Feast of Columba
June 9, 2008

We’re celebrating the feast of Columba today. Now I don’t imagine that he’s exactly a household name in Asian communities. He was a Celt, an Irish monk, who lived in the 6th century. He’s remembered as a saint because he sailed across the sea to Scotland and started a monastery there. His fellow Irish monks also went voyaging, to spread the good news to many foreign lands. They probably reached Africa, and Greenland, and even North America. As far as we know, they didn’t get as far as Asia. The monks who were nurtured in Columba’s community knew their home was in God, not any particular earthly place, and they set off in tiny leather boats, certain that they were held in the palm of God’s hand wherever they went.

Somehow that’s not a bad image for the kind of mission that this body is called to do. Asiamerican ministry is about that ability to cross the sea and still know yourselves at home in God. The early Celtic seafaring monks may have had another tool, in addition to their tradition. They may have learned something about lodestones, crude forerunners to a magnetic compass. Lodestones were also known in China by then, which makes one wonder how the news of this magnetic miracle traveled. It’s quite clear that the Vikings had gotten that technology from the Chinese by the 11th or 12th century. Yet those 6th century monks set out in confidence that their hearts could always point toward home, whether or not they had a mechanical compass.

Asiamerican ministry begins in the same confidence. As children of the God of Isaac and Jacob, we are all the descendents of a wandering Aramean, sent to do God’s work in another land. Some of our more recent ancestors have had the confidence to go voyaging across the sea, sure in the knowledge that God is to be found in all lands and cultures. We are here this week equally certain that our task is to foster an evangelical ministry in lands beyond our tribal heritage.

What tools keep voyagers pointed toward home in God? Certainly we begin with the awareness that we are well-beloved of God, that we have heard at baptism what Jesus heard, “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. But the answer to that question of orienting toward God also has a great deal to do with how this ministry spreads: learning and teaching others how to pray; helping communities learn to read their context; and learning how to tell the good news and great stories of our faith in new contexts.

We learn about prayer in listening, and spending time with God, and we learn about our human neighbors, both well-known and strangers, in the same way. When we have spent enough time with ourselves in God’s presence to know that we are loved beyond imagining, and not because of anything we have done or not done, we begin to have the confidence to launch out into new lands. When we begin to have that confidence, we have something to offer the stranger. Proximity is part of the process – being with, spending time with this new neighbor, and beginning to discover what we share, rather than focusing on what separates us. When we have begun to build those bridges of common heritage as beloved children of God, we have the foundation on which to build an evangelical mission.

Columba’s story is instructive. His name means “dove,” and it’s probably a reference to the peaceful character his biographers knew. That’s not how he started life as a monk, however. His early life in the monastery was spent copying manuscripts. The owner of one of those manuscripts was very put out when Columba tried to take the copy with him. A struggle ensued that makes our current controversies look mild. They ended up in a pitched battle, and a number of people died. Columba left Ireland in disgrace because of that battle, and vowed to live the rest of his life working to save as many lives as had been lost. His metanoia and transformation began in discovering the common humanity he shared with those who died in a petty argument.

Columba went to Scotland and began to befriend the local people, the Picts. He spent the rest of his life among them, and their encounter is remembered as profoundly gracious. Some have said they seemed made for each other; and as he settled down in their midst his own transformation from warrior to peacemaker began to transform those around him. The Picts responded with a hunger to be joined to the body of Christ.

Whatever struggle leads people to migrate – economic, personal, legal – can be an equally powerful occasion of judgment. The challenge is to enter the new context with enough vulnerability to find the image of God in new people, a new culture, and new possibilities. Our work must be as much peace-mongering as Columba’s. Perhaps a more appropriate phrase is seeking harmony. The reconciling work of the gospel is meant to build communities of peace and the sense of common life epitomized by harmony. Harmony is not achievable without justice and the dignified treatment of all our neighbors. That is what our communities are intended to produce – transformation toward that great dream of God’s that we call God’s Reign. We, too, have been sent out to preach peace to the nations.

When Jesus says to the disciples, “don’t rejoice over conquering demons, rejoice over the knowledge that you are known to God” he’s talking about the humility that that work of harmony requires. Our job is not to conquer but rather to heal. Columba went to the Picts with an open heart. Our task is the same.

How do we set aside the battle with the demons and begin to find names written in heaven? How do we enter a new context, bless the best of the new culture and not lose our own, all in the context of the gospel? It certainly has to do with that image of the Body of Christ having many parts, none greater or more important than another. And it has something to do with a confidence that the kingdom of God is around us and among us and within us, that we cannot go anywhere that is outside the active presence of God.

That’s not always how evangelists have traveled. The empire seekers who came to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries were over-confident of their possession of the full gospel, and they often sought to impose that vision on the people they met. They didn’t know that Columba’s fellow monks had been there before them. In the 1980s some anthropologists discovered that some old markings on rocks in West Virginia were actually written in old Irish. They date from the 6th or 7th century, and they are essentially a Christmas card. They say that at the darkest time of the year, the light will shine here, as a sign of the light come into the world, born of Mary. Indeed, at Christmastime, but not at any other time of the year, the writing is fully lit by the rising sun.

Sometimes our evangelism work doesn’t seem to bear immediate fruit. I’ve heard your concern about numbers and growth of congregations. As Mother Teresa said, our task is not to be successful, it is to be faithful. Those Irish monks shared the gospel in a new land. It didn’t take root immediately – indeed it took nearly 1400 years to be recognized. But the miracle remains.

The collect for Columba is equally appropriate for us: “Grant that we, remembering the life and labors of those Irish monks, may show our thankfulness to you by following the example of their zeal and their patience.” Give us passion and patience.