Way up at the north of the land we now call Scotland,
there are islands that lie in the North Sea.
At one time they belonged to the King of Norway, a Viking King.
He split the rule of these islands, called the Orkneys,
between two cousins,
Earl Hakon, a mighty warrior,
and Earl Magnus, also mighty in battle but gifted in peacemaking.
Together they ruled peacefully for seven years
until evil men gained the ear of Hakon and turned him against Magnus.
There were great arguments until other men, good men,
persuaded the two earls to work out their difference diplomatically.
It was agreed that they would meet on a small island
during Holy Week to make their peace.
They were each to be accompanied
by just enough men to fill two small boats.
Magnus and his companions arrived first.
He went into the small church on the island to pray.
When he returned he to the beach to wait for Hakon
he saw that there were not two boats approaching but an entire fleet.
He had been tricked.
He knew his men were out-numbered.
Again he knelt in prayer.
He sent his men back to the small church and waited alone for Hakon
in the sparse and rocky field in front of the church.
When Hakon arrived he saw Magnus waiting for him
with his arms outstretched in peaceful welcome.
“Come, cousin,” said Magnus.
“Let us sit together and talk out our differences.
Do not break our oath of peace.
I will give you three choices
to protect you from doing wrong and breaking your oath.
First, if you will keep the peace
I will go to Jerusalem and pray for us both there.
I will never return to the Orkney Islands.”
Hakon did not agree.
“What if you change your mind?” he grumbled.
Magnus said, “Then I will turn myself over to the King of Scotland
who is your friend and he can keep me imprisoned for life.”
Hakon replied, “He might change his mind and set you free!”
Magnus sighed and said, “Then I give you a final choice.
You can blind me and keep me imprisoned in your own dungeon.”
“And make you a hero in the eyes of the people?” roared Hakon.
And with that he beheaded his cousin Magnus on that very spot.
Magnus’ men sorrowfully buried their leader in that sparse, rocky field
which was full of moss and not good for any kind of farming.
It was the kind of field that fostered very little life.
However, that spring the field grew lush and green with grass.
People came there to pray and sheep came there to graze.
It was said that the field turned green with grassy new life
because not only was it the spot where Magnus,
remembered now as St. Magnus the Peacemaker,
died and was buried,
it was also the place where his soul was lifted up
to be with the Holy One in Paradise.
And so God returned the favor
and granted the Orkney Islands a bit of Paradise.
Magnus died with God and rose with God.
And the field is the witness.
[Orkney Travel Tales, Robert Bela Wilhelm, Ibooks.]
We entered Holy Week this past Sunday with all its pageantry and music and story. Church tradition is ripe with ritual to celebrate the passion story of Jesus through this central week of our faith. I hope you will join us for our Plymouth traditions. (See the box below for a reminder of all our events for this week!)
We have many events for participation. Yet I think that each year we have a choice at Holy Week. We can through the liturgical motions vaguely remembering the stories. Or we have the choice to participate letting the tangible and intangible power of resurrection sink deeper into our bones as we go through the week.
As in the story above, Hakon came to participate in reconciliation and peacemaking, yet he had not chosen those things in his heart as Magnus had. So he was not willingly to let the power of making peace take root deep down. Will you choose God’s power of resurrection this year despite the evidence in our world that conspires against it? External political and social circumstances in our world may rarely give us direct and factual cause to hope for resurrection. Will we choose fear or will we choose compassion and life? The usual stresses of daily life, family concerns and friends who are in need are never ending. Will we choose peace or further engagement in the surface turmoil?
The traditional lectionary scripture texts for Easter Sunday urge us toward hope in the midst of tragedy and despair. In the face of our “realities” we can choose to trust and affirm that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17). Choose to trust and affirm that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). We can choose with Paul to affirm the testimony of good news handed to him by the first disciples, testimony that he has handed on to us in I Corinthians 15. Christ died, was buried and was raised on the third day, appearing first to his closest disciples, then five hundred other followers and lastly to Paul on the road to Damascus.
Ironically the Gospel of Luke tells us that the first twelve disciples did not believe when the women who experienced the empty tomb returned and proclaimed the good news. The men thought it was “idle tales,” make-believe. Crazy emotional women! But then Peter, who just thirty-six hours before Easter morning, denied that he even knew Jesus, decided in his inimitable style to choose ACTION in response to the news. In spite of his disbelief and despair he chooses to run to the tomb to see for himself. Will we respond like those first disciples and not take the news of resurrection to heart? Or will we allow the power of God to cultivate our lives and like the sparse, rocky, lifeless soil of the Orkneys become rich, fertile soil full of prayers and promise for Paradise?
This year I challenge us all to take Peter’s choice to heart, to act on the news of resurrection. To go and see for ourselves. To let the deep roots of God’s salvation sink deep within our souls. May we choose to trust the biggest story of our faith. It is not a choice to take lightly. And it is not the safest choice. But it is the resurrection choice. And just as that ancient man, Magnus, following the example of Jesus, chose life in the face of betrayal, God will also work through us and our choice.
May your Holy Week be blessed as you walk the road into Jerusalem, find the upper room and then the garden, follow to the cross and finally to the joy of the empty tomb. We walk together with God’s presence step by step!
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.