Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lindisfarne - An Old Story for Today

Genesis 17:1-8 Laurie Furr-Vancini
Hebrews 11 (selected verses) October 21, 2012
Stewardship of our Religious Heritage Palms Presbyterian Church

An Old Story for Today

A few weeks ago, I found myself on the shores of a tidal island in Northern England
In the region of Northumbria.
(I like to say that because it sounds so very Chronicles of Narnia)…Northumbria.
So, there I was on an island of Northumbria, called Lindisfarne, otherwise known as The Holy Island.
What makes the Holy Island, Holy? You might ask?
And the answer is…it’s history…and it’s present.

Here is the story…..
A long, long time ago in the 7th century A.D. there was a King of Northumbria, named Oswald.
He was a devout Christian who battled others in the name of Christ.
When he became King, he sent for a contingent of monks from Scotland to come spread Christianity
Throughout his kingdom.
And so it came to pass that a monk named Aidan, austere, gentle, holy and moderate, having a zeal for God came to the Holy Island of LIndisfarne, established a priory and sent monks out from there through what we now know as England and that is how England became a Christian country.
As happens with kings, King Oswald was killed. His body was cut into quarters, but his brother went and retrieved his Head which was brought to the Holy Island to be buried.
It is a lovely story, isn’t it. And there is more, but you must be patient. You must wait, and the end isn’t even yet written.

I am not much in to history.
I only sort of like museums.
I only sort of like to read about history.
I only sort of like history classes in high school and college.
I appreciate people who are full of historical facts
and can re-tell details from time gone past.
I understand the importance of passing on history
as part of our shared understanding.
Now, stories from history, those capture my interest.
The people, the places, the events, if they are told like stories, those I love.
If I can smell the horses,
if I can see the landscape,
if I can feel the wind blowing, if I can visualize the king’s severed head...
then, I am there
And history becomes the now.

I can stand outside the tent with Abraham and hear God say,
Look up in the sky and look at those stars.
I can see them twinkle. I can see the expanse out there in the open desert. I can feel the sand on my feet and face.
See how many starts there are, those will be your descendents….
I know what it feels like to wonder if I will ever have a baby.
I know what promise sounds like and the excitement that Abraham must have felt.
And to look at the big expanse of sky and wonder, “How will this be?” and
“Glory, Hallelujah” all at the same time……

After King Oswald died, Aiden, the monk, became bishop and lived a long life,
(well a longer life than Oswald).
Then he died and was also buried on the Holy Island.
A few years later another monk,Cuthbert, came along.
Cuthbert was as beloved as Aiden had been.
According to historian priest David Adam,
“Cuthbert recognized the need for rhythm in life. Like tidal Holy Island, we sometimes need to be part of the mainland and all that is going on, and sometimes need to separate out and be an island for a while.”
The people loved Cuthbert and he became a bishop ….
the head of the English Church in Northumbria.
and he lived a long life, then died. Cuthbert, too, was buried on the Holy Island.
It is a lovely story, isn’t it. And there is more, but you must be patient. You must wait, and the end isn’t even yet written.

In the church, we have a number of sources for our history.
We have the Hebrew Scriptures, where we find our story about our ancestor Abraham.
We have stories of the life of Jesus found in the gospels.
We have the stories of the early church, where our second scripture for today from Hebrews recounts earlier stories and heroes.
We have traditions from the early church.
We have writings and sayings such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.
We have much newer creeds, as well, written at specific points in history when the church needed to proclaim what it believed.
We have the ancient places where modern people live today.
We can walk the road to Jericho and we can drink from the river Jordan (but we wouldn’t because it is terribly polluted). We can walk through the same ancient gate of Jerusalem that Jesus would have walked through.
We can follow Paul’s footsteps throughout Asia Minor
And we can go to places like the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

After Cuthbert died, monks and bishops came and went.
Time came and went.
The priory on the tiny island fell into disrepair and was rebuilt.
One day, the Vikings came and ransacked and ravaged the Holy Island and much of Northumbria.
The monks of the Holy Island were lost. They did not know where to go or what to do. So, they dug up bones and they set out for the mainland. They took the bones of Cuthbert and the head of Oswald and wandered Northumbria for an unknown amount of time
There are statues in a number of places which depict the bones and the bonus head of Oswald being carried around the countryside.
The story came to be told (and might be true) that before Cuthbert’s death, he carried around the head of King Oswald.
I made a collage of a number of the beautiful stained glass windows that show the now Sainted Cuthbert carrying around the head of the dead king.

