Sermon for 3.17.13

Scriptures for today are Here

This is what life is like:  you can be going along, knowing what you’re doing, pretty sure of what your life is going to be like tomorrow, pretty confident in who you are, when suddenly life comes along and interrupts you.  Sometimes the interruptions are good: you get a job offer, you have a great idea, you meet someone who gets your heart beating faster, a child is born.  Sometimes the interruptions are bad: you find a lump where there wasn’t one before, you get a phone call in the middle of the night, you find out that someone you love has been in trouble for a long time and you never knew.

These interruptions turn your life upside down, make you re-think who you were and where you thought you were going, require you to focus on the few things that are most important and let the unimportant things go.  And it’s in these changes, these interruptions, these transition points in life, that many of us find God: we find that Jesus, who maybe we’ve believed in in some way, maybe we’ve worshiped, but who was never real to us, suddenly becomes the sustaining presence that gets us through, that helps us see our way to the new kind of life we are being called to live.

Which is exactly what happened to St. Patrick.  You may think of him as a leprechaun-looking person drinking green beer.  But Patrick of Ireland was real, and human, and a true hero of our faith – and he had his life utterly and entirely interrupted one day.  He was British (not Irish), from a Christian family who was prominent in the Roman Empire-dominated government of Britain when he was born, around the year 390.  His life was going just fine – until it was interrupted.

At age 16, he was captured by Irish pirates, and was  taken to Ireland, where he was sold as a slave.  He lived in Irish compound with other slaves, some of whom would have been Christians like him, who might have carried on Christian traditions, and he also spent a lot of time out on the hillside, tending his master’s flocks.  In his trouble, fear, loneliness, suffering, Patrick began to recall the Christian teachings of his family, began learning to pray for comfort.

In his memoirs, he wrote:  “After I came to Ireland, every day I had to tend the sheep, and many times a day I prayed – the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened.  And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many as night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and felt no harm.”

Like so many people before and since, Patrick came to know Christ in the interruptions of his life:  when he was suffering, when he had hit bottom, when he was living without hope.  That’s when Christ became for him a tangible presence, a beacon of hope.

After 6 years, his life was interrupted again: he had a dream that a boat was waiting, escaped from his master, walked to the seacoast, found a boat there, just has it had been in his dream, talked his way on board and sailed back to Britain.  Back home with his family, he studied to become a priest, and settled down to live a comfortable life at home – when his life was interrupted again.  He had another dream, in which he heard the voice of the Irish, saying, “We beg you, young man, come and walk among us once more.”  He got himself ordained bishop of Ireland, and went.

Ireland at this time was a pagan country.  It had never been part of the Roman empire, so it was not civilized in the way Roman people would expect, and therefore not ripe ground for evangelization the Roman way.  Roman Christians assumed you had to be civilized to be Christianized, with government, towns, transportation already in place.  Ireland wasn’t like that: it was tribal and nomadic, with no towns, no settlements, no roads bigger than a cowpath.  People moved around from place to place, never settling in any one place.

But Patrick understood the Irish from inside out, understood how to talk to them, believed God was already working among them, knew they were ready to hear about Jesus.  And he began to evangelize them, with a very specific method.  He would send out missionary groups of a dozen or so, including some priests but mostly lay people, and would establish a sort of monastic community.  The community would be Christian, founded on prayer and work and study like any monastery, but composed of men, women, children, married people and single people.

That community would settle, begin to farm and work, would welcome guests, engage them in conversation, pray with them, encourage questions.  They would live a life steeped in prayer, where every common activity was seen as happening in the presence of God, where they had prayers for everything, for milking cows, for lighting fires, where every aspect of life was God-steeped and God-blessed.

Their highest priority was hospitality, so every monastery had a guest house, and when anyone without a place to stay would show up – a laborer without work, say, or a teenager who had been abused – interrupted – the community would drop everything else and make welcoming that stranger their highest priority.  And they would invite the newcomers to join them in prayer, work, study.  And slowly as people joined their communities, they would find themselves integrated into community life, community beliefs.  They belonged first, and then they started to believe.  And as they began to believe, they were welcomed into their community officially through baptism.  And as the communities grew, they would send out new teams to settle in new places.

