Saving Civilization

I don’t usually share my sermons in this blog, but in answer to a request, here is a draft planned for this Sunday:

Feel free to ignore.

“How the Irish Saved Civilization[1]

November 8, 2020

Zion UCC Burlington, IA

Repeating part of the reading we used as our Call to Worship: Psalm 78:2-4 New Revised Standard Version

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

What a strange sermon title. Truth is, the title isn’t really mine, it’s ‘borrowed’ (that is to say, stolen) from a book by Thomas Cahill. Since titles aren’t copyrightable, I ‘borrowed’ it, hoping there might be something to ponder.

Here’s the short version of Cahill’s book. Five hundred years of the Roman Empire falls apart in 467AD. There wasn’t one foe, but several who eventually broke it apart. You remember your European History from High School, right?  The Goths, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths, right? And the Angles, the Saxons, the Franks; the Scots and the Vikings, of course who never were under the Empire but as Rome weakened, they expanded. From about 500 to 1500 AD, Europe was in turmoil; disrupted, vandalized (oh, I forgot the mention the Vandals in that list).

Civilization in Europe declined during this tumultuous time. The Greeks and then the Romans had Engineering knowledge like running water and flushing toilets, used all over the Roman Empire. That knowledge was lost during those dark ages. There was a loss of scientific knowledge, a contempt for books and learning. Libraries were destroyed. We have scraps of some books that were almost entirely lost; some books we have reference to in other books. That is the only way we even know they existed is because some writer mentions them. Those books themselves are completely lost; destroyed by an angry antagonism against education and knowledge.

According to Mr. Cahill, much of civilization preserved was thanks to Monasteries in Ireland. Ireland was at the edge of the continent, away from the big cities and natural resources that made other places targets for invasion. They didn’t entirely escape the ransacking, but they were more isolated than other areas.

Those quiet monks, keeping to themselves, kept a low profile but continued on with their mission of supporting the church and spreading Christianity, even in the face of ridicule and hostility and entrenched ‘old ways’ of religion.

One of the important missions of the monasteries was copying books; both sacred and mundane. What we refer to as The Dark Ages began a thousand years before the invention of the printing press. If you wanted a copy of a book, someone had to write that copy, by hand. And that is the business many of the monasteries engaged in to support themselves. They copied the Bible more than anything else, but they copied lots of other books, as well. The Brother Xerox Copying service would copy whatever the paying customer wanted copied. In addition to The Church, wealthy people, kings and princes also wanted books copied.

Some king finds a book he wants copied; he borrows the book, takes it to the monastery and they make a copy for him. If it was deemed worthy, they might also make a copy for their own libraries at the same time.  They opened their monasteries to noble and commoner alike who sought to learn. If you come in peace, come with an open heart and mind, then you are welcome to sit and read and learn. And so the Irish monasteries preserved not only the tradition of books and writing, but also the tradition of reading and education.

Chaos and anarchy roared across Europe; once-stable institutions attacked, torn down, cities and libraries reduced to empty rubble; civilization collapsing.

In the middle of that collapse, the monks in Ireland quietly go on preserving, copying, keeping safe a legacy for the time when it might once again be safe to re-emerge and civilization to re-appear. The Irish monasteries had their share of invasions and looting. And I just wonder what that encounter would have been like. The Goths are at the gates of the monastery, looking for whatever is valuable enough to build this strong keep far away from the city, to staff it with men. They must have thought whatever is here must be priceless. Can you imagine how disappointed and befuddled the invaders must have been when they finally broke into the most secure of the vaults of the monasteries, prepared to loot the treasury and they find….. books.

They came looking for gold and silver; precious holy artifacts that could be melted down into treasure. But instead, books. What value are books to a looter who can’t read? How foolish they must have thought those monks to be, guarding these useless books as if they were valuable. Did they ridicule the monks for protecting these useless stacks of paper? Did they convince themselves of their own superiority as they killed the scribes and burned their libraries? Did they chase the librarian as he ran out the back way, through the snow, carrying as many of the precious volumes as he could? Did those invaders have any clue as to how precious the books the monks were trying to preserve?

In a season of chaos and a celebration of ignorance, the Irish monks kept on with their task; preserving for a future they could not yet see, but setting the world to be ready when the season for learning would once again come.

Now that we have had our first killing frost, gardening season has shifted from growth time and harvest into the resting time of winter. Some of us have been plucking flower heads, digging through tomato mush and pumpkin pulp, washing and drying the seeds, carefully storing those tiny seeds as investments in next spring. Here in Iowa it would be foolish to plant most of those seeds now. It is too cold; most of them won’t survive the winter. Instead, like Monks in Ireland, we store, preserve, ready to grow copies of our favorite plants next spring. Growth is not now; growth is for later, but there is work to do now in order to be ready for later.

