Cairn: A Pentecost Sermon: Sunday, June 4th, 2017

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’” —Jeremiah 6:16.

Cairns are stone structures that are intentionally built.  The word “cairn” comes from Middle Gaelic, and means a “mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark.”  While Scotland is known for its cairns, cairns have existed throughout time in multiple cultures including in our bible.  When the Israelites cease their wandering and cross the miraculously dry Jordan into the Promised Land, God, thru Joshua, commands each of the twelve tribes to take a stone from the middle of the river and to lay them down in the place where they would lodge as a sign and memory device.  Joshua tells the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your descendants know, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’  (Joshua 4:19-24)

There are thousands of cairns on the Swedish island of Gotland, which is where I first encountered them, years ago, in an unforgettable and beautiful way.  There were rings of stone burials, along with stones specifically erected in the form of a long ship, which dated back to the Bronze Age and dotted the landscape along with countless sheep and a rugged coastline.  Some of these stone burials—the ones shaped like a ship or boat—had been excavated and it has been surmised that they were to provide safe passage to the next life or underworld.

But hikers know cairns to be less burial place, and more a marker to keep one from getting lost on the trail especially in bad weather.  In fog and snow, a cairn can point the direction of the trail, when the trail is hidden or uncertain.  Hikers learn to look for cairns—both the true and false kind.  There is a saying in North America that “two rocks don’t make a duck” which may not make much sense until you know that the uppermost stone of a cairn is often called the duck beak or “duckie.”  The duckie is intended to point the way to the next cairn along the trail.  So, “two rocks don’t necessarily make a duck,” because those two rocks together could happen to point that way by accident or by nature, and not intentionally so.

On that first Pentecost, likely there were no physical cairns.  But the disciples were looking for a trail or some kind of path out of the morass in which they found themselves.  They were still a kind of insular group, those disciples.  True, with Jesus, they had witnessed miracles and healed the masses.  But as Jesus’ death approached, they had begun to scatter, and at least one of their small group had betrayed the movement by betraying Jesus.  Their known world had been obliterated, which is to say that their world had been turned upside down and the crucifixion was still fresh in their minds, regardless of reassurances of resurrection.  Jesus had ascended to be with God, which is to say that he was no longer physically there as guide. A spiritual fog surrounded them—and we can relate as we have been lost at different times in our lives, staggering blindly for something or someone to hold onto.

It is no wonder that Jesus had promised them a comforter, an Advocate, a guide—the Holy Spirit.  The wonder is that they reached down deep inside to trust this Holy Helper to help them find their way in the midst of so much disappointment, oppression, persecution, and anxiety about the future.

The stories of Pentecost are an illustration of what the disciples experienced in the wake of losing their way temporarily.  The coming of the Holy Spirit was the coming of a passion, an enervating encouragement, a holy fire and wind coming to their deflated hopes and their downtrodden hearts.

Are you familiar with the sort of fatigue that can render you incapacitated?   This fatigue seeps into your bones and infects your plans because you don’t feel like making any plans or any promises because you are too busy anticipating when the next shoe will drop.  It’s a fatigue that is more than just a need for sleep; it is different from chronic fatigue, a medical condition.  This is a fatigue of soul, a belief that nothing one does will matter in the scheme of things, that all action is ineffectual if not done on a grand scale, and that living a good and noble life is more burden than joy, more obligation than wonder.  This kind of fatigue creeps up on you sometimes unawares; it is a case of the spiritual blahs and an unenthusiastic meh.  It’s the kind of thing that I imagine Peter felt when he decided after the crucifixion, enough of this, “I’m going (back) to fishing.” I can imagine Peter saying, “I just don’t have it in me anymore for this.

What is your this?  This happens and spiritual fatigue sets in.  This happens and you think that you haven’t any more stamina for the rest of the race.  This knocks you down and you decide to curl yourself in a ball and eat or drink or spend yourself to oblivion.

