Lessons from Patrick

St-Patrick - 2019

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick. Normally Sundays would trump a saint’s day except when it is the day of the Patron Saint of the Parish. In that case the Prayer Book allows us to use the collects and lessons of our saint’s day. So here at St. Patrick’s we are going to step away from Lent just a little and celebrate Patrick’s feast.

St. Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”This gives us a precedent to look at the lives of the saints of God and see what we can learn from them to make us more effective followers of Christ. As you can imagine we have much to learn from St. Patrick.

But let me begin by giving you some historical context. The Celts had been in Ireland about 1,000 years before Patrick came on the scene in the 5thcentury. They were a pagan people but they were far more aware of the supernatural realm than secular Westerners are today. They had a high view of creation, believing it to be soaked in the supernatural, and they saw thin spaces everywhere where this world and the other world are in contact.

Additionally, as a people who were dependent upon nature, they had a high regard for the sun as a source of life and for water, particularly as found in rivers and wells. Trees also held a special place in their worldview since the tree roots go to the underworld while their branches reached to the heavens. In trees you could see the cycle of life of growth in the summer, death in the winter and then rebirth each spring.

In Patrick’s days there were no towns in Ireland. People gathered in tribes and were ruled by kings who acted as family heads and lawgivers. They were however united by a common tongue. Nevertheless their social constructs were undergoing change because Rome had been sacked in 410 and troops were withdrawn from Ireland in 420. Since the Irish could no longer look to the Roman Empire for help, their kingdoms began to consolidate north and south to become more self sufficient.

Enter Patrick. We forget that Patrick was not Irish. He was born in the region of northern England and southern Scotland. His grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon but he was not very religious. At 16 he was taken into slavery by Irish marauders and for 6 years he served as a herdsman in Ireland. Probably between boredom and loneliness he began to pray and it had a profound affect on him. He said, “I prayed a number of times each day. More and more the love and fear of God came to me and my faith grew and my spirit was exercised until I was praying up to one hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.”

One night God spoke to him in a dream and said, “Look your ship is ready.” So 22 year old Patrick made his way to the coast, talked his way onto a ship and returned to his homeland.

There is not a lot of information about these next years. He studied for the priesthood, most likely in Gaul. Surprisingly there is evidence that the Coptics also had an impact on the Celtic Church. But since an envoy from the Pope did not come to evangelize Britain until some 200 years later, it is questionable if Patrick was a Roman priest. The Celtic Church did not submit to Rome until the Synod of Whitby in the 7thcentury.

At around age 46 Patrick had a dream in which an Irishman came to him and said, “Come and walk among us.”So once again Patrick left his homeland and for the next 31 years ministered among the Irish. He knew their language and loved and respected many things about their culture. In fact he became so united with them that he began to refer to himself as Irish, even though technically he was not.

His ministry was beyond fruitful. He baptized thousands, ordained priests and promoted a form of monasticism that itself was so missionary minded that they planted churches in Scotland and England. The foundations that he laid were so secure that two centuries after his death virtually all of Ireland had been converted to Christ. As our culture in the West moves further post Christian there are lessons to be learned from Patrick concerning ministering to an increasingly secular and even hostile world.

First we can see the foundation of prayer in Patrick’s life. It led to his conversion and it was the underpinning of all that he did.  It was prayer that opened Patrick’s heart and mind to not only hear the voice of God but to receive power to obey and return to the people that had enslaved him. It was his connection to God through prayer that gave Patrick an unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God. He believed that God had ordained a plan for his life and Patrick’s intent was to be God’s obedient servant. This belief that we are a part of a Divine plan is evangelistic because it speaks to the yearning of every human heart to believe that our lives matter, that we are significant. The Gospel tells us we are so significant that the Son of God would die for us. That is indeed Good News.

