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The First Congregational Church, Columbus
September 19, 2004 - 16th Sunday after Pentecost
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister
Dedicated to the people who reached out to me and my family as angels of mercy, love, grace, and justice and always to the glory of God!
The Flight of the Lone Wild Goose
Joshua 4:21-22, Amos 8:4-7, Luke 16:1-13

The Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit is the Wild Goose. The wild goose with its wings beating frantically, is a turbulent sign the Holy Spirit, perhaps more appropriate to the living faith of our day than the gentle dove. Yet it was in fact, Columba, the so-called "Dove of the Church," who established the Christian faith on a little island in Scotland in the year of our Lord, 563. After a tumultuous struggle in his homeland in the Spring of that year, this middle-aged Irish priest and twelve followers set sail for Scotland. Columba, whose name means, "dove" in Latin, left Ireland in a self-imposed exile. On the eve of Pentecost, their sacrificial journey brought the thirteen pilgrims to the western shore of Iona (an Island whose name also means "dove" in Hebrew).

Columba had sailed to Iona not to create a colony of heaven, but as a Christian missionary. His barefoot monks would eventually go out to the highways and byways to preach the Gospel. Iona was strategically well-positioned for Columba's base of mission. From Iona, he found ways to heal, preach, and convert the Druids to faith in a loving God, known through Jesus Christ. Legend has it that Columba not only spread God's word throughout Scotland, but in so doing, part of his journey took him up Loch Ness, where he jousted with the Loch Ness monster! Invoking the name of God and forming the saving sign of the cross in the air, Columba commanded the ferocious monster to retreat from the river to the Loch. Even the Druids were struck by this act of faith and power. The Dove of the Church was moving forward! The wings of the Wild Goose were beating. The Holy Spirit was loose on a tiny island in the Hebrides!

Following Columba, Benedictine monks and nuns would settle on the island, the Book of Kells would be written and moved from here, they would bury Scottish kings and queens here, and there emerged a Gaelic prophecy that proclaimed Christ's Second Coming would take place on Iona. To this island my family came weary from life's journey in search of rest and renewal. On Iona, Sarah and Daniel were shepherds of real sheep, and we all learned new steps in our dance of faith, experienced laughter, love, fellowship, art, and worship with a community of believers from all across the world. With Iona's parallel akin to Nome, Alaska, the sun never really set and the light of God shined brightly into our lives. On Iona, where the dove of the church landed to introduce the way of the cross more than 1440 years before, our sabbatical journey was touched by the wings of the wild goose! On Iona, we learned to fly again.

In Scotland, England, Ireland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and throughout the United States, we continued to experience the Spirit of the wild goose loose in our lives. Through the beauty of art, the majesty of nature, the powerful faith of people, the grace and mystery of God's angels of mercy and love, we witnessed God's handiwork. Today is not the time or place to share stories from every stop on my sabbatical journey (as I promised jokingly in one postcard this summer, I will need a 57-part sermon series . . . someday). As I make the transition from my wild goose chase which has traversed more than 25,000 miles, through ten countries and twenty states in the last three months, I want to share three stories. All three are love stories that show how the lone wild goose moves in this world of ours.

The first wild goose story is one of a man who lived his life each day, fearless of the end. His name was Apollinare, the patron Saint of Ravenna, Italy. We have few facts about Apollinare, but have many truths. Believed to be present in the mass conversion on Pentecost, Apollinare had traveled to Italy from Antioch with Peter, the Apostle. Instructed in the Gospel by Peter, he was consecrated by him as a bishop. He was sent to Ravenna during the reign of Emperor Claudius, arriving sometime in the year 45-46 AD to establish the church in this important Roman Empire naval seaport on the Adriatic Sea. For 12 years Apollinare established the church amid pagan hostilities. Forced to leave the region because of constant persecution, he spread the gospel to the people of Emilia, then returned to Ravenna to make more conversions. He performed miracles, was constantly pressured, harassed and jailed. He was driven from the city three times. Each time he returned. Finally, he was sent into exile in Corinth and Thrace. After three years in exile, he returned to his church, renewed his commitments and work. For eleven more years, Apollinare built up the body of Christ in Ravenna. Finally, in 74 AD, on the 23rd of July, his opponents mortally wounded him and he died that very day. They buried him within the community. Preaching in the 5th Century about the founder of Ravenna's church, then Bishop Crisologo declared:

