Readings for Pentecost (Whitsunday)
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA on Pentecost Sunday June 9, 2019.
Gracious God, help us to let go of what needs to be released and to hold on to what you call us to embrace. In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is a very special day in the life of the church for three major reasons. First, today is the Feast of Pentecost, a day when the Holy Spirit descended and inspired the apostles let go of their old and limited and exclusive understandings of God and to embrace the open-armed God who speaks more than a thousand different languages and who wants to draw all the peoples of the earth into his love. This event marks the birthday of the church, which is why today we have balloons and, later on, cake! Today the church turns 1,986 years old. So happy birthday, Church! On this day, what are you being invited to let go of? And what are you being called to embrace?
Second, today is special because today is the 470th anniversary of our first Book of Common Prayer, which became the official prayer book in England on June 9th, 1549, a book that continues to live on in our own Books of Common Prayer, those red books in your pew shelves that shape our worship today. Just as the Holy Spirit at Pentecost made it possible for others to hear the Gospel of Christ in their own language so too did the Book of Common Prayer allow people in England to worship God in their own language: English. Previously, they worshipped only in Latin. Although today we might assume that everyone in England loved this new English prayer book, it was not universally well-received. This change, like most changes in the church, was met with a great deal of grumbling and protest. Many bishops and traditionalists actually preferred worshipping God in the holy language of Latin (!).[i] But it seemed the Spirit was inviting England to let go of Latin liturgy and to embrace the idea that God might understand English prayers just as well as he understands Latin prayers.
There was another group of people in the 16th century who also protested and rebelled against this English prayer book, not because it wasn’t in Latin, but because it was in English and they did not speak or understand English. These were the Celtic Christians, specifically the people of Cornwall, most of whom spoke a Celtic language of the pre-English inhabitants of Britain. The Church in England did not yet understand that the Holy Spirit was inviting them to offer worship in all languages and not just replace one uniform language with another. Tragically, the rebellion of these Celtic Christians was violently stomped out.[ii] This, however, leads us to the third major reason that today is a very special day…
Today is also the Feast day of the one of the great founders of Celtic Christianity, the 6th century Irish missionary to Scotland: St. Columba. [I have an icon of St. Columba that I bought at an Eastern Orthodox bookstore in Santa Rosa on the way to Scotland.] And today, I want to share with you the story of St. Columba, whose life and ministry are deeply interwoven with the Feast of the Holy Spirit, not only because his name “Columba” means “Dove of the Church” and the dove is a popular and powerful symbol of the Holy Spirit…
Columba was born in Ireland, a descendant of Celtic chiefs and warrior kings. He seemed destined to be a great king, but instead he felt called to be a monk and a founder of monasteries. By age 41, he had founded 41 monasteries in Ireland. He was deeply in love with the magical and mystical beauty of Celtic Christian Ireland.
Now the reason why Columba left for Scotland is unclear considering how much he adored his beloved home. There are many theories that attempt to explain his departure from Ireland. The most popular theory is that he was a culprit in what is considered the first copyright dispute. Back in those days, before Xerox, the monks were the copy machines. So monks could potentially get in trouble for copying other people’s manuscripts and not giving proper credit to the original author. Columba, who loved reading and transcribing the Psalms, apparently copied his mentor’s translation of the Psalms. His mentor St. Finian and his followers became very upset with Columba for doing this. Columba’s fellow noblemen came to his defense and this tension resulted in a battle known as the Battle of the Book, in which 3,000 people died (!). Columba felt responsible and deeply guilty for this bloodshed and felt he needed to make penance.
One way that Celtic Christians made penance was by going on what is called a “peregrinatio,” a pilgrimage of no return, a pilgrimage to the place of one’s resurrection, where one would die and hopefully rise again in Christ. So Columba, with 12 of his friends, went on a peregrinatio by embarking north on the sea in a round canoe-like boat called a coracle, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it manifested in the wind, and the waves, and the wild geese.
