP have a large share of the vote, where Sharon Matthews was abducted and where an Asian teenager was murdered a few weeks ago.

We've spent time recently at Christ Church defining amongst ourselves what the essence is of being Episcopalian. What is the good news we want to share and the way of being with God we find attractive? If that's all we do, then we've missed the point. The gospel calls us to share our faith. Columba and his followers did so by being of service to others, by engaging with the real world in the context of having an active faith expressed in worship. Being honest, we need to reach out to our community, but we lack the numbers to do it well on our own. For us, reaching out with others in Falkirk Churches Together is probably the way forward. There are a number of suggestions that have come from FCT and I'd like you to think about your playing a part in them. Because if you don't, then they will fall flat on their face. FCT can piously dream up all sorts of great schemes, but if you, the people of God, don't support them, then nothing will happen.

May St Columba pray for us and with us today that we may like him and his followers reach out to our generation, not just with sermons and slogans but in the way described in words which St Paul wrote in our epistle this morning:

"So deeply do we care for you, that we are determined to share with you, not only the Gospel of God, but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us." (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

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