"To die only once is very little for those who can gloriously conquer the enemy more often for their king. Loyalty and devotion, more than death, make the martyr. Just as falling on the battlefield for love of the king is proof of valor, so too is sustaining the battle at length and bringing it to a close proof of perfect virtue . . . (Apollinare) sustained and nourished the church through its fragile infancy and, as he wished, the martyr was kept alive . . . He lives, and just as the good shepherd stays with his flock, the spirit of he who came before us in body and in time will never leave us. He preceded us in life, but his bodily presence remains with us." (found in The Story of Saint Apollinare, patron saint of Ravenna, by Stefania Salti and Renata Venturini, translated by Steven Cooper, Edizioni Stear, 2000, p. 9).

Apollinare found his stream of living water and lived fearless of the end for almost thirty years. He lived in the same place and lived a fearless life. He never ran from enemies. Through his witness he teaches all of us to stand strong in the storms of life. We must face our fears with faith in God who is greater, stronger, mightier, and more loving than all those who seek to undo us! We must live unafraid of the end, trusting God will deliver us. We must trust the wild goose moving in our lives!

The second story walked into my life last Saturday evening as the sun was setting on a hot Alabama day. Many of you may not know that from September 6-15, I traveled more than 2800 miles to see the places and people who shaped the Civil Rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. I met with African-American Christians in Atlanta, GA., Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, AL.; and Memphis and Nashville, TN. Beyond seeing civil rights and historic sites in each of those places, I visited Washington DC, Alexandria, Richmond, Appomattox Court House, Danville VA, Greensboro, NC, and Money, Greenwood, and Rulesville, MS. They have filled my heart with amazing stories from this spiritual journey.

The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is a bonafide Christian and American hero. One week after the Supreme Court issued Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954, Rev. Shuttlesworth courageously entered an all-white school in Birmingham to register his children for classes. As he left the building, having been refused admission, his entire family was attacked and beaten, and his wife was stabbed by members of the White Citizens Council - the unhooded version of the KKK. Through the years, his church was bombed three times, his home was bombed several times, he was jailed over thirty times, beaten, and blown against walls by fire hoses unleashed by police.

Last Saturday evening, I was coming out of the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham having just spent an amazing 1½ hours with Bishop Calvin Woods. We were standing with our arms around each other looking at a huge statue of Shuttlesworth. For thirty-eight years Fred has led a congregation in Cincinnati, although as current head of the SCLC, he is often in Atlanta and Birmingham. I asked Calvin, "Is Dr. Shuttlesworth really that tall?" He answered, "Why don't you just ask him himself?" Around the corner, walking all alone came Dr. Shuttlesworth. For months I had tried to set up a meeting with this great man and had finally scheduled a time in October. I was astounded to have him standing right in front of me. The lone wild goose was flapping her wings once again!

For the next ninety minutes it was just the two of us. We walked, talked, ate and laughed together. I treated him to dinner at Lavas' Restaurant where we had some fine home cooked soul food. He introduced me to Oxtails (something he thoroughly enjoyed doing!). After dinner we walked some more.

As walked through Kelly-Ingram Park where in 1963, thousands of men, women and children were arrested - having been blown away by powerful fire hoses, attacked by dogs, and beaten by police, I reflected on the treacherous American history that unfolded on this ground. We looked over at the Sixteenth St. Baptist Church where four girls, ranging in age from 11 to 14, were blown-up on a Sunday morning while in a woman's bathroom preparing themselves for church in their beautiful white dresses on Rally Day, September 15, 1963. Kelly-Ingram is not a big park. It is almost hard to believe so many battles in the civil rights movement happened on this hallowed ground.