But then The Holy Spirit alighted on each of them, with each of their particular “this,” and I like to think that it united their hopes and gave them shared strength in the aftermath of a painful past.  Pentecost may have been a lot of things, but it wasn’t purely individual.  It was communal.  Not only did it bring them together, it helped them to connect with others beyond their own pain.  It was more than two rocks haphazardly falling down just so on some side path or gully.  The coming of the Holy Spirit pointed them, like a cairn, towards next steps, and helped them to become Jesus’ body in the world.

The Inuit peoples have a special kind of cairn called Inuksuit.  Inuksuit are survival tools.  These intentionally stacked boulder were, and are, communication devices, often marking a good food cache or coordination points.  The word Inuksuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.”  Some inuksuit have a kind of window which opens towards an especially safe passageway through frozen terrain, or a particular sight-line, and they often mark where ancestors have been previously. They serve as navigational devices and, as such, are very similar to the original meaning of cairns.[1]

When we think of the church we might not think immediately of cairns.  But as the scripture of 1 Peter reminds us, we are called to be living stones—living stones which point the way to God, a true path among a plethora of false options, and living stones which have Christ as their cornerstone.  While it is true that we may individually help to give witness to God’s aims and desires for humankind, collectively, we are like an inuksuk which “acts in the capacity of a human” and navigationally helps our troubled society to find its way.

Interestingly, when I did research on cairns, I discovered that a curious and troubling thing is happening around National Parks and public trails, particularly those that are frequented often by the public.  Rock stacking is popular and also problematic.  It seems that people are making “rock selfies.”  By making many, many additional cairns in the wilderness, often away from designated trails and navigational cairns, people are leading unsuspecting hikers into becoming lost.  People have a desire to leave some token of their presence behind, yet these spontaneous “rock sculptures” are not just cluttering up the wilderness, they are causing real harm if put in a random place.  As one writer argued, “…Building cairns where none are needed for route finding is antithetical to Leave-No-Trace ethics.”[2]

One of the benefits of communal cairn-making in the church is that we work together to set aside ego (no rock selfies!) and pool our resources and efforts.  There is a collective energy that arises when people are united around a common purpose. We seek to see God’s kin-dom come here on earth—together—and in the various situations with which we are confronted.

Remember in Luke when some Pharisees tried to silence the enthusiasm of the disciples as Jesus entered Jerusalem? The whole multitude was united in shouting “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”  Those in power wanted to quiet the rabbi’s followers.  Do you remember what Jesus said?  He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37-40)

What are you crying out these days?  Who is trying to keep you quiet?  You may be one stone, but gathered here with your fellow disciples you are a great cairn that communicates to travelers a clearer path in the fog, a safe passageway in a frozen land, places of spiritual sustenance and nurture, and a window to God’s landscape.

At Acadia National Park, park crews build traditional conical cairns on the same principles as a stone wall— each rock should overlap others, have three points of contact, and slope inward. The base and height of the cairns should be about equal. Those who maintain the trail remark that it takes a long time to build a stable, proper cairn, and lots of material must be available to choose from. All material is to be selected from loose rock on the ground. No rocks are removed from mountain soil which would help to increase erosion.

In building our church cairn, where do you “overlap” with others in the church?

Do you have 3 points of contact with others?  That is, do you have different ways of connecting with the Church beyond Sunday morning?

Are you able to look inward, even as you reach outward to others?

Brothers and sisters, here is a story for you.  It exists in different versions, and the author is unknown, but let it speak to the rocky places in your life and heart:

When things in your lives seem almost too much to handle, when 24 hours in a day are not enough, remember the mayonnaise jar and the two cups of coffee.

A professor stood before his class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with large rocks. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the larger rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “yes.”

The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar, effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed.

“Now,” said the professor as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. Those large rocks are the important things — your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions — and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else — the small stuff.

“If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the large rocks. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented.

The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.”[3]

Friends, it is no small matter that you are here today celebrating the birthday of the church. It is no small matter that you choose to cry out with others. It is no small matter that you are a part of the church’s cairn and witness.  Just be sure to take time for a couple of cups of coffee (or tea) with a friend.

Thank you for making Church a priority.

May the Holy Spirit dwell within you.





[2] Robyn Martin,

[3] Unknown author.  Various versions of this story circulate on the net.

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