We might find that rather “yuck”, but here is the truth.
We in the church, carry around a lot of our history that is yuck.
And beyond yuck, we carry around a lot that was wrong, bad and evil in the name of a loving Christ.
We carry around the bloody crusades.
We carry around the history of a Church that didn’t respond and when it did respond it did so with swords and spears and guns and all things hurtful.
We carry around the history of a Church that built grand cathedrals while folks starved and died.
We carry around a Church that baptized native peoples
all over the world as they ravaged the land and the people in the name of Christ.
We carry around a history of a Church that didn’t respond or under-responded to wars, injustices, lack of human rights and dignity,
We carry around a load of wrong in the church.
We Protestants in this country, of a certain age,
carry around the church of our childhood.
A church filled to the brim with people and programs…
babies baptized every week.
We think of it as the best of times of the church.
That same church in that same time didn’t allow in people
whose skin was a different color….
women were not permitted in leadership roles….
yet we dream wistfully of the “glory days.”
We carry it around and it is wrong if we ignore it or if we pretend we are not carrying it, that it is not part of our story, from which we need to repent. That which we need to remember in order not to repeat.
It is a lovely story, isn’t it. And there is more, but you must be patient. You must wait, and the end isn’t even yet written.

The bones of Cuthbert and the head of Oswald came to rest in Durham (not North Carolina, but Durham, England)
You can go there, as I did, and visit the place where St. Cuthbert is buried.
From the website of Durham Cathedral: Durham Cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage ever since it was built to house the shrine of St Cuthbert. Today people still come to visit his tomb.”
It is said that Oswald’s head is still enshrined with the bones of Cuthbert.
As for the bones of St. Aidan, the first monk on the Holy Island, his bones seemed to have scattered,
Reportedly, half of his bones are on the Isle of Iona in Scotland and others in Durham.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, bone to bone, head to head, generation to generation.

I am not moved by bones.
I know some are (particularly in Northumbria) and I give thanks that
the bones’ presence moves some closer to the love of Christ.
But, I am moved by the life behind (or rather in front of the bones).
I am touched by those who breathed and lived and died. Who loved with and by a love a Christ. Who, even though misguided made decisions based on the church and a love for the it.
Like the writer of Hebrews, I am captivated by the stories of our heroes of faith….
Of Noah and Isaac and Jacob (guided, yet willful)
Of Sarah who laughed long and hard when she was told that she would have a child at an old age and generations would call her blessed.
Of Jacob and Esau who fought and tricked and forgave and loved
Of Moses who had his own problems, but was the one chosen to lead a people.
Of Joseph and his brothers all with their problems
That the writer of Hebrews chose to include the prostitute Rahab in the list of heroes of faith….
I love that!
And what more should I say?
I should say because we are talking about “Stewardship of the Faith”,
that we are part of a church of the Reformation.
Of brave Martin Luther who said, “enough” and spoke truth to power leading the Reformation
Men and women who would cry:
Sola Scripture – Scripture Alone
Sola Fides – Faith Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Christus – Christ Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – God’s Glory Alone
I love that the reformers named five things ALONE that as essential, not one thing alone. And I laugh because five things ALONE sounds very Presbyterian.
Being shaped by the reformation means something.
In our story, it means that things aren’t written and followed.
The bible is alive!
Our faith must be active!
Our heroes aren’t only the heroes of our past, but our heroes of NOW!
Grace is present and moving, swirling around and resting upon us as individuals and as a community.
Christ is present among us – at font, at table, in our gathering, in our going out, love poured out to be shared.
God’s glory is all around – waiting to be named and praised!

If we understand our Reformed Heritage as always being reformed, we understand ourselves to be part of the evolving history of the love of Christ come to God’s earth.
And that…has less to do with us changing than with us being changed
By the power of the Holy Spirit.
New life. New flesh on new bones.
There are bones and severed heads that do not need to be carried around.
We can put them down.
We can say “we are sorry for what damage was done by the church….
Injustices carried out in the name of Christ.
Past wrongdoing.
We can mourn that which is lost and wrong with our church and with our history.
We can repent of the wrongdoing of our ancestors while holding up moments of
Calling and grace and love and goodness. Stories and heroes of our faith.
Real men and women. Bones and muscle and blood and spirit.

So, if you go to the tiny, Holy Island of Lindisfarne,
you will see the ruins of the once great priory.
You will see a BIIIIIGGGGG castle up on a TAAALLLLL hill.
You will see a fishing village.
You will see crosses against the backdrop of the beautiful English countryside.
You will see rocky beaches and a castle high.
You will feel the cool wind blow on your face.
You will watch the tides come in…..
and the tides go out……
You will see roosters and sheep and horses.

You will see vacationers and pilgrims and regular folks who live on the island.
You will walk on a beach full of sea glass and hear the colony of seals that surround the island.

And if you listen, very, very closely you may hear God say:
It is a lovely story, isn’t it. And there is more, but you must be patient.
You must wait, and the end isn’t even yet written.