To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
I glance at the clock in the refectory.
Even though the little sounds that are coming from the kitchen speak eloquently of tea and toast, there is still, unless I am mistaken, an hour before the breakfast bell will ring. Enough time to at least take a look at the land around the Abbey.
In a moment, I have passed through the inner cloister, out the main door of the Abbey and into the quickening light of the early morning.
The Abbey echoes with age, but leaving it does not bring me into the present day. The first thing I am aware of is the wind – or rather, not so much wind as the voice of the ocean, a rumor of storms at sea, the impossible presence, right now! of eternity itself, buffeting the hummocks of grass at my feet. Leaving the Abbey is a movement from age to age – a movement from the solemn carved stone of the arched cloister, to the island’s deep geologic age, the ocean’s ceaseless rhythm.
The island has one road… such as it is. With one lane, and only enough gumption to be paved some of the time, it runs north south in a wavering line, connecting small clusters of houses. A spine, and not a circuit, the road’s apparent lack of ambition leaves great swaths of the island untouched by human activity. If you want to see Iona you can’t do it from inside a car. You have to walk.
I walk quickly, but without intention, turning north, away from the docks where we came in on the ferry yesterday afternoon. There are no trees anywhere – so the road seems to lead into extremity – impossible distances of sky and sea in every direction. The northeastern horizon is defined by the vaste headlands of the Isle of Mull that reach up to the sky, and end abruptly in cliffs that drop precipitously into the ocean. In their immensity, and in their rawness, ever exposed to the relentless sea, distant headlands seem primordial – incompatible with human settlement. And yet people have lived here for thousands of years, weathered, hardened and craggy like the rocks themselves.
On the west side of the road, is a small mountain that is clearly the highest point on the island of Iona.
I find a style – a little makeshift stair that allows me to clamber over the fence. Using this, I head into a sheep pasture and begin making my way up the mountain.
Fire is hot.
Snow is cold.
The desert is dry
The ocean is wet.
These are things we know about the world that we live in…
No one needs to tell us these things.
If we were not in church, but on the game show Jeopardy – this category of clues might be called something like: The way things are.
Hot. What is fire?
Cold. What is snow?
Dry. What is the desert?
Wet. What is the ocean?
This is all pretty straightforward stuff, but I assure you, there is something interesting going on here…
One of the first things you learn, as a child, is that fire is not only hot – it is also dangerous. No one even needs to tell you this, Your gut tells you. Fire is nothing to mess with. If you get too close, it will burn you.
So knowing about the way things are, involves knowing not only about the thing itself – but also about what the thing’s nature demands of you.
Say you plan to go out in a snowstorm. You must take into account the snow’s nature – it’s coldness – and dress appropriately. As long as you know what you are doing, you’ll be fine. If, on the other hand, you ignore what the nature of snow demands of you, you could die quickly of hypothermia.
Similarly, walking into the desert without water is asking for it. Jumping into the ocean without a life jacket is almost guaranteed to be fatal. In both cases, you are up against the way things are. Your only hope is stumbling upon a small exception to the nature of the thing – an island in the ocean, or an oasis in the desert.
These are structural truths that help to keep us alive. In order to survive, we must operate according to the demands laid upon us by the elements.
If you are cold and wet, get indoors and warm up.
If you are dehydrated, drink water.
If the house is burning down, get out.
We know these things.
They are literally matters of “life and death.”
But here’s the thing…
God is not like this.
We cannot assign a singular nature to God and act only in accordance with the demands of that nature.
The mystery of God is that, at one and the same time, God contains, and yet refuses to be defined by all of these elemental truths.
Defining God is dangerous – to define God is to make God finite. To say that God is this, is to suggest that God is not that – and as soon as you do that, you are no longer talking about God. Generally speaking, the people who are successful in their attempt to define God are usually more concerned about themselves and their own interests than they are about God. To define God, is to make God in our image – and this is almost always done to consolidate power.
Well… if we cannot define God, perhaps we can describe God.
