All Saints Margaret Street | Friday 9 June 2017

Sermon for Friday 9 June 2017


Interesting Times

As the Chinese curse says, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ By that standard, it has been an ‘interesting’ week. ‘Interesting times’, challenging times, difficult times in which to be a person of faith, and to be a priest. Alan was ordained priest in Edinburgh in 1977, the year in which Elvis died (allegedly) and one era ended, and Star Wars hit the cinema screen for the first time and another era began. He was ordained in the midst of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and I imagine the ordinands might have appreciated Edinburgh City Council putting up the bunting at least partly in their honour.

Priesthood has been changing since 1977 – a lot of it for the better: the ordination of women has deepened our experience and understanding of Catholic priesthood, and many of us are grateful for the years of courage and faith that lie behind that. But some of the change is for the worse: five hundred years after Martin Luther in his home town of Wittenberg, they have built a robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages and beams light from its hands. Like Luther’s ’95 Theses’, the robot priest, named BlessU-2, is meant to stir up debate. I’m sure it will do that, but I doubt it will lead to any Reformation in our theology of ministry.

Having a good theology of ministry is important, but looking back to my own ordination I wonder how much of the reality of priesthood I understood at the time. Very little, I think, and there were many things I didn’t know I would need to know, especially church buildings, church money and church people. Now I know that buildings require skills like fundraising and project management, skills that aren’t much taught in training for ministry. And I know now that money need not be a tool of mammon, but can be an instrument for good and that sometime it is not the love of money but the lack of it that is the source of much evil in people’s lives. And I am still beginning to know that people are far more complex, subtle, vulnerable, unpredictable and beautiful than I ever imagined on my ordination day.

Complex and beautiful people like S, Columba, who lived nearly 1500 years ago, and died on this day in 597. Although he is a celebrated Saint, especially in Scotland, very little about Columba is certain. One certain thing, however, is that he too lived in ‘interesting times.’  His voyage from Ireland to Iona is one of the foundational journeys of faith, though it started with his being prosecuted for copyright.

The abbot returned from Rome with a rare edition of the Psalter. Columba borrowed it, and made a copy for himself. But the owner claimed his copyright, and this dispute led, in the way of those times, to a battle being fought between his clan and that of Columba. 3,000 were slain, and Columba, accepting responsibility, chose to serve out a penance. He said, “Men lie dead through the pride of a man of peace, I will win for God as many men as have died.” In other words, his penance was mission. Some in the Church still act as though mission were a penance. But, even as a penance, mission can be an effective sharing of the gospel, and Columba’s mission, together with others, planted Christianity in Scotland and beyond.

For a saint, Columba was clearly a complicated person – as complex, subtle, vulnerable, unpredictable and beautiful as all of us. But, as is often said, “A saint is a dead Christian whose life has been insufficiently researched.”  

My favourite Columban legend is his meeting with the Loch Ness monster. Columba set out to cross the River Ness, where it flows out of the Loch. There was a burial going on of a man who, they told him, had been killed by a monster that had savagely torn him with its great teeth.  Columba ordered one of his monks to swim across the loch, and the monster rose to the surface with a terrible roar to seize the poor monk, showing the horror of its long, sharp teeth. But Columba, raising his hand, commanded it, in the name of Christ, to leave that place in peace. The monster turned and fled.

Legends like this are the stuff of Celtic story-telling, but the people who listened to them understood the meaning behind all the colourful language – as Christ was in the gospel storm in the boat with the disciples, he is with us to calm the storms and monsters of our ‘interesting times.’ As Columba said, “God is everywhere in his immensity, and everywhere close at hand.”

Columba shows us that it is the very complexity and beauty of our human nature that is being used by God in the mission of his love. That is true of every person of faith, as it is true of every priest. After many years, I realise that priesthood does lift you up above the world to some summit of spiritual being, but draws you down into the deep places of human life, into the mess of the world, the mess of your own and other people’s lives. The role of the priest is not to be indignant at other people’s failings, to be ashamed of one’s own, or to be angry at those of the Church. Priesthood is, in Stephen Cherry’s words, “to be alert to the reality of pain and the possibility of healing, to the reality of failure and the possibility of forgiveness … It is not about being high-minded, or having clean hands, knowing a lot of theology or about being right, talented, good or skillful. It is about being a means of grace.”

We can sense that grace in the description of Columba, written by his biographer and disciple, Adamnan: “Columba possessed a voice so loud and melodious it could be heard a mile off …  He had the face of an angel, was polished in speech, holy in deed, great in counsel.” Not a bad job description for any priest to aspire to, especially, experience tells me, the part about the voice. I think that Fr Alan would deny that any of that description could apply to him, but many of us would say it is spot on. We would also say, however, that some of the credit for that must go to Theresa – a priest can work and pray to make others know they are loved, only because he or she knows what it is to be loved.

That is grace, and it is part of what Jesus means in the Gospel by “treasure in heaven.” For Jesus, heaven and the Kingdom of God are not some distant pie-in-the-sky promise. We are to live in the kingdom in which, by faith, forgiveness can triumph over revenge, hope over fear, justice over oppression, joy over sorrow, generosity over meanness, love over apathy. These are the characteristics of the kingdom of God, and they are what Jesus means when he says, “Do not be afraid. … For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Columba died on Iona on this day, 9th June, in the year 597. In the last few years of his life, as his health failed, he returned to the practice of copying the Psalms, which had been the cause of his departure in shame from Ireland so many years before. The story goes that on the day he died Columba was copying Psalm 34, surely a prayer of faith for ‘interesting times,’ in Columba’s time and our own:

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.

I sought the Lord and he answered me; and delivered me out of all my terror.

Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him!

Faithful Columba, pray for us. Blessed Columba, pray for us, holy Columba, pray for us.