Second, while Patrick believed that He was a part of God’s plan he was brutally aware of his own shortcomings, as is evident in his Confessions. And yet because He believed that God was in control he knew that the Lord could even use his shortcoming to His glory. St. Paul certainly taught this. He said that the Lord spoke to Him and said “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (NLT). The lesson here is that we should not worry that we are not qualified to serve the Lord because nobodyis. Just serve Him anyway and depend on His mercy to fill in the gaps.

Third we can see how St. Patrick was grounded in the Scriptures. He was embarrassed by what he believed to be a lack of education but in his brief Confessions he makes over 500 biblical references. Now remember this is the late 5thcentury so it wasn’t like he had access to a Strong’s Concordance or could do a Google search for a biblical passage. He read and studied the Scriptures so thoroughly that it became a part of how he thought and even, who he was. St. Paul commanded Timothy to study to show himself approved, “a workman who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the world of truth.”Obviously St. Patrick took that command seriously.

Patrick set the example of being a student of God’s Word for those who came after him. What is amazing to me is that in his day the Irish did not yet have a written language. Nevertheless over the next two centuries not only did the Irish establish great libraries but over half of the biblical commentaries in the West were written by the Irish.

Let’s pause with this history lesson. So far there is nothing St. Patrick’s models for us, that with the help of God, is beyond our ability. I’m not suggesting that we learn to pray through the night as Patrick did or that we make it a goal to quote over 500 verses off the top of our heads, although that would be nice. But who among us could not grow deeper in prayer and in our knowledge of Holy Scripture? The truth is that we make time for the things that are really important to us. This season of Lent invites us to adjust our priorities and move in a direction that will build our souls.

Fourth, we should consider St. Patrick’s model in how he ministered to the Irish. He followed in the footsteps of St. Paul and that is why he was so successful.

You will recall that when St. Paul went to Mars Hill he saw all manner of statues to the gods but there was one statue that was to an unknown god. Paul could have gone Old Testament on them and called on fire to burn them up as idolaters.  But rather than condemning them he commended them for being so spiritually oriented and then he in essence said “Let me tell you about this unknown god”and he preached to them Christ and Him crucified.

In a similar manner, rather than Patrick condemning the Irish for their love of nature, He introduced them to the One who created what they loved. When he met two daughters of a King and they asked him to tell them about his God he said, “Our God is the God of all people, the God of heaven and earth, of the sea and the rivers, the God of the sun and the moon and all stars, the God of the high mountains and of the deep valleys…”He goes on for another paragraph connecting God to nature before he tells them about Jesus. In this way he was showing respect for their love of nature and their beliefs, but then like St. Paul, he filled in the blanks. The two sisters believed and were baptized.

This is the perfect day for us to model St. Patrick here. Our society is so divided and folks are so insulting and hateful towards one another that evangelism, rooted in  respect for the other person’s views, will be like breath of fresh air. I’m not suggesting that we dilute our beliefs to be more acceptable to others. Rather I am saying that with love and respect we begin where they are and then gently and lovingly fill in the blanks.

To be honest it fries my bacon when someone says, “I’m not very religious but I’m spiritual.” A large part of me wants to challenge them and say, “You have not idea what you are even talking about.”But how is that kind of confrontation going to lead them towards Christ? Following Paul and Patrick what I should say is, “I’m grateful to hear that you are a spiritual person, tell me what that looks like in your life.”And then guide the conversation to the only One who can cause them to be born of the Spirit in order to become the truly spiritual people that they believe themselves to be.

A final point where I think the life of St. Patrick is worth our consideration is in how he saw the mission of the church. As one author put it, Patrick believed that it was essential for the Church to be centrally focused on the sacraments, faith, scripture and ministry but NOT focused upon organizational structures. The lack of rigid organizational structures gave later generations of Irish the freedom and flexibility to improvise, adapt and overcome as they faced new challenges and ministered to new people groups.

What followed Patrick were monastic communities. They were not so much like we think of monasteries and convents today where folks are cloistered away from the world. They were more like Christian communities that accepted both married and celibates and men and women. St. Bridig was a significant leader in this movement.

