Proper 16, Year A: Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

Well it’s good to be back after almost three weeks away. I am so very grateful to return to a place and a people whom I love and with whom I get to do the ministry that is my, that is our work. So thank you – I come back refreshed, more focused and I’m excited about the beginning of a new program year here at Grace. I’m also very much looking forward to the next steps in all of the various projects – from organ to parking to program to properties to people, we are sort of a project too – through which life and grace are unfolding here.

But before we move forward, I want to reflect a bit with you on the past few weeks, most of which I spent in Scotland and some of which I spent wrestling with what it means to be a person of Christian faith in this time and in this place that I call home. And the first look back is a distant one.

As you approach the Abbey on the Isle of Iona you walk a path that has been walked by Christians since the 500’s. That’s five-zero-zero meaning over 1500 years ago. The Abbey was founded by St Columba who left Ireland during a time of immense religious struggles. A time in which Christians were fighting among themselves (so note – this is not a new phenomenon.) Columba came to Iona because he was working out his role as learned and wise abbot and missionary, but he was also working out some personal stuff. Columba was openly repentant and not proud that he himself had been a leader in a local battle over a book of psalms. (You smile but it’s amazing what historically we have managed to fight over.) This battle had actually left hundreds dead and that whole experience (to make a long story into an obvious understatement) left St Columba feeling as if faith had to be lived out different than that.

And so Columba left for Scotland with twelve other monks (a nice symbolic number there.) And they settled on the island of Iona off Scotland’s west coast where they founded an Abbey and a community of faith. And that Abbey has attracted pilgrims for centuries. Since Columba’s day Iona has been a place that has birthed creative and at times mildly edgy expressions of faith – the Lindisfarne gospels were written/drawn on Iona and in their day were groundbreaking in their artistic expressions. The huge stone crosses that integrate Celtic design and animals (again pushing the edges) mark the landscape around the Abbey. Columba and his monks traveled throughout Scotland offering new expressions and new hope. And through this whole experience, Columba himself became known not only as missionary but also as a diplomat. Columba was absolutely committed to finding ways to remain rooted in Christian faith, and given his experience, to also being a voice and a presence for reconciliation in this world.

And so Iona has become known worldwide as a community through which people of faith are fed to work for justice and peace in this world. The community there writes prayers and music and they offer daily services of morning and evening prayer.

Columba landed on Iona to step away and essentially to work out his place in an imperfect world, in an imperfect Church where the temptations toward violence were many, and the places where power met faith met politics met hope were tangled in sometimes truly grievous ways. Columba landed on Iona having had an honest and first-hand experience of what it means to live in this world as a person of faith acknowledging that none of us can escape, nor are we necessarily meant to escape the tangle. Christians from all different times and all different places have walked that path laid down by Columba and his friends. From that Abbey and throughout the British Isles, and the world, Iona’s community has become known for their honest, prayerful, and compassionate approach to being faithful in the midst of very human struggles engaging the world in ways that have led and can lead to creative and compassionate expressions of what it means to be Christian in this time and in this place (whatever the time and place happen to be.)

“Who do you say that I am?” we heard Jesus ask today’s gospel passage. And if we were to make a list of the top five Christian identity-shaping questions in all of Scripture this would be near the top, if not on the top of that short list.

And so while I was away, there were demonstrations by white supremacists and the covers of domestic, and I assure you, foreign newspapers pictured young men marching with torches in Virginia chanting horrendous threats of, “Jews will not replace us,” many of them claiming their Christian faith as their motivation and justification for their actions. While I was away, the home of the Director of the LGBT Community Center in Jackson, Michigan was burned down in an act of arson. That Director, named Nikki had recently led the passionate yet peaceful process of that City adopting a fair and humane non-discrimination ordinance. The arsonist is reported to have claimed his Christian faith as motivation and justification for his actions. And shortly after that, again bringing it closer to home, nooses were hung in a neighborhood in Muskegon making direct threats against the African Americans who call that place home. The group who was reported responsible, claim Christian faith as motivation and justification for such actions.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked in the gospel today. It is as imperative as it ever was that we answer that question because the world, far away and very near by needs voices of compassion to speak out. The path to Grace, Holland has “only” been tread for about one hundred and fifty years, but we stand with a long and deep community of faithful Christians for whom reconciliation, justice, creativity and compassion serve as a means by which we can answer Jesus’ question with love, love of self, love of neighbor, love of stranger, and love of enemy too.

Who do you say that I am? Here are some thoughts for a response to the Christ:

You are the one who named the poor, the meek, the persecuted and the peacemakers as those who are blessed. You, Jesus, are the one who raised light not as threat, but as a hope, as a way, a merciful means by which darkness would be overcome, not spread.

You, Jesus, are the one who ate with outcasts and sinners, Jews and gentiles. You yourself were a faithful Jewish man.

You are the one who pushed the religious edges of your day, healing on the Sabbath when religious law was inhibiting wholeness rather than providing it; you were the one who welcomed those who were ritually “unclean” because experiencing the presence and gifts of “the other” were and are a critical dimension of experiencing the kingdom you bring.

You are the one who invited all who were weary and heavy laden to come for rest. The one who gave sight to the blind, helped the lame to walk, and set the prisoners free.

The one whose supremacy was inherently bound to the action of giving one’s life for a friend, giving one’s life for a stranger, and an enemy too. The one who stood in the midst of the hatred and violence, abuses, inequalities, divisions of this world and by offering love, created holy ground for all.

Like Columba and so many others in our tradition, we can answer the question in today’s gospel in ways that breath hope and compassion and mercy into a world so very desperately in need of such grace. Because of the way God set this whole thing up the coming of the kingdom is a participatory experience, meaning that we have a role to play in laying the path of faith in our time and in our place. And how we answer today’s question will determine the kinds of stones we lay. As we move forward, grace unfolding around and through us may our paths be strewn with compassion, mercy, justice, peace and among all things, love.

A prayer attributed to Columba:

O Lord, grant us that love which can never die… May we receive unquenchable light from you so that our darkness will be illuminated and the darkness of the world will be made less. Amen.