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A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian on October 25, 2020.


GEORGE MACLEOD: CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, 
the breaking of bread and the prayers.   Acts 2:42

        The Covid crises has cancelled many of the traditions that we have come to enjoy as a congregation.  This year we had to cancel the Church picnic, the Fall Festival and many other social activities.  One of the most painful of the loses was the postponement of the youth trip to Iona. Over the last twenty years almost seventy-five youth and adults have made a pilgrimage to the Island of Iona which is off the west coast of Scotland.  This year we had 13 youth and five adults ready to spend a week with the Iona Community for the Youth Festival.  This Festival draws young people from Canada, England, Scotland, Sweden, Mexico, Australia, and the US to spend a week living in intentional Christian Community.

The Iona Community is the brainchild of this week’s luminary, George MacLeod.  George MacLeod was born in the City of Glasgow in 1895.   He was born into a prominent family that had many ties to the Church of Scotland.  There were many ministers in the family tree going back 500 years. 

MacLeod’s father was a successful businessman and a lawyer.  George was a child of great privilege.  When he was young there were written menus on the family’s dinner table and he was waited on by maids.   Like many sons of the upper-class he was sent away to boarding school at Winchester.  He then went to University at Oxford.  He was on a path to a traditional successful life in his preferred profession, the law.

He was nineteen when World War I began.  He enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  He rose to the rank of Captain.  He saw action in some of the most brutal battles of the war.  He was awarded the Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre for bravery he demonstrated in battle.   The death, destruction, and inhumanity that seemed to have no meaning, made MacLeod, like so many others with the same experience, a life-long pacifist.  He would work against war the rest of his life.

During World War I he had one of the three profound experiences that would shape his life.  MacLeod’s experiences in the trenches were hard to deal with.  In the mud and blood of battle, he witnessed the death of so many friends and companions.  He was so shaken by his experiences that he began to fall apart.  He began to cope by going through half a bottle of whisky and 50 cigarettes a day.  He is quoted as saying, “I was going to hell in a hurry.”  But as he made his way back to the front after a leave of absence, he felt an inner call that he must change.  So there, in the railway car, he knelt and committed his life to Christ.

        This change meant for him a turn from a law career to the ministry.  When the war was over, he went to study divinity at Edinburgh University and for a year at Union in New York City.  When he graduated, he became an assistant at St. Giles’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, which is the mother church of Presbyterianism.  In 1926 he was called to serve at St. Cuthbert’s also in Edinburgh.  St. Cuthbert’s served the University Community and the upper class.  MacLeod was poised to have a very traditional, successful ministry career serving the elite in Scottish society.

But MacLeod became uneasy about the social divide in the nation.  There was an increasing economic difference between rich and poor.  In 1930, MacLeod left the comfortable parish of St. Cuthbert’s to serve Govan Old Parish Church in a working-class section of Glasgow.  He threw himself into the work of that congregation.  After two years of non-stop work he suffered a breakdown.  He was sent away to recover.  He spent part of his time recuperating in Jerusalem in 1933.  While worshipping in an Eastern Orthodox Church on Easter, he had a profound spiritual experience.  He came to understand that Christianity is more than an individual’s relationship with God.  The Church is more than a collection of souls, it is a community of the faithful.  The Church is the body of Christ in the world.

He returned to Govan with new energy.  Many of the people who came to the congregation were from outside the parish.  Few of the working-class people attended worship.  So, MacLeod attempted to take the church into the streets.  He began to preach in the marketplace.  It was there that he had his third important experience.  MacLeod tells us:
 
‘I remember preaching individual salvation in the street in Govan one day – yes to five hundred men on a weekday at 4 o’clock. What else was there for them to do in the marketplace but listen to curate or Communist? An outspoken man in question time, speaking almost as God spoke to Isaiah, asked: “Do you think all this religious stuff will save?” Very down at heel he was, but very clear of eye. Suddenly, as he was speaking, I realized he was preaching the gospel and not I. I asked him to come up on the platform, but he refused and left the meeting.

‘Some weeks later I received a message asking me to go to hospital and see a man called Archie Gray. I had never heard the name before, but when I reached the hospital, I found it was my questioner from the meeting and he was dying of starvation. The man was single, in a whole household of unemployed, which he had left because he felt he was eating too much of the rations. Out of 21 shillings a week he was sending 7/6d a week to a ne’er-do-well brother in Australia. He said he was bitter about the Church, not because it was preaching falsehoods, but because it was speaking the truth and did not mean what it said.