These communities were involved in education, caring for the poor and elderly, farming and crafts. Their involvement in education also led them to foster children, which deeply connected to the Irish values of family and hospitality. All of this came together to lead to the conversion of Ireland, to drive out the metaphorical snakes, i.e. paganism.

While I am convinced, through the Scriptures and the teachings of the church Fathers, that Bishops are essential to the Church, I must admit that I share St. Patrick’s indifference to organizational structures. Because of our fallen nature it is too easy for them to quickly move from servant to master. I’m reminded of President Reagan’s saying that the 9 scariest words in the English Language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”Church structures easily become the same as the government.  I’ve served on numerous ecclesiastical committees over the years and as the old spiritual puts it…. “Give me Jesus., you can have all this world, Oh give me Jesus”

What is the application of this final point? I think that the greatest flexibility is found in the local parish. We are that local monastic community that can and should get ministry done. We don’t need to wait for the Diocese to create an Evangelism Committee to develop an Evangelism Seminar to bring in an Evangelism expert, who typically has written a book but has never done it. We already have the Great Commission. Between the oversight of our Bishop and the leadership of our Vestry we have all the governance we need to do the Lord’s work. We need to move from “Why isn’t the Diocese doing X,Y,Z”to “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,Y,Z?”And then we need to move from “Why isn’t St. Patrick’s doing X,YZ?”to “Why aren’t I doing X,Y,Z?”

Patrick didn’t wait for a committee to give him permission to evangelize the Irish. Jesus had already told him to go and so he went. And as far as St. Patrick knew in his day, he had literally gone to the ends of the earth. So let’s follow Patrick’s devotion, courage and obedience as he followed the Lord.

Today is a great feast day. I encourage you to eat, drink and be merry. And then I encourage you to get back to it on Monday to return to a holy Lent. Amen.

 

 

 

Living Lent Gently

lent

Henry Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian wrote, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time in which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us…When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”

I believe that he is correct. To fail to observe Lent or to fail to attend all of Holy Week is like walking in toward the end of a movie and then wondering why you did not find it as moving as those who saw it all. Thus the Church is wise to call us to the observance of a Holy Lent. As followers of Christ we join Him in His 40 days in the wilderness and confront our own temptations. Sharing in His victory over temptations these 40 days makes His ultimate victory over death taste even sweeter

Particularly for those who may be new to this tradition, allow me to explain some of the details of this penitential season. Traditionally there are three major ways that we observe Lent, taken from Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The three ways of observing Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not in all three of these Jesus did not say “If” rather He said, “When you pray…When you fast….When you give.”

One way to think of the benefit of these three is by seeing them as weapons to fight against our three major enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. Older liturgies even described this season as Christian warfare.

Prayer as a weapon. English preacher Samuel Chadwick said that when we pray the devil trembles. He trembles because it is through prayer that we undo his works. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying for an invasion against the gates of hell, which Jesus said would not be able to prevail against us.

Fasting as a weapon. When we fast we confront our flesh. But we have to be careful here and not become dualists. God made our bodies and they are to be used as temples of the Holy Spirit, so our bodies are not the enemy nor are they evil. When St. Paul speaks of not walking in the flesh by “flesh” what he is referring to is that two-year old brat that lives inside of me, demanding to have his own way. Fasting is a way to say very loudly to the brat “NO!”

Giving as a weapon. Almsgiving confronts the pull of the world that demands that we watch out for number one and that fears that if we are generous then we be without. The world gives us a thousand reasons to walk past the man beaten by robbers but through almsgiving we become the Good Samaritan.

It’s very important to understand that these disciplines are means to a goal and not the goal in themselves. We are not trying to build up brownie points so that God will like us more. Rather we are confessing that we are not where we need to be, that in part we have wandered away and we use this season and these disciplines to make our way home. It is the returning that Prophets called out for. We are saying, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart so take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In saying “NO” to the world, the flesh and the devil we are saying “YES” to the Lord and offering Him our hearts.