I asked Dr. Shuttlesworth if his mind ever slipped back 40 or 50 years to the experiences of abuse and injustice he and so many had encountered here. He answered, "I don't look back. It would be too painful and I might get stuck there. No, my eyes are always focused forward. Truthfully, I could have died 200 different times on at least 100 different days in Birmingham. My blood is in this ground. But, my body keeps moving forward." Then he looked me straight in the eyes with his clear and penetrating focus and said, "Tim, God created the world and all that is herein. So we don't have to spend a lot of time talking about all that God has done and is doing. We have to do what he created us to do. He created us to work for justice, to fight for human and civil rights, and work for righteousness in this world." Fred Shuttlesworth reminded me of the prophet Micah calling across the ages: "Do justice. Love tenderly. Walk humbly with your God!" A love story of justice. A humble man walking with God, carried by the wings of the wild goose.

Throughout the summer, my family visited churches and museums throughout Europe. In Rome, alone, I saw twenty-three churches (at least half of them without my progeny). Why I even revisited the Jefferson Memorial, the National Archives and the National Gallery of Art to see how our own church's architect John Russell Pope did on some of his smaller projects. My encounters with the Holy in these places, I will share in times to come. It was just outside Selma, Alabama, in a garden overgrown by weeds and underbrush that I fell in love with the beauty and simplicity of poor people's art. On March 8, 1965, thousands of people were driven and beaten by baton welding state troopers as they marched across the Edmund Petus Bridge. In what is now known as "Bloody Sunday," hundreds of men, women, and children sustained severe injuries from these beatings. Having driven from Montgomery of historic Rt. 80, I pulled my Ford Taurus off Rt. 80 just at the eastern edge of the Edmund Petus Bridge. I got out of my car and approached a large pile of rocks, surrounded by homemade art, handmade memorials, and wall murals on the beauty shop behind me. One rock had these words from Joshua 4 carved into it: "When your children shall ask you in time to come, what means these 12 stones, then you shall tell them how you made it over." For Joshua, the rocks had been a shrine constructed from the 12 tribes who entered the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. For the African-Americans who chiseled these words, it was a proclamation that over 340 years of suffering crossed over the Alabama River in this place in late March, 1965. Below the bridge is now a park. In the park, on almost every tree, there are simple wooden markers carved with the names of those murdered in the civil rights movement. A hemp rope, similar to ones used to drag slaves barefoot across dirt paths and to lynch innocent African-American men and women across centuries of wrong connects the trees. The only sound you here come from crickets, and the vehicles crossing the Edmund Petus Bridge which looms above. If you listen really hard, you will hear the beating of wings from the wild goose.

I hear the wings of the wild goose beating steadily across the epochs of our Christian history. I hear the call of the Lone Wild Goose, even Jesus Christ our Lord crying to us to be his faithful witnesses right now and in the time ahead. Listen and you will hear him, too. As faithful witnesses, I pray that someday twelve stones in this place will bear these words for the generations, "When your children shall ask you in time to come, what means these 12 stones, then you shall tell them how you made it over."

From poet, Patrick Kavanagh and with a deep and abiding hope that God will call us to amazing and faithful witness in the days ahead, I leave you with these words:

Then I saw the wild geese flying

In fair formation to their bases in Inchicore

And I knew that these wings would outwear

The wings of war

And a man's simple thoughts outlive the day's loud lying

Don't fear, don't fear, I said to my soul.

The Bedlam of time is an empty bucket rattled,

`Tis you who will say in the end who best battles.

Only they who fly home to God have flown at all.

(From Chasing the Wild Goose, by Ronald Ferguson, Wild Goose Publications, Glasgow, Scotland, 1988, p. 170).

So be it.

Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church