This being Saint Patrick’s Day, most people, Irish or not, will wear something green, maybe drink a few green beverages, wear shamrock pins and perhaps even wear something that says, curiously, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” Parades will march, pipes will play, Chicago will dye its river green, people will over indulge, all in an obtuse way to honor the Irish and Saint Patrick. All of this, however, tends to miss the real impact of Saint Patrick. Millions of people will celebrate his day today but most have no clue as to why.
Since this special day falls on a Sunday, there is a great opportunity to tell the “rest of the story” in a way that will both inspire and motivate us, the church, toward its mission.
It begins in the late fourth/early fifth century. The then-known world was ostensibly Christian, and had been since Constantine. Near the edge of the Roman Empire, somewhere in northeastern England, there lived a 16 year old Roman Briton named Patricius—later known as Patrick. He was born into an aristocratic Christian family and although his grandfather was a priest, Patrick’s family only marginally practiced their faith.
Around this time a band of Celtic pirates sailed from Ireland and conducted raids in northeastern England. The Irish were famous for plying the slave trade, and in these raids, they captured and carted off foreigners to serve the chieftains and warlords of that pagan island. Patrick was captured during one of these raids and taken far from home against his will.
Once in Ireland, Patrick was sold to a tribal chieftain who promptly put Patrick to work herding cattle in the hills. It was lonely and dangerous work. He was given little food or clothing and was constantly exposed to the windswept elements. There, alone with his thoughts, Patrick began to pray to the God he had previously ignored.
He writes in his Confession: “After I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock, and I’d pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number… I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me.”
Patrick began to identify this presence with the Triune God he had learned about as a child. Without any outside help, Patrick was becoming a devout Christian and his captors began to notice a change in him.
At the same time, he somehow began to identify with the very people who had enslaved him. He learned their language and culture, understood their view of the world and their religion. And in time, he even came to love them as people who might one day turn to the Triune God. In a very real sense, Patrick, who had grown up with the privileges of a Roman insider, came to identify with the outcasts. He began to see them as human and not the barbarians most Romans considered people outside the empire to be.
Still, Patrick was a slave and sought his freedom. After six years in captivity, he received a vision one night in a dream where a voice said to him, “You are going home. Look! Your ship is ready.” He awakened the next morning, walked 200 miles to the seacoast and negotiated his way on board a ship bound for Gaul, which is present-day France. He eventually made it back home to England.
Shortly after he had rejoined his family Patrick had another vision. In this dream a man named Victoricus, whom Patrick may have known while in Ireland, came to him with letters from his former captors in Ireland.
As he read the letters, Patrick says: “I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish,’ and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’”
When Patrick awoke, he interpreted this dream as a “Macedonian call” much like the Apostle Paul had experienced in our text for today. Patrick believed he was being called to go back and “walk among” the very people who had enslaved him, but now he would be the captor, capturing these people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
After studying for the priesthood, Patrick got permission to go back to Ireland despite the protests of his family and church superiors. He put together a team that would go with him, a team that included women. Patrick and other Celtic Christian leaders had a high view of women, which contrasted the Roman view of women.
Now the task in front of Patrick and his team was a difficult one. After all, it had been more than 200 years since there’d been a successful organized Christian mission outside the Roman Empire. Places like Ireland were isolated from the Roman Empire, and church officials knew little about the people other than they weren’t Roman. Therefore the church assumed the “barbarians” were impossible to reach for they were neither literate nor intelligent enough to understand Christianity, let alone have the capacity to become civilized. But while the Roman church knew little about the Irish, Patrick did know them and knew them well. He had survived in that violent and superstitious culture, knew the common language and had in his soul a burning desire to bring these people a new hope and a brighter future.
Typically, the Roman church wanted new converts to be “Romanized” culturally and “Christianized” religiously. Once a civilized population became Christian, they were expected to read and speak Latin, adopt Roman customs and do church “the Roman way.”
Patrick adopted a radically different approach, however. Rather than set up a church as the center of a parish and get people to come, Patrick and his team engaged in a relational strategy. They went to the people.
Arriving at a tribal settlement, Patrick would go to the chieftain hoping for a conversion or at least for permission to camp nearby. The team would then meet with the people, engage them in conversation. They would pray for the sick, counsel those who needed it and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. In this way, he made the mundane sacred. He found God and revealed God in the plainest of circumstances.
