For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
The 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson would ask friends that he hadn’t seen for a long time “What has become clear to you since we last met?”
That’s the question I want to ask you, friends of St. Patrick, although I’d rephrase it slightly: “What has become clear to you since we were supposed to meet this time last year?” I was scheduled to join you in celebrating the Feast of St. Patrick’s a year ago, right as the shelter-in-place mandates were taking effect, and for most of us, the pandemic became real. At the time, of course, we couldn’t imagine not gathering in person for worship for more than a few weeks at the most. I daresay there was a lot that we couldn’t imagine at the time that, in fact, came to pass.
What has become clear to you in the past year? What has become clear to us?
Depending on where we’re situated, the pandemic and its reverberations have affected us differently, and so we don’t have one narrative, but many. In the news and on social media, this has been a week of looking back over the year. The statistics suggest widespread impact. Personal stories allow us to tell or hear what it’s like to lose a beloved parent, child, sibling, or spouse; to share or feel the fear of losing one’s job, or health care; to acknowledge the fatigue that paradoxically feels harder to deal with as the promise of relief is in sight, and also the hope that rises in us on a warm spring day, or when a loved one is vaccinated, or when we begin, at long last, to plan for a reunion with those we love.
What has become clear to you?
I spent time speaking with your good rector in preparation for today, and visiting your website, which is your front door now, the place of first encounter for those outside your community, and a place of meeting for you. I want you to know how grateful I am for all that you have done and are doing to remain strong and connected and focused on your call to follow Jesus, support one another in your walk with Him, draw others to him, and embody his love for the world. You have demonstrated a tremendous resilience and capacity to adapt in order to sustain your life and mission in this incredibly challenging time. I’m proud to be your bishop.
I’ve also spent time this week reading up on your patron saint, Patrick. I’ve always loved Patrick–we named our younger son after him–but I realized as this day approached that my knowledge of him was rather superficial, and I wanted to know more. I have a theory about congregations named for particular saints–based on my experience serving a congregation named for St. John the Baptist, and now as bishop of congregations named for all manner of saints–Margaret, Dunstan, Monica and James, Stephen, and so on. That is–over time, perhaps because of occasions like this when we take the occasion to celebrate and remember that person–a congregation takes on the charism and personality of its namesake. And I wondered how that might be true for you.
Kurt was kind enough to lend me a few books (and, I kid you not, recommended a VeggieTales video), and I found another. There’s a lot of lore and exaggeration in the tales about Patrick, as is common for the saints. At the core, however, is a story of young British boy taken from a privileged life, sold into slavery, who in the loneliness and hardship of his suffering had spiritual experiences that assured him of God’s love and the abiding presence of Christ with him, alongside him. After escaping from his captives and returning to Britain, Patrick hears a call to return to Ireland, which he did and he served there for the rest of his life.
Some historians question whether Patrick actually wrote the poem attributed to him, but no one doubts that it expresses his spirituality, rooted in personal experience of Christ with him, and of God revealed in the grandeur of nature:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun, Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning, Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
I arise today through God’s strength to pilot me
God’s eye to look before me
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s way to lie before me
God’s shield to protect me
From all who shall wish me ill
Afar and a-near
Alone and in a multitude
Against every cruel, merciless power
That may oppose my body and soul
Christ with me, Christ before me
Christ behind me, Christ in me
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down
Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me
I arise today1
Patrick’s spiritual foundation is yours as well. It is there for you as your rock through everything that happens. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus, the one who came because God so loved the world that he gave himself. God doesn’t take–God gives. Love is God’s way. You’re not spared hardship and suffering any more than Patrick was spared. But you are never alone.
Patrick was also known for his kindness. He was truly kind–a gentle soul, well aware of his own shortcomings and sin. As a result he was slow to judge others, preferring instead to love them. He met people where they were, and worked with them to accomplish God’s purposes as best he could. One of the reasons people were drawn to him was how he made them feel in his presence.
You, too, are a community that values kindness. I feel it every time I am with you. There is a gentle and generous spirit here. It permeates both the congregation and school. I’m always happy to hear when a family chooses to send their children to St. Patrick’s school, because I know they will receive not only a superb education, but that they will learn, by example, the transforming power of kindness.
Lest we imagine kindness cannot reside alongside challenge, one final charism of Patrick’s that I’ll mention, is a fierce passion for justice. Of all Patrick’s writings, only two letters survive. One is his Confession of Faith, in which he tells something of his life story, acknowledges his shortcomings, and gives testimony to his faith. The second is a letter he wrote to a British warlord, Coroticus, and his soldiers, after they had attacked a gathering of Christians in Ireland, killed many, and carried the rest into slavery.
Patrick minced no words in his condemnation: “I don’t like to use forceful words and harsh language,” he wrote, “but I will do because the anger of God and the truth of Christ force me to.” He proceeds to condemn the soldiers’ action and make a comprehensive case for the abolishment of slavery. Moreover, Patrick wanted his letter broadly read throughout Britain. He wanted those enslaved to be returned, the dead to be mourned, the soldiers to repent of what they had done, and all in British elite society to be ashamed of the wealth they enjoyed through the exploitation of others.2
It’s not clear what impact Patrick’s letter had, but it gives us a window into his heart. He wasn’t afraid to speak and work for justice. I see that same passion in this congregation. You are clear in your commitments to serve those who bear the brunt of our society’s inequities and you are among those whom Jesus blesses for your hunger and thirst for righteousness.
There is more to say about Patrick and about you, as a congregation. But I will close by saying again how grateful I am for you and your witness.
One thing that has become clear to me since last we met is that by the grace and love of God, the abiding presence of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit you have not only made it through a very difficult year, you have been, and remain true to your mission as Jesus followers. You have cared for one another and those around you with kindness. You have not wavered in your commitment to justice.
I leave with the gentle invitation to rise each day and pray with Patrick. Remind yourself, as he did, that Christ is with you in everyone and everything, that you are loved as you are, and that you are called to kindness, justice, and joy.
1 I Arise Today
2 Phillip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).