We begin this season through repentance and ashes. Again we are not trying to earn favor rather we are simply admitting who we are. As we say weekly in the confession, we are admitting that we have not loved God with our whole hearts and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And for this we seek the Lord’sabsolution, because as Frederick Beuchner put it, we can no more absolve ourselves than we can sit in our own laps. Additionally the ashes remind us that we are mortal and so we should not put off our repentance until tomorrow because we may not have  tomorrow.

I really like that Henry Nouwen said that we should keep Lent attentively and gently. The word “gently” brings it into proper focus. Gently means that we are not driven to keep Lent perfectly, to turn it into a legalism. We are not trying to become the spiritual equivalent of Navy Seals and Lent is not the Church’s version of hell week. Keeping Lent gently is simply responding to Jesus’ loving invitation to come back home.

There is a beautiful line in the Psalm appointed today for Morning Prayer. It reads, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”  Use this season of Lent to renew your trust in Him and allow His mercy to embrace you. May God grant us the ability to live Lent attentively and gently. Amen.

 

Don’t Be a Nimrod…Love

Buggs

Text 1 Corinthians 13

Editor’s Note: One of Bug Bunny’s favorite things to call Elmer Fudd was “Nimrod.” This name comes from Genesis 10:8,9 where the descendants of Noah are recounted and it says of Nimrod “He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” So Bugs was being ironic and really calling Elmer a jerk. File that away for a moment.

Most folks have heard this beautiful love passage of 1 Corinthians 13 in the context of a wedding or have seen it hanging on a wall, written in lovely calligraphy with flowers around the borders. And while both of those are certainly appropriate, we get a better understanding of this passage when we see what has come before it. It may surprise you to learn that St. Paul wrote this piece as much as a corrective as he did to inspire. Let’s pull the camera way back to see the bigger picture.

I Corinthians

1:11“For it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you.”

3:1,2 “But I could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh…for while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?”

5:1“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you that is not tolerated even among the pagans….
6:1 “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to the law before the unrighteous instead of the saints?”

He goes on telling them to stop doing things that evidently they were doing. In chapter 6 he tells them to flee immorality. In chapter 8 he tells them that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols if it makes a weaker brother stumble. In chapter 10 he tells them to flee idolatry. In chapter 12 he corrects them from thinking that if someone has a differing gift or if they are not very important then they are not needed in the Church.

So after numerous corrections over 12 chapters, then and only then does he show them a more excellent way and he speaks to them about love. In a very beautiful and poetic way he is telling them to stop being such Nimrods and start living like Christians should live. Seeing this passage as addressed to the whole Church changes our focus when we read this passage from – “I need to learn how to be more loving” to “How are we doing as a Church in the way that we treat one another?”

St. Paul gives us a kind of grid so that we know what genuine love is about and raise the bar for the whole Church. He speaks of the absence of love, the essence of love and the preeminence of love.

First he speaks of the absence of love. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

St. Paul is saying that the inherent problem of being spiritually gifted or having great spiritual insight or even possessing enormous faith is that if these things are not completely baptized in love then they are worthless. And they are not only worthless, they are dangerous because they lead to malignant pride. The Scripture says that pride goes before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction. Both the Scriptures and current times are replete with examples of folks who were incredibly gifted and yet were toppled by their own hubris. Pride is so destructive because it places me first. Love is so healing because places you first. And we cannot have both because one forces out the other.

Next St. Paul gives us the essence of love. Note how little it has to do with feelings that is the culture’s major definition of love. Rather loves true essence is filled with actions and attitudes towards the well being of others.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

One scholar points out that all of the verbs St. Paul uses in describing the essence of love are in the present continuous tense. He says that this denotes “actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually…”

That says to me that love, like so many other things, is learned by practicing. Fr. BE didn’t just wake up one day and decide that he was a great tennis player. It took him years of practice to be good at it. Thus the more we practice love then more it becomes ingrained in us.