He and his team engaged in open-air speaking, using stories and parables that engaged the Celtic imagination and connection to nature. Legend has it that when Patrick wanted to preach about the Trinity he would pluck a shamrock— a three-leaf clover— and use it to describe how God is one and three at the same time.
Patrick encouraged the people to ask questions and express their hopes and fears. After a while, a community of faith emerged, and Patrick and his team would move on, leaving behind a priest to nurture the fledgling community. Around 700 churches and monastic communities were planted by Patrick in this way.
Legend has it that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Well, the truth is there never were, nor are there today, snakes in Ireland. But that legend may be symbolic of the fact that Patrick did, in fact, drive out much of the evil and violence that had existed for so many centuries on that beautiful island because the effect of Patrick’s ministry on Ireland was nearly a complete transformation.
By the end of Patrick’s life, or shortly thereafter, the slave trade had disappeared in Ireland. The previously illiterate Irish soon became the people who, according to Thomas Cahill, “saved civilization” by copying by hand many of the classic works of Europe that may have been lost forever in Europe’s Dark Ages. Irish missionaries began to move out to places like Scotland, walking among the people to share the Good News of Christ, using many of Patrick’s methods.
Patrick had first come to Ireland a slave, but it was there he would voluntarily spend the rest of his life capturing people with the love of God.
On this Saint Patrick’s Day, we celebrate someone who was willing to use a tragic and unfair circumstance in his life as a springboard to make a difference among the very people who had enslaved him.
Rather than run away from conflict or opposition, Patrick moved toward it.
Rather than buy into fear and say, “Well, they’re a lost cause,” he instead grew to love the outsiders and gave his life over to them.
His tenacity, dedication to gracious hospitality, and devotion to Christ serve as a model for all of us who call ourselves Christians. St. Patrick, like St. Paul, showed us what can happen when we put on Jesus, walk among the people, and share the Good News. People begin to find a new hope and a brighter future.
So go ahead and wear your green, eat your corned beef and cabbage, drink a green beverage if you feel so inclined. But if we are really going to honor Saint Patrick, the best way would be for us to:
*Offer some holy conversation to a person who needs it.
*Engage someone at work who may be difficult for you.
*Offer some help to a neighbor without being asked.
*Write a note to someone who could use some encouragement.
*Or maybe make an effort to connect with someone you don’t know.
Because here’s the thing… the second we walk out the church doors we are a missionary, like St. Patrick, who is called to “walk among” the people of our community, offering them hospitality, friendship and the Good News of Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of missionary work that can transform a community and even the world.
Do that and we can say with conviction there is a wee bit of the Irish Saint in all of us! Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, March 17, 2019, Lent 2
Gracious and loving God, we have sought your presence here, listening for your Word—your Word that gives life; your Word that heals the wounded heart; your Word that speaks truth.
But we admit we are grieving over what is still being lost, filled with fears about what the future might hold, and wonder how it will all work out when the way forward is hard to see.
And that way forward is hard to see especially after what unfolded in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday.
So we pray your word sinks deep within our souls, and we are taught to live and work and be in your way— a well-lighted path you will lead us on.
In those times when you are silent, grant us the courage to wait, trusting in your grace that brings your resurrection power to our dead ends.
In those times when we struggle, and fall, pick us up with your grace and mercy, whisper again your word of love and encouragement, then put us back on the path you have set before us.
And in those times when we are left in disbelief at how cruel the world can be, enfold us in your arms and remind us you are not done, you have not given up, and neither should we.
We pray for this because we know you are still calling us to do what Jesus did—share a word of hope and Good News to all the people of the world.
By the power of your Holy Spirit, refine us, purify our discipleship, and pull us into putting on Jesus and sharing his way with all.
And may his spirit be felt by all those who are impacted by the hate and vitriol cast upon innocent lives in Christchurch. We cannot understand why such happens, but we do know that when we partner with you, hate cannot overcome, and love can and will win out.
Hear now we ask, the prayers we have to share in this time of Holy Silence.
We pray all these things in the name of Jesus, the first-born of your new creation our hope, our life…who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”