On the night of Pentecost (which also happened to fall on June 9th) in the year 563, the Holy Spirit led Columba’s coracle to the island of Iona, about 60 miles north of Ireland. At Iona, Columba let go of his past in Ireland (which could not even be seen from the shores of Iona) and he prepared for a new beginning, which is why the bay upon which he landed is now called St. Columba’s Bay or the Bay of New Beginnings. Columba built his monastery and mission headquarters on the island of Iona and from there he was able to successfully evangelize the pagan Picts throughout Scotland. He became known as a healer, a miracle worker, a tamer of wild beasts (including the Loch Ness monster) and a clairvoyant seer who communed with angels. He also continued reading, praying and transcribing his beloved Psalms, every day. On his last day on earth, he transcribed Psalm 34 verse 9, which reads, “Those who seek the LORD shall lack nothing.” He then went to the abbey for Vespers (evening prayer) and reclined on the steps of the chancel, where he offered his final blessing to his monks. His final words to his monks were much like Jesus’s final words to his disciples, which we just heard. He said, “Be at peace. Love one another. The Holy Spirit will be your comfort and advocate and will provide everything you need.” As he spoke these words, the church became filled with heavenly light. He then breathed his last breath. On Iona, Columba had found his place of resurrection.
Today, thousands of pilgrims visit Iona each year as it remains a central hub for ecumenical and interfaith Celtic spirituality. Many pilgrims at Iona hike a few miles from the village and Abbey to the Bay of New Beginnings. At the Bay, pilgrims are invited to pick up a stone that represents something that needs to be released: an addiction, a bad habit, a regret, an unhealthy pattern of thinking. And that stone is then thrown into the sea of God’s forgetfulness. And then pilgrims are invited to pick up another stone which represents some yearning for new beginning, for resurrection, and they bring that stone home with them.
On this feast of St. Columba and this feast of the Holy Spirit, I invite you to let go of what needs to be released and to hold on to God’s promise of new beginnings in your life. That may look different for each of us. But in general, I invite you to let go of any inner voices of shame and accusation, let go of what Episcopal author Brené Brown calls the “shame gremlins.”[iii] The Hebrew word for Satan is “Ha Satan” which means the Accuser. Satan is associated with the voices that accuse you of being unlovable. Let go of those voices. Release them into the sea of forgetfulness and renounce them. And I also invite you to hold onto the divine voice of Love, the voice of the Advocate, which is the voice of the Holy Spirit. The word “Advocate” comes from the Greek word “Paraclete” which literally means “someone who walks alongside you,” someone who advocates for you, supports you, weeps with you, encourages and inspires you. The Paraclete is your number one fan. The Paraclete says to you the same words Jesus said to his disciples in today’s Gospel: “Do not be driven by fear. Be guided by peace. Know that you are not alone. Do not be driven by shame. You are loved.”
That is the voice of the Advocate, the Paraclete, the One walking alongside you, always. So let us honor St. Columba today by letting go of that which needs to be relinquished and by holding close to our hearts the life-giving Spirt of the One who says, “Peace I leave with you; my own peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid, because those who seek the LORD shall lack nothing.” Amen.
[i] “For [Stephen] Gardiner and other traditionalist bishops, it seemed evident that celebrating the Eucharistic rite in English would only distract people from their prayers. John Christopherson, the dean of Norwich, wrote in 1554 that the congregation should ‘travail themselves in fervent praying, and so shall they highly please God…It is much better for them not to understand the common service of the church, because when they hear others praying in a loud voice, in the language that they understand, they are [hindered] from prayer themselves, and so come they to such a slackness and negligence in praying, that at length as we have well seen in these late days, in manner not pray at all.’ So also the Catholic controversialist Thomas Harding: ‘as the vulgar service’—that is, the service in English—‘pulleth their minds from private devotion to hear and not to pray, to little benefit of knowledge, for the obscurity of it; so the Latin giveth them no such motion.’” (Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, 19).
[ii] “Many of the rebels were Cornishmen who already felt themselves wrongly subjected to English authority: imposing the English language upon their traditional worship was rubbing salt into their wounds. ‘And so we the Cornish men (whereof certain of us understand no English) utterly refuse this new English.’ It was pointed out to them that they didn’t understand Latin either, but in a sense they did: they understood that Latin was the language of the church that spread far beyond England and heretofore had not been under English control. And if Latin was incomprehensible to them, it was equally incomprehensible to their English rulers. Nevertheless, their protests were silenced and the rebellion broken: as many as five thousand rebels were slaughtered.” (Jacobs, Book of Common Prayer, 47 – 48)
[iii] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (Penguin Random House: New York, 2012).