God is hot
God is also cold.
God is dry.
God is also wet.
In a mysterious and wonderful way, the Divine readily contains and resolves the paradoxes that cannot be contained or resolved in any other way.
This is why we have passages in the Bible like the one that Judith just read for us, from the 11th chapter of Isaiah.
The wolf shall live with the lamb;
the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the lion will feed together,
and a little child shall lead them.
In this vision of peace, the prophet takes our knowledge of the way things are and reverses it.
All the deeply entrenched assumptions about predator and prey – all the instinctual reflexes that we have about danger, are intentionally upended.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
This is descriptive language.
Whatever you do, don’t read it as prescriptive – if you do you are likely to find yourself bitten by a venomous snake.
With these words, Isaiah shatters the instinctual reflexes that define our world. The prophet does this purposefully. If we are to catch a fleeting glimpse at something – something divine – we must break free, just for a moment, from the laws that define our daily lives.
Isaiah helps free us from the danger of defining God.
But I wonder… Can Christianity be defined?
Christianity and God are two different things. God cannot be constrained by the rules of our lives, but Christianity very much exists within those rules.
Christianity is many things. Perhaps it can be defined because there are many things it should not be. But Christianity is based on story – it is most comfortable in the land of description.
For the first 46 years of my life I didn’t want to have anything to do with Christianity. I became a person of faith in middle age, so I can point to moments of transformation that are quite recent.
I can identify for you, the moment when I recognized the importance of being in community.
Christianity is being in community.
Someday I will tell you that story.
I can identify the moment when I discovered that Christianity was about joy.
Christianity is about joy.
Someday I will tell you that story.
And I can tell you about the time when I learned, with my body, that Christianity was about mystery.
And that the mystery leads to peace.
Christianity is about peace!
I will tell you that story now.
It did not take me long to clamber up to the top of the mountain. Up on the top, there was a cairn – a mound of rocks marking the highest point. I observed the small ritual of finding a stone to place atop the cairn.
I was alone. The only other living things were the sheep that had watched my ascent, and a crow that briefly hovered, gave an annoyed croak, and let the air carry it away. There were no trees, so the landscape of rock and heather was exposed, in all directions – an unimpeded view of the island of Iona, the sound that separated it from the Isle of Mull, and, to the west, beyond a few rocky outcrops, the vast stretches of uninterrupted ocean.
I had the feeling that I was more alive than usual – that my eyes and my body were absorbing the moment with more clarity. The wind was strong, but it was not terribly cold. I felt alone, without feeling lonely. I was not lonely. I felt a tingle of fear, but it was a kind of fear that was also joy. I don’t know that I have ever felt that before. Fear and joy, each filling the other.
I was alone. Not a soul anywhere in sight. And yet I was not alone.
The sun moved above the clouds, breaking through.
The ocean wind.
The sun breaking through.
It was as if I was experiencing all these things without the help of my senses. I don’t know why, but I found myself lying down at the base of the cairn, with my cheek against the rock, gazing into a small puddle that I found there. I wanted to become a part of the rocks – to be worn away by time. My instincts for self-preservation, carefully schooled in the world of things, fell away in an instant.
The sun breaking through.
I had seen that light before. Somewhere…
And then it appeared. The memory of that light…
Once, when I was a hospital chaplain intern, I went into a hospital room where I encountered a old black man, sitting up in the bed.
The man’s eyes were open, but he did not see me. He was looking past me at something. His eyes were beautiful. They were filled with light. They were filled with joy and the unutterable pain of the world – all at once.
I knew, when I looked in his eyes, that they were filling with death – that death was there, and that it was sad and beautiful. Sad because of life, and beautiful because he was moving into beauty.
Moving into peace…
An hour later, I was told by a nurse that the man had died.
In that moment – on the mountain, on the Island of Iona, I saw – I felt, with my body – that light again. I recognized the light of mystery, fearful and, more than anything filled with inexpressible and infinite beauty. The light of God, breaking through.