Sermon for 8 Pentecost (Proper 11 Year C) July 22, 2007 St. Luke’s Rev. Susan Lee Gracious God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, o god our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen


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Sermon for 8 Pentecost (Proper 11 Year C) July 22, 2007 St. Luke’s Rev. Susan Lee

Gracious God, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

To the saints, God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, the word of God which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Christianity is a missionary religion! Our mission is to take the word of God to those who have not yet heard it. That’s what St. Paul did, the first great missionary of the church. He went outside his own religious community, the Jewish faith, and took the Gospels to the Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, the Greeks and Romans outside his homeland of Israel. The Gentiles were supposed to be pagans and not very receptive to the word of God. But Paul found great riches there, people who responded eagerly to his preaching and became Christians in great numbers.

This summer, I have been talking about some of the Anglican saints, the saints of the British Isles, the spiritual forebears of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Last time, I talked about three Irish saints, the founders of Celtic Christianity, St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and St. Columba. We left off last time with St. Columba being sent into exile from Ireland to northern Britain, to the island of Iona in present-day Scotland. Today I want to pick the story up with Iona and talk about St. Aidan, a missionary sent out from Iona to northern England. Celtic Christianity was a missionary movement, and Iona was established as a missionary base. So these early Celtic saints can show us how to be missionaries today, how to take the Christian faith to those who don’t know Christ, people like the Gentiles that St. Paul preached to.

When St. Columba came to northern Britain, he established a monastery on an island called Iona just off the coast. Why an island and not on the mainland? Maybe he thought it was safer there. The area was not Christian at all and perhaps he was worried about the locals turning on him. He had fled Ireland because of a battle he had gotten into, and so safety was probably high in his mind. Perhaps he valued the isolation of an island, far from the distractions of ordinary life, a good place for prayer and meditation and the quiet study of Scripture. On Iona, he established a monastery in the Celtic tradition, simple, rudimentary, nothing cushy or luxurious. Over the next few years, Columba and his followers erected a number of Celtic crosses, a tall slender cross with a circle around the middle. Some of these ancient crosses still stand on Iona. Then as now, Iona is a beautiful spot, full of the wildness of the sea and the rocky coastline, very appropriate witness to the Celtic love of nature.

Columba thought of Iona as a missionary center. It wasn’t just a place to retreat to and quietly worship God in your own fashion. He saw it as a base from which northern Britain would be brought into the Christian fold. With this end in mind, Columba sent missionaries out into the surrounding countryside to the local tribes, the Picts, as well as to the Scots. Part of Columba’s strategy was to establish a school at Iona for the youth of these tribes. By educating the youth, he hoped to train them from an early age in the Christian faith and thus establish Christianity in the area well into the future. Columba and his monks also worked with the local tribal chiefs and kings, aiming to convert them as a way to convert their people.

So with Columba on Iona, we see some of the main characteristics of Celtic Christianity in Britain: it had a missionary purpose; it was centered on a monastery in a remote area, not based in a city; the monks lived in a simple and rudimentary fashion, with no luxuries or frills; the monastery offered education to the local youth; and the monks worked with the political leaders of the area. By the time Columba died at the end of the sixth century, there were 150 monks at the Iona monastery, a well-established school, and many Pict and Scot leaders and their people had been baptized as Christians.

One of the consequences of Iona’s involvement with the tribal leaders of northern Britain was that the monks knew about the political rivalries and battles that ensued from them. In the early 7th century, there was a fierce political struggle for leadership in an area called Northumbria, the northern part of England along the eastern coast. At one point, a boy named Oswald fled these struggles when his father, the king of Northumbria, was defeated in battle. Under the influence of the monks at Iona, Oswald’s family were all baptized, and Oswald was sent to Iona to study at the school there. When he was a young man, he went back to Northumbria with an armed force. Before an important battle to regain control of Northumbria, Oswald erected a Celtic cross and prayed with his soldiers for victory. Oswald’s forces won the battle despite being outnumbered, and Oswald resolved to bring the Christian faith to his new kingdom. He sent to Iona for a monk to lead a missionary effort in Northumbria, and Iona send an Irish bishop named Aidan.

The records don’t say how old Aidan was, but we do know that he was a bishop in Ireland who had come to Iona to join the monastery there. Aidan journeyed to Northumbria and decided to establish his monastery on an island, similar to Iona. It was a small island called Lindisfarne, off the east coast of England near the border with Scotland. He could have stayed in the castle with King Oswald. But Aidan followed the Celtic tradition of simple and rudimentary accommodations. His monastery was a humble place, no fine buildings or expensive chapel. It was accessible to the mainland twice a day, when the tide went out. Like Iona, it was a beautiful, wild place, in keeping with the Celtic love of nature.