Within 2-3 generations, Patrick and his followers had converted all of Ireland, making him one of the greatest evangelists the world has ever known.  Especially since, when the Roman empire fell soon afterwards, and most of Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages, and not only Christianity but most of the knowledge, art, architecture, literature of the ancient world was lost, Irish monks preserved a lot of that learning, and eventually became the missionaries who re-evangelized Britain and Europe for the Christian faith.  Which is “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” according to the book by Thomas Cahill.

Patrick was no cartoon character.  Well, OK, there is one cartoon I like.  Here it is.

st_-pat-driving-snakes-out-723585

Other than that, Patrick was no cartoon character – he had a burning intensity, a driving passion to share the gospel.  All stemming from that interruption in his life – that lonely, frightening moment when he was captured, and he found Christ right there with him.

And what is so interesting today, on his feast day, is that we read the words of Paul, a man whose passion to share the gospel was similar.  In Philippians today, we read Paul’s story: he had everything – learning, respect, a promising career, position in his community – and then he experienced a crisis.  On the road to Damascus, he was blinded by a light from heaven, he heard the voice of Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” – and he entered into a three-year period of rethinking his entire life, learning about Jesus, and changing everything he had ever expected or hoped for.

From the greatest persecutor of the Christian faith, he changed into the greatest evangelist – taking the gospel to new people in new ways.

And Paul says in our New Testament lesson today – paraphrasing – I had everything, but I gave it all up because only one thing was worth having – knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  Nothing else is worth anything, he says, compared to the value of knowing Christ and making the power of his suffering and resurrection my own.  Not that I deserve to make it my own, he says, but I place my faith in him, and therefore everything God has done for Christ, God will do for me.

Out of crisis, out of the dark night of the soul, this man learned to know Christ – and it changed not only his life, but the history of the world.

Yesterday here at Nativity, we had our Good News Summit – our time to talk together about what good news we have to share with other people.  Evangelism is a word that simply means “good news.”  And we may hear it as something to be avoided, something that fundamentalists do by scaring people with threats of hell.  But evangelism is something much simpler than scaring people into believing the way we want them to believe–evangelism simply means telling good news.

For most of us, there is good news to share – we are in church for a reason.  Something in what we experience in our Christian faith brings us hope and joy.  At yesterday’s summit, we talked together about times in our life when we have felt God’s presence strongly, when we have been grateful for that awareness of God being present with us.  And we discovered that almost everyone has at least some moment they could point to when they were aware of God reaching out to them.  Maybe a dramatic moment like Paul, being struck by a blinding light and hearing a voice from the clouds.  Or maybe a less obvious, slower moving awareness like Patrick, on the hillside tending the flocks, praying for God to be with him in his loneliness and homesickness, and being aware of God’s presence and strength.

Some of us have experienced miracles through God’s presence; some of us have learned how to forgive and how to accept forgiveness; some of us have had our own darkness lightened as the hand of God reached out to give us comfort.  Because that’s what Christ does: he comes and sustains us through interruptions in our lives.

And all of us know other people in similar situations.  I read a story about a woman who was having a hard time in her life, getting together with 6 other women on a Saturday, who offered her comfort.  But she needed more, she felt she needed the presence of God in her life, so on Sunday she got up and went to a nearby church.  To her amazement, she looked around and saw 5 of the 6 women she had talked to the day before right there in the church.  Which told her two things: first, that it was a sign that she was in the right place.  But second, that not one of those women, offering her comfort, had even thought to invite her to church.  She had no idea they even belonged to a church – they never talked about it.

We have something to share, something that can help people, something that can mean something to people.

We discovered at our Good News Summit that the time when people are most open to coming to a new church is the time of interruption: good changes in life, like marriage, relocation, birth of a child; or difficult changes like divorce, death in the family, illness, crisis.  These are the times when people are looking for community support, when they need the reassurance of God’s presence.

And a church community can provide it.  All we have to do is invite them to share in the good news we have found, welcome them as honored guests to God’s earthly kingdom right here on earth.

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