Even when it doesn’t feel as if you are winning, you keep on doing those things which you know will help your faith to grow. You keep on doing those things which show your love for God and your love for your neighbor. Even when it doesn’t bring visible signs of success, or even acceptance, you keep on following Christ. Even when they ridicule you, arrest and beat you, or worst, ignore you; you keep living in that way that loves God with all you have and loves your neighbor as if they were kin.

I wish that we were in that summer season, where every word planted by the Church sprouts and brings about a bumper harvest; where the church was full again, with all the problems success and growth bring. I don’t think that is where we will wake up in the morning. The Church, written larger, as well as Zion Church, are in a time where success by numbers is hard to find.

The other part of this truth is that we are not Church only for our moment in time. We are one chapter of Church that extends for two thousand years. Part of our mission is collect, preserve, and transmit the faith to generations not yet born.

An important part of our work is making sure the Christian story is available to future generations. Warren Buffet says, “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

You and I are the beneficiaries of those Irish monks from fifteen hundred years ago, and of the Reverend John Zimmerman, first pastor of Zion German Evangelical Church here; and David Michael, and Gary Chapman, and Jane Willan, and other pastors who worked here, teaching, transmitting, preserving so that you are now receiving this worship time. These few I have listed represent all of the workers, clergy and lay members who kept the faith so that you may benefit from it today.

Some missions take generations to accomplish. Great cathedrals take several generations, decades, sometimes a century or more to finish. Reinhold Niebuhr said “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in one lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” Part of our mission is for the future; even when the present seems unwelcoming, even hostile.

That does not mean we abandon our missions. We are doing important work here at Zion. We are feeding hungry neighbors, helping with utility bills and rent and bus tickets. And we are feeding hungry spirits, even when we are not physically gathered in this place. In fact, in a very odd, maybe I should say very God-thing, being forced to move worship online has brought some unexpected benefits. Being online, we are being watched by lots of people who were not here in person before. Every week, the worship service is viewed by two to three hundred people. We know from the comments that many of you who are watching live far away. And we know that we are reaching hearts with Zion’s message about following Christ in our lives. We know that we are creating a virtual space where faith can be fostered and grow stronger. We are in a quiet moment, but we continue our mission just the same.

I want to thank all of you who are continuing to support our work together as Zion Church. Many of you have given us estimates of how you expect to support our work together next year. That is very helpful as we plan a challenging budget. If you have already sent us an estimate of giving; thank you! If that is something you think you will probably do but haven’t gotten around to yet, would you please go ahead and send us that information?  If you have never done that before, but you have been thinking you should support our work together as Zion, then I ask you to give us your best estimate of what that support might look like in 2021. We aren’t asking for some iron-clad contract, we know that circumstances change and what you had hoped to do changes, but it is helpful to have those estimates as we plan.

Even in this season when it can feel as if the tide of things is moving against the values of Christ, and preaching God’s love, compassion, and justice can feel like shouting into the hurricane storm, we keep on doing our work. Like those quiet Irish monks, we keep on doing our part, even when it doesn’t seem like the accepted, popular thing to do. Even when our way of following Christ is met with apathy or even ridicule, we keep on doing the right things.

Winter may be coming, but even now we preserve and protect, keep on with the work of enriching the garden so that when spring comes (and spring always does come, eventually), we will be here, ready—soil prepared, seeds on the shelf, ready to plant when the ground is once again ready to receive it and nourish tender seeds into bounteous harvest once again.

Hear again those words from the Psalmist:

I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,

things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.

We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.

Will you pray with me?

Eternal God, your children are of such a temporal nature, we need reminding that your timetables are not ours; that your view of eternity stretches far beyond our narrow vision. Guard our tongues that our wounded feelings not allow to escape hurtful words that will linger longer than any vote. Grant us the wisdom to imagine longer missions than our own lifespans; Make us bold to keep on telling to the coming generations the stories of your glorious deeds; to boldly proclaim your love for all, even in seasons of division and anger and hostility. When we feel ourselves lost in the wilderness, surrounded by ridicule and resentment, keep us to our missions, let us not lose hope. Grant us patience to keep on proclaiming the light of your divine love even in the darkness, that we might know the peace that comes from living as children of yours. For the sake of Your Son Jesus, hear our prayer. AMEN


[1][1] “How the Irish Saved Civilization” © 1995 by Thomas Cahill. Originally pub. By Doubleday. 941.501

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