From Lindisfarne, Aidan and his monks went out into the countryside to convert the local English people. At first, Aidan didn’t know the local language, English. He spoke Irish, the language of Iona. So he needed a translator. Since King Oswald had been educated at Iona, he knew Irish as well as English and often translated for Aidan. So bishop and king worked together to convert the people to Christianity. King Oswald had been powerfully impressed by his military victory after praying before the Celtic cross. He also saw Christianity as a way to unite his people and reduce the warring factions that were so often struggling for power. Aidan worked with him to suppress the savage warfare that was characteristic of the region, teaching instead love for one’s enemies and the peace of Christ. Instead of vying for power and fame, Aidan urged them to work together for Christ’s glory.

Aidan was critical of missionaries who stayed at local castles and mansions, ate at the king’s table, and preached to the people from on high, from the point of view of the wealthy people of the area. So once Aidan had learned English, he went to the ordinary peasants, on foot. His approach was to befriend them and listen to their concerns before talking to them about religious faith. Aidan and his followers walked from village to village, making contacts and getting to know the area. Little by little, they brought people into the Christian faith.

Aidan realized that the new church needed leaders from the people. He knew that the church wouldn’t be strong with outside leaders coming from Iona, speaking a different language, from a different culture. He knew that there must be an indigenous English leadership. So he opened a school with twelve English boys initially, to teach them to read and write Latin, the written language of the day and the language of the Church. The boys learned how to read the Psalms, all 150 of them, and then went on to read the four Gospels – those were the reading primers of the day. Once they could read Latin, they had access to a wider world, not only their small corner of Northumbria, but the learning of Ireland, France, Italy and Rome. In the midst of the “dark ages”, after the fall of the Roman Empire, the monasteries provided the means to continue and preserve intellectual life and learning. With education, the knowledge of Scripture and Christian tradition endured.

The early English historian, the Venerable Bede, recorded Aidan’s work in Northumbria. Bede noted that Aidan was known for his freedom from greed or worldly ambition. Aidan gave away anything that was given to him. He used donations to give to the poor and buy the freedom of slaves. If he was invited to a feast, he gave away his food to the hungry. Though he was good friends with King Oswald and his successor King Oswin, Aidan would rarely eat at their table, preferring a humble meal with ordinary peasants. He followed the frugal Celtic tradition of fasting and abstained from food twice a week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Every Lent, he retreated to Lindisfarne to pray and to fast. Bede says that Aidan was ready to upbraid the haughty and powerful, not afraid to tell them when they were not serving God. At the same time, he comforted the poor and the afflicted and defended their cause before the king.

Aidan’s approach, as I’ve said, was to go out on foot to ordinary people. He told his missionaries to go to the farthest, most remote places, where others feared to go. He did not worry about his own comfort or his own safety. At one point, King Oswin gave him a horse, fitted out handsomely with royal trappings, so that Aidan didn’t have to walk so far and could move more quickly from one village to another. Also, he would look more like a bishop and less like a peasant! But Aidan would have none of it. When a poor person approached Aidan on the horse and asked for alms, Aidan got off and gave him the horse! King Oswin was really upset with Aidan and demanded to know why he had thrown away his expensive gift. Aidan pointed out that people are more important than horses. “Do you care more about this son of a mare that that son of God?” he chastised him. Oswin was struck to the quick and threw himself at Aidan’s feet, asking his pardon. He promised to never again question how Aidan used any of his donations for his missionary work. Aidan unexpectedly burst into tears and said that surely Oswin would soon die, since he had never before met such a humble king. The kingdom did not deserve one so good, he said. And only a short while after, Oswin was murdered by his cousin.

Just 12 days after Oswin’s death, Aidan himself fell ill while visiting the royal castle, probably to denounce the treacherous cousin. Too sick to return to Lindisfarne, Aidan stayed by the local church, in a tent he always used when staying in town. He died there, leaning on the buttress of the church. The year was 651. Legend holds that when the church was burned down in a Viking attack some time later, only the buttress remained and it became a holy place to the local people.

Aidan’s life reminds us that humility and simplicity are important Christian hallmarks. The aim of life is not to gain power and glory, acquiring the trappings of wealth and position. Instead, serving God is the most important thing, the only thing that matters in the end. God’s heart is with the poor and vulnerable, those who are defenseless and needy in this world. To bring people to Christ, we should listen to them and care for their needs. We should learn their language and their culture, and our lives will be the witness to our Christian faith.

Christianity is a missionary religion. The church is not here for our own comfort and ease of worship. The church is not here so we can gather with our friends once a week. We are here to worship God and to serve God. An important part of that is caring for the poor and spreading the good news of Jesus to those who have not yet heard it.
Let us pray.

Gracious God, you inspired your servant Aidan to go out to people he did not know, to care for them and to bring them into your fold. Give us the grace and strength to care for people we do not know. Help us to walk in your way of love and to invite others to walk with us. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.


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