These three experiences shaped MacLeod for what was to come.  He was committed to Christ, to the body of Christ and to taking the Gospel to the common person.  His theology is captured in his famous quote:

I simply argue the cross must be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church.  I am claiming that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where He died and that is what he died about and that is where churchmen ought to be and what churchman should be about.

How was he to live out this vision of Church?  His mind went back to a place where his family had vacationed when he was a child.  The Island of Iona.  Iona had played a fundamental role in bringing Christianity to Scotland.  In 563 an Irish priest was forced to leave Ireland.  He took a small boat with twelve companions and set off to places unknown. On May 12, 563 AD they landed on the small Island of Iona which is one mile wide and three miles long.

Columba founded a monastery made of wood. Iona became the center of a missionary movement that spread Christianity all over Britain and eventually to the Continent.  They practiced a form of Christianity that we call Celtic.  Celtic Christianity saw God as part of everyday life.

After the Synod of Whitby, Iona came under the leadership of Rome.  Iona was attacked several times by Viking raiders.  Some Monks were killed.  As time progressed Benedictine Monks came to Iona and built a stone Abby and Church.  Women came and established their own monastery.

After the Reformation in Scotland the Abby fell into disrepair.  MacLeod and his family would have walked through these ruins when they visited before World War I.  For MacLeod, Iona was a special place.  He called it “A thin place with only a tissue paper separating the material from the spiritual.”

MacLeod has a vision of rebuilding Christianity, by rebuilding the Abby and building community between a variety of people.  So, in the summer of 1938, he took a group of young men, half unemployed construction workers and half seminary students to the Island of Iona.  They spent their time rebuilding the Abby, worshipping, and talking with each other.     It was a time of structured Christian community.  They followed a pattern of work, worship, and play.   MacLeod hoped to create a model for the renewal of the Church.  The workers and seminarians could learn from each other.

This was the beginning of the Iona Community.  There developed two centers, one in Glasgow working with the disadvantaged and the other on the Island welcoming guests April through October.  Over the last eighty years the Iona community has worked for renewal in worship and music and for justice and peace.  It has helped to shape clergy and congregations around the world. Today the Iona Community is a dispersed community. It has members who work and live throughout the world. There are 270 Full Members, around 1,800 Associate Members and 1,600 Friends of the Community.

Still the main mission of Iona stays true to MacLeod’s vision of creating Christian Community.  When our adults or youth have gone to Iona it is hard to explain what the time will be like.  It is not a vacation, or a retreat or a mission trip.  It is something unique.  Each person is assigned to a team for chores.  This will mean setting up for one meal each day, and specific chores to be done such as cleaning.  The rhythm of each day includes breakfast, worship, chores, program, lunch, recreation, dinner, worship, and program.

What develops over the week is Christian community.  In worship and conversation relationships are built.  We learn to understand our world and faith through the eyes of fellow believers.  The worship in the ancient Abby Church connects one with all those who have prayed in that place through the centuries.  Many come away from their time on Iona with their faith deepened.

The fundamental message of Iona is the importance of Christian community.  This is also a lesson we are learning in this time of pandemic.  The whole world to a greater or lesser degree has experienced a time of lockdown.  Some of us spent months in our homes leaving only to go for groceries or medicine.  Children were kept home from school for months and not allowed to play with neighborhood friends. 

        So many senior citizens are still living in isolation.  Many live in their small room 24 hours a day.  Food is brought to them and no visitors are allowed.  People have spent long weeks in hospitals without family or friends.  Many people have had to live in limbo with postponed funerals or have had truncated funerals with only a handful of people in attendance.  Weddings have occurred in very limited ways.  We did not have anyone in worship in the Sanctuary for three months and we are still months away from resuming our normal patterns of worship.

        What is missing is real human community face to face.  Yes, Zoom and livestreaming or other platforms have helped, but they are not the same. They are virtual, they are substitutes, but they are not enough.

        May we learn from our experience the truth that George MacLeod sought to teach us. Christians need to live in true human community.  We need to nurture a common life that feeds the human soul, a community open to all who love Christ.  Let us learn from the words of the next anthem in which we hear: Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat, a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God through Jesus is revealed in time and space.  All are welcome in this place.