The line that jumped out at me in this description of love is that love “does not insist on its own way.” A couple of years ago I was in the Post Office and an elderly lady, seeing my clerical collar, approached and asked if she could ask me a question. When I said “Surely” she asked if I believed that it has become increasingly difficult to be a pastor in the last few years. I told her that I believed that it has. After I explained why I asked her why she brought it up. She said that her church had just gone through a split over the color of the carpet in the Sanctuary and that the split had nearly killed her Pastor with grief.

That sounds petty and ridiculous but insisting on having our own way runs deeply in the church. It runs from the color of carpets to the splitting of denominations to have our own way. But it is broader still. It is an evil power that dominates our politics and our culture and results in states recently passing laws that permit infanticide. “I’m going to have my own way even if it costs the life of a child.” How did we get here?

In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard states, “Jesus’ resurrected presence with us, along with his teaching, assures us of God’s care for all who let him be God and let him care for them. It is love of God…and regular experience of his care that frees us from the burden of ‘looking out for ourselves.’…Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God….I not longer have to manage weather, airplanes or other people.” So a paraphrase of “it (love) does not insist on its own way, is“love is not being a control freak, stop being a Nimrod.”

But how do we do that? How do we stop being a Nimrod? Dallas presses the point further and says that we stop insisting on having our own way when we die to self. This comes from St. Paul who wrote in Galatians, I have been crucified with ChristIis no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Or to quote St. Carrie Underwood, “Jesus take the wheel.”We turn it all over to Him.That is how we die to self.

Dallas describes the fruit of that approach to life. “Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise me or offend me and has not control over me…what we surely can say it that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling or action by self exaltation….but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor.”He concludes with this. “To accept, with confidence in God, that I do not immediately have to have my way releases me from the great pressure that anger, unforgiveness and the need to retaliate imposes upon my life…It removes the root and source of by far the greater part of human evil we have to deal with in our world.”

Lastly St. Paul speaks of the preeminence of love. “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

So many of the things that our Lord has graciously given us to make our way in this world will pass away. As we heard last week from St. Paul this includes our bodies that will be sown perishable but will be raised imperishable. He gives us gifts to see our way on the journey but once we have reached our journey’s end there will be no more need for those gifts. We need them now because we have only partial sight. But once we see Him face to face we will be like a child who puts away those childish things to embrace a full and perfect relationship.

Some of the early fathers suggested that ultimately even faith and hope will fade away. Why? Because we won’t need faith when we know as we are known and we won’t need hope because all that we have hoped for will be realized. So all that is left, and all that we will need throughout eternity, is love. And for the first time and for all of eternity we will perfectly fulfill the command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. For all eternity we will live in the fullness of God’s kingdom and that is why the Church has always prayed, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Today we heard about the Transfiguration of our Lord. A chief purpose of this event was to present the divinity of Jesus Christ to His disciples. His divine glory was as brilliant to them as when He spoke to Moses.

Since Jesus is divine, and God is love, then it is correct to say also that Jesus is Love. When we take that truth and apply it back to our text we can look at this diamond through a different facet. Let’s listen to it one last time.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not Jesus, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not Jesus, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not Jesus, I gain nothing.

Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast;..is not arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on His own way; He is not irritable or resentful; 6 Jesus does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Jesus never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.13 So now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, these three; but the greatest of these is Jesus.

As we see who He is and seek to become more and more conformed to His image then love becomes less about what we DO and more about who we ARE. Of course we will practice love and fail at times and practice some more and fail some more. So I find the words of St. Paul to the Philippians encouraging as we practice walking in love. He writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As we enter into Lent this week let’s make this Lent much less about what we are giving up and much more about what we are putting on. Let’s put on Christ and learn to walk in love. Amen.